10 Reasons You Should Discover the Beauty of Cusco, Peru
Located in the heart of the Peruvian Andes Mountains, Cusco is a beautiful, vibrant city waiting to be explored. Once the capital of the ancient Inca Empire, this mountain city is steeped with Inca and Spanish history and overflowing with Peruvian culture. From the breathtaking architecture and lively artisanal markets to the friendly faces and delicious local cuisine, it won't take long before you fall madly in love with this city.
Although this corner of Peru is a popular destination for travelers and hikers en route to Machu Picchu, Cusco is definitely worth a visit, as it has so much to offer and will provide you with an unforgettable experience, not to mention it's one of the few places you'll see llamas freely roaming cobblestone streets! So if you're craving a South American adventure, here are 10 reasons discovering the beauty of Cusco is the way to go, plus some tips to for planning your own journey!
Relish the beauty of the Andes Mountains from your plane side window.
Get your adventure started even before you arrive by taking in the mesmerizing scenery of the Andes Mountains. Running alongside South America's western side, the Andes are not only stunningly beautiful, but they also happen to be among the world's longest mountain range. As soon as you see this awe-inspiring view right outside your window, you'll know Cusco is only a short distance away. And if you look closely, you can even spot some trails along these sculpted hills.
Allow yourself to get lost wandering the city by foot.
One of the best ways to discover the beauty of Cusco is to explore the city by foot. Not only will you get the lay of the land this way, but you will also uncover so many hidden gems! When you start your voyage, expect to find lots of narrow cobblestone streets, charming side shops and art galleries, and, of course, roaming llamas.
You will also come across locals dressed in traditional clothing. Although many residents dress in this kind of attire in their everyday lives, others do so to make money. They will happily welcome photo opportunities, just as long as you tip them afterward. While it is completely acceptable to take photos of or with these hard-working people — with their consent — make sure not to leave them empty-handed as these photo shoots are their job.
If you're interested in joining a guided walking tour, consider Free Walking Tour Peru. Not only will you walk through various neighborhoods around the city and receive local tips on where to eat, what to see, etc., but the tour is free!
Travel back in time in the Centro Histórico.
During your stay in Cusco, you will most likely spend a large chunk of time in the Centro Histórico. Once you arrive to this thriving heart of the city, you will instantly take a step back in time, as it is surrounded by history. Packed with points of interest such as the Plaza de Armas, Cusco Cathedral, and Museo Inka, your eyes won't even know where to gaze first.
Along with centuries worth of heritage, you will also find a lively atmosphere and a plethora of delicious restaurants, cozy cafes, and delightful alleyways. This corner of the city is the perfect place to grab a bite to eat, soak in the Peruvian culture, and spend a lazy afternoon.
Become inspired by the creativity in the San Blas art district.
There is no doubt that the San Blas is one of Cusco's most captivating quarters. Known as the city's historian art district, here you will find beautiful, authentic artwork created by local artisans. From colorful paintings and jewelry to handcrafted collectibles, chances are you will leave this area with several more souvenirs than you had originally planned to buy.
Because this picturesque district is located in one of the steepest parts of the city, you'll not only be inspired by the colorful creativity, but also by the panoramic views of Cusco's warm-toned rooftops among the rugged mountains.
Shop the handcrafted goods created by local artisans.
While the San Blas district is a great place to pick out treasured keepsakes, another beauty of Cusco is that there are a tons of opportunities to shop local handcrafted goods. Along almost every street you'll stumble upon at least several teeny-tiny shops packed to the brim with colorful items. Whatever Peruvian memento your mind can imagine — bracelets, blankets, beanies, scarves, keychains, etc. — chances are you'll come across it at a very good bargain.
And the fact that the majority of these items were handmade by a local artisan makes them that much more meaningful!
Embrace the Peruvian cuisine and chow down on local specialties.
From street stalls and food markets to both trendy and traditional restaurants, whatever type of food adventure you might be craving, Cusco will deliver. The food is not only heavenly, but it is packed with freshness and flavor. And with traditional dishes such as roasted cuy (guinea pig), alpaca, lomo saltado (Peruvian beef stir-fry), and anticuchos, there are so many local specialties to try. Just make sure not to leave the city without trying ceviche!
After chowing down on all the delicious Peruvian cuisine, you might be longing for some American-style comfort food. Have no fear, as Jack's Cafe is here. Located on the way up to the San Blas district, this corner cafe has become quite popular with tourists. And with dishes such as chocolate-chip pancakes and stuffed french toast, it's no surprise why!
Test your own skills in the kitchen by signing up for a traditional cooking class.
