I’ll continue where I left off: our arrival to the wonderful Incan city of Cusco. (If you’re interested in our time in the Sacred Valley checkout my previous post, Peru: Part I). So, we arrived to Cusco on Day 5 of our time in Peru around midday. Our taxi driver, Rodolfo dropped us in San Blas Plaza, a few minutes walk from our hostel, Hostal Marani. We checked-in, put our luggage in our private room, and headed out to find a bit to eat. The pills we’d purchased for altitude sickness (Sorojchi Pills) kicked in, and I was now famished, having lived off of herbal teas and saltine crackers for a day.
So, we set out on Carmen Alto, the street our hostel was located on, and decided to lunch in a quaint restaurant called Restaurante Pizzeria Quinua–we ended up eating here 3 times during our stay (both because of its proximity to our hostel as well as because of the delicious food it serves up). It was here that we had our first taste of alpaca and sopa de chuño (a type of potato soup made with chuño potatoes–potatoes that are frozen and aged high up in the Andes mountains) which were both 100% delicious. If you know me, you know I am not a big adventurer when it comes to trying new meats–I mean, I am practically a vegetarian. However, for some reason, I took the plunge this time and I am glad I did. And, no, it didn’t taste like chicken–it’ s a lean meat that has a distinct, non-gamey taste–I don’t know how else to explain it!
With our bellies full, we headed to have a walk about Cusco. Knowing that Thursday & Friday (Days 6 & 7) were Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and that many places would be closed or have limited open times those days (they are festivos, holidays, in most Latin American countries, including Peru), we decided to hit the church and museum circuit on Wednesday and Thursday (Day 5 & Day 6). Cusco has some pretty amazing churches–considering it was the capital of the Incan empire and one of the most important vice-royalties in the Spanish empire of the 16th-19th centuries, and we didn’t want holidays to keep us from seeing them. As we wanted to explore as many of the churches as possible, we purchased the ticket for the Circuito Religioso (Religious Circuit) for 50 soles, which secured us entrance into three churches and 1 museum: la Catedral de Cusco (Cusco Cathedral), la Iglesia de San Blas (San Blas Church), la Iglesia de San Cristobal (San Cristobal Church), and el Museo de Arte Religioso (the Museum of Religious Art). You can buy the ticket at any of the churches/museum included, and it’s cheaper than buying individual tickets at all the churches.
As we headed towards the Plaza de Armas, our first stop was the Cathedral of Santo Domingo (la Catedral de Santo Domingo) also known commonly as the Cusco Cathedral–the cathedral is the focal point of the Plaza de Armas and is an incredible and extremely impressive church full of history and art. The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a must see in Cusco. Be sure to pay close attention to the paintings located around the cathedral–almost all of them have small details showing their Cusqueño heritage. My favorite was the cuy (guinea pig) in the Lord’s Supper painting! These Cusqueños details in the paintings are due to the Cusco school of art, a specific style of art produced in Cusco during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The Cusco Cathedral holds the largest collection of art from the Cusco school of art, so be sure not to pass them by as your tour the church.
After a detailed walk through the cathedral, we walked across the Plaza de Armas (the main plaza in Cusco) and checked out a small artisan market housed in part of the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus (the Church of la Compañía de Jesus). I bought a much needed hand woven hat to warm my frozen ears, before we ended our first day in Cusco with a nice hot coffee in Starbucks and a game of cards in our hostel’s common room–we were exhausted and wanted to assure we’d be ready for a full day of walking and exploring on Thursday.
*If you’re looking for free WIFI and a good view of the Plaza de Armas, Starbucks offers a great spot–although many restaurants around the Plaza de Armas also offer free WIFI, just ask your waiter!
