Cusco City Guide

Where Spanish Colonial meets Inca Ruins, Cusco is the result of two cultures colliding. Try to catch your breath by hiking to Cristo Blanco, discover some Ancient ruins at Sacsayhuman and marvel at the beauty of Plaza de Armas. 

Back in April we were able to cross a new country (and new continent) off our list. After plans for a February trip to Copenhagen got thwarted, we set our eyes on something much bigger: South America! Machu Picchu had been on our minds for some time, so we thought – why not? We had one week to visit Peru (during Mark’s April vacation) so we mapped it all out carefully. The first two nights of the trip we spent in Cusco. Not only is this city nestled into a valley surrounded by rolling hills but it is filled with a rich history. As the center of the Incan empire, the architecture in Cusco today is a unique mix of Spanish colonialism meets Inca ruins. We were blown away by how beautiful it was.

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Although our time in Cusco was short, check out some of the things we were able to do and see there!

Monastery of San Francisco

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Courtyard inside the Monastery

While venturing through the streets of Cusco, we stumbled upon a beautiful church. Although this wasn’t originally on our radar, we decided to pay the 15 soles (~$5) entrance fee and check it out. Not a ton of people were visiting that day so it felt like we had the whole places to ourselves! Inside the Monastery is the most gorgeous and serene colonial courtyard (pictured above). Probably our favorite part of this visit was going under the altar of the church to view the catacombs! (A little eerie but so cool).

  • Cost: 15 soles (~$5)
  • Estimated time needed: 30 minutes – 1 hour

Quirkancha & the Covent of Santo Domingo

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The gardens outside the Covent

Quirkancha for the Incans meant golden courtyard and was once the religious center in Cusco. Home to the Temple of the Sun and over 4,000 priests at the peak of the Incan empire, this place of worship was once adorned with gold. Now, probably the most prominent example of two cultures colliding, the Covent of Santo Domingo sits on top of the ruins of Quirkancha. In the 17th century, after the Spanish stole the gold from the temple and melted it all down, they decided to use the stonework from the temple as a base for their church.

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Today, they have removed some of the church to reveal the ruins of some of the most famous Incan temples. In the picture below (bottom right) you can clearly see the old dark stones of the Inca wall, marking where the Sun Temple once stood.

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Thanks to the map given to us at the entrance, we spent almost 2 hours exploring and learning about all the Incan temples and admiring the Colonial Architecture.

  • Cost: 15 soles (~$5)
  • Estimated time needed: 1-2 hours

Plaza de Armas 

Once known as Haukaypata (The Great Inca Square), later named Plaza de Armas by the Spanish – this area is the heart of modern day Cusco. Surrounded by two colonial churches, as well as restaurants & shops, this area is always bustling with locals and tourists alike. The Plaza is used for big celebrations and festivals, such as traditional Incan holidays as well as Corpus Cristi or Semana Santa (Holy Week).  We were able to catch a procession for Holy Week while there one night and the whole plaza was filled with thousands of people!

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Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus
  • Cost: Free
  • Estimated time needed: 30 minutes

Cristo Blanco Statue

Cristo Blanco is a large statue of Jesus Christ overlooking Cusco. It was gifted to the city of  Cusco by the Arabic Palestinians that sought refuge in Cusco after WWII. It stands almost 26 ft. high on one of the hills overlooking the city. Technically a visit to this statue is free, however, since it is near Sacsayhuman, there is a guard blocking the path up the hill to the statue which you can only enter with a ticket. (One way around this would be to take an uber or taxi to the statue since it is accessible by road).

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We took a taxi up the hill to explore some of the free parts of the ruins and enjoy the view of Cusco from Cristo Blanco. This is a great area to hike around as well, since there are a lot of historic sites you can visit once on top of the hill.

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View of Cusco from Cristo Blanco
  • Cost: 20 soles (~$8) for uber / taxi
  • Estimated time needed: 1 hour

Sacsayhuman

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Although we didn’t pay to go inside Sacsayhuman, we did catch a glimpse of it on our ride up the hill. Our driver even made a stop to let us snap a picture before continuing up the hill towards Cristo Blanco. Looking back on our trip, we wish we had more time to explore Sacsayhuman and the other ruins above the city, but an expensive entrance fee held us back. Be aware that some of the tickets will include multiple sites while others only include Sacsayhuman.

  • Cost: 85 soles (~$25)
  • Estimated time needed: 2-3 hours

San Blas Neighborhood

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Mark carrying our bags down the many stairs in San Blas

The San Blas neighborhood is where our Airbnb was and is one of the quieter areas of Cusco. It’s about a 10 minute (up-hill) walk from the city center – seriously be prepared for a lot of stairs! However, it’s worth the view overlooking the city and a great area to explore some quaint cobblestone streets for some local shops and restaurants.

  • Cost: Free
  • Estimated time needed: 1 hour

12 Angled Stone

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Leaving Plaza de Armas, you’ll find a street called Hatunrumiyoc that is lined with an Incan Wall. What makes this particular wall so famous, is the 12-angled stone in the middle of it. If you’re worried about finding the stone in the wall, it’s pretty hard to miss. Not only is it one of the larger stones in the wall but it will be surrounded by people trying to take a picture of it. I recommend walking this street early in the morning or late in the evening so you are able to enjoy the wall in peace.

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Can you count all 12 angles?
  • Cost: Free
  • Estimated time needed: 15 minutes

Accommodation

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View from our room

We were able to reserve a room on Airbnb at the cutest Bed & Breakfast in the San Blas neighborhood. Our room had a huge window (and balcony) overlooking the entire city. Our host would serve us breakfast each morning with fresh fruit, eggs, toast & tea. I would highly recommend this for anyone looking for a comfortable and affordable place to stay. (Be aware that a view like this requires an uphill walk from the city center, but it’s worth it).

  • Cost: ~$50-$60 per night

Travel Tips

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Cusco Cathedral
  • Transportation
    • Cusco is very walkable
    • It’s recommended to take a taxi or Uber to or from the Airport since public transportation can be dangerous for tourists
    • Fly from Lima to Cusco (1 hour), the only other option is a 24 hour bus ride and they are almost the same price
  • Tipping
    • 10% gratuity is added to most bills in Peru
    • You can also tip 1 or 2 soles on top of this if the service was good, but it is not expected
  • Weather
    • Cusco is busiest during its winter months (June – September) since they are the least rainiest
    • The weather does not vary much between seasons but it’s best to pack layers since Cusco can get cooler at night, even in summer
      • Winter: 32-63 F
      • Summer: 44-66 F
  • General
    • Cusco is a little over 11,000 ft above sea level and could cause altitude sickness
    • Avoid the tap water at all costs, it can make you sick
      • Brush your teeth with bottled water
      • Ask for drinks without ice, or verify if the ice is filtered
    • Know your neighborhoods
      • San Blas & Plaza de Armas hold the most hotels / hostels and are the safer and more accessible areas to stay in
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Inca ruins we discovered while hiking near Cristo Blanco above Cusco

Cusco is a must-see city while in Peru. It’s unique blend of indigenous & Spanish culture makes it worthwhile on its own, but it’s kind and welcoming people will make you want to stay! Like most destinations we visit, 2 days wasn’t enough to explore all Cusco had to offer but we did our best in the short amount of time given. The rest will have to wait until next time we find ourselves there!

Hasta luego, Amanda

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Last edited: April 2020


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