Peru's famous city of Cusco has attracted visitors for centuries: from the eager Spanish conquistadors who generously reshaped much of the historic Inca city, to the thousands of adventurous backpackers who now seek out ancient culture in the city's quaint streets and famous ruins. With direct access to Machu Picchu, the city's popularity isn't surprising. What you might not expect is how much more Cusco has to offer.
Breakfast at Granja Heidi
Before you’re properly orientated in the city, you may want to ease yourself in to the day with breakfast at a wholesome, good value restaurant. Granja Heidi is one of Cusco’s most popular eating spots for various reasons. Somewhat hidden on the second floor in San Blas, it not only exudes the artsy, laid-back sentiment of the surrounding area, but also offers patrons the chance to indulge in deliciously prepared, well-sized meals made from only the freshest ingredients - in the comfort of an air retreat from the busy exuberance on the streets below.
For first-hand insights into what to expect, have a peak at what an experienced foodie has to say.
Walk San Blas
The picturesque neighbourhood of San Blas is Cusco’s hub of artists, backpackers and bohemianesque types. Ancient and modern meet on the steep, narrow streets showcasing age-old Spanish architecture that rests on even older Inca foundations. But in the area’s shops and restaurants, Cusco’s contemporary culture is evident, attracting local tradesmen and travellers alike. Accommodation options are a plenty and the whole area is even more enlivened at night. Even if you only have 24 hours in Cusco, a stroll through San Blas is a must-do.
Plaza de San Blas
At the centre of San Blas is it’s famous square, the Plaza de San Blas. Although somewhat petite, it is nevertheless a vibrant attraction. Surrounded by restaurants and shops, the square beckons for locals to sell their wares and for travellers to soak up the atmosphere. The square also proudly exhibits a waterfall, and reflects the neighbourhood’s artsy flare with a variety of art galleries.
Iglesia de San Blas
Located in the Plaza de San Blas, this 16th century church is rumoured to be the oldest in Cusco (although it was rebuilt in 1950). While the exterior is somewhat less than striking, the pulpit continuously attracts visitors. Legends abound about it’s creation, with many believing that it was made by a local man after he was miraculously cured of a terrible disease. The pulpit is carved from one tree trunk and is said to be one of the most incredible examples of engraved wood anywhere in the world.
Lunch at Mercado Central
If you want an authentic and unforgettable cultural experience in Cusco, Mercado Central is where you should start. You won’t find many tourists at the market and it is partly this reason that makes it so worth the visit. The bustling atmosphere is alive with inexpensive stalls, juice bars and stands with fresh fruit and vegetables, which have basically been taken straight out of the ground, washed and put on the table. For lunch, why not start on noodle soup with chicken before making your way to fried guinea pig or Ilama head. Or try the ever popular steak, rice and beans, all rounded off with fresh fruit juice. Don’t be surprised if while wandering through the sprawling warehouse building, you are overwhelmed by all the potatoes. It's said that there are over three thousand varieties!
Santo Domingo and Coriconcha (also Qoricancha)
The story of Coricancha reads like a riveting renaissance tale dating back hundreds of years. Although the exact date of construction is not known, history books show that in 1438 it was renovated and enlarged by the ninth Inca. Seen as one of the most important religious and architectural designs by the Incan Society, the Coricancha was made with gray, solidified volcanic rock, and the straight horizontal structure hosts beautiful city views.
Despite the extraordinary quality of the building, even sturdy walls and floors covered in solid gold couldn't keep out the Spanish colonists. The temple was demolished and the foundation was used to build the Church of Santo Domingo. Major earthquakes have damaged the church, but the stone walls carved by the Inca still stand - a testament to their architectural capabilities and superior stone masonry.
In 1983, Sacsayhuaman was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List - and with good reason. Carved out of polished dry stones and carefully cut to fit perfectly together, the stone wall complex shows signs of inhabitants dating back more than a million years. Situated on a steep hill that rises above the city, it is often referred to as a fortress due to the panoramic views and high terrace walls. It is probably one of the most significant structures constructed by man, yet its true purpose is still unclear. It could have been a military place, gathering place or even an area for storage. The grandeur is impossible to imagine unless you are standing in front of it. Nothing remains of the inside structure as the Spanish demolished the architecture to make space for the construction of their churches. At the time, the Spanish colonists believed that no man could build such a magnificent structure, and came to the conclusion that spirits were called upon to help the Incas.
It would be hard to find a place that can take your breath away like Sacsayhuaman; Machu Picchu is one of those places. Around the year 1400, the Incas started building the site. A century later, at the time of the Spanish Conquest, they used it to house the Inca rulers. It is one of the few Inca constructed sites that wasn’t invaded by the Spanish and a lot of the original architecture still remains intact. It was also declared a World Heritage Site in 1983 and was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
The lost city stands 2430 metres above sea level, nestled in a tropical mountain forest. A trekking holiday will give you the opportunity to walk the famous Inca trail, where you can discover past and present Peruvian culture, scale the Peruvian Andes or reach out and touch the clouds. If you’re not up to walking, there are also train rides on offer. Be prepared to leave the Inca Village of Ollantaytambo in the wee-hours and travel through towering jungle cliffs, with swirls of mist and a wild, tropical forest. You’ll be able to enjoy a light breakfast, snacks and dessert made with traditional Peruvian ingredients.
