Another essential tip is to wear a hat and use sunblock. Partly cloudy skies, the norm during my stay in Cuzco, can lull travelers into a false sense of security. But the sun in Peru is fierce, no matter the cloud cover. With altitude added into the mix, you’re looking at a quick sunburn if you aren’t protected. I went out one day with a hat (but no sunblock) and returned with a burned neck.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of places to buy supplies, including hats, in Cuzco. The beautiful Plaza de Armas, the main square, is geared toward tourists exploring the region or passing through on the way to Machu Picchu. You will most likely be approached, as I was, by locals selling crafts, hats (5 soles) and ponchos (3 soles), offering tours of local sights, or even marijuana (I did not partake). Two magnificent churches flank the plaza: the Catedral del Cuzco to the northeast and the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús to the southeast.
Nearby restaurants are also tourist-oriented, with prices to prove it, though they are still relatively reasonable. Cicciolina, on the second floor of an old Spanish colonial house on Calle Triunfo, is a good place to have some small bites in a warm, cozy atmosphere. (Take a peek at the 12-angled stone along your way; the Hatunrumiyoc Palace is built atop it, and legend has it that without it the palace would collapse.)
The tapas at Cicciolina, which included Peruvian duck ham with chile, scallops with avocado and a Cuzqueñan salad of corn, cheese and fava beans, can be had à la carte (10 soles each) or as a selection of five (chef’s choice, 30 soles). I enjoyed a salad of local organic lettuce and prawns coated in blue-black quinoa with a maracuyá (passion fruit) vinaigrette (36 soles). Other food options on this end of the spectrum include La Bodega 138, where I had a decent 39-sol Estrella pizza with mushrooms, salami and ham, and a local Peruvian beer for 16 soles.
Less expensive options are just a few minutes’ walk from the plaza. Peruvians are fanatical about their pollo a la brasa — roasted chicken — and there are a number of pollerías where you can try the salty, greasy dish. Plazoleta de Santiago, a small square, is pollería ground zero, and as I was having difficulty deciding where to go, I asked a police officer. He pointed me toward Pollería Santiago, a hole in the wall right off the plaza. The chicken was moist and almost supernaturally flavorful, as if it had been injected with an MSG solution. A quarter chicken with a large handful of French fries and a green piquant dipping sauce was 11 soles.
North of the chicken restaurants are its markets, another part of Cuzco you won’t want to miss. On the way I walked along Tambopata Street, crossing a bridge and stuck my head into an underground locals’ bar. (The bar, where people took their drinking seriously and oversize 1.1-liter bottles of Pilsen Callao were 9.50 soles, appeared not to have a name.) Nearby was a market hub from which several streets emerged like spokes from a wheel, each specializing in a different thing: meat, fruit, vegetables, clothing.
Sacks of freshly harvested purplish potatoes stood piled near Calle Nueva; a man selling a freshly slaughtered cow, including the head, was up a different street. Some of the stands bore the names of the women who ran them: Lucy, Paty, Jhakelin. I picked up an emoliente, a hot, goopy health drink made from flax seed, for one sol.
The San Pedro Market is a massive covered expanse (it seems slightly larger than a football field) where vendors sell an array of items, like textiles and cuy, or guinea pig. The atmosphere is lively and colorful, filled both with tourists and residents who are simply shopping for groceries. Bargaining is expected, with the exception of the prepared foods: Dozens of vendors hawk hot bowls of chicken soup, or plates with chicken and rice, for 5 soles. I picked up a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice for 4 soles.
For those looking for woven textiles, there are markets and street hawkers, and specialty stores like the Centro de Textiles. When I visited, four weavers in traditional dress were at work in the middle of the shop, chewing coca leaves. Its free museum, which is worth a look, examines different fibers (primarily sheep’s wool, which has largely replaced the alpaca and llama in use when the Spanish arrived), yarn production and the lives of the weavers, who begin learning the craft in early childhood. Prices aren’t cheap (purses are $50, shawls around $100), but buyers can be slightly more assured of the quality than those bought on the street.
Not far away was Koricancha (10 soles admission), the ruins of an important temple in Incan history. Before the Spanish conquest, it was the heart of Incan empire and its walls were said to have been lined in gold. There is a great view of the city from outside on the temple walls.
Walking around Cuzco’s charming, narrow streets afterward, I took note of the many different hostels and lodgings in the city. I stopped into a couple, and when I asked about prices, all seemed willing to bargain. At Hostel Qori Kintu San Blas, for example, I asked about a room and was quoted a price of $40. In practically the same breath, however, the man behind the desk said he would accept 100 soles, or about $30.
Not everything is subject to negotiation, however. At Sacsayhuaman, the stunning ancient Incan fortress, I ran into a small issue: There was no way to buy a ticket for just the fortress. There was a tourist ticket for 130 soles (70 for students) that admitted one to numerous archaeological and tourist sites, including Sacsayhuaman, Q’enqo and Pucapucara, and was valid for 10 days. A boleto parcial — partial ticket, allowed entrance to four sites, including Sacsayhuaman, for 70 soles.
I bit the bullet and bought a parcial — and was glad I did. The walls of the old fortress are stunning, made up of heavy stones, some of which weigh 125 tons. How the Incas got those stones up on that hill is a mystery (it’s a quick 5-sol cab ride uphill from the city center), but what’s truly mind-blowing is the precision of the stonework: No mortar was used, and the stones fit together as perfectly as a puzzle.
Beginning near the top of Sacsayhuaman, at the upper entrance, allows you to head downhill as you explore the park. The panoramic views of the valley below and stunning cloud formations, which appear to hover just slightly above the rooftops, are second to none.
The only other view that could compare was Limbus Restobar, up toward the Mirador de San Blas, a plaza. While awkward to get to (I passed through a hostel to enter), the bar, with its two-for-one mojitos (20 soles), is difficult to beat. Once I arrived, I walked out through a door in the huge wall of windows running the length of the establishment and parked myself at a table on the wide terrace overlooking the city below. Along with a plate of empanadas full of Andean cheese and sausage (16 soles), my evening was complete. There was little left to do but relax on the outdoor patio, bundle up against a slight chill, and enjoy the wonderful views that I had been seeking.