Cusco, the Imperial City of Peru, is one of the most touristic destinations on Earth, given its proximity to the Modern Wonder of Machu Picchu. The ancient capital of the Inca Empire has so much to offer, from a cultural, historical and naturalistic point of view! However, most people don’t even scratch the surface: there are so many cool things to do in Cusco that most tourists don’t even know about! Let me give you a short list of some of the things I enjoy and value the most.
Buy textiles from a local Andean community
Textiles are one of the most common crafts in the Andean region. In the rural communities, it is mainly women who are in charge of this activity. You will see them spinning the whole time, while they cook, guard the herd or take care of their babies. Weaving gives women a more important role in the community and the chance to get their voice heard.
Most tourists will buy textiles from street vendors in the center, souvenirs shops or the central craft market. However, many don’t know that they can also buy them directly from the weavers in their communities. While some communities are very hard to reach (no roads, no transport, etc.) others are better connected. For example, the community of Amuru, in the area of Pisaq, is a great artisanal producer of textile goods. It takes barely 30 minutes from Pisaq to get to Amaru and the road is mostly paved.
It is worth making this additional effort. It gives you the chance to go beyond the commercial side of weaving and learn about the culture and the tradition. Each symbol has a story, each decoration a meaning: immerse yourself in centuries of beliefs and rituals.
Join traditional celebrations in Cusco
Cusqueñans love to celebrate and they find many excuses for that. The most important and heartfelt celebrations are the fiestas patronales, that is to say, the patron saint festivities. Almost every municipality of the region of Cusco has a different patron saint, so they all celebrate on a different date. When you are in Cusco, make sure you check when and where the next fiesta patronal is!
Celebrations tend to be 3 to 5 days long and they are a wonderful chance to witness the syncretism of Catholicism with Andean spirituality, in a swirl of dances, parades, processions, art, food, and drinks. Local folkloric troupes will perform with their best clothes, giving life to traditional and very symbolic dances. Let yourself get carried away by the music and try the best local delicacies, such as roasted guinea pig (cuy al horno), oven-cooked pasta (tallarín al horno), stuffed spicy peppers (rocoto relleno) and many different soups.
Supporting Cusco’s football team at the stadium
Football is the national sport in Peru, the most followed and the most played. You will see that most isolated little towns have at least two things: a church and a football pitch! Cusco counts on three teams representing the Imperial City in National and International Leagues: Cienciano, Real Garcilaso, and Deportivo Garcilaso.
Cienciano is the oldest, most traditional club, and the one counting on the highest number of fans, hinchas. It was established in 1901 and since then has made history for Cusco, winning the South American Cup in 2003. Unfortunately, it has recently descended to a lower national league, but people have not stopped supporting it. Join them at the local stadium!
Going to the stadium in Cusco in very cheap and, since the size of the arena is not that big, you will have a unique chance to see players very closely. Fans will be singing their chants and playing the drums, while the team’s mascot, a donkey, will be dancing and motivating people to cheer even more.
Constantly, you will hear the calls of the vendors, trying to sell food and drinks: pop-corns, anticuchos, chica morada, fizzy drinks… Personally, I find the stadium anticuchos (chicken, sausage or heart skewers) among the best I have ever tried. Eat them with ají sauce and a potato!
Warming up at natural hot springs in Cusco
Cusco can get very cold! Maybe not compared to what they consider cold at higher latitudes, but for a city close to the Equator and where houses have no central heating nor insulation, it gets pretty chilly. So, especially during cold months (May, June, July), people try to escape on weekends in order to warm up a bit at thermal baths.
The Cusco region counts with several natural hot springs, with different beneficial properties depending on the minerals that you can find in the water. Among these, the Lares Baths are relatively easy to reach and they count with very good facilities.
Lares is a little town located in an isolated rural area in the municipality of Calca, about 3 hours driving from Cusco. The presence of the natural hot springs is probably the only touristic attraction they can count on, and they make the most of it! In order to increase the number of visitors, they have recently paved the road connecting their town to Calca, they have improved the camping site around the pools and they have established a number of hostels and restaurants.
Getting there from Cusco with public transport is possible: you will have to get a minivan from the Puputi bus station and change in Calca for a bus to Lares. However, the trip might get a bit long, and it is much better if you can rent a car.
Discover Puente de Queshuachaca, one of the least known Inca vestige in Cusco
Adventure is one of the main ingredients of a trip to Peru. The Andean region is able to offer a number of really cool and fun activities such as rafting, quad biking, mountain biking and so on. However, if you were looking for an ancient, thrilling, responsible thing to do, then you might want to visit the Bridge of Queshuachaca. The bridge dates back to the Incan times when people used these and other similar bridges made of wood and straw (actually ichu– a special Andean grass) to cross canyons and rivers.
Nowadays people can still use the bridge to cross the river Apurimac: it’s 30 meters walk over the canyon, supported by nothing else than natural elements weaved together! Even if the idea of crossing a bridge made with straw might sound scary, it is actually very safe. Every year, the bridge is renewed during a ritual called “Minka” to which both women and men take part. After the hard work is done, people start celebrating with music, dances, food, and drinks. Make sure you join: it happens once a year at the beginning of June.