Is Cusco the jewel in the crown or the thorn in the backside of travel in Peru? Regardless of what you decide in the end, it is a compulsory stop for many travellers to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Be forewarned! It’s not without its downsides such as bitterly cold nights, sometimes aggressive hawking and more boutiques than the fashion rectangle in Milan.
However, despite its flaws, Cusco has its charms and rewards those who give it more time. This was once the the capital of the Inca Empire and it sits astride the ruins of a once-great Andean civilisation. If ancient culture and modern retail therapy float your boat, look no further than this Peruvian city.
Poor Cusco! Rather than flying here I chose to arrive by overnight bus. Having just about survived a two-day trip to Colca Canyon, I figured that nothing else could go wrong. However, I failed to foresee The Great South American Bus Adventure. Cusco by night is not a particularly warm destination. Add in total exhaustion, a suffocating flu and altitude. Let’s just say that the city didn’t elicit any warm and fuzzy feelings on arrival.
Sights and Activities in Cusco
Located near Plaza de Armas, this is a great place to pass a few hours and to contextualise a visit to The Sacred Valley. Not only do its displays represent the Inka era, they also show the emergence and development of culture in the area. Maps and dioramas highlight the splendour of a civilisation that would have stretched from Madrid to Moscow. Although there are English translations, the Spanish explanations tend to be more detailed, so Spanish will be an advantage here. Museo Inka is open from 8am to 6pm from Monday to Friday and from 9am to 4pm on Saturdays and on holidays.
Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo
Almost opposite the Coricancha ruins at 602 Avenida El Sol, the Cusco centre of traditional art is the place to come to see Andean music and dance. A highlight of the nightly spectacles has to the bright and colourful costumes. Worried about being too much of a tourist? Chill out because you will be surrounded by locals who come to enjoy the best of indigenous culture. Expect an off the beaten track tourist experience on the main thoroughfare of Peru’s most on the beaten track destination! The centre opens after 6pm and the nightly performances cost 25 sols.
San Pedro Market
San Pedro market is the perfect place to get lost at any time of the day. Don’t miss the stalls of Andean vegetables. Who knew that there were so many different types and colours of corn? Apart from the vegetables, animal lovers will probably weep at the numerous butchers’ stalls. However, there is more to this place than just food and you will find clothing vendors hawking articles of every type and colour. Stock up on your alpaca woollens to ward off the cold of the Cusco night. Although it attracts many tourists, San Pedro Market maintains a strong local feel. Perhaps the highlight of a visit here may be a simple bowl of soup or a fruit juice shared with native Cuscueños. To get to the market, walk directly down the main street coming from Plaza de Armas. You will find it on your left on Calle Santa Clara.
Despite or because of its position as the tourist capital of Peru, Cusco is an attractive spot to learn Spanish. In fact, some people spend months on end here and a few never leave. There are many good reports about Proyecto Peru, an organisation that combines language classes, excursions and volunteering. San Blas Spanish School is another excellent spot to bush up on your Castellano. With a central location amid the cobblestones of picture-perfect San Blas, the school has a relaxed and friendly feel. Also, they can organise homestays with families in the local area. Highly recommended!
If there is one area that you just cannot miss in Cusco, then this is it! Think winding cobblestone streets with shops and bohemian cafés. This area is a taste of Cusco at its most perfect. The Meeting Place in the main square is gringo central, but the upstairs seats provide views of all the action outside. Throughout the area there are shops selling tourist souvenirs and clothes, of course! Wander the streets and discover- San Blas is a place to visit and revisit.
Eating and Drinking Coffee in Cusco
Café Valeriana, located at Portal Espinar in the historic centre, is a good place to get a bite to eat and to rub shoulders with the locals. Large wooden tables and comfortable chairs make this a visually pleasing spot. Expect to get good views onto the street running from Plaza de Armas down to San Pedro market. Its open design amplifies the sound of the conversation and lends it a lively feel on a cool Cusco evening. Try some of the empanadas- the mushroom one is particularly tasty.
Also close to Plaza de Armas on an intimate and traditional little square, you will find Café Perla (San Andres 486). Specialising in coffee, it retails bags of coffee beans and also serves food. A set menu cost 20 soles in July 2016 and coffee was not included. The cappuccino was tasty if unspectacular.
La Rabona at 146 Calle Herrajes may be small, but it is well worth a stop if you are a coffee lover. They specialise in organic coffees and retail coffee beans as well as hot drinks and cakes. Sit at one of the counters to enjoy great coffee and super friendly service. The ladies here were so helpful that they even took the time to teach me how to recognise fake notes. This is a useful skill to learn if you are getting change on the street in Cusco. Great coffee, charming people!
Above the main square in San Blas, you will find another two distinct but cool coffee shops. Café Laggart is perhaps more interesting for its design than its coffee. Take a look at the colourful murals while you sip your coffee on furniture made from recycled metal and wood. The light jazz soundtrack will lull you into a stupor and you won’t want to leave. Make sure to go out onto the small balcony to get views over the rooftops before you go to…
This is a cup of coffee with a view of the entire city of Cusco! Sit at a window table to enjoy organic coffee sourced in the Urubamba region. Try the cappuccino with a slice of vanilla cake- it’s the perfect combination. It is located in the same street as Café Laggart.
However, if you want to taste the best organic coffee in the city, you will need to go back down to Heladeros 160. There you will find Cafe Dwasi. They source their coffee directly from a farm in Santa Terera and they will explain each coffee and the method used in its preparation. Missing your Chemex or Aeropress? Look no further, you have found your spot. The staff are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their products. With some luck, you might even see them roast their own coffee. In fact, despite some competition from Lima, this is possibly the best café in Peru!
La Prasada, located up some steps near as you go up the hill on Choquechaca, sells some great vegetarian burgers with a wide variety of sauces. As tasty as the mains are, you are sure to love their cacao tea, with its distinct chocolate taste (a great accompaniment for the veggie burgers).
The Vegan Temple by Prasada is a cousin of the original. Take your shoes off, go upstairs and eat under the watchful gaze of the Buddha. The ‘burgers’ are served with delicious sauces. Although they don’t sell coffee (even organic), their range of juices, shakes and teas almost makes up for this.
Despite plans to build a new international airport at Chinchero, Cusco airport is still small and busy. Also, it does not have many international flights, so you will probably arrive via Lima. Note that domestic flights are not particularly cheap in Peru. As a result, many travellers arrive by bus from other points such as Arequipa and Lake Titicaca. Cruz del Sur is one of the pricier bus companies, but you can expect to travel in comfort and security. Alternatively, many travellers choose to use Peru Hop, or Bolivia Hop when coming from La Paz.
Accommodation in Cusco
With its tourist crowds, there is a wide variety of accommodation options in Cusco. Those who want the backpacker experience might like to check out Loki Hostel at Cuesta de Santa Ana. On the other hand, if you are looking for a quieter, more homely experience, then you could try Kamila Lodge. They provide good quality rooms at a reasonable price if dorms don’t really appeal to you anymore. Apart from their Facebook page, you can also book rooms with them on booking.com. Kamila Lodge is located at Calle Pera 440 near San Pedro market. Note that the entrance is in off the street.