Cusco, What’s Not to Love | Peru

Often times we view stopover cities as just that, a stopover. Not Cusco. This vibrant city in the Andes holds its weight against big hitters. Come and explore what it has to offer, you aren’t going to regret it.

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Every trip I’ve taken has had some underlying mission attached to it, one thing I absolutely must check off. Whether it be scaling a volcano (check), diving with whale sharks (check), or trekking the Andes (checks all around), there was a holy grail of this trip: setting foot in Machu Picchu. In any other travel year, this would’ve been as simple as flying to Cusco, taking a few buses, and a train, having some snacks and you’re there. If I’ve learned anything in my years of traveling nothing is ever that simple.

At the time of writing Peru is still struggling internally with a corrupt government, country-wide protests that I’ve seen more than 50 civilians dead, food shortages, and disarray in everyday life. I landed on December 8th, 2022 in Lima where a day before their former president attempted a coup that sent the country slowly spiraling out of order. While backpackers and tourists attempt to mull over their options for seeing some of the amazing sights the country had on offer, the locals were fighting a battle of survival all their own. Needless to say, more important things were at play than my ass getting to see everything.

I weighed my options and chose to head to Bolivia (more on my week there in a later post) to let things cool off in Peru. Eventually, I decided that it was time to head back into the Andean nation and test my luck. A 15-hour bus ride, quite possibly the longest I’ve been on, from La Paz to Cusco safely saw me through on January 3rd, one day before protests were to resume. Things in Cusco, as they seemed in Lima, were business as usual. Tourists, locals, and the ever-persistent travel agent made you feel right back at home, on the surface at least.

There was no plan for Cusco aside from trying to get to MP as quickly as possible. With the situation changing almost on a daily basis, this made planning very difficult. So what do you do in this predicament? I ended up taking a few days to acquaint myself with the support town, though calling it support town is by itself an injustice, before making hard reservations about getting to the Incan site.

Exploring Cusco — Because You Should

Stroll Through Plaza de Armas

Arguably the epicenter of Cusco, where life comes bustling at you in the form of locals, tourists, and the alpaca or two or five. A square surrounded by shops, eateries, and cafes has become the meeting point for everyone day or night. You could grab a coffee from one of the second-floor cafes or bring it to the park bench in front of the fountain to people-watch. If you aren’t careful you’ll lose track of time. Half of its perimeter is occupied by Catedral de Cusco and Iglesia de Cmpana de Jesus, ensuring church bells ring throughout the day with the occasional spotting of the clergy walker-bys.

Watch out for the hustlers trying to sell you a painting from their briefcase only to quickly ask if you want drugs after the mention of no. Don’t forget about the sweet ladies trying to make a soles or two pimping out their alpacas for a photo, you take a photo of one and the rest comes running. I found myself here every morning or evening either going to or from somewhere and disregarding the hustlers and alpaca gangsters, it started to really feel like a path to home each time.

Take a Cooking Class
Some of my favorite things to do on trips are to gorge myself on the local cuisine. Eating any and everything that is appetizing, and exotic (to me), and allowing my taste buds their due glory. But something better is to take an entire cooking class in local fare. I’ve done many writeups in the past so this is just my suggestion that you do it. And by suggestion, I mean YOU HAVE TO DO IT.

I signed up for an evening class through Cusco Culinary and the experience left me more than just satiated, I was blown away by the professionalism and plethora of food information. Who knew pisco sours (synonymous with Peru) had its start out in life as a whiskey sour? Not I! Through Chef Jesus’s course, I learned how to make said pisco sours, three different types of ceviche, native potatoes and moraya cake, mushroom quinotto (quinoa + risotto), and assorted Peruvian fruits topped with chirimoya cream.

During my course class, I was their sole student. The reach of the protests has started waning into local businesses, and cooking classes are no exception. Speaking with Chef Jesus on the matter gave me incredible insight not only into how he became the proprietor of the joint but also into how the political turmoils have affected business. Or in this case me as the business. Despite the situation, I had an amazing time with the Chef and the food was simply astounding. Since then I’ve recreated a few recipes to overwhelming approval. Check them out if you’re in Cusco!

