As tempting as it is when you first get to Cusco to throw on your rucksack and charge off to see some Inca ruins, you need to factor the city’s high altitude into your plans – especially if you’ve traveled straight from Lima or any other coastal place. At 11,155 feet (3,400 m) above sea […]
As tempting as it is when you first get to Cusco to throw on your rucksack and charge off to see some Inca ruins, you need to factor the city’s high altitude into your plans – especially if you’ve traveled straight from Lima or any other coastal place.
At 11,155 feet (3,400 m) above sea level, Cusco’s elevation is no joke and it’s not uncommon to feel short of breath when you first arrive. But before you confine yourself to your hotel room for solitary acclimatization, check out our altitude-friendly list of things to do in Cusco with minimum physical output and maximum gastronomic and cultural enjoyment.
There’s no doubt that Cusco has something that other Peruvian cities like Arequipa and Puno don’t. The moment you arrive, you’ll notice that Cusco feels much livelier and more open than other places like Arequipa and Puno.
Elsewhere in Peru it can seem like an invisible but immovable barrier divides foreigners from the locals, and you’re left feeling as though you’ll never really be allowed “in”. But in Cusco it is possible pull that ever-prohibitive “Tourist” sign off your forehead and get to know some cusqueños (people from Cusco) – especially with a round of Pisco Sours.
The city’s friendliness, coupled with its low crime and low cost, makes it no surprise that Cusco is home to a hefty expat community (many of whom run great European-style cafés and restaurants).
Where to Eat in Cusco
Power up for a day’s sightseeing by carb-loading with a Peruvian classic of humitas dulces – steamed banana leaf parcels filled with cornmeal, raisins and cinnamon, and just as comforting as they sound. Local knowledge holds that the best humitas are made by the lady who sells them opposite the cathedral in the Plaza de Armas.
But if you prefer sticking to what’s familiar for breakfast, Qoski Maki on Avenida Tullumayo 465 is a French bakery with real coffee and ridiculously cheap pain au chocolat. What’s more, it’s run by a social enterprise that gives employment to local children and young people from the street, making for guilt-free croissants.
For lunch or dinner, enjoy some traditional Peruvian cuisine at one of the many local restaurants. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the local delicacy cuy (guinea pig) at Cuyeria Sol Moqueguano or Morena Peruvian Kitchen.
Ceviche is another fantastic local specialty and includes fresh raw fish cured in citrus juice, along with spices, onions, and other add-ons such as sweet potatoes and corn. You’ll love the ceviche at the high-end restaurant Chicha. Be sure to make a reservation beforehand.
We also recommend eating aji de gallina – chicken pieces in delicious, mild yellow aji pepper sauce, served over rice. Stop by Pachamama to enjoy this dish.
If you’ve been trekking in Arequipa, Colca Canyon, or other places in southern Peru, you’ll be used to the systematic meat and two carbs meal. In contrast, Cusco has French, Italian, and even vegan/vegetarian restaurants.
San Pedro Market
If you want to eat lunch like a lugareño (local), then the San Pedro market is your place. From the Plaza de Armas, walk past Plaza de San Francisco and you’ll see the market next to the old train station.
San Pedro is Cusco’s main market and where cusqueños buy all of their groceries. Like all South American markets, San Pedro is totally overwhelming and in all likelihood you’ll see unfamiliar things for sale (prepare yourself for a fair amount of butchered animal parts).
As well as meat, fruit, and vegetables, you can find coffee, chocolate and quinoa which make much more authentic souvenirs than your classic alpaca knitted jumper. But if Inca handicrafts really are the object of your heart’s desire then here is a great place to pick them up for lower prices than in Cusco’s souvenir shops.
Having lunch at the local central market can give you a great perspective on how locals live. Planting yourself on a wobbly stool next to a woman in full indigenous dress and ordering from a menu of three dishes that’s been hand-written on a whiteboard isn’t only entertaining, it’s also incredibly cheap. What’s more, since the menus are restricted to a couple of options, the dishes are constantly being prepared fresh.
The highlights at San Pedro are the huge bowls of chicken noodle soup and the fresh fruit juices. Alternatively, ordering the menú (dish of the day) will get you a soup starter and a main meat dish for less than the equivalent of US $4.
