Most visitors to Cusco only briefly pass through town on their way to catching the Inca Trail or train to Machu Picchu. But don’t worry, even if you’re only here for a quick 24-hour stop (or shorter!) before heading back out, you’ll still have time to see the sites. Our local Cusco tour guides have offered up their tips for making the most of a short visit.
Start your day with a stroll around the city centre and surrounding streets. At this time of day, the streets are almost empty of people and you can really imagine what the city must have felt like back in the time of the Inca, with water canals running through the streets, before colonial houses were built over Inca foundations.
From Plaza de Armas, walk five blocks to San Pedro Market for a bit of shopping alongside locals. This massive market is where locals and tourists alike come to buy everything from fresh produce to blankets made from alpaca wool. The morning is the best time to see the market come to life, so take your time and enjoy watching the interaction of locals and vendors (and maybe buy a few souvenirs for yourself!).
From the market, head over to Qoricancha, the historic Sun Temple of the Incas and the holiest shrine during the Inca empire. The afternoons can be very busy at the temple, so check it out in the mornings when you can look at your leisure without fighting the crowds.
Grab lunch at Deva Restaurant on San Agustin Street, a restaurant that uses only locally grown ingredients and crops that are native to Peru. The restaurant is dedicated to preserving traditional Peruvian dishes from both the Inca and colonial periods, with a few modern fusion influences. Dig into traditional fare like peske (wheat stewed in chilies and Andean cheese), sara lawa (a creamy corn soup with huacatay herbs), or slow-fired guinea pig.
Walk off all that quinoa and guinea pig with a visit to the nearby MAP Museum, also known as the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art. Here you’ll find both pre-Inca and Inca artifacts — there are more than 450 pieces on display dating from between 1250 BCE to the fall of the Inca empire in 1532 CE. The collection includes ceramics, wooden sculptures, utensils, pieces of gold and silver, and items made from bone and shell. The colonial building that houses the musuem is interesting in its own right — it was the site of the Inca ceremonial court in 1450 CE.
The museum is in the bohemian district of San Blas, so while you’re here, take a wander around the colourful streets. Every store looks like a museum — beautifully decorated with art both handmade and machine-made. The streets are very narrow (with very narrow sidewalks, so tread carefully!), which makes San Blas a lovely spot to get lost for a few hours.
Stick around in San Blas for the evening, as this artsy neighbourhood is just as beautiful after dark. Grab dinner at Pachapapa Cocina in the Square of San Blas, a charming restaurant owned by a local Cusqueña and serving neo-Andean cuisine.
The airport is a mere 20 minutes away from Cusco’s city centre, so it won’t take you long to squeeze in some sightseeing either before you board your plane out of town or take off for the ruins beyond the city.
To make the most of a few hours in town, head to the main Plaza de Armas, where you can visit the Catedral Basilica de la Virgen de la Asuncion and see the Peruvian verison of the famous Last Supper painting — in which Jesus Christ is eating guinea pig (painted by Marcos Zapata in 1753). Spend about an hour exploring the plaza and inside the cathedral, then hop in a taxi to San Cristobal for a great bird’s eye view over the entire city of Cusco.
(Lead image by Patrick O’Neil, Intrepid Travel)
Cusco is a city full of hidden secrets and mystical tales. Dodge the standard things to do in Cusco and uncover some of these untold stories with a local guide, journeying through this incredible part of Peru to explore the lands of Inca legends. Alternatively, cool down your Cusco travel experience and simply learn how to make a crackin’ Pisco Sour!