8 Reasons To Visit Cusco, Peru That Aren't Machu Picchu
It's easy to think of Cusco as the warm-up act to your favourite band. You'll miss a few songs to go grab your beers because the gig you're really here to see is Machu Picchu. But this historical city has so much to offer visitors willing to stick around and show it some love.
I booked an entire week in Cusco because I was starting to suffer from traveller's fatigue. But I was skeptical that the city would suitably entertain me for that long. I couldn't have been any more wrong. Not only were my days jam-packed, I also left feeling like I wanted to do so much more! So here are eight things to do in the ancient city of Cusco, Peru that make it worth your while to stick around a little longer:
1. A walking tour that will literally take you back in time: Cusco is old. Like really old. And it just so happens to be the home of one of the most fascinating civilisations in the world. This was the hub of the Inca Empire, the largest empire in Pre-Colombian Latin America, renowned for its incredible sophistication and power. It once dominated large chunks of what are now Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Argentina combined. Incan stonework is legendary and you can find many of the original foundations in the heart of Cusco. The city's informative Free Walking Tour (which runs all day and asks for a donation at the end) is perfect for uncovering this stonework and the city's many previous lives.
2. Enjoying many meals at Jack's Cafe: This little cafe is a bit of a Cusco (traveller's) institution. And as soon as you sample the food, you can easily see why. Admittedly, it's largely of the Western variety, but it's absolutely delicious. I liked it so much, I went back three times. The coffee is spectacular and it's served in adorable alpaca-designed mugs. And the food itself is fresh, tasty and comes in massive portions. Make sure to arrive with a serious appetite. It's also a great place for solo travellers to hangout, read, blog and even connect with other backpackers.
3. Hikes and explorations of the surrounding Sacred Valley: If you're doing the classic Inca Trail, this need not apply since you'll probably already be exploring most of this region on your trek to Machu Picchu. But since I opted for the Inca Jungle Trek with Lorenzo Expeditions (a post on this AH-MAZING experience coming soon; I highly recommend it), I also took a day trip to the Sacred Valley hotspots to get my fill of Incan life and architecture. Visiting the Sacred Valley is a great way to really get under the skin of all things Inca Empire. Plus, the landscapes will blow you away. I booked an affordable one-day tour with a local agency (which I researched the hell out of after my terrible Uyuni experience). But if you're backpacking, consider spending a few nights in hostels in Sacred Valley towns like Ollantaytambo, Urubamba and Pisac. It'll be much cheaper that staying in Cusco and you won't be restricted to the tight timings of a tour.
4. Pushing your altitude limits and seeing all the colours of the rainbow at Rainbow Mountain: All I can say is wowza! A trek to Rainbow Mountain is a travel (and life) experience that any serious travel junkie won't want to miss. Reaching a peak of 6,384 metres, the altitude is no joke but the views at the top will blow your mind. Rainbow Mountain (or as it's called in Spanish, La Montaña de Siete Colores) earned its nickname because of the colours left behind in the soil by mineral deposits and local weather. It's like nothing else you've ever seen. You can hike to the top or hire horses to get you there if the altitude hits you hard. And now that this site has become more popular it's easy to book a day trip direct from Cusco, giving you one more reason to spend a few extra days in the city.
5. Hanging out with some new alpaca friends: This one's a little cheeky, but I mean seriously - LOOK HOW CUTE THEY ARE. I say cheeky because taking a snap with an alpaca in the streets of Cusco is a classic tourist trap. Women dressed in traditional garb will stop and ask you if you want a photo in exchange for some Soles. I did my best to to ignore them until I bumped into this little guy. I mean, how could I resist? Hence, I am now the proud owner of this adorable photo. My recommendation is for you to do the same.
6. Chocolate tastings at the Choco Museum and more: Peru is renowned for it's chocolate. For good reason. And the city of Cusco really celebrates this. There's a small chocolate museum that lets you sample fantastic local chocolate treats ranging from chocolate tea (which is surprisingly good) to spicy chocolate and almond nips to cocoa-based body butters and lip balms. Chocolate shops throughout the city also offer chocolate workshops where you not only learn about the plant and its origins but also how to make your own chocolate.
7. An afternoon well-spent at the Inka Museum: Though it's not very big, and a little bit dated, Cusco's Inka museum is fascinating nonetheless. You'll learn all sorts of quirky facts about this ancient civilisation as well as get to see some of their artefacts first-hand. The museum also celebrates other Peruvian traditions like textiles and pottery, so it's very much a crash course in local culture. I spent ages watching this woman at work.
8. A spa break to recover your weary Machu Picchu muscles: Whatever trek you choose for Machu Picchu, I guarantee you will need some recovery time. I'm pretty sure I didn't walk properly for two days. So consider not only booking some recovery time in Cusco but also a massage or spa treat to loosen those tired muscles. I splurged a bit here and booked a spa afternoon at the Palacio Del Inka Hotel. It was worth every single penny.
So there you have it, fellow traveller. All the reasons why you should book a longer stay in Cusco. To make your trip through Peru even smoother, consider booking some time in the city both before and after your Machu Picchu experience. First, spend a few days getting your bearings and adapting to the altitude and then save a few for later to let your body rest and recover. This could be back in Cusco or in some of the small Sacred Valley towns you want to explore.
Happy travel planning!
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