Being called the archeological capital of the Americas, the city of Cusco (also spelled Cuzco) has some pretty big promises to fulfill. We stayed four nights here, dedicating two very full days to experiencing all the city has to offer (the third day was spent visiting Pisac).
Despite modern development and the city nowadays being tourist central (you’ll find tour agencies on every street corner and beyond), much of Cusco still reminds the visitor of its former glory as the capital of the ancient Inca empire.
Although there is a plethora of activities and sights on offer, these were our 10 favorite things to see and do in Cusco:
1. Strolling the steep, cobblestoned streets east and north of the Plaza de Armas. Walking through neighborhoods around the Plaza San Blas and between the historical center and Sacsaywamán gives you a glimpse of everyday Cusco and some nice and sometimes surprising views of the city. Because the streets can be very steep and Cusco is at an altitude of 3.660 meters, you’ve got to take your time.
2. Visiting Sacsaywamán. Because we visited Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley before sightseeing Cusco the ruins of Sacsaywamán didn’t impress us as much as they would have had we started with Cusco. Still the zigzag fortifications made for a breathtaking side trip – we walked from the city center which takes about 45 minutes of continuous uphill hiking. It’s probably better to take a taxi. On a nearby hill is a big white Jesus statue overlooking the city.
3. Eating cuy. Cuy is Spanish for guinea pig, you know those cute and cuddly animals. In Peru the furry beasts are part of the diet. You can read more about our cuy eating adventure here.
4. Sitting on a bench at the Plaza de Armas to see tourist and locals go about their business. A good alternative is to have lunch at one of the second floor restaurants surrounding the plaza.4. Spotting the Last Supper at Cusco’s cathedral. With a platter of cuy being the central dish on the table it gives a local cultural twist to this well-known painting. You will find a lot of other colonial art in this huge cathedral as well. Most impressive is the magnificently carved choir from the seventeenth century.
5. Admiring the gorgeous interior of the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús. Sadly it is not allowed to take pictures inside the church. This ban on photography applies to almost all other churches in Cusco. From the second floor balcony of the church you’ve got nice views of de Plaza de Armas and Cusco’s cathedral.
6. Visiting Qorikancha. Here Inca ruins form the foundation of the colonial church and convent of Santo Domingo.
7. Spotting the Last Supper at Cusco’s cathedral. With a platter of cuy being the central dish on the table it gives a local cultural twist to this well-known painting. You will find a lot of other colonial art in this huge cathedral as well. Most impressive is the magnificently carved choir from the seventeenth century.
8. Drinking a mixed fruit juice at the Mercado San Pedro. Many stalls sell freshly squeezed fruit juice, but this is also the place to buy your pig heads (to season your soups) and dried llama fetus (to bury in the foundations of your new home for good luck).
9. Trying to find the 12-sided stone in the touristic alleyway climbing from the Plaza de Armas to the Plaza San Blas. The Incas were famed for building without using mortar, cutting stones with such precision that they all fitted exactly into each other. The 12-sided stone is the absolute masterpiece of this building technique.
10. Perusing San Blas market for handmade souvenirs. Many artists have a shop here as well. You can climb the clock tower of the adobe Iglesia de San Blas for some nice views across the city.
Travel tips Cusco
Sleep – We stayed two times at Yawarmaki Hostel, which is located in a quiet dead end alleyway, strategically located about 10-15 minutes walking distance from de Plaza de Armas and 5 steep minutes from Plaza San Blas. Owners Raquel and Carlos (sister and brother) were lovely and very forthcoming. Although they spoke little English (and we speak very little Spanish) they managed to give us much valuable information. Room was ok, water hot (but limited), breakfast great, wifi slow. Felt like visiting family.
Transport – We traveled Peru Hop arriving from Arequipa. Instead of traveling by night Peru Hop’s bus rides during daytime. The journey takes about 11 hours including lunch break. The ride was less interesting than hoped for, most of the time you cross grey, barren and empty Altiplano.
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