High up in the Peruvian Andes lies Cusco, once the center of the Incan Empire. It is, of course, the launching point for Machu Picchu – Peru’s largest tourist attraction – but the city is well worth a visit, to acclimate and experience the mix of Incan and Spanish influences that define it.
Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is the cultural center of the city. Lining the plaza are restaurants, bars and coffee shops – many with a great view of the city – perfect for spending an afternoon people-watching and acclimating to Cusco’s elevation. At the heart of the plaza lies a manicured garden and intricate statue of the Incan ruler Pachacuti. Those willing to venture from the sun-soaked benches will appreciate a tour of Cusco’s massive cathedral, complete with a trip into the crypts. The cathedral, a symbol of the Spanish conquest, houses a replica of Da Vinci’s Last Supper: in a uniquely Peruvian touch, it has a guinea pig (cuy) on one of the plates.
San Pedro Market is a spectacle to behold, filled with fruit, vegetable and meat stands, as well as 30 stalls serving freshly squeezed juices. A lack of refrigeration means products are displayed open-air, and the freshest items are sold first thing, so come early if you’re wanting to buy. For lunch, the market hosts a number of empanada and tamale vendors, as well as food stalls that serve a menú – a two-course meal – at a very reasonable price. If you’re struggling with the altitude, pick up a bag of coca leaves here to suck on.
Stop in for a drink at Paddy’s, the highest Irish-owned pub in the world. Expats and backpackers fill Paddy’s to enjoy imported European beer (including Guinness) and watch rugby, soccer or American football. Homesick travelers will appreciate the pub’s burgers and sandwiches, as well as Irish favorites such as shepherd’s pie. Centrally located on the corner of the plaza, Paddy’s serves as a spot for a celebratory drink after a trek to Machu Picchu, and a good place for the solo traveler to meet people.
Foreigners may be squeamish at the site of guinea pig at their table, but cuy is a Peruvian delicacy that carries historical and regional importance. The dish appears in the copy of the Last Supper hanging in the cathedral, and has provided a cheap livestock alternative for centuries. The Cusco variety of cuy is typically roasted, meaning that the guinea pig is particularly palatable, with a similar flavor to duck or rabbit. Although home to several cuyerías – restaurants specializing in cuy – the city’s best option is Pachapapa, an open-air restaurant that cooks the dish in a wood-fired clay oven. For the faint of heart, try alpaca steak, another delicacy served throughout the city.
Cusco is the party capital of Peru, with one of the liveliest nightlife scenes in South America. Cheap hostels near the plaza encourage masses of backpackers to descend upon the many bars and clubs surrounding the square. Cusco’s most popular club, Mama Africa, blasts electronic, hip-hop and dance music until 5am or 6am. Ukukus, another favorite spot, includes live bands and local acts, in addition to DJs. After partying until dawn, enjoy pizza at Ukukus’ late-night pizza bar, or order food from Cusco’s many street vendors that stay open to cater to the post-club crowd. For a more comprehensive guide to the nightlife venues of Plaza de Armas, check out our guide.
For the Inca, astronomy played a huge role in day-to-day life, influencing the planting and harvesting of crops, religious ceremonies and architecture. The Inca calendar was detailed and accurate, as evident in the positioning of buildings to coincide with solstices. The wonders of such phenomena are explored at the Cusco Planetarium, where visitors learn about Incan astronomy and conduct star-gazing of their own. Family owned and operated, the planetarium is located near Sacsayhuaman, where you’ll get stunning views of the stars from Cusco’s high elevation. For a proper introduction to a vital part of the Andean world, the planetarium is unmissable.
A 45-minute walk from the city center, this ancient Inca site is worth the trek for both the stunning views of Cusco and the incredible stonework. Sacsayhuaman (easily remembered by its pronunciation ‘sexy woman’) was a religious site as well as the scene of a bloody battle between Inca forces and the Spanish conquistadors. Hire a guide for a small fee, or purchase a city tour that includes the site for a complete explanation of the history of Sacsayhuaman. Valuable as a precursor to Machu Picchu and sites in the surrounding Sacred Valley, a walk to Sacsayhuaman also includes a glimpse of Cristo Blanco – the massive statue of Christ that stands above the city.
The artisan neighborhood of San Blas is notable for its architecture and quaint shops. Just a short walk from the plaza, the terrain becomes steep on the way up to San Blas Plaza. The Inca road Hatunrumiyoc is a remnant of the city’s past and a remarkable cobblestone construction that leads through the neighborhood. Small boutique shops and galleries line the streets, making for more authentic gifts or souvenirs than the trinkets found in the Plaza de Armas. The San Blas Plaza contains the picturesque Iglesia San Blas, as well as homey shops and restaurants. Stop at the bakery/hostel Pantastico for a tasty snack.
Korikancha combines the Spanish and Incan influences in Cusco. Once lined with lavish gold, this Inca Temple of the Sun was ransacked and destroyed by the Spanish before they built the Church of Santo Domingo on the site of the ruins. Today, the contrast between the church and temple foundation is striking, making for one of the more interesting sites in Cusco. Visitors can walk through the Spanish and Inca sections and take in the once-spectacular garden. What was once the region’s holiest site now serves as a testament to the brutal conquest of indigenous people and its after-effects.
Before visiting Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, learn about the empire’s history at the massive Inca Museum. Run by Cusco’s San Antonio Abad University, this huge artefact collection is housed in the equally impressive colonial home of a Spanish admiral. Twenty-four exhibition rooms are filled with information dating from pre-Inca societies to the height of the Inca Empire to Spanish conquest. The museum’s mummified bodies are a highlight, as well as the courtyard where Andean women weave textiles. Although information is provided in both English and Spanish, hiring a guide for a small fee is advisable, as it makes visiting the huge museum manageable.