Things to Do in Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Many tourists whoosh through Cusco and the Sacred Valley on a whirlwind itinerary which leaves their heads spinning. While some might be content to shoot through as they tick off items on their bucket list, Peru’s most famous city and its surrounding valleys offer up a virtual smorgasbord of activities for those with longer attention spans.
During our more than two months in the area, we’ve had some time to get acquainted with not-so-little Qosq’o (Quechua name). What we’ve discovered is one of South America’s most unique and appealing towns in one of the continent’s most unique and appealing regions. No wonder UNESCO declared Cusco a World Heritage Site. Here’s just a tiny sample of all the great things to do in Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
Explore Cusco’s Ancient Foundations
It’s easy to miss details if you rush through Cusco. But those who stop and look around will discover that the entire core of this architectural gem is built on the foundations of the capital of the Inca Empire. Everywhere you walk, you discover the impressively huge blocks that characterize Inca masonry. These walls were too bulky and heavy for Spanish invaders to move and they were also extremely earthquake resistant, so the colonists just chose to integrate the walls into their houses. Some houses have even incorporated intact Incan doors.
As you walk around town, keep your eyes peeled for masonry featuring small, easy-to-miss animal carvings. Our favorite areas were Loreto, Romeritos, Hatun Rumiyoc and Inca Roca. And be sure not to miss the amazing foundations at Koricancha.
Hang out with the Lamb Ladies
Throughout Cusco and the greater Sacred Valley, lamb ladies prowl for tourist cameras and a few extra soles. It’s easy to dismiss them as unauthentic or another example of tourist cheese. But in reality, many of these women are from the highlands and posing in traditional clothing is one of the few options that native people have in the city. Most of the lamb ladies are pretty sweet and talking with them is free. Take a moment to notice some of the regional differences in the clothing styles and textile patterns that you see around the Sacred Valley.
Take in the Colonial Grandeur of Cusco
While neo-Incan nationalists might not love it, Cusco is filled with spectacular colonial architecture. Unfortunately, much of that architecture is built on top of previously grand Incan temples and palaces. Having said that, the city is filled with beautiful churches and grand casas, several of which boast impressive courtyards and beautifully carved balconies. It’s unfortunate that many of the religious buildings require the overpriced Boleto del Circuito Religioso which covers the Cusco Cathedral, the Temple of San Blas and the Archbishop’s Palace. There’s no casually strolling in and out of the nicer churches here. But bargain hunters take note, church exteriors are free, and so is the city’s beautiful Plaza de Armas.
Enjoy a Local Festival in Cusco and Around
I don’t think we have ever been to any location outside of India that has more festivals, parades, and religious processions than Cusco. Every single time we walked around the Plaza de Armas, there seemed to be something going on. One day masked dancers pretending to be drunk stumble through the streets, the next huge fireworks displays mounted on rickety bamboo frames explode and catch fire.
We saw military parades, children dressed in different Quechua garb performing native dances, bands of religious devotees dragging one Madonna after another through the streets, political demonstrations… the list goes on and on. HINT: We discovered that the best way to ensure you run across a festival or parade is to walk around town without your camera. 😉
Eat Beer or Coca Ice Cream – or Both
Have you ever even considered the concept of beer ice cream? I certainly hadn’t until we found Amorino’s on Avenida El Sol just across the street from Koricancha. It’s actually quite delicious. So delicious, in fact, that we went back multiple times. (Does that make us alcoholics or ice cream addicts?) While you’re there, try a few of their other flavors as well. How about coca ice cream? Don’t try to take a pint of that back home with you or customs might lock you up. 😉 Also look for other distinctly Peruvian flavors including caramelized quinoa, awaymanto, lucuma, algorrobina, chirimoya, lime, and maracuya. (You might have to google some of those names.)
Do a Day Hike in the Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley is FULL of world class hikes and adventure sport opportunities. Local agencies and online tour operators offer up an amazing selection of trekking, biking and rafting trips lasting anywhere from a few hours to multiple days (see information below in “Plan Your Trip to Cusco and the Sacred Valley”). While tours are a great option to let someone else do the planning, some people prefer the thrill of organizing their own adventures. Unfortunately, there is very little information on do-it-yourself trips or day hikes in and around Cusco. But never fear, we have included a short list of hikes below. (Both links lead to our Ollantaytambo article which has a lot of useful information on what to do in the area.)
- Moray down to Salineras and on to the Urubamba Road
- Chinchero to Calca
- Ollantaytambo to Pumamarka
- The loop from Pisac market up to the ruins and back down
- San Jeronimo to Señor de Huanca
Explore the Tourist Kitsch
We have a certain fascination with tourist kitsch – and Cusco has quite a bit. There is a certain thrill to wandering through tourist market after tourist market of colorful hats, scarves, gloves, wall hangings… whatever you can weave or knit. Actually, I found the piles of Quechua-influenced tourist paraphernalia kind of spectacular. There’s also a nice selection of quirky religious art. In addition, there are some great street vendors up in San Blas. Some of them sold jewelry made of intricately braided fishing line!!! And don’t worry, if the kitsch doesn’t interest you, there are more upscale stores selling luxury alpaca goods and high-end art.
