Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire, and was also known as the bellybutton of the World. Evidence of Inca culture is everywhere, and Cusco isn’t afraid to cash in on its famous history.
That is what irritated me about Cusco; although beautiful and interesting to explore, at every turn someone was trying to sell me something. Massages, restaurant menus, llama keyrings, photos with a Peruvian Cholita, photos with a llama, photos with a Peruvian Cholita and a llama, scarves, jumpers, fruit, chewing gum, tours of every colour, shape and size. Granted, some of these may be items you want to buy, but not all of them all of the time! Living in Barcelona I got sick of the theme park aspect of it all; wide-eyed tourists gawping and taking selfies at every turn, buying cheap maracas and fans from street sellers when they had nothing to do with the culture or the people of Catalunya. This jaded view took the joy out of Cusco for me; I saw too much theme park and not enough reality.
I arrived in Cusco with the Dragoman group the day before we set off on our trek, and afterwards I stayed on for a couple of days to recover and to see the ‘real’ Cusco, or at least try to. The centre of Cusco around the main Plaza de Armas felt to me as Barcelona did – a victim of its own success, turned into a tourist circus. Others I have spoken to say they loved Cusco, so perhaps I wasn’t in the right place or wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I must admit though that there are definite joys to be found in the city; cobbled streets, Incan ruins and delicious food – but a little more expensive than in the rest of Peru.
It is, of course, the ‘base camp’ for everyone who goes to Machu Picchu, which has over a million visitors a year, an estimated 1.2 in 2013, despite the 2500 per day official limit. Most of the tourist activity in the city is centred round la Plaza de Armas, which is also where our group stayed. It is a good practical base as there are plenty of bars & restaurants to choose from, and tons of trekking equipment shops, tour companies and pharmacies to stock up on insect repellent and plasters for the trek. However, if you prefer to have a little more authentic experience, others recommended the quieter San Blas neighbourhood which has a more artsy feel to it.
Nearby, Sacsyhuaman (we pronounced it Sexy Woman, as I’m sure all English speakers do) is an impressive Inca site, a short taxi journey or 30 minute walk uphill from the Plaza de Armas. The huge fortress was constructed at the head of the puma shape that Cusco is designed around. Its Quechua name means ‘satisfied falcon’, and it proudly overlooked the city below. The huge walls surrounding the fortress are constructed from immense blocks of stone, fitted together with absolute precision. The Spanish used the smaller stones to build their colonial town, so only the larger rocks remain in place today, and have been strong enough to withstand several earthquakes which rocked Cusco over the years. In the centre of the site lies a huge plaza, still used today for performances and celebrations such as the Inti Raymi Festival of the Sun, a theatrical reconstruction of the religious ceremonythe Inca performed on the winter solstice, which takes place on 24th June. To enter the site you need to buy the Boleto Turistico ticket, which includes access to various other sites and museums in & around Cusco, valid for 10 consecutive days from the start date. Visits to Sacsyhuaman, Chinchero & Ollantaytambo were included in our trek package, so in the couple of days I spent recovering from the trek I set about exploring some of the others.
The city centre inclusions in the ticket I have to say weren’t the most impressive attractions I’ve ever visited. But they are free, so some are worth visiting. The Museo de Sitio del Qoricancha was tiny and didn’t include many explanations in English. For me, that was the most disappointing. The Museo Historico Regional is based in original home of writer Garcilazo de la Vega, and includes exhibits on how the Incas lived after the arrival of the Spanish, and those who rebelled against them such as Tupac Amaru. I joined a tour of the museum (in Spanish) but it is also worth spending more times in the rooms to see all of the exhibits, as the guide just focussed on a few key items.
The other free inclusion I visited was the Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo, which has a performance of traditional music & dance in the evening at 7pm, although there are often queues so aim to arrive by 6.30pm. I have to admit, Peruvian singing is pretty bad. The music & dances were interesting, although sometimes repetitive, and some people thought it lacked professionalism, with a school play air to it. I enjoyed it, for free and for an hour I thought it was worth a visit. The lady announcer who explains each dance has a very strong accent though, and even after the Spanish explanation which I understood, I struggled to catch what she was saying in English!
After that interesting experience I decided to treat myself a nice dinner on the plaza, and ate at the Inka Grill. Although pricey, the food was delicious, and a luxurious treat after the trek. Trout ceviche, and alpaca steak with a pisco sour all went down really well!
Other recommendations for Cusco would be to explore the San Blas neighbourhood, with art galleries, a pretty church square and a more local feel, it is worth leaving the tourist trail.
San Pedro market was also one of my favourite places, as markets always show the vibrant side of a city, where locals and tourists bustle around looking for bargains and tasty morsels.
Cusco is definitely the most commercial city in Peru, but it is definitely worth exploring to find the real gems hidden beneath the touristy façade.
Look for other activities in Cusco
Like this post? Pin it to read later:
You may also like: