Cusco, the fascinating cultural capital of the Cusco Region in south central Peru, is well known as the starting point for treks into Machu Picchu. Guiding Peru suggests the following 10 best things to do in Cusco during your first few days of acclimating to the high altitude of the Andes.
#1 San Pedro Market
For anyone looking for Peruvian souvenirs, this is a must stop. While there are many shops and stands around the city, this is as local as it gets. Here, rows and rows of booths sell everything from Alpaca sweaters and blankets to freshly butchered meats and coca leaves, freshly prepared fruit juices and more. San Pedro Market is the cheapest place to buy gifts in this region of Peru, without sacrificing the quality. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, try out one of the local stands in the back of the market serving inexpensive and tasty lunches.
#2 Plaza de Armas
The Plaza the Armas is the historical main square of Cusco, and one of the most visited locations in the City. This main square is a lively urban park surrounded by colonial architecture. It is home to several churches, including the small Iglesia del Triunfo, the first Christian church to be built in Cusco, the city’s Cathedral, completed in 1664, and the beautiful Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus, built by the Jesuits in 1576. The fountain at the center of the plaza features a staue, which points towards the hill on which the Inca site of Sacsayhuaman is located. The shops and restaurants surrounding the Plaza are on the more expensive side for the city, but offer unbeatable views.
#3 Temple of the Sun (Qorikancha)
This temple is located across from the Palacia del Inka and was built during the Inca Empire as a place to worship the Sun God. Masses are still held here, to experience some local worship, or you can take a tour of the inside. The Qoriqancha (Quechua for Golden Courtyard) was once known as Inti Kancha or Temple of the Sun. It was dedicated primarily to Inti, the Sun God and was the foremost temple in the Inca Empire. It was literally covered in gold – the walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold. Not only a religious site it was also used as an observatory, where priests viewed and studied celestial events.
#4 San Blas District
Barrio de San Blas is one of Cusco’s oldest neighborhoods. It is often described as the most picturesque area in the city, offering wonderful scenic views. The area is also known for its artists and artisans, whose arts and handicrafts are sold in small shops or on Plaza San Blas. There are many steep steps here with many of the streets designated as pedestrian only. The parish church on Plaza San Blas was built in 1563, 30 years after the Spanish conquest.
#5 Chocolate Museum
Choco Museo is a cute little museum located 2 blocks from the central square (Plaza de Armas) and it is the perfect stop if you want to relax on a balcony overlooking Regocijo square, after visiting all the churches and Inca ruins in the city. The museum provides a history of cacao and chocolate while welcoming guests with a hot cacao tea and sampling of chocolate. For those wishing to learn more, the museum offers a 2 hour chocolate making workshop with an included cacao plantation tour.
#6 Cristo Blanco
On a hill, overlooking the city of Cusco, and only a 10-minute walk from Saqsaywaman, is the statue known as the “White Christ” or “Cristo Blanco.” The towering statue of Christ greatly resembles the “Christ the Redeemer” statue atop the Corcavado in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Cristo Blanco statue was a gift and erected by a group of Christian Palestinians who were seeking refuge in Cusco in 1945. Cristo Blanco represents a symbol of their gratitude to the city of Cusco, for accepting them into the community.
#7 Sacsayhuaman Ruins and Q’uenqo
Located on the outskirts of the ancient Inca capital of Cusco. Sacsayhuaman rests on a mountaintop, and consists of three outer lines of gargantuan walls, 1,500 ft long and 54 ft wide, surrounding a paved area containing a circular stone structure believed to be a solar calendar. The ruins include a 500,000-gallon water reservoir, storage cisterns, ramps, citadels and underground chambers. Although it is commonly referred to as a fortress, the early discoverers were unanimous in their opinion that it had a reputation as a Royal House of the Sun: Q’enqo is a fascinating small ruin on the road to Sacsayhuaman. The purpose of the site is unclear although the construction led the Spanish to believe it was an amphitheater. The main feature is a huge boulder carved out with paths, niches and possible altars – thus the name Q’enqo – labyrinth or zig zags.
#8 Museo Inca – Inca Museum
The Inca Museum has a wonderful collection of Inca and pre-Inca artifacts. The pre-Inca room contains pottery and weavings from a number of early cultures, including Moche, Nazca, Chavin and Wari. The Inca rooms include textiles, pottery, silver figurines, musical instruments, and mummies. It includes a diorama of the Inca’s daily life, a model of a circular terrace (moray) and a rope and mat bridge strung between walls. The building that houses the museum was once the palace of Admiral Francisco Aldrete Maldonado and is a relaxing introduction into the cultures of the Inca.
#9 The Cathedral, Cusco
The Cusco Cathedral, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, was completed in 1654 after 100 years of construction. It is located on one side of the Plaza de Armas and is the main church of the Archdiocese of Cusco. The location for both the Plaza and cathedral was chosen because it was a significant Inca site – the palace of the Inca king Wiracocha. The construction used many stones from the nearby site of Sacsayhuamán. As well as a place of worship it has become a museum for the colonial art of Cusco, containing archaeological artifacts. Adjoining the cathedral but set back from it are the Chapel of the Sagrada Familia (on the left when looking at the cathedral) and the Iglesia del Triunfo or Church of Triumph (on the right).
#10 Museo de Plantas Sagradas
This museum is a one of a kind in the entire world. Learn about the various local plants and the uses that the Incas and Shamans have known for hundreds of years. Explore the history and workings of Peruvian medicinal plants, sacred plants and hallucinogenics. Highlights include displays on coca’s 8000 years of cultivation. The dioramas are in Spanish, with English-speaking guides available (S4 per person) to explain. There’s a gift shop with quality natural products and a fine cafe in a private upstairs patio.