Cusco is one of my most absolute favorite places in the world, and you’ll soon see why.
Consider it the ideal starting point for all other adventures in the area such as Machu Picchu, Ausangate, Rainbow Mountain, the Sacred Valley, and beyond.
Its history far predates the Inca as is evident in archaeological findings. Having been occupied for over 500 years, it is the oldest continuously habited city in all of the Americas.
It’s here in Cusco where I fell absolutely head over heels in love in Peru. I’ve stayed in or near this city on three different occasions for months on end because it’s simply that badass
Its captivating landscape, rich history, vibrant culture, and sheer sparkling spirituality will surely have something to offer travelers of all palettes.
Below I dive into some of the highlights of the city, but there are so many other possibilities. To really get a taste of Cusco, I suggest sticking around awhile. Who knows what you’ll discover
1. Plaza De Armas
What once was the center of the Inca empire, now serves as Cusco’s main square and tourist epicenter.
Adorned on all sides by captivating churches and other colonial structures, it is complemented with well-kept gardens and a gorgeous statue of Tupac Amaru.
It is here in this serene setting that some of Peru’s most extravagant festivals and Celebrations take place, such as Semana Santa (Easter week) or the more modern Corpus Christi Festival.
There is no shortage of dining opportunities in Peru, with many options available near or in the Plaza. You might want to ignore Mc. Donalds which is so awkwardly placed in the square and opt for a cold beer and pub grub at Paddy’s. It’s recognized as the highest Irish pub in the world.
If you’re looking for something more culturally Peruvian, you’ll find restaurants around every bend.
Be it day or night, the Plaza de Armas is a great place to hang out and soak in the ambiance, catch a bite, or visit some of the most spectacular colonial churches in the Americas. For me, it was the go-to location to meet friends, grab a coffee, or enjoy people watching on a sunny afternoon.
2. Cusco Cathedral
The Cusco Cathedral is riddled with juicy history and tells an intriguing story.
Taking many years of development and finally completed in the year 1669, the structure itself was forged using materials from the nearby sacred Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman. It was here at this same location that the Inca ruler Viracocha had erected his palace years before.
Crafted on the blood, sweat, and tears of Inca labor, it resembles the tragedy that befell the civilization upon the arrival of the Spanish. Yet through these transitional times, the Inca, clever as ever, devised one last act of rebellion.
Throughout the architecture and artwork in the Cathedral, you can find hidden deities and references to Inca culture and cosmology.
Some things to keep watch for during your visit include a rendition of the last supper where Jesus and his disciples eat guinea pig and sip chicha (a purple corn drink commonly drank by natives), as well as Andean crosses (chakanas), llamas, snakes, and even a puma incorporated directly on the door of the cathedral.
3. Iglesia De La Compania De Jesus
The Iglesia De La Compania De Jesus is located tight and snug next to the Cusco Cathedral. Built by the Jesuits in 1571, and revamped after the earthquake that shook the region in 1650, the history of these two religious shrines tell a story of colonial competition.
It was the intention of the Jesuits to build a church so magnificent that its beauty would not be comparable, even to its mighty neighbor, the Cusco Cathedral. Yet after a long period of bickering and deliberation, the archbishop, with guidance from the pope, ruled that no church should outshine the spender that is the Cathedral.
4. Twelve Corner Stone of the Inca
The Incas are well known and celebrated for their intricate and meticulous stonework. Time and time again their structures have proven hardy and stood the test of time, including many earthquakes which frequently ravish the area.
The same, however, cannot be said for the Spanish and their colonial work. Built on top of Inca buildings and fortresses, it is very common to see the Inca structures withstand natural phenomenon and ware, whereas the Colonial designs tumble and falter.
It is amazing to think that the Incas managed such feats without the use of a wheel, or even mortar to hold the stones together. This is one of the deep and wonderful mysteries the Incas have blessed us with.
One of the most famous examples of this would be the Twelve Corner Stone of the Inca. Located a short walk from The Plaza de Armas on Hatun Rumiyoc, it is here where you can marvel at the craftsmanship and skill demonstrated from the empire.
5. San Blas Neighborhood
After exploring Hatun Rumiyoc and contemplating the 12-angled stone, a natural procession would be to visit my personal favorite neighborhood in Cusco.
