Once the largest city in the Inca Empire, Cuzco is the indisputable archaeological capital of South America, as well as the continent’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Sometimes overlooked as just the gateway to Machu Picchu, the city’s rich history makes it a must-see destination in its own right. Read on to see what to do on your trip to Cuzco.
Cuzco is filled with archaeological and artistic treasures; its streets alone are evidence of the city’s long history. Between ancient Inca ruins outside the city to the UNESCO-recognized colonial center, there are many sites to explore—just getting out there will make you feel like you’re in a living museum.
While you’re there, don’t miss the Museo de Arte Pre Colombino. Located close to the city center and housed within a grand Spanish colonial mansion, Cuzco’s most-visited museum is filled with interesting pre-Columbian artwork, multicolored pottery, detailed jewelry and Inca treasures.
All across Cuzco, you’ll find open-air markets filled with colorful displays of clothing, hats, ceramics, pottery and jewelry. Even if you’re not planning to buy anything, these places are fun to walk through, and they offer a unique cultural experience.
One of the most popular souvenirs are the region’s textiles. Shirts, bags, hats and tapestries made from either fine alpaca or sheep wool are usually sold at low prices. Pottery and retablos, colorful plaster figures inspired by Incan myths and traditions, are also common souvenirs. Don’t be afraid to bargain a little bit—it’s very common and an accepted form of shopping in Cuzco.
A wonderful way to get closer to Peruvian culture is through the cuisine. One traditional dish you’re sure to encounter is cuy, or roasted guinea pig. Traditionally reserved for nobility, today cuy is a big part of the Andean diet. All around Cuzco, you’ll find cuyerías that make the dish their specialty—visit one only if you’re feeling adventurous.
You might also try aji de gallina, one of Peru’s most popular dishes. It’s made with shredded chicken poached in a creamy sauce along with nuts, parmesan cheese, amarillo and mirasol chili peppers. On the side, you’ll get rice, yellow potatoes and hard-boiled eggs. If you’re thirsty, sip on chicha morada, a spiced drink made out of purple corn—another delicious Peruvian specialty.
Just for fun
Visit a local chicharia, or beer hall, to try your hand in a game of sapo. It’s based on the story of an Inca king who threw gold pieces into Lake Titicaca, hoping to catch the attention of el sapo, the frog. Legend has it that if the frog caught the coin in its mouth, it would turn to gold and the thrower would be granted a wish. Today’s version of the game involves throwing small coins, called fichas, at a table topped with a bronze-colored frog. You earn points when your coin lands in one of the holes on the table and more points if it lands in the frog’s mouth. The game is best enjoyed over a glass of chicha, or corn beer, which was the sacred drink of the Incas.
Want to visit Cuzco on tour? Have a favorite memory from your trip to the city? Tell us about it in the comments!