Once known as the ancient capital of the Incas, Cusco now bursts at the seams with culture. Tradition holds strong and authenticity remains in tact with a legacy that dates back to the 15th Century. If you like history, you’ll definitely be missing out if you don’t find time to visit Cusco! Don’t let the 3,399 m elevation put you off! This iconic city, high up in the Peruvian Andres is bursting with plenty to see and do. Whilst most people visit Cusco as a base for their Machu Picchu trek, we suggest keeping a few days either side to explore the city.
1. Market shopping
One of the greatest things about Cusco is its rustic charm that reflects the city’s history and tradition. Unlike Peru‘s larger cities such as Lima, Cusco ‘s narrow cobbled streets lead you to a variety of colourful artisan markets selling everything from hand-crafted souvenirs to Alpaca clothing. Notable markets to visit include the Baratillo Market which runs on Saturdays, and a tourist and local favourite – San Pedro Market. San Pedro Market is a huge, colourful display of fruit, veg and fresh juices as well as main meals to go. This is also a great place to pick up some cocoa leaves to help with the altitude. Happy haggling!
2. Grab an empanada at the Plaza de Armas
Take a stroll down to visit Cusco’s main square – Plaza de Armas where you’ll find an abundance of colonial buildings housing a variety of local restaurants, souvenir shops and cafes that encircle the square and it’s vibrant well-kept gardens. This is the cultural centre of the city and the perfect spot to relax and acclimatise to the altitude. Why not people watch on a bench with a coffee and an empanada from the balcony of a local cafe? There’s almost always an activity taking place on the square, so you’re bound to come across something exciting going on among the locals. Definitely a must when you visit Cusco!
3. Explore the Cathedral
Probably one of the most noticeable images associated with Cusco is it’s extraordinary 15th Century cathedral. The full name of the Cathedral is “The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin” and was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1983. The building itself is a colonial gem, brimming with colonial artwork, beautifully intricate carvings and a magnificent silver alter. The cathedral stands on the Inca Palace site and was built by the conquistadors, with stone from the Inca city of of Sacsayhuaman. If you have a bit of time to spare, definitely walk around the inside and check out the artwork. The most famous is the Last Supper painting by Marcos Sapata which showing the meal as a Peruvian dish, the guinea pig!
4. Go to a chocolate making class
No trip to Cusco (or Peru in fact!) is complete without paying a visit to the ChocoMuseo. This South American chain of chocolate shop/cafes run its very own chocolate-making workshops where you can learn the history of cacao farming in Peru whilst making tasty chocolate delights all from the finest organic Peruvian chocolate. You’ll get to taste a variety of chocolates, sip some delicious hot chocolate and also make enough to take back to your friends and family. Did you know that Tucan Travel offer this as an optional excursion on our Peru tours that visit Cusco? Be warned, this is really popular, so make sure you book in advance.
5. Taste the local food
The spicy, flavoursome, comforting Peruvian food is utterly delicious! And Cusco is the perfect place to taste the local delicacies. One of the most famous dishes is cuy – that’s guinea pig to you and me. Typically roasted, giving it the similarities of roast duck or rabbit meat. Cusco is also famous for it’s alpaca steak. Panchamanca is a traditional dish that you absolutely have to try in Cusco! Basically a mix of spicy, slow-cooked meat, potatoes, corn and cheese, cooked by burying it underground amidst hot stones. Drink wise, definitely try the ‘Supay Quinoa Pale Ale’ – a locally brewed beer which is only available in Cusco and made using quinoa in replacement of wheat or barley. Mmm!
6. Experience the nightlife
South America is famous for its vibrant nightlife and Cusco is no different! The main square is surrounded with bars and clubs, interspersed with cheap hostels to encourage backpackers to party into the wee hours. Popular clubs such as ‘Mama Africa’ stay open until 6 am, as well as many street food stalls waiting to cater for the boozed-up crowd! A famous pizza bar called Ukukuk’s is also a great spot! The place serves mouth-watering pizza with a side of local music and great ambience.
7. Visit Sacsayhuaman
A quick 45 minute walk from Cusco’s city centre is the ancient Inca site of Sacsayhuaman. An engineering marvel, the complex was built using some of the biggest stones we’ve ever seen in Incan construction. Some are fitted so snugly that they don’t need mortar to hold them together. You can’t even fit a piece of paper between some of them! These remains are only part of what was once the largest structure ever built by the Incas. Sitting atop an elevated, rocky terrain, Sacsayhuaman offers stunning views of Cusco and the surrounding area. Definitely not one to miss if you have a bit of spare time!
Tucan Travel offer a variety of tours to Peru which visit Cusco. The perfect way to acclimatise to the altitude before taking on the epic adventure of Machu Picchu. Take a look on our website for more details.