Practical tips about traveling to Cusco

Unmissable things to do in Cuzco – Peru: your essential guide

In SOUTH AMERICA, PERU by IsabellaLeave a Comment

There are so many incredible things to do in Cusco – Peru and in the surrounding area that it’s really difficult to make up your mind if you have limited time. Worry not! I am here to help!


Located close to the Urubamba Valley, also known as the Sacred Valley, in the Anden Mountain range, in the southeastern region of Peru, Cusco has been the capital of the Inca empire during its apogee, and it’s now one of the most visited city in Peru attracting over 2 million visitors per year.

Her vicinity to the sacred valley and being the getaway to all the tours to the magnificent, and overcrowded, Macchu Picchu probably helped to reach its fame, although it is indeed a charming and interesting city with a lot to offer.

As a matter of fact, it’s been proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reasons, starting from Cusco Cathedral towering over the beautiful plaza and the surrounding historical buildings.

When I was in Cusco, I had no specific plan in mind besides hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, which you have to book in advance for the limited number of people they let in at a time.

The following 2 weeks were still left unplanned, although I had in mind to do some more hikes and all the other amazing things to do in Arequipa.

While I was recovering from my jet lag in one of the cute cafe in Cusco, feeling already the negative effects of the altitude in Cusco (4000mt), I was thinking about the people I met on my flight there.

All of them on a charity mission. I thought how cool would that be to do the same while I am here. I started to search and after a lot of bureaucracy, I booked my 2 weeks of voluntary work, which would have started after the hike.

I was excited. Although I missed my other hikes, I felt I did something good, helping and teaching kids from a nearby town. But that’s for another post.

During a weekend when the school was closed I managed to plan a quick tour to Puno and visit some islands on the lake Titicaca, of which I will talk about here.

Fast forward 5 years I am now on an eternal journey through the world and this year will be dedicated to discovering South America.

As I am planning my trip in these days I am checking out all the most beautiful places and unmissable spots and decided that Peru must be included for sure and Cuzco as well.

Although I don’t normally like to go back to places I have seen, there are so many day trips from Cusco that I couldn’t do at that time and I decided to include them in my new itinerary.

I need to remember though, that altitude in Cusco is 4000 mt (12000 feet)and that’s not a joke. I had an altitude sickness problem and I was 4 days with a terrible headache and no Coca leaves or coca tea would help.

But as soon as you can get over the altitude sickness it’s paradise.

In this post, I will talk about the beautiful touristy city and the best area to stay in Cusco, what to visit, where to eat, and much more practical information you need to know.

21 THINGS TO DO IN CUSCO

Although Cuzco is mainly famous for being the gateway to one of the worlds seven wonders Machu Picchu, the most important archaeological site of the prehispanic population of the Incas, the charming city attracts flocks of tourists from all over the world who enjoy its vibrant historical center, its historical buildings, fancy restaurants proposing the delicious local cuisine, the narrow cobblestone roads and much more.

Here is what I have enjoyed during my trip and what I plan to see when I will be back in a couple of months.

HANG OUT IN PLAZA DE ARMAS

It’s unmissable and inevitable as the huge plaza is the beating heart of the city. Terraced bars and restaurants surround a squared manicured garden, where locals and tourists hang out sitting on the iron benches or walking around. Sometimes street performers offer interesting shows as well. Right on one side is the beautiful Cusco Cathedral, which is also worth a visit.

PAY A VISIT TO THE CATHEDRAL

Although we cannot forget that the Cathedral raise on the remainings of the old Inca temple, destroyed by the Spanish conqueror,  and has been built by the sweat and blood of the indigenous population, we cannot deny it’s magnificence and the beautiful example of gothic architecture with some baroque influence.

It is interesting to notice how the Incas incorporated some of their religious symbolism, such as the carved head of a jaguar in the doors. 

In fact, the Jaguar is an important god or religious motif found widely through much of ancient Peru and among the Mayan culture in Mexico.

Admire the numerous artifacts such as a unique Peruvian touch in the replica of Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’: a CUY (local guinea pig and food delicacy – for some)  appears on one of the plates.

TIP: The normal price to enter the cathedral is $25 SOLES (USD 8) during the normal opening hours from 10 am – 6 pm. However, if you go during mass hours, it is free.

Cusco Cathedral Mass Times: 7 am9 am

HANG OUT IN THE BIZARRE SAN PEDRO MARKET

You can spend an entire day browsing through the huge market’s colorful stalls where they sell absolutely everything. I was especially intrigued by all the spices, candles, and various instruments used for spiritual healing. It’s fascinating.

I had to buy special tobacco there for a Mexican shaman who was a friend of mine. It was a long massive tube made of tobacco. I was so scared to be stopped by immigration when I entered Mexico, but it all went well. Eventually, the shaman told me that nothing would have happened to me because I was carrying the tobacco for positive and noble reasons. It made sense, actually. If you are not too sensitive, you will notice entire cow heads, hanging chicken, and other macabre scenes that I would have been happy to avoid, but hey. It’s part of the culture.

