Cusco strikes a tricky balance between authentic and touristy Peruvian culture. Travelers, especially young backpackers, flock to Cusco, and the city has responded to them: trendy restaurants, Andean craft stores, Internet cafes, and the hottest discos this side of Lima litter the urban center. Meanwhile, the remnants of Inca and Spanish cultures coincide harmoniously: majestic colonial churches stand beside indigenous artisan studios, and rainbow-colored flags of the Inca Empire fly over the rooftops along modern plazoletas. The city, like the paint on its walls, is vibrant and ever-changing. It’s a town made for people: green benches in calm plazas invite visitors to sit and relax as they enjoy the friendly conversation; and narrow, winding streets heading off into the distance leads to goats and llamas wandering through the streets, friends chattering away in Quechua, and beautiful mountain views. Though Cusco’s largest tourist attractions is nearby Machu Picchu, a traveler can spend weeks just exploring the area within the city limits. Tourists and locals alike love this city, a thriving blend of cultures nestled deep within the towering Andes.
Cusco revolves around the Plaza de Armas. From the Plaza’s right-hand corner (facing downhill), Cusco’s main avenue, Sol, runs toward the post office, bus terminal, Huanchac train station, and airport. Procuradores and Plateros head uphill from the Plaza de Armas and are filled with hostels, restaurants, Internet cafes, and tour companies. The streets behind the cathedral lead uphill from the Plaza to the steep, cobblestoned hills of San Blas, brimming with artisan shops and hip places to grab a bite. The tranquil San Cristobal neighborhood, to the north of the Plaza, sits at the top of the stairs known as Resbalosa.
The Plaza itself is full of places to explore, eat, and relax. Portales (niches) are on each side of the Plaza. As you face the cathedral, in front of you and to the left is the Portal de Carnes, home of some of the Plaza’s more trendy restaurants and clubs. To the left are Portal de Harinas (adjacent to Carnes) and Portal de Panes, with gift shops, pizzerias, and grills. Behind you are Portel de Confituria and Porta de Comercio, the touristy side of the Plaza, filled with tour agencies, casas de cambio, and small stores hawking cheap textiles and memorabilia. To your right (and adjacent to Comercio) is Portal de la Compania, virtually empty except for a few interesting signs and occasional graffiti. Next to the Portal de la Campania is Portal de Carrizos, with an expensive pizzeria and high-end luxury-item stores selling jewelry and quality textiles. In front and to the right is Portal de Belen, containing a few more restaurants and a supermarket.
Most sightseeing in Cusco requires a tourist ticket, since paying for individual entrance fees is not possible at most tourist ticket locations. Whether it’s the Capilla de la Sagrada Familia, the Museo de Arte Precolombiano, or the Tower of Pachakuteq, there is plenty to see here.
Short on time, but don’t want to miss out on the best of Cusco? Here are our recommendations. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Cusco is known is for its cuy (guinea pig), trucha (trout), lechon (roast suckling pig), and rocoto relleno (chili pepper stuffed with meat, vegetables, and spices, then wrapped in dough and fried). Picky eaters need not worry, however, as the streets around the Plaza de Armas tempt diners with international cuisine. Many a backpacker has been known to spend all his soles at these Mexican, Italian, and Japanese establishments. Should you grow tired of such pricey options, walking a few blocks down Loreto leads to local joints serving cheaper menus. Also, markets spring up on practically every block, and for pennies you can grab a can of soup, a couple pieces of fruit, and a box of crackers to make yourself a cheap, filling meal.
The menú is common fare is Cusco (as elsewhere in Peru), providing a multi-course meal (usually a salad/appetizer, entree, dessert, and drink) at a fixed, usually quite reasonable, price. Particularly in tourist-ridden Cusco, many restaurants offer menus that cater to international tastes. Some establishments have a pre-set meal-of-the-day, others work a la carte; in any case, if you want a square meal at a square deal, opt for a menu.
Foreign invasion of Cusco has made java brewing, java selling, and java consumption a top priority – say goodbye to Nescafe. By day, cafes serve breakfast and sandwiches. At night, they transform into multilingual conversation parlors.
