Updated: May 29, 2020
Peru Travel Guide: Cusco City
Even for off-the-beaten-path travelers, the thought of seeing the famous Machu Picchu is tantalizing. As I always say though, there is more to a destination than its sights, so this post will share some of the diverse experiences that made the journey to Machu Picchu unique.
Just a few highlights that come to mind include: the friendly locals, insanely lush vistas, delicious Peruvian cuisine, grimly fascinating history lessons, and the ever-so-adorable llamas and alpacas happily grazing throughout the countryside. Machu Picchu may have been the main attraction, but all the cultural delights I experienced along the way are what made the trip remarkable.
On our journey to Machu Picchu, my girls and I wanted to start our adventure in Cusco (also spelled Cuzco), the old capital of the Inca Empire, which is brimming with a stark mix of historic Incan remains and the colonial architecture of its Spanish conquerors. This was an awesome way to get introduced to Peruvian culture and history. I left this city with a heavy heart and a huge appreciation for any moment I witnessed Peruvians trying to preserve traditional Inca culture, which was demolished by Spanish invaders long ago.
HOW TO GET TO CUSCO
In order to get to Cusco, we first flew into Peru’s Jorge Chávez International Airport, located in Lima. Since our flight was getting in around 8pm, we decided to spend the night in a budget hotel near the airport and catch a flight to Cusco early the next morning.
USA to Lima: $422.90 on American Airlines
Lima to Cusco: $194.29 on Avianca
FYI: Lima is an amazing city that’s worth exploring, and we planned our trip so that we would return to Lima in the end and spend at least one full day there before going back home (stay tuned for my upcoming post on Lima).
WHERE WE STAYED THE NIGHT BEFORE FLYING TO CUSCO
Hotel: B&B Wasi Hotel (3 people)
Cost: $75.00 ($25 per person)
My Review: Nothing fancy, but met our needs. That night, we just wanted something clean and close to the airport so we could catch our flight the next morning. They offered car service for transfer to and from the airport for $20. Home cooked breakfast was also included.
EXPLORING CUSCO CITY
We departed Lima, arrived in Cusco City, and caught a cab to our hotel. Trying to communicate with the taxi driver gave us our first opportunity to practice our Spanish. If you don’t know Spanish, download a translation app—you’ll need it, as many people we ran into did not speak English.
WHERE TO STAY IN CUSCO CITY
We wanted to stay somewhere super comfy our first couple nights in Cusco, especially while getting adjusted to the altitude (read my Top 12 Peru Travel Tips, which included a write-up on altitude sickness). The goal was to pick a place close to the Plaza de Armas, the city center which is within walking distance to all the places we wanted to explore.
Hotel We Picked: Palacio Manco Capac (2 people)
Cost: $437.88 total for 2 nights ($218.94 per person)
My Review: Fabulous locally owned boutique hotel! This place was exactly what we needed for the first couple of days. It was luxurious, comfortable, and had a homelike feel thanks to the friendly staff whom we had great conversations with every morning over breakfast (which was included). There were also llamas right outside our window! Additionally, the hotel came to my rescue with an oxygen tank when I started feeling dizzy from altitude sickness my first day.
View on Map: San Cristobal neighborhood
5 THINGS TO DO IN CUSCO CITY
EXPLORE CUSCO CITY BY FOOT
There is plenty to do in Cusco City, and instead of catching a cab everywhere, go into Google Maps and download an offline map of the area so you can navigate through the streets on your own. Walking around the city allowed us to see all the tangible reminders of the foundation from Cusco's rich past and the evolution of its mixed present.
At one point I decided to just explore without a plan in an effort to just take in and appreciate how amazing the city is. Everywhere you turn, every alleyway you duck into, every cobblestone path you take—there’s always something cool to see!
SAN PEDRO MARKET
Cost: Free to enter
What a fantastic experience this was! Visiting markets is one of my favorite ways to get a better understanding of a destination’s local culture. When you visit a local market, you can really feel the vibe of a city all condensed in one place—and that’s exactly what we felt in San Pedro Market.
We mostly saw Peruvians there, so it gave us a very authentic look into how people interact with one another and the kinds of things they like to shop for. I sat down and ordered some freshly squeezed juice and practiced my Spanish on two friendly Peruvian sisters.
