Cusco, My kind of town: Tips for visiting Cusco

Cusco city centre

Dr John Hemming is an explorer and writer who ran the Royal Geographical Society for 21 years. In addition to Peru, his passion is Amazonian indigenous peoples. His latest book about them is Die If You Must. Brazilian Indians in the Twentieth Century. Here he shares thoughts and top tips for visiting Cusco with Aracari.

Dr. Hemming’s Insider Insight: Tips for Visiting Cusco

Why Cusco?

I first saw Cusco in 1960 and fell hopelessly for this strange city. I have twice lived there for a while, and go back whenever I possibly can. Cusco never forgets that it was the capital of the mighty Inca empire. This means a lot to me, as I have written a history of the Conquest of the Incas and another book on their greatest artistic achievement – architecture.

What do you miss most when you are away from Cusco?

The altitude and the dignity. Cuzco is at 3310 metres (almost 11,000 feet), and I am addicted to the thrill of stepping out of a plane into that cool, thin climate and deep blue sky. I marvel at the way Cuzqueños keep their calm despite living in one of the world’s great tourist destinations. Everyone is unhurried at that altitude, and the townspeople are always friendly but dignified, as befits the heirs of the Incas. (The altitude should not be a problem, provided that you go easy on both food and drink for two or three days after arrival.)

What’s the first thing you do when you return?

I walk, slowly of course, around beloved streets. The ancient heart of Cusco is quite small, and there is Inca masonry everywhere. Every ruler built a palace of ashlars cut with dazzling virtuosity and you keep bumping into fragments of their walls. But look at the base of every house and you can see the rougher stones of the Inca street plan. Literally on top of all this, Cusco also boasts the finest Spanish baroque buildings anywhere in the Americas.

Where’s the best place to stay in Cusco?

If you looking for comfort, the Belmond Monasterio – until recently a functioning convent, but there is nothing austere about its antique-filled rooms, courtyards of orange trees and fountains, and ever-ready coca tea or (for those who are acclimatised to the altitude) pisco sours. There are also masses of backpacker hostels and Peruvian versions of b&b.

Where would you meet friends for a drink in Cusco?

The Cross Keys Pub (Portal Confiturias 233, first floor, north-west corner of Plaza de Armas). The Mancunian bird-watcher Barry Walker has made this the rendezvous for the archaeology and adventure crowd. And its pisco sours are legendary.

What are your favourite places for lunch in Cusco?

You don’t come to Cusco for gastronomy. And it is important not to eat or drink too much during your first two or three days at that altitude – if you do, it may sit in an undigested lump and make you feel miserable. A place favoured by academics is Pucará on Plateros (just above the Cross Keys corner of the main square) – simple Peruvian food in unpretentious surroundings, try its grilled trout, potato soup and chocolate pud. Chez Maggy pizzeria, (Procuradores 365) is as good as they come. Among Cuzco’s many adequate but unthrilling restaurants I like three near the Plaza de Armas because they have stretches of Inca palace stonework right in the dining room: Roma (Portal de Panes 105), Paititi (Portal de Carrizos 270), and good new Mystique (Calle Suecia 320). The adventurous traveller should try guinea-pig (cuy in Quechua, because that is the sound of its squeak) – not much meat on its little body, but tasty – washed down by chicha maize beer tasting like unsweetened cider. You get these at picanterías such as Kusikuy (Suecia 339; 262870). Weary travellers like breakfast or a pancake and hot chocolate at café Ayllu, just above the Cathedral, Portal de Carnes 208.

And for dinner?

There are some good newish ones, recommended by my friend Peter Frost (whose Exploring Cusco is the indispensable guide book): Cicciolina (Triunfo 393; 239510) good Mediterranean style; Inka Grill (Portal de Panes 115, Plaza de Armas; 262992) for fashionable ‘novoandina’ cuisine; and the MAP Café in the excellent Museo de Arte Pre-colombino (opposite the Monasterio on Plaza Nazarenas 231; 242476). (This museum – an offshoot of Lima’s wonderful Larco Herrera Museum – has the best and most beautifully presented collection of precolumbian art in Cuzco.)

Where would you send a first-time visitor to Cusco?

To the Plaza de Armas, flanked by two sumptuous churches and with Inca stonework all around it. Then walk down Loreto (more breathtaking masonry) and on a block to the Inca sun temple Coricancha buried in the Santo Domingo monastery. Next day, up above Cusco to the temple/fortress Sacsahuaman – to me one of the wonders of the world. To beat the tour buses and have it to yourself, take a taxi (and sandwich lunch) up at midday and then walk back – a steep but easy kilometre stroll down to the city: the path starts at the lower end of the terraces. Don’t miss Cusco’s many colonial treasures, including the pulpit in the little church of San Blás – a masterpiece of carving with Queen Elizabeth among the demonic heretics crouched below the preacher.

Where would you tell them not to bother with?

Pisac market. This will be offered on the delightful all-day Sacred Valley excursion, but skip the tourist-trap market in the town and insist on driving up to the superb Inca ruins above Pisac. You can get all the alpaca woollies you need in Cuzco. And there is a far prettier market (in the midst of yet more ruins) at Chinchero 30 kms north-west of the city. Another tip: if you’re in your own taxi, do this circuit clockwise starting with Chinchero and Ollantaytambo. The light is better for photography at Ollantaytambo, you’ll have it, Chinchero and Pisac almost to yourself, and you’ll smugly meet a horde of other visitors coming anti-clockwise.

Public transport or taxi?

Taxis are cheap and plentiful. But walking is nicer.

Handbag or moneybelt?

Moneybelt, as there are some artful dodgers – often rosy-cheeked boys and girls. But Cuzco is well policed and tourists are in no physical danger.

What should I take home with me?

I like baby-alpaca pullovers, but they are hard to find except in grander boutiques. Masses of places sell ordinary alpaca woollens and rugs; and skiers and babies look good in those brightly-coloured caps with ear flaps. Traditional woven rugs or wall hangings: Arte Vivo beside the Compañía church on the Plaza de Armas, or Center for Traditional Textiles, Avenida Sol 603. There are charming handicraft pottery bulls, painted houses, and fluffy llamas– if you like that sort of thing. Also some good colonial-style silverware. My wife bought inexpensive elegant jewellery at Maqui Arte (Triunfo 118); but she rarely wears it.

Dr. Hemming has previously led groups in Peru with Aracari, local experts in private, tailormade travel to Peru, Bolivia and the Galapagos. Aracari works with a number of specialists, facilitating insider access in Peru. Contact us now to speak to an expert travel planner for more tips on visiting Cusco, where to stay and what to do. 

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