Cusco – probably the best-known place during our travels thus also the most visited by people from all over the world. If you haven’t heard of Cusco I’ll only say Machu Picchu and it will ring a bell for most of you. Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire about 500 years ago and therefore you can nowadays still find a lot of evidence of their existence around the city. Ruins are spread in all directions making up one tourist attraction after another demonstrating the skills and knowledge the Incas must have had in their best times to construct such buildings and temples. However, the empire wasn’t meant to last for very long. When the Incas expanded up to Quito, the possible new leader of the Incas was born there. This resulted in internal fights between the Incas based around Cusco and the ones around Quito. Weakened by this “civil war” the Incas then weren’t able to defend their land against the Spaniards that arrived in the 16th century. After the Spanish invasion Cusco had a lot of churches to offer, too, which now characterize the center of the city.
Because of all the different attractions to visit around Cusco we decided to stay a little longer and take things slowly. We were able to work and stay at a hostel for about two weeks and therefore had a lot of time to enjoy the city and visit some ruins around and in Cusco.
One of the best ways to get to know some of the main sites and history of the city is to join a Free Walking Tour. A bunch of different companies offer them all over the main square and around so you cannot really miss them. During the tour you’re shown many different churches but also taken up the hill to one of the most dominant pre-Hispanic sites Sacsayhuaman where you can observe gigantic blocks of stone perfectly fitting together. On top of the same hill you have the huge Jesus statue that according to our guides was given to the city of Cusco by the Jews. We all know that somebody confused something here. Our tour also included a presentation of the alpaca and llama textile production and how the Incas used to color their clothes with natural material, and in the end there was a free Pisco sour for everybody. Except for us – we left earlier because we had this weird feeling that our guide was on some kind of drug. My newly learned tip for any kind of Free Walking Tour in any city: Talk to the guide for a few minutes before leaving and check if it is worth your time.
Cusco with all the hustle and bustle around the main square, the many attractions and all kinds of people selling all kinds of products or services (from massages to earrings to shower curtains), can get quite stressful at times. To get away from it all, however, is not too hard. If you still want to do something sensible there is an unknown ruin complex just outside of the center walking towards the East. We haven’t been there, actually, but a friend of ours recommended it A LOT. No people whatsoever and still the same ancient Inca feeling. What I found to be extremely relaxing in the city was walking the streets behind the main square’s cathedral and then heading north. Many colonial buildings make this part of town one of the most beautiful (in my opinion) in all South America. We wandered around there a couple of times and I couldn’t get tired of taking picture after picture. We also tried two restaurants that we really enjoyed and found extremely special. Siete&Siete and Vida Vegan Bistro – the first vegan restaurant we found that interpreted Peruvian food only using plant based products. We tried the vegan ceviche using mushrooms instead of raw fish – absolutely delicious. There is also a big selection of exotic smoothies using local ingredients. We loved to talk to the owner that prepares everything in the open kitchen in front of your eyes. The restaurant was newly opened and he likes to experiment a lot with the food hence he steadily adds new dishes to the menu. He showed us his new menu which looked really interesting and I helped to do some translations to English. So in case you go there and find some errors, blame me! We had a great evening talking to him about all the struggles but also successes he had with trying to come up with new ways of preparing traditional Peruvian dishes.
One stop that I can also recommend is the Chocolate Museum close to the main square where you can try different kinds of chocolate, chocolate spreads, chocolate liquors and chocolate marmalades. Also learn something about the production of chocolate in Peru. Combined with all the treats this was the perfect stop for me!
Only a 1-hour drive away from the city you can find the town of Pisac, famous for its ruins and Inca terraces. For many it’s also a stop to try out indigenous hallucinogens. We went there only as a daytrip climbing up and down the terraces and sipping coffee when the rain hit. As we came there around noon, the busy time seemed to be over and therefore we had the ruins almost for ourselves. The experience was priceless especially because the ruins were the tiny version of Machu Picchu, at least in my eyes. So just imagine being at Machu Picchu by yourself. Definitely worth the day trip!
Cusco was definitely a one-of-a-kind city and we enjoyed it a lot, there are so many things to do and even just walking around can fill up a whole day of exploring new sites and hidden streets. But now I need to get a little critical: Due to the accessibility to Machu Picchu and the Inca trail the city is extremely popular and filled with crowds of people. This makes great opportunities for locals to make money. That is where the city lost its charm and authenticity a little bit and walking around the center as an obvious tourist/non-indigenous person can become quite a hassle and you’re being harassed non-stop. Sure, Cusco has its calm and peaceful spots as well but it’s harder to find them. My boyfriend and I both are not big fans of such huge tourist places and found it quite sad and irritating when we saw a beautiful city like Cusco turning into a major tourist trap. After all we didn’t really expect it to be something else knowing about the popularity of Machu Picchu, still the reality hits you when you sit on a bench on the main square, intending only to observe people and buildings in the sun but all you do is trying to convince one vendor after the other that you don’t need their souvenirs, hop-on-hop-off tours or horseback rides. Cusco is a must-visit for sure, but I guess for me it will remain only a once-in-a-lifetime visit.