In case you missed it in the first post, here is an index to my next few posts about our trip to Peru:
- Part 1: Restaurants and Hotels in Cusco
- Part 2: Activities in and around Cusco
- Part 3: Machu Picchu-Tips and how to get there
- Part 4: Restaurants, Hotels, and Activities in Lima
- Part 5: General tips for Peru
If you are planning to include Cusco as a stop during a trip to Peru (which you should be!), I recommend spending at least four days there as there is a lot to see and do! Alex and I spent four days in Cusco and easily could have filled up a fifth day. There is plenty to do within the city of Cusco and even more outside of Cusco.
The best way to see a large number of sites in and around the city of Cusco is to purchase the boleto turistico. The full ticket, which gives access to 16 sites for a ten-day period, is 130 soles (or $45 at the time this post was published). If you are a student and 25 and under with an ISIC ID or a child, the boleto turistico is only 70 soles. It is a great deal if you want to see more than a couple of sites on the list and is the only way to enter several of the historical sites. Sites included are: architectural ruins (Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, Pucapucara, Tambomachay, Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Moray, Piquillaqta, Tipon), museums (Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Regional History, Museum of Popular Art, Museum at Qoriqancha), the Pachacutec statue, and a Native Music and Dance show at Qosqo Center of Native Art.
IMPORTANT NOTE: We found that Cusco (and Peru in general) operated almost exclusively on a cash based system and had to pay for all tours, the boleto turistico, and all additional entry fees with cash only. Make sure you get enough money from the ATM! We found an ATM near the Plaza de Armas across from Greens Organic that did not have ATM fees.
With 16 sites (some of which are outside Cusco), we obviously could not see them all. We were able to visit most of the ruins and saw the Museum of Regional History, Museum at Qoriqancha, and music and dance show, in addition to a few activities that were not part of the boleto turistico. We enjoyed everything we did and learned a lot about the Peruvian, Quechuan, and Incan cultures in the process. So without further ado, I will share some tips and reviews of the activities that we enjoyed.
We first visited Qoriqancha (not included in the boleto turistico), the Incan’s Temple to their Sun God. It is a beautiful building that houses a lot of architecture and art related to the Incan worship of the sun and stars. The Spanish later built a colonial structure on top of the original Incan stone wall. I highly recommend paying for a guide (they wait outside and offer their services) or visiting Qoriqancha as part of a tour. There is not a lot of signage inside the museum, so unless you have a guidebook with you or happen to know about the temple, a guide is very beneficial to know what you are looking at. Qoriqancha also has a small museum that is included in the boleto turistico that has an interesting collection of deformed skulls. The Incans actually bound their children’s skulls to elongate them as a sign of royalty!
We also visited the Museo Historico Regional, or the Museum of Regional History. The museum houses a decent collection of art, both historic and more modern. A portion of the museum is devoted to natural history and teaches visitors about different species that lived in the region and different crops that have traditionally been grown there.
Another activity that was included in the boleto turistico was the Native Music and Dance Show at the Centro Qosco de Arte Nativo. The show is about 2 hours and includes a live band and native dancers and singers. The dancers, dressed in local costumes, demonstrate several traditional Peruvian dances throughout their history. Reviews on TripAdvisor are so-so, but Alex and I very much enjoyed the show. If you go, don’t be deterred if you see a line before the show starts. There is plenty of seating though and I think everyone who wanted to see the show was able to get a seat. There is a small concession stand available with drinks, popcorn, and candy if you are hungry and the show is conveniently located next to a market full of stalls featuring Peruvian wares.
Alex and I also visited the ChocoMuseo. I mentioned it in my last post, but I will reiterate that we both thought it was a fun and unique museum. When you walk in, you will be greeted by enthusiastic staff who offer you chocolate tea and show you around the museum. The first stop is to watch a 10-15 minute video describing the chocolate making process from start to finish. The rest of the tour is self-guided and ends with a stop at a tasting table, where you can taste chocolate liquors and chocolate jam. If you have extra time, you can even sign up for a 2 hour workshop to learn how to make it yourself.
