Peddlers with the same mass-produced wares, painters accosting you with their portfolios (which look just like the ones you’ve seen 20 times before) and llama-toting hustlers. You’ll find them all high up in the Andes. Without question, Cuzco (locally Cusco or Qosq’o) is most touristy big city in Latin America.
But scrape a bit beneath the surface, and get away from the Plaza de Armas, and you’ll find a wealth of charms that are bewitching, inspiring and, at 11,000 feet high, breathtaking.
No local worth their salt in bad jokes will miss the opportunity to tell you there’s a sexy woman you have to see in Cuzco. She’s big and good looking, but you have to take a taxi to get there.
Don’t fight the urge, and get in a taxi or the city’s surprisingly frequent double decker bus (which affords better views than the taxi) and scale the hill to Sacsayhuaman. The fortress, which is greatly reduced from its pre-Colombian size and grandeur, nonetheless serves as a reminder of the advanced construction and defense techniques the Incas employed to guard their sacred puma of a city, Cuzco.
Nobody’s entirely sure of what Sacsayhuaman means, although some renderings ascribe “satisfied falcon” or “city of stone” to its name. Still, the site has well-preserved zig-zag rock forts alongside stones that are more than 20 feet tall weighing up to 350 tons, and an overlook of the city and the valley that is second to none.
A sunset visit affords a great light on the compound, and some magical shadows (good photo op for those who like taking pics with long shadows), as well as a colorful vista over the city. Don’t forget to turn your head left and see the adjacent statue of Jesus, reminding Cuzco and visitors who ultimately won the day at Sacsayhuaman.
Whisper the name Gastón Acurio in Lima, Miami, Mexico City, and further afield and you’ll encounter reverence and awe (okay, maybe not everyone but he’s pretty popular). The chef, who has taken haute Peruvian cuisine to the world, is at his most accessible in Cuzco at Chicha, where he melds local Andean specialties like cuy (guinea pig) and trucha (local lake trout) with Peruvian classics like causas and cebiches, with modern flair.
Paired with a surprisingly good glass of red wine from the dry southern province of Ica, or a pisco cocktail, you’ll be sampling some of the best modern interpretations of local Cuzco cuisine available, at a fraction of the price in his restaurants elsewhere. Dinner for two with drinks shouldn’t set you back more than US$60.
A cheap place to watch your wallet
You’ll be up early in Cuzco. If it’s not for the uninspiring nightlife, the 5:30am sunrises and the altitude haze you’ll be in your first few days will do it. But don’t sweat it, everyone else is up early too.
Do something off the beaten path and head over to El Baratillo which, depending on who you ask, is a flea market or a smuggler’s paradise. Either way, the market (which gets underway at 5am) is a trading post for the city’s more popular segments, and a browse through the tarp covered streets will unveil a cornucopia of used and new things ranging from knick-knacks, to very used clothing, to knives and even the occasional dishwasher. Paired with food stands boiling over with food you shouldn’t dare to eat (but the smells are delightful), El Baratillo deserves an hour’s stroll.
Don’t bring much other than cash and your hotel key — it isn’t unsafe, but chances are some folks in the market are looking for next week’s items to sell.
Once you’re finished, amble over to Mercado San Pedro to admire the foodstuffs (the ‘animal innards’ aisle is a must) along with the rows of young women selling juices in stands wearing immaculately pressed uniforms. I’d put the food on the high end of the adventurous side, but if you have a strong stomach you’ll probably be fine.
Old world coffee in an even older world
Yes there’s a Starbucks lording over the Plaza de Armas, next to the Cathedral, with the best views in town. But if you want a glimpse into middle-class Cuzco, and the small luxuries of an old-fashioned cafe, stop by Cafe Ayllu on Almagro, between the market and the Plaza de Armas. Grab a table, and dig into a lengua de suegra pastry, or a tostado mixto along with one of their delightfully frothy specialty coffees.
There are more modern places for breakfast and coffee all over Cuzco, but do yourself a favor and take this glimpse into the past, presuming you still have your stomach with you after San Pedro.
It wouldn’t be a backpacker town without a backpacker neighborhood, but the small comfort in Cuzco’s youth center is that it’s visually gorgeous and packs sophisticated food, drink and shopping offerings.
San Blas is a huff and a puff up the hill from the Plaza de Armas, but worth a good two or three hours of exploring. On the way up, don’t miss the Incan walls on Cuesta de San Blas, including the famous 12-sided stone, which will leave you wondering how any of these walls were ever built
The neighborhood is a center of artisans, and while many hawk unoriginal wares on the main square, there are a number of small shops all around the neighborhood selling interesting clothes, souvenirs and other local wares.
My favorite was L’Atelier, right at the end of Carmen Alto. Stop by for more coffee (if the altitude is taking its toll) but stay for the assortment of exciting local wares, including well-designed jewelry, sweaters and shirts, and memorabilia.
I met a very fabulous group of senior Bolivian socialites while 50 miles away in the Sacred Valley, who meticulously told me about their children in the United States, lives in Chicago, and adoration for their new home (of 40 years) in Lima. Walking into Cicciolina, right off the charming Plaza de Nazarenas, I was seated right next to them and knew I was in the right place.