San Blas, considered the bohemian district in the city, is a popular hangout for artisans, vagabonds, gypsies, and eccentric locals. It is here in San Blas where you can find many markets that pop up regularly to sell their unique styles of jewelry, clothes, crystals, and many other treasures.
A dreamy, less trafficked area, the plaza is equipped with a back-lit waterfall where you can lounge and listen to music or write in your journal. It isn’t strange to meet out-going travelers and locals here, who are eager to accommodate and befriend you.
If the copious amounts of stairs have you gasping upon ascent, there are tons of places to refuel and kick back. A personal favorite worth mentioning would be The Meeting Place, a local NGO that offers volunteer placements and a book exchange. You’ll find many other gastro temptations and watering holes here, so be sure to take a look around before deciding!
If you’re planning to stay, there are many lodging choices to choose. San Blas is a beautiful neighborhood to wake up in, and I recommend that you do!
6. San Blas Church
While visiting the San Blas neighborhood it might be worth your while to pay a visit to Iglesia San Blas, or The San Blas Church. Inside you’ll find the famed pulpit, recognized for its intricacy and design, hand carved by the native Inca workers.
The church itself was also built over an Inca shrine, one devoted to the god of lightning and thunder or Llapa as he is referred. Once inside be sure to keep an eye out for the churches immaculate baroque paintings and design work.
A light challenging hike from San Blas, up cobbled stoned roads and a slight change in altitude and you’ll come face to face with one of the most mysterious ruins of the Inca Empire.
Sacsayhuaman, hilariously pronounced “sexy woman” as any tour guide will kid, is a hilltop fortress that overlooks the city.
Here you’ll find more examples of the immaculate masonry work demonstrated by the Inca, yet even more curious is the grandiose size of the stones. Some estimates put the largest stone at approximately 900 tons and over 3000 years old!
Researchers say that a project of this size would have taken 20,000+ men at any given time to construct. Talk about manpower!
There isn’t an overabundance of information regarding the history of this fortress, it’s creation and age, but there are some radical people with radical theories.
Some people even believe that Sacsayhuaman was built by or with the aid of extraterrestrials.
This archaeological site is a MUST SEE so keep it near the top of your list.
8. Cristo Blanco
26-foot tall, arms open and in an embrace with the city, Cristo Blanco is a miniature version of Christ the Redeemer (Rio De Janeiro, Brazil). Designed by local artist Francisco Olazo Allende, it was a present from Arabic Palestinians who took refuge in the city post-WWII.
Located just a 10-minute walk from Sacsayhuaman, its panoramic views are perfect for catching stunning shots of Cusco.
9. Avenida El Sol
Avenida El Sol translates roughly to Avenue of the Sun. The sun being a prominent deity in Andean culture, you’ll see references everywhere, including in the name of this busy road and commercial district.
On this street you’ll find many shopping opportunities, cultural street art, banks, businesses, and the famous Coriconcha.
Once plated in gold, a tribute to the sun deity in which it is devoted, the ancient Qoricancha complex was something to behold.
Nowadays, stripped of its gold upon the arrival of the Spanish, it’s architecture and rich history is what shines for most travelers.
Inside you’ll find the remnants of alters that were once utilized in Andean cosmology to pay respects to the Sun (Inti) and his beloved, the moon (Killa), and other important idols in the belief system.
The conquistadors ravished this temple much like the rest of Cusco, so today you won’t find gold and glory, but you will find a church constructed atop the ancient ruins.
Coriconcha is a definite MUST, the classic trapezoidal constructs, waterways, and design is reason enough to visit this magical marvel.
You can find it on Avenida El Sol.
11. San Pedro Market
There’s not much you won’t find at San Pedro Market.
A cross between a farmers market, butcher shop, and shamanic boutique, there’s literally something jaw-dropping around every corner.
You’ll find pig heads and frog legs, fruits and veggies you’ve never heard of, avocados the size of your face, potions, tinctures, and of course psychedelic brews galore.
San Pedro market is a place for the curious, the hungry, and the not-so-faint at heart.
Take a walk through this massive market and you’ll get a great glimpse of what modern life in Cusco really is.
