Deep in the Inca heartland in Peru, the beauty and architecture of this high-altitude city make it more than just a base camp for trails to Machu Picchu, writes Marian Amos
Why go now?
The June solstice was a key date for the Inca people, whose extraordinary empire was centred on Cusco – the "navel of the world". On Tuesday, their descendants will be marking midwinter (as it is south of the Equator). Meanwhile, this is peak season for hikers on the Inca Trail, for which the "gringo capital of South America" acts as base camp.
The only international flights to Cusco leave from La Paz in Bolivia, so most travellers fly in from the Peruvian capital, Lima. This one-hour flight has a spectacular approach to the airport, which is hemmed in by mountains and now encircled by the spreading city. Alternatively, the bus from Lima takes about 20 hours on a good day.
From the airport, a taxi to the centre should cost about five soles (S/5), equivalent to £0.90, but don't be surprised if you get asked for several times this amount.
Catch your breath
As one of the highest cities in the world, Cusco takes some getting used to – especially if you arrive direct from Lima at sea level. Initially, take things easy as you explore the city. It is said that Cusco is designed in the shape of a puma, one of the beasts regarded by the Incas as sacred. The head is high up on the hill to the north of the city centre, which is punctuated by a statue of Christ (1) and is the location for the amazing ruins of Sacsayhuaman. The heart, though, is around the Plaza de Armas (2), which was the centre of Cusco before the Spanish arrived.
The tourist office (3) on the ground floor of the Galerías Turísticas at Avenida El Sol 103 (00 51 84 234 498; www.peru.info ) is well worth visiting, partly because of its friendly and helpful English-speaking staff, but also because in the same complex is a bureau selling the Boleto Turístico (tourist ticket), which is the key to many of the important sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley beyond. The Boleto costs S/70 (£12.40) and is valid for 10 days.
Casa San Blas (4) is a beautiful three-star boutique hotel at Calle Tocuyeros 566 (00 51 84 237 900; www.casasanblas.com ). The double-room rate of S/265 (£47) includes airport transfers, free Wi-Fi and breakfast, and the superb view from the terrace.
Hostal El Balcón (5), at Tambo de Montero 222 (00 51 84 236 738; www.balconcusco.com ), is a rambling colonial building around a pretty terraced garden with views across the city – and free Wi-Fi. Doubles start from S/185 (£33), including airport transfers and a hearty breakfast served from 4am for those setting off on the early trains to Machu Picchu.
Budget accommodation is plentiful, with a hostel on every block. One of the more appealing is on Calle Choquechaca, a quiet street three blocks north-east of the Plaza de Armas: the Hospedaje Pirwa (6), between Ladrillo and 7 Culebra (00 51 84 244 315; www.pirwahostelscusco.com ), where a twin room costs S/50 (£9) including breakfast – and for only S/70 (£12.50) you can have an en suite room.
Take a view
Stand in the middle of the Plaza de Armas (2) and "do a 360" – to appreciate fully the way that the Spanish imposed colonial architecture on the Inca heartland, often using the very stones of the civilisation that they had vanquished.
Take a hike
Set off east from Plaza de Armas (2) along Triunfo to Hatunrumiyoc, the cobbled street named after its 12-sided stone (7), which is a fine example of Incan polygonal masonry skilfully engineered into the wall. Pause just past the Archbishop's Palace to admire its angles. From Hatunrumiyoc, take the first right down another pedestrian alleyway, Inca Roca. About halfway down on the right-hand side is a series of stones said to form the shape of a puma, including the head, large paws and tail. It takes a few minutes to squint and focus.
Continue walking north-east to the pretty, peaceful Plazoleta de San Blas (8), home to the church of the same name – Cusco's oldest church. Turn left into Tandapata, then right to climb the 99 steps of Calle Pasñana, which is lined with tiny, brightly painted colonial houses. At the top, pause at the Mirador de San Blas (9), to take in the splendid view across San Blas to the Plaza de Armas.
