Destination guide: Cuzco, Peru
In the Andean area of Peru is the city of Cuzco, also known as the Archaelogical Capital of America or the “Center of the World” (according to its name in Quechua).
Cuzco is a living museum of Inca history and one of the most fascinating cities in the Peruvian mountains, as seen in its outstanding architecture, which reflects the stunning past of the Inca Empire.
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Cuzco - Things to do
A demonstration of the Incas’ mastery over their environment, this extensive Inca site about 30km from Cuzco, just before Oropesa, consists of some impressive terracing at the head of a small valley and boasts an ingenious irrigation system. Take any Urcos-bound bus from opposite the hospital in Av de la Cultura in Cuzco, or a colectivo from outside Av Tullumayo 207 (S3, 55 minutes), and ask to be let off at the Tipón turnoff (S2, 45 minutes). A steep dirt road from the turnoff (an excellent spot for eating cuy to build up your strength) climbs the 4km to the ruins. For S80 (for the whole car), a colectivo from outside Av Tullumayo 207 will drive you into the ruins at Tipón and Piquillacta, wait and bring you back.
Opening Hours: 7am-6pm.
Pricing: entry with boleto turístico.
Piquillacta & Rumicolca
Literally translated as ‘the Place of the Flea,’ Piquillacta is the only major pre-Inca ruin in the area. It was built around AD 1100 by the Wari culture. It’s a large ceremonial center of crumbling two-story buildings, all with entrances that are strategically located on the upper floor. It is surrounded by a defensive wall. The stonework here is much cruder than that of the Incas, and the floors and walls were paved with slabs of white gypsum, of which you can still see traces. On the opposite side of the road about 1km further east is the huge Inca gate of Rumicolca, built on Wari foundations. The cruder Wari stonework contrasts with the Inca blocks. It’s interesting to see indigenous people working with the mud that surrounds the area’s swampy lakes – the manufacture of adobe (mud bricks) is one of the main industries of this area.
Opening Hours: 7am-6pm.
Pricing: entry with boleto turístico.
Limatambo, 80km west of Cuzco, is named after the Inca site of Rimactambo, also popularly known as Tarawasi, which is situated beside the road, about 2km west of town. The site was used as a ceremonial center, as well as a resting place for the Inca chasquis (Inca runners who delivered messages over long distances). The exceptional polygonal retaining wall, noteworthy for its 28 human-sized niches, is in itself worth the trip from Cuzco. On the wall below it, look for flower shapes and a nine-sided heart amid the patchwork of perfectly interlocking stones.
Pricing: admission S10.
Iglesia San Francisco
More austere than many of Cuzco’s other churches, Iglesia San Francisco dates from the 16th and 17th centuries, and is one of the few that didn’t need to be completely reconstructed after the 1650 earthquake. It has a large collection of colonial religious paintings and a well-carved cedar choir. The attached museum houses supposedly the largest painting in South America, which measures 9m by 12m and shows the family tree of St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the order. Also of macabre interest are the two crypts, which are not totally underground. Inside are plenty of human bones, some of which have been carefully arranged in designs meant to remind visitors of the transitory nature of life.
Latitude: -13.5183540393833/ Longitude: -71.9821161031723
Opening Hours: 6:30-8am & 5:30-8pm Mon-Sat, 6:30am-noon & 6:30-8pm Sun.
Pricing: admission free.
Address: Plaza San Francisco.
Iglesia de Santo Domingo
The church of Santo Domingo is most famous as the site of Qorikancha, which was Cuzco's major Incan temple. It has twice been destroyed by earthquakes, in 1650 and 1950, as well as being damaged in the 1986 earthquake - photographs in the entrance show the extent of the 1950 damage. Also in the entrance is a doorway carved in Arabic style - a reminder of the centuries of Moorish domination in Spain. The remains of the Incan temple are inside the cloister. Colonial paintings around the outside of the courtyard depict the life of Santo Domingo (Saint Dominic) and contain several representations of dogs holding torches in their jaws - these are God's guard dogs (dominicanus in Latin), hence the name of this religious order.
Latitude: -13.5201482669020 / Longitude: -71.9757109880447
Sub-Type: Religious, Spiritual
Address: Cuzco - southeast
Extras: Plazoleta Santo Domingo.
