Passport to Peru: A 5 Minute Guide to Cusco
At first, Cusco seems quaint, small, and orderly: dignified churches and respected ruins dot the area giving the city a stately, somber allure; a grid of narrow streets converge at the gorgeous, old-world Plaza de Armas; traditionally-dressed women wander the streets with newborn alpacas sauntering close behind. But come dusk, this illusion of tranquility is quickly rattled as darkness’ star-speckled blanket sweeps a symphony of sound across the city: the clatter of restaurant cutlery, pulsating Salsa music, the unceasing slosh of raw egg splashing against metal during its metamorphism into Pisco Sour.
In a city with so many façades, there is an innumerous amount of activities to do, sites to see, and experiences to create. Book a room, plan to stay a while, and get the most out of your trip to the “Belly Button of the World” using our 5-minute guide to conquering Cusco.
Arrive with caution:
Upon your arrival, you’ll notice coca leaves everywhere. The leaves are synonymous with Andean culture and offered to newcomers for one important quality: they’re ability to prevent altitude sickness. Cusco resides at 11,200 feet above sea level –a sharp, steep climb from Lima, which stands at just 5,000. The sudden leap in altitude causes nausea for many new visitors, hence why it’s recommended to either chew on coca leaves or drink coca tea upon arrival. And no, you can’t get high chewing the leaves (despite whatever your overly-insistent traveling companion claims).
Visitors also run the risk of contracting stomach illnesses when traveling through the Andean region. Flavors and cooking techniques familiar to Peruvians are foreign to our weaker stomachs. Order yourself a licuado at San Pedro Market (don’t worry –the water was boiled before being added to your smoothie), but be wary of the giant pots of stew your first days there; although it may entice the eyes, your stomach might not be able to handle the surge of new flavors and ingredients just yet.
Explore the ruins, all the ruins:
Qoricancha is an ancient Incan sun temple with a Spanish cathedral plopped on top, just a few blocks from city center. The big, gorgeous edifice, with preserved Incan ruins nestled below, shows the haunting beauty and clash of the Incan Empire and Spanish conquistadores. The Sacsayhuaman ruins are incredible, and just a short trek from Cusco. (On the way there, be sure to stop at the Statue of Christ and take in the best view of the city.) However, further from the city lie more incredible relics you won’t want to miss. The Tambomachy ruins are rumored to have been reserved for the elites of the Inca Empire back in the day, and you’ll find many locals roaming the property with their llamas. Continue even further (you’ll want to get a cab for this one), and you’ll find yourself in Pisac, a hippie village nestled in the Sacred Valley. Every Sunday the locals host a market in the central plaza but the real attraction is the village’s ruins aptly named Inca Písac, boasting a sun temple, former water fountains, ceremonial platforms, and a breathtaking volcanic outcrop.
Visit key sites –without falling for tourist traps:
Before scheduling your itinerary, set aside one day for a Free Walking Tour of the city, the perfect launch point for the rest of your trip. After getting a feel for Cusco, you’ll have a better idea where you’ll want to spend more time. Plaza de Armas is a beautiful meeting point, day or night, and is home to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, the main tourist attraction of the square. Continue upwards from the square and you’ll find yourself in San Blas, the bohemian neighborhood complete with a beautiful water fountain, cute cafes, and shops selling local fabrics as well as Ayahuasca retreat packages for the daring. You’ll notice tons of museums around the city, but only a few are worth the visit (and entry fee). Check out the Pisco Museum, paying homage to Peru’s favorite alcohol then hit up the town’s free Textile Museum (Museo del Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco) where you’ll not only see hundreds of Quechuan and Andean textiles, but you’ll have the opportunity to watch women producing the threads as well. Then, round off your Peruvian education by making a stop at the Pre-Columbian Art Museum to learn about the art and history of Peru before the Spanish arrived in the area.
Your bags are packed, with room in your suitcase to bring back an alpaca sweater or two of course! What’s your favorite Cusco site to see? Let us know in the comments.