Many of Cusco’s museum, not surprisingly, feature paintings from the Cusco School. This prominent colonial school of art spread throughout South America from the 16th to 18th centuries and include mestizo as well as indigenous painters. As a result of this mixed heritage, even painting on Christian themes incorporated a great deal of Andean symbolism: backgrounds are painted with local flora and fauna and biblical figures wear Inca costumes. Much of the cusqueno style focuses less on depicting scenes than on portraying specific figures in specific details; figures such as saints and angels are often richly adorned, wearing sumptuous gowns overlaid with gold to simulate brocade. Often the canvas carries an internal frame of flowers or iconesque episodes from the subject’s life. Also on display is the gradual assimilation of Catholicism into the indigenous consciousness. One anonymous painting features Jesus in a wine-press full of grapes, stamping the grapes and bleeding generously from his five wounds into the juice while his overjoyed disciples wait greedily by the spigot.
Marcos Zapata, who is credited with the Last Supper painting in the Cusco Cathedral at which Christ dines on cuy, is one of the best known Cusco School artists; many others remain anonymous.
While the rest of Peru plods steadily along from day to day, every day is a party is Cusco, at least in the month of June. Each morning, a band marching through the streets awakens groggy tourists – cannon fire and firecrackers guarantee that no one sleeps too late. The Plaza de Armas empties of its normally ubiquitous taxis, only to fill with locals scrambling over each other to catch a glimpse of the day’s parade (the luckier ones stake out spots on the balconies that overlook the Plaza). Huge stadium speakers in front of the main cathedral introduce each act as it passes by: choirs in traditional dress sing highland songs, children gleefully perform well-rehearsed traditional scenes and traditions, and families parade behind the crests of their saints. When the sun sets at the end of the day, fireworks light up the sky before the procession fizzles to a close and the blue-clad street cleaners begin their task of cleaning up for the night, prepared as always to do it all again tomorrow.
No one here needs a reason to party; if you ask a local what a particular procession is about, he’ll likely respond with a simple “Es una celebración” (“It’s a celebration, silly.”). In reality, Cusco’s celebrations are a mixture of religious and secular, historical and modern, indigenous and colonial – the essence of mestizaje. One day the people might celebrate their Quechua heritage and descendancy from the Incas; on the next, they will celebrate Catholic saints and the holiness of the Virgin Mary, it may be that an Inca ruler marches by shouting mandates and raising cheers from the crowd, followed by a group of miners shouting praise for the positive contribution that mining has made to Peruvian society.
The festivities reach their frenzied climax between June 16-24, building up to Inti Raymi. While finding a warm bed to sleep in isn’t too hard, flights to and from Lima are filled to the brim in the last two weeks of June, so make your travel arrangements well in advance. The government publishes a schedule of the month’s festivities, available at the municipal tourist office or at iPeru.
Of course, June isn’t the only festive time in Cusco; Cusquenans greet the new year with the symbolic Entrega de Varas, the passing of the wooden scepter of power (vara) to the Mayor, or Varayoc; at the end of March, Cusco and the surrounding areas host the Fiesta del Sara Raymi, or corn festival, and the celebration of the Senor de los Temblores, or Lord of the Earthquakes; on December 24, artisans on Cusco’s main plaza celebrate Santuranticuy by selling religious figurines to liven up many a Christmas nativity scene.
One of the most exciting festivals in Cusco is Semana Santa, the week before Easter, when El Senor de los Temblores parades through the Plaza de Armas; Corpus Christi, with its processions and abundant feasting; and, most importantly, Inti Raymi (June 24, around the winter solstice), the world-famous festival of the sungod. Cusco goes crazy as thousands of people fill its plazas to witness fireworks, dancing, parades, and hundreds of pounds, of confetti strewn across the ground. Meanwhile, an elaborate pageant at Sacsayhuaman reaches new heights of revelry with song, dance, and the climactic sacrifice of a llama.
You’ll never go thirsty for a beer in Cusco – that is, if your beer of choice is Cusquena. Although the city’s many foreign-owned pubs have brought international brews such as Guinness, Bass, Foster’s, and Budweiser to the Plaza de Armas, only you can decide if a hometown high is worth the price. Maybe if you grab enough of the free drink coupons that local club promoters thrust at plaza-strollers, you’ll be able to afford it. However, those suffering from altitude sickness should be careful; alcohol affects the body differently at higher altitudes, tending to make acclimation worse.