Whenever you mention Cusco you can bet that Machu Picchu isn’t far away from entering the conversation. Cusco is the city you’ll pass through on the way to that wonder of the world, but there are plenty of Spanish colonial buildings, Inca ruins and quaint neighbourhoods to keep you busy before (or after) heading to Machu Picchu. Looking for the best things to do in Cusco before heading to the Sacred Valley? Keep reading!
Fun Things to Do in Cusco
Relax at Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas (or Huachaypata to the Incas) once marked the centre of the Inca world. It was twice the size that it is today and was used for ceremonies and military parades. When the Spanish took over in 1533 they quickly went to work on making Plaza de Armas a grand display of their power and wealth. These days Plaza de Armas is the centre of Cusco’s tourism empire. You’ll find countless restaurants, travel agencies and touts in the buildings lining the plaza. Two massive churches dominate the landscape, and the surrounding streets, which run like rivers into a lake, are home to anything a tourist could dream of. While the touts might be annoying and the crowds overwhelming, Plaza de Armas is a great place to start your exploration of Cusco. Also, one of the best things to do in Cusco is simply sit around at the plaza and people watch!
FURTHER READING: Find out more about Cusco’s unique history.
Explore Saqsaywaman: Inca ruins in Cusco
Easily on the best things to do in Cusco, these rambling ruins on a hill above town form the most accessible large scale Inca site in the Cusco region. Saqsaywaman (which, if you squint your ears, sounds a bit like “sexy woman”) was a fortress originally built by the Killke culture in the 1100’s. The Incas made it bigger and better, and while time hasn’t been kind to these ruins, you can still get an idea of how imposing this site must have been in its prime. The stonework in itself is amazing – huge walls were constructed out of massive pieces of stone without the use of mortar. You can still see some of these walls and marvel at the work that must have gone into them. You can also get a great view of Cusco from Saqsaywaman, which means you probably don’t need to go to the nearby Cristo Blanco (White Christ) viewpoint. You can walk to Saqsaywaman from the centre of Cusco but it’s a fairly steep climb; it might be better to take a taxi if you haven’t yet acclimatised (Cusco is over 3,500 metres above sea level).
Barrio de San Blas
This is the hip, artsy suburb of Cusco and it makes for a great place to base yourself while you explore the city. The streets are a lot less crowded than the areas closer to Plaza de Armas, and the touts and travel agencies are kept to a minimum. The narrow streets are instead home to cafes, stylish restaurants and boutique hotels. We stayed at Pension Alemana; a German/Peruvian owned bed and breakfast. Peter, the German owner, has lived in Peru for over 30 years and is a really interesting guy to talk to. We had a huge buffet breakfast everyday while we looked out over the city below. If you’re looking for a mid-range option with a touch of luxury and great service, definitely check it out. Read a review over at Mismatched Passports.
Our breakfast view
Qurikancha / Convento de Santo Domingo
This place sums up Cusco’s history perfectly. It’s basically a Spanish church built on top of Inca foundations which is now bursting at the seams with tourists. It’s more interesting from the outside, where the two architectural styles combine to create one of the strangest looking churches I’ve seen. While the Spanish destroyed most of the Sun Temple (the most important temple of the Inca Empire) there are still some walls to be seen on the inside. Apparently the temple used to be covered in gold and was an unbelievable site – it really gets you thinking what might have been had the Spanish not arrived.
Museum of Pre-Colombian Art
Visiting a museum is one of the top things to do in Cusco, but there are a lot of them in Cusco and most people won’t come close to visiting them all. We chose the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art and were impressed by the variety of historic pieces on show. There are plenty of Inca artifacts, but the most interesting ones were created by Peru’s older civilizations. It’s a small museum and you definitely won’t get bored, and it’ll be even more interesting to you if you’ve been to some of Peru’s other ancient sites, like Chan Chan and Huaca del Sol (I’ll be writing a post about them soon).
Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley
Cusco and Machu Picchu go hand in hand, if you visit one you’ll almost definitely visit the other. It’s an amazing site and is something everyone should see, but the Sacred Valley is also home to some other impressive Inca ruins. Make sure you spend a few days exploring them. Ollantaytambo is on the way (for most people) to Machu Picchu and is definitely worth checking out, and you can visit Pisac, Moray and Salinas de Maras on a long day trip from Cusco. It’s a unique area and you’ll be missing out if you only visit Machu Picchu.
FURTHER READING: The Wonders of the World: Machu Picchu
Moray, One of the most impressive sets of Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley
Lima to Cusco with Peru Hop
Peru is home to so many unique places and a great way to see some of them is on the hop on / hop off bus service run by Peru hop. You can go from Lima to Cusco, stopping off at Islas Ballestas (some say the poor man’s Galapagos Islands), Huacachina (a unique oasis town surrounded by massive sand dunes), Nazca (for the famous Nazca lines) and Arequipa (a stunning colonial city and gateway to Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world). A lot of people fly straight from Lima to Cusco and skip all of those places, but if you have a few days to spare then I highly recommend taking the scenic route. If you have even longer, head to northern Peru where you can see an incredibly scenic alpine lake, ancient desert ruins and laid back beaches. Peru has a lot to offer, try and see more than just Machu Picchu and Cusco!
Would you like to explore the Inca ruins in Cusco? Are there any fun things to do in Cusco that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Pension Alemana during my stay in Cusco and also worked with Peru Hop during my trip in Southern Peru. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
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