If there is one destination in Peru everybody visits, it’s Cusco. Only a few days there and you wish to see as much as possible.
Overwhelmed with all those amazing places inside and outside of the city, “what to do in Cusco” is a question I read in many forums like TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet. Many people were also wondering whether a guide is really necessary.
That’s why I’d like to share with you some insiders and tips today, some that are not even listed on Lonely Planet, about what to do in Cusco city without a guide.
I highly recommend to stay in Cusco city itself on your first day.
First, to get used to the altitude of 11,151 feet (3,399 meters), prepared for the upcoming adventures and second…this is the perfect time to get to know the city and its little wonders (Spanish: Maravillas, spoken as “Maraviyas”).
So…where to go and what are the top things to do in Cusco without a guide?
Attractions and art
Irqí Yachay is a museum that exhibits impressive artworks and textiles, each art tells its own story, by children from remote Andean villages.
It was established by the Asociación Cultural Ayllu Yupuchay to promote intercultural diffusion, and in fact, the museum offers a unique insight into the culture and traditions of these indigenous kids.
Direction: Calle Teatro 344, Cusco
Opening time: Monday to Friday, 10 am – 1 pm & 2-5 pm
Time: 1.5 – 2 hours
No entrance fee
Temple of the Sun and the Moon
Located on the outskirts of Cusco, the temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon are fascinating and mysterious sites that nearly nobody visits, although it’s so close and fascinating.
Unfortunately, it’s no longer allowed to enter the cave of the Temple of the Moon, but the Temple of the Sun and view over the surroundings are amazing.
The challenge for you: find rocks carved with monkeys, pumas, condors, and snakes.
To get there, go by taxi (S/.10 = $3) and follow the road that branches off the Cusco-Pisac highway, the taxi driver should know the way.
The temple is just beyond the archeological site of Sacsahuaymán, from where you can enjoy a beautiful walk through the field that brings you there.
Otherwise, you can go by horse and ask a guide to take you to the temple of the moon (you can find those close by the viewpoint Cristo Blanco, and will cost around 30 Soles).
Time: 2.5 – 3 hours
No entrance fee
Don’t forget to arrive in Cusco being prepared for the altitude sickness.
Sites in Cusco City
The 12-sided stone
Around 1-2 blocks from the Plaza de Armas, you can find one of Cusco’s “Logos”: a 12-sided stone forming part of a wall known as Hatun Rumiyoc.
The stone is shaped that not even a piece of paper fits in between the stone and its neighbors. An example of perfectionism in architecture during the time of the Inca.
If you continue your walk and cross the corner of Cusco’s Archbishop’s Palace you can try to find the stones shaped like Puma and snake; it’s a really fun game. Close by is the…
Time spent: 30 minutes
No entrance fee (it’s in public on the street)
San Blas Neighborhood
San Blas is an atmospheric and artistic district, known as the barrio de los artesanos (artisans´ quarter). It’s practically Cusco’s bohemian heart, where you can find small galleries and artisan workshops.
It has its magical touch and is great to just take a walk through its narrow streets and admire the different artworks, especially of the famous Mendivil Gallery, where the entrance is free.
When entering the San Blas district, you have a good opportunity to stop at Makipi. Try some traditional Peruvian outfits, make a fun picture and in case you liked it, leave a tip or buy a little souvenir.
Narrow street in San Blas district
In case you feel lost in all those little streets, check out the app maps.me (iOS / Android) which is free and perfect to download offline maps (make sure to do that before traveling to Cusco) or ask someone in a café (“¿Dónde está la Catedral de San Blas?”).
Time: 2.5 hours
Main Square (“Plaza de Armas”)
Free City Tours in Cusco
Even if there’s not always a guide necessary, as said in the very beginning, it can be great and interesting to enjoy and support locals and students that try to help to understand the magic of Cusco, offering free guided tours.
It’s more than a “history class” (although you will hear about Inca history and lifestyle of course), but also an introduction to Peruvian culture and traditions, music and food. Another great walking option and you are free to leave a tip at the end of the tour.
Time: 2.5 – 3 hours.
Fees: None, but maybe you can leave a tip
Streets of Cusco
San Pedro Market
I love to observe the busy chaos at the San Pedro market. Just a walk through brings you closer to how they treat goods and negotiate.
From meat to local products like cacao and cheese to clothing that might interest you as souvenirs or for yourself, this market will leave an extraordinary impression on you.
In case you are a fruit fanatic, you should try some of the delicious and fresh juices (Spanish: Jugos) for around 6-7 soles (approx $1.50 – 2).
The following haggling tips will help you to get a nice sweater, as you might buy one as a souvenir or for yourself:
- Most of the local markets in Cusco (and Peru in general) offer similar products. Usually a sweater might cost in between 25 (without a zipper) to 50 soles (with a zipper).
- Be polite. A “Buen día, señor”, especially in Cusco, can make a big difference in the end.
- In case you look to buy even souvenirs, try to buy 3-4 things, so there is much room to negotiate.
- Try and hide your excitement for what you want to buy. Showing you are too eager will not help your chances to get a good deal.
- Some useful and easy Spanish words (for the numbers you can use your hands or mobile phone):
|How much does it cost?||¿Cuánto cuesta?|
|Would you also sell it for 25 soles?||¿Podría ser 25 soles?|
|And if I buy 3 of them, would you take 60 soles? (example for sweater of 25 soles without zipper)||¿Y si compro 3, tomarías 60 soles?|
Nightlife in Peru = Salsa. Several bars and clubs in Cusco offer some free Salsa lessons, generally between 9-11 pm. One great option might be Mama Africa, Just take a class and later practice all night long, having fun and making new friends with some locals.
Where to go for a drink
Going out for drinks can be one of the most expensive things during vacations, often cocktails are very expensive and after 3-4 we lose the overview.
San Blas viewpoint
Most recommendable is to enjoy this view by night when a magical light covers the city thanks to the streets, stars, and moon. Just sit there for a moment, look and listen to the nightlife of Cusco, such a relaxational moment…
Cristo Blanco Viewpoint
Finally, the Rio feeling! The statue of Cristo Blanco (White Christ) is up on the hill next to the Sacsahuaymán ruins, guarding over Cusco and provides a great view over the entire city and even Sacsahuaymán.
Grab a taxi (around 15 soles = $5) and tell him to go right to the statue or the entrance of Sacsahuayman, combining both.
Just in case, ask the taxi driver to give you his number so you might arrange a pick up as it can be difficult to get back to the city.
Don’t pay them than 15 soles. To complete the combination you might visit the temple of the moon which is just around the corner as mentioned above.
Ready for Cusco?
All in all, one day in Cusco can be a magical experience and great start to meet and discover Cusco’s beauty, especially when you’re on your own.
If it’s the lifestyle, culture or art, there’s enough to do on one day and we also don’t aim to sprint from A to B.
Keep it easy, simple and let Cusco’s magic embrace you. After your first day in Cusco, you’re ready for the adventure that awaits you outside and I hope this little list with the top things to do in Cusco might inspire you and do not miss the amazing restaurants in Cusco.
Now it’s up to you! And if you have any other tips or ideas of what to do in Cusco, I’d be happy to see your comment below.