I’ll preface this post by saying that we’ve been fairly lazy in Cuzco, and certainly haven’t taken full advantage of what the city has to offer, but after spending just over a week here between tours and day trips, we reckon there’s still lots we can recommend.
Located in South Eastern Peru at an elevation of around 3,400 metres – bliss compared with much of Bolivia – Cuzco is the historic capital of Peru. Its main claim to fame is as the historic capital of the Inca Empire until the 16th century, and the location where many tourists choose to base themselves for tours to Machu Picchu and other highlights of the Sacred Valley. The city is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightly so – it’s one of the most attractive cities we’ve spent time in and is packed with pre-Colombian and Colonial churches, plazas and historic buildings. Much of the central area still has cobbled streets and is full of antiquated buildings with charmingly wonky roof tiles, and the Plaza de Armes is the only place where I’ve seen wooden framed Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC with pretty much none of the branding and logos that you’d typically see.
We spent 8 nights here using the city as a base to explore the wider area, and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a safe, relaxed place to spend some time. It’s pretty touristy, but that doesn’t entirely take away from it’s charm – and we found it a great place to be a bit more settled and to take our travels a little slower. The people are friendly, and the high tourist numbers means there’s a lot of choice when it comes to cafes, restaurants and shopping. Our Cusco top 20 has been a hard fought list, but we think if you manage to do all of the following you should have a pretty good time here.
1 – Visit the Chocolate Museum
We spent a pretty great couple of hours here eating far too much chocolate and left feeling quite sick. The hot chocolate is great – warm milk with an accompanying bowl of Peruvian chocolate to add to your tastes. We also tried chocolate fondue, brownies and even a few different chocolate liqueurs. Entry is free to the museum, and you can pay to join a chocolate making workshop. Our snacks and drinks were pretty cheap – about £10 and we were far too full to have lunch!
2 – Relax in the Plaza de Armes
This is the main square in Cusco and the heart of the historic centre. Packed with beautiful architecture, including churches, cathedrals and fountains, it’s always full of people and a great place to relax and watch the world go by whether in the daytime or the evening.
3 – See lots of Churches & Cathedrals
As per the above, there are a lot of churches to check out in Cusco if you’re so inclined. I was reminded of the phrase our Dutch friend introduced us to in Bolivia – “ABC” or “another bloody church” for the uninitiated. Worth exploring at least a couple while you’re there though – they are typically between around 10 and 30 soles to enter although some are free.
4 – Drink Pisco Sours
The origin of this drink is hotly contested in South America with both Peruvians and Chileans adamant that they founded the popular cocktail. Either way, it’s a pretty cheap drink in both countries and pretty enjoyable, especially when it’s just 5 soles (a little over £1) such as in our hostel. It’s made using Pisco (obvs), key lime or lemon juice, syrup, ice, egg white and angostura bitters.
5 – Take a Day Trip to Moray & Salientes
These are ancient Incan sites located just outside Cusco and are typically combined on many day trips. We took a bus trip that left the city at around 8.30am and returned around 2.30pm and saw both of these and a textile demonstration. Moray is a series of concentric circular agricultural terraces that’s thought to be an area where crops were grown at different temperatures. Salientes is a salt mine where you can see lots of salt pools on a hillside at different stages – visually quite stunning and a fun place to visit and wander round.
6 – Pay for a Picture with a Llama
There’s the option to do this in a lot of places in both Bolivia and Peru and after looking on enviously for a couple of weeks, I was ready to take the plunge. I picked up the cute baby llama… and it peed all over me. Much to the hilarity of Rob, the Peruvian llama owners and everyone else in the near vicinity. Luckily we had checked in some laundry not 20 minutes earlier and we ran back to the hostel where I got changed and added another couple of items to my washing pile. The llama was pretty cute though so I’d say on the whole it was worth it in spite of the pee.
7 – Visit the Inka History Museum
More on the many museums of Cusco as we go through this list of exciting things to do – the Inka History Museum is definitely a highlight and is one of the few not included on the Boleto Turistico Del Cusco, the tourist ticket that includes a number of attractions, more info here. Lots of interesting info on the way the Incas lived, including agriculture, various artefacts and some ancient mummies. Many of the mummies located at ruins locally have been looted over the years so it was interesting to see some that have been preserved.
8 – Shop at San Pedro Market
This large market is open daily (as far as I know) and a great place for buying the various typical Peruvian souvenirs that you see all tourists and travellers wearing – hats, gloves, llama jumpers etc. It’s pretty cheap compared to other places selling the same stuff and easy to haggle – even in English. There’s also a number of food stalls, we didn’t try them on our visit but heard good things from others.
9 – Eat Lomo de Saltado
One of the traditional dishes of Peru, this should definitely be sampled at least once and there’s many great restaurants selling it in Cusco at all price ranges. We tried it on one of the streets off Plaza de Armes where many places offer a 3 course set lunch with soft drink for 20 soles (£5ish). It’s a stir fry basically, served with rice and using beef steak marinated in soy sauce, vinegar and spices with onions, tomatoes, french fries and other veggies that the chef has to hand.
