The sight of Cusco from a bus window as you're winding down from mountain roads is indescribable. I think the fact that it was a 16-hour, bumpy, sandy (read about our adventure in Huacachina), overnight bus, makes this sight even more spectacular.
Nevertheless, the large cluster of stucco-roofed buildings surrounded on all sides by mountains is a beautiful sight.
Where do I start with this city? It's bursting with life. There's both a large presence of foreigners (mostly on their way to Machu Picchu) and locals going about their daily life. But it's a city with such rich history that is worth more time than just a stop before the Inca Trail.
Cusco is truly a fascinating place, and whether you have 3 days in Cusco or 3 months, you'll find reasons to love it.
San Pedro Market
Take the San Pedro Market for example. You can buy a beautifully woven alpaca sweater and a whole pig head in the same place.
Want to mingle with the locals? Simple. Just sit down at one of the many almuerzo stands and order a lunch for 5 soles (about $1.75 USD). You will be sure to make friends with the woman serving your food and the many locals packed on the bench beside you.
If you walk a bit further to the San Blas district, you can buy crafts directly from the artists themselves.
You can also have your hair wrapped by one of the street artists like I did!
Plaza de Armas in Cusco
It seems as if very city in South America has a “Plaza de Armas”. But the one in Cusco is famous – ranking as one of the top plazas in the world, and for a good reason. It’s stunning.
We were in Cusco the week before Easter, known as Semana Santa, or Saint’s Week. During this time, the plazas were filled with carnival games and stands selling exotic looking sweets.
I forget the name of this pastry, but it was a bit like a shortbread cookie baked into parchment paper. Strange, but surprisingly good.
Aside from being woken up nearly every night in the large dorms by other travelers, the hostel we stayed at was excellent. Pariwana Hostel always had something going on each night, whether it be a ping pong tournament (which Ben almost won!), live music, or a toga party, we were never bored.
(We loved Pariwana Hostel so much that we actually listed it as the "Best All-Around Hostel" in all of our travels in South America. Read more here!)
Day Hike Around Cusco
One of our most memorable days in Cusco was our last full day in the city. We didn’t spend the day doing any of the activities listed in the guidebooks.
Instead we decided to abandon all maps and take a hike to some ruins we had heard about from a friend. We knew the ruins were in the hills above Cusco, but didn't have much of an idea beyond that.
So, along with our friend Emma who we had met on the Inca Trail, we set off that afternoon in search of these enigmatic ruins.
At points during the day, we were on our hands and knees crawling up the side of hill, hoping it would lead to a path.
And eventually it did.
We finally did find our ruins – hours later – but the search for them was an adventure none of us will ever forget.
In total, we spent eight days in Cusco before and after our trek. We were able to explore the city, relax and meet other travelers, and when it came time to leave it was hard to say goodbye.
Read about our Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu here!