Cusco Vacations – Adventures In The Archaeological Capital Of The Americas!
The city of Cusco is one of Peru’s most important – and most visited – travel destinations, and for good reason: this was the heart of the Inca Empire, a place where all the myth and legend of ancient Andean societies found their most visible and enduring expressions. And that legacy is everywhere; in the city’s great ruins and the enormous stone walls that remain standing to this day, in the surrounding villages that have been continuously inhabited for countless centuries and in the faces of the Quechua-speaking locals – people who have seen empires come and go, while their culture and traditions remain as vibrant as ever.
But what what you won’t read in most of the guides is that all is not necessarily well in this most popular of popular tourist hotspots. Cusco is a city inundated by visiting outsiders, flocking to experience the city’s stunning architecture and its proximity to Peru’s other major draw cards, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.
Cusco is struggling under the strain of its own popularity and it is hugely important that visitors are mindful of their impact on the city, environment and culture that they are visiting. This covers the obvious: try to limit your environmental impact and not worsen the city’s congestion problem by zipping around in taxis or small tour buses, ask before taking anyone’s photograph and don’t be surprised if your subject expects a Sol or two in return.
But also try to learn a little about the culture you’re visiting before you arrive. Understand that indigenous Andean communities are often more conservative than Hispanic Peruvians and Westerners, and that for them, many of the must see tourist sights are actually deeply sacred places.
Cathedral Of Santo Domingo
The Plaza de Armas is Cusco’s old colonial centre, dominated by the Cathedral and several churches. The Cusco Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, is a very fine example of a colonial cathedral. By visiting this local landmark, you will learn a great deal about Peru’s history, art, and culture.
Thanks to its prominence on one of Cusco’s main roads, the Avenida de Sol, the cathedral is simple to locate.. This impressive building cannot be missed when you are touring through the city. It is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco. Next to the Cusco Cathedral, you will also find the Iglesa del Triunto. This building is important because it was the first Christian church to be built in the area.
What is interesting to note is that on the same site there was previously an Incan temple called Kiswarkancha. About 100 years before Spanish colonists came to the region, this palace was for Virachocha who was the ruler of the kingdom. After the conquistadors arrived in 1559, they replaced this ancient temple with this cathedral and built it at the foundation of Kiswarckancha. The new church took almost 100 years to complete and was finally finished in 1654.
The Cathedral of Santa Domingo and its Gothic- Renaissance style was designed by a conquistador named Juan Miguel de Veremendi. Obviously, the plan of the Spaniards was to get rid of the country’s previous religions so that Christianity could to take over. They even took most of the cathedral’s building materials from an Incan structure called Saqsaywaman. Further, the Incas were actually forced to work on this new religious building. While the Cusco Cathedral is shaped like a Latin cross, some Incan symbolism remained. The door to the church is decorated with a jaguar head. The jaguar is a sacred animal commonly used in ancient religious symbolism.
In 1983, the Cusco Cathedral was listed as a UNSECO World Heritage Site. Not only is it a religious center, but also a lot of the colonial art from the city is kept there on display. Fascinating relics that are available to view including a wooden crucifix called the Black Christ. This relic is black from exposure to all the smoke and dust over the years. There is also the Maria Angola Bell, which is a huge bell on the Cathedral’s right tower. Although this bell is cracked, it is still rung every so often. There is also stunning artwork from the Cusco school of Art, which was created by the Spanish to teach the Incans about art. Other notable works include the Christ’s 12 Parables and the Vincente de Valverde.
Overall, for a quick dosage of culture on your Cusco vacations tours of this cathedral is highly recommended.
Ruins Of Saqsaywaman
The ruins of Saqsaywaman sit on a hilltop looking down over the city and are constructed of enormous stone blocks and impressive fortifications, making everyone assume the place was originally a military fortress. But recent discoveries have suggested the site was at least as important as a spiritual centre. Despite this, the jagged pattern of the walls are still recognisable as the fearsome jaguar teeth they were first intended to replicate. Your Cusco vacations are not complete without a visit at this place.
The neighbourhood of San Blas rises up away from the centre on a steep hillside, and his home to a warren of winding cobbled streets, small squares and original colonial architecture. San Blas gets even more atmospheric at night when the area’s bars come alive. Live music and drinks offers can be found in virtually any of the bars around the popular KM 0. They’re all tried, tested and recommended. Just like any other holiday destinations, Cusco vacations should be accompanied with entertainment and nightlife to fully enjoy!
