When was the last time you stood in the capital city of an empire? How about two empires? At 11,000 feet? Well it’s about time you packed your bags, started your BUCKiTDREAM planner and headed to Cusco. This astounding city literally has history coming out of the walls, due to the great Inca people and the Spanish Conquistadors that followed (“Are you Inca or Incapable?” a popular joke amongst tour guides in regards to the Spanish trying to match the Incan architecture). If the city itself was not enough to tick something off your BUCKiTDREAM list, how about one of the great wonders of the world and best treks to get there, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail?
Now that we have your attention, check out below everything you need to know about the historical capital of Peru.
A Walk Around the San Blas Neighborhood One of Cusco’s oldest districts, this is not to be missed. You’ll when you’ve arrived by the distinct blue doors and window frames. Amongst the twisting streets, you will find local galleries and stalls selling handcrafted jewelry, clothes, and souvenirs, making San Blas the best place in town to pick up a little memento from your time here. Don’t forget to bring your camera as from this part in town you will get some of the best views of the city and the surrounding mountain range.
The Heart of the City, Plaza De Armas Bars, restaurants, cafes, shops, historic churches, impromptu Peruvian dancing, Plaza De Armas has it all. Be sure to head to this hotspot via the quiet pedestrian alleyway of Loreto, which has Inca walls made of stacked rocks so snug you can’t slide a piece of paper between them – ancient architecture at its best! This is a perfect place to take five by the beautiful gardens and fountains and soak in the sights and sounds of the city. Be sure to visit the Plaza by night as well, as this is when it really comes alive!
Savor a Sample or Two at the Museo Del Pisco As the locals proclaim, Pisco is, “A drink that brings smiles and happiness, camaraderie and spirit.” Need we say anymore? Peruvians are inherently passionate people and no more so than when it comes to Pisco. Museo Del Pisco is a perfect place for combining the soul of Pisco with modern surroundings. Serving up a huge selection of Peru’s favorite elixir, from regional tastings through to the famous Pisco Sour, in almost too many flavors to count! They also do excellent food, which you may well need in order to soak up all the beautiful booze.
Get an Education in Chocolate at the Choco Meseo Who isn’t a fan of chocolate? This is a great spot to come and unwind after a long day of sightseeing. Just off the Plaza de Armas, this museum is more than just a craving to indulge as it provides a deep history of how chocolate came to be, as well as chocolate workshops, chocolate factory, and a café. Depending on how sweet your tooth is, you may say this is more important than Machu Picchu.
Get a True Sense of History at the Inca Museum Just a block away from the Plaza de Armas, this modest museum has the best collection of Inca artifacts found anywhere in the city, from metal work to mummies.
Witness a Clash of Cultures at Qorikancha and the Convent Santo Domingo If you want to experience Inca ruins, this stunning temple-cum-church can’t be missed. Known as the ‘Golden Courtyard’, Qorikancha was one of the grandest temples in the Inca Empire. After the Spanish Conquest, however, it was torn down and the church of Santo Domingo built in its place. Both European and Inca architecture can still be seen.
Get your Feast on at the Corpus Christi Festival If you are visiting Cusco in June, it will be hard to miss this one; celebrated throughout the whole Peru, Cusco throws the biggest fiesta! This colorful festival is a daylong procession that culminates in the main square. Not just for the religious, this festival is a chance to experience a true Peruvian tradition and also sample a chichi (a South American beer) or two.
High-end Set inside a former palace and convent, you can’t get more exclusive than the Belmond Palacio Nazarenas. A beautiful complex comprised of 55 suites and just a stone’s throw from the heart of the city, it also boasts Cusco’s only outdoor infinity pool.
Medium Hotel Rumi Punku is a super spot to rest your head if you don’t want to break the bank but are still after very pleasant surroundings. Located in the historic San Blas district, you won’t be short of a good vista or museum nearby.
Budget Situated about half a mile from the main square, Ukukus Hostel is the perfect place for any true backpacker. Cheap and cheerful in the best possible way, rooms range from large dorms up to private rooms. On your walk into town, you will be sure to find some hidden local spots that will be worth checking out.
