The remnants of its days as the capital of the Inca Empire and subsequent centuries of Spanish colonial rule combine to give Cusco a unique identity. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are countless things to do in Cusco besides seeing the world wonder of Machu Picchu.
We stayed in Cusco either side of hiking the Inca Trail. Arriving after a long night’s bus journey through the winding mountain roads, we were immediately struck by the city’s beauty. High up in the sprawling Peruvian Andes, its red rooftops, colourful walls and baroque churches looked magnificent in the early morning light.
Like many of Cusco’s visitors, we arrived a couple of days before starting the Inca Trail to allow time to acclimatise to the high altitude. We fell in love with the place and decided to extend our stay after returning from the trek.
Here are a few highlights of our time around the city to help inspire your trip.
1. Visit the Sacred Valley
One hour’s drive from Cusco will take you into the Sacred Valley, the heart of the Inca Empire. This scenic region is populated by small colonial towns and villages, with many Incan ruins to explore. We visited as part of our Inca Trail package, but it is also possible to take day trips from Cusco.
One of the highlights of the region is the Pisac Ruins, a hilltop citadel surrounded by dramatic slopes of agricultural terracing. If you have time, the four-kilometre ascent to the summit from Pisac town has some spectacular views and makes for great Inca Trail training.
We also visited a local village community at Ccaccaccollo, where we were taught weaving techniques by a women’s cooperative. Not to mention feeding some alpacas!
2. Explore the cobbled streets of San Blas
On the first leg of our visit to Cusco we stayed in San Blas, a picturesque neighbourhood on the steep hills to the north-east of Plaza de Armas. With its quaint and narrow cobblestone streets it is an enchanting place to explore, and its steps reach high above the city for some superb views.
In San Blas we stayed at Sunset House Hostel, which had a great view from its rooftop seating area, and served up a top-notch free breakfast. A little tip: make sure you check out the city view at night.
San Blas centres around a market square, packed by vendors selling local crafts and souvenirs. The surrounding passageways are full of quirky little eateries, with various vegan and healthy-eating outfits. It was here that we found the best menú restaurants in Peru. Read more about them here.
3. Discover Inca culture
Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley aren’t the only places where you can get immersed in Incan culture and history. There are hordes of archeaological sites and ruins around the area, and plenty of learning to be done in Cusco itself.
We paid a visit to Museo Inka, an excellent museum dedicated to Incan history, displaying all sorts of well-preserved artefacts. All information was presented in both Spanish and English, providing an insight into the origins of the region.
There are also some famous ruins to visit within the city itself. We made the short walk from Plaza de Armas to see Coricancha, the most important temple of the Inca Empire. In the opposite direction, a walk up the hill will take you to Sacsayhuaman, a 15th-century Inca fortress.
One of the city’s most photographed pieces of history is the twelve-angled stone, tucked away in the back streets of San Blas. It was once part of the stone wall of an Inca Palace, but today forms a wall of the Archbishop Palace. Now considered a national heritage object, you’ll be able to spot it from the crowds of tourists hovering around it for the obligatory photo opportunity.
4. Have lunch in San Pedro Market
A few blocks south-west of the main tourist drag around Plaza de Armas is San Pedro Market, a lively marketplace frequented mainly by locals. As well as craft and food produce stalls, there is also a really good selection of market eateries for a cheap and tasty lunch.
The typical set-up is a busy kitchen area with a bench and some chairs in front of it, with diners jostling for space. No matter how full the seating area is, the stall owners will try everything to convince you to dine at their establishment. It’s quite a lot of fun.
The menus are not always available in English, so if you can’t speak Spanish then you may need to do a little guesswork, or choose from the photos. If you’re not after a full meal, there are also dedicated coffee juice and dessert stalls to choose from as well.
5. Eat some alpaca or guinea pig
Lovers of cute animals, look away now. Cusco is renowned for some of its culinary delicacies, in particular, guinea pig, or ‘cuy’ as you will see it on menus. I was foretold of this by a friend in Lima before we arrived. “You can try guinea pig in Cusco,” he said. “But there really isn’t much meat on it… mostly bone.”
That seemed to make sense. What didn’t make sense was the price. Guinea pig was at least twice as expensive as anything else on the menu in most places. Our tour guides told us it had become a thing for tourism; locals don’t really eat it at all. All considered, we decided to give guinea pig a miss.
We did try alpaca, though. How could you, I hear you ask? They are such cute animals. So are lambs, though, and lots of people eat them. Alpaca is a traditional local delicacy as well, and is supposedly much healthier than the alternatives. It has half the saturated fat of beef, a third less cholesterol, and contains fewer calories than most land-based meats. It was pretty tasty, too.