Al Grano has a non-spicy menu of varied Asian food, including great vegetarian options, plus big breakfasts and some of Cuzco’s best coffee. You’re welcome to hang out and enjoy it with cards, games, free wi-fi and a book exchange.
Latitude: -13.5170187915326 / Longitude: -71.9763386249542
Telephone Number: +51 84 22 8032
Opening Hours: 10am-9pm Mon-Sat.
Pricing: mains from $26.
Price Range: Low
Address: Santa Catalina Ancha 398.>
Inhabiting a lofty colonial courtyard mansion, Cicciolina has long held its position as Cuzco’s best restaurant. The eclectic, sophisticated food is divine, all the way from home-marinated olives through squid-ink pasta to melt-in-the-mouth desserts and biscotti. The service is impeccable, and the ambience will make any laid-back globetrotter feel at home. A huge expat favorite; highly recommended.
Latitude: -34.5893929900000 / Longitude: -58.4328568000000
Telephone Number: +51 84 23 9510
Opening Hours: 8am-late.
Pricing: snacks from S16, mains from S36.
Price Range: Moderate.
Address: Triunfo 393.
Extras: 2nd fl.
Cuzco’s best deal and best-kept secret, Lila’s unassuming vegetarian restaurant offers cheap, clean, fresh fare to a devoted following of office workers and San Blas hippies. Her sporadically available chocolate and banana cake is worth flying to South America for. Highly recommended.
Opening Hours: breakfast, lunch & dinner.
Pricing: menú S5.
Address: Carmen Bajo 225B.
Indigo is the perfect bar to warm up for a big night out, with fresh Thai and Peruvian food (mains from S15), good coffee, games, hookah pipes and famous mojitos. Genuinely friendly staff, comfy couches, an open fire and a seriously cool circus vibe (there are swings!) make it hard to move on. Highly recommended.
Latitude: -13.5153543028302 / Longitude: -71.9800970515688
Opening Hours: noon-late.
Address: Tecsecocha 2. Extras: 2nd fl.
Cross Keys is the most established expat and traveler watering hole in town. It’s smothered in the trappings of a typical British pub, with leather bar-stools and plenty of dark wood. As well as a huge list of British beer, it offers good-value comfort food. Some say the S15 steak is the best-value meal in town.
Latitude: -13.5165820387527 / Longitude: -71.9771398489537
Opening Hours: 10am-late.
Address: Triunfo 350
The most consistently popular nightspot in town, Ukuku’s plays a winning combination of crowd pleasers – Latin and Western rock, reggae and reggaetón (a blend of Puerto Rican bomba, dancehall and hip-hop), salsa, hip-hop et al – and often hosts live bands. Usually full to bursting after midnight with as many Peruvians as foreign tourists, it’s good, sweaty, dance-a-thon fun. Happy hour is 8pm to 10:30pm.
Latitude: -13.5162207687380 / Longitude: -71.9798630475998
Sub-Type: Live Music
Telephone Number: +51 84 24 2951
Opening Hours: 8pm-late.
Address: Plateros 316
This humble family-owned shop sells handmade alpaca goods of all types, from sweaters to hats and mittens. If you're a knitting fan, you can even buy skeins of yarn dyed in natural colors.
Latitude: -34.6660308600000 / Longitude: -58.4952275200000
Telephone Number: +51 84 80 5529.
Address: Cuesta San Blas 521, San Blas.
A stone's throw from Gringo Alley, this youthful artists' workshop sells ceramics with quirky contemporary designs. They'll even box 'em up in international-post-ready packaging for a small additional charge.
Latitude: -13.5151410865867 / Longitude: -71.9802010059357
Telephone Number: +51 84 25 1744
Opening Hours: 10:30-21:30.
Address: Tecsecocha 432, Plaza de Armas
If you’re the type who likes to get your souvenir shopping done fast, Aymi Wasi is for you. It’s got everything – clothes, ornaments, toys, candles, jewelry, art, ceramics, handbags… Your friends and family will never suspect you bought all their gifts in one place! And it’s all handmade and fair trade.