Before you continue reading, it is imperative that you put all thoughts of your childhood pets out of your mind. This may seem like an ominous request when discussing food but during your stay in Cusco, it would be a sin to leave without trying cuy (pronounced kwee). There is no easy way of saying this, so we’ll just dive straight in: cuy is guinea pig, cooked and served whole; for those of you still reading, your courage will be rewarded. One bite of this local delicacy and your guilt will melt away as the tender meat, spiced with herbs and garlic melt in your mouth. You won’t find a more authentic dish, as cuy has been enjoyed by the Andean people for over 5000 years…say what you like, it’s certainly stood the test of time! Make sure you order in advance at places like Pachapapa to guarantee a plate.
For those with stricter morals (and/or fonder memories of Fluffy and Nibbles), there are plenty of options for you to enjoy the local and not-so-local cuisine, with a decent meal waiting around every corner. A great place to start is the Plaza De Armes, as the center of the city is alive with locals and tourists alike. Stroll a couple of blocks in any direction and you are going to find a cozy little off-the-grid hideaway or a plush joint such as LIMO, a stylish contemporary restaurant complete with its very own pisco bar.
What might surprise you the most are the choices available. Stroll a few minutes south and you’ll find French-influenced haute cuisine served on white tablecloths (see Le Soleil); reset and head north for a block and you could end up in a 7-tabled eatery scoffing traditional Peruvian dishes (alpaca skewers can’t be missed).
Cusco is not unlike most cities; the closer to the hustle a bustle of the center, the more you will pay. If you want to rub brightly colored woolen elbows with the locals then a sense of adventure is needed; a left on Santa Monica, right down Av El Sol, past a street you won’t remember and you’ll be sure to find a number of hidden gems ready and willing to give you a hearty breakfast, lunch or dinner fit for an Inca or conquistador alike.
Drinks and Nightlife
While Plaza Del Armas is the place to be at any hour of the day, the square simply comes alive at night; altitude sickness be damned, nothing slows down the Andeans! From hostel dives to high-end bars, Cusco has it all; you’ll even find a slew of Irish pubs around the city, but we recommend going native and eschewing imported Guinness for local pisco. There’s no getting away from the heritage of this city, so make sure that you pack your best salsa moves and be ready to use them at any moment. After one too many pisco sours, there is no better way to cure a hangover than enjoying an early morning view of the mountains that surround this fascinating city.
Tips and Culture
Getting around Cusco is surprisingly easy by foot but you have to remember that you’ll be 11,000 ft above sea level, so altitude sickness is a high possibility. If you are unlucky enough to be afflicted, fear not; here are some tips to get used to that high!
Stay hydrated and eat high-calorie meals; this is advice that your parents have been giving you your whole life – never has it been so useful.
Give yourself time to adjust; two or three days should be sufficient but patience is the key.
If you are feeling a bit ‘above the weather’ (get it?) make sure you take it easy on all accounts – no alcohol, smoking, excessive exercise, sleeping pills, etc.
If you’re saving your legs for the treks then you’re in luck as Cusco is crawling with taxis that are regulated and all charge a standard rate (although they don’t have a meter). When making your trip to and from the airport, leaving the hotel or traveling at night, it is advised that you call and book one just to be on the safe side. This is a large bustling city, so better judgment should always prevail.
If you have time in between packing and noting down all the activities that you want to do in you BUCKiTDREAM app, try and practice your Spanish. Although many of the citizens will know English well enough for you to feel comfortable, there is nothing quite like chatting to a local in one of their native tongues.
It’s got to be Machu Picchu. While not strictly Cusco, you can’t miss a chance to see one of the great wonders of the world. 50 miles northwest from Cusco, above the Sacred Valley, lies one of the last bastions of the great Inca people that remained untouched by the Spaniards and undiscovered by the outside world until 1911.
Depending on how adventurous you’re feeling, getting there can either be a 4-day trek (with the ultimate reward at the end) or can be done in the day via rail and light hiking. Arranging your travels can be done online prior to your trip or at one of the many adventure excursions found around the city.
Cusco, Peru is a journey back in time as well as being home to one of the great wonders of the world. If you have a passion for history, climbing, trekking or just a really, really good view then this has to go on your BUCKiTDREAM list. Use the app to keep track of how far back in time you go and just how much fun it is!
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