What to see in Cusco

Cusco is the perfect city in which to set off on a variety of excursions, either to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, or in the direction of high, colorful mountains. I liked it so much that I was stuck for a month in Cusco. It is a typical city, not too big, with all the amenities an expat seeks: co-working, yoga studio, nice apartments and hostels, cafes and restaurants. In short, a tourist trap, well done.

Characteristics of Cusco

Cusco, this small town, where you breathe that somewhat mystical flavor, where every plant has its function, you drink tea with “muña,” to digest and with coca for altitude sickness. You add “maca” to every drink for more energy and less stress. There are oils and perfumes that are used for ceremonies. Such as Agua de Florida, which is used to purify environments. Each stone has its own story and the town itself is really very pretty and deserves at least three nights. Especially if you come from a city less than 3,000 meters above sea level.

Raul Valera, Plaza de Armas

Cusco and the altitude

You must, in fact, get used to the altitude. Everyone will tell you pretty much the same things: “Drink lots of water,” “Don’t do any hiking for the first three days,” “Don’t drink alcohol,” “Eat light.” One of the symptoms of altitude sickness, in fact, is digestion. I feel like telling you: listen to these tips, first to last. I have never seen a place with oxygen tanks in hotel receptions. Here Cusco is also this, as well as Inca ruins and mysticism.

Cusco, what to see

Mini-Guide Cusco

Where to eat, where to practice yoga, where to shop, where to drink a pisco sour, and which overnight or multi-day excursions to take in the Sacred Valley and the surrounding mountains. Here is the mini-guide to Cusco that I created for you. It consists of a link with Google Maps pins organized by me and a brief description. Super convenient!

Buy your mini-guide here

I lived in Cusco for over a month and for me it was the ideal place to stay for a few weeks. The reasons I usually stay in one place longer than usual are basically services. If there is a nice hostel, lots of expats or otherwise slow travelers that you can go to because they are more settled than others, a yoga studio, possibly designer, a co-working, you can eat well, and there are many day or weekend trips in the surrounding area, I described the ideal small town.

And Cusco has all these characteristics, making it a comfortable city to live in for some time. Also consider that the people are super nice and helpful. And although it is an extremely touristy place, after all, it is the prettiest town near Machu Picchu, you never feel oppressed. Needless to deny that they will try to sell you anything.

Alejandro Pohlenz, Vinicunca Mountain

1) The historic center

Free walking tour

I definitely recommend taking the Free Walking Tour of the city. Actually, I recommend it for every city. This is a walking tour of the city with an experienced guide. Teachers and history buffs often give the tour. In fact, the tour, which lasts a couple of hours, is not free, but by donation. So at the end of the tour, you can donate the amount you think is appropriate for the experience. There are several tours per day, in English and Spanish. Obviously if you speak Spanish it is better to fully experience the Latin American culture.

2) Markets.

Peru is one of the best eating places in the world. After Italy and Japan. And there are often influences from the latter two as well. While you are getting used to the altitude, my advice is to explore First, I recommend taking the market as a daily reference point. It is open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., although many booths close at 4 p.m. At the Mercado de San Pedro you can shop for groceries, drink a freshly blended juice, eat a typical dish, buy an alpaca shirt, burn the Palo Santo, and it seems that if you know how to look for them, you can even buy sacred and medicinal plants. Of course, you have to know how to make good use of it.

Megan Thomas, Cusco market.

In Cusco there is another market, somewhat more chic and therefore less impressive. I write this because in some countries markets are the places that least entice you to buy food. And Peru is no different. The other market is in the hipster neighborhood that expats like so much, where there are all the right little stores and restaurants, and it is called San Blas, and consequently so is the market. It runs mainly along Carmen street alto or bajo depending on where you are.

On this street you can eat sushi, try vegetarian cuisine, go to traditional cuisine restaurants and trendy places, trying contemporary Peruvian.

3) Carmen Alto y Bajo

Also on the same street, Carmen Alto or Bajo, you can shop and buy typical products, such as blankets and sweaters to take home, made of Alpaca. The beauty of this area is that you won’t find overly commercial stores or large chains, but small businesses, with often unique products. So great destination to buy your gifts.

Willian Justen de Vasconcellos, shopping in Cusco

In Peru, also, perfumes, essential oils, soaps, and body creams go a lot. Anything that is in any way botanical and related to plants and nature. This is because Peruvians definitely have a deeper connection with nature and for them everything is sacred and everything has meaning. I bought a lot of little gifts and useful things for myself at the San Pedro Market, partly because in my stay in Cusco, I went there every day, to drink the legendary juice squeezed on the spot with tropical fruit. In addition to an array of gifts and souvenirs typical of Cusco, you can buy coffee, chocolate, maca (a typical Peruvian energizer), coca leaves, palo santo, teas of all kinds, liquor, salt from Maras, straight from the Salt Flats, and dried, fresh and dried fruits. The quality of the products is very high and it is really inexpensive.

Cusco, the mystical city

And to think I spent a month in Cusco. Nailed down. Basically with this thing that I travel and work, the most comfortable way to be a digital nomad is to plant yourself in one place, for quite a long time, that you can settle in. And Cusco seemed like the ideal place. It was love at first sight. It’s a small town with a historic center, churches, pedestrian streets, all up and down. Read the full article on Substack, it’s in Italian and in English.

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4) Machu Picchu

Aside from sightseeing around the city and going to visit Machu Picchu, which is located well away from Cusco, in fact many choose to sleep in Aguas Calientes, which is perhaps one of the most touristy cities in the world and also quite ugly, if it were not for the river that runs right through the middle of it. The fact is that in Aguas Calientes everyone is trying to sell you something and so all you do is walk down the street and say, “No, gracias.” In any case, I recommend that you sleep at least one night in Aguas Calientes to visit Machu Picchu.

Eddie Kiszka, Machu Picchu

Cusco is the base for a number of excursions, and if you want to turn to a travel agency, I recommend Escapate Slow Tours an agency that organizes more authentic, off-the-beaten-path tours. I have organized my out-of-town tours myself, but I have to say that in this agency, everyone is very nice and willing to arrange tailor-made tours for you if the ones offered are not congenial to you.

5) Sagrado Valley

You could visit Valle Sagrado, the sacred valley where there are a lot of Inca ruins. Before I met her, I thought only Machu Picchu existed. You can do this day hike or stop and sleep in one of the villages such as Ollantaytambo, where by the way it passes by train to Machu Picchu, or Pisac. You can then visit the Maras Salt Flats and go to see the Moray terraces. If you have time, I recommend sleeping there even a couple of nights, because there are a lot of things to see.

Andy Salazar, Palcoyo

6) Vinicunca and Palcoyo

Another interesting stop that you can arrange on your own, or with an organized tour, is one that includes the colorful mountains Vinicunca and Palcoyo. If you don’t have time you’ll have to choose a tour that takes you in a day to visit the famous mountains at 5,000 meters above sea level, and that’s a splurge. Also consider that there will be a lot of people because the tours run exactly the same schedule. So my advice, if you want to book the Palcoyo tour, is to rely on the Escapate agency.

If you want to book the tour to Vinicunca, however, you can use Viator, a very reliable platform when it comes to tours. It offers over 300,000 activities worldwide, free cancellation and a local guide. I’ll leave the options below.

If you are taking a slow trip, you can sleep a couple of nights in Checacupe and from there visit the two mountains by private transportation, i.e., cab. I chose the latter option and enjoyed the landscapes in autonomy and solitude.

7) Laguna Humantay

The Humantay Lagoon is a magical place, and it is also the starting point of the Salkantay Trek, a strenuous trek, which touches 5,000 meters in elevation and takes you directly to Machu Picchu in five days. Getting as far as Lake Humantay, can also be considered an out-of-town day trip, with an early morning departure from Cusco. Consider that all minivans leave and arrive at the same time, usually arriving on site at 11 a.m., stopping for lunch, and leaving at 2 p.m.

Willian Justen deVasconcelloshttps, Laguna Humantay

8) Practice Yoga in Cusco

Separate paragraph devoted to yoga. If I find a nice study around the world, I will mark it here. In Cusco there is a crazy studio called Exhala Yoga and of course it is located in the most hipster neighborhood of the city: on Calle Carmen Bajo, we talked about it earlier. The studio is located inside a four-star hotel called Antigua Casona San Blas and features a beautiful interior courtyard complete with a restaurant, with tables and open fires.

Oksana Taran, yoga studio

The yoga studio offers classes every day, with different styles and teachers, you can choose in two time slots between morning and late afternoon. The classes are in English and Spanish, and I don’t know how they did it, but it is full of expats and travelers. Maybe it’s because we are all looking for that beautiful, designer place to do yoga. Again, as in the case of coworking, the studio is located on the top floor of the hotel, so while you do yoga you can admire the city lights coming on and the rooftops turning orange if you go in the evening.

Spanish Schools in Peru

If you are traveling in South America, speaking Spanish makes a difference, in everyday interactions and can lead you to more local experiences. You can enroll in a Spanish school, and there are several interesting options in Cusco that allow you not only to learn the language but also to meet new friends from all over the world. Another option is that you can learn it online. I use an app called Italki and it allows you to find native teachers from all over the world and for all languages. Lessons are private, one to one, and prices are really competitive; trial lessons are free or cost $5. Then if you want to buy a 10-lesson package, you save money. I, for example, have a Spanish teacher from Buenos Aires, so he speaks with an Argentine accent and each one-hour lesson costs me $14. I’ll leave you the link if you want to try it.

Consider that it is very easy for us Italians to learn Spanish. So if you want to take a vacation to South America, it might be helpful to take a few lessons before you leave. If you are just starting out, you can also look for a teacher who speaks both Italian and Spanish. There are many bilingual ones in Argentina, precisely because Italian immigration has been so strong.

Learn Spanish

Italki is an app that allows you to find native teachers from all over the world and of a lot of languages. These are private lessons, by video call, you can decide the day and time and you can buy packages of lessons to save money. If you want to learn Spanish, use my code. Both you and I will receive a tuition discount: AAaD0EG

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Photo credits: Unsplash

  • Girl from Cusco with alpaca, Peru – Alexander Schimmeck
  • Smile for the tourist, Peru – Alexander Schimmeck
  • Mas amor 1983 (steal my _ _ art)

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