Ellie Švrlanská: Expedition Cusco
29. 01. 2023
Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes, was once the capital of the Inca Empire and is now famous for its archaeological finds and Spanish colonial architecture.
During my trip through South America, I knew I would be in Cusco for a while and would probably stay for a few months. The main reason was the offer of an internship for the non-profit organization Globalteer, which started my whole idea of traveling through South America.
After spending three months in Cusco I decided to write a little insider guide of what I visited and liked, covering everything from museums and architecture to sports activities.
What's most important when arriving in Cuzco, especially if it's your first stop in South America, is getting used to the altitude. Many people feel tired with a headache to start with. The easiest help is rest, plenty of fluids or you can try the traditional coca tea which helps at altitude.
What to do in the centre
Most travellers always start with a City free walking tour, where you take a guided tour of all the important parts of Cusco and learn the basics about the city, its history and culture. You will also get tips on what else to visit, what to try and what to avoid.
Museums and galleries
If you want to learn more about either Inca history and culture itself or are interested in pre-Inca art, don't miss the museums in Cusco.
- Museo Inka - True to its name, this museum focuses on Inca history and culture. It houses a collection of lithic elements, as well as pottery and various archaeological remains from the Inca culture and from the pre-Inca era.
- Museo de Arte Precolombino - translated as Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, in which you will be able to see a large collection of ceramics, gold and jewellery from ancient Peruvian cultures; its spaces will allow you to discover the more than three thousand year old archaeological wealth of this country, as there are objects from the Nasca, Mochica, Chimú and Chancay cultures.
- Museo del Templo de Qoricancha - Located in the courtyard of the Temple of the Sun (Templo del Sol), this museum is one of the most visited in the capital city of Cusco because it is a valuable example of the fusion of Inca and Spanish cultures. You can see various works and paintings, statues and statuettes of gods from the Inca pantheon and woodcuts that tell the story of the evolution of both cultures over time.
- Museo de Arte Contemporáneo - The interior of the Museum of Contemporary Art houses approximately 300 works by famous local and international artists. The significance of this museum lies in showcasing contemporary local artists and painters who are making their mark in the art world, which is why temporary, individual and collective exhibitions are continuously displayed in the museum's space and are worthy of appreciation.
The San Pedro Market is undoubtedly the most popular market. Its strategic location just 10 minutes from the city centre makes it one of the largest and most visited markets you can visit. Inside you'll find everything you can think of, from food stalls to souvenir stalls and fruit and vegetable stands. This market is one of the busiest and is often included as a stop on most city tours.
However, the whole of Cusco is full of small and large markets, you just have to look around. Most of them are often tucked away among the small stone streets. But they are definitely something you
shouldn't miss. Whether you're looking for gifts for the family, souvenirs to remember or traditional food or clothing.
is considered by many to be the most beautiful part of Cusco, and I agree with them 100%. Slightly above the centre, this part of town is full of small stone streets, quaint cafes and restaurants and bars with breath taking views of the city. The downside is that it is quite uphill and if you are not used to the altitude it will give you quite a workout.
Cusco is full of bars and clubs, so there will be no shortage of nightlife.
For traditional beers on tap, I would recommend going to either Cerveceria de Valle Sagrado or Molly's Bar. Both offer a wide selection of local beers, as well as live music every night and coverage of all important football and any other sporting matches.
Then, as far as dancing and clubs go, in three months I've observed that among both locals and tourists, the most popular and well-known club is called Chango's, located near the center, on Tecsecocha Street, which I would say is the equivalent of Ostrava's Stodolní - full of bars and clubs.
Most often you will hear reggaeton playing everywhere, dance music typical of Latin America. But I've also visited places that play only Techno or Rock. And there are a few clubs that focus more on pop music too.
As for drinks, the traditional Peruvian alcohol is pisco. A typical cocktail for Cusco and Peru in general is the Pisco Sour. Warning for vegans: it has raw egg white in it. Non-vegans, don't be put off, you can't smell the egg in the drink at all. I didn't even know about it until I started working behind the bar in Cusco.