Other Cusco Markets
Ask for an artisanal market and you’ll be directed to the Pisac Market (Mercado de Pisac or Feria Artesanal de Pisac). Located in a neighbouring town, the streets are filled with jumpers, blankets and Peruvian handicrafts stacked floor-to-ceiling. This market is touristy, generic, and best avoided unless you go on Sunday when locals come to sell herbal medicines, paints, and dyes.
El Molino Market on Calle Ejercito every Saturday morning is known as the bootlegger’s market, and it’s where cusqueños buy and sell everything from clothes to guinea pig. You can find incredible bargains at this flea market but watch out for your valuables because it’s a favorite amongst pickpockets, too.
Wanchaq Market is another authentic local market which has grocery stalls as well as juice stands and eateries.
The Plaza de Armas
Cusco’s main square is a great first port-of-call because, unlike in other Latin American cities where the Plaza de Armas has long ceased to be a social and economic hub, Cusco’s plaza is very much still the center of the city’s life.
Nowadays the plaza is lined by bars and restaurants with balconies which are prime locations for people-watching but tend to be more pricey and less authentic than other places a couple of blocks away from the Plaza de Armas.
Cusco’s historic center is small enough to be able to explore on foot in a couple of hours, but has such a high concentration of historical sights that you don’t have to walk more than a hundred yards in any direction from the Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas before you bump into another equally-beautiful and ornate cathedral, church or convent.
Walking around the city, you’ll be swamped by tour operators offering guided tours of the historic center, but if you would rather go at your own pace there is a great app offering a self-guided walking tour of Cusco’s churches which works offline. Or, you can combine a guided tour of the Cusco Cathedral with 5 Inca archaeological sites on this half-day historic tour.
If you only go to one church, make it the Convento de San Domingo. The Spaniards chose Koricancha – a magnificent Indian temple worshipping the Sun – as the site of this church, and if you go inside you can see how the colonial building literally engulfs the Inca monument.
The Museo de Arte Precolombino
As well as its high concentration of churches, Cusco also has a vast array of museums. Some, like the Museo de Arte Precolombino in Plaza de las Nazarenas, have some interesting pre-Columbian artifacts on display and are definitely worth a visit.
It’s also worth mentioning that quite a few places in Cusco calling themselves a museum do so in the loosest sense of the word “museum:” the Museo del Pisco is a bar offering Pisco tastings; the Museo de la Coca and the Choco Museo are visitor centers offering cooking classes and chocolate workshops.
Cusco’s Christ statue is located three miles outside the city on a hill which gives a panoramic view over the Plaza de Armas and historic center. If you’re there at sunset you will get a truly beautiful view of Cusco.
You can get there in a minibus (called a “combi”) with destination “Cristo Blanco” or “El Señor del Huerto.” Alternatively, you can combine a visit to Cristo Blanco with a hike to Saqsaywaman, the ancient Inca fortress which is just a 10-minute walk away.
San Blas Neighborhood
San Blas was built at the time of the Spanish conquest and is one of the most picturesque areas of Cusco. During the day, the neighborhood’s winding, cobbled streets and whitewashed houses have a really bohemian feeling, helped by the fact that the whole place is filled with shops where artists and artisans sells their work.
Wander up to San Blas at night and you’ll get a stunning view of the rest of city lit up below. And you’ll be spoiled for choice with good spots for dinner in this neighborhood, especially on the street running across the top of the Plaza San Blas.
As well offering an impressive cultural scene, Cusco’s principal draws are the many Inca ruins within easy reach of the city, namely Saqsaywaman, Qénqo, Pukapukara and Tambomachay – not to mention Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero an hour’s bus or taxi ride outside Cusco in the Sacred Valley. It’s especially worth taking a tour to Pisac, whose ancient city and hillside terraces are incredibly well preserved and a must-see.
Take it easy on your first couple of days in Cusco, but don’t miss out on the chance to explore this amazing city on foot. Take your time to enjoy Cusco and acclimate to its elevation and make sure to explore the Sacred Valley. Just be warned: after walking round the streets of Cusco’s historic center, other cities may pale in comparison!