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Machu Picchu - Cusco or Lima

Cusco and Lima are both fantastic cities.

You might be deciding whether to spend more time in either Cusco or Lima while exploring other regions.

Peru offers incredible archaeology experiences. And the country is home to some of the best Amazon lodges for the Amazon Rainforest. As a demonstration of this, just take a look at our video on Peru Amazon tours.

In addition to exploring other regions, Cusco and Lima should be worth visiting in their own right and are worth adding to your itinerary.

Cusco or Lima – Introduction

Lima is the city you will fly into and out of. And this is also the country’s capital, which was the base for the Spanish colonization of western South America. Because of this, there are some fantastic examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the Historic Centre of Lima. Lima is also the best option for different restaurants, bars, shopping, and nightlife.

However, Cusco can be regarded as the Incan capital of the country. And this was the hub from where the Inca dominated western South America. The Inca became the largest pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas. The mix of colonial and Incan architecture is a must-see in Peru. There are some excellent tours that combine both Cusco and Lima, such as a few of the top luxury tours in Peru.

Both Lima and Cusco feature on our list of the top cities to visit in Peru. And as Cusco and Lima are such different cities, with their own unique charm and attractions, we recommend spending a day or two exploring both.

Here, we will provide a summary of both cities to help you get a feel for what each city offers. Each city is a base for some of the best attractions and things to do in Peru.

Lima

Lima - Cusco or Lima, Peru

Lima is where you will first enter Peru and the city has areas and attractions for everyone. See a few Inca remains. See the Historic Centre of Lima for colonial history. Enjoy modern shopping malls. Lima also offers some of Peru’s best restaurants, lively nightclubs, and many beautiful city parks.

The tourist district is Miraflores. And this is where you can also find some of the best restaurants, bars, and shopping areas. You can also head further south to enjoy the Peruvian coastline. For example, this is where you find the district of Barranco for a relaxed area with cafes, restaurants, and fantastic ocean views.

In fact, most limeños will tell you that this is one of the most beautiful areas of Lima.

There’s enough to see and do in Lima to keep you occupied for a few days, including different museums and city parks. Known as the garden city, there are some beautiful parks to visit. A favorite is the Park of the Reserve, which holds the world record for the largest fountain complex. Another is the much-loved Kennedy Park in Miraflores with its iconic cats and ornate cathedral. There is also the lovely Lover’s Park with its attractive lawns and bridges.

There are also different museums to learn about the country’s history. Here, you can see artifacts from the Spanish colonial period, the Incan civilization, and from the many pre-Incan cultures.

A favorite museum is the Larco Museum to see a range of pre-Columbian artifacts. These date across a 3,000 year period and include preserved mummies and pottery. Another is the Museum of the Central Reserve Bank. This is known for its gold artifacts from Incan and pre-Incan cultures. Find different items on display, including sacrificial knives, death masks, and other treasures.

An interesting place in Lima is the Catacombs at the Monastery of San Francisco. The monastery itself displays some beautiful Spanish Baroque architecture. And on tours around the monastery, you will learn about the history, see beautiful artwork, and visit the library. What most visitors are waiting for, however, is to venture underground to see the catacombs.

The catacombs were discovered in 1943 and were used as a burial chamber. The area has many underground passageways with many of the skeletons laid to rest above ground.

For a shopping experience, you can visit Larcomar. This is located on the coast for fantastic ocean views and a range of international and Peruvian shops and restaurants. Another popular and modern mall is called Jockey Plaza in Surco. For a range of souvenirs, you can also visit the Mercado de Indios in Miraflores.

Cusco

Cusco - Cusco or Lima, Peru

Cusco was the political and administrative hub for the Inca Empire. And is the most popular tourist destination in Peru – just see the graph below. The reason is because of the Sacred Valley where you can see many Incan archaeological sites.

Source: PROMPERÚ

Cusco is your gateway to the famous Machu Picchu. It’s also where you begin the Inca Trail. These are two of Peru’s most famous archaeological attractions. However, there are many other things to do and see in and around Cusco. You can also find many great restaurants, cafes, bars, and fascinating architecture.

The entirety of Cuzco city is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This is because of its historical and cultural importance to the country. When the Spanish defeated the Incan Empire, they built their colonial architecture on the ruins of the Incan city.

This means that when you’re walking the cobbled streets, you can see walls made from giant Incan stone that merge with the finer Spanish brickwork. Although easily missed, this provides a fascinating and unique feature as you explore the city.

Cusco is your base to explore many different Incan sites, events, and attractions, including Machu Picchu.

To just name a few attractions, Cusco is also the base for:

  • The Vistadome Train
  • Choquequirao
  • The Salkantay Trek
  • Ollantaytambo Ruins
  • Moray
  • Sacsayhuaman
  • Pisac
  • The Plaza de Armas
  • The Inti Raymi Festival
  • The Cusco Planetarium
  • Rainbow Hill

And these are some of the most popular attractions in Peru. To read more about each one, you can see our guide on the 100 things to do in Peru or focus on things to do in and around Cusco.