Plaza de Armas
The original Plaza de Armas functioned as the cultural centre of the Inca Empire. It was twice the current size and included beautiful architecture and buildings.These days, you can visit Plaza de Armas and have lunch on wooden benches under shady trees. Throughout history, the Plaza has served as the city’s main meeting place and it is often said that this is still true today.
The Plaza's famous Cathedral was originally the site of the palace of Inca Wiracocha, which was destroyed by the Spanish to erect the Cathedral in its place. The Cathedral was completed in the early 1500's, but it has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times since then. Today it stands as a structure rich in Spanish Renaissance architecture and is one of Cusco's most visited attractions.
La Compania de Jesus
Not far from Cusco Cathedral you’ll find La Compania de Jesus (Church of the Society of Jesus) - another demonstration of magnificent architecture, and according to some, one of the most impressive examples of colonial Baroque architecture in the Americas. It certainly rivals the cathedral in grandeur and splendor, a deliberate move by the Jesuits.
La Compania was built on the site of an important ancient palace - considered one of the most beautiful Inca palaces - in the late 16th century before an earthquake caused significant damage to the building in 1650. Today - after its reconstruction in 1688 - you can walk into the dark, somewhat dreary structure and find a beautifully illuminated, bedecked altar. The swathed-in-gold altarpiece is embellished with wreathed columns featuring an image of the Virgin and a pane, of the Transfiguration.
When walking through the building, look out for the other important works of art, including a picture of Saint Ignatius de Loyola (the Spanish knight and theologian who founded the Society of Jesus) and the famed painting of a crucified Christ, which legend has it, was brought in from Burgos, Spain by the Spanish Friars. Since the church is centrally located in Plaza de Armas and the entrance is free, you have no excuse not to go see it.
You can’t go to Cusco without taking salsa lessons and going dancing until the early hours of the morning. There are different types of salsa dancing so visit a Peruvian salsa class to really learn the moves. Many dance schools offer salsa classes in the evening and once you have your dancing shoes on, a variety of nightclubs will be waiting for you. Roots and Indigo are two of the most popular clubs for travellers.
As lively and interesting as the streets of Cusco are, you can’t sleep there. Luckily you can get the feel of home, mixed with the culture of Cusco at Ecopackers Hostel . Built nearly five hundred years ago by the Spanish settlers when they conquered the Inca empire, the house has a lively, vintage atmosphere. Throughout the years, the building became dilapidated, but has now been beautifully restored. This famous Cusco hostel has won various awards, including two accolades last year for “Awards for Excellence 2012”. Equipped with table tennis, a bar and a foosball table as well as a private cinema, you’re guaranteed a relaxing yet vibey evening after your arduous day’s activities.
Late Night Theatre
If the partying and clubbing scene is something you want to avoid, the town has an excellent theatre programme, which has even been compared to Broadway by some. Kusikay is a world-class show with beautifully designed costumes, sharp choreography and a superior sound system, all housed in a historic theatre that has been renovated and decorated to support local theatre productions.
There’s no better way to start your night off than by listening to the smooth strumming of a guitar combined with the steady rhythm of the drums and the soulful voice of the singer. The power of live music is not to be underestimated. Cusco has their own niche in that area with a variety of clubs catering to local bands. Km 0 not only serves up good Thai food, but also gives you a healthy dose of live music. Local musicians set up impromptu jam sessions after their regular gigs. Le Nomade is another club that caters to live music. Although, according to tourists, their real draw is the lounge chairs with hookah pipes.
Cusco has a convenient pub crawl event every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. You join the facebook group, chat to the organisers and meet up at a place where you’ll get the opportunity to connect with people from all over the world. For just 70 soles (about £17) you’ll get transportation all night, entrance to the clubs and bars, a drink at every club you visit between 4 and 6pm, and pizza. That’s a bargain you probably won’t find in London.
Cusco’s clubbing and underground scene are in the heart of Plaza de Armas, making it easy to get around to different clubs. The music ranges from 80's rock and modern pop to reggae and salsa. The city truly does come alive at night. Most clubs are open seven days a week, making Cusco a one-stop party city. Various places also offer free salsa lessons. If the club gets full, don’t worry, they have no problem with people dancing on chairs and tables - and bottle-throwing bartenders have also been known to join in.
Comidas al paso
It’s been a long day. You’ve trekked through ancient Inca ruins, visited the local market, eaten at Peruvian restaurants and danced until your feet hurt. Right now, all you want to do is eat. But, it’s 3am. Luckily for you, Comidas al Paso (or food as you walk by) exists specifically to combat those late night hunger pangs. Dozens of people sell food on the side of the road and you can enjoy anything from estodado de pollo (chicken stew) to segundo de fideo (pasta). There are many other dishes too, all served with a delicious spicy salad. Expect to see dozens of people sitting on the side of the road in groups, eating from plates and huddled together to avoid the cold. And you can get some of these meals for under £1!
Last Updated: January 2013