For the many travelers heading to Machu Picchu in Peru, Cusco acts as a home base. But this small city with big attractions is worth staying in more than a few days. As an English teacher living here for 5 months, I still have not run out of things to see and do. In this list, I try to capture the magic that is Cusco.
1. The Plaza de Armas
The main plaza immediately pulls you into the city like a warm cup of coca tea. The Catedral dominates the square and is filled with fascinating religious art, including a classic image of the Last Supper with cuy (guinea pig) as the main course. Surrounded by shops, restaurants, and bars, there is no shortage of places to relax and soak up the views. Some of my personal favorites are Nuevo Mundo brewery, Greens Cafe, Papacho’s, Norton’s Pub, Bambu Sushi, any of the falafel places, and Qucharitas ice cream. Sit down on a park bench and see where the afternoon takes you.
2. The views
Start walking up any hill in Cusco and you will be rewarded with amazing views. For something easy, walk above Plaza de Armas towards the church San Cristobal. If the altitude is affecting you and you need to take a break, you can find perfect pit stops along the way. Organika, a vegetarian-friendly, organic cafe could hit just the spot. Also, make the trek to San Blas: a particularly charming neighborhood with jaw-dropping vistas at Limbus Restobar and the Mirador (viewpoint). Other fantastic viewpoints include Temple of the Moon, Q’enqo, Sacsayhuaman, and Cristo Blanco above the city. Time your exploration to coincide with sunset. You will not regret it.
3. The history
You could spend a lifetime researching the history of Cusco and the people that have continuously inhabited it for 3,000 years. This has been a unique, spectacular city since its inception as the navel (or center) of the world by the Incas. There are endless amounts of museums, with the best including, but not limited to: El Catedral, Qorikancha, Museo Inka, Coca Museo, and the Choco Museo. In addition to the many indoor museums, the whole city is filled with ruins and historical sites. The ancient trail “Antisuyo” a.k.a. the Inca Trail passes through the middle of the city and continues all the way to Ecuador. Must-see sites include Sacsayhuaman, Temple of the Moon, and Q’enqo.
4. The Andes
The feeling of being surrounded by verdant hills gives a sort of comfort unlike any other city. There are endless photo ops and outdoor activities. A favorite hike of mine is walking through San Blas to the Mesa Redonda, continuing up the red and white patterned stairs to the main highway, and continuing on to a trail that takes you up to the Temple of the Monkey and eventually the Temple of the Moon. Get out of the city and explore these mighty mountains, but don’t forget to visit the Sacred Valley as well. From the hippy-like culture in Pisac to the charming alleys and cobblestone streets in Ollantaytambo, the areas and small towns in the Sacred Valley offer plenty of entertainment and experiences for day trips.
5. The food
As a plant-based eater, Cusco is a great place to dine. There are many vegetarian and vegan restaurants and options. Some of my favorite veggie-friendly places in Cusco are Organika, Greens, El Encuentro, Green Point, Cafe Carvalho, Mercado San Blas, Rey Kebab, Jacks Cafe, and Limbus Restobar to name a few. There is a surprising amount of variety from typical Peruvian food to Indian, Japanese, and Middle Eastern. Any Chifa restaurant (Chinese-Peruvian food) should have at least one vegetarian option. Papas a la Huancaina will blow your mind with a soft potato in a delicious yellow aji pepper sauce. One of my favorite things about Cusco is how cheap the food is here. Get the set menu for lunch at any restaurant and you can have a 3 course meal for as little as $2 USD. Govinda Lila in the Mercado San Blas is one of my personal favorites for a menu. If you want to save even more money, go to any market in town and buy fresh ingredients for your own Peruvian meal. In the Mercado San Pedro you will find at least 50 different types of papas (potatoes) and other typical Peruvian ingredients like aji pepper. Don’t forget to try delicious Peruvian fruits like granadilla, lucuma, aguaymanto, and maracuya (passionfruit).
Wander around the city and you are bound to see a llama or alpaca (yes, there is a difference) in an alley somewhere with a colorfully-dressed woman or child asking if you want to pay for a photo. Wander outside of the city in the valley and you will see more authentic llama environments. Llamas and alpacas have a very special place in Andean history and culture as pack animals, providers of wool and meat, and sacrificial beings. While I don’t participate in eating or sacrificing them, they certainly help create the best sweaters, hats, and blankets. All over the city, there are stores and markets selling alpaca clothing items. If you’re staying in chilly Cusco for any length of time, I highly recommend buying something. My favorite store for clothing items is right next to the Choco Museo near Choquechaca. They have great prices with scarves as low as $5 USD.
7. The spirit
Cusco will enchant you with its vistas, history, and food, but most of all with its wonderful people. The spirit here is almost tangible. Women with long braids, skirts, and traditional, colorful clothing stride beside international backpacking tourists. The Qorikancha (sun temple) combines European Catholicism and architecture with indigenous symbols and worship. The city itself is a juxtaposition of the surrounding greenery in the mountains and valley. You could easily find yourself drinking a San Pedro (psychedelic cactus) concoction with a shaman during the day, connecting with Pachamama (Mother Earth), and then dancing the night away at some discotecas. Cusco has a way of balancing history, tradition, and modernity that is a must-see.
Why visit Cusco?
If you are looking for museums, ruins, cultural events, delicious food, outdoor activities, and friendly people, then Cusco, Peru should be on your list of places to visit. Besides the fact that it is very close to Machu Picchu, a wonder of the world, this city is an attraction in and of itself. As an English teacher living here for 5 months, Cusco will forever have a spell over me. Every day I find new things that I love about this city.