Machu Picchu Layover: 48 Hours in Cusco
South America’s oldest continuously occupied city – and one of Peru’s most well-known archaeological sites – is filled with historic churches and monasteries, picturesque plazas, vibrant markets, an incredible gastronomy scene, and even a museum dedicated to the national drink of Pisco. While most visitors only stop in Cusco briefly en route to Machu Picchu, the city deserves some time. But if you only have a couple of days to explore Cusco, here are some of our top recommendations for how to spend them.
Day 1: Coca Tea, Mercado Central de San Pedro & the Chocolate Museum
Most planes arrive in the morning from Lima, which is only an hour and a half flight away. The Cusco airport is just a few miles south of the city center – but ask the information counter at the airport what the current going rate for a taxi is if you are not being picked up by your hotel or tour company, because unfortunately many visitors unknowingly end up paying many times the normal fare.
Upon check-in at your hotel (try staying in either the city center or in one of the boutique hotels in the more upscale but relaxed cobblestoned neighborhood of San Blas), drink both water and a cup or two of the local coca tea to help curb any headaches from the considerable altitude of almost 12,000 feet. Most hotels also have dried coca leaves available to chew on to help guests get acclimated safely and without adverse effects. Perhaps take a quick nap – altitude sickness can come on strong and fast and you’ll want to take care of yourself to be able to enjoy the rest of your trip. Wake up and treat yourself to some fresh, Peruvian coffee at one of the many cute cafes in San Blas that serve quality java, not the instant stuff you’ll find everywhere else in town.
Walk over to the lively Mercado Central de San Pedro to see all of the fresh produce and Peruvian superfoods available in Cusco. This is also an inexpensive place to grab some fresh ceviche from one of the many food stands. After lunch relax in the center of the city at the Plaza de Armas, home to the historical Cusco Cathedral, which was constructed by the Spanish on the site of an Inca palace in the mid-1500’s. For a small entry fee you can go inside the cathedral and see the collection of colonial art. Notable is a replica of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with Jesus and the apostles feasting on guinea pig. Also near the main square is the Convento de Santo Domingo. A 1950 earthquake revealed the remains of the Qorikancha, dedicated to Inti the sun god, underneath this monastery. It is now one of Cusco’s most revered Inca temples.
Consider a two-hour cooking class at the Chocolate Museum to learn hands-on how cacao goes from bean to bar. Your homemade goodies will be ready to pick up about an hour after class is done. Enjoy an early dinner trying local delicacies such as alpaca meat or guinea pig. Cicciolina is behind the Cusco Cathedral on the second floor of a colonial mansion. It features traditional Peruvian cuisine with an emphasis on produce from the Sacred Valley. Ccoyllor Restaurant on Calle Garcilaso is more frequented by locals than tourists. While it is definitely not fancy, it does have local flair. Vegetarians and vegans will be happy to know that meatless options abound in the city. Try Seledonia’s Mesa, Green Point, or Shaman Vegan Raw. Get an early night’s sleep to give your body rest from a long day at altitude.
Day 2: Sacsayhuamán Ruins, Pisco Museum & the Cusco Planetarium
Wake up early and take a taxi to the ruins of Sacsayhuamán (the ruins open at 7 a.m. for early risers who want to take advantage of the pretty morning light). The site used to function as the military base of the Incas for Cusco, as well as a site for large religious gatherings. While many of the ruins were destroyed by the Spanish, what remains is still mind-boggling. There are giant rocks that weigh 300 tons and give a brief glimpse into to the civil ingenuity of the Incas. There’s also an underground temple that can be explored. After touring the ruins, it is possible to walk back to the downtown area through the neighborhood of San Blas on a steep and narrow path that is made from cobbles at least five centuries old. Grab some late brunch at Jack’s Café before shopping for alpaca sweaters, scarves, blankets and other handcrafted items that Cusco is famous for. Make sure to meander down Calle Siete Culebras (‘Seven Snakes Street’), the narrowest street in Cusco. Look for its seven snake carvings as you descend back to the city center.
Indulge in an afternoon deep tissue or Shiatsu massage at Paramatma (it’s self-care – you need to look after yourself at altitude!). Let the relaxation continue even more as you step behind the bar to learn to mix up your own cocktails at the Pisco Museum, which is rather light on the museum part and heavy on the bar part. They have the country’s widest selection of Pisco. Go for a classic sour but then try mixing with licorice, coca, or mango. The museum is a laid-back place to grab a variety of tapas such as fried yucca with Andean cheese to accompany your drinks.
Finish the night by heading out to the family-run Cusco Planetarium to learn the Southern Hemisphere’s constellations, which are completely different from the star constellations in the North. The Planetarium provides round-trip transportation, to and from the city, and they offer blankets for chilly nights. You will have the chance to see Jupiter from a telescope before returning to your hotel for a deep slumber.
Cusco is a fascinating city that deserves much more than 48 hours to dive into all of its nooks and crannies, but if you only have time for a stopover on your way to Machu Picchu, this should give you a good taste of what this once capital city of the Inca Empire currently has to offer.
Photos: James Kaiser