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Things to Do in Cusco

South America, Peru, Cusco, Cuzco,  Horizontal November 2006. A view of Cusco taken from a high vantage point focusing on the Main Square (Plaza de Armas). The Plaza de Armas (main square) was the centre of Inca Cusco and, still today, remains at the heart of modern Cusco. During Inca times the Plaza was known as Huacaypata (the Place of Tears or the Weeping Square) and was a place of ceremonies and military parades. It has been said that when the Inca's conquered new lands they would bring back some of the soil to be mixed with the soil of Huacaypata, as a symbolic gesture to incorporate the newly gained territories into the Inca empire.  The Plaza was once flanked with Inca palaces. The remains of the ancient walls of Inca Pachacutec's palace can still be seen on the north-west side of the square, inside the Roma Restaurant close to the corner of the Plaza and Calle Plateros. The northern and western sides of the Plaza are now lined by arcades with shops and travel agencies. There are many restaurants, bars and coffee shops with beautifully carved wooden balconies overlooking the Plaza - a great place to relax and enjoy the view. The Plaza's north-eastern edge is dominated by the Cathedral which is flanked on the right-hand side by the El Triunfo church. On the south-east side is the smaller but more ornate church of La Compania de Jesus with its impressive pair of belfries.

First Adjust to the Alitude. Here in Cusco we are 3,300m above sea-level, so it is best to spend the first day resting. Re-hydrate, limit alcohol intake, and eat slowly, in order to best acclimatize. Chewing coca leaves or one morning cup of coca tea are known remedies for the lower oxygen levels in the altitude. Relaxing camomile tea is recommended for the rest of the day. Had a rest? Now you are ready for Cusco!

The Classic and the Not-so-classic Cusco Tour

The classic afternoon Cusco City Tour is the easiest way to see the city. It will take you to the four Inca ruins right outside of Cusco: Tambomanchay, Puka Pukara, Quenqo – the Labyrinth, and Sacsaywaman; to the Cathedral on the Main Square – Plaza de Armas, and to the Qoricancha Temple that once was the largest construction on the continent.

If you have more than one afternoon for enjoying the city, take a taxi all the way to the Tambomanchay archeological site in the morning and walk down visiting the other four ruins on your way back to Cusco. Don’t miss the Sacsaywaman rock slide. According to archeologists it was originally used by the Incas for polishing construction stone blocks. But it has become an amusement park – especially on Sundays.

There is a beautiful view of the city from the cerro, where the Sacsaywaman ruins are, and from the neighboring hill often referred to as Cristo Blanco after the statue of the White Christ (no entrance fee). A hike up to one of these hills will help you asses how you are going to feel walking around the Andes if you are considering a trekking trip to Machu Picchu, Choquequirao, or Ausangate. Picnic? Prepare some sandwiches and have one in the eucalyptus and quehuña trees near the Quenqo archeological site – another place to enjoy the gorgeous views of Cusco. Quenqo is near Sacsaywaman and White Christ.

Get a taste of the world-famous Peruvian gastronomy taking a cooking class. It begins with shopping in the emblematic San Pedro Market founded in 1925 and designed by Gustav Eiffel. One has to experience this place to only begin to understand how well Peruvians eat. Chocolate lovers will certainly enjoy experiencing the Chocolate Museum. If you are in a mood for and ice cream, the best places are El Hada or Qucharitas – both close to the Main Square.

Dive Into the Cultural History of the Inca Empire 

Pre-Colombian Art Museum is situated on Plazoleta Nazarenas; the same building as MAP Café. This is a place to go if you have a limited time to appreciate the rich cultural heritage of Cusco in a variety of materials like wood, metals, seashells, pottery, or textiles. 40 minutes to 1 hour visit. Entrance fee 20 soles.

Machu Picchu Museum (UNSAAC-Yale International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture) located inside the so-called Casa Concha, a historical Cusco casona dating back to 1718, on Santa Catalina Ancha Street. The 1.5 – 2 hours visit will take you on a journey to get to know the daily life in Machu Picchu. One highlight is the impressively detailed model of the Machu Picchu Citadel accompanied by an explanatory video coordinated with lights pointing to different parts of the display. Entrance fee 20 soles.

Inca Museum is on Cuesta del Almirante 103. During the 1 – 2 hours you will spend in the colonial mansion from the 16th century you will see textiles, pottery, and even mummies. The museum is dedicated to the Inca and the pre-Inca cultures. Highlights: a model of the circular agricultural terraces of Moray and Andean women weaving traditional textiles in the courtyard. Entrance fee 10 soles.

Night Life

The Incas were excellent atronomers. Planetarium of Cusco located on Avenida Pardo cherishes this tradition. The facility is humble at first glance, yet it provides a personalized experience hard to find in other planetariums. Book the visit in advance to secure a spot on a shuttle from the Plaza de Armas. Entrance fee 50 soles.

Cusco is also a true party city. Posters inviting to a diversity of Halloween parties has just started popping up. San Blas is the known disco district or barrio as we say here. The Irish style Paddy’s Pub (sells Guiness) will certainly not ruin your budget. Mama Africa belongs to the best in town. Both bars are right on the Plaza de Armas. Ukuku’s Cultural Bar will satisfy those seeking live music be it Andean, jazz, salsa, or other. They also offer such a variety of drinks that one might as well stay a whole year to try them all.

Weekend à la Cusco

No plans for the wekend? There is a Saturday market at Plaza Tupac Amaru, where locals enjoy food and shop for anything from pets or plants to furniture, home decorations, clothes, and accessories. Here you can find souvenirs cheaper than in the center. Baratillo the Saturday flee market located close to San Pedro and Paraíso markets is another place packed with people. If you plan on going to Baratillo don’t carry your vsluables and be very street smart.

Common Sense

Streets of Cusco are full of different food and drink stalls, but remember that salmonella would certainly ruin the rest of your trip. If you want to enjoy local eateries and juiceries the way cusqueños do, a safe choice is the San Pedro Market food court. The local authorities make sure it is clean and safe for all the customers from near and far. Fresh juices are made from an overwhelming variety of fruit native to Peru. Generaly they are made with boiled water.

Double check your tour operator before you book a trip to avoid the unpleasant surprise that the company went out of business just before you arrived. Look for licensed tour operators on-line and stick to your guidebook advice.

Many hostels throw parties on a regular basis, which is a thing to look well into when looking for a good night sleep.

When in crowded places grab your belongings firmly. Tourists in Cusco attract pickpockets, as they do in other destinations around the world. Don’t carry your passport and the tiny immigration document that visitors fill in entering the country with you unless absolutely necessary, because the bureaucratic process of getting new ones will certainly put your patience to test. You will however need both travel documents for the train to Machu Picchu, Inca Trail starting point, and Machu Picchu Archeological Site visit.

Had a good time at a party? Don’t walk back to your hotel at night drunk. The safe option is calling a taxi.

Last but not least, do not take pictures of the locals without permission. Even if you have it, remember, the indigenous people often do not want to look directly to the camera. Near the Cusco Main Square, there are local people dressed in the traditional clothes often accompanied by lambs or llamas willing to pictures for one sol or one dollar. If you decide to take a picture, help promote responsible tourism – if children pose for pictures, they should rather be in school getting education, and if you see a person mistreat their animal do not encourage that behavior.

We hope these tips will help you plan your stay in one of the most beautiful cities in South America and that you will come home enriched with unique memories.

How was your experience in Cusco?


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