Note: This entry is part of a series about our 2014 trip to Bolivia and Peru.
Enchanting. There’s a good reason Cusco is full of tourists. The city is built upon Inca foundations with cobblestoned, European-esque streets winding through its red-tiled roofs that fill the valley between majestic, snow-capped peaks. San Francisco’s steep walkways are a breeze to climb, compared to Cusco’s high-altitude, wheeze-inducing steps.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at Amaru Hostal, in the central San Blas area of town. The location was excellent–close to restaurants, souvenir shopping, and a short walk to Plaza de Armas. The staff was friendly and especially considerate when we both became ill. We experienced some of the same symptoms of altitude sickness we had in La Paz, but I think the real culprit was undercooked egg–possibly in a free pisco sour or the lightly scrambled eggs served with breakfast. A good reminder that it’s important to be diligent about what you’re consuming while traveling! We stayed in two different rooms at this hotel–the first was small, awkward, and noisily located next to a set of stairs. The second was off the rear courtyard and was wonderful–cozy, clean, well-appointed. Sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw. The hotel had good wifi, especially in public areas and the courtyards were beautifully landscaped with awesome views of the city.
Things To Do
Upon arriving at our hotel, we met a guest who had been in Cusco for several weeks. He complained that every night loud fireworks would be set off at about 10PM. Apparently there is always some sort of festival to celebrate at all hours of the night! We didn’t know it, but at the time of our arrival on June 6th, the “Festival of Cusco” was getting underway; at least, that’s the name we were told when we asked locals what was going on–when I google “Cusco festivals” the only thing that comes up for June is Inti Raymi, the Inca Sun Festival on June 24th. Obviously, we were a bit confused about exactly what it was we were observing but how fortunate we were to be there then! We got to see children and adults dressed in traditional costume, playing music–mostly flutes and percussion–and dancing all around Plaza de Armas for the three days we were in Cusco before our trek. It was fabulous!
Plaza de Armas
The main plaza is an excellent spot to people watch and to be at the center of action in Cusco. Every time we visited there was something exciting happening–temporary stages, lots of audio/visual equipment, festivities, news crews, port-a-potties–the plaza had it all! Of course, there are some really grand churches you can visit, as well as shops and restaurants. Touring the cathedral, which began construction in 1559, cost S25 and included admission to the two churches flanking it: Iglesia del Triunfo (1536) and Iglesia de Jesus Maria (1733). You’re left on your own to wander, so it was helpful having a description to follow in our guide-book. Displayed in the cathedral is the painting, The Last Supper, by Marcos Zapata, which is known for its main dish of roast cuy (guinea pig) stealing the show. La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus is probably the most iconic church of Cusco’s Plaza and it can also be toured for S10. It was first built in 1571, then reconstructed after the famous 1650 earthquake. It contains Peru’s largest alter.
The Inka ruins of Qorikancha form the base of the colonial church and convent of Santo Domingo. Admission to visit is S10, which lets you wander the beautiful grounds. Qorikancha is Quechua for “Golden Courtyard” and this was once the richest temple in the Inca empire, being literally covered in gold. When the Spanish arrived, the site was looted, with the gold melted down and likely sent to Europe.
We missed seeing Cusco’s most famous Incan ruins, Sacsywaman (pronounced similar to “sexy woman”), due to time restraints and the knowledge that we’d be seeing a lot of Incan ruins in the Sacred Valley and on our Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu. I guess we’ll just have to return to Cusco some day!
San Blas, the area of Cusco where we stayed, offered lots of dining options. Almost every restaurant has wonderful, tasty, wood-fired pizza and free pisco sours. We stumbled upon what turned out to be our favorite place to eat, Encantasa’s Cafe (on Choquechaka Street), and returned at least three times. There we found the best guacamole of our lives! I’m serious. We couldn’t figure out what made it so delicious–you’ll just have to take our word for it or visit yourself. On our final night in Cusco we finally checked out the restaurant right next door to our hostal, Granja Heidi. I’m so glad we did! There seemed to be a French-Peruvian fusion vibe with a nice offering of crepes and other European dishes and a large selection of warm, frothy, delicious milk drinks. We also heard a lot about Jack’s Cafe, a restaurant in San Blas that always has a line of people streaming out the door waiting to be seated. We visited during an off-time and while the meal was good, it wasn’t exactly memorable.
After our Inca Trail and Machu Picchu adventure, we returned to Cusco and flew from Cusco’s airport to Lima. The Cusco airport seemed tiny but I was relieved to be taking a short plane ride after such long (and scary) bus journeys. Stay tuned for more!