Top 10 Things to See in Cusco + Why We Fell in Love With the City

Maybe it was because we went in with no plans for Cusco but to acclimate to the altitude for a few days, but this city absolutely exceeded all of our expectations. We didn’t do much research aside from a quick guide provided to us by a friend who had hiked the Inca Trail a few years earlier (thanks Caroline!). Since we were planning for a few months of travel, it was just far too overwhelming to have a schedule for each city. In our minds, these days were purely for acclimating and soaking in the culture before embarking on our hike. But man, do we wish we had known how much there is to see in the city! One weekend did not do it justice.

Cusco itself is a beautiful city; the architecture alone is amazing and there’s a really interesting mix of Incan and Spanish culture. It’s one of those cities that you can walk around for a day or two and feel like you already know it. Not to mention, it’s super easy to get around and from our experience, pretty safe as well. We had no problem walking around with our nice camera or taking side streets to get to where we wanted to go. And while I’m sure we still stood out like sore thumbs in our newly acquired Alpaca sweaters, it was nice to feel comfortable and less touristy.

Quarter for Your Crisis - Cusco, Peru

We stayed at the Palacio del Inka for all but one night – our final splurge with my Starwood points – and wow was it breathtaking. If you have the opportunity, the hotel is one of the nicest ones we’ve ever been at. Seriously, start saving up those points! It’s right across from the Temple of the Sun (also known as Qorikancha – see below) and was part of the original compound of the Inca temple when the Spanish invaded. Aside from the incomparable grounds, the breakfast buffet was also killer – which if you us at all, you know that this automatically gave it 5 stars in our book. Plus, when all of our breakfasts at hostels thus far had been bread and jam, we felt like kings having some eggs and kiwicha French toast! Now onto the good stuff…

10 Best Things to Do in Cusco, Peru:

San Pedro Market

For anyone looking for souvenirs, this is a MUST. While there are lots of shops and stands around the city, this is as local as it gets. There are rows and rows of people selling everything from Alpaca sweaters and blankets to freshly butchered meats to coca leaves and fresh fruit juices to headbands, bags, and more. The best part? It’s by FAR the cheapest place to buy gifts, without sacrificing the quality. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, try out the local market in the back that serves extremely cheap and filling lunches. Pete and I both tried the Lomo Saltado dish, and still spent under $4 total – can’t beat that. Although, fair warning: the dish was VERY delicious, but it is still “street food.” If your bodies aren’t used to eating on the adventurous side, definitely pack some Immodium and/or Tums.

Quarter for Your Crisis - Cusco, Peru

Quarter for Your Crisis - Cusco, Peru

Quarter for Your Crisis - Cusco, Peru

Plaza de Armas

This one is hard to miss. Plaza de Armas is the main square of Cusco and really shows off the beauty of the city. The main cathedral sits on the square and across from the park at the center. The shops and restaurants surrounding the Plaza are definitely on the more expensive side for the city, but it has a pretty unbeatable view. We took a coffee break on the balcony of Cappuchino Café, which is a nice budget option if you want to soak it in without breaking the bank.

Quarter for Your Crisis - Cusco, Peru

Quarter for Your Crisis - Cusco, Peru

Temple of the Sun (Qorikancha)

This temple, as mentioned before, sit across from the Palacia del Inka and was built during the Inca empire as a place to worship the Sun God. Masses are still held here, if you’re looking to experience some local worship, or you can take a tour of the inside.

San Blas District

This may have been our favorite area of the city. For the one night that we didn’t use hotel points, we stayed in a hostel in San Blas. It seemed that most of the hostels, especially the lower cost ones, were situated in this area, as well as many more local and cheaper fare restaurants. We explored this area almost every night that we were in town! It has a very unique, bohemian feel, and it’s situated a little ways up the hills.

