Cusco is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas and was once the capital of the Incan Empire; today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a pretty cool city, with tons of things to do and see. Many people only visit it for a couple of days in order to acclimatize for their Inca Trail trek but the city really should be seen for its own merits. We went for four days but because one of those days was used for the Sacred Valley, it ended up not being enough time. Oh well. We just have to return one day!
The most cost effective way to see all that Cusco has to offer is to buy a Boleto Turistico (tourist ticket). There are three different types available; the one we chose was the Boleto Turistico Religioso, only because we happened to be in a church at the time and it was the one for sale. Here are some of the things you can see and do in Cusco (not all places require the Boleto and not all places are covered by a particular Boleto – choose your Boleto wisely).
Chill in the Central Square
If you’ve travelled to colonial cities before, you know about the ubiquitous main square, often called Plaza de Armas. Cusco is no different. However, this one is actually worth checking out as it is quite pretty and it has been the heart of the city since Incan times. Churches line two sides of it and the other two sides are lined by shops fronted by a covered walkway and topped by restaurants. The center of the square contains a garden, benches, and a large fountain – perfect for chilling out as you catch your breath due to the altitude!
There are many churches in Cusco worth a quick peek, including the Templo de la Sagrada Familia. However, the main church to see is La Catedral. Located on the square of Plaza de Armas, it is a typical colonial cathedral. It was built in the 1550s. However, what makes it unique is that it was built using stones taken from Saqsaywaman, a nearby pre-Incan citadel. It is typically ornate but what you really want to focus on is the colonial-era art – if you look closely, you’ll notice that it mixes Catholic and indigenous Andean traditions! For example, there is a painting of the Last Supper where Jesus and company are eating traditional regional ceremonial foods (e.g. cuy and chicha, a corn-based drink). The churches we visited were all “no photos allowed”.
Take in the View at San Cristobal Church
I mention this one separately not really for the church itself but for its vantage point. It sits over the city on a hill and as such, it is a great place to view the expanse that is Cusco. You can get an even higher view by going up the church’s bell tower. Well worth a look even though it may take some huffing and puffing to actually reach the church…
Cusco as a ton of museums and you can’t really go wrong with whichever one you choose. We weren’t too fussed about which one we picked as we had four weeks left in the trip to find other great museums, especially in Lima. As such, we picked a smaller museum that was included in our Boleto Turistico. The Museum of Religious Art is set in a colonial era house once owned by an archbishop. It has a lovely cloister-style courtyard and garden. Surrounding the courtyard are beautiful rooms filled with rich religious art. My favourite bit about this museum was all the antique furniture. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed within the museum.
Admire Historic Walls
Along the same narrow street as the Museum of Religious Art, you will find a section of famous Incan walls. The mortar-less stones here are huge and are fitted together so tightly, you cannot fit anything between them. It is also here you will find the famous 12-angled stone. It apparently represents the 12 main Incan families…at least so say the guides you’ll find loitering around here waiting to tell you stories for a tip. You’ll notice walls done by the Incans and walls done by the Spanish – the former has withstood centuries of earthquakes and the latter…..not so much. The Spanish walls were notoriously “no good, bad workmanship” as one guide put it. It is why so many Incan walls remain today; the Spanish ended up using them as the foundations for their own buildings.
Check Out San Blas
A neat neighbourhood, one with a more bohemian feel than the rest of the city. Here you’ll find cheaper accommodations and food, shops, and art. You’ll also find seriously steep hills that will tax your lungs to the max! You can use it to test how acclimatized you’re getting 😉 One shop in which we ducked was King of Maps, a shop that sold hand drawn maps done in antique style. Really pretty stuff!
Take the Tourist Bus
Okay, so I’m not really recommending the tourist bus per se. But, if you’re in a rush, it is one way to get a superficial feel for the city. Also, it takes you up to the Christo Blanco above Cusco, a great vista point. It also drives past Saqsaywaman so if you don’t want to visit the site but at least want to see it, this is a good way to do so. Just remember a hat and water – you’ll need it in the blazing strong sun (remember, you’re at altitude).
Wander Narrow Streets and See Red Tiled Roofs
One thing I liked about Cusco is that, despite the hills, it is a very walkable city. I loved just wandering around and seeing what we would stumble upon. It’s a very photogenic place, especially with its many narrow streets and staircases as well as all the red tiled roofs. To fully appreciate the latter, you’ll have to find high vantage points.
A citadel on the outskirts of Cusco that has a long history. Parts of it date back to about 1100, built by the Killke people. The Incas expanded on it from the 13th century onwards. Its construction was the usual mortar-less style, with tightly fitted stones. What makes this place so unique is the size of the stones used – they are giant. When the Spanish conquered the area in the 16th century, they used Saqsaywaman as their personal quarry. Many colonial-era buildings within Cusco were built using the citadel’s stones. Today, relatively speaking, not much is left of the citadel.
Eat Good Food
Cusco has a few good restaurants. Two that I recommend are Kintaro, a beautifully atmospheric Japanese restaurant with great food and Limo, a high-end restaurant overlooking the Plaza de Armas. We visited both of them just after lunch time (early afternoon) and they were not busy so we were able to enjoy fantastic food in peace.
Study the Stars at the Planetarium
If you’re looking for something to do in the evening, why not check out Cusco’s Planetarium? If you’re from the northern hemisphere, it will give you a unique opportunity to study the stars from a southerner’s perspective. You’ll also learn how the Incas viewed the skies and their take on astronomy.
The planetarium is a family-run business so you get that “personal touch” experience that an official facility could not provide. Because this place is highly popular and the planetarium has limited space, you must reserve your spot in advance. Your ticket also includes a spot in the shuttle out to the site.
Hang Out with White Jesus
You will probably notice the tall Christo Blanco statue looming over the city of Cusco. It’s about eight meters tall. Apparently, it was given to the city as a gift from Arabic Palestinians who sought refuge here after World War II. You don’t really go there for the statue itself, however, but rather for the fantastic view over the red roofs of Cusco.
Access to the Sacred Valley
From Cusco, the whole of the Sacred Valley region is at your feet. If you can, put aside at least a couple days to discover as much as you can of this area – it is simply amazing. There are so many unique things to see such as the salt pans of Maras and the peculiar circle terraces of Moray. There are fascinating towns like Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero. And then there is the phenomenal landscape. The colours especially, are just stunning. I highly recommend either renting a car or hiring a driver and car for the day. Go wander. Even consider spending a night in Ollantaytambo if you can.