Latitude: -13.5168981381296 / Longitude: -71.9835425357032
Address: Nueva Alta s/n
Cuzco and the surrounding highlands celebrate many lively fiestas and holidays. In addition to national holidays, the following are the most crowded times, when you should book all accommodations well in advance:
El Señor de los Temblores (the Lord of the Earthquakes) This procession on the Monday before Easter dates to the earthquake of 1650.
Crucifix Vigil On May 2 to 3, a Crucifix Vigil is held on all hillsides with crosses atop them.
Q’oyoriti Less well-known than the spectacular Inti Raymi are the more traditional Andean rites of this festival, which is held at the foot of Ausangate the Tuesday before Corpus Christi, in late May or early June.
Corpus Christi Held on the nineth Thursday after Easter, Corpus Christi usually occurs in early June and features fantastic religious processions and celebrations in the cathedral.
Inti Raymi Cuzco’s most important festival, the ‘Festival of the Sun’ is held on June 24. It attracts tourists from all over Peru and the world, and the whole city celebrates in the streets. The festival culminates in a re-enactment of the Inca winter-solstice festival at Sacsayhuamán. Despite its commercialization, it’s still worth seeing the street dances and parades, as well as the pageantry at Sacsayhuamán.
Santuranticuy artisan crafts fair A crafts fair held in the Plaza de Armas on December 24 (Christmas Eve).
The department of Cuzco is a hiker’s paradise, with huge mountain ranges, winding rivers, isolated villages and ruins, varied ecosystems, and a huge range of altitudes.
The most famous trek in the Cuzco region is the Inca Trail, but it’s no longer the only, or even necessarily the best, show in town. It’s a stunning walk, but its name is somewhat of a misnomer. What savvy tourism officials and tour operators have christened the Inca Trail is just one of dozens of footpaths that the Incas built to reach Machu Picchu, out of thousands that crisscrossed the Inca empire. Some of these overland routes are even now being dug out of the jungle by archaeologists. Many more have been developed for tourism, and an ever-increasing number of trekkers are choosing these over the Inca Trail. Whatever your pleasure – ruins, mountains, scenery, flora and fauna, cultural encounters – there’s a hike to suit you.
Remote, spectacular, and still not entirely cleared, the ruins of Choquequirau are often described as a mini–Machu Picchu. This breathtaking site at the junction of three rivers – and the fairly challenging four-day hike required to get there and back – has been firmly positioned as ‘the next big thing’ for the last few years. It seems inevitable that controls and permits will be introduced in time, but for now it’s still easy to organize this walk on your own. A guided version costs US$380 on average.
Snowcapped Ausangate (6372m), the highest mountain in southern Peru, can be seen from Cuzco on a clear day. Hiking a circuit around its skirts is the most challenging alpine hike in the region. It takes five to six days and crosses four high passes (two over 5000m). The route begins in the rolling brown puna (grasslands of the Andean plateau) and features stunningly varied scenery, including fluted icy peaks, tumbling glaciers, turquoise lakes and green marshy valleys. Along the way you’ll stumble across huge herds of alpacas and tiny hamlets unchanged in centuries. The walk starts and finishes at Tinqui, where there are warm mineral springs and a basic hotel, and mules and arrieros (horsemen) are available for about S30 per day each. Average price is US$500 for an organized, tent-based trek with operators or specialist guides
The real ‘lost city of the Incas, ’ Vilcabamba – also known as Espíritu Pampa – is what Hiram Bingham was looking for when he stumbled on Machu Picchu. The beleaguered Manco Inca and his followers fled to this jungle retreat after being defeated by the Spaniards at Ollantaytambo in 1536. The long, low-altitude trek, which takes four to nine days, is very rugged, with many steep ascents and descents before reaching Vilcabamba, 1000m above sea level. You can start at either Huancacalle or Kiteni.
When to Go
There are regular departures on these treks from May to September, and private departures can be organized at any time of year. In the wettest months (from December to April), trails can be slippery and campsites muddy, and views are often obscured behind a thick bank of rolling clouds. The best trekking months are June to August; the high jungle Vilcabamba trek is not recommended outside these months. Temperatures can drop below freezing year-round on all the other, higher-altitude treks, and it occasionally rains even during the dry season (late May to early September).
