Expert travel specialist Chris Rendell-Dunn shares his insider travel tips
Cusco has changed enormously since I was first there. Luxury trains to Machu Picchu, boutique hotels, swanky restaurants and the like have sprung up over the last few years, but my first impressions of Cusco – of the beautiful countryside and good humour of the people – have thankfully remained the same.
I was 16 when Palito, a good friend of mine from the ‘barrio’, suggested that we head to Cusco for a two-week trip. That was in 1979 and I’ve been travelling between England and Peru ever since, spending much of my time in Cusco working as a tour leader for Journey Latin America. I should mention that I was actually born in Lima, Peru, and lived there for many years.
When you first visit Cusco, you will of course want to visit Machu Picchu and the highlights of the Sacred Valley such as Sacsayhuamán, Moray and Maras, but while you’re in town make the most of your stay with my travel tips below.
Cusco, the gateway to the ‘lost city’ of Machu Picchu, stands at 3,400m above sea level. You’ll need to acclimatise to the altitude, so I recommend avoiding alcohol. Don’t exert yourself but do go for a wander and eat light meals.
Take a stroll around the main square, admire the colonial and Inca architecture, and then stop off at one of the many cafés beside the main square whose balconies offer incredible views of snow-capped mountains and terracotta-tiled houses that form a network of cobbled streets.
In the afternoon, at a gentle pace, visit the cathedral and the Koricancha (Temple of the Sun) both of which are located roughly three blocks from each other near the Plaza Mayor - just off Avenida Sol. If you have time, stroll to the central market where you can buy anything from alpaca jumpers to safety pins but do take care of your personal belongings. For dinner, try any of the restaurants recommended at the bottom of this page.
Head south of Cusco by taxi on the road towards Lake Titicaca, and stop just outside Cusco at the village of Oropesa, famous now for its local baked buns. Formerly it was where one of the colonial gold weighing station was positioned. On to Piquillacta, the ‘place of fleas’ to explore a site that pre-dates the Incas by hundreds of years. Stop off at Andahuayillas, a beautiful small church tucked away in the valley, and admire the ceiling which is reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel. From there, continue to Tipón, the most impressive example of Inca hydro-agriculture. A masterpiece of Inca terracing, this is an experimental crop site on a par with Moray*.
And if you are lucky enough to do this on a Sunday, make the effort to stop off at Saylla for the most succulent deep fried pork and best “toqto” pork scratchings. If you’re feeling adventurous you can even try the roast guinea pig! A swift anis seco is a must as a digestive.
*Moray is an Inca site, which was an experimental agricultural centre. It comprises numerous terraces carved into a large, natural amphitheatre, each one with a different microclimate from those above and below.
WHERE TO EAT IN CUSCO
Baco – A trendy, low key restaurant and wine bar located opposite the Hotel Ruinas.
La Cicciolina –A lively restaurant serving Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food –book or get there early.
MAP Café – One of Cusco’s most stylish and elegant restaurants serving Novo Andino food – MAP Café is located in the patio of the Museum of pre-Columbian art.
Trotamundos – A relaxing café/restaurant to hangout in. They have a few balconies overlooking the square and they serve amazing chicken and avocado ciabattas. Internet is available here.
Pucara – Located on the corner between the main square and Calle Plateros. They have a picture menu that’s handy for non Spanish speakers and serve delicious Peruvian food for the European palate.
Kin Taro – A delightful and hidden away Japanese restaurant.
Chi Cha - Located one block from the main square on the first floor of an old house restored into a modern restaurant, this is a very stylish place where you can be sure there won't be a backpacker in sight! The food is really delicious, as should be expected in a Gaston Acurio restaurant. Booking essential.