Too many travellers rush through Cusco in a breakneck bid to get to Machu Picchu, but this wonderful city is well worth some exploration and a little bit of time.
Cusco is a mandatory stop for anyone visiting Peru. The ancient capital of the Inca Empire is one of South America’s most fascinating destinations. Cusco has archaeological discoveries galore, a buzzing nightlife and is the gateway to Machu Picchu.
In Incan times it was the place people went to enjoy themselves (and the Incas definitely knew how to party – coca leaves and guinea pig anyone?). Today, it’s one of Peru’s most exciting destinations, filled with backpackers, well-heeled tourists and some of the friendliest locals you’ll find in South America.
Until recent years, too much focus has been placed on the city as a short stopover rather than a destination in its own right. It’s no wonder that many people come to Cusco for a two-day trip and end up staying a lot longer. Cusco’s gorgeous spacious plazas, well-maintained Incan walls and narrow cobbled streets are a welcome change from the sandpits and congested roads of most cities.
Plaza de Armas
South America’s oldest continuously inhabited city has a wealth of historical sites that will fill even the most ambitious of itineraries. If you’re looking for things to do in Cusco, you’d do well to start with the Plaza de Armas. Although the Plaza de Armas isn’t a historical site as such, it’s the thriving heart of the city. It also houses several of the city’s landmarks and is a beautiful spot to while away a few spare minutes in.
The eye-catching cathedral on the Plaza de Armas is the largest in South America. The cathedral dates from 1559, when construction of the ambitious building began. It’s the perfect example of Catholicism-meets-Incan architecture. Some might say that it comes close to being a tad overdone, but is definitely worth seeing.
As a former Spanish colonial town, many of Cusco’s monasteries and churches show the unique fusion of traditional Inca and colonial Spanish cultures and ways of life. The Incan Pachamama (Mother Earth), sits side by side with iconic imagery of the Virgin Mary in many of the churches.
Head one block north of the Plaza de Armas you’ll find the quaint Museo Inka. It’s also known as the Admiral’s House as it was first owned by Admiral Francisco Aldrete Maldonado. The museum has survived two major earthquakes in 1650 and 1950 and some intensive restoration. It’s now regained its position as one of the city’s finest examples of colonial architecture.
The ghoulish skulls of those who underwent brain surgery before the days of anaesthetic might not be to everyone’s taste. Even so, there are enough Inca artefacts outlining the history of the Incan people to give you a grounding before you start exploring the rest of the sites.
Cuesta del Almirante 103, Cusco, Peru
The ruins in Cusco are some of the best to be found in Peru. If you only have time to visit one or two, then make the Qoricancha your first stop. While the Spanish conquistadors built the Church of Santo Domingo over the remains of the Inca site, you can still see the imposing walls of the original structure within the church.
This site is an example of the combination of Inca and Spanish colonial heritage that is found across the country.
The Koricancha had six major structures, sanctuary temples to venerate the Sun, Moon, Stars, Lightning and Rainbows, as well as a residence for its priests. The Temple of the Sun has a famous garden, entirely devoted to Inti.The garden contains treasured Incan items represented in gold and silver: corn, llamas, jaguars, and birds to name a few.
Address: Santo Domingo s/n, Cusco 08000, Peru
Hours: 8:30am-5:30pm, Closed on Sundays
Equally impressive, but a little out of town is the exquisitely built site of Sacsayhuaman.
A significant part of the original structure was used as building materials by the Spaniards, but what remains gives a glimpse at how large the fortress once was.
The vast stone blocks were so well crafted that even after such a long period of time, they fit together without the need of mortar. Theorists believe that the site was originally a temple to the sun and its capture by the Spanish marked the death knoll of the Incas. Even so, it still manages to attract thousands of pilgrims each year who come to celebrate Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun.
There’s much to see in these ruins, from the giant zigzagging stone walls (legend has it they formed the teeth of the puma-shaped Incan empire that is now Cusco) to the carved stone benches that form the what historians and architects believe was the Incan throne. The admission ticket to visit Sacsayhuaman is included in the Boleto Turístico, a tourist ticket that includes access to 15 other Cusco attractions for 130 sol (£30).
San Pedro Market
Just a few minutes away from Plaza de Armas, the San Pedro Market is the city’s busy hub. The market gets our vote as one of the best things to do in Cusco – plan to spend a morning or afternoon there.
Explore every inch of the market from the raw meat stands to each of the 30 or so juice stands offering fresh squeezed juices from local fruits. Competition is high – sometimes it feels like success in the market is purely a matter of who shouts the loudest. It all adds to the slightly frenetic atmosphere.
The market is a great place to get fresh ingredients, but also to pick up souvenirs for your family and friends. Shops sell anything from little knick-knacks like magnets and pens to novelty mementoes like pachamama dolls- handmade colourful dolls.
Address: Cascaparo, Cusco 08000, Peru
Dining in Cusco
All that wandering around in the heat takes a lot of energy. Refuel at the city’s best restaurant, the Inca Grill. Their mouth-wateringly good food is complemented by the unmissable people-watching opportunities provided by the restaurant’s location on the Plaza des Armas.
If you’re in Cusco (and feeling a little adventurous) you should take the time to try one of Peru’s delicacies, Cuy or as you might know it- Guinea pig. Before you say to yourself, “No way am I going to eat that!”
Guinea pigs were originally raised specifically for eating before they became pets after the Spanish sent them back to Europe. Guinea pig meat is special in Peru because it’s higher in protein and lower in cholesterol than chicken, pork and beef.
Even though you can find cuy at most restaurants in Cusco, the best place to eat cuy in Cusco is Kusikuy. This beautifully decorated family owned restaurant has made a name for themselves with cuy as their speciality.
Address: Amargura, Cusco 08000, Peru
Hours: 10am-10pm, Closed on Sundays
Where to Stay
At the high end of the scale Hotel Monasterio is built in a renovated 16th century monastery. The monastery in turn was built on the site of an Inca palace. It’s pricey, but entirely worth the extra spend.
If you’re looking for a luxurious stay, but don’t want to completely break the bank, then Hotel Libertador Palacio del Inka is the place for you. The hotel’s building dates back five centuries as it was once an old Inca palace. Located in the historic centre of Cusco it’s not a far walk to the center of town, meaning that there’s always plenty to do. The rooms are spacious and decorated in a modern comfortable style. Rooms begin at 734 sol (£140).
On the other end of the scale, if you want somewhere that’s social and great for meeting people, The Point Hostel is a great choice. For those that feel like they’re past the dorm stage in their life, there are private rooms.
The hammocks in the garden at the back of the hostel demand at least a few hours of stargazing (or dozing whilst pretending to read a book). The staff are also the go-to people for the lowdown on the city’s nightlife, guaranteeing there’s never a dull moment if you don’t want there to be.
Have you been? What other things to do in Cusco would you recommend?