The matriarch looks at me and says, “claro que nos vemos again, ¡somos gente fina!” (of course I run into you here, we’re refined people).
The emphasis here is on local vegetables and produce, along with Andean touches on international dishes. It’s a great place to indulge in a quinoa and local lettuce salad, or even Peruvian yellow potato gnocchi with a sage and butter finish. It’s one of the airier and more pleasant places to dine in Cuzco, and if you’re short on time the bar area serves equally interesting light fare and tapas.
Paving over history
The Spaniards, having just banished the Moors from their kingdom in the centuries before setting sail to the Americas, knew how to impose. Just conjure up the old Mosque of Córdoba in Andalusia, where a Renaissance-styled cathedral was plopped down in the center of the old mosque.
Qorikancha is the mosque’s American cousin of sorts, with a modern convent and cathedral eviscerating the Incas’ once sacred temple of the sun. There’s not much left in the way of Inca ritual or ceremonial evidence, all the gold and other effects were burnt and sold over the years. But there is a wealth of Inca stonework and architecture, along with some informative pieces on the Inca belief system and celestial maps showing how they viewed the heavens.
Pay close attention to the walls, in particular the contrast between the flawless Inca walls on the inside and outside, and the somewhat shoddy imitation done by the Spaniards as they built on top of the old sacred site.
Toast (or malign) a conquistador
While nobody will appreciate a return to colonialism, you can cross the street from Qorikancha and soak up the atmosphere of one of the period’s most important figures. Masquerading as a luxury Starwood property today with a baffling name, the Palacio del Inka had a much more sordid history as Francisco Pizarro’s last home in Cuzco.
Roam the interior for a view of a modern interpretation of a colonial manse, and hang a right out to the courtyard to enjoy one of the city’s most peaceful interior spaces. A pricey but solid drinks menu, including dozens of homemade infusions for pisco and other beverages, is the price of admission to this stunning space.
Pick a plaza
Right after sunset is the best time to stroll Cuzco’s handsome public plazas. Saturday evening sees young lovers, old lovers that are young at heart, locals from far and wide, and the range of international visitors all promenading on display. There are less hassles and hustles, too.
Take the scenic Calle Loreto from Qoricancha all the way to the Plaza de Armas, where you can see the last of the sun dancing off the cobblestones and colonial buildings. Take notice of the handsome lighting on the buildings as you walk on Calle del Medio to Plaza Regocijo. This plaza, just to the west of Armas, is a small and charming place to stroll, without the crowds and nearly as many other visitors as Armas. It’s close but a world away. Tuck into some of the interior courtyards for interesting shopping, including the best alpaca gear store I found in town (there’s a lot of junk and overpriced, frumpy options elsewhere).
Alpaca Tamon, on the way into the interesting Chocomuseo, has lots of interesting, well-designed pieces for home, men, women, and kids (including adorable children’s alpaca scarves). The shop is owned by a Japanese-Peruvian, and has a zen vibe, great prices, and fun products.
Finish your plaza crawl on the louder, more rambunctious Plaza San Francisco, where all the cars from outside the city converge on town as they try to head to the center. It’s not as beautiful as the others, but probably the most useful to local residents.
Tupac Yupanki’s favorite Italian
I really don’t like to fuse one of the Incas’ most revered leaders with a good Italian restaurant, but it’s really not my fault. Instead, let Incanto, a delightful Italian-Peruvian fusion restaurant, do all the talking. Built on the ruins of Inca Tupac Yupanki’s palace right off the Plaza de Armas, this is the perfect place to try Quinotto, which is Peruvian risotto made with quinoa, or raviolis in ají de gallina, a modern take on an old classic.
Paired with a great list of local Andean beers, it’s a nice, relaxed and informal place to end what has certainly been a long day. Bonus points for getting a seat next to the Inca wall.
Pay your respects
Every Catholic (try to follow the metaphor even if you’re not of the faith) goes through a reckoning of sorts when entering a cathedral as a tourist. Is this right? Do I genuflect? How many people have touched that holy water? God, why is the Apostles’ creed so long?
Skip the guilt and visit during Cuzco cathedral’s high mass, at 8am on Sunday morning. If you’re a lapsed Catholic, or not a Catholic at all, you’ll marvel at the cultural adaptation taking place before your eyes. Church hymns in Quechua, Mass in Spanish with saints and reliquaries decorated with indigenous decorations, and a stone in the back of the nave that churchgoers rub for “good energy”.
Stay until the end for the blessings and sprinkling of holy water, and take note of the different things the faithful bring to be blessed. It’s a religious experience, and a good way to end your visit to this mystical and magical city.
Before you head out of town, cross the street over to the Iglesia de la Compañia, where you’ll be able to go underground to see the Inca ruins that now lie beneath the church, as well as climb up to the choir where you can peer out the front window for an unforgettable and airy last glimpse at the Plaza de Armas, high above all the distractions.