High up in the Peruvian Andes lies Cusco, the former capital of the Incan Empire and the gateway to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. The historic center boasts an array of stunning architecture - Spanish Colonial, Baroque, & Incan, cobble stoned streets, and numerous shops selling artisanal goods. The city is wildly colorful, from the bright blue and teal doorways to the warm earth tones of the stones - it's almost as if someone manually upped the saturation and the contrast levels throughout town. It all lies under some of the bluest sky I have ever seen. Here is a quick guide on how to fill a day in Cusco.
After a leisurely first day acclimating to the altitude, step out and explore the magically, charming town of Cusco. Start in the Plaza de Armas, or main square of the city. Here you will find the heart of the city: the cathedral, several loggias, a manicured central garden with fountain, a few smaller churches, and authentic colonial/Baroque architecture. Take some time walking around and exploring the buildings and churches (the ancillary streets are interesting to explore as well). Take a seat on a bench in the garden and enjoy some top-notch people (and dog) watching.
Next head to the San Pedro Market, a bright and colorful market full of rows and rows of fresh fruit, flowers, textiles, knits, scarves, and so much more. One can easily get lost in this market, so bring a friend and take your time perusing the goods. Do try to bargain if you decide to purchase something. Once you tire, stop at one of the numerous juice stands within the market for a dose of fresh squeezed goodness.
Time for lunch. Mosey over to Organika on Calle Resbalosa where fresh, farm-to-table (they have their own farm) ingredients become healthy, but delicious dishes. The restaurant is cozy with just a handful of wooden tables - if there is a short wait, I recommend waiting! Enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail as you indulge in a leisurely lunch.
Photo by Kaya Fujiwara
For an example of the intersection of Incan ruins with Spanish constructions, visit el Convento de Santo Domingo (or Qorikancha in Quechua). Once the most important temple at the heart of the Incan Empire, Inti Wasi was the temple or the house of the sun. Reports indicate that during Incan times, the building was opulent, covered in gold, and full of treasures. Following the Spanish conquest of the Incan Empire, much of the temple was destroyed, and the existing Spanish church was constructed using the ruins as its foundation. Within the building there are nice views of Cusco and grounds to explore. To fully understand and appreciate what you are looking at, having a guide is recommended.
Photo from Flickr
Spend your afternoon in the quaint, artisan neighborhood of San Blas that crawls up the hills on the Eastern side of the historic center. Get lost whilst roaming the narrow streets and popping into shops. As the sun begins to dip, climb up the steps to the Mirador for a lovely view overlooking the city. If you need a pick-me-up, stop in the Limbus bar for a sunset drink.
Dinner is at Chicha, the Cusco outpost of famed Peruvian restaurateur, Gaston Acurio (make a reservation). The menu is authentically Peruvian with a modern twist and offers local specialties like river trout and alpaca. Portions are generous so you will likely want to be rolled back to your hotel.
Photos by Kaya Fujiwara
Off to bed after a full day exploring Cusco!
THINGS TO NOTE
1| Caveat - You really should spend more than 24 hours in Cusco to acclimate properly to the altitude, so this is just a suggestion of how to fill one day.
2| More than any other city I visited in Peru, the vendors in Cusco are relentless and abundant. Firmly say "no, gracias" and keep walking if you are not interested in what they are selling. Massages and other spa services will be offered to you all over town, it gets annoying, but try to ignore it.
3| If you really want a picture with a baby alpaca, expect to pay a few soles.