Our final museum stop was to the Museo de la Coca in the San Blas neighborhood. The museum offered free admission that day (I think it may have been a Monday), so we took advantage of it to visit a small, but unique museum. I found it to be quite fascinating as the museum presented a history of the uses for coca leaves throughout history, from medicinal and nutritional uses to use as an illegal drug. There is a small shop after you finish going through the self-guided museum that offers various products with coca- tea, soda, wine, beer, etc. The museum took less than an hour to cover, so Alex and I bought a bottle of coca wine and picked up empanadas and pastries at a nearby bakery before heading to the Plaza de Armas for a picnic and people watching.
Outside and around Cusco
The name of the game in Cusco when it comes to day trips is “you get what you pay for.” Alex and I did two guided tours during our stay in Cusco, the Cusco city tour and the Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Chinchero tour. Unless you have a preferred company, like Condor Travel, you really do not need to book your bus tours in advance. There are countless companies located at the airport, near the Plaza de Armas, and through your hotel, so it is easy to find a tour company.
On our first day in Cusco, we booked a tour of Cusco city and the surrounding ruins through an agency at the airport. It was approximately $30 each and included a visit to Qoricancha, Sacsayhuaman, Puca Pucara, Tambomachay, and Q’enko. It also included a tour of the Cusco Cathedral, but ticket price was not included (an additional ~$9). The Cusco Cathedral is an architecturally stunning building that houses an impressive collection of colonial art.
Sacsayhuaman was used as a fort and is made of large polished stone walls, with boulders up to 8 meters high. The stones are precisely cut to fit together tightly without the use of mortar.
Puca Pucara is a small site of military ruins and is made of large walls, terraces, and staircases.
Tambomachay, over 12,000 feet above sea level, is a site where Incans held water ceremonies and worship. The aqueducts and canals still function to this day!
Q’enko featured a temple and amphitheater. The Incans used the location to perform sacrificial rituals and ceremonies. We climbed through caves and tunnels to see the sacrificial altars.
Our second day trip consisted of a visit to the Sacred Valley,Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero. We booked a much less expensive tour with a company located inside the Plaza de Armas and paid about $10. The tour overall was fine, but we ended up being on a bilingual tour that had about 90% Spanish speakers. While we enjoyed our tour and saw all of the same sites, I doubt we got the same level of detail we would have on an English-speaking tour.
Our first stop was to the Sacred Valley, where we spent a few minutes (not enough time!) taking in the incredible views.
Next we stopped at Pisac where we visited the market, saw a silver demonstration, and visited the Pisac ruins. It once served military, religious, and agricultural purposes for the Incans. Pisac was one of the largest and most impressive sites we saw and I enjoyed having ample free time to enjoy the site.
We stopped for lunch at the Restaurante Maizal in Urumbamba. Apparently everyone else on our tour had paid for lunch so we had to eat at a separate restaurant that accepted credit cards. It was an all you can eat restaurant that offered a large variety of traditional Peruvian dishes and desserts. If you find yourself without cash in Urumbamba, the Restaurante Maizal is the place to go!
After lunch, we visited Ollantaytambo, which was originally the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti, the Incan who conquered the region. The site features unbelievable architecture and incredible attention to detail. The sun rises over the mountains across from Ollantaytambo and shines light directly into a certain spot in the ruins after passing over what appears to be a face carved in the mountain’s side.
Finally, we stopped in Chinchero for one of my favorite parts of the day, a weaving demonstration by Incan descendants. We learned how the alpaca wool is turned into yarn, hand dyed using natural products like vegetables, and then weaved into finished products like sweaters, hats, and gloves! We also purchased several items here to help support the local community.
Before we recap, I wanted to share a photo of Cusco by night, showing the Statue of Christ above the city. It’s not the best quality, but I think you can get the idea! It is a very beautiful sight!
While in Cusco, see:
Museum of Regional History
Centro Qosco de Arte Nativo
Museo de la Coca