Cusco is the archaeological capital of the Americas, gateway to Machu Picchu, Spanish influenced cathedrals, Inca temples, cobblestone streets and traditional Andean women. The atmosphere in Cusco is very pleasant, despite the many tourist it still feels comfortable and relaxed. You can feel and see the rich history of this Inca capital and not only in Cusco but in the whole Sacred Valley (Urubamba Valley) including Machu Picchu. In 1983 Cusco became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and attracting a lot of tourist each year.
Cusco is the capital city of the Incas from the 13th century till the Spanish arrived in ±1533. They say that the city was built in the shape of a puma, a sacred animal for the Incas. Many stories and religious myths are told and found in Cusco. The Inca empire is considered as the most developed in the Americas before Columbus. The empire reached from Peru to Ecuador, Bolivia and the even the north of Argentina. The official Inca language is Quechua and they worship the sun. There is so much to tell about the fascinating Incas and Cusco but you just have to see and feel it for yourself; so just go!!
Tip: Cusco is located at a height of 3,399 meters; take some days to acclimatize if you haven’t been to these heights before.
See below my tips on things to do in Cusco, next to visiting Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.
1. Discover Cusco by Foot
The heart of the capital is the Plaza de Armas. You can recognize it by the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús which was built by the Spanish on the foundation of an Inca Palace. It is considered the best examples of Spanish Baroque architecture in Peru built in 1576 and rebuilt in in 1650 after an earthquake. On the other side of the square the La Cathedral representing the art of the Cusco school is a big eye catcher.
Next to Plaza de Armas you will find Plaza Regocijco, it’s smaller square with a fountain and the Inca flag. The Inca flag is rainbow flag representing the four quarters of the Inca empire and should not be mixed up with the gay flag! On the corner you will find the Chocomuseo where you can get a free explanation on the chocolate process and products, including tasting.
Another nice thing to do is to walk up the hill to have a nice view over Cusco and Plaza de Armas. I walked up the Arones then Medoc underneath the port up to de la Raza street. Go right and test if you can find yourself a free spot to get a nice overview over the Cusco city.
2. Visit one of the many Archaeological Sites and Museums
Cusco is full of museums and archaeological sites, you can spend days to learn about the Inca culture here; please find my recommendations:
Tip: Buy a Boleto Turístico del Cusco for 130S that will give you admission for 10 days and visit 16 archaeological sites and museums in Cusco and Sacred Valley. You can buy them at the entrance at the museums, sites or at the COSITUC office on Avenida El Sol 103 in Cusco.
I used my Boleto to visit the Museo de Sitio del Qorikancha in the center of Cusco. The ruins are a combination of Inca and colonial architecture with a modern roof of glass and metal. It is definitely worth a visit to learn more about the Inca culture and habits. Very fascinating people.
My next visit with the Boleto was the Museo Histórico Regional. The museum well organized and clear in an old building called Casa Garcilaso de la Vega. I loved the good explanation of the Inca culture in chronological order, but was less interested in the Christian part of the museum.
3. Go Souvenir Shopping
Enough culture and more to come in the coming days, time for shopping and relaxation. Plaza San Francisco (Calle Marquez/Meson de La Estrella) is a market, so perfect for shopping foods and souvenirs. I love the markets, get in touch with local people and smell the fresh products, explore fruits I can’t buy here. Practice my Spanish and stroll around; perfect for a lazy afternoon!
Avendia El Sol has the more modern shops, banks and restaurants. Nice to stroll and watch the windows. The neighborhood behind the Plaza de Armas is also very nice to stroll around, more boutique style restaurants and shops. Take your time to explore the city, you will find new streets with vendors everywhere. Perfect for shopping souvenirs like Peruvian Alpaca scarfs and plaids or typical hats or a nice poncho. Check my blog on souvenirs shopping too!
Tip: Cusco is perfect for souvenir shopping, don’t wait till Lima; buy them here!
4. Get a Inca Massage
I went to the massage twice during my stay in Cusco. There are many places that offer massages; I loved the Inca massage including hot stones (30S). I went to a place close to Plaza Regocijco on the San Bernardo street. Perfect treat after you walked the Inca trail or like me to the Sun gate at Machu Picchu.
5. Support at least one foundation in Cusco
Peru is a developing country, but can be referred as a third world country. There is a lot of poverty in Peru and that is the same for more countries in South America. In Cusco and the rest of Peru there are a lot of initiatives to help the local people.
I run into the Niños Unidos Peruanos Foundation, set up by a Dutch women. The philosophy was very clear and set up very well. The proceeds from the Niños Hotel and restaurants support over 600 underprivileged children in Cusco and other villages. They provide them one or two healthy meals a day, medical and dental care, homework support (school is free in Peru) and an overall save environment for the kids to grow up, give them a good basis for work and express their creativity. I stayed in the hotel, bought a bag made by the children and visited the school. See more in the part below why you have to stay and eat at the Niños Hotel.
Where to stay and eat in Cusco
Like described above a big recommendation is the Dutch owned Niños Hotel. Next to the nice stay for 60 USD per night private room, you support the poor kids of Cusco. You will definitely sleep better knowing that, right?! The place has a good vibe and great atmosphere. All is well decorated with flowers and plants everywhere and a great patio in the center. The hotel on Meloc looks fresh and clean; the room are comfortable and the restaurants offers great food and service.
The food at the Niños restaurant (accessible for non hotel guest too) is local but with a European twist. Different kinds of breakfasts like real bread with eggs, or the banana pancakes but my preference was the Andean breakfast with quinoa, yogurt, banana, apple and almonds. The lunch menu has some great choices too like chicken salads with avocado or pumpkin soup but my favorite was the guacamole with home-made nachos.
La Valeriana on Avendida del Sol 576 is luxury bakery and coffee shop. It’s French owned and they offer heavenly delicious cakes. The look and feel of this place is more European than Peruvian. The service and operation is smooths and went here twice to eat the chocolate cake.
Cicciolina Restaurant on Calle Triunfo 393 offer Fusion cuisine. The ambiance is good and the food even better. No wonder it is the top pick in the Lonely Planet. You can choose between different sceneries in the restaurant; bread and breakfast, tapas, picknick and lunch and Baco. When you in Peru you need to try the guinea pig or cuy in Spanish. You can eat them everywhere but for me this was the time to eat a small part in my Surf and Turf dish at Baco; this instance with cuy and shrimps! It tasted not to bad to be honest, but mixed with risotto I have to admit…..
La Bodega 138 located at Herrajes 138, is an Italian Pizza place. After a lot of local food a pizza is good option for something different. This place is popular and again a top pick, with great pizzas and value for money.
You will see that a lot of foreigners are opening hotels and restaurants here in Cusco, this place attracts a lot of tourist and they like to have something that they know. For every tourist you will find you way here in this great Inca city.
Cusco is accessible by road, train and air. I used all three of them; arrived by bus (Cruz del Sur 105-140S, 10 hours) from Arequipa, left by collectivo to Ollantaytambo (where I took the train to Aqua Calienties), arrived by collectivo from Pisac back to Cusco and from Cusco by airline to Lima (multiple airlines 1,5 hour ±55 USD). In Cusco you can walk everything, but I saw some busses that run between the Sacred Valley and Cusco.