10 – Visit the Contemporary Art Museum
Part museum and part gallery, we passed an hour or so here looking at some Peruvian modern art, much of which reflects typical cultures within Peru from both past and present. Unfortunately quite a few collections were closed while we were there, but it’s an impressive historical building with a lovely courtyard and the art work we saw was great. (It’s in the courtyard on the left in the picture below).
11 – Chill out and have lunch at the Coffee Museum
This place is really similar to the chocolate museum but about coffee. Takes around 20 minutes to mooch around the free museum reading about the history of coffee in South America, and Peru in particular, and then you can enjoy the cafe. We spent ages here as it’s actually a really nice, modern yet comfortable, coffee bar with great food and cakes. In fact, after stumbling across it and realising how good it was, we returned for lunch a couple of days later. It’s not the cheapest place in town, but the food is great and you can happily spend a few hours relaxing and enjoying the atmosphere.
12 – Take a tour to the Amazon Jungle
Sadly our Amazon tour went a bit wrong and ended sooner than anticipated, but I’d still recommend anyone to visit. It’s up for debate whether to visit in Brazil, Peru or Ecuador and there are many sites in each country, but from what we’ve heard all offer fairly similar experiences. We travelled to Tambopata, just outside Puerto Maldonado – 17 hours on a bus or around 1 hour on a plane. You should definitely fly, the bus was horrendous. More detail to follow in a full blog post, but we saw some amazing places and wildlife as well as enjoying a zipline ride through the jungle canopy.
13 – Explore San Blas Historic Quarter
If I returned to Cusco I’d have possibly stayed here, or at least spent more time in this area. It’s a bit of an effort to get to, involving walking up a decent hill (at altitude remember), and is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. Home to cobbled streets, ancient buildings and some cute cafes and bars, it’s a lovely place for a wander round and offers great views over Cusco.
14 – Have a beer in the highest Irish Pub in the world
Pretty sure I’ve seen this claim in a few places in South America now, but we’ll give these guys the benefit of the doubt. Similar to most other Irish pubs, this place has a great menu of British style food including a fab Shepherd’s Pie for £4-5, and is a great place to enjoy a beer and catch up on the sport.
15 – Check out a traditional textiles demo
We inadvertently ended up at a couple of these as they are frequently tagged on to the end of day trips as a way to educate tourists on traditional Peruvian ways of life, and to persuade you to spend more money on llama themed goods. They actually follow the exact same script which was fairly amusing to realise as we tried our best to laugh convincingly at the jokes. It’s worth seeing one if you get the chance though, to learn about the textiles industry and how llama wool is dyed and spun to create the garments you see in markets and shops throughout Peru.
16 – Take a trip to the Museum of Regional History
Another museum, what fun! This one is included in the tourist ticket and is pretty good at detailing more Inca history pertaining to the immediate Cusco. Again, you can expect lots of information about agriculture, some pottery and other artefacts and an interesting section on Peruvian cuisine. There’s also some dinosaur fossils that have been found in the area over the years. It takes only 1-2 hours to explore, but is fairly interesting.
17 – Try another day trip to the Sacred Valley
This was a great trip, leaving Cusco at 8.30am and returning around 6.30pm, it’s another chance to see more Inca ruins. It starts at the agricultural terraces at Pisac – a town that’s worth spending some time in as it plays host to some of the best markets for traditional goods. After an hour or so on a guided tour here, the bus heads on to Ollayantambo, home of some exceptionally well preserved ruins and the town most local to the beginning of the traditional Inca trail. Finally, we enjoyed a textiles demo in Chinchero on the way back to town.
18 – Eat Hipster Burgers at Papachos
This was our treat after making it to Machu Picchu, and was worth every penny. At around £10-£12 for a main course it’s very expensive for Peru, but the burgers are amongst the best I’ve had. It is a very hipster atmosphere, is right in the city centre and was launched in 2014 by the famous Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio, hence the food being so good.
19 – Hike to Machu Picchu
I may have been struggling slightly to reach 20… we were quite lazy in Cusco as I mentioned. Obviously as you know, Cusco is the main destination for the many thousands of tourists who visit Machu Picchu each year, in fact, I think pretty much everyone who visits goes there. It’s amazing, no further description required really.
20 – Treat yourself to a Plush Hotel to Recover
If you take the hard option and trek to Machu Picchu, I’d argue that treating yourself to a bed that’s not in a hostel should be built into your budget from the off. This is one of the best big spends that we made, and I’m so happy we chose the hotel we did. We stayed at the Esplendor Cusco and paid around $150 to do so for two nights, where we enjoyed an enormous and comfortable king sized bed, reliable hot showers, awesome included breakfast and a hot tub. Great place and seriously helped us to recover after our 5 day Salkantay trek.
Like I said, there’s many things we didn’t do, primarily due to laziness – including various Inca sites, a city tour that is highly recommended and a couple of museums we missed, but there’s plenty in and around Cusco to keep you busy for a couple of weeks and we had an awesome time here.