One of the biggest reasons people love to visit Peru is to discover Machu Picchu. This ancient city is situated on top of a mountain and it’s easy to imagine that visitors needed to trek through plenty of hardships before getting to the city itself. It’s suspected that Machu Picchu was built about 36,000 B.C. If you’re interested in visiting the site, there are only two ways to do so. The first is to go by bus and the second is to walk for 90 minutes. Most people choose the bus so that they have the energy to climb Huayna Picchu. If you do decide to climb Huayna Picchu, make sure to arrive early the night before because the climb is limited to only 400 people a day and it can get quite crowded during the popular tourist season.
In simple terms, Cusco vacations must include Machu Picchu….not having this on your list will be considered a sin!
Although it’s near Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley deserves its own mention. This valley is located directly below Machu Picchu, not far from Cusco. Many people who go for Cusco vacations choose to take a guided tour that takes them through the valley and around to local markets. There are plenty of ruins to explore (one of the favorites is Ollantaytambo) and many people report that a single day tour just isn’t long enough to see everything in the Sacred Valley.
If you’re interested in learning how the Incan people used the stars, a visit to Planetarium Cusco is a must. If you go on a clear night, you’ll be able to look up at the same night sky that the Incans did — there’s no indoor ceiling with simulated stars here! If you do decide to go, make sure to wear some warm clothes or bring a sweater because it can get a little chilly. The English-speaking Cusco vacations guides often provide hot drinks and blankets, but the experience is definitely better if you’re not cold!
Samana Spa and Salon
If you’re looking for a little pampering while on your Cusco vacations, head over to the Samana Spa and Salon. It’s located within the city and provides spa services such as massages, pedicures and more. Guests can also relax within the sauna, the steam room and the Jacuzzi. Many people choose to visit the spa after a day on the trails to help rejuvenate their bodies.
Meaning “Cradle of Gold” in Quechua, Choquequirao is remarkably similar to Machu Picchu in structure and architecture. The partially uncovered ruins are estimated to be about 10 times the size of Machu Picchu. A four to five day trek through the mountains to Choquequirao and back will prove itself to be well worth the visit while on your Cusco vacations.
Cusco Vacations Tips
Cusco is a high altitude city. Over 3,300 meters high. And that means very thin air for us sea-level dwellers, which can take several days getting used to. In fact, it’s advisable to work your way up to this altitude and visit some of Peru’s slightly lower sights first – Arequipa and the Sacred Valley are ideal. If you fly straight to Cusco from Lima, expect at least a tinge of soroche (altitude sickness) which can cause lethargy, headaches and vomiting. Don’t overexert yourself, don’t overindulge (especially with the booze), and feel free to try a mouthful of coca leaves, or at least some coca leaf tea, which really does help.
Most visitors to Cusco feel obliged to invest in the boleto turistico (tourist ticket) which is required for most of the city’s museums and other sights. The ticket is expensive though, and although it is valid for ten days, most visitors staying in Cusco for a few days don’t end up getting its full value. Only buy it if you want to visit all the sights that are included, and bear in mind that some of the city’s best museums and other attractions (the ruins of Qorikancha, the Cathedral, the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art and the Inca Museum) are not included.
Saying that, the nearby ruins of Saqsaywaman and most sights in the Sacred Valley are all pretty much must-see places, and they’re all included in the ticket, so the choice is yours.
Best Hotels For Your Cusco Vacations
Some of the best budget choices for your Cusco vacations will be found in the city’s San Blas district. Larger, finer hotels don’t tend to base themselves up here because the neighborhood is a steep climb from the city center and the narrow, cobbled streets don’t allow for the easiest of access.
However, the architecture and atmospheric and ancient winding streets give the district a unique charm, making it popular for budget travelers looking for affordable hostels.
One of the best hostels in the area is the Amaru, located on Cuesta San Blas 541. With characterful rooms situated around a pleasantly tranquil courtyard, the hostel offers a relaxing getaway from the hustle and bustle of downtown Cusco.