On Thursday, Day 6, we got an early start to our exploring. A block down from our hostel was the Church of San Blas/Iglesia de San Blas. The Church of San Blas is small, but has an impressive fresco ceiling at the entrance, a carved wooden pulpit that will make you stand in awe, and a bell tower you can climb that offers a nice view of the city. The Church of San Blas is worth entering if for nothing else to see the carved cedar pulpit. The detail in the pulpit is out of this world. I took a good 10 minutes to just admire the incredible craftsmanship and artistry of this work. Some have said it is the most ornate pulpit in all of Latin America–you’ll have to judge for yourself, but I’d say it’s definitely the most impressive I’ve seen so far (unfortunately, you can’t take photos inside the church, so you really will have to go to Cusco to see it).
After admiring the Church of San Blas, we began our walk to the Church of San Cristobal, located on the high outskirts of the city. We initially thought the walk to the church would be fairly easy, but soon found out that this climb is not for the faint of heart (nor those suffering from altitude sickness). Of course, you can catch a cab there for a small fee, but I wouldn’t trade the walks through the colonial and overly charming Cusqueñan streets for anything. If for nothing other than the view it offers, the walk to the Church of San Cristobal was worth it. The church itself is small, and does not offer an incredible amount of “things” to see–there’s no major art there and there are not many statues or saint figures either. However, the view you get from climbing the bell tower is incredible! Even if you don’t tour the church, do check out the view.
Once we had taken in the view from the Church of San Cristobal, we headed to la Plaza de San Fransisco where vendors were serving up the 12 traditional Cusqueño dishes of Semana Santa (Holy Week). Once there, we were a bit overwhelmed with all the food, drink, and dessert options. Even so, we finally picked a tent that was selling a soup and fish combination. We had the pleasure of sharing a table with a young Cusqueño who told us about the different dishes people were serving and who was interested to hear about our travels in the Sacred Valley. If you’re in Cusco for Semana Santa, don’t miss this food market. You’ll find a variety of traditional dishes that aren’t served at any other time of the year and that are hard to come across in restaurants.
With lunch in our stomachs, we decided to walk to the Choco Museo, a free museum detailing the history of chocolate in Peru that also hosts cooking classes centered on chocolate and sells a plethora of products made with Peruvian chocolate. When you first walk in to the Choco Museo you are given a cup of cacao tea–tea made with dried pieces of the cacao plant. Ele didn’t really like the tea, but I found it wonderfully delicious. It’s a very smooth tea with a sort of buttery tea taste that has a minute hint of chocolate to it. While you sip your cacao tea, you can walk around the museum, reading the history of cacao both on a global and Peruvian scale. I know I sure learned a lot of interesting information about cacao and chocolate that I definitely didn’t know before. After walking through the exhibit, be sure to browse the in-house made chocolate treats. I picked up a few of the popular coca chocolates to give as souvenirs to friends and family, but there are oodles of other treats to choose from, depending on your chocolate preferences!
Having satisfied our sweet tooth, we set out to explore Qorikancha, the Incan Sun Temple, now turned the Catholic Convent of Santo Domingo. Qorikancha was one of the most impressive Incan temples in Peru. It was constructed as a site to honor the sun god who had particular importance to the Incans. It’s said that the site was full of gold offerings when the Spaniards came across it during the conquest of the Sacred Valley. Unfortunately the site was plundered by the Spaniards and the gold pieces of offerings were melted down. Today, you can walk around the Convent of Santo Domingo and see pieces of the original Incan temple that have been excavated. There are not many signs or postings to guide you through the convent, so if you’re looking for explanations of the different excavated pieces, you might want to purchase a guide before entering the site or tag along with a tour group.
A tad zonked from all the walking we’d be doing, we set out to find a nice restaurant where we could sit for a while and rest before heading to el Museo de Arte Religioso (the Religious Art Museum). We happened upon a second story restaurant close to Qorikancha that had a great view over the area and a tempting menu. Here, we had our first pisco sour–a traditional Peruvian drink made from pisco (grape licor), egg whites, lime juice, syrup, and angostura bitters. You can’t visit Peru without trying one of these beauties.
