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Cusco Peru: The Ultimate Guide

It’s no secret that we fell head over heels for Cusco! On and off we spent almost two weeks in this welcoming and vibrant city in southern Peru. After the lovely initial impression given to us by its architecture and aesthetic beauty, the city has grown on us thanks to its nonstop energetic scene.

Cusco’s Spanish colonial architecture is striking. The city is dotted with majestic churches, three of the most beautiful ones are built around Plaza des Armas. Intricate wooden balconies from which people can observe life happening on the streets below run right around the plaza too. Throughout our time in Cusco there wasn't one day when the city was not hosting a street party. The first one was a religious party called Corpus Cristi, with street dancing and the infamous Cuy (Guinea Pig) plates on display across the city. Then there was a party was dedicated to school kids, from primary all the way to university, and the dancing in the streets never stopped. It is basically impossible to be bored in Cusco!

 

The culinary scene in Cusco is vibrant. Without a doubt, it’s been the place where we had the best meals in our two an half months in South America. What is even more surprising is the proliferation of vegetarian and vegan restaurants and cafes around the city. The veg scene is bustling and the options are really endless and delicious.

Cusco’s Spanish colonial architecture is striking. The city is dotted with majestic churches, three of the most beautiful ones are built around Plaza des Armas. Intricate wooden balconies from which people can observe life happening on the streets below run right around the plaza too. Throughout our time in Cusco there wasn't one day when the city was not hosting a street party. The first one was a religious party called Corpus Cristi, with street dancing and the infamous Cuy (Guinea Pig) plates on display across the city. Then there was a party was dedicated to school kids, from primary all the way to university, and the dancing in the streets never stopped. It is basically impossible to be bored in Cusco!

 

The culinary scene in Cusco is vibrant. Without a doubt, it’s been the place where we had the best meals in our two an half months in South America. What is even more surprising is the proliferation of vegetarian and vegan restaurants and cafes around the city. The veg scene is bustling and the options are really endless and delicious.

 

Around Cusco there are plenty of sights to visit and you will be impressed by the beautiful natural landscapes of this area. To enjoy it at its best we recommend to take it easy, planning five days in the city, but if you are short on time you can definitely make it happen in around three days.

A CITY
ALIVE IN BOTH 
HISTORY AND MODERNITY

Where to sleep in Cusco

The arresting Palacio del Inka,

A Luxury Collection Resort

Besides its beauty, character and history, what impressed us most about Palacio del Inka was the impeccable service, making our stay beyond perfect. The history of Palacio del Inka is fascinating. Inka Pachacuti constructed the Temple of The Sun in 1483, alongside a series of structures, which today remain as walls within the hotel. As the temple’s antechamber, it could only be entered shoeless out of divine respect. Today, the house represents the heart of Palacio del Inka. After several changes to the property, in 2012 the hotel underwent a year-long renovation that saw the creation of custom-made details to reflect the rich history of the property and in May 2013 it became part of Starwood Hotels & Luxury Resorts Collection.

The details of our suite transported us back in time. The walls were adorned with original paintings from the Cusco School, the ceiling was beautifully hand-painted and from our two little balconies we had a view over the courtyard of original Inca ruins.

 

Our time at Palacio del Inka was filled with activities. You can choose between relaxing in the spa where you can enjoy a sauna, a Turkish bath and a water circuit which will unblock all the knots you might have from all the walking and exploring. There are daily pisco sour lessons, where you can learn and taste the original Palacio del Inka pisco sour, which we can confirm is truly delicious. They suggest to not have more than three a night unless you want to find yourself dancing on tables ;)

 

To learn the history of the property, you can participate in one of the daily tours during which all the secrets of the hotel and its art are explained. Before dinner, you can have an aperitivo with local wine and cheese. Gino, the hotel’s sommelier, will explain to you everything about the local products, some of which are made at the hotel, and then pair them with the best wines.

 

Finally, dinner at the restaurant is an experience on its on. We chose the five-course with wine pairing menu, which over delivered on all aspects. Local dishes, beautifully presented and reinvented in a modern key, served with 5 different Peruvian wines. Safe to say we left in a state of blissful fullness.

FRESH PRODUCE IS KEY

Where to eat in Cusco

Lunch at Las Frescas

We rarely go back to the same place twice, but we made several exceptions for Las Frescas. This cute little lunch or early dinner spot is the perfect place if you are looking for fresh, healthy food. You can make your own salad or choose from a selection of poke and acai bowls, all designed with a fresh Peruvian twist.

