The city of Cusco was the ancient capital of the Incan Empire. After the arrivals of the Spanish, Cusco remained an important cultural and religious center. The main town square has one of South America’s most beautiful churches and some priceless pieces of art. Cusco is also the starting point of those to wish to do the Inca trail that leads up to the Machu Picchu citadel and a center for adventure sports.
- How to get there
Flights from Lima to Cusco are around $150 (USD) roundtrip if booked sufficiently ahead of time. Booking the tickets while in Peru could get you a lower rate on airfare if you are flying during the off-season as well (December through June). This is a gamble, however, because seats sell out quickly peak tourist season (end of July till November).
- Where to Stay
There is a wide range of affordable hotels in Cusco. There are plenty of hostels and hotels, so we decided to go with Terra Viva (also used them in Lima and Machu Picchu because of their free breakfast option). The staff in Cusco were wonderful and helped us with storing our backpacks when we had to travel to Machu Picchu which is hours away!
- Where to Eat
There are plenty of restaurants to choose from around the town square, but the only one that caught our attention was Le Soleil located closer to the bishop’s house. It definitely exceeded our expectations from the level of service to the quality and taste of the food. We tried the foie gras, ratatouille, and a rabbit preparation; it was the best French food we have tried in a while. They also gave us complimentary appetizers while we waited for the main course. It actually began pouring rain during our meal, so the sound of the mini storm made for a nice background noise, strumming against the windows and on the roof.
We also tried local cuisine in random restaurants in the square. When you’re there, you must try the alpaca, if you’re brave! Chicken is also very popular, and lomo saltado is one of the most common dishes found everywhere you go. Now, if you’re really really brave, try the guinea pig, or cui…we passed on this opportunity this time, but maybe next time 😉
Chicha morada is a specialty (non-alcoholic) drink made of purple corn. We had this with almost every serving of food. Also, the pisco sour is something you have to try…maybe more than once.
Places to Visit
Museo del Pisco
It’s not really a museum but a fantastic bar that has almost 160+ cocktail preparations of pisco, Peru’s quintessential drink. It also does have a large painting depicting the history behind the creation of this amazing local drink.
Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas is surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings with subtle Inca influences. The Cusco Cathedral is one of the most beautiful we have seen in Latin America. The main altar is actually covered in real gold. Photography is strictly prohibited inside, and guides are available at a few soles (Peruvian currency).
The Bishop’s house has wonderful pieces of Christian art from the early period in the history of Cusco. Definitely a must-visit along with the Cathedral.
*Keep in mind, the first 3 locations are all walking distance from each other, so need to hire a taxi or take bus.
It is the closest ruin to the city center and is hike-able from the town square (45 minutes). It served as a military base to protect Cusco and played a great role in the siege of Cusco by the Incas. Also adjacent to Sacsayhuaman is a large statue of Christ with an amazing backdrop of the town.
The Sacred Valley includes, but is not limited to:
People believe that Tambomachay was either an Inca retreat for nobility or served as a temple or military outpost. Water still flows through the fountains and pools and the views are beautiful.
This famous landmark is quite far from Cusco, and would be included in a day excursion along with Pisac and Moray. This is where the last Inca emperor took his final stand against the Spanish
Famous for its markets and ancient ruins, many stop in Pisac during day excursions to Ollantaytambo. You will find a wide variety of silver jewelry and handicrafts and also a quick bite to eat. Our tour stopped at a local silver smith and we were lucky to see artisans at work.
Moray rice fields
The Moray rice fields were believed to be experimental agricultural terraces to test new varieties of crops. Their shape and structure are nearly perfect which illustrates the Inca’s advanced engineering skills.
The local market
The local market is a great place to shop for souvenirs and authentic Peruvian garments. Vendors here are willing to negotiate prices so patience is key.
- Getting around
Taxi cabs are the best way to get around Cusco. If you find an excursion that is a couple of hours away, tours are available that are significantly cheaper. We joined a tour to Pisac and Ollantaytambo and left the tour midway to catch our train to Machu Picchu. We also hired a taxi for half a day to take us around the Sacred Valley.
Overall, our time in Peru was busy, but very relaxing at the same time. There was so much to see and so much more to do. We loved learning about the history and the indigenous traditions. We will definitely be returning to Peru again!