For a mid-range choice in the same district, Casa Andina San Blas is an ideal option. Like the Amaru, this hotel benefits from the district’s secluded appeal, and has been created in a well-renovated and perfectly restored colonial stone building.
With wood burning chimneys and various seating areas offering spectacular views of the red-tiled roofs of San Blas, this is the perfect hotel to enjoy this unique neighborhood and relax in comfort and style.
For a higher-end choice, the Casa Andina Private Collection offers some of the finest accommodations in the city. The property is a converted18th century manor house that has been renovated to accentuate the colonial elements including the stone fireplace located in what is now the reading room and of course the colonial courtyards that serve as interior patios for guests to relax in.
A gourmet restaurant serves guests a mix of local and western dishes and a colonial-style bar is also available. In the rooms, enriched oxygen is available for guests to ensure they are comfortable and during their stay in a city at such a high altitude. The decor is simple and elegant Andean chic. If you want to stay at this highly demanded property it is recommended you book in advance.
Cusco Vacations Restaurant Guide
The following four restaurants are locals’ favorites that cover the entire spectrum of price and cuisine. We highly recommend these for anyone going on Cusco vacations:
Baco is a wine and fine food restaurant for those with some cash to spare, and the urge for some luxury. Impeccably designed, it is subtly lit with furnishings and a style that are rustic but elegant. For wine lovers it is a must with a well thought out wine menu from all over South America and for those who are new to the region’s wines they offer a wine tasting menu of flights of 3. The owners and waiters are all friendly and knowledgeable and will be able to guide you to the perfect wine to accompany your meal. The menu is excellent and well done from the starters to the desserts by all reports, but a must try is the Alpaca fillet with wasabi butter, oven roasted olives and sweet oca mash. Spectacular.
Kintaro is a little hidden away, but as you enter you are whisked away from Cusco to calm tranquil Japan. The space is simple and perfect with seating at tables or on the floor and the mood of simplicity and Japanese elegance is carried through in everything from crockery to the bathroom. The entire menu is delicious (and comes with photos, essential for non-regular eaters of Japanese food) and is populated with intensely flavorful soups, rice and noodle dishes and sushi. They have a daily menu where you get a starter soup, a main and an herbal tea for S./15 ($5); try it, your body will thank you for the delicious, healthy meal and the little slice of absolute tranquility.
Obispo is one of the true vegetarian options in the city and another haven removed from the fast pace of Cusco life. It is not easy to find, but there are three vegetarian places in a row on this street, all with chalk boards outside advertising their daily specials. Obispo offers a wonderful menu for S.7 ($3.50) which includes a soup, mains and herbal tea which is the perfect option for those who are struggling with the altitude and need a light meal. Space is limited below, but head upstairs and sprawl out on some cushions next to low tables, relax and enjoy. The TallarinesSaltado (stir fried noodles) is the vegetarian relative of the famous Lomosaltado (stir-fried beef), one of the bastions of Peruvian cuisine and make a great choice for mains.
Another great option for a quick vegetarian snack is a little kiosk called Prasada just up the road from Obispo where you simply have to stop and pick up some falafels.
Los mundialistas is an icon for the locals and unmissable for some true Peruvian cuisine at its very best. Their specialties are Chicharron and Adobo Cusqueño. The Chicharron consist of chunks of pork and potatoes all fried and top quality – this restaurant has been serving locals for over 30 years and has built its reputation on the quality of its food. The plate is garnished with red onion and mint and a spectacular salsa that combine to give you a glimpse into pork heaven. The adobo is a rich pork stew similarly robbed from the halls of the gods, the broth made of chicha de jora(an alcoholic maize drink),white wine, a whole swathe of herbs and rocotto, the capsicum sized, fiery Peruvian chili. The best time to go is over lunch time when the pork is freshest, but you will be hard pressed to get a table. If all else fails, no fear, the neighboring restaurants like El Rey are equally worthwhile.
Finally, don’t neglect to head down to the local markets, particularly to the main market near the train station where you can lose yourself amongst stalls selling fresh and wonderful cheeses, fruits and herbs and pick up freshly made juices and local dishes for just a few Soles.
Tickled your taste buds? Ready to sample the culinary delights on your own Peru travel experience? Enjoy your Cusco vacations this year!
Visit the South America destinations category to learn more about best places to visit in South America!