Ok, lets be honest here. Most people (myself included) come to Cusco in order to hike the Inca Trail (or one of the alternative routes) to Machu Picchu, and many spend just one or two nights here either side of the trek. Sometimes that’s all our busy travel schedules will allow, especially if we have a limited annual leave allocation at work.
However, if you are lucky enough to have the freedom to spend a little longer exploring Peru’s historical capital, I would thoroughly recommend that you do.
In spite of the tourists that crowd Cusco’s streets (2 million visitors pass through the city each year; that’s 5479 per day!) – a factor that’s normally guaranteed to make me loathe a destination – Cusco managed to totally charm the socks off me.
I could see myself returning to this city, renting an apartment in San Blas for a few months, and continuing the Spanish studies that I began in Sucre, Bolivia.
That is, if I didn’t return to Sucre to do so.
Whilst time spent sipping coffee and watching the world go by is never time wasted, especially in a city where there’s so much going on, here are a few other sights and activities to keep you entertained:
Getting Lost in the Streets of San Blas
San Blas is nestled on a steep hillside next to the centre of the city, and wandering through its maze of narrow cobbled streets is my absolute favourite pastime in the city. What’s more, it’s completely free of charge to do.
The old houses that line San Blas’ streets (some of which have been converted into cosy little cafes, art galleries and workshops) were built by the Spanish on top of pre-existing Inca foundations, and they retain a simple, humble beauty above the grandeur of the city’s historical core.
Cusco’s oldest parish church (built in 1563) is located in the Plaza San Blas, and this is also the location of the weekend market – selling a selection of unique handmade goods, crafted by locals.
The city’s artisan quarter is reached most easily by following Triunfo as it heads uphill behind the cathedral in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas. Although you’ll be fighting for room on the pavement as far as the Plaza San Blas, beyond there the traffic-free streets and labyrinthine alleyways are wonderfully devoid of tourists.
The views alone from up here make the climb worthwhile.
Get Caught up in the Sweet Aromas of the Choco Museo
It costs just 2 soles to enter, and whilst the museum is small, it’s packed with information, photographs and exhibits. There’s also a little shop (where you can purchase a myriad of products sourced from the cacao plant) and a cafe (with an attached balcony that overlooks the plaza) that serves some delicious fair-trade hot cocoa.
However, the highlight of a visit here is the organic chocolate-making workshops. Although I cannot personally vouch for these, I’ve been reliably informed they are well worth the – not so cheap – 70 soles fee.
The museum also runs tours to local cacao farms, where you are given a hands-on learning experience as well as an opportunity to meet the farmers themselves.
Treat Yourself to Some Quality Peruvian Cuisine
Although it is possible to dine on a budget in Cusco (many places offer a starter, a main course and a drink for 10-15 soles (£2.12-£3.18)), there are some great restaurants in the city if you can afford to treat yourself a little.
My absolute favourite was Greens Organic, located at the top of a wooden staircase in an old colonial building just off the Plaza de Armas. As the name suggests, all the dishes they serve are cooked with organic products, which are grown on their very own farm. Menu choices include a tantalising selection of inventive salads, as well as pasta and alpaca dishes.
Others that come highly rated by fellow travellers are Chicha (in Plaza Regocijo), Cicciolina (on Triunfo – the road that leads up to San Blas), La Bodega 138 (for the best pizzas in the city), and PachaPapa (on the edge of Plaza San Blas).
Join the Best (in my opinion) Free Walking Tour in Peru
I don’t know whether we were simply lucky with our guide (can’t remember his name but he was animated and enthusiastic with thick black curly hair), but the walking tour gave us an incredibly comprehensive history lesson on Peru, Cusco and the Incan civilisation, and our guide made it interesting, memorable and fun.
It would have taken me days to gather the amount of information together from the internet and guidebooks that our guide imparted within the space of 2-3 hours.
We were taken to a traditional Peruvian restaurant and given the opportunity to sample alpaca, introduced to a luthier (someone who makes or repairs lutes and other string instruments) and permitted to touch, listen to and play a myriad of musical instruments, and given a lesson on the origins of Pisco and how to make Peru’s most famous cocktail – the Pisco Sour.
It goes without saying that we were given a Pisco Sour to taste-test as well.
Take a Hike up to Sacsaywamán
Sacsaywamán is the most impressive of the four Incan ruins that are located within an 8 kilometre radius of Cusco. Its imposing tiered fortifications provide wonderful examples of Inca construction, using boulders which were carefully cut to fit together without mortar.
Situated on a steep hill above the city, 3701 metres above sea level, it takes a good 30-50 minutes (depending on the route you take and your level of fitness/acclimatisation) to reach the site, but the views from up here are incredible.
An important point to note is that Sacsaywamán can only be visited as part of the boleto turístico; you cannot buy an entry ticket solely for this site. You’ll either need a full boleto turístico, which will set you back 130 soles (£27.62), is valid for 10 days and will allow visits to any one (or all) of the 17 historical sites it incorporates, or a partial boleto turístico for the cost of 70 soles (£14.87) – which is valid for just one day and will permit you entry to any one (or all) of the four aforementioned Incan ruins.
Hunt for Some Locally Crafted or Incan Inspired Gifts
To be honest you can probably buy anything your heart desires in Cusco. You can definitely kit yourself out with everything you need for your Inca Trail trek – from knock-off North Face goods to rain ponchos, mosquito repellent and woolly hats.
However there are also a huge selection of boutique stores and craft shops, selling some unique and beautiful products. I bought my mum a lovely pair of sterling silver Incan cross earrings with a small amethyst stone in the middle, and myself a colourful crocheted hat that has promoted a multitude of complimentary remarks.
Be sure to wander the cobbled streets of San Blas for the best selection of unusual, individual, and locally-crafted items.
Mix with the Locals at San Pedro Market
Markets are great places to visit to get an insight into a country’s culture. You can learn about the ingredients that locals use to cook with, you can see, touch and sample the produce, enjoy traditional dishes at a fraction of the price of nearby restaurants, practice your language skills, and grab some supplies with which to cook dinner at the hostel later on.
San Pedro is not for the faint-hearted though: you’ll find frogs swimming around in buckets of water, snakes in jars, and an assortment of pig and cow heads, trotters, and tongues laying on blood-spattered tiled counters.
As well as all the above, Cusco has a multitude of churches and museums worth visiting. However this can be a costly exercise due to almost all requiring a fee for entry – with the exception of Iglesia San Francisco.
The newly opened Museo del Pisco is however also free to enter, and although it’s more of a tapas bar than a museum, it’s definitely worth a visit. There’s a great ambience, and the walls are covered with information about (and photos of) the national drink.
The museum also hosts Pisco-tasting sessions run by guest experts, and frequent live music.
Whilst Cusco is indeed a great base from which to explore Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, it is an amazing city in its own right, and one that is definitely worth investing some time to get to know.