Quarter for Your Crisis - Cusco, Peru

Quarter for Your Crisis - Cusco, Peru

Massages

We know, it sounds creepy. But if you treat yourself to anything during this trip, make sure it is a $10 massage. Unfortunately, we were only able to do one during our short trip, but we promise you: if you are hiking the Inca Trail, this is probably the best reward you can give yourself. Another fair warning: you will probably be harassed by people in the streets selling massages, and even the “good”/”safe” places may look like something out of Taken. In fact, the only reason we didn’t get completely sketched out by our tiny room with old curtains and no exits in the back of the top floor of a market was because we did a little TripAdvisor research ahead of time. We chose the Artesanias El Solar Dorado at 250 Marquez Street and would highly recommend it!

Chocolate Museum

To be frank, this wasn’t a “must-see” at the top of our list, but it was a nice surprise! Since it’s not too far off the main square and doesn’t require a long amount of time to explore, we popped into the Choco Museo a little unexpectedly. Aside from the delicious chocolate, it was really cool to learn about the chocolate making process and the role the cocoa bean has played in cultures around the world. A cheap and easy thing to do in the city!

Coca Tea

If you’re hiking the Inca Trail, you are pretty much bound to try this at some point, since it was brewed for us every time we ate a meal during the trek. It’s also extremely popular around Cusco, as it’s native to this region in South America, and our hotel had it brewing 24/hours a day. It’s meant to help with the acclimatization, but it also has caffeine, so we’d recommend trying it earlier in the day. Side note: if you want to get an even more local feel, you can buy a bag of coca leaves from the market and chew on them. Just don’t swallow!

Quarter for Your Crisis - Cusco, Peru

Cristo Blanco

While you’re roaming the Plaza de Armas, you’ll be able to see a huge status of Christ overlooking the city. It’s meant to have breathtaking views of the city, although we were highly recommended to go up during the day time because of theft. On our second day in Cusco, we decided to hike to Cristo Blanco in order to prep a bit for the trail. Despite our maps, directions from our hotel, and information from a few blogs, we weren’t able to hike our way to the top.

The first entrance we approached, after walking quite a ways up the hill, was $70 to enter, and we were told to continue along the road if we wanted to see Cristo without paying that park fee. Unfortunately, this advice was very very wrong. After a much steeper hike with many more stops to catch our breath, we finally made it to that second entrance, only to find out that it would still cost us $70 to enter. We were considering buying the student package for the Boleto General ticket, which includes entrance to 16 archeological and cultural sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, but considering we only had one more day before the hike it didn’t make much sense for us. For anyone else with more time though, this can save you up to ½ off and is definitely worth looking into.

Unfortunately for us, it started to downpour as we were debating our budgets and how badly we wanted to see Christo Blanco and Sacsayhuaman. While we were bummed that we didn’t get to see the statue and ruins up close, not to mention the acclaimed view, it just didn’t seem worth it in the torrential rain. Hey, we have to same something for our next visit, right?

Quarter for Your Crisis - Cusco, Peru

Quarter for Your Crisis - Cusco, Peru

Sacsayhuaman Ruins

As mentioned above, these ruins sit atop the hill overlooking Cusco, near Cristo Blanco. The complex is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage list and is one of the sites included in the Boleto General pass, if you choose to buy one. The complex is accessible by foot, and you can opt to take a guided tour, or as some of our friends suggested, the guided horseback tour. If we had an extra day in town, this would’ve been next on our list!

Try Local Cuisine

Lomo Saltado and coca leaves are some of the fares mentioned above, and we’d definitely recommend giving them a try. We also tried Kiwicha french toast and catcus fruit – delicious!

Quarter for Your Crisis - Cusco, Peru

However, if you are really looking to dive headfirst into the Peruvian culture, you can try a taste of Guinea Pig. This local dish can’t be found in most restaurants, as it’s more expensive and is considered a more luxury meal. We were considering trying this out, but much to Jordan’s pleasure we seemed to run out of time before we had a chance. If you’re going to give this a shot, be forewarned: it is usually served as the whole guinea pig and looks a tiny bit terrifying. Bon Appetite!

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