If you’re visiting Cusco, it’s probably because you have plans to see Machu Pichu. Whether you’re hiking the Inca Trail or taking the train up to the sacred sight, this wonder of the world is one you definitely cannot miss. Cusco on it’s own is a beautiful and enchanting city. Filled with authentic markets, food stalls and great restaurants, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy before you start your Machu Pichu adventure.
WHAT TO DO
Market Hopping: The markets in Cusco are packed with everything from fake North Face gear to unique, traditional textiles. They are scattered all over the city, so spend the day walking around and talking to the local merchants. One of my favorite markets, that I accidentally stumbled upon, is located right around the corner from Hotel Cusco Plaza Nazarenas on Cuesta del Almirante. Here you can find handmade silver jewelry, paintings and one-of-a-kind, vintage frazadas (Peruvian blankets).
Visit Mercado San Pedro: This place is sensory overload. Surrounded by colors, smells and tasty food, Mercado San Pedro is a fun place to spend the afternoon. Grab a fresh fruit smoothie from one of the friendly ladies running the fruit stands or pick up a souvenir for your family and friends back home. I bought hand carved wooden serving spoons here for $5.
Walk around Plaza De Armas: Cusco’s historical main square is one of the nicest and cleanest areas in the city. If you’re in need of a fix from home, grab a latte at Starbucks and check out the shops lining the square. If you’re lucky, you might even witness a festive parade where all the locals dress up and march around the plaza.
Get drunk off Pisco Sours: Enjoy a night out at Inka Team, the best club in Cusco. Located right next to the McDonalds in the main square, this place plays a range of electronic and hip-hop music, mixed in with some mainstream tunes for an all night dance party. Happy hour runs from 9 pm to midnight.
WHERE TO EAT/DRINK
Jack's Cafe: When you’ve been on the road for awhile, sometimes you just need a little comfort food. Jack's is so good that I went back three times! Try the green thai curry, big fluffy pancakes and bacon and egg sandwich.
The Meeting Place Cafe: This tiny little restaurant located near San Blas church isn’t just known for their waffles and milkshakes (which are amazing by the way) but it gives a portion of their profits to a handful of specific projects. They also house volunteers in their guesthouse upstairs for free in return for work in the cafe.
Fuego: This place has the best burgers in Peru and a pretty great selection of craft beer. It's easily accessible, inexpensive and good for large groups. They have classic beef burgers, vegetarian options or if you’re feeling adventurous try the alpaca burger.
Paddy’s Irish Pub: Paddy's is a great place to meet other travelers and enjoy a pint of Guinness. This classic, Irish joint serves all-day Irish breakfast, curry, pizza and shepherd´s pie.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Cusco Plaza Nazarenas: This is a far cry from The Ritz, but if you’re traveling on a budget and want to avoid a packed hostel dorm room, this is a pretty good alternative. Hotel Cusco Plaza Nazarenas is tucked away just behind the main square, so you are close enough to all of the markets and restaurants, but far enough away from the crowds. This refurbished colonial-style house offers free wifi and daily complimentary continental breakfast.
Arequipa: The bus ride from Cusco to Arequipa takes about 11 hours so it’s best to schedule an overnight bus so you can sleep most of the way. If you’re used to backpacking, then you’re probably familiar with long bus rides. These buses aren’t ideal, but they’re usually safe, cheap and the only way to get from A to B. Arequipa is Peru’s second-largest city, yet no where near the same size as Lima. It’s framed by 3 volcanoes and is often visited by regular earthquakes. Spend the day exploring Monasterio de Santa Catalina. This stunning 20,000-sq-meter complex is almost a citadel within the city. Restaurant highlights include: La Lucha - the BEST sandwiches in Peru, Crepisimo - serving up the most delicious sweet and savory crepes and Chelawasi Public House - fulfill your burger craving and try one of their locally brewed craft beers.
Colca Canyon: From Arequipa you can take a 4 hour bus to Colca Canyon. I wouldn't recommend doing this this trip in a day, so it’s best to stay the night in Chivay. Make sure you stop along the way for beautiful views of the valley, photo ops with llamas, authentic souvenir stands and coca leaf tea to help prevent altitude sickness. Colca Canyon is a well-known trekking destination, but if you prefer to skip the hike, sit back and watch the famous Andean condors take flight around the valley. If you find yourself in Chivay during the freezing winter, head to La Calera Thermal Baths to warm up.
Puno/Lake Titicaca: Travel 7.5 hours by bus from Cusco to Puno. While there isn’t much to see in Puno, other than a main square, a few shops and a pretty cool reggae-themed bar called Positive Vibrations, Lake Titicaca is why you travel this far. I was lucky enough to participate in a homestay on the island of Amantani. I wasn’t able to communicate with the Quechua-speaking family, but I still managed to learn how to herd sheep, helped cook breakfast and played a pickup soccer game with the local school kids.