Colonial architecture, Inca ruins, and a rich history: this is Cusco.
Cusco sits perched high in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, one of the most fertile and historic regions of Peru. It’s a common starting point for travelers seeking to hike the scenic Inca trail, but Cusco is home to many of its own enchanting ruins. There’s so much to do, see and experience here, but if you’re looking to get the absolute most out of your Cusco experience, read on.
1. Plaza de Armas (in Cusco)
This lively square is the heart and soul of Cusco, and you will undoubtedly find yourself here time and time again while exploring the city. It’s full of character and culture, and is the obvious starting place for your Cusco adventures. The main feature of the Plaza is the Cusco Cathedral, which showcases superb colonial architecture and goldwork. The Plaza is also home to the Church and Convent of Our Lady of Mercy, which houses beautiful artwork and a peaceful courtyard. It’s also a primo location for one of my favorite city activities: people-watching. Strangely, it was in this particular square that I had the odd experience of having a cheerful and excited Mexican family with lots of children rush up to me and hand me two of their kids, only to take my picture, retrieve their kids, thank me and wander away. What happens in Cusco, stays in Cusco?
2. Sacsayhuaman (in Cusco)
These impressive ruins are the remains of an Inca military fortress, and sit high atop a hill overlooking Cusco. The walls are composed of large, smooth stones fitted perfectly together without the use of mortar–typical Inca style. This was one of my favorite spots to explore in Cusco; the ruins were some of my favorite in all of Peru (second only to Machu Picchu) and the views of the city below are incredible. I remember thinking that there was something almost otherworldly about how those giant stones looked stacked on top of each other. You can also get closer to the giant Cristo Blanco (White Christ) while you’re here.
3. Pisac Ruins and Market (in the Sacred Valley)
The Pisac ruins are some of the largest Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley–and trust me, they are huge. The ruins themselves are incredibly interesting, especially if you take the time to learn about the history and architectural meaning behind them. Grassy agricultural terraces descend from the ruins down into the valley below, and you can walk down them (or take the easy way and drive) to the popular Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday market. It’s touristy but fun, and even if you don’t consider yourself to be a big shopper, prepare to walk away with at least a few trinkets–I have at least five Peruvian knickknacks on display in my apartment as I write this.
4. Qorikancha (in Cusco)
This site is a prime example of the unique colonial/Inca mix that defines so much of Cusco’s culture. Back in the day (“the day” being the mid 15th century) this temple was entirely decked out in gold–literally covered. Today, all that remains are the stone ruins. This is easily one of the top “must-sees” of Cusco, but touring this place on your own could lead to a somewhat “meh” feeling about the ruins–hiring a guide who can tell you more about what you’re looking at definitely amps up the experience.
5. Ollantaytambo (in the Sacred Valley)
Similar to the Pisac ruins, this site is located outside of Cusco, in the Sacred Valley. To see the ruins, be prepared for a lot of uphill walking through leveled terraces, but in typical Sacred Valley fashion, the views and the ruins themselves are totally worth it.
6. Tambomachay (in the Sacred Valley)
These ruins are small but unique in the sense that they consist of a network of aqueducts and waterfalls that flow through the terraced stones. Don’t come here expecting to be blown away by massive ruins with sweeping views–you’ll be disappointed. What makes visiting these ruins enjoyable is that it gives you perspective into the minds and daily lives of the Inca, making it a very culturally-charged site.
7. Awana Kancha (in the Sacred Valley)
Despite being a bit of a tourist trap, this place is really, really fun. There’s something for everyone here: You can learn about the tradition of textiles in Peru, watch demonstrations of the spinning and dyeing of yarn, check out the on-site museum, do some shopping, and enter the “petting zoo” where you can feed and pet alpacas and llamas. It’s easy to stop by on your way through the Sacred Valley, and is worth it if you’re interested in getting a kind of “Cusco sensory overload” (in the best way possible).
Note: You can access all of the ruins listed here by purchasing a Boleto Turistico (tourist ticket). The ticket covers entry to 16 sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, and is valid for 10 days. You must purchase the Boleto Turistico to see Sacsayhuaman, Pisaq, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero as they do not sell individual tickets.
What did I miss? What are some other ‘Must-Sees’ in Cusco and the surrounding region?