11 Things to Do in Cusco, Peru
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If you are going to Machu Picchu, you will most likely have to go through Cusco. Cusco is much more than just a gateway to Machu Picchu. This alluring city has beautiful architecture, abundant history, vibrant culture, and delicious food. The city’s buildings are a mix of Inca and Spanish colonial styles and there are many Inca ruins just outside the city’s hub. The strong Catholic faith and history in this area means frequent colorful festivals and parades. Hopefully, these 11 things to do in Cusco encourages you to extend your stay beyond Machu Picchu.
Dominating the Plaza de Armas, to one side is the Cusco Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin. Construction on this massive Gothic-Renaissance style Cathedral started back in 1559 and was completed in sections. Most of the stones and materials were taken from old Inca buildings (namely Sacsayhuamán) by the Spanish.
This incredibly impressive church is unlike anything I’ve seen in Europe. It is split into three areas. The pulpits are intricately carved, gold leaf covering the walls, hundreds of large paintings dating to the Spanish colonization. Most of the paintings were done based on retellings of the Bible and after viewing European religious art by Peruvian artists. These newly converted Peruvian Catholics interpreted the religious stories based on their own experiences. Jesus is black. A pregnant Virgin Mary (after Jesus was born) representing the Inca Mother Earth. Guinea Pig served at the last supper.
Entry costs 25 soles and you are unable to take pictures inside. It is best seen with a guide or by using an audioguide, so you can find all the small historical details. We visited with a guide for the day who also showed us around the next two sights on the list.
The most impressive Inca ruins within very close distance to Cusco city center. It sits on a hill overlooking Cusco and covers an expansive area. Most of the ruins aren’t complete since stones were taken by the Spanish to build their own buildings in the city below. There is still a lot remaining. Huge Inca walls with perfectly placed carved stones. There is also a large well, pitch black tunnels, and an Incan slide to explore.
If you are lucky enough to be visiting on June 24th, the longest day of the year, there is a huge festival for the sun held at Sacsayhuaman – biggest festival in Peru. The whole week before this festival are more parties and parades.
Sacsayhuamán is part of the Cusco Tourist Ticket (130 Soles for 16 attractions throughout Cusco and the Sacred Valley). We visited with a guide for the day who also showed us number 1 and 3 on this list.
Qurikancha, or the Sun Temple, is an important site to see how the Spanish and Inca cultures combined. Plenty of history surrounding this old Inca temple. The temple used to be the most lavish and important in the Inca empire with walls covered in gold. In the Inca times, this temple also housed mummies and was used as an observatory.
Entry costs 15 soles. Similar to Sacsayhuamán, this is best viewed with a guide. We visited with a guide for the day who also showed us the previous two places on this list.
4. San Blas Neighborhood
Known as the artsy area of Cusco, the San Blas neighborhood has a more quiet atmosphere than the rest of Cusco. There are nice cobblestone streets, cute cafes, artisans, great restaurants, and a church built in 1544 over an old Incan temple.
This is a great area to find lunch (for a lot cheaper than you can get near Plaza de Armas) or just wander and look in the different shops.
To get to San Blas from Plaza de Armas you will be walking up a steep hill on a narrow street. Take the Hathunrumiyoc street to San Blas and you will pass the famous 12-angled stone.
5. Inca Ruins in the Sacred Valley
A relatively short drive from the main center of Cusco is many more amazing Inca ruins – more impressive than the ones found in Cusco (since they are better preserved). All of the following (except the Salt Mines) are included in the Cusco Tourist Ticket (130 soles) with Sacsayhuamán.
On a hill above the town of Pisac, these ruins have remarkable terraces, graves in the side of the mountain, Inca walls, storage houses, and beautiful views of the valley. In the town of Pisac, there is also a vibrant market worth visiting.
Just a small step below the noteworthiness of Machu Picchu is the ruins at the city of Ollantaytambo. Fortunately, the Spanish did not stay around Ollantaytambo long, so much of the never-completed Inca fortress is still intact.
This fascinating site is made up of 3 circular agricultural terraces used by the Inca as an agricultural research center to understand crops. Each terrace level provides a different micro-climate.
Maras Salt Mines
A highlight of the Sacred Valley. Families have been producing salt on the side of this mountain for 1000 years. Saltwater is directed from springs in the mountain to these ponds, the water evaporates and high-quality salt is then collected. Entry fee is 10 soles.
