About 99% of people who are visiting Peru are visiting Cuzco – however, most of them are only passing through. Cuzco is the gateway to Machu Picchu, the mystic Inca town that is set high up in Andes Mountains, often referred to as the Lost City Of The Incas. Cuzco is often overlooked as a destination in itself – but it is so worth a visit, even if there was no Machu Picchu nearby! I spent about ten days in Cuzco when I did the Salkantay Trek (I have yet to share the highlights of the trek with you, but I guarantee you, the photos will make you want to hop on the next flight! So instead of planning to just pass through Cuzco on your way to Machu Picchu, consider spending a few nights here – trust me, you won’t regret it. Here are my top five reasons why Cuzco is worth a trip:
1 A gem of a city
Because most people have only Machu Picchu on their bucket list they don’t pay too much attention to Cuzco, but let me tell you: Cuzco is actually a gem of a city, with beautiful architecture, an impressive cathedral, a gorgeous Plaza De Armas, fantastic shopping for local handicraft and woolen textiles (there are several markets around town that sell everything from blankets to pottery) and a number of festivals throughout the year. Plus, it is located in a stunning setting, nestled in the Andes Mountains. I never got tired wandering the streets of Cuzco, marveling at the ornate wooden balconies, getting lost in the streets and stumbling across little plazas and charming churches. You might be lucky to catch local dance groups in their traditional dresses while you’re there.
2 The amazing food scene
Cuzco is without a doubt one of the culinary hot spots in all of Peru und I highly recommend indulging in a few tasty meals in one of Cuzco’s many outstanding restaurants. You can sample both local but also international cuisine here, and if you’ve been traveling around South America for a while, you will appreciate a Mexican breakfast, sushi or French bakery treats. If you’re looking to try Peruvian food, don’t leave without eating cuy (guinea pig), an alpaca steak, lomo saltado (beef tips stir-fried with spices, tomatoes, onion and spices, served with french fries and rice), aji de gallina (chicken in a yellow pepper sauce with olives and hard-boiled eggs), or papa rellena (stuffed potato with vegetables or beef, olives, hard-boiled egg and spices). A personal favorite of mine were papas a la huancaina (Peruvian potatoes in a creamy cheese sauce), and I am still dreaming of the tasty Pisco Sours I had in Cuzco.
Eateries I recommend are: Cicciolinia’s (amazing baked goods), Nuna Raymi (for traditional Peruvian food), Limo (fancy, but worth the splurge! Try the sushi and of course a Pisco Sour), Pachapapa (for cuy), Chicha (for some of the best food in all of Peru – make sure to book well in advance and don’t forget your credit card). Another great spot for a fancy occasion is the Map Café. For amazing organic food, head to Greens; for the best vegan food in town don’t miss Green Point. Incanto has the best Italian food (both pizza and pasta, with a Peruvian twist); Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse serves excellent steaks, and Le Soleil won the Traveler’s Choice Award for Cuzco’s best restaurant in 2014.
3 An abundance of ancient Inca culture
Yes, we all know about Machu Picchu, the world famous Inca city high up in the Andes Mountains that attracts 1.2 million visitors every year. But did you know that there are TEN other Inca sites in the close vicinity of Cuzco (all doable as a day trip), all of which are well worth a visit? Some of the most spectacular ones include: Choquequirao (often referred to as Machu Picchu’s sister city because of how similar they look), Pisac, Moray (with its famous landscaping of co-centric circles), Ollantaytambo, Sacsayhuaman, Q’enqo, Puca Pucara, Huchuy Cusco, Tipon (for the agricultural terraces), the Maras Salineras (salt pans for salt production) and the Templo de la Luna.
4 Beautiful San Blas
San Blas is a neighborhood in Cuzco, and yes, you should visit the city for this neighborhood alone – I fell head over heels in love with it when I visited Peru and insisted on staying in a guesthouse there, and not in any other part of town. It is without a doubt the most picturesque neighborhood of Cuzco, perched on a hillside, with narrow, steep cobblestone streets. Nearly all of the buildings here are white, adorned with colorful doors and wooden balconies. The higher you climb, the better the views over Cuzco’s red tiled roofs, and you’ll find several cafes with rooftop terraces here. There are also little shops, restaurants and bars in this neighborhood – San Blas is so adorable that you’ll spend hours here taking photos – wait till you get there and you’ll see what I mean!
5 Trekking Galore
You don’t even have to do the Inca Trail to do a spectacular trek – there are many other treks around Cuzco that are worth the challenge of high altitude hiking (most treks are above 15,000 feet). If you love trekking, Cuzco is a great base to go on one or several multi-day hikes. Almost all treks end in Machu Picchu, even though the ways to get there are as plentiful as they are diverse: you can take the Lares Route through the Lares Valley (3 – 4 days), take the Chasci Trail, you can even opt for an easy 1-day trek to Machu Picchu. If you are looking for even more of a challenge, I recommend the Vilcabamba Traverse Route, which takes between 7 and 13 days. Check out National Geographic’s Top Six Alternative Treks To Machu Picchu for more trails.When I visited Cuzco, I opted for the Salkantay Trek, one of the more challenging treks around Cuzco (possibly even the most difficult way to get to Machu Picchu?) and the rewards in form of spectacular scenery, including the magnificent sacred Salkantay Mountain (20,500 feet high!), were more than worth the blisters. Tip: If you’re planning to hike to Machu Picchu but can’t get a spot on the Inca Trail, which is often booked out months in advance, consider one of the alternative treks, which are often half the price. The 5-day Salkantay trek for example cost me less than $250, whereas the 4-day Inca Trail starts at around $600.
Have you been to Cuzco? If you can add another reason why Cuzco is worth a trip, feel free to share it in the comments below!