I fell in love with Cusco the minute I stepped into Plaza de Armas, the central square of this beautiful town set high in the Andes. Cusco is well-known to backpackers as the base of operations for the Inca Trail, but there is so much more to this charming city.
Chances are, if you’re visiting Cusco, it’s to hike the Inca Trail or one of the other treks that lead to Machu Picchu. Fair enough. That’s why we visited. But make sure to spend time either before or after (or both!) in the city itself. Don’t make any plans – just walk around and get lost in the city’s small streets and back alleys. You can see the ancient Incan architecture at certain points in the city – perfectly formed, interlocking bricks – and the more recent Spanish architecture of bricks and mortar. When violent earthquakes rocked the city, it was the Incan buildings that held up. The Spanish structures collapsed.
The Incan architecture, where stones are carved together.
We wandered up to the San Cristobal church where there is a great view of the city from Plaza San Cristobal. Cusco sits at 11,000 feet, so even a short walk up stairs left us breathing heavily (hence the joke in the title). But we relaxed for a few seconds and kept walking. Although Cusco is definitely a tourist destination, it retains the feel of a small town because of its isolation. This isn’t the richest town, but what it lacks in wealth it makes up for in culture. The Cristo Blanco – White Christ – above the town glowed at night, giving this place a magical feel. We stayed at Milhouse Hostel near the center of the city to explore Cusco.
Without knowing it, we came to Cusco during the biggest celebration month. June is the anniversary month of the town, and Plaza de Armas is filled with parades and parties. Every morning, we walked into the Plaza and saw children and teenagers performing to traditional Peruvian music. It was awesome to see everyday, and we were happy to spend time in the Plaza just looking around and watching the show. It’s no surprise that Cusco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that draws more than 2 million visitors per year.
There are plenty of places to find food in Cusco, and if you’re walking around the city streets, someone from each of these restaurants will accost you and promise you a free Pisco Sour or something of that sort for eating at their restaurant. If you’re looking for an inexpensive meal, get away from Plaza de Armas. If you want to know how touristy that area is, there’s a Starbucks on one side.
If you’re looking for a nicer meal (to celebrate the completion of the Inca Trail perhaps?), head to Cicciolia, just northeast of the Basilica on Plaza de Armas. If you sit in the bar area, this awesome little tapas place has great food and great wine at a reasonable price (it even has sandwich options). I wouldn’t call it very inexpensive, but I would call it absolutely delicious.
Just outside city limits are a series of archaeological sites that are incredible to explore: Sacsayhuaman, Q’enko, Puca Pucara, and Tambomachay. You can buy a daypass and see all of these sites with a bus, or you can walk to the closer ones. Sacayhuman – pronounced a lot like “sexy woman” – sits right above Cusco. It would be an easy hike at sea level, but remember, you’re at 11,000 feet. Not so easy anymore. For a bit more info, click here.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get to Cusco. If you’re coming through Lima, it’s either an expensive flight or a very long bus ride. We chose the flight to maximize our time in Cusco. For budget travelers who have a bit more time, the bus is the more economical option through some very beautiful lands.