5 Things We Learned + Random Moments at the Market:
1. A woman walked up to my friend Coribbia and blessed her womb (yikes).
2. That’s when I learned about maca—a sacred plant used by the Incas for fertility. I made sure to stay away from anything with the word maca in it.
3. The breads they make there are gigantic! They start making them at 4am.
4. They sell a lot of yellow underwear. Apparently, yellow means good luck in Peru and the best way to get lucky is to wear yellow undies.
5. This is the most diverse market I’ve ever experienced—it was filled with pastries, fresh fruit juices, colorful corn, quail eggs, large animal carcasses (which made me squeamish because I love animals), dragon blood (which is actually just sap from Amazonian trees), and tons of other random things that were a mixture of weird and wonderful.
View on Map: Cascaparo, Cusco, Peru
Cost: 15 soles ($4 USD)
Wow. That’s really all I could say after leaving this museum. I learned some pretty heavy stuff about the history of the Incas. Walking through here gave me more insight into the depth of just how horrifying the destruction of this empire was.
In Quechua (the language of the Incas), Qorikancha roughly translates into ‘Golden House’ and as the name hints, it was a complex once covered in enormous quantities of gold. Like so many other Incan artifacts however, the Spanish invaded this sacred site and melted down every last bit of gold they could find and shipped it off to Spain. It was eye opening to say the least, and made me appreciate each and every moment I saw some form of the preservation of Inca culture—which mostly strives to exist in the more remote areas of Peru.
View on Map: Santo Domingo s/n, Cusco, Peru
CENTER FOR TRADITIONAL TEXTILES OF CUSCO
Cost: Free to enter
In my Sustainable Travel Tips video, I mentioned the importance of shopping locally from the source when you can. It’s always a great way to support local artisans and interact with local culture, and that’s exactly what you can do here at the Center for Traditional Textiles, right around the corner from Qorikancha.
The Center for Traditional Textiles had an awesome exhibition displaying the history of Peruvian textiles. You also get to see women traditionally weaving fabric right in front of you. After I checked out the museum, I bought a beautifully designed cross-body bag that I felt good about purchasing, knowing exactly where it was sourced.
View on Map: Av El Sol 603, Cusco 084, Peru
Cost: 10 soles ($3 USD)
Although Qorikancha was my favorite, I enjoyed this museum as well. Overall, I’m happy we went to these museums before exploring some of the archeological sites further down the line in our journey, because it gave us context into what we were seeing.
View on Map: Ataud, Cusco, Peru
3 PLACES TO EAT IN CUSCO CITY
This place was the real deal. I like to eat at authentic local restaurants and that’s exactly what we got. It was for locals and recommended by a local. We were the only tourists in sight and it was only a 10-minute walk from the hotel. The waiter even noticed I looked ill, so he gave me some coca tea, which completely cured my altitude sickness.
View on Map: Calle Choquechaca 384, Cusco, Peru
While doing a little solo exploring, I decided to spontaneously duck into the first restaurant I saw that really caught my eye. Upon entering Kusikuy, I almost walked right back out. It was completely…empty. What made me stay? The guy who worked there seemed so nice. And since he only spoke Spanish, I figured this would give me a nice little challenge.
Well, long story short, I didn’t regret my decision. Although I was the only person in there, they adjusted the ambiance so I could get the full experience. They turned on some Peruvian music, dimmed the lights, and lit some candles. He let me know (in Spanish) which dishes were vegetarian and gave me his recommendations. I also wound up getting my first Peruvian Pisco Sour (view my pisco sour cocktail recipe) and it was everything I hoped and dreamed for!
View on Map: Calle Amargura 140 Cusco, Cusco 080, Peru
Okay, by far this is the most touristy restaurant we visited in Cusco. The food was good, but overpriced in comparison to other places we went. The ambiance is nice and it’s a great place to eat if you want to meet other travelers and expats. But if you’re looking for something with a stronger local vibe, this isn’t it.
View on Map: Plaza San Blas 120, San Blas
Ashley Renne is an entrepreneur and digital content creator based in Atlanta, GA. Her blog Travel Lushes uses video and photography to show others how to live an adventurously green life—and stylishly at that. After 12 years of working professionally in TV and digital media as a Senior Video Editor and Producer, she left corporate to start her own video production company. She launched TL Digital Studios, the official production arm of Travel Lushes that produces social content and marketing videos for a wide variety of businesses, including the tourism and hospitality industry.
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