If you’re in Cusco, Peru, there’s another destination on your itinerary – Machu Picchu. However, you would be remiss in writing off Cusco as only a stop-over in your overall plans to climb the heights of Machu Picchu.
Cusco is a casual, quaint, and charming city, full of wonder, history, and some of the kindest locals you could hope to find on your travels. There’s more than enough to do in Cusco, no matter what your interest.
Cusco, Peru rests high in the Peruvian Andes, and is famous for its archaeological and architectural treasures as the once-capitol of the Inca Empire. Cusco retains much of its Incan influence, which is evident in the flair and festive environment of the central quarter of the city and the beauty of its natural surroundings. While small, there’s much to do in Cusco, and we’ve written for you just a few things you can enjoy in this vibrant and energetic city!
Plaza De Armas
Plaza de Armas is central to the history and culture of Cusco, and is a must do place to see. The central square of the city, Plaza de Armas is the primary meeting point for tour groups, a primary draw for tourists, filled with small local restaurants, and also an emblem of Cusco’s past.
The square is marked by two striking buildings that seem to frame this historical center – La Compañia and La Catedral. It was here where conquistadors erected two churches on either side of the square after they conquered the city in the 1500s.
You’re sure to spend plenty of time here, as almost-daily festivals take place in the plaza center that offer native dancing rituals, complete with food vendors, music, and even child-friendly activities.
Museo de Arte Precolombino
While there’s much to admire about the Spanish contributions to the city over time, it’s important to understand the earliest beginnings of this ancient city and it’s native Quechua people. The Museo de Arte Precolombino is a great place to start.
Most of the works displayed here feature art between the 12th and 16th centuries, including works from not only the Quechua but also up to a half-dozen other Incan groups. These are scattered across more than ten exhibits, which include wood workings, jewelry making, and work with precious stones and metals.
Formerly the site of Incan ceremonies, the structure fell into ruinous condition before being reopened as a museum in 2003.
San Pedro Market
The San Pedro Market, located near the Plaza de Armas, is a true hub around which Cusco spins. It’s a buzzing atmosphere, complete with vendors selling everything from handmade tapestries, blankets, and clothing, to fresh fruit, vegetables, and meats. Clay and porcelain handiwork can be had for a nominal price, and you get an opportunity to truly mix with the locals, as well as tourists.
Sitting down for a meal in the market is easy, as under the central canopy there are vendors making fresh pots of stew, frying tender cuts of pork and beef, and stirring up some of the tastiest local delicacies in the area – all for a very reasonable price.
View Cusco From The Northern Hillside
This was a shock to us, just how beautiful the city of Cusco is. Mind you, this isn’t a posh metropolis, nor even sprawling on a level of a medium-sized city anywhere else. However, Cusco is one of the most charming cities to simply watch pass you by.
From our hotel, which was fortunately located on the northern hillside, we spent a few nights sitting on stoops, high up on the hill, simply watching the city shimmer in lights while sipping on a few Cusqueñas. A particularly fond memory was a small house next to us, with music pouring forth from the obvious rehearsal of what we could only guess what some type of teenage garage band perfecting their first tune. Over and over they played, gradually bettering each take over the one before it, and eventually coming into synchronicity with each other.
It was a subtle moment, missed by most I’m sure. Yet, for some reason that shimmering night on the Cusco hillside listening to teenagers work at their dream was beautifully reassuring, and make me nostalgic for my own time spent as a youth doing the exact same thing.
San Blas District
The San Blas District is tucked in the northern/north-eastern corner of Plaza de Armas, and once stood as a colonial parish. Many colonial architectural influences can still be seen, making the San Blas District one of the more stunning areas in Cusco.
Here you’ll see numerous artisanal shops, restaurants, and ancient structures such as the tiny Iglesia San Blas, which was built in 1544 on the site of a pre-existent Incan temple. Structurally, many of the megalithic stones used in the similar construction of the famous Incan cities can be found lining the district, which is an architectural wonder that isn’t to be missed.
Have A Cold Cusqueña
Cusqueña is to Peru what Guinness is to Ireland, to put it simply. It’s a great beer, in fact, and one that is typically only found in the United States in cities with high South American populations (in fact, we’ve only seen it in South Miami). The original form is a lighter lager, called the Dorada, however Cusqueña also comes in Red Lager, Wheat Beer, and Dark Lager. They’re all excellent.
This is one of our rules of travel – when you travel, eat what the locals eat, and drink what the locals drink. Save the Guinness for Ireland. Save the Craft Beer for Portland. When you’re in Peru, and especially in Cusco, it’s Cusqueña.
Qorikancha, one of the most important original Incan temples in Peru, is now the site of a mixed-breed Santa Domingo Church and Cathedral. The architecture is stunning, as the conquistadors who tore down Qorikancha left much of the original foundation, upon which Santa Domingo itself was built.
The resultant structure is a beautiful one that masks its dark history in the collusion of both the old and the new – the Incan and the Spanish. Make sure the visit the on-site museum, as its collection includes textiles and priceless artifacts from the original Incan civilization, as well as macabre mummies that have been present for more than a thousand years.
Museo Inka, a beautiful structure that’s only a short (but steep) walk from the Plaza de Armas, holds one of the most interesting collections in Cusco.
Those who are truly interested in the Incan past of Cusco should find themselves here, and marvel at the collections of textiles, jewelry, permanent and temporary displays, and yes, even mummies. The building is inspiring and geniusly constructed, and features ornate patterns and guilded scenery throughout.
On the outskirts of the small city of Cusco are the Sacsayhuaman ruins – a perfect warm-up for the sites of Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu.
Here, one thinks he’s visiting the central essence of Incan design, but Sacsayhuaman is actually a construction of the previous civilization in the region – the Killke. Further Incan enhancements and additions were made in following centuries, and their brilliance is evident here.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Sacsayhuaman is mysterious, vast, and a stunning location that rings with the importance of its more well-known siblings.
Begin The Inca Trail
Ready for the hike of your life?
Four day Inca Trail hikes depart from Cusco daily, but make sure your group is properly licensed and that you have the right allowances for the trails on which you’ll be travelling. Depending on the season, a four day hike such as this can be daunting – but also life changing.
Make sure that when you’ve reached Machu Picchu, however, you’ve done all there is to do and see all that can be seen in Cusco. It’s a wonderful, charming city that will acquaint you with the highlands of Peru in the warmest and magical way possible.