Cuzco (also “Cusco”, or “Qosqo” in Quechua), located in the Southern Sierras is a fascinating city that was the capital of the Inca Empire. Cuzco is a Unesco World Heritage Site and is one of Peru’s most visited cities as it is the largest and most comfortable city from which tourists can begin visits to Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and other Inca sites in the region.
Cuzco is a beautiful city with well preserved colonial architecture, evidence of a rich and complex history. The city itself represents the center of indigenous Quechua culture in the Andes, and by merely walking the streets one sees the layers of history. Spanish colonial buildings erected directly atop Inca walls line the square, while the modern tourist nightlife flourishes in their midst.
The city is surrounded by a number of ruins, the most impressive being Sacsayhuaman, the site of the 1536 battle in which dozens of Pizarro’s men charged uphill to battle the forces of the Inca.
Nowadays, Cuzco is known for its indigenous population–often seen on the streets in traditional clothing–and its substantial tourist-fueled night life.
Top Things to see in Cuzco
Museums and galleries
- Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo. , located in the Municipal Palace at Plaza Regocijo. Has exhibitions of contemporary art. Admission with the boleto turistico
- Museo Historico Regional. , located in the home of the Inca historian Garcilaso de la Vega. Many paintings from the 17th and 18h century.
- Museo del Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco. , Av Sol. No. 603. A beautiful (and free) museum inside El Centro’s textile store featuring a gallery containing displays of traditional Quechuan and Andean textiles. The museum explains the historical significance of textiles and the techniques by which they are made. A must-see, and visitors can buy the traditional textiles as they come in. A large majority of the money goes to the women who produce them, and the textiles are of much higher quality than the synthetic and machine-woven textiles found throughout the city.
- Museo del Sitio del Qoricancha. , Av Sol. With information about the different pre-Columbian cultures and fragments of ceramics and textiles of the Inca culture. A very small museum, the showcase room includes three mummies and skulls modified by the Incas with holes or sloped foreheads. Allow an hour to an hour and a half. English explanations are present but lacking.
- Museo de Arte Popular. , located in the basement of the OFEC office. Displays a collection of popular art.
- Galleries. ; the stunning scenery of the Cuzco area are often very well depicted by local artists. It is possible to find cheap prints that are of surprisingly good quality if you’re prepared to shop around.
- Santa Catalina Convent. , also a collection of religious art. Admission with the boleto turistico.
- Qoricancha. , the Sun Temple, was the central site of worship for the Incas. Like so many other testimonies of fantastic Inca architecture, it was severely devastated by the conquistadores, the Spanish conquerors, who built their Christian church, Santo Domingo, on top of the ruins. Yet most of the bottom part of the temple is fairly well preserved and makes the site worth several hours of your time. The site is one of the best in Cuzco, or Qosqo in the Quechua language, containing both Catholic and Inca heritage with stunning views of the surrounding area. Looking at the outside from Avenida del Sol, you get a perfect view of the church standing on the temple and you see the differences of the Inca and the Spanish way of building. Qoricancha also is the starting point of the yearly processions at Inti Raymi, the Sun Festival, in the rememberance of the Inca tradition of celebrating the winter solstice. This procession then moves all the way up to Saxayhuamán. In order to understand, especially the remarkable remains in the Inca section, a guided tour is advisable. Located 4 blocks from Plaza de Armas on Av. El Sol. Admission 10 soles.
- ChocoMuseo, Calle Garcilaso 210, 10:30AM-6:30PM. A museum and chocolate factory explaining the history of cacao (free) and offering chocolate workshops (not free) as well as cacao farm tours (not free). Different recipes from around the world are available all made with chocolate from the factory located inside the cacao and chocolate museum. Great artisanal and organically sourced hot chocolate. Admission is free.
- Sacsayhuaman is the ruins by the white Jesus. You need a boleto touristico to get in. A 10 day pass to all sites is 130 sol for foreigners. You can also get a single day pass to 4 sites (one of which is Sacsayhuamn) for 70 sol or if you are Peruvian, 40 sol.
- The walls of the city are Inca, particularly near the Plaza de Armas.
