Cusco is truly a unique place, but if you spend all your time running between the must-see sights, you just might miss it. By exploring the cobbled streets, relaxing in the plazas, and peering over the rooftops, Garren and I learned so much about how Cusco’s people and their history. Not a day went by without a celebration, parade, or festival of some kind filling the plazas of Cusco. Church bells would ring, people would shout, dogs would bark, and horns would honk in a steady stream of activity and sound.
Cusco is a meshwork of cultures that should clash, but somehow don’t. They’ve had time to interweave, creating a whole new culture that is uniquely Cusco. Despite a dark history of conquest and defeat, Cusco is full of vibrance and life. This speaks volumes to the strength of the native Andean culture living on in its people.
Meandering the narrow alleys lined by pristine Inca foundations supporting new mud plaster walls revealed traces of an ancient Inca capital that was razed and rebuilt. People-watching near the churches in the sunny plazas, displayed the lasting influence of Spanish Catholicism, and how strongly it has integrated into the lives of Cusco’s people. Taking in views of the city from Cusco’s hilltop streets, we watched old traditions still alive and well as women wove and schoolchildren danced in the courtyards below. We might have learned these things by visiting the must-see sights, but instead Garren and I just walked. We walked, and we soaked it all in.
Eating and Drinking in Cusco
Museo del Pisco (Pisco Bar, I mean… Museum)
Santa Catalina Ancha 398, near Calle San Agustin.
Pisco Museo is a fun, modern pisquero’s heaven that blurs the line between museum and bar. They have a creative wall mural depicting the history of pisco in Peru and a long list of pisco-based cocktails that will satisfy any taste. I had a cucumber infused pisco cocktail with cointreau, melon, and lime while Garren satisfied his sweet tooth with a strawberry infused pisco mixed with peppermint, orange, and basil. We got our salty snack fix with their traditional toasted corn (the peanuts of Peruvian bars), which was free and delicious. The uniqueness of this place naturally jacks up the prices quite a bit, so I’d recommend going for one drink, checking out the place, and spending the rest of your night somewhere cheaper.
Marcelo Batata Cooking Class
Calle Palacio 135, through the courtyard
What better way to experience Peruvian culture and cuisine than learning from a local chef? I can’t recommend this highly enough! You really can’t talk about Peruvian cuisine without also talking about pisco, so naturally, we learned how to craft knock-out pisco cocktails too. See my previous post: Peruvian Cooking and Bartending Class Goes up in Flames.
Chocomuseo (Chocolate Museum)
Garcilaso Street 210, Overlooking Plaza Regocijo
I have a weakness for all things chocolate, so when I heard there was a museum entirely devoted to this essential food group, I may have drooled a bit. Lily would have been so proud of me. We were too late for the chocolate-making class, but they had plenty of free samples and a little café area with a great view to keep us satisfied.
We learned a bit about the cocoa tree and how chocolate is made from the small exhibits within the shop and I found my new favorite type of chocolate: chuncho. Chuncho is a 70% cocao chocolate made from local Cusco cocao trees and has a very complex, deep flavor. I’ve been looking for it in the states ever since, but with no luck! (Seriously, if anyone knows where I can get this, please tell me).
Bakery Buen Pastor
Cuesta San Blas 579
Super cheap hole-in-the-wall bakery with incredibly tasty empanadas, croissants, and pastries. We’re talking S/.1 ($0.35) for a croissant kind of cheap, and S/.4 ($1.40)for a beef empanada. Pretty awesome, plus it is run by nuns and the profits go to charity. We also filled up on bottled water here since prices were much lower.
Ice cream shop that makes their own cones fresh, infused with vanilla or lemon zest. I was a big fan of their chuncho (Cusqueñan chocolate) ice cream.
Calle Palacio 140
Small bakery with good espresso, hearty empanadas, and beautiful pastries. Oh, and fresh french bread!
I almost hesitate to put this in here because everyone knows about Jack’s and it is very well established on the tourist trail. However, we tried it and I have to say, their veggie burger was really good, and I am not a vegetarian! This place gets busy, so we got there around 6pm and were seated right away. By 6:15 the tables were full and a line had formed. For those with a sweet tooth, the caramelized banana pancakes were a big hit with Garren.
Tourist Sites We Did See (and Liked)
Plazoleta Santo Domingo
Quick and interesting. Easy to wander around in here and look at good examples of Inca stonework. This used to be a grand temple covered in gold, but all that remains of the temple is the Inca stones. In classic Spanish conquistador style, there is a church built on top of the ruined temple.
Museo de Arte Procolombino
S/.20 ($7) adult, S/.10 ($3.50) student
Plaza de las Nazarenas
A small but very impressive collection of pre-Inca artifacts including pottery, wood carvings, statues, and an assortment of jewelry and accessories made of silver, gold, and shells.
Covered by the Boleto Turistico
High above Cusco at the northwestern edge of the city
This is the best ruins site within Cusco. Read all about our visit to Sacsayhuaman: Sounds Like Sexy Woman.
A Dog’s Life in Cusco
We were shocked by the number of stray dogs in Cusco. You can’t go half a block without seeing one. While most of the dogs we saw weren’t in too rough of shape, there were a few sad sights. It broke my heart to think of my own pup, Lily, toughing it out on the streets and scavenging the trash for scraps. Although, she probably would have loved eating from the trash… We were never shown any aggression by any of the dogs, and they are all very used to people, so you don’t need to worry for your safety. Getting a rabies shot before you leave might not be a bad idea, though, just in case.
Cusco is full of life and culture and steeped in tradition, but you’re not going to appreciate it on a bus tour flitting from one must-see sight to the next. Talk to the locals, picnic in the plazas, and gaze over the rooftops. You’ll learn a hell of a lot more.
Make sure to subscribe below to receive email updates, and stay tuned next week for a DIY tour of the Sacred Valley where we explore ruins, markets, and amazing mountain views! Leave a comment below if you agree or disagree with my recommendations – I’d love your feedback!