 

Lunch or Dinner at Chia

Perfect if you are looking for a fresh and healthy set menu kinda lunch with vegan or vegetarian options! Typical Peruvian ingredients such as quinoa and corn are skillfully cooked into tasty dishes, all for a very reasonable price.

 

Dinner at Organika/Rucula

Organika is a bit of a Trip Advisor star in Cusco and we can confirm that the food is quite exceptional! This very small and unassuming restaurant in San Blas offers amazing dishes prepared with local and organic produce, all of which comes from their Urubamba farm in the Sacred Valley. Given their huge popularity and small size, the owners opened a ‘brother’ restaurant, Rucula, nearby with a similar menu and many more seatings. Both are a must try!

Dinner at El Francesito

For a romantic dinner head to El Francesito. Set within a courtyard of a typical colonial house, with white walls and blue details, this lovely restaurant offers organic food, based on Sacred Valley and Quillabamba´s products, prepared with passion by an expert french Chef.

Coffee shops in Cusco

L’ Atelier by Grid

We fell in love with this Cafe’- Concept store tucked away in between the cobblestone streets of San Blas neighborhood. A mix between a shop and a cafe’, curated in all its details which offers vintage and boho clothing, jewelry and delicious coffees and cakes (also with an extensive vegan menu). We spent hours sipping on perfect drinks overlooking the street from the tables in the little balconies, listening to great music and wishing we could fit all the clothes on the stands in our backpacks!

 

The Churro Bar & Vegan bakery

What attracted us inside this down-to-earth cafe’ was their sign saying that we could refill our water bottles there, following the motto ‘no single use plastic’. We found a very homely and welcoming space with absolutely delicious homemade churros. There was also a very lovely dog that hangs around to make you feel at home.

 

Qura

We had our first taste of kombucha in this tiny little artsy coffee shop and JP was hooked. So much so that we came back a couple of times to buy a bottle. This coffee shop is perfect to have a snack or grab a drink while walking the streets of San Blas. They have a bin dedicated to recycling plastic bottles just outside their door, which we found very handy.

Top 5 things to do
  1. Spend at least one full day walking around the city, popping in and out the numerous churches and museums and eating your way through the city. Some must visit are: the main Cathedral and la Compania in Plaza des Armes, the church of Santo Domingo, the Inca Walls along the streets of Loreto and Hatunrumiyoc, the Inka Museum, the church la Merced and the whole of the San Blas neighbourhood.
     

  2. Day trip to Salineras de Maras and Moray: this is a must do when in Cusco! Both sites have impressive views but different backgrounds. Even though it’s not certain, it is widely believed that this concentric terraces were used by the Incas as agricultural laboratories. They planted different crops at the different levels, which varied in terms of conditions and temperature in order to test crops and experiment with them. I mean, how brilliant! The Salineras de Maras have been in use since pre-Inca times, to obtain salt by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream. Each pond is property of a family and it gets handed down from generation to generation. The beauty of this surreal landscape made the Salineras famous and a tourist attraction. Just before the sun dips behind the mountain at sunset, the ponds light up in different shades of gold, creating a truly fascinating spectacle. You can reach both points of interest with an organized tour or by agreeing a price with a taxi (we choose the second option and paid 200 soles).
     

  3. Day trip to Lake Humantay: our day trip to Lake Humantay was challenged by the cloudy and snowy weather, but despite the climate we were able to admire the beauty of this lake tucked in between the white mountains peaks. The day trip leaves from Cusco at 4.30am and comes back around 6pm, including breakfast and lunch.
     

  4. Day trip to Rainbow Mountain: as many of you know, we unfortunately did not manage to visit Rainbow Mountain (despite trying twice), due to sickness and adverse climate conditions (snow). Regardless, we have seen so many wonderful pictures and heard amazing stories about this site that we definitely recommend you visiting this colourful phenomenon. You can book a tour in one of the many tourist agencies in Cusco. Most tours leave super early, at 3am, in order to reach the mountain in the morning after a 3 hour bus ride and a 2-3 hour hike. It’s supposed to be very tough, but once at the top very rewarding in terms of views (so we've heard)!
     

  5. Visit Sacsayhuaman: another archeological site built by the pre-inca civilization of Killke but then expanded by the Inca. Sacsayhuaman is a citadel at the north of Cusco, reachable by foot from the city. It’s very interesting to see how they built dry stone walls constructed by huge blocks. If you are wondering how to pronounce the name, just say ‘Sexy Woman’ and that’s pretty much correct!

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