Cuzco (also “Cusco”, or “Qosqo” in Quechua), located in the Southern Sierras is a fascinating city that was the capital of the Incan Empire.
Cusco is a Unesco World Heritage Site and is one of Peru’s most visited cities as it is the largest and most comfortable city from which tourists can begin visits to Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and other Incan sites in the region. There are so many incredible things to do in Cusco.
Cusco is a beautiful city with well preserved colonial architecture, evidence of a rich and complex history. The city itself represents the center of indigenous Quechua culture in the Andes, and by merely walking the streets one sees the layers of history. Spanish colonial buildings erected directly atop Inca walls line the square, while the modern tourist nightlife flourishes in their midst.
The city is surrounded by a number of ruins, the most impressive being Sacsayhuaman, the site of the 1536 battle in which dozens of Pizarro’s men charged uphill to battle the forces of the Inca. Nowadays, Cusco is known for its indigenous population, often seen on the streets in traditional clothing, and its substantial tourist-fueled night life.
Things to do in Cusco, Peru
Don’t rush through Cusco!
It is an amazing city and you need more than two days to see the city alone. This is not even mentioning side full day trips to Machu Picchu or to the Sacred Valley.
Here are some travel tips for things you might like to see or do.
- Walk around the Plaza de Armas; the square has churches, shops, restaurants and bars backing on to it and is a great place to spend an afternoon. The historical center of Cusco is beautiful, but you will have to deal with all the street vendors and hawkers of cheap paintings and other souvenirs. They are everywhere in and around the Plaza de Armas. They spoil somewhat the experience.
- Check out the Plaza de San Francisco, which is a few blocks north of the center, and is a great place to visit one of Cusco’s many great coffee shops.
- Play Sapo, a traditional bar game played in chicharias all over Peru. The game involves throwing small coins, called fichas, at a table with a bronze sapo (toad) attached. You get points for making it into holes on the table and a ton of points for making it into the sapo’s mouth. Best played while drinking chicha (corn beer, traditionally fermented with saliva) at a local dive. Ask old men to show you the correct throwing form, as it’s difficult to master.
- Talk to local store owners, curators, waitresses and bartenders. They typically know a little English if your Spanish is not good and are generally happy to share interesting information about the city not found in guidebooks. This is also a great way to find the best places to try cuy, alpaca, and chicha.
- Once you are accustomed to the altitude, go for a jog! This is a very humbling experience, as the hills and thin air prove a challenge to even those in great shape. It’s also a good way to explore. Head east or south of the plaza for the safest places. If you’re a woman out exercising, you may get a few cat calls, as this is common in much of Latin America.
- Go Whitewater rafting but not in the Sacred Valley of the Incas where the water is very polluted and the rapids are relatively tame. Instead head upstream to Chuqicahuana or Cusipata sections of the Rio Urubamba / Vilcanota where the water is much cleaner and the rapids are excellent fun up to class 5 depending on what time of year you are traveling.
- Try inflatable canoeing on the Piñi Pampa section of the Rio Urubamba where you get to paddle your own canoe down, fun but not frantic, class 1 and 2 rapids.
- If you have more time, try and raft the 3 or 4 day Rio Apurimac – the true Source of the Amazon and one of the Top Ten Rafting Rivers in the World. Class 3 – 5 all in the most amazing 3000m deep canyon. Go with the experts as accidents have occurred and in Peru you pay for what you get so saving a few $$$ can seriously reduce the quality and the safety of your trip.
- Have a Downhill Mountain Bike trip either across the Chincheros plains, past Inca ruins and down through the spectacular Maras Saltpans or the 75km downhill from Abra Malaga to Santa Maria and onto the totally awesome hotsprings of Santa Teresa (easy and cheap access to Machu Picchu from here, too) Again go with the experts – there are a lot of cheap bikes out there, totally not up to the job.
Buying at markets in and around Cusco, Peru
If you want cheap cheap touristy stuff, go to one of the two Saturday and Sunday morning markets in Juliaca (about 5 hours away by bus), Puno (about 6 hours away by bus). They are about 1/3 the price of Cusco.
If you don’t want to go so far away, but still want touristy stuff, go to the Artisan Market at the intersection of la Avenida del Sol and Tullumayo. It’s the big red building near the fountain. The further away you get from the main square, the cheaper things become.
There is a mini-mart next to the big church in the main square. It is the San-Pedro market where bread costs around s/0.10 and a glass of combination juices around s/1.50 and they give you 2-4 refills. Don´t go too far from the main square at night though, it can be dangerous.
There is another market called Centro Comercial El Molino, Urbanizacion Ttio, you have to take a taxi and it costs s/2 to get there. In this market you can buy heaps of illegal merchandise, DVDs, CDs etc. A good quality copy DVD is s/4, or you can by 5 VCDs for s/10.
The indigenous women at El Centro Bartolome de Las Casas have a store in which they sell homemade handicrafts and weavings. You can often watch them work, though they often don’t speak Spanish, and rarely speak a word of English. It’s located a few blocks from the plaza on Avenida Tullumayu.
Also Pisac, a town outside Cusco, has a very big market. It is about 30 minutes from Cusco by bus. The bus station is on Tullumayo street a couple blocks from Limacpampas. The fare is very cheap, and you can see the Incan ruins at Pisac. In Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu prices can be the double of what they are in Cusco.
If you travel to the “Sacred Valley” (Valle Sagrado, including the towns/ruins of Chinchero, Ollantaytambo and Pisac), there is lots of touristy stuff to buy, you can barter, but the prices won´t go down much. Alpaca sweaters are not like they used to be. The only good ones are in upmarket shops.