Back in 2015, when I left the Philippines to travel long term (at least, that was my intention), I had no plans of staying long in Peru. I thought I would spend 2-3 days in Lima, just enough to catch my flight to the United States for the Christmas holidays.
However, when I arrived in Cusco by bus from La Paz, Bolivia, I was hooked. I loved the city’s cobblestone streets, architecture, history, and its intricate Spanish colonial churches. All throughout the city, there are remnants of the glorious period when the Inca Empire reigned, and I loved walking along its narrow streets every day without fail.
In the end, I maximized my stay in Cusco and stayed over two weeks, just enough time to complete my Workaway and my solo hiking trip to Machu Picchu.
Though rich in culture and history, Cusco has a modern twist which makes the entire city a contradiction. In the midst of Inca trails, stone architecture, and traditional customs, for example, is a city with charming cafes, craft beer breweries, and a raving nightlife. Every day, there is something happening in Cusco, making it just as much a party city as it is a sacred one.
For those who are traveling to Peru, there is only one reason to visit Cusco: to see Machu Picchu, one of the new seven wonders of the world. However, the city itself is interesting enough for you to stay there for at least a couple of days; I stayed two weeks, and I wanted to stay longer!
What To See in Cusco, Peru
To see the most of the city in a short time, take a Sightseeing Bus (either Bus Panoramico or Panoramic Cusco) that will take you to the highlights of Cusco.
Ticket sellers are all over the city; I bought one for 20 soles (~$6) from a travel agency near my apartment, simply because they had two cats I played with everyday (appropriately named Garfield and Batman). You shouldn’t pay more than $10, though!
Here are the highlights of the city that you will see in 2 hours.
Plaza de Armas
Technically, this isn’t part of the bus tour, but the buses usually pick up passengers near Plaza de Armas. And, really, if you only have one place to go in Cusco, it should be here, the city’s main square.
Go around in the colonial arcades surrounding it, or do as I did, and just sit in the plaza and watch people. There are numerous benches in the center; you can even sit by the fountain and listen to the water falling.
There are three main structures to see in Plaza de Armas: the 15th century Cathedral, and two other churches, Jesús María and El Triunfo. Built in 1654, the Cathedral stands on the exact location where the Incan temple Kiswarkancha used to stand.
Aside from being a place of worship, however, the Cathedral also houses many colonial art and archaeological artifacts that’s worth checking out. The main altar is completely made of silver, and the Capilla de la Platería (“Silversmith Chapel”) also has a small silver temple that used to be a processional portable platform for the Corpus Christi.
It also has furniture, ornate carvings, and over 400 paintings that highlight the best of that period. Take a look, for example, Marcos Zapata’s The Last Supper, which shows a mix of European and Andean culture. The apostles are depicted as dining on cuy, Cusco’s roasted guinea pig.
Qorikancha — The Inca’s Temple of the Sun
As the center of the Inca Empire — possibly the largest empire in the world in the early 16th century — it is in Cusco where all Inca festivities, celebrations, and cultural traditions are held. One of the most important festivals was, and still is, Inti Raymi, a festival dedicated to the Inca’s most important deity, Inti, the Sun God.
Every Inca corner had an elaborate temple built that was dedicated to Inti. Cusco had the biggest and most elaborate temple in all of the empire, Qurikancha (also spelled as Qorikancha, Coricancha). Derived from the Quechuan word meaning “golden enclosure,” the temple was dedicated to the Sun God, its walls lined in solid gold.
When the Spanish colonizers came, they required the Inca to give them the gold in Coricancha in exchange for the life of the Inca leader Atahualpa. Later on, they built the Santo Domingo church and convent on top of the ruins of the Inca temple. (Do you see a pattern here? :D)
Cristo Blanco, the White Christ
On the way to Cristo Blanco, you’ll have wonderful panoramic views of the city. I recommend getting a window seat on the right side of the bus (best seat, of course, is the front seat in the top deck) so you can have a clear view.
Everyone gets off at Cristo Blanco for 10 minutes or so for picture taking. You’ll have great views of the city below plus an opportunity to pose by the white Christ, a donation by a group of Palestinians that took refuge in Cusco years ago.
The Stone Fortress of Sacsayhuaman
Pronounded like “sexy woman,” Sacsayhuaman is one of the four Incan ruins close to Cusco. The bus, unfortunately, wouldn’t stop here but you can clearly see the gigantic stones that form its walls. What’s fascinating is that the huge stones — some are even bigger than a car! — fit together perfectly even without the use of mortar.