- Monumento Pachacuteq, down Av. Sol, is a statue of the Inca warrior King Pachacuteq. The statue is placed on a cylindrical base and the total monument is over 22 m high. The cylindrical base can be climbed, but views are disappointing because the monument is located at a lower part of town. Admission with the boleto turistico.
Top Things to do in Cuzco City
- Go to San Pedro Market – Local market with a special aisle for entrails. Colorful, vibrant, packed, San Pedro Market is not to be missed. This market is by Peruvians for Peruvians – however, a large percentage of the shops sell souvernirs to tourists. There are juice stands serving 2 glasses for around S/ 6 and many local eateries towards the back. Try the “special” fruit drink, involving multiples fruits and beer!
- Walk around the Plaza de Armas; the square has churches, shops, restaurants and bars backing on to it and is a great place to spend an afternoon. The historical center of Cuzco is beautiful, but you will have to deal with all the street vendors and hawkers of cheap paintings and other souvenirs. They are everywhere in and around the Plaza de Armas. They somewhat spoil the experience.
- Get a massage. You will invariably be propositioned by young ladies handing out flyers advertising massages. These are legit, only cost 20 Soles+ (as of 12/18) for 1+ hour, but are not done by trained masseuses. Still, for the price it can’t be beat.
- Check out the Plaza de San Francisco, which is a few blocks southwest of the center, and is a great place to visit one of Cuzco’s many great coffee shops. Next to the Plaza is the main market, which is fairly traditional and is a worthwhile visit. The market has a mix of stalls selling food and other household items as well as clothing and souvenirs. The Museo y Catacumbas del Convento de San Francisco de Asis de Cusco is here; note “catacombs.”
- Play Sapo, a traditional bar game played in chicharias all over Peru. The game involves throwing small coins, called fichas, at a table with a bronze sapo (toad) attached. You get points for making it into holes on the table, and a ton of points for making it into the sapo’s mouth. Best played while drinking chicha (corn beer) at a local dive. Ask old men to show you the correct throwing form, as it’s difficult to master.
- Talk to local store owners, curators, waitresses and bartenders. They typically know a little English if your Spanish is not good, and are generally happy to share interesting information about the city not found in guidebooks. This is also a great way to find the best places to try cuy, (guinea pig)’ alpaca, and chicha. (A drink made from purple corn)’
- Practice Your Spanish, Limacpampa 512 Of.6. Get paired up with a local and with English language students from the English School “Ingles Superior”. Sign up for free.
- Once you are accustomed to the altitude, go for a jog! This is a very humbling experience, as the hills and thin air prove a challenge to even those in great shape. It’s also a good way to explore. Head east or south of the plaza for the safest places. If you’re a woman out exercising, you may get a few cat calls, as this is common in much of Latin America.
- Take a Salsa class (Salseros Cusco), a fabulous little salsa school offering private and group classes at minimal price at a central location. With enthusiastic teachers and a number of styles taught, this is the perfect time to polish your moves and get ready to shine on the dance floor.
- Take a self-guided Cusco city tour, using a guidebook or an informative article that explains the history and significance of the Inca and Spanish architecture of the city. There are also daily tip-based city tours.
- Visit the outskirts of Cusco and prominent sights in Cusco by hopping on a two and a half hours open bus tour. It costs USD 12 with Cusco Open Tour an orange coloured open top bus. They are a renowned open bus tour operating company in Cusco.
- You will see women in traditional clothing walking around with baby alpaca’s. You can take a picture with them but this will cost you S/5 and sometimes S/10 if there are two women.
Day Trips from Cuzco
Most day trips from Cuzco follow the following format: at between 7-9 am you get picked up from your hotel or you meet with your group in a public plaza very near to Plaza de Armas, or at the front door of the agency with which you booked the tour, which is also very likely to be near Plaza de Armas. Then you drive for ~1-2 hours to your destination(s). The day ends back where it started, at 3-4 p.m. In practice this means that you can do only one day trip per day and that it will most likely occur during the beginning part of the day. An exception to this is the day tour of Cuzco which starts later, ~1p.m. Peru Hop offers all inclusive day trips from Cusco, visiting the breathtaking landscapes of Lake Titicaca and getting to know the local culture.
- Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary, a must see, one-of-a-kind rehabilitation center started by a family of biologists, which provides shelter to animals injured or victimized by poaching. It’s a happy place where animals get better and those able are re-released. In 2012, there were three condors, llamas, alpacas, vicunas, macaws, pumas, an unusual furless Peruvian dog, local deer, all very friendly. This is the best place to see pumas, condors and vicunas up close. This is on the road from Cuzco to Pisaq. You can get there by motorcycle. Donations help with rehabilitation efforts. This place is ahead of its time, and very friendly and awesome.
- Whitewater rafting, but not in the Sacred Valley of the Incas where the water is very polluted and the rapids are relatively tame. Instead head upstream to the Chuqicahuana or Cusipata sections of the Rio Urubamba/Vilcanota where the water is much cleaner and the rapids are excellent fun up to class 5 depending on what time of year you are traveling. You can also take a minivan from Cusco and go to Santa Maria (is on the way to Machu Picchu). Here you can book a tour directly for S/100 and if you are a group it should be possible to bring that price down. Beware of the mosquitos.
- Inflatable canoeing. On the Piñi Pampa section of the Rio Urubamba you can paddle your own canoe, fun but not frantic class 1 and 2 rapids.
- Rio Apurimac-rafting, If you have more time, try and raft the 3 or 4 day Rio Apurimac – the true source of the Amazon and one of the top ten rafting rivers in the world. Class 3 – 5 all in the most amazing 3,000 m deep canyon. Go with the experts as accidents have occurred and in Peru you pay for what you get, so saving on the costs may seriously reduce the quality and the safety of your trip.
- Rent a motorcycle. There are several shops on Calle Plateros, just north of Plaza de Armas, that rent motorcycles for the day. You do not even need a motorcycle license, simply any kind of driving license from your home country. Prices are typically $40/day which includes two helmets, gloves, and jacket. Sacred Valley Moto Tours, at Calle Plateros #399 (corner of Siete Cuartones), has new bikes in good condition. Where to go? A loop of the Sacred Valley, taking in the market at Pisac, lunch in Urubamba, and several Incan sites, can easily be done in one afternoon. The drive from Cuzco to Pisaq is a string of gorgeous switchbacks – and a great way to see the four Inca sites above Cuzco, the aminal sanctuary, and Pisaq on the same day on your own schedule. Or head south to some of the less-visited but just as pretty small towns and Inca ruins.
- Downhill Mountain Bike Tours are available either across the Chincheros plains, past Inca ruins and down through the spectacular Maras Salineras or the 75km downhill from Abra Malaga to Santa Maria and onto the totally awesome hot springs of Santa Teresa (and easy and cheap access to Machu Picchu from here too). Again go with the experts, such as Gravity Peru or Aspiring Adventures, as there are a lot of cheap bikes out there totally not up to the job.
- Go paragliding over the Sacred Valley. The scenery is gorgeous. One very experienced operator is Leo.
- Do a day trip to the newly discovered Rainbow Mountains and the red valley, a stunning scenery just a three hours drive from the city. Follow the link for more information.
Top Things to eat in Cuzco
The Cuzco area has some extremely good international food with tasty options for all budgets. Best pizza ever at the end of the Av. La Cultura. Be sure to try an alpaca steak (don’t forget a llama/alpaca is normally kept and used for its wool – so only old animals will be slaughtered).
The soups are amazing. Try sopa de zapallo, a type of pumpkin soup.
If you are looking for traditional Peruvian food try lomo saltado (beef tips stir-fried with tomatoes, onions, and spices, over a bed of french fries and rice), aji de gallina(chicken in a very good yellow pepper sauce with olives and hard-boiled eggs), or papa rellena (stuffed potato with beef, olives, hard-boiled egg, vegetables, and spices)
When leaving Cuzco, there is a place called Boing Appetit (in front of the Airport, just if you want to have breakfast or a sandwich before take the plane to Lima) its the only place that counts with free internet conection in front of the airport.
Now You Know