Cusco, sometimes spelled Cuzco, Qosqo (in Quechua) or Qusqu (in Aymara). This city is located on the Southeastern part of Peru. The region is mostly mountainous forming part of the longest mountain range in the world, the Andes Mountains. It´s located at very high altitudes, expect Cusco to literally take your breath away. Cusco is known for many things, most importantly its rich Inca Empire history, culture and architecture. Because it’s surrounded by mountains, it’s a hiking conglomerate, with hikes that are suitable for both beginners and the most avid hiker. Cusco is home to world famous hikes like the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, the Choquequirao trek and the Salkantay trek among many others. It’s also a breath away from the massive Amazon Rainforest, which covers over 2 thirds of the entire country of Peru. A great way to connect with nature and experience a diverse selection of wildlife. It´s a gastronomy capital in its own right, with fusion and neo Andean cooking, prepared using modern techniques. Eventhough, the region is surrounded by mountains, it does however have a thriving agricultural sector located in the Sacred Valley. Food here is usually made from fresh organic local ingredients with a mix of international ingredients.
Modern Cusco´s tourism sector has been the backbone of this region economy since the 2000´s. It brings in over a million visitors a year and pre-covid, contributing over 1.2 billion to the national economy. The scale at which tourism is growing in the city, has made a few structural changes to its inhabitants. Firstly, it is transitioning from a small city, to a more metropolitan city and has also seen growth to its ex-pat community. It has a vibrant nightlife and has modern amenities, like good speed internet, modern apartments etc. A big tourist hub, known for its street markets with inexpensive fresh produce and arts and crafts. The beguiling blend of cobblestone streets, colonial period architecture and that unmistakable Peruvian street spirit, Cusco’s designation as the gateway to the beautiful Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu simply further underscores its enduring popularity.
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN CUSCO
1.- LOOK DOWN ON THE PLAZA DE ARMAS
The beating heart of Cusco, from first to last light there is never a dull moment in Plaza de Armas.
The central square of the city is bordered on one side by the imposing Cusco Cathedral. It was built on the foundations of an Inca temple and was completed in 1654 with the aim of removing Incan religious beliefs. Now a UNESCO heritage site, it is a must-see during your time in Cusco. Another side of the plaza holds the smaller but beautifully intricate Church de La Compañia de Jesús.
You will inevitably cross Plaza de Armas many times on your own Cusco visit, but our tip to enjoy it most is to go for a morning coffee or afternoon drink at one of the pricer second floor cafes and restaurants which can be found on three sides of the square. With small balconies to huddle on, it’s a welcome respite from walking and sightseeing and the best way to watch the world of traditional and tourist Cusco colliding in a kaleidoscope of colour.
TIP: Molly´s Irish Pub, El Muki´s, Wild Rover, as well as Changos, are some of the go-to places for late-night drinks and fun in Plaza de Armas. Cusco gets cold at night, bring something to keep you warm… See more about Cusco by Night
2.- EXPLORE SAN PEDRO MARKET
San Pedro is one of the largest covered outdoor markets in Cusco. The streets leading to the market are always a buss with both tourists and locals. Upon entering through the main entrance, you are met with a variety of local textiles, like alpaca ponchos. Also find stalls with all sorts of souvenirs, from printed cups, key chains and so much more. Pass fresh juice stalls, order a mix of any of the local fresh fruit and vegetables that strikes your fancy. Slowly wonder through the aisles, this market has absolutely everything on offer. Chocolate, coffee beans, fresh produce, cheese, fresh fish, nuts, dry fruit and even a seamstress to mend a ripped t-shirt. My personal favorite is the cheap super grains like quinoa and Maca that are sold by the gram. Besides the ladies that call out for your attention as you pass by, it is a clam and peaceful market. You should expect a bit of a small crowd, but nothing too overwhelming or that could make you feel unsafe. Its a must visit in the city.
3.- WALK TO SACSAYHUMÁN
There are a number of excellent days trips from Cusco, but a short bus ride or walk up to the impressive Incan ruin of Sacsayhumán (pronounced sack-sigh-woe-man, not ‘sexy-woman’) is a great opportunity to get out of the city for a morning or afternoon.
The site of the old citadel is a pleasure to explore for an hour or two and its ginormous black boulders are incredibly impressive. Just note that if you plan on doing a Sacred Valley tour, a visit to Sacsayhumán may be included, so consider if you want to end up visiting it twice.
To visit Sacsayhumán and many other sights in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, it is necessary to purchase a ‘boleto turistico’ in advance.
How to get there: You can get to Sacsayhuamán on foot, by taxi, or with a local bus. To walk, simply use Google Maps to find the enjoyable route which takes you through Cusco and up the Atoc’sekuchi staircase – it’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s also possible to take one of the many buses or collectivos which pass the Sacsayhuamán entrance to neighbouring towns – ask you hotel/hostel for advice on the best place to hop on and it should only cost S/. 1 one-way.
A taxi takes 10 minutes up to the ruins and should cost around 10 to 15 soles
Cristo Blanco (the big Jesus gifted by Palestinans after World War II) is also up here and from this vintage point you get amazing sunset views and of they whole city.
4.- KORICANCHA: THE GOLDEN TEMPLE OF THE SUN.
Out of all the attractions in Cusco, this one is the crown jewel.
Koricancha (often spelled Coricancha) was the ‘the centrepiece of the Incan empire’ and considered the holiest site in Incan mythology, but its golden glory was tarnished by two key events in the history of Peru. Firstly, when the Spanish demanded a ransom for the release of the kidnapped Incan emperor Atahualpa, much of the temple’s gold and silver (legend says that it was covered in an incredible amount) were stripped, melted, and used to pay. The conquistadors, true to colonial form, then reneged on the emperor’s release and murdered him.
