Cusco, Peru - Things to do while falling in love with the city
We spent a few days in Cusco acclimatizing before our Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. I absolutely LOVED the city – the ancient Inca capital is steeped in history and culture, and is filled to the brim with Inca and Spanish history, churches, beautiful architecture, artisanal markets, local Peruvian culture, and fantastic restaurants and bars. Yes, it is also filled with tourists who use it as a base before exploring the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, but it is a truly breathtaking experience. The city is nestled in the mountains and has spectacular views all around. There are many ways to explore the city and many things to see and do.
Before doing anything though, realize that Cusco stands at over 11,000 feet above sea level. Don’t let altitude sickness ruin your days in town – drink plenty of coca tea, water, and keep your meals light. Also, walking is WAY harder in Cusco, so don’t fret if you get tired after climbing 5 steps – it’s not just you!
1. Take a free walking tour with Free Walking Tour Peru – One of the things I like to do in the first couple of days in a new city is take a walking tour. This gives me the lay of the land, plus useful local tips on things to do, and where to eat! The free walking tour in Cusco is pretty good – takes you through various neighborhoods in the city and sets you up with ideas on what to do the additional days you have. A good start to your time in Cusco.
2. Have drinks at the Plaza De Armas – The main plaza in Cuzco, the Plaza de Armas, is the heart of the city, and a lively gathering place for people at all times of the day. The plaza, with an imposing church, colonial arcades, and alleyways with Inca walls, is a great place to take it all in. There are plenty of bars and restaurants here, many with balconies overlooking the square – we loved hanging out at the balconies, grabbing a Cusqueña beer, and people watching. Be warned, there are plenty of tourists here, but it’s worth visiting the plaza by day and also by night when everything is all lit up.
3. Visit the San Pedro market – You absolutely have to. This is a huge food market, with loads of fresh juices (under $2!), hot food, an umm, interesting meat section, fresh bread bigger than your head, pastries, and innumerable varieties of odd looking potatoes and corn. Stop by here for breakfast, lunch, or anything in between, but do stop by.
ProTip: The city is very walkable, so I highly recommend walking everywhere. In case you do need a taxi, they are very reasonable – you will pay no more than 3-5 Soles ($1-2) to get anywhere.
4. Get a massage – Massages are really cheap here. I suppose they are aimed at the hikers who are coming back from the Machu Picchu trails, but whatever the reason, they are cheap and they are good. I got a 60min foot massage AND a 60min back and shoulder massage for under $20. It’s a no brainer. As you walk around you will be bombarded by people selling massages – I recommend getting away from the main Plaza area for this. We got massages at Spa Hampi Maki – located at 250 Marquez Street, on the 2nd floor. It is clean, relaxing, and comfortable, and even better after the Inca Trail hike, or a day exploring the Sacred Valley.
5. Try the local specialties – guinea pig, alpaca, lomo saltado, fruitillada, anticuchos at one of the (non-touristy) restaurants, or stop into a picanteria/chicheria. We went to “La Chomba” which is about as local as it gets. It’s a bit hard to find, but it is safe, and there will be a lot of locals around.
6. Take a cooking class – In my opinion, there is no better way to learn about a culture than through its food. Try a Peruvian cooking class with Cusco Cooking. Learn to make traditional dishes such as crema de choclo (corn soup), lomo saltado (marinated beef and rice – YUM!) or the national drink of Peru, the Pisco sour.
7. Get lost in the bohemian district of San Blas – Super boho neighborhood with small lanes (no cars), cafes, restaurants, bars and stores. I loved wandering through the lanes, coming across spectacular views of the city, hearing music from the homes and bars, and grabbing a coffee or juice from one of the local cafes. A morning well spent.
8. Get a picture with a baby alpaca – It is cliché, but I mean, when are you going to have this opportunity again?
9. Get out to the Sacred Valley – The Sacred Valley is absolutely gorgeous, and is a must visit when you are in Cusco. Read about it HERE.
10. Sacsayhuaman – Sounds like “Sexy Woman”, but is actually ruins at the top of the city. Hiking up here is HARD, but the view from up there is fantastic. If you do the free walking tour, they take you up here anyway.
11. Shop for cheap bargains – There are plenty of markets and stores all around Cusco. Handicrafts, colorful ponchos, scarves, hats, jewelry – there is something for everyone. But that $20 baby alpaca sweater – be assured it is NOT baby alpaca however much they convince you, the real stuff will run you over $100.
Have you been to Cusco? If you have any additions to the list, please let me know in the comments below!
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