The neat village of Chinchero has an old church from the early 1600’s that sits above more Inca nested terraces.
We spent 3 days in the Sacred Valley exploring the area to the fullest. If you have less time, many of the ruins above can be visited in a day from Cusco. It can be done as part of a tour with an experienced guide or on your own with a taxi driver taking you between sights.
Who doesn’t love chocolate?
Chocolate originated in South America. While it began with the Mayan culture, the Inca people eventually cultivated Cocoa beans turning it into drinks. Eventually, when the Spanish came and tried these incredibly bitter drinks, they added sugar – eventually this led to the chocolate we have now. Peru has a long history of chocolate. Also, Peruvian chocolate has a distinctive taste – unlike anything you’ve had. It is among the highest quality chocolate in the world.
Peru is the perfect place to learn about how chocolate is made. A chocolate making class starts with the cocoa bean and ends with a bag full of chocolate bars. You also try many chocolate drinks that date from the Mayan times.
7. Museo de Arte Precolombino
In case you are in need of a museum, the Pre-Columbia Art Museum is the best in Cusco. The museum is housed in an old colonial mansion and provides a great historical background for the rest of the sights around Cusco. Information is displayed in English, Spanish, and French. If you are into art, many of the artifacts are discussed in terms of the artistic influences and the feeling they were trying to evoke. Even if you are not into art and are more interested in the history, there is plenty of that as well. All varieties of Pre-Columbian art – stone, ceramics, gold, wood, shell, etc.
Entry is free.
8. San Pedro Market
Visiting the colorful San Pedro Market will give you a little taste of local life. It is an authentic Peruvian market that has something for everyone. Most of the market is filled with food stalls – both raw ingredients and food vendors serving cooked food, soup, and fruit juices.
The stalls are very organized with labeled rows of stalls for fruit, meat, bread, etc. Along the side and at one end of the Market are souvenir shops for tourists; the same souvenirs you will find elsewhere.
Take some time to walk up and down the rows to see the abundance of vegetables and fruit native to the Andes. In the meat section, you can find all parts of the animal – from the heart to the testicles. I luckily had a stuffed nose, but this section is known to have a strong smell. You will also find stalls selling folk remedies and plant medicines for all different conditions and ayahuasca.
You can visit San Pedro Market as part of a Peruvian Cooking Class.
9. Watch a Festival in Plaza De Armas
Peru has countless festivals and parades. As a very Catholic country, the majority of their festivals surround catholic holidays or honor Catholic saints. These festivals often blend parts of the Inca culture, a heavy Spanish influence, and the modern global interests of the people. While festivals happen throughout Peru, they are most popular in Cusco. No matter when you visit, there will be a festival being celebrated. The festivals often involve large parades with dancing, nighttime celebrations, fireworks, and live music.
Here is a list of some of the popular festivals. Note that this list is not exhaustive. We stumbled upon a parade for St. Rose of Lima on August 29th, not included in that list. Be aware that festivals might mean some places in town close for the day, close early, or open late.
10. cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary
Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary is about a 40-minute drive outside of Cusco. They house and take care of rescued or endangered animals native to the Andes region. This is one of the view places of its kind that seeks to preserve biodiversity and inform the public on the importance of these species. If you are into ecotourism, this is the place for you.
The sanctuary has pumas, Andean condors, toucans, all types of camelids, spectacled bears, and many more. Most of the animals were brought to the sanctuary after being rescued from the illegal exotic animal trade or being improperly treated as pets. Their goal for most of the animals is to release them back in the wild after being rehabilitated. For those that can’t, they look after them in the sanctuary.
With the entry fee, there is a member of staff that walks you around the area explaining a bit about each animal and the organization’s efforts in the Andes. Near the end of the tour, you enter into the large condor exhibit. You get to experience condors, one of the largest birds in the world, flying over your head.
Nearby is Awana Kancha, an alpaca farm where you can feed and pet alpacas and llamas. They also have women weaving on site and a huge store to buy handmade alpaca wool textiles.
11. day trip to Machu Picchu
Of course, you cannot visit the Peruvian Andes without taking a trip to Machu Picchu. After visiting all of the incredible ruins of the Sacred Valley, I was ready to be underwhelmed by the hyped Machu Picchu. I was not. Machu Picchu is just as magical in real life as it is in pictures.