Like a mountain-high Florence, Italy bursting with indigenous markets and dotted with Pre-Columbian ruins, the oldest continually inhabited city in the Americas is a jeweled mini-metropolis with a dynamic, unparalleled, magical appeal. The cobblestone streets of UNESCO-crowned Cusco (or Cuzco) are laid out in the form of a giant puma and aligned with the four cardinal directions like a living calendar, and exploring the former capital of the Inca Empire is one of the most rewarding urban adventures on earth.
Coca leaf-fueled forays into the Sacred Valley and the glacier-topped Andean peaks just outside of Cusco are also epic, while nightlife in the 9,000-foot-high city rages full throttle seven nights a week. Even those who come just for the trekking must spend several days acclimating to the high altitude, and they often spend those days partying with other travelers and backpackers. Dining options are surprisingly cosmopolitan, accommodations run full spectrum and shopping for colorful handmade art and crafts may even outshine Machu Picchu as the top tourist attractions in the area.
Since Peru just legalized cannabis for medicinal use, Cusco is now more herb friendly than ever, although decent quality bud has always been cheap and readily available. Exploring Cusco high is a mind-blowing trip, not just through time, but through multiple realities where indigenous wisdom, medieval European market economics and new age spirituality whirl and blend together around what was once considered the absolute center of the universe.
Bunking Down in the Sacred City
Most visitors book centrally located accommodations near the Plaza de Armas and Plazoleta Nazarena, home to luxury digs like the Belmond Monasterio—housed in a grandiose 15th century former monastery—and the LGBT friendly Fallen Angel boutique hotel. However, those in the know head straight for the San Blas barrio. Clinging to the hillside overlooking the domed cathedrals of Cusco’s city center, this 500-year-old neighborhood of stairways and crooked passages is mostly car free, offers amazing views around every corner and is dotted with bohemian cafes and restaurants.
San Blas is also home to a wide variety of different small-scale lodging options, from the elegant colonial charm and terraced dining of the Casa Boutique Spa Encantada to the Casa de la Gringa, where the psychedelic set meet up to trade stories of deep healings and alien encounters. Despite its popularity with tourists, and the fact that it is home to a sizable expat population (pop into The Meeting Place café to check out the scene and find out about longer-term rentals), San Blas is also full of small traditional homestay options where you can shack up with a Cusqueño family and live like a local.
Those on the serious shoestring budget should head over to the area around the San Pedro market, where dozens of backpacker hostels offer dorms in restored mansions. If you want to get buck wild with it, famous party hostels like the Wild Rover and the Peruvian chain Loki are locked in intense competition for top debauchery bragging rights, hosting a slew of different bar games every night of the week and DJs or live bands on the weekends.
Eating Cusco Bite by Bite
It's true, the restaurant scene in Lima is much of the reason Peru wins “Best Culinary Destination in the World” year after year, but no foodie will be disappointed with Cusco’s multi-faceted dining options. In fact, you don’t have to brave the fog and crime of the country’s capital (as exciting and cosmopolitan as it actually is) to sample the sabor of Peruvian culinary ambassador Gastón Acurio. The chef's Plaza Regocijo restaurant Chicha features both Limeño staples like ceviche and tiradito (i.e., Peruvian sashimi) and creative takes on Andean fare such as alpaca tartare.
For more real deal Peruvian eats, check out the San Blas Plaza-adjacent Southern Peruvian style Pachapapa, where creamy green huacatay (black mint) sauce adds serious punch to pork ribs, lamb shanks and cuy (guinea pig), or the festive Northern-style El Paisa on Avenida Del Sol, where live bands and folkloric dancers perform for seafood parihuela-scarfing crowds. When you want something bueno, bonito and barato, a mere five or six soles (two bucks) will get you a nice filet of pink alpine trout accompanied with a quinoa soup in the cavernous San Pedro Market.