Fruits and veggies stalls were the nicest, giving so much color to the entire scene.

A lot of food vendors as well if you want to try the local street food.

WALK AROUND THE “BARRIO” OF SAN BLASS

Barrio means neighborhood in Spanish. San Blass is on the quaintest corner of the city and one of the best places to stay in my opinion. Situated at 10 minutes walking distance from the city center, the picturesque parish is where you will find the most interesting artifacts, cobblestoned narrow roads, lined by cute little cafes’ and local restaurants. A lady and her son will walk with a lama to offer a picture for a few soles. I didn’t take it, but it would certainly make a great Instagram picture despite doubtful ethics. I still need to figure it out, though.

TRY THE LOCAL DELICACIES

I was still vegan at the time (now I am 80% vegan and 20% vegetarian), and I wasn’t certainly interested in trying the roasted cuy, guinea pig, and a local delicacy. I can’t even think about that. Although if you don’t mind, they say it is good. I went to the Quinoa soup. You can have it with chicken or vegan. I had it vegan, and it was delicious. If I am not wrong, Quinoa is an endemic cereal cultivated in Peru, and they make it in many different ways, but the soup is the best. I will tell you where in the below section on the best restaurants in Cusco. The Peruvian ceviche is worldly famous, and the Inka Cola is a super sweet soda which I didn’t really like but worth tasting it just for the sake of information.

LEARN HOW TO MAKE CHOCOLATE

I had a blast in the Cacao Museum, where they organize workshops on how to make chocolate. So much fun and you got to taste your own product as well. It’s also a good way to make friends. You can either book your class on the spot or prebook it here.

ENJOY THE NIGHTLIFE IN CUSCO

There are many bars where you can hang out at night with good music and great drinks. Of course, you need to try the Pisco sour. I am not a drinker, but I loved it. I was there for St Patrick’s day, and I went to the Irish pub  Paddy’s, right at the corner by Plaza de Armas, to celebrate with my Inca trail hiking companions. We had a blast.

Other places to enjoy at night are:

Mama Africa, Portal de Panes 109,  for techno music all night long until 5 am ( I know for a fact as my hotel was right there 🙂

Ukukus Bar, Calle Plateros 316, for live music and  different shows

For more options on the nightlife in Cusco, it’s better if you check out this guide as I am not much of an expert on nightlife in general :).

VISIT THE PLANETARIUM

This was not there during my visit, and I can’t’ wait to check it out. It’s a family-owned project which has the purpose of educating locals and tourists alike on the ancient Inca knowledge about the stars and planet the power of their influence on our earth. They have different options, private and group tours, and also great initiatives with kids. You can check their site here.

CHECK OUT THE 12 ANGLES STONE

It’s five minutes walk from the main square, and you can’t miss it. A piece of history, the heritage of the ancient Inca civilization, and an example of their perfectionist architecture.  The stone is presently part of a wall of the palace of the Archbishop of Cuzco. 

Address: Hatunrumiyoc 480

TAKE A COOKING CLASS

Since 2012 for 6 years in a row, Peru ranked first in the world travel awards as a culinary destination. They must be doing something good. So why don’t you take some cooking classes and learn from the best? You can check out different options for cooking classes here

REFRESH YOUR SPANISH AND LEARN IT FROM THE SOURCE

If you want to learn a new language, it’s always a good idea to do it in a place where they speak the language so that you can practice, and it’s twice as effective. Many people decide to merge a vacation with an opportunity to learn. I did it when I wanted to learn English in England and Spanish in Spain, and I will do it when I get to Brazil as I want to learn Portuguese. It’s exciting, especially for the opportunity to mingle with the locals in their own language.

WALKING IN CUSCO

Everywhere I go, I always look for a walking tour or a bus tour when available. I schedule it on day one or two as it helps to familiarize myself with the city and get to know interesting tips from a local perspective. And sometimes you also make friends.

NOTE: Normally there are free walking tours available but you are always required to leave a tip. So it’s not properly free.

NOTE #2: There are also paying tours that are longer and include some of the archeological sights in the vicinities of Cusco. Before booking make sure you check what’s included in the tour.

Ask your hotel about how to book this tour.

SIGHTSEEING BUS TOURS IN CUSCO

If you don’t feel like walking, there are several bus tours available that offer 2 hour guided tours around the city covering all the major sights of Cusco. You don’t have to do anything, sit back and relax while listening to the guide and looking at the colorful historical city. One of the companies I have heard of is Cusco Sightseeing Bus.

VISIT THE CONVENT OF SANTO DOMINGO 

This is probably one of the most meaningful construction in Cuzco and among your priorities if you are short of time. Inside what is now the Convent of Santo Domingo, you can admire what remains of the old Inca construction– the Temple of the Sun (Qoorikancha), the most important sacred temple in the Inca civilization. It was covered with gold, and precious golden statues were erected within its beautiful courtyards. Just like it happened for many ancient precious buildings, even the Temple of The Sun has been demolished by the Spanish conquerors and replaced by the convent built by the Dominican priests.

