Highlights of Cusco

Cusco is a magical city that straddles two worlds: majestic colonial architecture gives the city a distinctly Renaissance era feel while the abundance of ancient Incan and pre-Incan ruins as well as the colorful indigenous handicraft markets that dot Cusco exude pure native tradition. Visit the ornate churches, flower filled plazas and stone streets of Cusco before heading to the ancient sites of Machu Picchu and Moray. Later, dive deep into the incredible cuisine and booming nightlife here.

Calle 26A, Bellavista 07011, Peru
For those of us used to seeing chicken cut into parts, wrapped in plastic, and cooling in supermarket refrigerators, a trip to a local Peruvian market is fascinating and a bit daunting. At the biggest market, San Pedro, just up the street from the Plaza de Armas, you’ll find fruits, vegetables, alpaca charqui (the Quechua source of our word jerky), pig’s heads, herbs, fruit juices, weavings, and much, much more. You’ll see a fair number of foreigners wandering here as well, so for an experience that feels more authentic, try San Blas Market or Rosaspata, both off the tourist track.
Pisac, Peru
One of the best things to do while in Cuzco is to visit the Sunday farmer’s market in the nearby Andean town of Pisac, taking either a taxi or a more economical bus to get there. The villagers surrounding Pisac come from miles around to sell their products - vegetables, fruits, cheeses, handmade alpaca products, colorful dyes - or barter with other villagers for the things they need. I was struck by the beautiful colors of the clothing that the villagers wore, like these bright “mantas” worn around the shoulders and ornate “monteras” decorated with intricate embroidery patterns. Interestingly, the style and colors of an Andean woman’s montera indicate the specific village from which she comes. No trip to Cuzco is complete without taking time to visit the fascinating Sunday farmer’s market in picturesque Pisac!
Sacsayhuaman is an impressive Inca fortress on a steep hill that overlooks all of Cusco. The ruins are humongous, but archeologists believe that the original site was as much as four times larger. What remains today are the impressive outer walls constructed in a zigzag formation across three levels. As with many Inca sites, the walls are made from massive, irregularly-shaped boulders that stick together like a jigsaw puzzle without any additional support. The stones are laid together so tightly that a sheet of paper will not fit into many of the cracks. As the night comes down, this is a perfect location to appreciate the stars.
Coripata, Cusco, Peru
Cherubs hang from the ceiling and flying pigs decorate the bar. Aquarium bathtubs covered in glass are the tables and funky, modern art with Christian themes decorate the walls. Behind the bar a disco ball glitters the rows of liquor bottles and the bartender. The food is modern and classic: cuy and alpaca along a long list of beef tenderloin specialities.
Av El Sol 395, Cusco 08002, Peru
La Catedral is actually three churches in one, each of which are exquisite. It is decorated in the Baroque style, with more gilt and gold trimming than you can imagine. In order to convert the Incan people to Catholicism, the Spanish used symbols from Incan religion throughout the church. Look for the hundreds of mirrors, as well as the triangle shape associated with the Mountain God. La Catedral hosts a couple of particularly unique pieces, including a Peruvian rendition of the Last Supper featuring a guinea pig as the main dish. El Señor de Los Temblores is a crucifix that stopped the Cuzco earthquake of 1650, and is featured prominently in the cathedral. Pictures are not allowed inside, but the exterior of La Catedral is picturesque both during the day and at night when it’s lit up with the rest of La Plaza de Armas.
Santa Catalina Ancha 398, Cusco 08000, Peru
There’s not a drink more Peruvian than a Pisco Sour. Where better to learn about -- and taste! -- Pisco than the Museo del Pisco? I initially thought that Museo del Pisco was an actual museum recounting the history of Pisco in Peru, but instead, it’s one of the coolest bars in Cusco. The walls are adorned with photos outlining the Pisco making process, while adept bartenders sling drinks using infused Piscos. You have your choice of dozens of infusions, plus you can opt to do the Pisco tasting to get a better handle on what makes a good Pisco. The tasting (40 nuevo soles per person) was much like a wine tasting that you would experience in Northern California. Four Piscos (grape brandy) are delicately poured with their bottles on display. As you sniff, sip and taste each, the bartender gives you the run down on how each is made, where the grapes are from and what you should expect to taste. I much prefer a Pisco Sour to straight Pisco, but it was an enlightening learning experience nonetheless. A must when in Cusco.
The Inca Trail is perhaps the most famous trek in Peru. This is the road to Machu Picchu, an ancient route that leads from the Sacred Valley into the heart of the Andes. You must obtain a permit and hire an official guide in order to hike the Inca Trail proper. There are plenty of tour operators in Cusco that offer trips up to Machu Picchu, so you should definitely look at reviews before you choose. For better or for worse, the tours are all-inclusive. The local tour operators employ porters to carry your packs and set up a camp. A team of local chefs will prepare three meals a day, and many hikers come back raving about the delicious meals. Keep in mind that the trek can be tough, especially in the first few days. The trail is often narrow, and it flirts with formidable heights. The mountains in this part of the Andes can rise well over 13,000 feet, and many hikers find themselves suffering from altitude sickness. Make sure to take a few days (in Cusco or the Sacred Valley) to acclimatize before you begin the journey. Finally: make sure to plan ahead! The Peruvian government limits trail access to 500 people per day, including porters. This regulation protects the local ecosystem and the delicate ruins, and it ensures that the trail won’t be too crowded. However, it also means that permits for the peak summer season sell out months in advance. If you aren’t able to get a permit for the classic Inca Trail, never fear: there are various other trails that lead to Machu Picchu.
Ruta Santisimo Downhill 2, Chinchero, Peru
One of the first stops outside of Cusco was on the Anta plain at 12,375 ft. The 16th century ruin of Chinchero is rumored to be the birthplace of the rainbow. I would be hard pressed to argue those refractions of light could have a more beautiful beginning. A wonderful outdoor market overlooks the ruins and there are many weaving cooperatives to explore in the village. Locals work hard to preserve cultural customs speaking Quechua and wearing colorful traditional dress. By supporting the talented women and buying local you assist in making their lives more self sufficient through their craft. If you’re looking for colorful blankets, I thought this market had one of the best selections.
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Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
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