Cusco, which is both one of the most visited places on the South American continent and an expat outpost of serious dimensions, also has a lion’s share of international offerings that range from decent to high quality. Stand out options include the Londoner-owned Korma Sutra Curry House (alpaca with mango and chili!) up in San Blas and Sa Rang Che, where perfect Korean ramen and kimchi are hidden away a half block up from the Plaza de Armas. Vegetarians will delight at the sheer number of options in Cusco, especially if they have been doing serious traveling around the meat and potato diet-based Andean region for an extended period—the best of the bunch is Green Point in San Blas, which sports a fantastic salad bar and cranks out deli raw vegan sushi.
Inca Agriculture Meets Modern Cuisine
One of the most incredible achievements of the Inca Empire, especially considering it was the largest ancient civilization in the Americas, was that it was completely free of hunger. The Inca set up a vast network of trade routes that distributed produce as well as seeds far and wide across their territory. Many of these seeds had been developed through experimentation in the huge outdoor agricultural laboratory just outside of Cusco known as Moray, which used terraces and different sun angles to simulate the various climates and growing conditions found in different parts of the Empire. The result was the incredibly diverse array of potatoes, grains and other superfoods that you can still find for dirt cheap in any Peruvian market.
Tapping into this ancient agricultural wisdom, husband and wife team Virgilio Martínez and Pia León, already world famous for the Lima landmark restaurant Central and their two cookbooks, are opening up their newest eatery MIL, along with an educational food lab, right at the Moray archaeological site. By integrating ancient agricultural techniques back into the modern kitchen, and bringing in chefs from all over the world to learn how to do it, they just might be kicking off a food revolution with serious repercussions. In fact, even the United Nations is starting to recognize that indigenous agricultural wisdom may hold the key to the modern food crisis and global warming.
Mountain Highs and Plant Allies
Hiking is a part of everyday life in Cusco as just getting back to your hotel in San Blas from the city center often means a strenuous half hour of vertical stair climbing. Up above the San Blas barrio lies the ruins of Sacsayhuaman,a pre-Incan citadel with incredible masonry work, and the Temple of the Moon, where the spectral rays of the full moon enter a shaft and illuminate an inner chamber once a month.
Going to visit Machu Picchu? The classic Inca Trail runs four or five days as does its most popular alternative, the Salkantay Trek, which winds through gorgeous high mountain passes and icy glaciers on its way. Of course, you can also take one of the train lines to the spectacularly set UNESCO World Heritage site, but even the brand new super luxury Belmond Hiram Bingham train will drop you off at Agua Calientes, three hours and almost a thousand feet below the ruins itself.
Given the high altitude and the steep ascent, it's going to be a breathtaking experience in every sense any which way you approach it.
The same goes for Pisac, a picture-perfect Sacred Valley town. Up above the charming handicraft market filled Main Square towers an ancient city only explorable and reachable by foot awaits. In Ollantaytambo, never conquered by the Spanish and still bustling with indigenous activity, visiting the ceremonial center and royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti requires a heart-pumping hike up the terraced mountainside. Another notable excursion in the area is the Lares Trek, which snakes up to the high Andes from the Sacred Valley floor, passing through traditional Quechua-speaking villages and alpine lakes on the way.
Your best friend on all of these high altitude adventures is the mighty coca leaf, demonized throughout the western world as the source of cocaine, but the Andean people held this natural plant medicine in the highest regard since time immemorial. A cheek-full of dried leaf, mixed with a bit of llipta (ashes and mint or stevia) to activate the alkaloids, numbs the mouth and brightens up even the darkest mood as it oxygenates the blood and brain to the point where you automatically acclimate to the thin mountain air. It can empower people to hike for hours, even straight uphill, with minimal fatigue and less risk of altitude sickness.Known as the “herb of immortality” to locals, coca is much more than just a stimulant, it is a vitamin- and mineral-packed nutritional powerhouse with diverse therapeutic properties much like medical cannabis.
Shop for coca leaf around the San Pedro market, where it goes for about a buck a pound, and check out the intriguing history of the sacred plant at the Coca Museum, home to a wide variety of coca products (from skin pomades to toothpaste) available for purchase. Coca leaf tea is ubiquitous in Cusco, and the plant is starting to make its way into everything from rum to chocolate brownies. Stop for a coca-infused Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru, at the LIMO Pisco Bar overlooking the Plaza de Armas for something to set the night off with a kick.