Once the Spanish proceeded to take Cusco, they chose to destroy most of the revered Incan site and stripped it of any remaining gold. The final act to underpin the power shift? The building of a church upon Koriancha’s foundations, which you can still find and visit next door (named the church and convent of Santo Domingo).
It is the remains of Koricancha which continue to act as an important link to the Incans, and a key place to visit in order to understand them and the clash of two civilisations, with one’s temple built atop the other in a very unsubtle metaphor for conquest.
***The entrance ticket cost S/15 soles and it open from 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. (Mon – Sat) and 12.00 p.m. – 5 p.m. on Sundays.
5.- HANG OUT IN SAN BLAS
It is apparently obligatory to refer to the San Blas as ‘bohemian’ or ‘artisan’ when writing about it in a Cusco guide, but we’re not going to go into that side of the neighborhood here.
However, this area was really the catalyst for changing my perspective on Cusco, and allowing me to enjoy it away from the central tourism-focused areas. It’s pretty, less busy, has my favourite Cusco coffee shops and restaurants, a handful of excellent independent clothing and jewellery shops, a chilled out vibe, great views of Cusco, fun nighttime bars and, well, lots of the things that you’ll like if you’re based in a city for more than a few days.
As so many travellers set up a little base in Cusco for a week or so, quite a few naturally gravitate towards San Blas during the day and night, and we’d recommend you make a beeline to this small quartier too whilst you’re in the city and embrace your inner flâneur. It is definitely worth that walk up the hill!
6.- Join a taste of Cusco tour or nighlife tour
Cusco has delicious cuisine. Food here is a mix of Fusion and neo- Andean cooking. It has influence from different parts of the globe icluding parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. The food tour give you small bites of the most authentic Peruvian dishes . Try the tried and tested Culinary tasting tour of Cusco. The nightlife is the city is pretty electric, it can get overwhelming if you don´t anyone in the city. They have perfect tours to help explore and discover the city after dark. Visit popular local dives and packed tourists spots. Some tours choose places with a more chilled vibe, live music, amazing food and a great atmosphere. Cusco by night.
7.- INDULGE IN CHOCOLATE TASTING + COOKING CLASSES
First up, there are a number of cooking classes on offer where you will visit a local market, learn about the ubiquity of Peru’s famous potatoes and corn, then head to the kitchen to create your own dishes and learn about the history of food in Peru with a homemade pisco sour. I love doing cooking classes when I travel, and this four-hour class in Cusco is highly recommended.
Visit one of the several excellent chocolate houses in Cusco where you can sample some of the finest products from local producers. Peru is actually quite renowned globally for the quality of its cacao beans and chocolate, and Cusco offers the chance to sample (or devour) lots of it. If you’re a chocolate fiend, then you’ll want to perhaps accidentally wander past the following (in no particular order) to try some samples:
- Choco Museo (210 Calle Garcilaso)
- Bonbonao (299 Calle San Juan de Dios)
- Tika Chocolates (823 Avenida El Sol)
8.- SOLVE THE 12-ANGLE STONE
Now, if you’ve been doing your research for Cusco, then you may have seen a lot of posts talking about the 12-Angle stone (sometimes called the 12-Point Stone).
It isn’t really something to make you excited for your upcoming trip is it? Especially in comparison to a make your own chocolate workshop!
We are with you on this one too, especially as this revered stone on a very narrow street is pretty much always crowded and has a guy in Incan fancy dress permanently positioned next to it
It is a block of stone that is made of green diorite, a stone widely used in Inca architecture. It is also one of the important symbols of the city of Cusco and is embedded in an Inca wall, which is part of the Archbishop’s Palace and the Museum of Religious Art of Cusco, where paintings of the Cusco school are exhibited.
The wall where this famous stone is embedded is admired for its polygonal architecture. It also has colonial walls built on this very solid Inca foundation. This wall is characterized in that in the center of the wall the stone of the twelve angles is located, popularly known for its perfect assembly of its corners, for its great finish, assembly and its Inca perfectionist border.
Its located next to the Church of Triump. Around two blocks from the main square, on Hatun Rumiyoq Street (large stone in Quechua).
9.- VISIT A FEW OF CUSCO’S MUSEUMS AND EXHIBITIONS
There are more than a few underwhelming museums in Cusco (here’s looking at you Inka Museum). But we recommend you make your way out to the following if you’re having an education exploration day in Cusco:
Museo Inca: The charmingly modest Museo Inka, a steep block northeast of the Plaza de Armas, is the best museum in town for those interested in the Incas. The restored interior is jam-packed with a fine collection of metal- and gold-work, jewelry, pottery, textiles, mummies, models and the world’s largest collection of queros (ceremonial Inca wooden drinking vessels). There’s excellent interpretive information in Spanish, and English-speaking guides are usually available for a small fee.
Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino (MAP): One of the best museums in Cusco in terms of curation and the quality of exhibits, it’s a privately funded one which (as the name would suggest) focuses on art and artefacts from the period prior to the Spanish conquest. Definitely a worthwhile addition to everyone’s list of things to do in Cusco!
Pisco Museum: It isn’t really a museum, especially come nighttime, but we you have earned a drink by this stage. Peru’s most famous cocktail, a sour blend of egg white and pisco, is something you should sample a lot of whilst travelling here. (It’s all part of the cultural experience, right?)
10.- Walking Tours in Cusco
When you first arrive in the city we suggest taking a walking tour of the city. It does help you find your bearings and to allows you to tap into local tips.
Meeting point: Plaza de Armas
Note: Companies that offer free tours aren’t actually doing it for free, they make money from tips at the end of the tour. Each guide or company will tell you what tip they recommend, its best to not go below this recommendation. Also, bring local currency, they only except nueva soles.