8 Reasons To Visit Cusco, Peru That Aren't Machu Picchu
It's easy to think of Cusco like the warm-up act to your favourite band. You'll miss a few songs and go grab some more beers because you're really here for the headliner: 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 that notorious illness known as traveller's fatigue. However, I was skeptical that the city would really be able to entertain me for that long.
I couldn't have been any more wrong. Not only were my days jam-packed, I left feeling like there was still so much more to do!
Here are eight great things to do in the ancient city of Cusco, Peru that prove it's totally worth your while to stick around for a bit:
1. Take 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 very hub of the Inca Empire, the largest empire in Pre-Colombian Latin America, renowned for its incredible sophistication, intellect and power. It once dominated large chunks of what are now Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Argentina combined. Their stonework is legendary and you can find original Incan foundations scattered throughout the heart of Cusco. The city's informative Free Walking Tour (which runs daily and asks for a small donation at the end) is perfect for learning about the city's many previous lives. But if you're up for even more exercise and want to explore a bit out of town too then consider booking a 6-hour guided city tour with Get Your Guide.
2. Enjoy a few 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'll understand why. Admittedly, it's largely of the Western variety, but it's absolutely delicious. I liked it so much, I went back three times. Their coffee's spectacular and it's served in adorable alpaca-covered mugs. And the food itself is fresh, tasty and comes in massive portions. Just make sure to arrive with an appetite. It's also a great place for solo travellers to hangout, read (ahem...blog) and connect with other backpackers.
3. Hike and explore 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, I also took a day trip to all 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. Plus, the landscape 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. Push your altitude limits and see all the colours of the rainbow at Rainbow Mountain: A trek to Rainbow Mountain is a travel (and life) experience that any serious travel junkie won't want to miss. In fact, it's so good, I've written an entire post about how to climb it. 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 colour of the soil, caused by mineral deposits and local weather. It's like nothing else you've ever seen. And now that this site is becoming 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. Hang 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? As a result, I am now the proud owner of this adorable photo.
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 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. Spend an afternoon 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. Have a spa day to recover your weary Machu Picchu muscles: Whichever trek you choose for Machu Picchu, I guarantee you will need some recovery time. I'm pretty sure I didn't walk properly for at least 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 and booked a spa afternoon at the Palacio Del Inka Hotel. It was worth every penny.
So there you have it. All the reasons why Cusco deserves your love.
To make your trip through Peru as smooth as possible, maybe even consider booking some time in Cusco both before and after your Machu Picchu experience. Spend your first few days getting your bearings and adapting to the altitude and then tack on some days post-trek for your body to fully rest and recover. Spend them back in Cusco or in one of the small Sacred Valley towns you really want to explore.
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