With a full stomach and a re-energized body, we headed to the Museo de Arte Religioso. I didn’t know what to expect in this museum, but it turned out to exceed any expectations I had pre-formed. It is a small museum with a small but impressive collection of colonial art from Cusco. It includes some unique collections of pieces form the Cusco school of art, as well as other significant works of art from the colonial era, including a rare and unique carriage. The collection in the Museum of Religious Art does a wonderful job of exhibiting stunning examples of art from Cusco through a chronologically organized exhibit. Be sure to get the audio guide here, as it will explain some unique facts about both Cusco and the artwork you’ll see and, as the museum lacks written explanations of the art, it will be necessary if you want to know anything about the pieces you’re seeing.
Thursday evening, we decided to explore the markets and shops around Cusco. I was surprised at the number of markets around Cusco that were open at night. These markets are scattered all over and typically sell the same sorts of items–alpaca blankets, scarves, and sweaters, handmade jewelry, magnets, postcards, animals made from alpaca and llama fur (alpacas, llamas, guinea pigs, etc…) and key chains among other items. I ended up falling in love with a medium sized alpaca made from alpaca fur who I’ve named Inca Garcilaso, after the famous Peruvian poet and writer Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.
On our last day in Peru we headed to Sacsayhuaamán, the ruins of one of the most important sites in the Incan empire–we were told by our guide that although these ruins are not as well preserved as those of Machu Picchu, the ruins and site of Sacsayhuaymán are much more important historically. To get to Sacsayhuaymán, you can either walk from Cusco (it’s about a 45 minute to hour long walk, depending on where you start) or take a taxi. As we wanted to be back in Cusco for Good Friday processions, we took a taxi. The site is massive, and the ruins are incredible. The site has no plaques to explain the different areas of the site, so hiring a guide is a wise choice. We hired our guide for 40 soles, and he was worth every sol! Our guide explained to use how Sacsayhuaymán was actually the site of a larger and more important temple than that of Qorikancha. Even so, others claim the site was a military fortress and for many historians the exact use and significance of the site remains shrouded in mystery. Regardless of its use, the site is definitely worth seeing when you’re in Cusco. You’ll get to go through underground Incan tunnels, slide down ancient “porcelain” resulting from a volcanic eruption, stand in awe of the mind-blowing ability of the Incans to craft such massive and perfect stones, and take in the amazing view of Cusco from the tallest part of the ruins.
To get back to Cusco from the ruins, again, you can walk or take a taxi. Going back, we decided to walk, which turned out to be a wonderful decision. The walk back to the Plaza de Armas took about 30 minutes and we were able to walk through some neighborhoods we hadn’t seen before. We also realized that taking the taxi up was probably a good idea, as the walk up would have been extremely steep and most definitely physically challenging. Once in back in town, we found a quaint pasta restaurant in the plaza and had a quick lunch before heading off to the Coca Museo. We weren’t quite sure what to expect at this museum–we knew it would either be a hippy hole in the wall or a legit museum with credible information about the coca plant and it’s illegal derivative, cocaine. Turns out, it was a fantastic museum with an impressive amount of information about both the coca plant (it’s historical and traditional uses, medicinal properties, popular beliefs and uses, etc…) as well as how cocaine was first discovered and how it developed into the illegal “white gold” it has become today. When you’re in Cusco, you’ll see coca tea, coca leaves, coca sweets, etc… all over. Your hostel or hotel will most likely offer you coca tea with breakfast and most will also have a bowl of dried coca leaves for you to chew on (it helps with altitude sickness). So, being able to learn about why the coca plant is so important in this part of Peru was interesting and helpful. Be sure to put this wonderful, creative, and relatively new museum on your list of things to do in Cusco!
After being enlightened about the coca plant, we headed to the Plaza de Armas to score a good seat for the Good Friday procession later in the evening. We found the perfect spot–a small, quiet, second floor restaurant opposite the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus. As it was our last real meal in Peru, we both had our favorite dishes one more time, and then enjoyed a few pisco sours while we watched the procession go by. Once the procession had finished, we took one last walk through the Plaza de Armas, said our goodbyes to this part of Cusco and headed to our hostel to pack.
Saturday, we woke up, had some breakfast at our hostel, and headed to the airport. Around noon, we boarded our plane to Lima and officially said goodbye to Cusco.