Around the World is a travel guide series where readers share what they love about hometowns, favorite vacation spots, home away from homes and everything in between. If you want to learn more, see what places have been covered and/or submit a travel guide of your own, check out the Around the World page.
Today’s guide is brought to you by Judi, who visited Cusco as part of her trip to Machu Picchu.
Cusco is not so much a destination as the launch pad for people preparing to hike the Inca Trail. As far as cities go, Cusco really isn’t. It is called a city, but its compares more closely to a quaint suburb. But let’s focus on what Cusco is. It’s very walkable (unlike Lima) where tourists can enjoy general safety, and polite welcoming people (many of whom speak English).
Those looking for a charming and subdued small-town environment won’t be disappointed. While that’s true, it would be remiss to sit in one’s hotel and not explore this small Peruvian gem, while acclimating to the altitude.
Cusco is the former the capitol of the Inca Empire and has a lot of history behind it. Interesting fact: many believe the city was planned in the shape of a puma, which is very sacred to Incas. Wikipedia has a nice write-up on the history, or consult your guidebook.
What to Do
Before you hit the trail, head first to Plaza de Armas. This is the town square and most of the shops, restaurants and sites you’re going to want to see are located around the Plaza. Chances are it will be a ten-minute walk from wherever you’re staying. Note: Cusco apparently loves a parade. On two of the three days we were in the town there we parades with school children, military personnel, etc. One was long, the other short, both entertaining—somewhat organized happy affairs. (As always, in crowds, watch your wallet.)
Since you’ve made it to the Plaza, be sure to visit Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus (Church of the Society of Jesus for those with rusty Spanish). The church, initiated by the Jesuits in the 1500s, is a great example of “colonial baroque” style in the Americas. The outside is carved stone and main alter is wood covered with gold leaf. It’s spectacular to see.
Note: no pictures allowed inside the Church.
Wander the side streets around the Plaza for the typical souvenirs as well as more unique items like art, or hand knit alpaca scarves.
Tip: stop in a high-end store and feel quality alpaca. Before you buy anywhere else make sure you are getting that same super-soft texture. If it’s not the softest thing you’ve touched, it’s an alpaca blend and buyer beware.
Where to Eat
After all the exploring, a person can work up a thirst. When you’re ready for a drink (adult or otherwise), Paddy’s Pub has earned a good reputation and is a favorite among hikers. It’s right off the Plaza and easy to find. It claims to be “the highest altitude Irish Pub in the World.” The Pub is up a flight of stairs and consists of two dusty rooms. What it lacks in design, it makes up for in other ways. The staff are happy to have you order a water and linger or grab a bite and go. The food is typical pub fare, usual suspects like burgers with a few Peruvian specialties added.
Another one not to miss: Cross Key Pub. It was a terrific place for a meal and I ate their several times. This is a British pub with British fare and an incredibly friendly staff. If you are interested in watching football (US or EPL), they are happy to do their best to accommodate requests. Don’t miss the curry, it was fabulous!
What to See
For my last suggested destination, you will need to hire a taxi, but it’s a destination not to be missed! Work with your hotel to arrange taxi service to Cristo Blanco. The statue surrounds the Mountains of Cusco and you will be treated to some gorgeous views.
Tip: If you negotiate the prices ahead of time, your taxi may also take you to some shops in the mountain area. The offerings are the same as city center but the quality is much better.
As you stroll around Cusco, there are lots of people looking to sell art, jewelry, etc. They can be, shall we say, annoyingly aggressive and persistent. This is especially the case if you demonstrate even the slightest bit interest or engagement. To cut this short, firmly say “NO, Gracias.” That’s the only way people will back off. It’s so common that it’s the motto on a Paddy’s Pub t-shirt.
One Last Thing
If you’ve never hiked at high elevation, consider spending three days here to adjust. Your hotel can help coordinate local activities like horseback riding or even trips to other local towns. Drink a lot of water, coco leaf tea and stay active. It makes a huge difference when you hit the trail. Besides, you don’t want to see Machu Picchu suffering from altitude sickness.
Judi grew up in New England and took her first trip overseas in high school. She was immediately in love with all of it: seeing sites that you read about in history books, mingling with locals, capturing photos and journaling it all. She’s been wanderlust since then.