What to Bring
Modern internal-framed backpacks, tents, sleeping bags and stoves can all be rented in various places in Calle Plateros from around S10 per item per day. Check all equipment carefully before you agree to rent it, as some is pretty shoddy and rarely is it lightweight. For the cheapest deals on new gear, head to El Molino. Other essentials include sturdy shoes, rain gear, insect repellent, sunblock, a flashlight (with fresh batteries), basic first-aid supplies and water-purification tablets. Once you’re trekking, there is usually nowhere to buy food, and the small villages where treks begin have very limited supplies, so shop in advance in Cuzco. If you’re on a guided trek, take a stash of cash for tipping the guide and the arrieros. About US$10 per day per trekker is the minimum decent tip to a guide; a similar amount to divide between group arrieros is appropriate.
Rafting the Río Urubamba through the Sacred Valley could offer the best rafting day trip in South America, but Cuzco and all the villages along its course dispose of raw sewage in the river, the Ollantaytambo to Chilca (class II to III) section is surprisingly popular, offering 1½ hours of gentle rafting with only two rapids of note.
There are a variety of cleaner sections south of Cuzco on the upper Urubamba (also known as the Vilcanota), including the popular Chuquicahuana run (class III to IV+; class V+ in the rainy season). Another less-frenetic section is the fun and scenic Cusipata to Quiquihana, (mainly class II to III). In the rainy season, these two sections are often combined. Closer to Cuzco, Pampa to Huambutio (class I to II) is a beautiful section, ideal for small children (three years and over) as an introduction to rafting.
Río Santa Teresa offers spectacular rafting in the gorge between the towns of Santa Teresa and Santa María, and downstream as far as Quillabamba. One word of warning: the section from Cocalmayo Hot Springs to Santa María consists of almost nonstop class IV to V rapids in a deep, inaccessible canyon. It should only be run with highly reputable operators, such as local experts Cola de Mono. Be very aware, if considering a trip here, that guiding this section safely is beyond the powers of inexperienced (cheaper) rafting guides. This is not the place to economise. Do not underestimate this section of river; raft another section in the area with your chosen operator before even considering it.
For rivers further from Cuzco, you definitely need to book with a top-quality outfit using highly experienced rafting guides who know first aid as well as rafting and swift-water rescue techniques, because you will be days away from help in the event of illness or accident.
The Río Apurímac offers three- to 10-day trips through deep gorges and protected rainforest, but can only be run from May to November. The rapids are exhilarating (classes IV and V), and the river goes through wild, remote scenery with deep gorges. Rafters camp on sandy beaches (where sandflies can be a nuisance), and sightings of condors and even pumas have been recorded. Four-day trips are the most relaxed, and avoid the busier campsites, but three-day trips are more commonly offered. This section has limited camping places, and those that exist are becoming increasingly overused. Make sure your outfitter cleans up the campsite and leaves nothing behind.
An even wilder expedition is the 10- to 12-day trip along the demanding Río Tambopata, which can only be run from May to October. You’ll start in the Andes, north of Lake Titicaca, and travel through the heart of the Parque Nacional Bahuaje-Sonene deep in the Amazon jungle. It takes two days just to drive from Cuzco to the put-in point! The first days on the river are full of technically demanding rapids (classes III and IV) in wild Andean scenery, and the trip finishes with a couple of gentle floating days in the rainforest. Tapirs, capybara, caiman, giant otters and jaguars have all been seen by keen-eyed boaters.
Mountain-biking tours are a growing industry in Cuzco, and the local terrain is superb. There are rental bikes available. Good new or second-hand bikes are not easy to buy in Cuzco either, as the ever-growing army of local devotees snap them up as soon as they become available. If you’re a serious mountain biker, consider bringing your own bike from home. Selling it in Cuzco is eminently viable.
If you’re an experienced rider, some awesome rides are quickly and easily accessible by public transport. Take the Pisac bus (stash your bike on top) and ask to be let off at Abra de Ccorao (S0.70, 30 minutes). From here, you can turn right and make your way back to Cuzco via a series of cart tracks and single track; halfway down is a jump park constructed by local aficionados. This section has many variations and is known as Yuncaypata. Eventually, whichever way you go, you’ll end up in Cuzco’s southern suburbs, from where you can easily flag down a taxi to get you home.
