The Perfect Weekend in Cusco

There’s much to see in Cusco and the surrounding area, but you can do a lot if you have three days to explore. Day 1: Visit the Incan ruins at Qorikancha in the morning. After lunch, wander the the Mercado San Pedro, then hike up to Sacsayhuaman for the sunset. Day 2: Take a colectivo to the Sacred Valley, Pisac and Ollantaytambo. Visit the ruins at Moray and the salt mines at Maras. Day 3: Watch Andean life go by at Plaza de Armas, then explore the galleries of Las Blas, the arts district.

Santo Domingo s/n, Cusco 08000, Peru
This Cuzco corner presents a notable juxtaposition between ancient Incan and Spanish colonial architecture. Since the Incas worshipped their sun god, Inti, above all others, this temple in their imperial capital was the most important of the entire realm. It was here that they brought the idols of all peoples they assimilated, to offer them representation as they demanded allegiance in Cuzco. When the Spanish arrived, they tore down much of the temple and built a monastery on top of it. However, the walls that do remain provide stunning examples of pre-Hispanic engineering, particularly the rounded outer wall that can be seen from Avenida del Sol.
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.
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.
Carmen Bajo 120, Cusco 08003, Peru
I planned on grabbing a quick lunch at Pacha Papa, located in San Blas Square, the heart of Cusco’s artist and gallery neighborhood. But I ended up spending a couple of hours in the lovely outdoor courtyard, talking to my wonderful server, Ever, and the owners about Cusco and Peru‘s bright future. They do serve Cusco’s local delicacy, guinea pig.
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!
Ollantaytambo, Peru
Ollantaytambo’s namesake archaeological site is one of the best examples of Incan architecture in the region. It’s easy to spend a half day exploring the temples and other structures there, especially if you factor in time to hike up beyond the ruins. Meanwhile, the quaint town itself remains much as it was in Incan times, with original houses, streets, and waterways. Some buildings are open to the public, offering a fascinating glimpse into a centuries-old way of life. Most Machu Picchu–bound trains leave from the station here.
The stunning landscape of Salineras de Maras features salt pans that are still used exactly as they were at the time of the Incas. As you make your way through the region, you’ll see people doing the backbreaking work of harvesting salt on small family plots. The reward? The salt gathered here is some of the best in the world. Water, naturally salt-infused, flows down from the mountains and settles in the pans. As the water evaporates, salt remains, to be extracted with simple tools. Stop at a store or one of the many small-scale vendors selling the “fruit” of this labor in its pure form or mixed with herbs for use in cooking, bathing, or chocolate bars.
Maras 08655, Peru
Tours of the Sacred Valley, and the entire Cuzco area, often feature side trips through gorgeous landscapes like Moray, an archaeological site with remarkable concentric agricultural terraces. It’s believed the Incas used these terraces—on which temperatures vary 59 degrees Fahrenheit from the top tier to the bottom—as a way to acclimatize non-regional crops for highland cultivation. Even if you don’t find that fascinating, it’s hard not to appreciate the beauty of the spot, and given that this part of Peru is not so heavily visited, it’s a nice escape from the beaten path. The Boleto Turístico covers this admission.
Plaza Nazarenas 144
Like its nearby sister, the Belmond Hotel Monasterio, the Belmond Palacio Nazarenas is a hotel with ancient roots: the onetime private residence-turned-convent—and now turned hotel—has original Inca walls and colonial-era frescoes.

As a newer hotel (it opened in 2012, following years of renovation and restoration), the all-suite property also has plenty of modern touches. All rooms are enriched with oxygen, to help guests adjust to the altitude, and have iPads, WiFi, and espresso/tea bars; depending on the category, they might also have heated bathroom floors, balconies, or original Inca and colonial design features.

Other perks include Cusco’s first outdoor heated pool (with an adjacent pool bar), an intimate restaurant highlighting seasonal ingredients, and butler service for all—just like the Palacio’s original residents would have enjoyed.
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.
Carretera Llaullipata
Cap your trip to Machu Picchu with a pisco sour on the Orient-Express train ride back to Cuzco. After boarding this luxury train for dinner and the return journey, everyone meets in the bar car for a drink. Live music, the rocking of the train, and the excitement from just experiencing Machu Picchu is a buzz to remember. Soon all the passengers are dancing as they travel through the steep mountainsides under the stars. —Lauren Maggard This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image courtesy of Orient-Express
Let the Urubamba River set your course during a thrilling rafting adventure along the Ollantaytambo rapids, available through the Belmond. The river helped form what is now the Sacred Valley, and along the way you’ll not only sense its power, but also get a feel for some less visited corners of the region it created. You’ll pass towering eucalyptus trees and the ruins of Inca terraces and more as you make your way down river, ending with a picnic lunch before returning to the hotel by car. Photo by Rod Waddington/Flickr.
Triunfo 393, Cusco 08000, Peru
One of the city’s top restaurants, Cicciolina offers Italian-style dishes with a Peruvian flair, such as quinoa-encrusted prawns and osso buco with pumpkin ravioli topped by local cheese and a touch of Andean mint. There’s plenty to choose from, including seafood, duck, beef, alpaca, chicken, and even a few vegetarian dishes, as well as perfectly done handmade pasta. You can pick from either the tapas or the full-restaurant menu in the bar area, but not the other way around, so you may want to go twice, as the tapas are fabulous, too. A great wine list and yummy desserts finish out options in a small, lovely venue. Reservations are a must.
The 2.5-hour walk to Mandor Waterfalls starts out from the town of Aguas Calientes and follows railroad tracks along a river, past homesteads and orchards to the cloud forest. While the falls are not as dramatically high as some, the hike is easy and full of local sights with marvelous orchids and hummingbirds abound the trail. Another plus? The water is cool and refreshing, particularly in the region’s sticky climate. Pack a picnic lunch (and insect repellant) and make an afternoon of it.
Avenida Berriozabal, Urubamba, Peru
When you’re considering Peruvian souvenirs, things like coffee, pisco, and alpaca scarves come to mind. But Peru is also known for ceramics, and you can find marvelous examples at Seminario’s. Its founders have taken motifs from Peru’s past and made them their own, offering ceramics that blend ancient and modern graphic designs. Buying a practical souvenir like a coffee mug ensures that your presents will be put to good use, while other more unique and purely artistic pieces can make you look at ceramics in a whole new way. Visits include a short video presentation on the studio’s history, a tour of the workshop and, sometimes, meeting the founders themselves. Warning: the on-site store will likely have you buying as much for yourself as others, but don’t worry—the workshop ships everywhere.
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