Cusco is famous throughout the world, primarily as the gateway to Machu Picchu. But the historic capital of the Inca Empire has far more to offer than just Machu Picchu, and plenty of things to see and do closer to the city. Here we take a look at attractions in Cusco itself, and some sights just beyond the city limits.
But first, it’s worth pointing out that Cusco is a tourist attraction in its own right, arguably more so than any other city in Peru. Just walking through the historic part of the city, all of which is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, is an unforgettable experience. The architecture is fascinating: a blend of impressive Inca stonework and Spanish colonial construction, with Baroque churches and palaces built on top of, or merged into, the older ruins of the Inca city.
As you stroll around you’ll see boutique hotels in what were once the colonial casas of famous conquistadors; restaurants with exposed stone walls of obvious Inca construction; and many more examples of Inca masonry dotted throughout the streets, none more famous than the twelve-angled stone along Hatunrumiyoc Street. So before you start ticking things off your itinerary, just go for a walk in this truly impressive city.
Here’s our list of eight things to do in Cusco.
1. Plaza de Armas
At the heart of Cusco lies the Plaza de Armas, the city’s historic main square, where two flags fly: the red-and-white flag of Peru and the rainbow-colored flag of Tahuantinsuyo, the Quechua name for the Inca Empire. The square is a fine place for people-watching and for admiring the surrounding architecture. Notable buildings surrounding the square include Cusco Cathedral and the churches of Jesús María, El Triunfo and the beautifully ornate La Compañía de Jesús. During the day you’ll often come across colorful street parades in the square, and at night it’s a hotspot for visiting bars and restaurants.
2. Pachacuteq Monument
About 1.25 miles southeast of the Plaza de Armas is the towering Pachacuteq Monument, a 38-foot-tall bronze statue of the Inca ruler Pachacuteq that stands on top of a 74-foot-tall stone tower. You can head up to the top of the tower, passing by a series of exhibits that tell the history of this mighty leader. The views from the top are excellent.
The Coricancha (or Qoricancha) was the most important temple in the Inca Empire. Dedicated to the sun god Inti, it was one of the finest examples of Inca architecture, many of its walls covered in gold. But when the Spanish conquistadors demanded a ransom for the captured emperor Atahualpa, his loyal subjects stripped the temple of its riches to pay his ransom (and despite paying this ransom, the Spanish soon executed him anyway). The Spanish then destroyed much of the Coricancha when they took Cusco, building the Church of Santo Domingo on its foundations. Still, much of the original Inca stonework can be seen, and a good guide will show you the many fascinating details that reveal much about Inca religion and astrology.
Up on a hill just to the north of Cusco sits the citadel of Saksaywaman, a fortified complex with massive terrace walls. The masonry here is some of the finest in Peru, with huge boulders cut to fit with astonishing precision and without the use of mortar. It’s well worth spending a couple of hours exploring the site, and you might find yourself staying much longer than that just to admire the stunning views over Cusco below.
5. Museo Inka
If you want to learn more about the Incas, head to the Museo Inka just one block northeast of the Plaza de Armas. The museum is small, but packed with fine examples of Inca jewelry, metalwork, pottery, textiles, gold and a few mummies. You’ll also find the world’s largest collection of queros, wooden drinking vessels used in Inca ceremonies.
6. Museo Histórico Regional
This museum covers the entire sweep of Cusco’s history, from the Preceramic Period up to the rise of the Wari, Pukara and Inca cultures and beyond. It’s all arranged chronologically, providing an interesting introduction to the history of Peru and the Cusco Region. The museum is housed in the Casa Garcilaso de la Vega, the former residence of the famous chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca noblewoman.
7. San Pedro Market
When you need a break from all the history and want to immerse yourself in the day-to-day life of Cusco’s locals, visit San Pedro Market. Located about seven blocks southwest of the plaza, it’s a lively traditional market selling everything from coca leaves to alpaca knitwear, regional cheeses, and a wide range of fruit and vegetables. There are also plenty of stands selling fruit juices and traditional local snacks.
8. El Baratillo
If you’re in Cusco on a Saturday, don’t miss the weekly El Baratillo flea market. This sprawling market spreads across a few blocks south of San Pedro Market. The amount of oddities on sale here is truly remarkable. Some stalls sell antiques, others sell cheap plastic items and watches of dubious origin. You’ll come across knuckle dusters and truncheons, alpaca scarves and old Peruvian banknotes, plenty of junk and just as many random gems. The market starts at about 5am and it’s best to go in the morning. It has a reputation for pickpockets, so dress down and leave your valuables in your hotel.
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Tony Dunnell is a freelance writer based in Peru since 2009. He’s the owner of New Peruvian and also writes for various magazines and websites. When he’s not walking his dog in the jungle town of Tarapoto, he’s off exploring other parts of Peru and South America.
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