12 Best Things to Do on Your Free Day in Cusco
Well over a million tourists visit Cusco annually. Many use this highland city as a base for excursions to Ollantaytambo and, of course, Machu Picchu. What folks realize upon arrival, though, is that this 16th-century gem is one of the most well-preserved Spanish-colonial towns in the Americas. Also, within the city limits are Inca ruins galore. Add in the rich indigenous culture and a food scene to fawn over, and you have all the makings of a star travel destination.
So don’t sleep on the myriad treasures within Cusco’s ancient walls. Take a day off from the Lost City of the Incas and spend it enjoying this city’s highlights—12 of which are listed below.
1. Visit Saqsaywaman
A great intro to Peru’s Inca ruins is this former fortress complex on a hill overlooking the city. It dates to the mid-15th century and includes storage depots and temples dedicated to the sun god Inti. The site is also a testament to the architectural prowess of the Incas, as its massive walls are comprised of limestone blocks flush against one another without the use of mortar.
2. Grab a Coffee
If you’d like a break from all that mate de coca, grab a cup of Joe at any number of quaint cafés on or around the Plaza de Armas. Enjoy the brew of locally grown beans at Café Dwasi, which is run by fourth-generation coffee producers.
3. Sip on a Cocktail or Beer
For a sundowner or refreshing beer, try the microbrews at Cholos Craft Beers, or Cervecería Zenith. Or sip a smart cocktail on the rooftop of Limbos Restorer amid panoramic views of the surrounding Andes.
4. Indulge Your Inner Foodie
Cusco’s food scene has exploded in recent decades. Nowadays you can not only enjoy local Peruvian cuisine at picnterias (traditional lunchtime restaurants), but go out for sushi, Peruvian-Chinese fusion, burgers & BBQ, wood-fired pizzas—there are even solid vegan restaurants like Green Point and Chia.
5. Visit the Markets
Cusco is filled with great flea markets, crafts stalls, fruit vendors, and textile purveyors. The most famous municipal market by far is San Pedro. Located just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas, this is your one-stop-shop for fresh produce, meats, cheeses, alpaca clothing, and more.
6. Get Lost on Cusco’s Backstreets
Ditching Google Maps and enjoying an aimless wander is a highlight of any travel experience. In Cusco, see the history written on its cobbled streets and hewn-stone walls as you stroll pathways like Hatun Rumiyoc, Loreto, Resbalosa, and others.
7. Try Cuy, a Local Delicacy
To many outsiders, cuy (guinea pig) is considered a pet. However, in this Andean region (and up into Ecuador), these animals are a culinary staple that has been enjoyed since pre-Hispanic times. Give it a try—you’ll either love it, or bolt for the door.
8. Visit the 12 Angled Stone
Located smack in the heart of Cusco, this diorite stone looks much like the others in the wall encircling the ruins of the Palace of Hatunrumiyoc. Look closer, however, and you’ll see a perfectly hewn example of the Inca’s unrivaled stonemasonry prowess.
9. Take a Selfie With an Alpaca
Touristic? Maybe. Fun? Absolutely. When on the streets of Cusco, seek out the locals in traditional dress walking their alpacas and join in for a selfie (be sure to tip generously).
10. Try Mate de Coca & Chocolate
This tea infusion made from the leaves of the coca plant has been fortifying locals and giving them extra zip since the days of the Incas. The tea hits like a strong dose of caffeine, and you can even chew the leaves to help with altitude sickness.
Another local treat is chocolate (Peru produces some of the best in the world). You can sample these artisanal confections in Cusco at shops like La Cholita.
11. Shop for Alpaca Goods
Peru’s most famous camelid (and the ancient Incas most honored animal) is known for its fine wool, which is stronger and warmer than sheep fiber. In Cusco, shop for alpaca goods like knitted hats, scarves, blankets, and sweaters at the Handicraft Center and San Pedro Market.
12. Have a Glass of Chicha
You’ll find this fermented corn beverage throughout Latin America, particularly in the Andes and Amazon regions. In Peru, it’s made from a type of purple corn called guiñapo and you can expect a strong aroma. Locals swear by it, but first-timers may want to plug their nose during the first sip.