Cusco is one of the most famous cities in South America, and for good reason. Besides being the ‘base camp’ for any trip to Machu Picchu, Cusco is a fascinating destination in its own right. This much-loved mountain town is actually the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in the entirety of the Americas. Today, visitors from around the world add Cusco to their travel bucket lists for its unique Quechua culture, vibrant markets, Inca temples and – of course – the cute alpacas.
If you’re planning to join us for one of our epic treks to Machu Picchu – whether it’s the classic Inca Trail, the scenic Lares trek or off the beaten track on the Salkantay trek – you will be pleased to know that free time in Cusco and a city tour are included in your itinerary. So to make the most of your time in this enchanting town, here is our guide to what to do, see, buy and eat in Cusco, Peru!
On our Peru Machu Picchu trips, we always spend two days in Cusco to explore what “the navel of civilisation” has to offer. We will enjoy a guided tour of some of the highlights of the area, such as Sacsayhuaman, a citadel built around the year 1100, and the centre of the Inca Empire. Here we will explore the grass amphitheatre and Tambo Machay water temple, which was built with great precision out of huge blocks of stone, intricately carved into water channels thought to have been used for ancient rituals.
Next, we proceed to Plaza de Armas in Cusco city centre, where we will learn about the cathedral, Qoricancha temple (which was once home to life-sized gold statues) and the impressive facade of the Natural History Museum. Afterwards, why not wander through the artsy neighbourhood of San Blas, with its cobbled streets and galleries, or try out a chocolate-making class? You could even round off the evening by dancing the night away at Ukukus, a local bar that plays live music every night, from Andean tribal songs to Latino tracks.
Another major highlight of Cusco that we always try to see on our trips is the Sacred Valley. Touring the Incan ruins at Ollantaytambo is a must – this curious site is the former royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti, who conquered the region during the Incan reign. Explore the ancient terraces, defences and storehouses, before hiking up to Temple Hill for a fantastic view over the city and surrounding countryside.
Alternatively, there are many other notable viewpoints for panoramic landscapes of Cusco, such as Cristo Blanco – a huge statue of Jesus situated on a hill just a few minutes’ walk from Sacsayhuaman. If you fancy seeing something a little different, visit the Convento La Merced, a picturesque convent in the city, which provides a quiet oasis from the city bustle in its flower-laden central courtyard, plus plenty of interesting paintings and artefacts. By night, you could always stop by at the Cusco Planetarium to see the starry sky in all its glory over the Andean mountains.
Cusco is a great place to pick up local handicrafts and unique Peruvian souvenirs when visiting Machu Picchu. There are various places you can go for a spot of shopping, from the bustling local market of San Pedro, which sells snacks (perfect for your trek!) and alpaca wool jumpers, to Pisac Artisan Market and the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales, a fair trade market that sells unique and authentic Peruvian crafts.
A few must-buys for your trip to Cusco include super-soft alpaca wool scarves and blankets, hand-woven Peruvian textiles (placemats, pillowcases, clothes, bags – you can find it all!) and Pisco, the main ingredient of Peru’s national drink, the Pisco Sour. You can also find a range of hiking gear in Cusco should you have any last-minute requirements before your trek. There are several North Face stores, plus various local retailers dotted around the city.
Of course, when you’re visiting Cusco, you will want to know some of the best spots to eat delicious food – and have a celebratory drink after your trek! We love paying a visit to The Meeting Place, a cosy restaurant run by volunteers, where all profits are put into local projects. Keith also recommends Uchu Steak House – a must-visit for the best alpaca steak and strawberry daiquiri going!
If you’re looking for good, genuine Peruvian cuisine, Morena Peruvian Kitchen is a great option. Here you will find hearty Peruvian fare with a modern twist, such as their much-loved lomo saltado dish. Another popular choice is Green Point, a vegetarian restaurant that even the biggest of carnivores rave about! Of course, if you’re craving some home comforts, there are options for you, too. Head to Jack’s Café for everything from burgers to nachos, and a great brunch menu. Finally, for a tasty beverage, Cholos Craft Beer serves their own brews, as well as other local favourites. Chin-chin!
Whether you choose to spend your free time in Cusco seeing as many Incan sites and Quechua cultural gems as possible, or you prefer to amble around the cobbled streets, soaking in the atmosphere – you are sure to love every second in this historic city! To find out more, give us a call on 01769 309 007!