If you think of traveling to Peru, it’s not Lima that first comes to mind, but a quaint mountain town in the Peruvian Andes called Cusco. The region is chock full of mysterious history and incredible archaeological sites with the most mind-blowing ancient secrets. Of course, the top attraction is the world-famous complex of Machu Picchu. But there are a lot of other great things to see and to do. If you don’t have a lot of time for your trip, just go straight to Cusco and you will have a great taste of Peru’s history and culture. We stayed in Cusco one week, which made it the longest of our stops. There are so many things to do, that even a month would probably not be enough. Surely, we didn’t manage to see everything, but I think we still managed to accomplish a lot.
Once you arrive to Cusco, the first thing you should do is get a Tourist Ticket (boleto turístico del Cusco). Cusco is one of the cities where you can visit most of the local attractions and museums with only one ticket. It is valid not only inside the city, but also in the whole region (for example, you will need it for the Sun Temple in Ollantaytambo!)
There are several types of Tourist Tickets, but you will most likely get the best value with the Cusco Tourist Ticket Integral, which is valid for 10 days and allows you to enter 16 attractions. It costs 130 soles, but it is worth it even if you don’t get to visit them all.
You can get the Tourist Ticket at this address: Tourist Galleries, Avenida Sol No. 103. It is literally next door from Plaza de Armas.
1 – Downtown Cusco
Both Inca and colonial influences are tightly intertwined throughout this charming city. You can walk its narrow and winding streets endlessly, discovering one beautiful church after the other. Prepare to walk up and down and chew a lot of coca leaves to help with the altitude sickness! We took our time to acclimate gradually, while staying in Arequipa, but if you just stepped down from a plane, it might hit you hard at first. Luckily, coca leaves are offered for free in every hotel. Study your Cusco Tourist Ticket for access to numerous museums downtown.
Right in the middle of Plaza de Armas, the main square, you will find a golden statue of the glorious Inca Emperor Pachacutec. There is a curious legend that surrounds his rise to power. According to this legend, young Pachacutec mysteriously found a golden disk (or crystal tablet in other interpretations) where the face of the Inca god Viracocha appeared. Pachacutec was terrified, but Viracocha said to him: “do not worry. You will win many battles and become a great leader.” The prophecy turned out to be true: Pachacutec won many battles (some with Viracocha’s “magical” help) and turned a small Inca kingdom into a powerful empire. Archaeologists believe he also built Machu Picchu. No wonder he is highly respected in the Cusco region and you will find his monuments everywhere!
Don’t forget to take a peek into the Cusco Cathedral. It is home to one of the most unique interpretations of the famous Last Supper. Painted by Marcos Zapata in 1753, it depicts Jesus and the twelve apostles getting ready to dine…. on a guinea pig!
2 – Coricancha
Coricancha is one of the places in downtown Cusco where you can spend a good part of the day. It was built as a sacred spiritual center of Inca and, according to the legend, was also the place where the magical Golden Disk was kept (until the priest Aramu Muru fled with it from the Spanish to eventually disappear into Puerta de Hayu Marca). When the Spanish arrived, they built a church over it, but the outer walls are still there and the remains of the Inca temples can be found inside. One of the interesting artifacts you can find there is a so-called Inca Gold Plate (the one on the display is of course a replica). Whether it depicts Mother Earth and the Inca or perhaps some cosmology unknown to us (as, for example, Zacharia Sitchin suggests), is for you to decide…
📍 Coricancha is not included in the Tourist Ticket and the entrance fee is 15 soles.
3 – Inca Roca
The Cusco region is especially interesting for walls, temples and even the whole ancient cities built with giant monolith rocks. Inca Roca is a remainder of one of those walls located right downtown. There are many theories surrounding this amazing stone craftsmanship. How these enormous stones were transported and lifted, how they were cut and placed without any mortar and with such precision that not a razor blade can be squeezed between them, will always remain a secret. One of the perfect examples of such wonder is the 12-angled stone, built into Inca Roca. You can’t help but marvel at the skill of these ancient masons.
4 – Saqsaywaman
Saqsaywaman is a fortress located on a mountaintop above Cusco. I recommend you take a taxi up and walk down. There is a pretty scenic walkway and you will love the views. We spent at least half a day there. Besides the historical value, it is just a beautiful place to walk around.
If only the stones could talk! What would these enormous zigzag walls tell us? Who really built them and how? Just look at the size! The books tell us Inca carved these monoliths, moved and perfectly put them in place without using mortar. But stone cannot be carbon-dated. Scientists can only carbon-date organic materials, found in the vicinity: pottery, bones, etc. But can it be that when Inca came here, these walls were already standing? Naturally, people would consider such a place sacred. When they were gone, they left a lot of evidence of their presence and the accepted age of the structure is largely based on that evidence. But how can such dating be accurate? The interesting fact is that Inca themselves believe the complex was built by gods.