12. Temple of the Moon
It was here in this lesser known ritual cavern that I first had the privilege to experience something truly shamanic.
During a horseback excursion through the Cusquenan region, we took a quick detour to visit this lunar temple. Upon entering through a passage in the rock side, I noticed a man dressed in average attire murmuring something unintelligible near a huge rock altar. Above the altar, shone a beam of light that illuminated the rock below, just perfectly.
This, I was later to find out was meant to allow moonlight on certain occasions to pierce the dank darkness of the cave, and to be utilized for ceremonial purposes.
It was then, after admiring the ambiance that the murmuring man invited me to lay on the altar so he could do energetic healing on me in true Andean fashion.
He blew an alcoholic liquid over my body and chanted a soothing prayer in Quechua. My whole physical body and emotional state instantly felt lighter. It literally changed my life forever – I’ve been fascinated with Peruvian spirituality ever since.
The temple is located on the outskirts of town and can be reached via foot, taxi, or as I chose – on horseback.
Qenko, meaning zigzag or labyrinth in the local Quechua language, is a ceremonial complex housed within a ginormous monolithic rock. Complete with embalming and sacrificial chambers, here the Inca would perform spiritual rituals.
Embellishing the perimeter of the site are 19 carved niches claimed to house Inca mummies on notable days of the year, such as the summer solstice which happens in December.
It is conveniently located near Sacsayhuaman, The Temple of the Moon, and Tambo Machay, making it another ideal stop on our list.
14. Puka Pukara
Sitting between Qenko and Tambo Machay lies Puka Pukara meaning red fortress. It’s believed to be constructed with haste to protect the Cusco region from an imminent threat from jungle tribes that would migrate from the Amazon region.
Not a whole lot going on to pique curiosity here, but Puka Pukara makes for a great place to check out on your way to Tambo Machay.
15. Tambo Machay
A tranquil royal spa, Tambo Machay doubled as a royal bathhouse and a place of worship for those who would pay their respects to the water deities. Cleverly designed, the Bath of the Inca or Banos del Inca is a great show of Inca ingenuity. Aqueducts and canals, showcased by classic Inca infrastructure, makes this site is a true example of the engineering capabilities the Inca Empire possessed.
It is the furthest site on the outskirts from Cusco apart from the Sacred Valley and can be reached via bus, taxi, or a city tour.
16. Museo De Arte Precolombio
Once a ceremonial court in Inca times, it was eventually purchased by the Continental Bank and re-purposed as the only museum in Peru devoted to Pre-Colombian art. Inside you can find over 400 works of historic Peruvian art, hand picked from 45, 000 pieces that were housed at the Larco Museum in Lima.
17. Coca Museum
Coca(Erythroxylum coca) the main source of Cocaine may not be the demon we’ve been led to believe. On it’s own, the leaves are nontoxic containing a minute amount of the drug. Here, in the Andes, locals worship the plant and have been using it for eons as a sacrament, tonic, and mild stimulant.
Chewed into a quid, made into tea, or infused into food and beverage (Coca-Cola for example), the Coca leaf has been proven to improve soroche (altitude sickness), stomach ailments, headaches, etc.
For a deeper look into the historical use of this sacred plant, take a visit to the Coca Museum. Located in the San Blas Square, look for its small sign hung over a door to the left of the plaza.
18. Choco Museum
If you’re a chocolate fanatic like me, then you’re going to LOVE the choco museum. Free to enter, the museum offers a delicious glimpse into the chocolately past of Peru.
You’ll learn how its made, the cultural importance, where to find it, and get to try a few samples along the way. Don’t miss this yummy pit stop on your tour of Cusco, Peru is one of the worlds BEST sources of chocolate, so it’s sure to hit the spot!
19. Museo Inka
A smaller museum on our list, yet one to please any enthusiast of the Inca culture, is the Museo Inka. Inside you’ll find mummies, pottery, weapons, silver and gold idols, and textiles. Be sure to admire the colonial architecture on your visit!.
20. Casa Concha Museum
Harim Bingham, the English explorer accredited for discovering Machu Picchu and bringing it into the scope of western society, is also known by many as a thief. After announcing his big find to the world in 1911, the excavation of this sacred site commenced. Over 4000 artifacts and treasures were shipped from their native land to Yale University for further study.
