3 Days* in Cusco
Once the capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco was taken over by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century. Pizarro didn’t exactly treat the natives gently, but luckily aspects of the rich Incan heritage survived the crusade and the city is now an interesting hybrid of indigenous and Spanish influences.
Today one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, Cusco deserves to be more than just a stop on your way to Machu Picchu and 3 Days* here is the perfect amount of time to get acclimatized to the altitude (3,400m/11k ft).
Day 1* in Cusco
If you fly into Cusco from Lima, try to snatch a seat on the left side of the plane. As you descend over the terracotta roofs the view of Cusco nestled into the Andes Mountains is spectacular.
The altitude might pose a challenge so get yourself a large supply of coca leaves to chew on or make a brew of. A little bitter, the locals swear by it and my arm didn’t need twisting. If you’re really nervous about altitude sickness, get yourself ChlorOxygen.
A leisurely stroll through the historical center of Cusco is perfect for the first day. Plaza des Armas is the vibrant heart of the city where the conquistadores flattened the city’s temples down to its earthquake-proof foundations and simply erected their own buildings right smack on top.
Don’t miss the Cathedral, ideally during a time when the indigenous Quechua choir is practicing or performing. Their hauntingly beautiful songs are still etched into my memory. Also check if any processions are scheduled while you are there. They’re a fascinating glimpse into local culture and traditions and worth taking in.
As you explore the narrow streets around the center, the layers of complex history will quickly become apparent and you’ll catch glimpses of this radiant Quechua culture. Also named the Guardians of the Potato, their culture centers around ‘ayni’, a concept that stands for mutual help and community – refreshing. Besides farming, textiles and fabrics are an integral part of life, which allows travelers to bring home radiant multi-colored blankets and cozy Alpaca ponchos.
To me, the most fascinating aspect of the Quechua culture is their spirituality which emphasizes the worship of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and nature spirits while also embracing certain Christian beliefs… a fascinating mosaic.
From Pachamama to Pachapapa, where you should treat yourself to a high-quality, traditional Andean meal (the alpaca skewers are delicious) after which you're probably ready to hit the sheets. Altitude and all...
Day 2* in Cusco
Splurge on a private taxi for more flexibility and make your way towards Ulubamba river in the Sacred Valley. For about $60 you get a 5-6 hour trip. Stop at an alpaca/llama farm, watch women weave the exquisite Peruvian fabrics, wander through small villages and browse the Pisac market. Most sellers offer generic touristy souvenirs but some of the stores around the main market square sell some of the most beautiful antique textiles that are worth the extra $.
Squeeze in a succulent lamb dish or Thai-Peruvian concoction at Mullu to sate your hunger and if Machu Picchu is miraculously not on your agenda, visit the Pisac ruins as a substitute. Back in Cusco it’s time for an affordable and delightful foot massage in one of the many central parlors.
After a stroll around the bohemian San Blaz neighborhood, that’s more charming after sunset, ready yourself for an unforgettable dinner – for better worse… guinea pig (cuy).
Yep… sorry. Roasted and without their fur those little fuckers look rather foul and gnawing on their rodent bones and crispy skin takes some sac but is well worth it. If you’re decidedly anti-rodent, they have less challenging dishes on the menu as well. Kusikuy Restaurante is one of several good options for your guinea pig feast. Check!
Day 3* in Cusco
Get lost… wandering through the city, map and agenda free only with the huge Cristo Blanco statue as your North Star is one of the best things to do here. Peak in alleyways and little galleries, watch locals schlepping their baby livestock around town, take one of the many stairways up for a stunning view of the city and work up an appetite for lunch at the Mercado Central de San Pedro; a must see.
Hit up the juice (jugos) isle, try Andean bread and cheese or a corn soup with the locals. While some stalls look somewhat casual in their food preparation, they all adhere to a quality standard that’s relatively safe even for the sensitive traveler.
If you haven’t stocked up on textiles, try Centro de Textiles Traditionales where 70% of the purchase price actually goes back to the weavers. Likely accustomed to the altitude by now, you can treat yourself to some dreamy sunset Pisco Sours at Chilcano Pisco Bar and continue to dinner at Cicciolina’s - not to be confused with the busty Italian porn star of the same name. Homey and adorned with paprika garlands this eatery serves a lot of tender meat (there are some similarities to the Italian ‘actress’ after all) and the Mediterranean/Peruvian tapas will end your stay in Cusco on a culinary high note.