There is no shortage of places to try either guinea pig or alpaca if you are feeling adventurous. The above-mentioned restaurant-lined streets of San Blas are a good place to start.
6. See the city from Cristo Blanco
Glance up at the hills that rise over Cusco and for a moment you might think you are in Rio de Janeiro. Looking down over the city is Cristo Blanco, a statue of Jesus Christ not dissimilar to its famous Brazilian counterpart.
The statue, which stands some eight metres tall, was a gift to the city from Arabic Palestinian refugees who came to Cusco after World War II. A spectacle in its own right, it also comes with a spectacular panoramic view of the city. (You may have guessed by now that you won’t be short of impressive views during your trip to Cusco.)
Cristo Blanco is walkable from Plaza de Armas, if you’re ok with a steep climb. Situated very close to Sacsayhuaman, it should take around 15 to 30 minutes (it’s a good idea to combine the two sites). Otherwise, taxis are easy to come by and should cost about 15 soles.
7. Take a tour to Rainbow Mountain
One of the top-billed tourist attractions within the vicinity of Cusco is Vinicunca, otherwise known as Rainbow Mountain. The multicolour bands of soil at its 5,200m summit are among Peru’s most iconic images.
You will find agencies and tour operators all over Cusco that run day tours to Rainbow Mountain. As it’s a three-hour drive from Cusco, these tours tend to leave at around 2am. This, combined with its more extreme altitude, makes it more sensible to visit after undertaking the Inca Trail than before.
Alas, we ran out of time in Cusco and didn’t make it onto a tour of Rainbow Mountain, but some good friends from our Inca Trail group did, and highly recommended it. It’s not one to be taken lightly, though – if you suffer with altitude sickness, make sure you’ve taken time to acclimatise. Drink plenty of water and take your time.
8. Get a tattoo
What better keepsake to take home from your Inca Trail experience than with a tattoo that will last forever? I had considered getting a tattoo for years, and completing the trek seemed like the perfect excuse. At the age of 34 in Cusco, I got inked for the first time.
Lots of people have the same idea, and unsurprisingly, there are plenty of tattoo artists around the city willing to help. We had our tattoos done at Willka Tattoo close to Plaza de Armas, recommended by the staff at our hostel. We were not disappointed. The process was quick and professional, the results fantastic, and there were no infections or irritations to speak of.
Both me and Lisa went for the ‘chakana’, otherwise known as the Inca Cross. As the symbol of the Incas, representing the city of Cusco and the cardinal points of the compass, it made for the ideal memento.
9. Have a balcony beer at Norton Rat’s Tavern
Plaza de Armas is the centrepiece of Cusco. Surrounded by arched colonial buildings with terraces overlooking the square, it is rarely void of activity.
Around the edge of Plaza de Armas you will find a choice of bars and restaurants that make use of the terrace viewing areas. For a cold Cusqueňa at sunset there is no place better than Norton Rat’s Tavern. In the fading hours of daylight there is a lot of competition for the balcony seats – we had to wait a while before we could ensare some.
With flags of many world nations draping from its walls and ceiling, it’s a welcoming place to kick back, relax and socialise. Perhaps save this one for after the Inca Trail – the beer tastes even better when you’ve earned it.
10. Visit Machu Picchu
Of course, no list of Cusco activities would be complete without at least a cursory mention of Machu Picchu. That’s why you’re there, right? Probably.
There are many ways to see Machu Picchu from Cusco. One possibility is to take a direct tour from Cusco, which involves taking a train to the town of Aguas Calientes, and then a bus from there. Entry tickets sell out quickly, so book yours as far in advance as you can.
The classic way to see Machu Picchu is to hike the Inca Trail, a 43-kilometre-long trek that typically takes four days. This also gets filled up well in advance, so book at least six months ahead to secure a place.
If you do miss the boat, or fancy a different challenge, then the Salkantay Trek is an alternative route to Machu Picchu. This crosses the 4,600m-high Salkantay Pass and descends through the cloud forest, taking in Inca ruins such as Llactapata.
If you’re taking on the Inca Trail, trying checking out my complete guide for first-timers.
One final tip on Cusco: be careful with your belongings. Like any tourist hotspot in South America, or anywhere for that matter, there is crime. This article on scams by How to Peru is useful to read before you visit to better understand the risks.
Have you been to Cusco? Share any of your own tips in the comments below.