Visit the Museo de Chocolat

Chocolate lovers rejoice for there is a museum dedicated to everything decadent. It’s no surprise that some of the best chocolate comes out of the Andean region and rightfully so. If the Swiss, renowned for their chocolate, buys all the best raw cocoa beans from your country, you got something to boast about. Museo de Chocolat is only one corner street away from Plaza de Armas making a nice break in the day from your souvenir hunting.

But did you know you can also learn about the origins of chocolate AND make them here?! That’s right you can sign up for their chocolate-making class and learn until your heart’s content. During my class, of which I was the sole pupil again, I learned the chocolate cultivation process all the way to making my own little surprise-filled nougats. Never was much of a sweet person but the opportunity to indulge myself was too great to pass up. After class take yourself around their store and find some nifty little things to bring back for the chocolate lover in your life. Just make sure you don’t finish it all.

Educate Yourself – Museo Inka & Museo de Arte Precolombino
I had a fantastic time at both of these museums, making it an easy choice to recommend to anyone visiting Cusco. Located to the northeast of Plaza de Armas and within a few minutes of each other you can take a deep dive into life before the Incan Empire (Museo Inka) and appreciate the artistry before the Spanish occupation (Museum de Arte Procolobino) thereafter.

The museums themselves are quite small and compact which means you can see both in just a few hours. I especially enjoyed the art museum, you’ll see many fascinating pieces in the exhibits. Take your time in the gold and silver room, the displays are simply immaculate. Plus, the grounds are stunning with a sweet cafe within it.

Souvenir Shop at Artesanias Asunta
You won’t find yourself short of a souvenir shop, this is Cusco, they are everywhere. But where is the best? Or the most authentic? Shop here if finding the best deals and funky gifts are your jams. From magnets to shot glasses, coffee mugs to bumper stickers, whatever kicks you have they have you covered. There’s an art gallery with works for sale, giving you the option of a more intimate souvenir. But I came, as many other tourists/backpackers came for, an alpaca poncho. Sure it’s cliche, but when will I ever be in South America again with the option to pick up a cheap poncho woven from alpacas? I’ll wait.

I encourage you to do your best haggling here, especially if the price isn’t listed, but even if it is, shoot your shot.

Eat Your Way like a Local
There were MANY food options in Cusco that would satisfy even the pickiest of eaters. I tried my hand at a few different eateries, local and international, to get a flavor of the joint. Here are some of my favorites when I was there:

  • Alpaca steaks, because you got to try them and they are surprisingly delicious. My top was Kusykay Peruvian Fusion and Yaku Restaurant
  • Get your veggies in at Organika or Green Points Restaurant
  • Homestyle Indian food at Taste of India Cafe Carvalho
  • Stuff yourself with ossobucco at Sagrado
  • Middle Eastern fare at La Casa de Kebab or Rey Kebab en Cusco
  • Need an udon or ramen fixing then your best bets are Kintaro Japanese or UFO Asian Food San Blas (really good curry udon)

One thing I did not touch was cuy, or guinea pig. I saw the delicacy a few times during my stay in Peru but not once did it shout out: eat me. I’m a trier of everything but this one particular dish I couldn’t stomach … just by looks alone. However, head to Mercado Central de San Pedro if you’re feeling a traditional market.

Soak in the Sights at Mirador de Plaza San Cristobal
A very short uphill walk from Plaza de Armas lives Plaza San Cristobal, a church on a hill, who would have thought. I am by no means a religious person but found myself here after aimlessly walking the streets of Cusco one morning and I’m glad I did. The overlook down towards the plaza is stunning, tiny little red terracotta-laced shingles lined the square while big valleys further beyond trace the skyline.

Grab a beverage of choice, a seat to plunk down on, and watch life pass by below you. An occasional nibble from an alpaca is not entirely out of the question.

I’ve never considered Cusco to be a support town and my week there cemented that notion. Often we associate a super touristy destination, in this case, Machu Picchu, as the main destination, and any stopover point to get there is just that, a stopover. Not Cusco. The city is vibrant all on its own. You can dive deep into the Inca civilization of old, enjoy all the immense eateries just minutes’ walk away, and indulge in the flavors locally and nationally. What I am trying to say is Cusco’s more than a stopover, it deserves your utmost attention and time. When you go you’ll know what I mean.

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