Peru has seen incredible growth in tourism over the last decade (and for good reason). The billowing mountains, bustling cities, and deep history would tempt any traveler. Cusco, a major contributor, has drawn major attention for the renowned Inca Trail and Machu Picchu and saw over 10% growth in 2015. And while the city itself is incredibly touristy, there are hidden treasures behind the big tour offices if you know where to look.
Keep reading for my favorite things to do in Cusco, Peru. They’re sure to lead to an unforgettable visit!
Isolation at 14,100 ft.
One of my best experiences was a 3-day hike through Lares Valley. Myself, the guide, and two others were alone and challenged with 30 miles of rock, elevation, and nearly half the oxygen levels we’re accustomed. But isolation at this scale made it worth it. Each morning, we awoke to frost-covered valleys and gazed at the mountains we were about to overcome. In the evenings, we sipped hot cocoa and got lost in the star-glazed sky before nestling into our warm sleeping bags. It’s times like these we realize we’re insignificant, only as important as we make ourselves, and ourselves to others.
To experience the same solitude, I recommend going off-season and choosing a trail less traveled. In 3 days, we never saw another hiker on the Lares Trek; but had we chosen the Inca Trail, there would have been many (making for a far different experience). Reach out to your tour agency and ask their advice on where/when to travel based on what you’re looking for.
Reference: Sam’s Travel Peru
Getting Lost in San Blas
Having been blinded by Cusco’s tourist booths and trinket shops, my eyes “awoke” when I saw artisan markets and handicrafts. I’d accidentally stumbled upon San Blas, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Cusco known for its artists, galleries, and traditional architecture. I walked for hours poking my head into boutique shops before finally settling down for a taste of home from The Meeting Place, a local café highly committed to community outreach. I took photos as the rain started falling outside, warm with my chai tea and no place to go.
You’re blessed with beautiful views in Peru, whether from mountaintops or just outside the city. One of my favorites was from Plaza de San Cristobal which follows a windy road toward Cristo Blanco, the renowned Statue of Christ. It was here you saw an unobstructed view of Cusco’s populous town, orange rooftops, and distant mountains. A must-see for anyone with time for the climb.
Another gem is a low-trafficked vista halfway to Urubamba. I found this place through a 4-hour painting class with Carnaval (highly recommend for a unique, less-touristy experience). It overlooks the Sacred Valley and town of Huayllabamba. Behind it, beautiful mountain ranges and glaciers. To get here, you’ll journey through rolling hills and local villages, which in their own regard are worth the trip.
Sipping Warm Coca Tea
One of the many comforts in Peru was the coca tea. It’s used as a mild stimulant primarily to counteract the effects of elevation sickness (very common in Cusco, who’s city alone sits at 11,000 ft.). That said, there’s a lot of controversy about this tea as the same leaves are used to create cocaine. And while a cup is known to hold 15-20% the alkaloids, I’ll be the first to tell you: I didn’t feel a thing. It was more about the native flavor, bitter taste, and traditional customs; experiencing something you’re only able in few places on this Earth. Seize opportunities like those.
It’s hard to escape the tourism is Cusco. And while I try to avoid tourist-specific activities, a local cooking class caught my attention. We spent 4 hours cooking and learning Peruvian cuisine which is deeply rooted to ancient crops like potatoes, corn and quinoa. And while the food was delicious, the host was the highlight. His passion for home cuisine was evident – his face lit when he spoke of certain fruits or piscos, and he was more than accommodating to the guests’ questions. It was a wonderful experience, and I’d recommend anyone visit to get a baseline understanding for Peruvian flavors.
Reference: Marcelo Batata Culinary Experience