If you’re anything like most travelers to Peru, you’ll have a few days to wander the hilly, cobble-stoned streets of Cusco.
Likely, it’s penciled in between visits to Machu Picchu, Lima, the Amazon or the Sacred Valley. However, Cusco, with its unique architecture from past and present and its fascinating culture and history, as seen through the textiles, festivals, and rituals, is worth getting to know. And it doesn’t have to be at the expense of any of the above. You can know the real Cusco in just one day, if you know where to look.
Having lived in Cusco for more than a year and a half, I’ve come to discover some of the city’s local gems, places that will deliver you straight into the beating heart of Cusco’s incredible local culture, no matter how long (or how short) you have in the city.
Consider this your quick guide to experiencing the real Cusco, your window into local life amidst and despite the chaos of the well-worn tourist circuit. And, because I know stepping into the world of a new culture can often be intimidating without the personal invitation of a local, each of the following tips and recommendations are located within the comfortable boundaries of any Cusco tourist map. You’re welcome.
Tip #1: Go where the locals go
When I need a break from the crowds and tourists (and you will), there are a few local oases I can always count on.
Super Café Extra
A remnant of the Cusco that existed before Machu Picchu stepped onto the global scene, Super Café Extra attracts locals from every corner of the city and countryside. Its reverence for tradition within the whirlwind of a changing Cusco is what endears it to the locals. A friend introduced me to this special spot early on and it has quickly become my go-to for a good cup of coffee and a lengua de suegra (a local Cusco pastry).
The café is located on Calle Espaderos between the Plaza de Armas and Plaza Regocijo.
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You won’t need a tourist ticket to access these unique Inca ruins located at the crest of one of Cusco’s surrounding hills. However, this site isn’t about the Inca-worked boulders at Qenko Chico for me. This is a spot, adjacent to the better-known Qenko ruins, where you can find locals picnicking beneath the canopy of Eucalyptus trees and taking in the spectacular view of the Cusco valley below. Qenko Chico feels like a secret that only the locals have caught on to.
The site is located just a five minute walk from El Christo Blanco and a few minutes away from the gates of the Qenko ruins.
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Cusco is no stranger to a cold night, especially during the dry season. One of the ways locals cope is with te piteado, a hot herbal tea spiked with pisco and anise-flavored liqor. El Duende serves up some of the best in town by the pitcher. Grab a seat in its dark fairy tale-inspired interior and order a Te Macho, the house specialty. Between the cozy atmosphere, warm drinks, and lively local patrons, you won’t want to leave.
Find El Duende one block from the Plaza de Armas on Calle Tecsecocha.
Tip #2: Eat where the locals eat
There is plenty of fine dining in Cusco, but for a truly local culinary experience you’ll need to venture beyond the TripAdvisor-reviewed restaurants. (Not sure how? If you’re a foodie and interested in Peru you should check out our 10-day Real Food Adventure trip!)
Mercado San Blas
When I first visited Cusco, Mercado San Blas hardly crossed my radar. It wasn’t until I moved down the street from it that I discovered its unique local draw. The market is much less chaotic (and much cleaner) than its larger equivalent, Mercado San Pedro.
Locals gather daily for breakfast and lunch, grabbing a seat at whatever food stall is serving up their 5 soles (about US$1.50) meal of choice for the day.
The daily menu is listed on chalkboards and typically includes a soup, entrée, and refresco (usually tea or the local purple corn drink called chicha morada). There’s also a row of juice stalls where you can design your own fresh fruit or vegetable juice. If headed there for lunch, go between 12pm and 2pm to experience the market at its busiest and to have the best selection of dishes.
Mercado San Blas is located at the corner of Lucrepata and Pumapaccha and just one block from the Plaza San Blas.
Foodie tips from Gary Cohen, Intrepid’s General Manager for South America:
In Cusco, some of my favorites restaurants include Bodega 138 for great Italian food with a Peruvian twist, and Cicciolina for something a little more gourmet. Baco has one of the best lomo saltados (Peruvian stir fries) in Peru and Uchu has amazing alpaca steaks and desserts.
If you happen to be in Cusco on a Sunday, make your way to the Plaza San Francisco for a festival of local dishes, music, and games. Bursting with locals, the weekly food feria, as it is locally known, is a chance to brush shoulders with local families and taste a variety of local dishes in one place. Sample everything from chicharon to ceviche to papa rellena and a syrupy sweet local dessert called picarones.
The Food Feria takes place from 10am to 3pm every Sunday on the steps of the Colegio Nacional de Ciencias at the edge of the Plaza San Francisco.
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Tip #3: Do what the locals do
Dance the night away at Ukukus
Ukukus is a local bar located just off the Plaza de Armas on Calle Plateros. They have live music every night, including everything from Andean tribal music to rock, reggae, and latino music. The bar was started as a way to pay homage to the Andean culture and that it delivers and then some.
The locals, and a few lucky tourists who know about it, start arriving around 10:30pm for happy hour and to get in ahead of the 20 soles cover charge that begins at 11pm. Think of Ukukus as your musical gateway into local culture. Definitely make your way to this bar at least once.
Nightlife tips from Gary Cohen, Intrepid’s General Manager for South America:
If you’re looking for great bars, head to Los Perros, La Calle del Medio or Museo del Pisco (it has live music some nights!). Nuevo Mundo is also great for craft beers.
Attend mass at the Cusco Cathedral
You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate this local ritual. The population of Cusco, and Peru in general, is heavily Catholic. This means that mass in the Cusco Cathedral (also known as the Cathedral of Santo Domingo) is both an opportunity to immerse yourself in a local ritual born out of a colonial past and to see a magnificent historical structure come to life.
The Cusco Cathedral is Cusco’s oldest church, housing some of Peru’s greatest collections of colonial art from the famous Cuzco School of Art. Masses are held between 6am and 10am daily. La Cathedral is located in the Plaza de Armas of Cusco adjacent to the Church of the Society of Jesus.
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Picnic near Sacsayhuaman
On a sunny weekend head up to the grassy fields behind the ruins of Sacasayhuaman and join the picnicking locals and families. Between the months of May and August (the dry season), you’ll find locals gathered around strange-looking earthen mounds, called huatias. A huatia is essentially a natural oven constructed with packed dirt and hot stones used to cook freshly harvested potatoes, sweet potatoes, and beans. The final plate is finished off with cheese and a spicy pepper sauce. If you dare, ask for a taste.
The wonderful thing about Cusco is how welcoming the locals are with visitors and how willing they are to share their culture with you.
Fancy paying this spectacular city a visit? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures in Peru.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, Amber Dunlap, Intrepid Travel, Amber Dunlap, Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel)