Cusco is a Peruvian city in the Andes, today is known because it’s the main connection to reach Machu Picchu and because it’s full of historical background as it was the former capital of the Inca Empire and then occupied by the Spanish who left not only death and violence but also beautiful colonial architecture.
You will probably arrive here as the beginning of your trip to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley and I recommend you to consider spending some days in the city that, despite being a super touristy city, Cusco is a must-see in your trip to Southern Peru.
The main airport in the area with international connections is located here and due to its location at over 3,600mt (over 11,000 feet), I highly recommend you to take some special measures in advance and during your arrival to avoid altitude sickness. It can happen, I’ve been sick every time I was there, lol. Consider you will be arriving at one of the world’s highest commercial airports!
In the picture below, you see what it will be probably your best friend during your stay in the altitude! This herbal tea is magic and also delicious! Drink it as if there’s no tomorrow and it will help you to feel good.
For more detailed tips about avoiding Altitude Sickness check this LINK http://www.nomadicchica.com/avoid-altitude-sickness-machu-picchu/
Traditions and cultural expressions are part of daily life in Peru, as well as a historical background telling today the story of the indigenous cultures meeting the Spaniards. You can still see many locals speaking Quechua, raisin alpacas, growing corn, and weaving textiles in the traditional way.
Walking in Cusco streets is to walk into history, where the Incas designed magnificent buildings and where you can still experience some of their ancient cultural manifestations. It’s a safe city, and if you stay in the areas around the Plaza de Armas you can walk alone even during the night with no issues.
It’s a city where the mix of two cultures is alive, with the arrival of the Spanish the fusion is obvious, huge colonial churches were built on top of the Inca’s temples and buildings.
The mixture is evident on every street and it creates an international and vibrant city where you will be able to experience how life is in the middle of the Andes mountain.
Cusco was the main city and capital of the Inca Empire, one of the biggest civilizations in the American continent, and it was declared UNESCO city in 1983.
Historical City Center- Plaza de Armas
The beauty of Cusco is such, that in every corner you have a testimony of the Inca’s. Including several attractions to visit, like churches, temples, and museums it’s my favorite area to stay in Cusco and enjoy the history and gastronomy of the city.
Cusco’s Main square it’s the heart of Cusco since Inca Empire times when it was called Huacaypata, today is impressive to be standing at the Plaza de Armas, looking the mountains and the churches.
Life in the historical city center in Cusco is always looking busy, people strolling and sitting around the churches and you will probably witness one parade or two while you’re there.
In the city center, you will find many old walls, pay special attention to the one at Acllahuasi street, one of the oldest. If you are searching the famous 12-sided stone go directly to Hatunrumiyoc.
Where to Stay in Cusco for Sightseeing
If you are looking to stay here I recommend you these hotels near the top historical attractions
- High range
Belmond Palacio Nazarenas: If you are looking for 5-star luxury, this place was a palace and a convent, and they have the best service! With oxygen-enriched suites, private butler service, deluxe spa, heated outdoor pool.
- Medium Range
Casa Real Hoteles: mid-range hotel with very affordable rates, good location near to a local market and 8-min walking to Plaza de Armas. They have very helpful staff, big and clean rooms and very good selection for breakfast.
The best way to visit most of the buildings in the historical city is buying the ticket called Boleto Turístico del Cusco, you can purchase it at most of the points you will visit and in the Tourist office Counter in Plaza de Armas, Central de Galerías Turísticas – Av. El Sol 103.
Cusco Cathedral or Catedral Basílica de la Virgen de la Asunción
When visiting Cusco you will find a high number of churches and Catholic buildings.
The Catholic temples look very beautiful on the outside but the interiors are stunning, most of them are decorated with golden statues and details that will not let you indifferent.
The Cathedral is built on top of what it was the royal palace of Viracocha Inca, in 1569 and its construction took almost a hundred years. With gothic and baroque characteristics, it not only hosts a collection of paintings from the Cusco school, including the unique “Last Supper” in which the main dish is a roast guinea pig. made by Diego Quispe Tito. The cathedral also embraces the Inca culture incorporating their symbols in the decorations, like the jaguars carved in the doors.
There’s a special ticket you can buy if you plan to visit them all and it will save you time and some soles, it’s called Boleto del Circuito Religioso (CTR).
‘El Sol’ Avenue
One of the main avenues in Cusco city center, busy but has some interesting things to see. From money exchange to coffee shops, museums –Qoricancha, Convento Santo Domingo-, shops, and connecting with the Plaza de Armas.
Go to the end to take a picture of the biggest graffiti in the city, painted between 1989 and 1992, reflects the history of the city and part of the Andean cosmovision.
Qorikancha y Convento de Santo Domingo
During the Inca times, this temple was the richest in the area. Called Templo del Sol or Temple of the Sun, or in Quechua Coricancha (Q’orikancha) means “golden courtyard. Its solid walls were covered in gold and even real size statues were made of gold, representing trees, the sun, animals and their relevant people, like their kings.
