Tamara Hinson explains why it’s worth taking a little longer to explore Peru’s third-highest city.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against Machu Picchu. But I’m also a firm believer that Cusco is much more than simply a starting point for those following the Inca trail to Peru’s most famous world heritage site.
A fun fact – at 3339 metres above sea level, Cusco is higher than Machu Picchu, which sits at 2430 metres. For this reason, it’s worth taking it easy for the first 24 hours, using this time to explore popular sites such as the Plaza de Armas and Cusco Cathedral, on its southern side (head to the choir loft for stunning views over the square) and easily accessible places such as the city’s museums and San Pedro Central market.
This is precisely the reason I start with a visit to the Museo Inka, where there are thousands of artefacts stuffed into the restored former home of Admiral Francisco Aldrete Maldonado. Highlights include the world’s largest collection of queros (ceremonial Incan drinking vessels), the fearsome mythical stone monsters guarding the stone staircases and the dazzling goldwork on display. It’s just a few metres from the Plaza de Armas but once you’re inside, the thick stone walls muffle noise from beyond, and the central courtyard, surrounded by the cornflower-blue, fresco-adorned walls is a wonderful spot for a brief pause. Equally stunning is the nearby Museum of Monastic Life, a dimly-lit former convent where visitors can gain a fascinating insight to the lives of the nuns who once lived here.
On my second day, I’m up at the crack of dawn – not, like my fellow guests, to strap on a backpack and head for the Inca trail (as a side note, I’ve always thought the train is a much more enjoyable way to reach Machu Picchu), but to head over to the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco hotel for a meeting with a very special lady called Panchita. On the way, I spot various tourists handing over piles of Peruvian soles to pose with the baby alpacas (which, incidentally, are almost always lambs) being paraded around the Plaza de Armas by entrepreneurial locals decked out in traditional dress. But what these visitors don’t know is that every morning from around 8.30am, Panchita, a gorgeous alpaca whose fluffiness brings to mind the world’s most beautiful cloud, hosts meet and greets in the hotel’s courtyard – not just for guests, but for alpaca admirers staying elsewhere, such as myself.
This isn´t the only other reason to drop by the Marriott, located in a former convent. This is the only hotel in which having your view obscured by a wall means you’ve lucked out – the hotel’s rooms include so-called wall rooms, which have huge windows looking directly onto thick slabs of Incan-era stonework. The former convent in which the hotel is located was built on Incan ruins, and reminders of two very different periods of history are everywhere – Incan relics discovered onsite are displayed in the hotel’s corridors, and at the heart of the property is the former monastery’s Augustinian cloister. On one of the daily hour-long tours, which start at 6pm and are led by a guide dressed as a monk, I’m shown glass-walled sections of corridor that look out on areas of the archaeological sites, and learn about more recent additions, such as the stunning art installation that dangles behind the reception desk. Made of 6000 Swarovski crystals, it was created in honour of the Incan sun god Inti.
There are similar, smaller tributes to the Incas’ various gods on sale throughout the city, but for souvenirs, it’s hard to beat the San Pedro Central Market. This sprawling marketplace, a 10-minute walk from Cusco’s centre, is a hive of activity, and provides a fascinating insight into local life, because it’s where locals shop, too. Outside, vendors hunker down behind huge fruit grinders, churning out various types of citrus juice, while inside the huge market hall are rows of stalls stacked with everything from alpaca blankets to traditional Peruvian ceramics. One of the most fascinating sections is the one dedicated to food – you’ll see more types of potato than you ever knew existed, alongside various spices, sauces and grains. Both locals and tourists come here for the cheap, delicious street food (I recommend a plate of lomo saltado – stir fried beef) and to stock up on supplies. Which brings me onto the most fascinating area – the one reserved for butchers. It’s admittedly not for the squeamish - at one point, seconds after spotting a huge bucket filled with cow mouths (complete with nose rings), I pass a neat pile of pigs’ trotters.
The third or fourth day of a visit to Cusco is a great to time to check out one of the city’s most important sites – an Inca-era archaeological site easily accessible from the centre. It takes me just 20 minutes to walk to Sacsayhuaman, a former Incan fortress, but it’s a long, hard slog up steep, cobbled streets to the site’s entrance, at the bottom of a small crucifix-topped hill, which is why it’s worth acclimatising before visiting. Famous for its tiered, zig-zagging stone walls, it’s a fantastic example of the Incas’ stonework – the way these large rocks were simply slotted into place with a jigsaw-style neatness thousands of years ago, despite the absence of any mortar-style substance, is testament to their craftmanship. Tickets are relatively expensive for Cusco – 100 Soles, or NZS45 -but these will provide access to three other smaller archaeological sites easily accessible from Cusco’s centre: Qenqo, Puca Pucara, and Tambomachay (I suggest hopping in a taxi to get to the latter two, which are just outside Cusco).
Afterwards, reward your exertions with a plate of ceviche – fish marinated in lemon juice. In Cusco, ceviche is generally made with trout, due to the abundance of rivers and lakes (elsewhere it’s made with white fish). I discover my favourite versions of the dish at Ceviche Seafood Kitchen, on the Plaza de Armas.
The ceviche here is reasonably priced, comes with fantastic views of the plaza and the décor feels truly Peruvian, with beautiful woven placemats and traditional artwork on the walls. And to finish? A pisco sour, of course. Think of it as a toast to those weary travellers navigating the Inca trail and probably wondering why they didn’t get the train (or stick to Cusco), instead.
For more things to see and do in Peru, visit peru.travel/en