If you head off the other side of the pass, to the left of the road, you’ll find fast-flowing single track through a narrow valley – you won’t get lost – which brings you out on the highway in Ccorao. From here, follow the road through a flat section then a series of bends. Just as the valley widens out, turn left past a farmhouse steeply downhill to your left, and into challenging single track through a narrow valley, including a hairy river crossing and some tricky, steep, rocky, loose descents at the end, bringing you down into the village of Taray. From here it’s a 10-minute ride along the river to Pisac, where you can catch a bus back to Cuzco.
Many longer trips are possible, but a professionally qualified guide and a support vehicle are necessary. The partly paved road down from Abra Málaga to Santa María, though not at all technical, is a must for any cyclist and is part of the Inca Jungle Trail, offered by many Cuzco operators. Maras to Salinas is a great little mission. The Lares Valley offers challenging single track, which can be accessed from Cuzco in a long day. If heading to Manu in the Amazon Basin, you can break up the long bus journey by biking from Tres Cruces to La Unión – a beautiful, breathtaking downhill ride – or you could go all the way down by bike. The outfitters of Manu trips can arrange bicycle rental and guides. The descent to the Río Apurímac makes a great burn, as does the journey to Río Tambopata, which boasts a descent of 3500m in five hours. A few bikers attempt the 500km-plus trip all the way to Puerto Maldonado, which gets hot and sweaty near the end but is a great challenge.
Most agencies can arrange a morning or afternoon’s riding from US$10. Alternatively, you can walk to Sacsayhuamán, where many of the ranches are, and negotiate your own terms.
Other horseback-riding options require more legwork. Select agencies will offer multiday trips to the area around Limatambo, and there are some first-rate ranches with highly trained, high-stepping thoroughbred Peruvian paso horses in Urubamba.
Serious birders should definitely get a hold of Birds of the High Andes, by Jon Fjeldså and Niels Krabbe. One of the best birding trips is from Ollantaytambo to Santa Teresa or Quillabamba, over Abra Málaga. This provides a fine cross section of habitats from 4600m to below 1000m. Englishman Barry Walker, owner of the Cross Keys pub, is a self-confessed ‘birding bum’ and the best resident ornithologist to give serious birders plenty of enthusiastic advice. He has written a field guide, The Birds of Machu Picchu, and runs a tour agency, for bird-watching trips all around Peru, as well as into Bolivia and Chile.
The via ferrata – ‘Iron Way’ in Italian – is a series of ladders, holds and bridges built into a sheer rockface. First developed in the Italian Alps in WWII, it’s a great way for reasonably fit people with no previous experience to experience rock climbing.
The Sacred Valley Via Ferrata ([tel] 984-11-2732; www.naturavive.com; per person S150), located amid stunning scenery in the Sacred Valley, was constructed and operated by rock-climbing and high-mountain professionals. It features a 300m vertical ascent, a heart-hammering hanging bridge 200m above the valley floor, and a 100m rappel. Active, adrenaline-pumping fun. The price includes pickup and drop-off in Cuzco or Urubamba, rock climbing and lunch.
Action Valley ([tel] 24-0835; www.actionvalley.com; [hrs] 9am-5pm Sun-Fri) is an adventure park with paintball (US$20), a 300m-long zipline ride (US$15), a giant tower swing (US$20), a 122m bungee jump (US$64) and a bungee slingshot (US$64) at the ready. The park is 11km outside Cuzco on the road to Poroy (taxi S12 or Pachacutec combi S0.60 each way). It’s closed between January 15 and February 15.
Cusco Planetarium (www.planetariumcusco.com; per person around S30) is a nifty way to learn more about the Inca worldview. It was the only culture in the world to define constellations of darkness as well as light, and studied astronomy seriously: some of Cuzco’s main streets are designed to align with the stars at certain times of year. Recommended before you go on a trek – you’ll feel clever pointing out the Black Llama to your fellow hikers. Reservations essential; price varies with group size, and includes pickup and drop-off.
Globos de los Andes ([tel] 23-2352; www.globosperu.com) runs hot-air ballooning trips over the Sacred Valley, which can be combined with 4WD tours.
For some pampering or a post-trekking splurge, a blossoming number of spas offer massage services. There is growing interest in shamanic ceremonies and the psychedelic properties of the San Pedro and ayahuasca plants.