During the Inca times, it was the center of their culture and the whole Tahuantinsuyo, it was the main point for administration of the empire and were all the roads from the four different lands or “suyos” were crossing their points.
After the arrival of the Spaniards, the Dominicans religious order built the big convent mixing the Inca with colonial architecture.
Mercado Central de San Pedro
I’m a market freak and everywhere I travel, visiting the local market is one of the first items on my list.
San Pedro Market is a lively market full of local products, fruits, and vegetables. You’ll also find food and juices to eat at the place, and if your stomach is strong enough try them all, especially the smoothies!
Locals shop daily here for vegetables and groceries inside and just remember to be nice with the vendors and don’t take them pictures if they don’t look too happy with your camera.
The bohemian neighborhood of the city, San Blas is one of the most beautiful areas of the city center.
With cobbled and narrow streets and mixing the traditions with the tourist’s preferences.
It’s the area where restaurants, art galleries, and handicrafts shops are located….at touristy prices off course. A nice area to explore after sunset and go for drinks and dinner with a beautiful city view.
Few minutes in the upper part of Cusco you’ll find several Inca ruins you can visit while in the city. Not only Sacsayhuaman but also Q’enko, Puca Pucara, and Tambomachay.
Sacsayhuaman is a huge fortress platform with well-conserved constructions built during Pachacuti’s times and there are still some Inca ceremonies performed in Sacsayhuaman nowadays.
The most impressive here is the testimony on the architecture skills of the Incas, the size of the rocks being part of the walls is shocking and you will get a pretty view of the city.
You can visit this amazing ruins during a day trip including other in the area around and outside Cusco’s city center.
Peru is famous for its gastronomy and coffee. Cusco is no exception to this and you will find amazing restaurants, from worldwide known restaurants to small and local stalls with home flavors that will conquer any heart.
This three places turned to be my returning point in the city, having a great selection of food, chocolates, beer, and fancy prepared coffee.
- If you love coffee as much as I do you will love this place! Cafe D’Awasi is a barista cafe with the widest selection of coffee preparations and extraction methods, from the usual espresso to a cold brew or a sophisticated Japanese siphon.
- Choco Museo is THE place for chocolate lovers, with fine quality cacao and even chocolate making classes!
- Right there, in the most touristy area at Plaza de Armas, I’ve found my favorite restaurant, the Inka Grill is not the cheapest but is worth it. With great service, simple but good quality dishes and good ambient, their pisco sour is perfect!
El Valle Sagrado
The Sacred Valley is perhaps the biggest reason why everybody goes to Cusco.
The Sacred Valley is located in the Peruvian Andean highlands and it’s an area of around 60km including the former lands of the Inca Empire. Cusco turns to be the starting point of all the flights coming from Lima and so to get to Machu Picchu most of the people stop first in Cusco.
The Sacred Valley needs some time to be explored and I recommend you to spend minimum two nights in the area.
There are lovely villages and beautiful places to visit with beautiful streets, markets with handicrafts, and impressive ruins from different times of the Peruvian history.
My favorites to visit in the Sacred Valley are
-Salinas de Maras
It’s said the Incas started to harvest the salt arriving in this area more than 1000 years ago, the harvesting techniques haven’t changed much and the more than 3000 pools are still managed in an artisanal way by families who collect the salt from the ponds in a community-based system.
It’s a magnificent and impressive scene that it was high on my list of places to visit and I was more than happy to have visited!
It’s perhaps one of the lest visited places in the Sacred Valley as it’s a bit harder to access, but it definitely worth the effort!
The agricultural terraces are designed in circular levels that give the place a unique disposition compared to other archeological places in the area. Some experts consider this place was an experimental laboratory, where the Incas planted crops at different levels finding a relationship between the deep of the terrace and the weather conditions at different altitudes in the area.
The most lovely town to enjoy the beauty of the valley, make a stop in between your visit to Cusco and Machu Picchu. It’s having beautiful paths to do trekkings, walk around the village or simply read with a beautiful and relaxing mood.
I have stayed in a very lovely Boutique Hotel Iskay that had everything I needed, very quiet, with comfortable beds, clean and lovely people working there. I can recommend it if you want a relaxing place with a lovely view!
I will tell you more details on about how to visit the Sacred Valley on a following post!
If you visit Cusco and don’t go to Machu Picchu it’s probably due to your fears about how much you’ve written about it.
I’ve been there two times in 20 years and it’s by far my favorite place to visit in Peru. It is hard to describe the beauty and overwhelming feelings you can have when you first step into the sacred city and see the incredible place where its located.
If you are not considering visiting it I would highly suggest you reconsider.
One of the new wonders of the world and despite a number of tourists visiting is one of my favorite historical sites in the world.
There’s a lot of information about Machu Picchu and different ways to reach for almost any budget.
You can have more information HERE LINK http://www.nomadicchica.com/peru-machu-picchu/