Traditional food and restaurants
If you're also tempted by gastro tourism, you should definitely not miss out in Peru:
- Guy (guinea pig)
- Choclo con queso (corn and cheese), often sold as a snack on the streets
- Chicharron - is a traditional dish consisting of pork slowly fried in its own fat and a salad of raw onions and mint, drizzled with lime. It is usually accompanied by fried potatoes and local corn.
Of course, there are many more traditional dishes, I just didn't quite get to all of them as a vegetarian. So, for those interested, I recommend you google ahead for a few online blogs where many people describe everything you can taste in Cusco.
Of the soft drinks then I recommend:
- Chicha morada - a drink that originated in the Andean regions of Peru but is now consumed nationally. The basic ingredient of the drink is culli corn, a Peruvian variety of corn known as purple corn.
- Inca Cola - the Peruvian version of CocaCola
- Coca tea
To try traditional food, you have 2 options: go to traditional Peruvian restaurants in the centre, which are mainly geared towards foreign tourists and so the price list looks accordingly, or eat like a local in the markets or small pubs more outside the centre. I always prefer the second choice because it feels more authentic to me and you support small and local businesses. But at the same time, it's often mainly in the marketplaces or street stalls that hygiene is highlighted. Personally, I've never had a problem with this but I've met a few travellers who were worried that eating local food from such sources wouldn't suit them.
Being vegetarian or vegan is not a problem in the big cities in Peru. Lima, Cusco and Arequipa (Peru's largest and most touristy cities) offer many alternatives. It can then be a bit more difficult in smaller or less touristy places. Usually, though, if you ask to replace meat with an egg or a larger portion of vegetables, the locals will be happy to oblige.
It all depends on exactly what you're looking for and what your budget is. Fortunately, Cusco is affordable for all types of travellers. You just need to do a little research up front to know where to go.
Be aware that in the centre, expect to be invited just outside every entrance to their restaurant, bar, shop or massage centre. Yes, what I really didn't expect from Cusco is that every five minutes I would be invited to get a massage.
Since Cusco is a popular destination for backpackers, there are countless hostels all over the city. For booking or finding hostels, I recommend the hostelworld.com app. One of the largest and most popular hostel chains across South America is Selina Hostels, and in Peru, Wild Rover is quite popular, also located in several destinations. Then in Cusco, I fell in love with La Bo'M hostel, which is a French pancake house and cafe in addition to being a hostel and has an amazing bohemian design and style.
It's also ideal to spend a day exploring the archaeological sites around Cusco. There are several ways to plan this. Many travel agencies in Cusco offer these day trips. Most often, the Cristo Blanco viewpoint and the archaeological sites of Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, Pucapucara or even Tambomachay are included. Each travel office offers something a little different.
There is also public transportation to most of the sites, so you can easily plan your own excursions around the area.
If you're a mountain bike lover, it's also possible to rent bikes in town for the day and combine historical sights with sport. Since Cusco is located at a high altitude and surrounded by mountains, the route is quite challenging, especially at the beginning when you are still going uphill.
I cycled from the centre towards the Cristo Blanco viewpoint, where you can see the whole city. Just a short distance away is the Sacsayhuaman site, from which a cycle path leads through beautiful countryside to the Temple of the Moon and then on to the Inkilltambo site.
DAY TREKS AND TOURS
Cusco has a lot to offer, maybe too much, because you can't do it all for any chance, especially if you're like me, up for any fun. Don't worry about not knowing where to buy tours or trips in the city.
Just walk around the square for 5 minutes and at least 10 people will be offering tours and pointing out where their travel agency is. There are an awful lot of travel agents and brokers in town. I would recommend checking out the first few agencies to see what they offer and what the prices are. Quite often the price differences are huge.
Sacred Valley of the Incas
On Sacred Valley tours you will have the opportunity to visit many destinations, historical sites and Incan ruins in one day. An alternative to traditional guided tours is to create your own itinerary. From Cusco, there is a public transport to several towns located in the valley. What you shouldn't miss, either on your own or on a guided tour:
- Salinas de Maras - a natural salt pan, looking like many small white pools on a hillside.
