When it comes to navigating Cuzco, there are two main landmarks that will allow you to reference most of the places you’ll want to go, Plaza de Armas and Avendia del Sol. Located in the center of the tourist district, Plaza de Armas is surrounded by what you would expect–shopping, restaurants, tour companies–but it is also framed by two beautiful, Spanish colonial cathedrals that were built on top of the foundations of Incan temples.
Three other such cathedrals in Cuzco are each worth a visit. Just a short walk from Plaza de Armas down the Avenida del Sol sits Qoricancha, the former Temple of the Sun, which retains most of its former glory with large sections of the interior Incan architecture intact. If you only visit one temple in Cuzco, make it this one.
The closer you venture to the Plaza de Armas and the tourist district, the more you will encounter women and children in traditional clothing offering to be in pictures with you for a tip. Many of the small children will be carrying baby sheep or llamas and are, quite frankly, unbelievably adorable.
However, when tipping these children for the picture, be responsible. Tipping of 1 Sol or better yet, a piece of fruit or school supplies, is appropriate. Resist the urge to give them larger amounts, as while you believe you are helping them, you are in fact creating more of a problem.
In recent years, as tourists have being tipping the children increasingly higher amounts, the parents have been pulling the children out of school and sending them to the plaza to work long shifts. In addition, a runaway cycle had begun where these workers were asking for higher and higher amounts, sometimes up to $50 a photo. The city government had to step in and re-educate these workers in what was appropriate to expect in terms of tipping.
Lastly, as mentioned previously for the children, a piece of fruit is also an appropriate tip. Resist the urge to give them candy. While they of course would love the sweet gift, dental care is poor in the region and you’d be hurting the children in the long term.
If you are coming to Cuzco, odds are that you are there to experience the Peruvian culture, past and present, and in that regard you won’t be disappointed. I recommend starting your day at the Inca Museum, located just north of the Plaza de Armas, where you can learn about the history of the Pre-Incan and Incan cultures while viewing many beautiful artifacts that can be seen nowhere else. Afterward, head over to the Museo de Historia Regional, once the mansion of the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, and now home to some of the best prehistoric, Incan and colonial era artwork in Peru.
Now that you are full of culture, take the short walk over to the Chocolate Museum and indulge your sweet tooth while taking a chocolate cooking class and learning about the importance of the cocoa bean on the development of the Incan Empire and its historical influence on the world.
Speaking of plants, ever wonder where the potato came from? No, not Ireland. The ancient Peruvian people spent decades turning the primitive, poisonous potato into what is now one of the largest food crops in the world. See how they did this at the Mueso de Plantas Sagradas Magicasa y Medicinales and marvel at this unique museum of native plants that have changed the world.
As in any major tourist destination, your group will not go wanting when it comes to shopping opportunities. A general rule of thumb is that the farther you are away from the Plaza de Armas, the less expensive things will be.
I recommend taking the short walk down Calle Marquez to Cuzco’s Mercado Central (central market) where you can buy everything from trinkets and handmade crafts to fresh produce and powdered spices in the same place as the locals shop.
For those who are more comfortable in Spanish though, my advice is to venture out into the side streets, away from the touristy areas, and check out the countless little local shops where you are sure to find the best deals and the most local and unique items.
On the eastern corner of the Plaza de Armas, sheltered from the sun under the balcony of the second floor stores and sitting behind a small table with no signage of any kind, you will find Carmen.
For the last 50 years, Carmen has been making and selling the most delicious tamales in town. Offering two simple flavors, “sweet” and “salty,” for a mere 1 Sol (~$0.33) each, whether you are fueling up for the day’s adventures or grabbing a quick afternoon snack, Carmen’s unassuming table is a must stop.
Guides and Tours
If your group is looking for a more guided experience, you can pick up the Travia de Cusco (Cuzco Tram) on the southwestern side of Plaza de Armas. For about 20 sols ($6) the tram will take you on a tour of Cuzco, passing by 40 cultural, historical and touristic sites.
If you are interested in planning a group trip to Cuzco, or Peru in general, I highly recommend G Adventures, with whom I had my experience.
For more information on the region, I also suggest you read my adventure themed article on Peru published in the August edition of Leisure Group Travel Magazine.
And of course, as always, I welcome your comments below.