VISIT OTHER CHURCHES

I always love to enter all the churches I see, be it for a second or for more, depending on how I feel at the moment. I love to check out the architectural details and take a moment of reflection and give thanks for my life. It doesn’t matter what religion you are. I am not even sure whether I am Catholic or not, and I would do it in a synagogue or any other sacred place when they inspire peace and meditation.

  • Temple of San Blas
  • Church and Convent of Our Lady of Mercy
  • Convent of Santa Catalina
  • Church of San Cristobal
  • Church of San Pedro
  • Archbishop’s Palace

NOTE – When I went to see the church of San Cristobal, a few lamas were hanging out freely in the garden just by the church. It was hilarious. I sit there and watch them for a while, and suddenly they started mating. Obviously, I took some pictures, and just as obviously, I lost them.

BUY COLORFUL ANDEAN THEMED SOUVENIRS

I love the colored artisanal clothing and textiles in Latin America, from Mexico to Guatemala and South America. They are all quite similar and yet very different in many ways. You will find them a lot. If you walk along the Avenida del Sol, the main avenue, you will see many shops. Some of them have the finest pieces of local art. Yield to the temptation to buy them. You will bring a piece of the Quechua tradition with you and help the local population keep their tradition alive.

You will also find local street vendors selling their own homemade artifacts, maybe even cheaper but still original. On the way from Pukamuqu to Saqsaywaman, along with the nice walk in the woods, there is a big local shop with lots of textiles and artifacts. I remember they also had 2 sweet local dogs (Viringo Peruano) that I saw for the first time.

VISIT THE LOCAL LESS TOURISTY MARKETS

If you love markets and find San Pedro too touristy, you can check out Wanchaq Market, tiny and very local. 

GIVE BACK BY VOLUNTEERING… BUT DO IT RIGHT…

I am going to write an entire post on this since I have contrasting feelings about volunteering. I did it, and I felt good about it. However, I am not sure who gets the most benefits if the kids or the companies, which are supposed to be no profits, but they actually are. I feel that sometimes they hide behind the “charity” name to make more money. And I don’t think they should ask volunteers to pay to help them in the first place.  We volunteer already do our part by… volunteering, why do we also have to pay? It just doesn’t make sense. However, it is also true that these charity companies need the money more than volunteers’ help to run their company and help those in need. Most of the time, the volunteers’ work does more harm than good. This article explains exactly what my concerns are about volunteering. Also, what about those kids that see you for 2 weeks, and then you disappear? What do they take out of it?  I would love to know your thoughts with regards to this topic.

LEARN ABOUT THE INCA HISTORY BY VISITING THE LOCAL MUSEUMS

 There are many museums in Cusco, especially about the Peruvian culture and traditions. There is a pass that you can buy, and it includes the main ones. You can check it with the tourist office and see what is more convenient for you. My favorite are the Inka Museum, The Quechua Museum, and the Textiles one.

Read my guide to the most popular Museums in Cusco

LET’S TALK ABOUT AYAHUASCA RITUAL IN CUSCO

If you haven’t ever heard of it, you will in Cusco as they advertise it everywhere as if it was the most common and commercialized thing in the world. Instead, you need to pay good attention.

It’s not a joke and not for everyone.  It’s a ritual that is supposed to have a tremendous healing effect, cleaning your body and soul from the rubbish from the past and transforming you into your real being.

It would be all amazing if it were not for the huge business they have built around it and, consequently, lots of scammy people offering the “service.”

I was offered an ayahuasca treatment of 3 days for 500 USD! Crazy. The real Ayahuasca ritual is assisted by a local shaman who should be willing to perform it for free or a small offer because he does it for spiritual vocation and not to become rich.

It must be executed and assisted by experts and “elected” people who know what they are doing.

On the contrary, if it’s not done properly, it can negatively affect you. After all, it’s a real drug and not a light one.

Therefore if you want to do it, do your homework and research very well and make sure it’s real. If they ask you lots of money and they are foreigners, I would stay away. But also, in case you find a cheap one, investigate the supposed shaman, ask around and listen to your gut feelings. 

TAKE A DAY TRIP FROM CUSCO (or many)

There are several day trips from Cuzco that you can choose from, all of the exciting and entertaining. The easiest one is to a group of archeological sites Saqsaywaman, Qenqo, and Pukamqu at only 30 minutes taxi ride from Cusco. You go to the first one and climb your way down to the others. I did it on a rainy day, but it was so enjoyable. That was my first hike in Cusco, Peru, before hiking to the Macchu Pichu.

Other day trips from Cusco go to the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo, Maras, and many more. You can check out my guide to the 10 amazing day trips from Cusco to know more about your options.


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