Sample Real Peruvian Food at Olas Bravas
Frankly, Cusco is not the best place to eat in Peru. The constant flow of tourists means that lazy eateries in the tourist center can serve second-rate food and still survive. Bad Italian, chicken with fries, and a few watered down Peruvian specialties sums up most of what you are likely to encounter in the tourist zone.
There are a few nicer restaurants where you should encounter better options. However, these are often massively overpriced compared to what you can find in other parts of Peru. And even the food here can be less than desirable.
To find good food, head out of the center and ask locals for recommendations. We loved Olas Bravas for great ceviche, arroz con mariscos and tons of other great local options. Budgeteers and culinary adventurers will also want to check out the San Pedro market for tons of regional specialties. Frog juice anyone? It’s freshly squeezed.
Visit a Local Market
Visiting a local market is a great way to see Quechua people. They come down from mountain villages to buy and sell vegetables and textiles. Most tourists head straight for Pisac because the large market there can easily be combined with Pisac’s impressive ruins.
If you do go to the Pisac market, cut through the tourist stalls past the lamb ladies (who are very photogenic) and head straight to the fruit and vegetable section. That’s where you will find people in authentic traditional clothing. Don’t forget to photograph the beautiful Indian corn, pumpkins and potatoes.
Although Pisac is worth a visit, we actually preferred the much more traditional market in beautiful Chinchero, which bizarrely is much closer to Cusco. Not only does the market offer up a much more authentic experience, but Chinchero also has a beautiful colonial church, terraced Inca ruins and tremendous views of Mt. Veronica. Enjoy those views now… this beautiful little valley is slated to be the location of Cusco’s new international airport. Ugggh!!!
Explore the Sacred Valley Ruins
Exploring the Inca ruins at Saqsawayman
And last (but by no means least), get out into the Sacred Valley and explore the Incan and pre-Incan ruins. Unless you have zero interest in history or culture, we highly recommend you avoid the see-everything-in-a-day tours offered in Cusco. Take a few days and soak up the culture in the valley; get out and walk a little. And don’t worry if you weren’t able to book a trek along the official Inca Trail. There are plenty of ruins which are accessible without an Inca Trail permit and even other Inca trails to discover on your own.
Incredible semi-circle of Inca ruins at Pisac
Thomas rests inside a small temple at Pisac
Thomas explores the Inca fountains at Tambomachay
Tony passes the giant Wari (pre-Incan) gates at Piquillacta
Stunning Inca terraces at Chinchero
Plan Your Trip to Cusco and the Sacred Valley
When to Go – The best time to visit Cusco (also spelled Cuzco) and the Sacred Valley is June to August during winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Days tend to be dry, sunny, and clear during peak season. If you prefer fewer crowds and lower prices, you should visit during the shoulder seasons, April to May and October to November. We did the bulk of our traveling in Cusco and the Sacred Valley between July and November, and enjoyed each and every month.
Accommodation – Cusco is the perfect place to spend a few days acclimatizing to the high altitude (3,400 m / 11,200 ft) before exploring the nearby Sacred Valley. The city is full of hotels and guest houses and offers something for every budget. As always, it’s best to book far in advance if you plan to visit Cusco during high season. Check for the best deals on hotels.com and agoda.
Cusco Tours – Although there isn’t a huge amount of information on do-it-yourself activities, Cusco and the Sacred Valley are relatively easy to explore on your own. You can visit many places of interest on public transportation or by hiring a taxi. If you prefer sightseeing or touring the area as part of a group, a tour would be your best bet. You can choose from a host of local tour operators in Cusco or book your tours in advance through Viator, a reputable online tour operator. Viator offers anything from day trips to multi-day tours, including organized visits to Machu Picchu. You can also book hiking, biking, rafting or ziplining tours.
Guidebooks – We usually travel with a Lonely Planet. During our six months in Peru, we used the Lonely Planet Peru guidebook and really liked it. It’s great for cultural and historical info, maps, hiking tours, itineraries, and includes highlights such as Lake Titicaca, Colca Canyon, the Peruvian Amazon, the Salkantay trek, Apu Ausangate, Machu Picchu, and many others. For a more visual guidebook, we recommend the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Peru. All guidebooks can be conveniently purchased on Amazon.
Travel Insurance – Overseas medical insurance is probably THE most important thing to have for nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers. WorldNomads’ travel insurance covers travelers for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of activities and adventure sports. You can buy and claim the insurance online, even after you’ve left home.