Alternatively, if you've had enough of archaeology and history, then rock climbing or perhaps rafting, via ferrata, mountain biking or quad biking are all things you can do in the Sacred Valley.
Vinicuna, or Montaña de Colores, is a mountain in the Andes Mountains of Peru, located at an altitude of 5,200 meters. From Cusco, tours run to Rainbow Mountain every day. They always leave early in the morning as the journey takes several hours. The bus will take you just below the mountain from which you will then have about a 2 hour climb. I recommend choosing a tour that leaves Cusco at say 3:30am, just as early as possible, otherwise you will be squeezed in with hundreds of other tourists on the mountain. Another option is a multi-day trek. There is the option to do the Ausangate trek, which comes out to 3 - 6 days (each tour company offers a different package) or there are also two-day treks with the main goal of Rainbow Mountain.
For me one of the most beautiful areas around Cusco. In addition, compared to Humantay lagoon, there are also much less tourists and a lot more lagoons. From Cusco, take a minibus early in the morning as the journey takes 3-4 hours. The drive around the lagoons takes about 5 hours and is up a slight hill at the beginning. For nature lovers and hikers, this trek is ideal, plus the trek ends with a visit to the outdoor thermal baths where you can relax and have a Peruvian beer after a few hours of hiking.
Another of the day trips you can take while travelling around Cusco. The minibus journey from Cusco will be followed by an approximately two-hour hike up a fairly steep hill. For those who either have a problem with the difficulty of the hike or a problem with the altitude, there are horses available to take you up to the lagoon. Another way to visit the lagoon, besides day tours, is the Salkantay trek, which starts at the lagoon and ends at Machu Picchu.
Most of these trips are taken by minibuses, which I hate at heart. Quite possibly because I've spent too much time in them as a photographer for tour companies and mountain guides. This is because
they are terribly uncomfortable, you squeeze in for hours just to get to a place where you spend an hour at most, and then squeeze in again for hours on the way back to Cusco. That's why I immediately loved the multi-day expeditions, which give you the opportunity to get to know more about nature and learn
The famous Machu Picchu, an Inca citadel high in the Andes in Peru, one of the seven wonders of the world and the most visited place in Peru. When anyone goes to Peru, Machu Picchu is usually not to be missed. There are several ways to get to this breathtaking place:
- Inca Trail - a multi-day trek with Machu Picchu as the final destination. During this 4-day trek, you will follow a trail built by the Incas themselves. Along the way, you will therefore have the opportunity to admire, besides the beauty of the mountains, the well-preserved ruins of Inca buildings that are scattered along the way.
- Salkantay - is an alternative to the Inca trail. The four to five day trek starts at the Humantay Lagoon and passes through the Salkantay Pass.
- By train - the fastest and most comfortable way to get there is by train from Cusco. It is recommended to buy tickets as early as possible as there is a lot of demand. There are two companies authorized to sell tickets: Inca Rail and Peru Rail. The journey from Cusco takes just over 3 hours and it is recommended to be at the station 30 minutes before departure.
My favorite multi-day hike in Peru so far. This is a hike around Ausangate Mountain during which you will see the famous Rainbow Mountain, the Red Valley and the Siete Lagunas (seven lagoons) area. The full article about the Ausangate expedition, can be found on the Kilpi blog.
If you'd like to stay in Cusco for more than just a few days and would like to get to know more about the local culture and lifestyle, a great way to do this is to volunteer for one of the many non-profits located in Cusco. Most often the NGOs focus on dog shelters and animal care, which is a big problem in Cusco and Peru in general, or they try to help children in the villages around Cusco with education and extracurricular activities. I didn't expect how many people I would meet in Cusco who were volunteering either as English teachers or as helpers in shelters.
Due to its popularity and high visitor numbers, many people in Cusco are able to speak English (especially hotels, restaurants and travel agencies), but I would definitely recommend having at least a light knowledge of Spanish or having an online translator on your phone ready just in case.