I’ve lived in Cusco for nearly a year and a half now and 2019 was my first full year living in this wonderful city. As the year comes a close, I thought it would be fun to share my top 10 places in the Cusco region — places I keep going back to because I really enjoy going to each.
The order really doesn’t matter much because I like all of these (and countless other places) places. Keep in mind that what I like may not be what you like and my reasons may not apply to you.
Please share you own thoughts and comments at the bottom about this list and your own places!
# 10 – Sacsayhuaman
Sacsayhuaman was the first place I went when I got my carnet showing I was an official resident. I thought that I got a discount admission, but was thrilled when I found out it was free for residents!
It still amazes me that there is such an incredible place just a short walk from my apartment. (Of course, it’s a brutally long walk uphill to the entrance, but it’s still worth it!)
The massive stones are even more magnificent when seen in person. While I’m not a big fan of most tourist sites, this one is definitely a “must see” spot. I don’t recommend taking a tour unless you have to (or if you can hire a good guide to give you a lengthy tour of the entire site) because this place requires a lot of time.
Here’s some of my previous posts about Sacsayhuaman:
– Hidden Ancient Jacuzzi at Cusco’s Sacsayhuaman Ruins
– Scenes from Sacsayhuaman (video)
# 9 – Q’oricancha
I never get too excited about visiting what’s left of the center of the Inca civilization. The Spanish took all the gold that filled the site even before the majority of the Spanish army arrived in Cusco. Then they destroyed much of it, but the remaining rooms are the best examples of the abilities of the Inca engineers to build structures that have listed centuries centuries and will last long into the future.
(If you don’t the tragic story of the last Inca emperor Atahualpa, read this incredible tale to learn about the cruelty of the Spanish invaders and how they quickly raided Cusco and the empire of much of it’s wealth.)
There’s something that keeps drawing me back to this place. Maybe it’s the historical significance that cannot be overstated. Maybe it’s the unmatched engineering that survives even today as the finest examples of Inca architecture. Maybe it’s just the quiet gardens that offer a respite from the hustle and bustle of life despite the busy flow of Cusco just outside.
This is one of the few places where a tour guide will help, but you can stroll through the hallways and take it all in alone. Whatever you do, make sure you go upstairs to check out the changing exhibits on the second floor. Also, the gardens outside are spectacular and one of my favorite places to relax.
– Photo Stroll Through the Q’oricancha
– The Flowers of the Q’oricancha
# 8 – Random Neighborhoods
When I first arrived in Cusco back in mid-2018, on of the first things I did was explore the city by walking all over town in every direction. It didn’t matter if the neighborhood looked rough — and some of them certainly did look that way! — because I wanted to know the city not as a visitor, but as a resident.
Nothing lets you learn about a place more than walking its streets and talking to its people. That certainly applies to a city like Cusco where the majority of the people get around most of the time of foot.
I sometimes get stares, but more often I find that people are quick to talk if I smile and say hello. Going into neighborhood shops to get a bottle of water, eating in tiny local restaurants with only a handful of plastic tables, or even stopping to play a little football with neighborhood kids teaches me far more about Cusco than hanging around other foreigners in San Blas.
Before you go for a stroll through the city, I’d recommend you reading this little piece I wrote about walking in Cusco.
– Tips on Walking in Cusco
# 7 – Machu Picchu Museum
I lived here for a long time before I finally visited this museum which I had passed by hundreds of times. Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised by what seemed like a tiny little place from the outside. It actually fills a large colonial home with a beautiful courtyard and rooms filled with very interesting exhibits.
Surprisingly there are rarely many people in the museum despite only being a block from the Plaza de Armas on one of the busiest streets in the historical center of Cusco.
Read more about this fascinating museum here:
– Morning Visit to the Machu Picchu Museum
# 6 – Anywhere Outside!
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love hiking and exploring in this region. Getting up into the mountains or hiking along some nearly forgotten Inca road to experience breathtaking scenery without another soul in sight is usually the highlight of my week.
I’ve discovered all kinds of interesting places unknown to tourists just by talking off down a trail that I’ve never explored before. You literally never know what you will find everywhere you go in this area.
Here are some articles I’ve written about my walks in the immediate area just outside of Cusco:
– Exploring More (Almost) Unknown Ancient Ruins – Video
– Exploring More (Almost) Unknown Ancient Ruins
– Llaullipata – Rarely Visited Ruins a Short Hike Above Cusco
– Hiking Above Cusco – Getting Away from the Tourists
– Hiking above Tambomachay
– Camino Antisuyo from the Air (video)
# 5 – Aguas Calientes
Can you name another person who has deliberately gone to Aguas Calientes, the tiny village below Machu Picchu, without actually visiting MP?
I’ve done it several times! There is something about this tourist pueblo that keeps bringing me back. Maybe it’s because it’s such a quick and easy getaway into the high jungle that surrounds Machu Picchu. Maybe it’s because of the friends I’ve met there. Some of it might even be because I’ve found some excellent food that I can’t find anywhere else!