Head left across the top of San Blas along Kiskapata, lined with pre-Inca stone walls. Take a left into Calle Siete Diablitos ("Seven Devils Street") to Calle Siete Culebras ("Seven Snakes Street"), the narrowest street in Cusco, adorned with seven snake carvings as you descend to the city centre.
Lunch on the run
Find a space on one of the benches at the food stalls in the frenzied central market, the Mercado Central (10), adjacent to San Pedro station (11). Ridiculously cheap and tasty dishes are cooked on stoves before you. Feast on ceviche (marinated raw fish) for S/4 (£0.70p).
The Inca Museum (12), at the eastern corner of the Plaza de Armas, occupies a sturdy old mansion ranged around a beautiful courtyard, and has been tastefully augmented with a modern section. Exhibits explain the startling extent of the Inca empire – from the south of present-day Colombia to Santiago in central Chile. It opens 8am-7pm daily (except Sundays, 9am-4pm), admission S/10 (£1.80).
Cusco is the handicraft and hand-woven textile centre of Peru, so you're never more than 20 paces from a shop offering alpaca clothing, hats and socks to dress you from head to toe – Andean style. Alpaca's Best (13) at Plazoleta Nazarenas 197-199 (00 51 84 223 245) is as good as any.
Cusco is packed full of bars, many of them serving the excellent Cusqueña beer. But for something more sophisticated, head for Song Thé (14) at Calle Pumacurco 408 (00 51 84 232 522). Besides Earl Grey, Darjeeling and Ceylon teas, you can order a cocktail to sip beside the huge open fire in this cavern-like location.
Dining with the locals
Without a tourist in sight, duck into Ccoyllor Restaurant (15) at Calle Garcilaso 291 (00 51 84 229 257) to dine on an ensalada de palta (avocado salad) for S/5 (90p), followed by lomo de alpaca a la plancha (alpaca steak) for S/12 (£2.20). This informal restaurant may be sparse and clumsily illuminated by strip lights, but is full of locals of all ages.
Sunday morning: go to church
The ornate Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús (16) sits on the south-east side of Plaza de Armas and was begun by Jesuits in 1571 on the site of an Inca palace. The intricate Baroque façade, gilded altars and finely carved balconies took nearly 100 years to complete, partly because of reconstruction needed after the earthquake of 1650. Open 9am-11.30pm and 1-5.30pm daily, admission S/10 (£1.80)
Out to Brunch
Climb the wooden stairs to Café Restaurant Yanapay (17), at Calle Ruinas 415 (00 51 84 255 134), for brunch with a bonus. Because all profits fund social projects such as the Aldea Yanapay School, you can feel fulfilled by the wholesome dishes made from local produce. Relax on giant floor cushions under foam clouds for their combo at S/18 (£3.20): a feast of breads, egg, ham, cheese, pancakes with mixed fruits, papaya juice, tea or coffee. It opens 9am-1am daily.
Take a ride
For a majestic view of the city – and an astonishing Inca creation – take a cab uphill to Sacsayhuaman, the Inca ceremonial complex on the lip of the hill that overlooks Cusco. The sheer scale of Sacsayhuaman is awesome – and so is the workmanship of the masonry, where huge chunks of stone fit together with impeccable precision. Admission is covered by the Boleto; the site opens 7am-6pm daily. After you have admired the architecture, return to the city down a steep little Inca Trail – whose cobbles are at least five centuries old – which provides a grand entrance to the heart of Cusco.
A walk in the park
Back in town, just south-east of the Plaza de Armas on Avenida El Sol, is a park that you can wander under: what appears to be a pleasant, grassy open space turns out to be the roof of the Museo Arqueológico Coricancha (18). This modest exhibition (open 9.30am-10pm daily, admission S/20, £3.50) explores the cultures other than the Incas that have walked these paths. The biggest surprise, though, is when you follow the exit signs and find yourself outdoors, in the middle of a park beside a busy main road, rubbing your eyes in broad daylight.
Icing on the cake
For a trekked-out, altitude-affected, aching body there is no better cure than a deep tissue massage at Andina Spa (19) at Tullumayu 112 (00 51 84 252 550). Lie back and relax for an hour's full-body massage for S/60 (£10.60).