While walking around Saqsaywaman, pay attention to the famous spot with an upside-down staircase! The whole place looks like once upon a time it used to be an amphitheater with plentiful seating, including an array of seats for the royal family. But a powerful catastrophic force destroyed it, scattering the pieces all around. This theory is not only supported by the presence of the upside-down staircase, but also the royal seats, which are illogically turned AWAY from the arena.
5 – Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu
No trip to Peru is possible without Machu Picchu! On our trip, we opted for a 2 day/1 night Machu Picchu tour, where the first day was dedicated to traveling to Aguas Calientes (which is now called the Village of Machupicchu) and the second day was for the actual tour and the way back.
Read the following article about our experience, recommendations and tips on visiting Machu Picchu: Tips About Visiting Machu Picchu, Peru
6 – Ollantaytambo
On the way to Aquas Calientes you pass a picturesque mountain village called Ollantaytambo. This is where you board the train. We visited Ollantaytambo separately within our Sacred Valley Tour, but if I were to do it all again, I would include it in the Machu Picchu trip and stay there for a couple of days. I regret not having spent more time in this cool place.
When we visited, the weather was very bad, but even rain didn’t prevent me from exploring this miracle of construction. Unfortunately, the Spanish managed to leave very little of this place, but one of the walls of the Sun Temple is still standing. Giant monoliths, each weighing at least 50 tons, were brought from a quarry on the side of a different mountain across the Urubamba River, almost 4 miles away. How? We’ll never know, but don’t tell me to believe they used wooden rollers!
7 – The Sacred Valley
Besides Ollantaytambo, our Sacred Valley tour included several villages along the Urubamba River, including Pisaq and Chinchero, and a local textile cooperative. The technique of making and coloring the textiles reminded me of Maya in Guatemala and it was extremely interesting to watch the demonstration. There are beautiful (and warm!) hand-made blankets and shawls for sale.
8 – Try the Guinea Pig
Arequipa and Cusco are both perfect for trying the signature dish of Peru, which is the guinea pig. In Peru, it is called “cuy”. Arequipa is more famous in deep-frying the animal, but Cusco offers it baked (even through you can order it fried as well). We hesitated at first whether we should try it or not, but how can you visit Peru and not have the guinea pig?
So, we opted for a family restaurant called Sumaqcha, not far from Plaza de Armas. You have to make sure you order your cuy at least an hour in advance, since they cook it to order! After ordering, we went to Plaza de Armas and enjoyed a glass of wine. Soon it was time! At first the server brought our cuy complete with feet, eyes and even a small Peruvian hat! After we had all the photo fun with it, he took it back and prepared it for us.
I must say, I didn’t know what to expect. However it was not bad at all! The meat was tasty, a bit gamey and fat. It reminded me of duck meat. There was not much of it on the bones, though. It was quite a cool experience, although we are not sure we’d want to eat cuy again!
9 – Spend an Evening at Limbus, the Bar on Top of the World (or at Least on Top of Cusco!)
Living in Florida, we don’t enjoy gorgeous mountain views too often. That is why an evening at Limbus Restobar was one of the highlights of our stay. We were lucky to score a balcony seat, but it’s best to call and reserve ahead. Sipping a cocktail and watching the sun fall behind the hills was truly magical… We were happy that the way home was down!
10 – Rainbow Mountain
It is hard for me to give recommendations about Rainbow Mountain because for certain reasons we didn’t get to go there. But it should definitely make the cut of the top places to visit around Cusco! There are different opinions as for how difficult it is to hike to Rainbow Mountain, and I guess you must decide for yourself. The only recommendation I can give is to use a reputable company. There are some operators who don’t really care about the well-being of their guests and I heard horror stories about the misery these people had to endure. Also, this hike can become so much more difficult if it rains, so watch the weather. But if all is right, it can surely become an unforgettable experience!
Where We Stayed in Cusco:
We chose Hostal El Monarcha for our stay in Cusco. The rooms are basic, but the price and location were definitely right: you can walk everywhere. You may only take carry-on luggage to Machu Picchu, so the great price of this hotel allowed us not to worry about our things: we simply kept the room. The hotel offered a nice courtyard with daily coca tea and its breakfast included cheese and ham. The owners were super nice and treated us like family. They are currently working on renovating all the rooms.
Some other restaurants we’ve tried in Cusco:
Ima Sumaq. Had lunch there. Right next to Plaza de Armas and had an inexpensive menu del dia.
Cicciolina. Very trendy restaurant, always full. Try the tapas!
Bar One. Neighborhood coffee/breakfast/sandwich joint. Offers drinks and Juan Carlos makes the best Pisco Sour right in front of you!
Museo del Pisco. It is not a museum at all, it’s a bar. If you are in the mood for some delicious craft cocktails, this place is for you.
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