This tiny place survives only because it is the gateway to Machu Picchu. The lives of everyone there revolves around tourism and tourists, but there is a lot more to their lives.
One side of the town is 100% for tourists, but the other side is where the residents make their lives when they are not working in the tourism industry.
I’ve been lucky enough to have eaten with friends and their families, to have played football (soccer) on the relatively new field with local guys whose skills aren’t much better than mine, and to have hung out with men who have just finished a long stretch guiding unprepared tourists on their dream trek along the Inca Trail.
I’ve written before about some of incredible places nearby that few visitors to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu ever see:
– There’s More In Aguas Calientes than Machu Picchu
– Searching for the Intihuatana
I know that most people don’t get to spend much time in AC, but if you are ever there for more than just a quick pass on the way to Machu Picchu take a little time to explore the town and see more than the tourist time.
# 4 – The Cathedral
I go to the Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas every 2-3 weeks and spend my time walking around slowly and exploring every little detail I see.
I’m not into art, but the significance of the collections on the wall are amazing. Many of the paintings were done by indigenous people who integrated both Incan cosmology and Roman Catholicism into a marvelous blend that represented their world then and today.
It’s worth hiring a guide when visiting the Cathedral as they will point out the many examples of this blending of religions known as syncretism.
I wish photography was allowed, but I understand why it it not. This is, after all, an active church with an active congregation. I would never want to show any disrespect for the wishes of the church.
I’ll admit that I did sneak one photograph (without flash). To the right of the main doors is plain, egg-shaped stone sitting alone in a corner. I’ve never seen a tour guide stop at this rock and I would be surprised if I ever did despite that they all know that it is perhaps the most significant Incan artifact in all of South America.
You can read about the Wiracocha stone here:
– The Mystery of the Wiracocha Stone.
# 3 – Puerto Maldonado and Lago Sandoval
Yeah, it’s not exactly in the immediate Cusco area, but Puerto Maldonado is only an inexpensive, 35-minute flight and it is the place I’ve visited nearly nearly a dozen times this past year.
One of my favorite places is the special Lago Sandoval in the Tambopata Reserve where you can experience the jungle and see wildlife in such a small area unless anywhere outside of a zoo. For 100 soles (about $30 USD) I’ve seen giant river otters, several species of monkeys, unique jungle rainforest plants, countless birds not found outside the rainforest, snakes (non-venomous), extremely venomous ants, etc., in a single day’s visit almost every time I go.
For me, the biggest drawback of Puerto Maldonado is that the surrounding jungle is almost completely private or controlled reserves. I can’t easily take off into the jungle alone so I have to go with a tour of some kind, but this is definitely a plus for almost everyone else. The guides are good and you’ll get your money’s worth if you want to get a quick glimpse of the rainforest.
– Giant River Otters at Lago Sandoval
– Lago Sandoval (Puerto Maldonado) is Wondrous!
– Rainforest Scenes at Peru’s Lago Sandoval (video)
– The Jungle Calls to Me In Color (video)
# 2 – Machu Picchu
How can this place not be at the top of anyone’s list? Well, it’s only #2 on mine despite visiting it around 15 times this year alone! (More on that later.)
If you haven’t been to Machu Picchu and are planning a trip, then get ready. It is everything you’ve heard and more.
The first time I visited was in 2005. I was unable to see anything as I climbed up the steps in a light rain and heavy fog. As I reached the top, the rain suddenly stopped and clouds parted to reveal the most spectacular sight I’d ever seen. (Sounds like a movie, but that’s really how it was!)
I’ve not written a lot about MP here — mostly because so much has already been written. When I go now, I look for unique points of interest that others miss. Nothing about MP was done without a purpose and only when you spend some time exploring taking your time do you start to notice special thing. (One day soon I’ll write about some of that kind of stuff.)
I have written a couple of somewhat unique pieces about Machu Picchu that I think anyone planning a trip would find interesting.
– Winter Solstice Sunrise at Machu Picchu
– Photo Gallery – Symbiotic Construction of Machu Picchu
# 1 – Plaza de Armas
While seeing beautiful places and exploring historical sites is always fascinating, nothing matches the feeling of sitting in the main square of the oldest city in the Americas. Why? Because the Plaza de Armas is not a static relic of history, it is history and, even more important, it is alive.
Yes, it usually has an abundance of tourists, but it is the center or life in Cusco and has been for hundreds of years. Even during the busiest months of the tourist season, the majority of people in the Plaza are Peruvians. This is their city. It is the center of their civic energy and they are very proud of it.
Sit on the bench in the Plaza and watch the city pass you by. Ignore the tourists. They are merely passing through and are more interested in checking off a few items on their bucket list instead of really experiencing the place they are fortunate to visit.
As you look around and realize you are surrounded by centuries old history with countless stories to tell about the native people and those who came later, remember that this is a place of living history today. It’s not like reading some dusty old textbook about American history. You are in the middle of history being made by real people living real lives each day.
– Photographing Cusco’s Plaza de Armas
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