My favourite neighbourhood in Cusco, and also the artisan quarter of the city, San Blas admittedly does require a bit of a lung workout to reach. But to miss out on a wander through its maze of narrow cobbled streets is to overlook one of the most charming neighbourhoods in the whole of Peru.
Nestled on a steep hillside next to the centre of the city, San Blas is located within walking distance of Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, accessed most easily by following Triunfo as it heads uphill behind the cathedral.
Make sure you’ve drank your fix of coca tea (to combat the affects of altitude) for breakfast and you’re wearing some sturdy shoes (those cobbles are slippery; flip-flops just ain’t gonna cut it) before you attempt the climb. However if you do need to stop part the way up, there are plenty of boutique shops and cosy little cafes to tempt you in.
Once you reach the top of Cuesta San Blas, you are rewarded with views of the Iglesia de San Blas (which, although simple-looking on the outside, houses an exquisitely-carved baroque alter inside, covered in gold leaf), and the attractive Plaza San Blas, flanked with white-washed buildings with red-tiled roofs, and signature painted blue doors and balconies.
At the weekends the plaza is a hub of activity as locals and tourists alike crowd around the small collection of market stalls, but the rest of the time it remains a tranquil spot to relax, unwind, and chat with friends.
Narrow, cobbled, traffic-free streets branch out from the Plaza San Blas, in a confusing maze of alleyways, which are connected by a series of ancient stone steps. You don’t need a map around here; half the fun is getting lost. Just bring a camera, a keen eye for detail and a lively sense of adventure.
Not only are the back streets of San Blas beautifully peaceful and devoid of tourists, but due to their elevation they afford some spectacular views down on to the city below (just remember to stop and look behind you as you climb).
If you keep your eyes peeled (many are tucked away down concealed passageways or behind closed doors), you’ll also find a few art galleries, cafes, restaurants, museums, and shops dotted around. If you want to locate some truly unique gifts in Cusco, then San Blas is the place to find them.
It’s also the place to come to see local craftspeople at work, whether they be painters, jewellery-makers, or luthiers (yes, that’s a new word for me too; it refers to a person who makes or repairs lutes and other string instruments). As part of the Free Walking Tour we joined one morning, we were introduced to a luthier in San Blas. As well as making and repairing a vast array of musical instruments, he also played each and every one of them to sweet, melodic perfection.
Life definitely moves at a slower pace through San Blas, and whilst the modernity and development of central Cusco will undoubtedly reach this neighbourhood before too long (it is already home to some of the city’s best restaurants and boutique lodgings), for now it remains a tranquil escape from the hustle of the 21st century down below.
It’s simple, humble and beautiful, a place for curious wanderers and creative souls, and somewhere that draws you back – time and time again.
San Blas Sleeps
Definitely one of the most desirable locations to stay in the city, the views alone were enough tempt me into believing that lugging my (very full) 55 litre backpack up here would be a worthwhile ordeal. In reality (and especially if you are prone to the affects of altitude), it’s not an easy hike, even without a backpack, and you pay a princely fee for vistas like these.
Downtown Cusco definitely offers cheaper places to lay your head (we found the area between San Pedro and Plaza Regocijo to be a great bet for accommodation options that strike a good balance between character and price), but if you have the money to spend and can find a donkey to help with your luggage (or if you fancy a bit of training for your upcoming Inca Trail hike), then San Blas has some pretty tempting options.
So if you fancy a bit of a splurge (from a budget traveller’s point of view) then check out these three:
- Second Home Cusco – £76.69 per (double) room, per night
- Casa San Blas Boutique Hotel – £65 per (double) room, per night
- Tika Wasi Casa Boutique – £34 per (double) room, per night
San Blas Eats
- Jack’s Cafe. Don’t come here expecting to be able to grab a table immediately; there is always a queue for a seat. Australian-run cafe serving healthy, hearty food and drinks at their best.
- The Meeting Place. Right in Plaza San Blas, this is more of a snacks and coffee kinda place, but the staff are super friendly, and there’s a resident cat called Socks who is completely adorable. All proceeds go to support community projects.
San Blas Nightlife
- KM-0. At the end of a small alleyway to the left of Iglesia San Blas, I have seriously good memories connected to this place. It was the location of our post Inca Trail trek meet-up, and I couldn’t have asked for a better venue in which to share tales and laughter with a fantastic bunch of people. The bar (which also serves good Thai food in the evenings) has an intimate, friendly atmosphere, serves quality mojitos (which are available on Happy Hour after 9pm), and hosts live music every night of the week.
Have you been to San Blas? Do you have any experiences you’d like to share?