Don't just eat the local cuisine, learn to make it! By signing up for a cooking class, you will not only learn how to make a traditional Peruvian meal, but you will also be able to immerse yourself even more in the country's culture.
One of the best parts about cooking classes in Cusco — you know, besides eating your finished dish! — is that most of them include a visit to the San Pedro Market, one of the most well-known food markets in the city, to pick up any needed ingredients. Talk about a full culinary immersion!
Marvel at the vibrant-colored doors peppered throughout the streets.
It's a colorful life in Cusco, especially when it comes to the painted doors. No matter which neighborhood your curiosity leads you to, your eyes will have plenty of opportunities to marvel at the brilliantly colored doors peppered throughout the streets. What fascinated me the most was how no two doors were the same. Whether they varied in shape, size, texture, or design, they each had a different story to tell.
During my street wandering, I did stumble upon numerous encounters of blue doors. But after speaking to a few local residents, I found out this soothing shade of color supposedly brings about good luck!
Embark on a day trip to The Sacred Valley.
If you have the extra time and are fancying wide-open spaces, I would highly recommend taking a day trip to The Sacred Valley. Also known as the beautiful Río Urubamba Valley, The Sacred Valley will provide you with an unforgettable experience. What makes this pocket of Peru so special is the culture. From traditional dress to spiritual ceremonies, The Sacred Valley still maintains much of its ancient heritage in all aspects of everyday life.
While the star attractions tend to be the colorful markets and fascinating archaeological sites still remaining from the Inca ancestors, there is also a long list of thrilling outdoor activities you can partake in — such as rock climbing, zip-lining, and rafting — if you're seeking a more adrenaline-evoking adventure.
Celebrate your journey with a happy hour in the Plaza de Armas.
Located in the heart of the Centro Histórico you will find the Plaza de Armas, the main plaza in Cusco. With an infectious, upbeat atmosphere and plenty of cafes, bars, and restaurants to choose from — many with outdoor seating and balconies overlooking the plaza — this area is an excellent place to spend your last few moments in the city. So whether it's sipping on a pisco sour or another traditional bubbly beverage, cheers to your time in Peru by celebrating with a leisurely happy hour in the square.
Quick tips before you go!
To make your Peruvian getaway as successful and fun as it can be, below are a few quick tips to remember for your visit.
- Allow yourself some time to acclimate to the high altitude.
Because Cusco sits high at over 11,000 feet above sea level, if you've never experienced severe altitude like this before, you will need to allow yourself some time to become adjusted in order to avoid altitude sickness. Fortunately, there are several precautions you can take to prevent any kind of sickness. For instance, be sure to drink lots of water before your trip, during your flight, and once you arrive. In addition, you can also drink coca tea. These tea leaves are perfectly safe to consume and have been used for centuries by the Andean people to help with adjusting to the altitude. Just be careful not to drink too much coca tea, as your stomach might not be used to it. While symptoms of altitude sickness can include fatigue, headaches, dizziness, stomach illness, or trouble sleeping, the good thing is that they all should subside after a couple of days. My best piece of advice is to take it easy during the first few days of your trip. Once you become acclimated, you can then dive deep into exploring!
- Consult with your doctor before you travel.
During my trip to Peru I become severely sick, but it most likely could have been avoided had I consulted with my doctor before my journey. Along with packing over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen and Pepto-Bismol, ask your doctor to prescribe you with medication to treat traveler's diarrhea. (Yes, that is a real sickness and trust me, it's not fun!) While we all hope to never undergo any kind of sickness during our travels, it is always better to be safe than sorry.
- Should you need a taxi, always look for the yellow stripe on the license plate.
Although Cusco is a very walkable city, chances are you will need to take a taxi to and from the airport. Should this be the case, make sure you ride in a cab that has a yellow stripe on the top of the license plate with a red and white national flag on the tag. This marker indicates the car is a legitimate taxi. Occasionally, you will see orange stripes on license plates. Rest assured knowing these tend to specify similar classifications such as airport shuttles, tourist transit, etc.
- When using American money, make sure to bring crisp, straight dollar bills.
While you can use American money during your stay in Cusco — you can even withdraw dollars from many local ATMs — the sol is Peru's main form of currency. So if you're planning to go shopping at the local markets and street shops, along with riding the public transportation and eating at smaller, nontouristy restaurants, you will need to have a pocket full of soles. However, if you do need to use American money, make sure to bring crisp, straight dollar bills, as these are the only ones that will most likely be accepted. When I found a beautiful handwoven blanket scarf — for only $5! — all I had were the crinkled bills I found in the bottom of my backpack. Unfortunately, they weren't accepted so all I could do was take a mental picture of the scarf.