In Cusco city itself, you can visit many different museums, art galleries, and markets. One of the most interesting foods on offer is ‘cuy’, which is the Andean word for guinea pig. The animals were first domesticated in the Andes then exported to other countries where they’re a favorite pet. However, the have been eaten in the Andes for thousands of years.

Guinea pigs supplied much-needed protein as one of only three domesticated animals. The other two are the llama and alpaca. Also, this region gave the world one of its favored food items, the potato. Unlike elsewhere, the Andes has thousands of different varieties on offer. There is even the Papa Museo (Potato Museum) to learn about this world famous vegetable.

Visiting the Amazon from Cusco

From Cusco, you are also a short flight away from Puerto Maldonado. This is one of the best places in Peru to explore the Amazon Rainforest. From here, experience some of the top rainforest lodges in Peru.

Puerto Maldonado is also the best place for a short Amazon experience of 2 or 3 nights. For example, you can enjoy a brief visit to the Posada Amazonas Lodge. The Posada Amazonas is a great Amazon add-on to Machu Picchu tours or the Inca Trail.

If you’re interested in an Amazon cruise, you will need to visit Iquitos in Peru’s north. This is a short flight north from either Cusco or Lima. Iquitos is then home to some of the best luxury tours in the Amazon Rainforest.

Cusco is also where you can explore the incredible and highly threatened cloud forest high on the Andes. The cloud forest is one of the world’s most biodiverse places home to hummingbirds, orchids, spectacled bears, capuchin monkeys, and the national bird of Peru, the cock of the rocks.

Weather & Altitude Differences Between Cusco and Lima

One of the most noticeable differences between Cusco and Lima that will become clear when you visit each city is temperature and weather. Because Cusco is located at high altitude, Cusco can get very cold compared to Lima. The air in Cusco also feels much drier with noticeably less moisture, which can take some getting used to.

Temperature
As the colder of the two cities, Cusco has a nighttime temperature of around 46°F (8°C). However, June and July are the coldest months when temperature of a night can get close to freezing. Daytime is usually different with a reasonably constant temperature of around 68°F (20°C).

Over the summer months from December to April, Lima’s daytime temperature is around the more comfortable 81°F (28°C) by day and 63°F (18°C) at night. Winter in Lima is between April and November with a daytime temperature of around 60°F (17°C) and 50°F (10°C) at night.

Rain
Ranking as one of the world’s driest cities, Lima rarely experiences wet weather. Because Lima is located on the coast, however, the air is very humid. On the other hand, Cusco has rain from December through to February.

Altitude
Differing from coastal Lima, Cusco is located high on the Andes and because of this some acclimatisation is required. You may feel dizzy, have a headache, or feel a little nauseous for the first couple of days in Cusco. Most people acclimatise to the high altitude fairly quickly. And this is often helped along with a few cups of coca tea, which is usually on hand for new arrivals.

Cusco or Lima Summary

To summarize, both Cusco and Lima offer a fantastic experience for a few days exploring the cities. Given that they offer a slightly different experience, you can decide based on your own interests which one will be of more interest to you.

If you’re fascinated by history and architecture, Cusco would be where you might want to spend more time. However, Lima offers the Historic Centre, which can be explored on a day trip from Miraflores.

On the other hand, remember that whereas UNESCO has added Lima’s Historic Centre to the World Heritage List, UNESCO has recognized the entirety of Cusco city as a world heritage area.

If you’re more interested in gastronomy, shopping, and nightlife, you may prefer to visit Lima, which has some of the country’s top rated restaurants. This is also where you find the best shopping experience. But note that Cusco still offers delicious restaurants and bars. Cusco also provides a shopping experience to buy more traditional Peruvian products. However, the favorite items e.g. alpaca wool clothing can be found in both Cusco and Lima.

Cusco is where you will visit to see the main Incan structures and routes, such as Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. Because of this, it is definitely worth visiting Cusco to explore the city for at least a day, as Cusco itself was of central importance to the Inca Empire.

As you will be visiting Lima for your return flight, we also recommend exploring Lima for a day at least. The main attractions are easily reached from Miraflores, such as the top restaurants, Larcomar shopping complex, and the Historic Centre.

Ash - Author & Travel AdvisorAbout the Author: Ash Card is a frequent visitor to the Tropics and has a passion for helping visitors get the best experiences from tropical locations. Ash is a contributor to both TourTheTropics.com and ThinkJungle.com writing about tropical destinations, rainforests and wildlife. Feel free to contact Ash for tour help in the tropics. When not helping tourists with tours and info, Ash can be found salsa-ing the night away or posing near waterfalls.
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