10 Things to Do in Cusco That Aren’t the Inca Trail
Featured destinations: Cusco
Published 25 November 2016
The high altitude city of Cusco has so much more to offer than it is given credit for, and is often overshadowed by its status as ‘The Gateway to the Inca Trail’. However, it’s absolutely bursting with flavour and colour and deserves infinitely more attention than as an acclimatisation stop before heading into the hills.
My boyfriend and I spent a week roaming the Cuscenian streets, nibbling on treats and getting under the skin of Peru and we quickly fell in deep, deep love with the place. So, whether or not you are tackling the almighty hike to Machu Picchu, Cusco is a must for any traveller to South America.
Chocolate and cocoa beans
1. Taste your way through the Chocolate Museum
A visit to Cusco’s Chocolate Museum is a hedonists dream, and trust me when I say, it’s as amazing as it sounds. And it’s free. You’ll be given chocolate to sample as soon as you walk in the door, followed by chocolate tea and hot chocolate and chocolate Pisco and a lesson in making chocolate and OMG.
Alpaca steak at Plaza de Armas
Man, do the Peruvians know how to cook. I would even go as far as saying that Peru has the best food in the world, it’s that good. Snack on tapas at the gorgeously cool and Mediterranean Cicciolina, cook your own alpaca on a stone at Uchu or, if steak is your thing, Baco served up the best-tasting slab of meat I’ve ever put in my mouth. If you’re after a quirky and kitsch experience, Fallen Angel does not disappoint, on either flavour or decor. Lauren and her boyfriend at a cookery class in Cusco image: Lauren Williams
Lauren and her boyfriend at a cookery class in Cusco image: Lauren Williams
3. Take a cooking class
Once you’ve eaten the delicious food, you’ll want to learn how to cook the delicious food. We booked a class with Marcello Batata and it was one of the best evenings we spent in town. Not only do you learn how to make ceviche and cook lomo saltada like a pro, but you’ll also get a history lesson in Peruvian cuisine and a plethora of mind blowing tasters throughout the night. You’ll leave stuffed and so satisfied you’ll feel like you won’t need to eat ever again.
Lauren hikes Cristo Blanco image: Lauren Williams
4. Urban hike to Cristo Blanco
To get the best view of Cusco, you’ll need to make the pilgrimage up hundreds of steep steps, through communities seemingly toppling off the side of the mountain, to Cristo Blanco. The going is tough, that altitude will get to ya, but the sight of Cusco settled in a bowl of peaks brushing the sky is unrivalled. If you decide to walk on further, be aware of muggings and feral dogs.
5. Drink Pisco!
It’s practically a rite of passage to drink Pisco until you’re sick in Cusco and every local you speak to will let you know, with passion, that Piscos are much better in Peru than they are in Chile. Every bar in town sells them, but for a Pisco menu with every flavour combination you can think of, head to the Pisco Museum. I’ll have a classic sour if you’re buying.
Plaza de Armas, Cusco
6. Watch the world go by in a terraced bar on the Plaza de Armas
Cusco is full of the weird and wonderful - from bedraggled backpackers to eccentric artists peddling their work to anyone who dares to make eye contact. The madness is best observed on a cramped terrace squashed on the outside of a bar, legs precariously stretched out on the railings, beer in hand. Beware the Irish Bar if a hangover isn’t on your to-do list.
7. Take a tour of Cusco Cathedral
The Incas had an excellent sense of humour, and although the Spanish tried to squash their traditions and persuade them that Pacha Mama was the incorrect God of choice, they retaliated in true passive aggression. A tour of the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin in the Plaza de Armas is the best place to see this rebellion, but be sure to hire a guide to point out all details and stories.
Cloth for sale in a Cusco market
8. Ramble the markets
Sunday is market day, and San Pedro Market is awash with old women in traditional dress, skinned cow head dripping from the ceiling and fresh fruit smoothies. It’s as close to real Cuscenian life as you’ll get and where you’ll find the best bargains for rugs, blankets, food and gifts to take back home. Note, if you buy something big and send it home, it can take up to 12 weeks to arrive.Lauren and her boyfriend at the top of Cristo Blanco image: Lauren Williams
9. Go to a traditional Peruvian dance show
If things that are so bad they make you belly-laugh are your thing, you cannot miss the Peruvian Dance Show that comes free with the Cusco City Pass. My only advice - sit near an aisle or near the back for a swift exit after twenty minutes. It’s terrible, but great for the laughs.
10. Learn about how great the Incas were
They knew that the world was round before anyone else did and quarried huge, perfectly sized and shaped rocks from 50 miles away to make their temples. They knew about the solstices and planned their crop rotation, rituals and calendar around them - all to be credited to their habitual ayahuasca trips and serious astrology knowledge. If you’ve no intention of going to Machu Picchu, or even if you do, then Saksaywaman (or Sexy Woman as the guides like to call it) and Ollantaytambo are where you’ll get your Inca history fill. Take a guide, or they’ll just be a pile of rocks with little meaning.
Lauren Williams is the author of The Enjoyable Rut, a rum drinking and adventure seeking travel blog.
If Lauren's inspired you to book the next flight to Peru, check out Round the World Experts' In the Shadow of Machu Picchu small-group Journey or chat to your Expert to tailor-make your Cusco holiday.