Way to go, Harim.
After many years of squabble and deliberation, the artifacts were finally returned by Yale to Peru. 100 years after Machu Picchu’s discovery, the Machu Picchu Museum finally opened its doors. Inside you’ll find 366 artifacts on display which tell the site’s rich history, the people who lived there, and gives a good perspective on Inca lifestyle.
21. Go Salsa Dancing
Dancing is one of the most loving and exhilarating things you can do for body and soul. What better way to express yourself, than by moving to the sound of music. In Cusco, this expression is practiced through Salsa, and the city is riddled with ways to learn.
A great way to do this is to get out and experience the Cusquenan nightlife. Earlier in the night, around 9 pm you’ll see people showing up to clubs like Mama Africa, Inca Team, or Mythology to learn some moves from locals. Each night, there are professional instructors offering FREE lessons to all who show up.
Located near the Plaza de Armas, these clubs cater to different tastes so if you’re around for a few nights, it would be beneficial to a take lesson at each. Cusco has a bustling nightlife, so once you’re done practicing salsa, get out there and break it down with some locals.
22. Learn Spanish
If you’re like me then you absolutely adore the Spanish language. The mesmerizing way the words just roll off your tongue, the sentence structure, the vibe, and the culture that accompanies the language, it’s simply a beautiful way to express yourself lingually.
Spanish is Peru’s first language, along with the native Quechua and Ayamara among many others spoken throughout the central Andes and Amazonian regions. While the country is progressively implementing English programs, there are still many people who do not speak it.
To really get the most out of your trip I sincerely recommend learning Spanish before and after you arrive. This will allow you to really appreciate the culture and shows much respect to the locals.
Even demonstrating an effort to learn will go a long way, and most Peruvians are happy to help the process.
There are many Spanish lessons listed all over the city. A personal recommendation, however, would be the Spanish program at Maximo Nivel located on Avenida El Sol.
A way to really absorb the culture in Cusco is to volunteer. Peru is a country of many riches and treasures, but as you’ll see once you’ve explored the city, it is also one of great poverty. There are many projects in Peru that you can get involved in to contribute your time in giving back a little to a country that gives so much!
The first time I traveled to Peru it was on a volunteer abroad stint, doing childcare work. I hustled very hard for a whole year saving, fundraising, contacting businesses, and collecting donation items to bring to Peru on my mission. At the end of my campaign, I managed to collect over 2000 dollars worth of school supplies, toys, and clothing to bring to the kids at my placement! It’s amazing what you can achieve when you put your mind to it.
A lot of these opportunities are paid volunteering placements, like the one I did with IVHQ. I recommend IVHQ for anyone who is new to traveling, especially in a third world country. The organization was there to help me through the whole process and made me feel safe and secure knowing I was being taken care of.
24. Bus tour
Every day dozens of buses depart from the Plaza De Armas, carting eager explorers like yourself around the city to historical sites and scenes. Many of the places mentioned on our list are included on these stops, and this makes for a great affordable way to see the City, especially if you’re on a tight schedule.
Just show up to the Plaza De Armas and book with one of the many tour agencies scattered around the square, or take a walk around and you’ll surely find an agent keen to situate you.
25. Book a Sacred Valley Tour
Now that you’ve enjoyed Cusco to it’s fullest, it’s time to venture into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, home to many archaeological splendors, spiritual meccas, and of course the famed Machu Picchu. But don’t be so hasty to reach the city in the clouds, The Sacred Valley is a wonder all it’s own and is often overlooked in a lot of respects.
I love the Sacred valley so much, that I lived there for a month in 2017, and another two in 2018 using it as a home base while I explored other regions nearby. I want you to experience the valley just as I have, that’s why I devoted an entire post just to that. Stay tuned as I’ll be releasing it real soon.
So there ya have it! There are so many interesting things to see and do in Peru, and Cusco just happens to be a microcosm of it all. I HIGHLY recommend sticking around Cusco for at least a week or two. With such a concentration of activities to indulge in, you owe to yourself to take soak up as much of this vibrant culture as possible.