If I was asked before leaving on our grand adventure through Latin America – What place are you looking forward to visiting the most? – the answer would have undoubtedly been Cusco. The oldest living city in the America’s and, of course, capital to the Inca civilization from the 13th to the 16th centuries.
As the sun began to rise and we entered our 11th hour on the night bus from Arequipa I saw the first glimpses of the city of Cusco. They weren’t the best first impressions; an elderly woman searching through a skip and an unusually large pack of dogs venturing through the streets, but as we got to the historic center the magic of the city became clear. Every street corner has history and tell’s a story of there own.
We spent two weeks in Cusco, including our Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, and thought we would share some of the top things to do in this outrageously beautiful city.
The Best Things to do in Cusco
1) Visit Machu Picchu
Okay, we might as well get this one out of the way straight away! Probably the main reason people come to Cusco in the first place is that it is the perfect stopping off point before visiting the hidden Incan city that the Spanish never found. We have wrote a detailed blog on the different way’s of getting to Machu Picchu. We personally chose to take the Salkantay Trek, and it was worth all of the hype that preceded it!
2) People watch at Plaza de Armas
Every South American city has a main square and Cusco is no different, with the impressive Plaza de Armas being the focal point of the city. It’s also absolutely bustling with people continuously and is the perfect place to sit on the steps outside the cathedral and take it all in.
The Plaza houses two of Cusco’s most famous churches – Cusco Cathedral and the church La Compania de Jesus. We went to the Cathedral one afternoon to go inside and we astounded that the entrance fee was 30 soles (around 8 euro). Now the Cathedral is supposed to be impressive and has a famous Last Supper picture where Jesus and the Apostles are feasting on a Guinea Pig. We couldn’t justify the price however and so didn’t enter. On the morning of our Sacred Valley tour we were in the square before 6 am and the Cathedral doors were open so we went in for a quick peek.
You will venture through Plaza de Armas on numerous occasions throughout your stay in Cusco and one thing you won’t be able to avoid is the constant calls of ‘massage, massage’ from young female street sellers.. It is apparently a pretty legit business but one we didn’t go for, even after all the hiking!
3) Visit the Sacred Valley
This one can be done independently, over a few days, or on a day trip. You will get to see some cute little traditional towns and some less well known Incan ruins. We did the day trip and wrote all about our experience here.
4) Visit the Inca’s most sacred site at Coricancha
Coricancha used to be the most important temple in the Incan Empire, and it’s located in the heart of Cusco’s historical center. Coricancha is also known as Iglesias de Santo Domingo. Yes, that’s right – the Christians built a church on top of the most important Incan site!
That isn’t all the Spanish did to damage this holy site, however. After they kidnapped the Incan Emperor Atahualpa – they demanded to be paid a large ransom. It is said that Coricancha was covered from top to bottom in gold, and to pay the ransom they had to strip all the gold and melt it down. The Spanish killed the Emperor regardless…
Coricancha was the Temple of the Sun and was dedicated to the Sun god Inti, the most revered figure in the Incan religion. It also served as an astronomical tower and burial site for some the Incan rulers and their wives.
This place really is a must visit as it gives you a good perspective on the clash that happened between the Spanish and the Incans. It also gives you a much greater appreciation for how far advanced the Incans were when it came to things like astronomy.
Entrance is 10 soles (~2.60 euro).
5) Wander through the San Blas district
Many South American cities have that hippy, bohemian neighborhood, and Cusco is no different. Located a few blocks away from Plaza de Armas, you know you are in San Blas when you start getting out of breath due to the small hill you need to climb up.
The main plaza for San Blas is Plaza San Blas which has some street sellers in it from time to time. San Blas is also home to some great, funky bars and restaurants!
The best way to get there is to follow the old Incan road, Hathunrumiyoc and keep walking straight. If you keep going up, past Plaza San Blas, up and up, you will get a great view of Cusco.
6) Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley
Rainbow Mountain has massively grown in popularity in recent years due to its appearance after melting snows. It is an easy day trip from Cusco but to get the most out of your trip there we recommend returning via the Red Valley. This blog details everything you need to know about the day trip to Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley.
7) San Pedro Market
A walk a few minutes south of Cusco’s Plaza de Armas will take you to the vibrant and traditional San Pedro Market. When in Cusco it is easy to get caught up in the tourist-heavy way of life, but a quick trip to the market will get you remembering what it is really like for the local’s living here.
The market is like most in South America – full of the sounds and smells of real life in this part of the world. You can buy anything from coca leaves to Alpaca jumpers. Try the smoothies here, they have loads of different fruits available!
8)Wonder at the Cusco Mural
Located along the hard to miss Avenida El Sol, this massive mural represents the history of Peru, from the start of the Inca civilization to the present day. Well worth stopping by and taking it in!
Saqsayhuman (funnily enough pronounced like ‘Sexy Woman”) are the Incan ruins that overlook the city of Cusco. Due to its location, it is assumed that it served as a fortress in Incan times. It is best known for the huge rocks that were used to build it and the surrounding walls. When you are up there you really get to appreciate how hard it must have been for the Incan’s to build it.
To visit Saqsayhuman you need to have it included in your Tourist Ticket. As we just had the one day Sacred Valley tour ticket we did not want to pay more for the trip to Saqsayhuman, but we did get to see the impressive structures from the outside on our visit to the nearby Cristo Blanco.
Be wary of people offering horse riding through the site. They say that you can get in for free and that you just have to pay for the horse, but there is something fishy about this proposition if you are asking me!
10) Cusco Views – Cristo Blanco
A gift from Arab Palestinians who moved to Cusco, Cristo Blanco peers over the city, and its location gives one of the best free views of Cusco. It is possible to combine a visit to Cristo Blanco with a visit to Saqsayhuman, but if you just want the viewpoint (like us), make sure to ascend via Calle Camino. We thought we could go up the same way as Saqsayhuman but we were stopped on our way up and were asked for tickets.
If going at nighttime take a taxi up and back down. Cusco, like every city in South America can be dangerous after dark.
11) Marvel at the 12 Angle Stone
I say marvel at the 12 angle stone, but really it should be ‘Try and dodge the crowds to see the 12 Angle Stone’. Located on the well-trodden
old Incan road, Hathunrumiyoc – it would probably be easy to miss this piece of Incan brilliance if it wasn’t for the man dressed up as an Incan constantly standing beside it. Oh, and all the fascinated tourists standing in its way!
It has a 12 angled border and is an example of the brilliance of Incan architecture. The joints in the stone (and indeed in all the stones on this wall) are so precisely fashioned that you cannot even put a piece of paper in between them.
Early in the day or late at night is the best time to visit this well-known attraction.
12) Visit the Inca Museum: Museo Inka
This won’t be the best museum you ever visit in your life, but when in Cusco it is worth a visit. The museum gives you a wide range of information and historical times, that covers Pre-Incan, Incan and even Post-Incan times.
Entrance fee is a very modest 10 soles.