You can go inside Sacsayhuaman, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983, on your own either by taking a taxi or walking from Plaza de Armas. It will take you around an hour or so, depending on your fitness level, as it’s all uphill.
Other Incan ruins near Cusco that you can check out include Puca Pucara (“red fortress”), Tambomachay (“guesthouse”), and Q’enko (“zigzag:”).
Cusco Travel Tips
Getting Around Cusco
If you’re coming from the airport, there is no public transportation, you’d have to take a taxi. It’s advised to use the gray-colored ones inside the airport, and the drivers should have ID cards hanging around their necks. As always, agree on a price before you leave, but it should only be 20 to 30 soles ($6-10) to the city center.
I arrived late at night by bus in Cusco and hailed a taxi outside the bus station. I was charged 7 soles to Loki Hostel, a rip-off, I was told, but as it was almost midnight, I had no choice but to accept the driver’s quote.
If you’re going around town, Cusco public buses are cheap (less than $1 per ride). However, I just walked everywhere.
When to Go to Cusco, Peru
When planning to visit Cusco, always take in consideration when you plan to go there. If you want to go hiking, for example, don’t go during the rainy season (December to March), otherwise you wouldn’t enjoy it as much. Make sure to plan what clothes to pack as well; read this Peru packing guide before you go.
I went in late November, and although it did rain when I was in Aguas Calientes, I was lucky enough that it was dry when I hiked to the town and back. Best time to go would be March to September. Note that If you go around June onwards, there will be loads of people there.
Where to Eat in Cusco
While I just mostly cooked my meals when I was in Cusco, I also had dinner several times in eateries. Most of the places I went to were very local; more often than not, I was the only foreigner (good thing I knew some basic Spanish!), and meals cost anywhere from 5 to 7 soles. I usually ordered chifa (Peruvian Chinese dish), pollo a la brasa (roasted chicken), and chicken milanesa.
If you want something more “high-end,” i.e., traditional Peruvian food complete with a cultural performance, head to La Cusqueñita, which highlights Cusco’s culture in dance and food. There’s cuy here (guinea pig), if you want. If I remember correctly, I ordered lamb stew, which was delicious but heavy.
Prices at La Cusqueñita range from 24 to 50 soles ($7-15), but it’s very much worth it. My thanks to Inkana Travel for bringing me and the other Workaway volunteers there!
What to Pack When Traveling to Cusco
Packing for Cusco is sort of tricky considering their early mornings and nights get chilly, even freezing, with temperatures around 10 degrees Celsius in November. During the day, however, the sun is bright and the skies are clear and temperatures can pick up to 20 degrees.
Therefore, bring a variety of clothing. Wearing layers is always recommended. For women, the high elevation can wreak havoc to your skin, so always bring a moisturizer! You’re also closer to the sun so make sure to pack a high SPF sunscreen for those long hikes.
Prepare for Possible Culture Shock
People are people no matter where in the world you travel. But we can’t deny initial culture shock when traveling to certain areas of the world, especially if you have no background knowledge about the place you’re visiting.
In the most touristy areas in Cusco, you will have no problem getting away with only knowing English, but step right outside that tiny space, and you will be faced with the challenge of miscommunication. Learning a few important phrases in Spanish before your trip will definitely be helpful.
How to Avoid Altitude Sickness
By the time I arrived in Cusco, I had already spent over 2 months in Bolivia, where most of the cities I visited were over 4,000 meters high. Altitude sickness, therefore, wasn’t a problem.
If, however, you’re flying directly to Peru from your home country, be prepared for altitude sickness. Cusco is around 3,400 meters, and you could experience altitude sickness if you’re coming from a lowland city. Some of the most common symptoms include nausea, headache, and stomach problems. I experienced all those plus lack of appetite in Potosi, Bolivia.
Many people advise taking coca tea or, for the more adventurous, chewing coca leaves to keep the symptoms at bay. You can find these everywhere in Cusco. There are medications as well in case the natural remedies don’t work. I bought “Sorochi pills” (spelled “Sorojchi”) in Bolivia, it’s an over-the-counter drug.
Also take it easy in the first few days upon arrival. Avoid overexertion and drink a lot of water.
Cusco, Peru is definitely more than Machu Picchu. There are so many things to do here. When you visit, make sure to spend time in the city before heading off to Aguas Calientes. I’m sure you would love it as much as I did!
Is Peru in your travel plans? I hope this Cusco travel guide will help you!