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Exploring the Best of Cusco: A Guide to the City’s Highlights

Nestled in the heart of the Andes, Cusco is a city that weaves a tapestry of rich history, vibrant culture, and breathtaking landscapes. It stands as a gateway to the wonders of ancient Inca civilization and a focal point for those seeking to explore the majestic Machu Picchu.

But the allure of Cusco extends beyond its stone ruins and into the streets where Quechua, the language of the Incas, echoes against the walls, and the air is filled with the scent of Pisco Sours. The city is a living museum, where every corner tells a story, making Cusco highlights not just a journey back in time, but an immersion into a culture that has survived and thrived for centuries.

This guide takes you through an exploration of the city’s heart, highlighting historical and cultural landmarks from Sacsayhuaman to the Sacred Valley, inviting you to dive deep into the local way of life beyond the stones.

Experience the vibrant traditional dress, the bustling San Pedro Market, and the sacred rituals that echo the ancestors’ footsteps. Culinary enthusiasts will revel in a gastronomic journey that transcends the ordinary, turning every meal into an adventure, while those drawn to the rugged paths will find solace and excitement on the Inca Trail. From the serene beauty of Chinchero to the adrenaline rush of engaging with Cusco’s natural beauty, this guide promises a comprehensive insight into Cusco sightseeing, ensuring every traveler’s thirst for adventure and knowledge is quenched.

In and around Cusco are hundreds of examples of architectural and engineering marvels. Everywhere there are signs of a Spanish invasion that grafted itself onto the architectural and cultural foundations of an Inca society that was conquered but not vanquished.

Here, in the Inca capital of the Americas, the fusion of Spanish and Andean customs is vibrant, warm and intoxicating. A glorious past unfolds in a landscape of churches built on top of palaces. Lost citadels in the Andean heights are rediscovered by following enduring, legendary Inca trails. The glorious past unfolds in the charm and dignity of Cusco’s proud people.

The past melds into the present in the main square, which the Inca called Huacaypata, in the artisan quarter of San Blas, and in the Convent of Santo Domingo, built on top of the Temple of the Sun.

Visitors will also feel that history come to life on the outskirts of town, in the imposing ruins of Sachsayhuaman and Tambomachay. Visitors can also take part in all kinds of adventure sports and participate in the most spectacular religious festivals on the continent.

Celebrations include Qoyllur Rit’i, which is held on an ice-covered mountain at 13,000 feet (4,000m) above sea level, the Corpus Christi procession and the famous Inti Raymi spectacle.

Exploring the Heart of Cusco: Historical and Cultural Landmarks

Sacsayhuaman: The Impressive Inca Fortress

Sacsayhuaman stands as a testament to Inca engineering prowess, perched on the outskirts of Cusco. Constructed primarily during the reigns of Pachacuti and his successors in the 15th century, the fortress is renowned for its massive stone walls, assembled meticulously without mortar.

These boulders, some weighing over 100 tons, fit together so tightly that not even a piece of paper can slide between them. The zigzagging walls, designed to resemble the teeth of a puma, span over 1,770 feet (540 meters) and were strategically crafted to provide a formidable defense, incorporating terraces with narrow doorways to control access. This site not only served as a military stronghold but also as a ceremonial space and storage facility, reflecting its significant role in Inca culture.

Cusco Cathedral: A Fusion of Incan and Spanish Architectures

Located in the heart of Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, Cusco Cathedral is a grand structure that embodies the confluence of Incan and Spanish architectural styles. Built on the site of an ancient Inca palace, the cathedral took nearly a century to complete, with construction beginning in 1534. Its façade showcases Renaissance influences, while the interiors are adorned with Gothic and Baroque elements. Notably, the cathedral houses art from the Cusqueña school, which integrates European and indigenous techniques. The use of Sacsayhuaman stones in its construction symbolizes the imposition of Spanish culture over the Incan, a theme echoed by the inclusion of Incan religious symbols within the cathedral’s ornate doors and artwork.

San Pedro Market: A Dive into Local Life

A mere 10-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas lies the vibrant San Pedro Market, a hub of Cusquenian daily life and culture. This bustling marketplace offers a sensory overload with its array of fresh produce, traditional foods, and artisanal goods. Visitors can explore stalls featuring everything from handcrafted garments and herbal remedies to fresh cheeses and colorful textiles. The market is not only a place for shopping but also a venue to immerse oneself in the local language and customs, observe traditional dress, and even partake in the making of coca tea, a local remedy for altitude sickness. This lively market encapsulates the spirit of Cusco, making it an essential experience for understanding the contemporary and traditional lifestyles of its people.

Beyond the Stones: Cultural Experiences in Cusco

Museo del Pisco: Unveiling the Spirit of Peru

The Museo del Pisco offers a deep dive into the heritage of Peru’s beloved spirit. This unique establishment functions both as a museum and a vibrant cocktail bar, showcasing an extensive array of pisco varieties. Visitors can explore a detailed timeline of pisco’s history and its production processes, displayed alongside rows of pisco bottles, each telling its own story of flavor and tradition. The museum also offers a chance to taste the classic Pisco Sour, crafted with traditional ingredients and a dash of creative flair, reflecting the rich cultural palette of Peru.