Cusco has also become a world psychedelic mecca for those looking to experience the entheogenic properties of plants like the Andes native San Pedro cactus, which contains mescaline, and ayahuasca, an Amazonian vine concoction that is taking the world by storm as a natural remedy for everything from PTSD to cancer. Expats Lesley Myburgh, owner of Casa de la Gringa, and Scott Lite, an ethnobotanist, are excellent resources on these powerful hallucinogenic plants. Lite in particular has worked with San Pedro for years and offers trips into both Andean and Amazonian indigenous communities through his EthnoCo organization, Also check out the Spirit Events Sacred Valley page for listings of group ceremonies taking place in Pisac and the surrounding area.
Turning History Upside Down
From the palatial Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin to the 12-angled pre-Inca stone masonry on Hatun Rumiyoc street (which still baffles modern architects), Cusco is so jam packed with colonial and pre-conquest marvels that sightseeing overload burnout and cultural cognitive dissonance can set in if you don't plan your visit wisely.The one must-see site that completely embodies Cusco's split personality is the Temple of the Sun, or Coricancha, a magnificent Dominican Monastery that was built directly on top of the still-visible foundation of the Inca Empire's most important temple. The sheer magnitude of the tragedy of the Spanish imposition is on open display here like nowhere else on the continent.
As the Spanish turned the Inca capital into their own New World HQ, Cusco became home to a school of artistic production without equal in the hemisphere. Churning out religious paintings and icons meant to back up the mass Catholic spiritual conversion taking place across the Americas, Cusco developed a multitude of medieval-style art guilds and studios, some of which are still in operation in the San Blas area. Renaissance-style paintings openly sold alongside alpaca ponchos and quena flutes epitomizes a uniquely Cusco sight. This strong artistic tradition, kept alive in part by the gorgeous Bellas Artes school in the city center, has now spawned a new generation of visual artists blending indigenous themes into modern works. Check out the Contemporary Art Museum for a strong sample, and pop into the Pre-Colombian Art Museum to see how deep the roots of this movement really go.
Following the Sun
The grand shebang festival in Cusco is Inti Raimi, a month-long explosion of parades and partying that marks the New Year from the winter solstice in June (remember, seasons are reversed south of equator).This is also high tourism season here, as dry sunny weather means the many mountain treks are usually rain and mud free. Rainy season starts in November or December with most of the trekking agencies taking a break for the season in January and February. Semana Santa (Easter Week) is also a great time to visit Cusco, since the rains have usually stopped and the whole city fills with elaborate processions and open-air feasts. In early May, the Cruz Velacuy festival again pauses daily life as everyone shuts down shop to get down in the streets to a pre-Colombian carnival-style fiesta that is thinly disguised as a Catholic homage to the cross. Like all things in Cusco, peeling back the layers reveals multiple levels of meaning that are better understood through ritual and celebration than the written word.
PRØ Travel Cusco Highlights:
- Stay in the San Blas barrio for a neighborhood that's hip yet less touristy
- Try the coca leaf in all its iterations (in cocktails, chewing of the leafs, etc.)
- Buy coca products at the Coca Museum but hide them in your luggage if taking home
- Cusco is a popular place to try San Pedro cactus and ayahuasca
- Make reservations early for the forthcoming Central-affiliated restaurant Mil
- Catholic-themed festivals like Cruz Velacuy are all about the parties
- Spend at least two days acclimating to the altitude before trekking to Machu Picchu or elsewhere
Ocean Malandra is a widely published writer who divides his time between Northern California and South America. He is an editor of Infinite Perception: The Power of Psychedelics for Global Tranformation, forthcoming in 2018. Follow him on twitter @OceanMalandra. Photo credits: Flickr/Kenneth Moore, Facebook/Chicha por Gaston Acurio, Flickr/Chris Jackson, Facebook, Flickr/McCay Savage and Flickr/Dmitry B.