Once the capital of the Inca Empire, this vibrant colonial city cradled by the rugged Peruvian Andes is a magnificent fusion of ancient vs. modern. Tourists who travel to South America’s most famous and most visited draw, Machu Picchu, inevitably start in Cusco but are soon seduced by the well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage city and often stay longer.
My visit to Cusco with AdventureSmith Explorations was wonderful. Indeed, Cusco is one of the most fantastic cities I’ve ever visited. It can enchant and enhance your life in so many ways. Here are the best things to do in Cusco.
1. Expand Your Lungs
Cusco was established at the daunting high altitude of 11,152 feet. The thin air can be a problem for tourists, but the steep, uneven steps around the old town are best explored on foot, so there are a variety of remedies to intercede altitude sickness that run the gamut:
- Upon arrival, take it slow for a few days to acclimate
- Do not drink alcohol
- Do drink coca tea
- Take a Diamox/Acetazolamide starting three days before you arrive
2. Absorb Cusco History
Dating from 1200 A.D., the city has a rich, complex, colorful history that combines both pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial culture. It was founded by the first Inca ruler, Manco Capac, but enjoyed the greatest development under the guidance of Pachacutec in the 15th century. Spanish invasion led by Francisco Pizarro ended the Inca era.
The city is cradled by several Inca ruins, the most impressive of which is Sacsayhuamán. At an altitude of 12,142, the fortress which overlooks the city was thought to be impregnable, but Spanish conquistadors charged uphill and in an epic battle, defeated the Inca army. I can attest to what an extraordinary feat that must have been. Just climbing the multitude of steps to get to the top for the panorama left me breathless, gasping for air, and unable to talk (a rarity to say the least) on several occasions.
3. Appreciate Art
You can’t visit Cusco without seeing its most famous piece of art. In the Plaza de Armas, at the historic Cathedral Basilica, there’s a painting by Marcos Zapata done in 1753 of the Last Supper. The painting portrays Jesus and the twelve apostles gathered around a very unorthodox entre…a guinea pig laying paws-up on the platter.
4. Improve Your Cooking Skills
What better place to cook than in a rooftop kitchen and terrace with a bird’s eye view of the city? Our cooking lesson in Xavier Vargas’s Rooftop Kitchen was a blast! We learned how to make trout ceviche, red quinoa blue cheese risotto, and Peru’s national drink, the pisco sour. The only thing better than making the scrumptious dishes was eating them!
5. Fall in Love… with Llamas
Who knew llamas were so appealing. In the countryside in and around Cusco, you’ll see them everywhere. They are generally friendly and just as curious about us as we are about them. Be aware however, if you get too close they are known to spit!
6. Get In Touch with Your Inner Architect
Cusco is a marriage of both Inca and Spanish architecture, with colonial buildings layered on top of Inca stone foundations. The Inca foundations and walls were constructed with granite stone blocks, skillfully crafted together without mortar for structures so strong they survived both attach and earthquakes.
The Plaza de Armas is the historical center of Cusco. It’s awash in exquisite colonial architecture sporting stunning carved balconies. The square is a popular tourist attraction with a beautiful central fountain, churches, cathedrals, restaurants, and shops.
7. Engage in Aerobics
Cusco is the gateway to the Sacred Valley and the largest and most comfortable city to set off for Machu Picchu and other Inca sites. The world-famous Inca Trail starts just a short distance from Cusco. In addition to Machu Picchu, other Inca ruins such as Chinchero, Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, and Ancasmarca are just aching for their turn to be explored, and unlike Machu Picchu, there are no crowds. Due to the elevation, the hikes can range from moderate to extreme, but don’t let that stop you. Take your time, take as many breaks as you need, but do get to the top – the views will blow you away.
8. Make Your Stomach Stronger
The one thing I wanted to eat while in Cusco was cuy, aka guinea pig. The squeaking rodents – or fluffy adorable pets, depending on your perspective – are a delicacy in Peru. Not just a piece blended into some other dish, mind you, but the whole thing served up on a platter. I passed up numerous offerings until I found what I was looking for. The skin was crispy and delicious. The meat was….different. Gamy. Here, take a look:
If you dare, try some of the other popular Peruvian street food, such as antichuro (beef hearts). And brace yourself while in the market if you’re squeamish – you’ll see entire pig heads and other animal carcasses.
9. Teach Yourself to Bargain
The vibrant San Pedro Market is hands-down the best place to buy just about anything. Housed in a huge indoor warehouse, it’s a labyrinth of vendors selling colorful alpaca weavings, handmade Pachamama dolls, fruits and potatoes (Peru has over 4,000 varieties), flowers, many varieties of quinoa (Peru’s superfood), and carcasses of pigs, guinea pigs, and other animals. Towards the back are stalls loudly hawking cooked snacks, soups, and meals as patrons walk past.
10. Legally Do Something Illegal
I’m speaking tongue-in-cheek, of course. Taking back anything made from coca leaves is illegal for Americans, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy – or at least try – such products in Peru, where it is legal. The coca tea is actually pretty tasty and said to help with altitude sickness. Our guide, Silver, highly recommended chewing coca leaves to increase energy, suppress appetite, and as an aphrodisiac. Say what? I gave it a good try. I really did.
Note: enjoy as much coca tea as you like in Peru, but do not attempt to bring any back to the United States. It’s illegal there.
Cusco is a stunning, diverse city with myriad sights and activities for all sorts of tourists. The setting alone nestled in the Andes draws the multitudes. Add to that the flamboyant festivals, the charming boutique hotels, the preserved architecture, and the access to some of the world’s most sought-after hiking, and it has remained one of the most fascinating cities in the world
For more about Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu, listen to Patti’s interview on the Travel Planners Radio show.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of AdventureSmith Explorations during her stay in Cusco, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.