Cusco’s Nightlife: From Traditional Music to Contemporary Bars

Cusco’s nightlife presents a dynamic spectrum from haunting Andean melodies to the energetic beats of modern clubs. The city pulses with life after dark, offering everything from peñas, where traditional music and dance fill the air, to contemporary bars and clubs where locals and tourists alike mingle. Venues like Mama Africa and Ukuku’s are popular spots where diverse musical genres create an infectious atmosphere, inviting everyone to dance the night away. This vibrant nightlife scene is a testament to Cusco’s ability to preserve its traditions while embracing modernity.

The Colorful Textiles of Chinchero: Weaving Villages on the Outskirts

A short journey from Cusco, the town of Chinchero is celebrated for its exquisite textile creations. Here, visitors can witness the age-old techniques of spinning, dyeing, and weaving, passed down through generations. The local artisans use natural dyes and traditional Andean methods to craft vibrant textiles that narrate stories of their heritage and environment. The textile center in Chinchero not only allows for an appreciation of these beautiful crafts but also offers the opportunity to purchase these textiles directly from the creators, supporting the local community and its artisanal traditions.

Cusco’s Gastronomic Wonders: A Culinary Journey

Sampling Local Delicacies: Cuy and Alpaca

Cusco offers a unique culinary exploration, prominently featuring local delicacies such as cuy (guinea pig) and alpaca meat. Cuy, deeply rooted in Peruvian culture, offers a tender, flavorful experience, seasoned to highlight its unique taste. Alpaca, known for its lean and slightly sweet meat, is traditionally served in various forms, from grilled steaks to stews, enhancing its distinct flavor with local herbs and spices.

The Pisco Sour Experience: A Taste of Peru’s National Drink

The Pisco Sour, an emblem of Peruvian identity, is celebrated in Cusco’s vibrant bars and restaurants. Visitors can immerse themselves in the history and variety of Pisco through guided tours that culminate in a hands-on mixology experience. Learning to craft their own Pisco Sour, guests not only enjoy the rich, citrus-infused cocktail but also connect with Peru’s spirited heritage.

Innovative Andean Cuisine: Fusion Restaurants Worth Visiting

Cusco’s culinary scene also thrives on innovation, where traditional Andean ingredients meet contemporary cooking techniques. Fusion restaurants, such as those offering dishes like quinoa chupe with Andean cheese and grilled forest mushrooms, present a modern twist on classic flavors. These establishments provide a gastronomic journey that marries the ancient with the modern, creating unforgettable dining experiences that are both rooted in tradition and inspired by global culinary trends.

Adventure and Excursions: Embracing Cusco’s Natural Beauty

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: The Ultimate Trek

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu stands as one of the world’s most iconic treks, weaving through the lush Andean mountain passes and offering hikers a unique blend of natural beauty and historical exploration. This trek is not just a path but a journey through the heart of the ancient Inca civilization, culminating in the breathtaking view of Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate. The trail itself showcases a variety of Inca ruins, each telling a story of its past, amidst the diverse flora and fauna of the region.

The Urubamba Valley


Arguably the most spectacular destination in the valley, is actually two sites: the colonial village beside the Urubamba River and the Inca fortress atop a mountain nearly 2,000 feet (600m) above. The village has a famous, bustling outdoor market on Sundays. One can either drive up to the ruins, or climb a steep footpath that starts at the main plaza of the village. Upon reaching the top, you will find the ruins have overlooks to deep gorges. The fortress tops well-preserved temple rooms and agricultural terraces that sweep down from the buildings. The Pisac Ruins present an exemplary vista of Inca architectural genius, with terraced fields and ancient fortifications that offer insights into the sophisticated agricultural practices of the Incas.

Pisac Market and Ruins: A Sunday Excursion

Pisac offers a perfect blend of cultural immersion and historical exploration, especially on Sundays when the market really comes alive. Here, visitors can engage with local artisans, experiencing the vibrancy of Andean culture through textiles and crafts unique to the region.

Moray Terraces: Exploring Agricultural Wonders

The Moray Terraces are a testament to Inca ingenuity in agriculture, featuring concentric circular terraces that create varying micro-climates. Each level simulates different environmental conditions, allowing the Incas to experiment with crops at different altitudes. This ancient agricultural laboratory not only highlights the advanced understanding of horticulture by the Incas but also offers a stunning landscape for visitors to explore, making it a must-see for those interested in the scientific achievements of ancient civilizations.

Or as it is more popularly known, The Sacred Valley of the Incas, was, and remains, southern Peru’s most important agricultural breadbasket – a region steeped in historical, cultural and religious significance. Formed by the Urubamba / Vilcanota River, this lush valley, located about nine miles (15km) north of Cusco offers endless opportunities for adventure and exploration: from white water rafting and bargaining in indigenous markets to visiting Inca ruins and hiking the famed Inca Trail to the citadel of Machu Picchu.


The Inca village of Ollantaytambo lies at the other end of the valley. Built primarily as a temple and royal retreat, the sprawling site was also a mighty fortress and served as the staging ground for the only outright victory the Inca won in battle against the Spanish conquistadors in 1536. It was protected by high stone terraces built from giant boulders dragged from quarries nearly four miles (6km) away.


West of Cusco, is another “lost city” perched on a mountain spur, high above the Apurimac River. Reaching the ruins requires a challenging, but spectacular trek that takes a minimum of four days, round trip. Choquequirao means “cradle of gold” in the ancient Quechua language, still spoken in much of the Peruvian highlands. Many experts believe the site was the last refuge of Manco Inca, who led a last-ditch rebellion against the Spanish before retreating into the jungle, where his followers held out for 70 years after the collapse of the Inca Empire.

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