Few travellers visit Peru without spending a few days in Cusco. Not only is the city the gateway to Machu Picchu and the magnificent Sacred Valley, it’s also one of the most visited destinations in South America. Built by Spanish conquistadors on top of the remains of an ancient Incan civilisation, Cusco is still known today in local Andean culture as the ‘navel of the world’. Here are the top things to do in this culture-rich city.
Top must-see sights in Cusco
1. Take a walk around the Inca ruins
2. Take a tour of Cusco’s Sacred Valley
3. Visit Rainbow Mountain
4. Visit the Inca site of Sacsayhuaman
5. Sample the local food
1. Discover Inca ruins around Cusco on foot
Built on Inca foundations, Cusco’s historical roots are evident everywhere you turn. Take a walking tour of the beautifully preserved city centre, strolling down narrow alleyways flanked by imposing Inca walls, wandering along winding cobbled streets and stopping to admire the colourful gardens and colonial buildings around Plaza de Armas. Visit the former temple complex at Qorikancha; in its heyday, this was the location of the opulent Temple of the Sun, lined with sheets of gold and filled with statues made from precious metals. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they destroyed the temple and built the Church of Santa Dominica in its place – today, all that remains is the original outer walls.
2. Take a tour of the Cusco Sacred Valley
Less than an hour’s drive from Cusco, a tour of the Sacred Valley is a must-do – and a great day trip from the city. Encapsulating everything Peru is most famous for – Inca ruins, colourful markets and dramatic mountain scenery – the Sacred Valley sits at a lower altitude to Cusco and is therefore a good place to acclimatise before heading to Machu Picchu. Explore the lesser-known sites of this ancient region; surrounded by steep terraces, the lofty ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo are the most impressive in both size and beauty and have extraordinary panoramic views across the valley below. Ollantaytambo also marks the start of the Inca Trail, and many trekkers continue onto Machu Picchu from here. Stop off at the incredible salt pans at Maras – pre-dating the Incas, they are believed to have been built by the Wari civilisation and each pan is now owned by a local family who harvest and sell the salt.
3. Visit Cusco’s Rainbow Mountain
A little further afield, Rainbow Mountain – or Vinicunca – is one of Peru’s most visited attractions after Machu Picchu. Only discovered in 2015, this geological wonder is the highest mountain in the Cusco region, and takes its name from its unique marbling effect, creating strips of red, turquoise, purple and gold across the landscape. There’s no accommodation nearby and it’s a good three-hour drive from Cusco followed by a two-hour trek, but it’s perfectly possible to fit into a day trip. The journey is stunning; you’ll pass snow-capped mountains and wandering alpacas, wind along rivers and travel through deeply traditional Andean villages. Check the weather conditions before you travel – rain makes the mountain very muddy and almost impossible to see.
4. Walk up to the Inca site of Sacsayhuaman
A short hike uphill from Cusco’s central Plaza de Armas, Sacsayhuaman is a vast megalithic site that draws some similarities to the UK’s Stonehenge – no one knows how the vast stones were transported up there, or how they fit so tightly together. Piled on top of each other like a jigsaw puzzle, the stone walls at Sacsayhuaman are positioned in a zigzag and made up of three tiers – and they’re fascinating to explore. Anyone who makes it to the top is rewarded with a fantastic bird’s eye view over Cusco and some of the city’s most important sites, including the Cathedral and the historic Jesuit Church.
5. Explore the foodie side of the city
Peru is rightly proud of its culinary heritage – and there’s no shortage of top restaurants to try in Cusco. Cicciolina is considered one of the city’s best (make sure you book ahead) – come here to try some of the country’s most traditional dishes including zesty ceviches, lean alpaca fillets and high-quality Peruvian chocolate – all washed down with Peru’s signature tipple, pisco sour. A riot of colour, noise and smells, foodies should visit San Pedro market; locals flock here to stock up on fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and fish and tuck into street food including empanadas, antichuros (beef hearts) and salted and dried alpaca. To find out more, take a look at Red Savannah’s Culinary journey to Peru.
For more information on Red Savannah’s luxury tailor-made holidays to Peru, contact our Latin America specialist Charlie Lockwood on +44 1242 787 800.