There is a certain irony that one of the best sites in Cusco really isn’t a site at all. Rather, the Mercado Central de San Pedro (San Pedro Market) is simply the place in the center of Cusco where most of the locals go for their groceries.
The difference, however, is that grocery shopping in Cusco is a little bit different than shopping at the local market back back home. At the Mercado Central de San Pedro, all of the items are on vibrant display and are fascinatingly set right out in the open. You can wander the stalls past towers of fruit and be greeted by a pig’s head on the very next corner. You can shop for a dozen varieties of potatoes and then watch someone purchase a bag of fried guinea pigs. It’s an authentic look at everyday culture which lies outside the circuit of regular sights. There is also a food court that serves local dishes at a fraction of the cost of most local restaurants.
When you hear “Inca ruins” you probably think Machu Picchu, and while the famous 15th century site deserves its bucket list status, Peru is home to other travel-worthy ruins as well. One of them, arguably the best demonstration of the incredible engineering skills of the Incas, is Tipón.
The 500-acre site, located near a natural spring 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of Cusco, comprises a network of agricultural terraces so elaborate that archeologists think they may have been used for testing difficult crops rather than for everyday farming. Some of the terraces are still in use and still supplied by the same ancient technology. Since the site was part of an Incan noble’s estate, the elaborate stonemasonry exhibits the same stunning Imperial style as the structures seen at Machu Picchu, but with far fewer visitors to contend with.
The swanky beachfront suburb of Miraflores is one of Lima’s most sought-after zip codes.
Miraflores is where you’ll find Lima’s best restaurants, shops and hotels, plus the waterfront mansions and high-rise towers of the city’s movers and shakers. It’s also home to lovely parks and gardens, beaches and promenades.
Some ancient history remains in Miraflores, including the Huaca Pucllana, the remains of a pre-Inca mud-brick temple.
Paragliders come to Miraflores to leap off the area’s rocky cliffs over the sea. The beaches are popular, but the coast tends to be rocky rather than sandy and the better beaches lie further south.
When it comes to history, few cities in South America are more historic than Cusco. This sprawling city was once the capital of the entire Inca Empire, and many will tell you that ancient Cusco was the grandest city in Peru. Even the name “Cusco” translates as “Navel of the Earth” since the Inca believed the city to be the center of the known world. It pulses with an energy unlike elsewhere in Peru, and there is a palpable magic which permeates these streets set high in the foothills of the Andes.
During the 16th Century, when Spanish conquistadors came marching into Cusco, they kept the structure of the city intact but destroyed many of the buildings. Colonial cathedrals and Spanish architecture took the place of Inca temples, and the city became an Andean fusion of Spanish and Inca design. Given the cultural combination and the grandiose scale of the city, UNESCO declared Cusco as a World Heritage Site in 1983.
The textile mill at Awana Kancha is an entertaining and culturally-rich stop on the journey between Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Set 30 minutes outside of the Cusco city center, this popular artisan outpost is a budget-friendly place to experience alpacas and Andean culture.
With no entry fee, visitors to Awana Kancha can marvel at traditionally-dressed women and the colorful textiles they spin before your eyes. Using the wool of alpacas, llamas, guanacos, and vicunyas, the women create patterns using natural dyes that have existed in the Andes since the time of the Inca. What’s more, in addition to the textiles, visitors have the chance to hand-feed llamas or nurse baby alpacas with milk from a bottle. The name Awana Kancha literally translates as the Palace of Weaving, and the fine works of handicraft which are on sale at the co-op are arguably nicer than you’ll find in larger markets.
Located just up the coast from Lima, the seafront town of Callao has been Peru’s most important port since the colonial era and remains the capital’s principal cruise port, receiving thousands of annual visitors. With easy transport links to the center of Lima, most cruise travelers find themselves heading straight into the city, but there are still a few worthwhile attractions to visit in Callao itself.
Explore the imposing Real Felipe Fortress, built during colonial times to protect the shores from pirate invasions and named after King Felipe V of Spain; hit the beach at La Punta; or discover Callao’s rich maritime history with a visit to the Abtao Submarine Museum and the Naval Museum. Callao is also the starting point for cruises to the Pacific islands of Palomino, Cabinzas and El Frontón, renowned for their variety of birdlife and sea lion colonies and a popular day trip from Lima.
The Magic Water Circuit, located within the Parque de la Reserva, provides a fun and family-friendly option for those looking for something inexpensive to do in Lima. The municipal project—a series of 12 fountains choreographed to music and lights—was inaugurated in 2007 and has since become a favorite attraction in the capital city among locals and visitors alike.
While the fountains are open Wednesday through Sunday, beginning in the late afternoon, they’re undeniably most impressive at night, when the lights and laser effects are most visible. Each of the fountains has a different theme, and some are interactive (you’ll get wet), making them a huge hit with kids. The Maze of the Dream (Laberinto del Ensueño) is a major highlight of the Magic Water Circuit and challenges visitors to find their way to an inner circle through a maze made from vertical walls of water. After dark, the Fantasia Fountain (Fuente de la Fantasía) entertains with a choreographed show.
Dedicated to Lima’s lovers, Love Park (Parque del Amor) understandably attracts couples who come to enjoy the Pacific Ocean views, especially around sunset. Located in the Miraflores district, the park bears a resemblance to Park Güell in Barcelona, thanks to the colorful mosaic walls displaying quotes on love spread throughout.
At the center of the park stands a sculpture by Victor Delfín entitled El Beso (The Kiss), unveiled in 1993 and still the best known work by the Peruvian artist. If you’re in Lima for Valentine’s Day, head to Love Park to watch young couples compete in a longest kiss contest staged by the statue.
Lima's baroque twin-towered cathedral dominates the city's central Plaza de Armas. The cathedral's elaborate colonial exterior looks intact, but it has suffered plenty of wear and tear over the years from earthquakes since its construction in the 1530s. Much of what you see dates from the rebuilding program of 1746. Step inside the huge cathedral via one of its grand three doors and you’ll find a lofty white and gold interior with soaring ribbed ceilings, mosaic chapels and pillared aisles.
The cathedral's walls are lined with paintings, and the highlight of the chapels is the elaborate marble tomb of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who laid the cathedral's first stone in 1535. Entry includes a guided tour and a visit to the cathedral's museum. The cathedral is brilliantly illuminated with floodlights at night, and the palm-filled square in front is a popular meeting spot with seating.
Lima’s most bohemian district, the lively coastal neighborhood of Barranco first became popular towards the end of the 19th Century, drawing an influx of poets, writers and artists to the seaside resorts of Las Sombrillas and Barranquito. Although it was integrated into the capital territory in 1860, Barranco retains its village-like feel, with its striking colonial architecture and brightly painted buildings standing in stark contrast to the modern high-rises of neighboring Miraflores.
Best explored on foot, the elegant Plaza San Francisco is the starting point for a walking tour, home to the 19th century Iglesia San Francisco, and encircled by boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Nearby, the Bajada de los Baños ravine is the most popular hangout during the daytime, where the flower-lined Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs) makes a romantic spot for watching the sunset.
The modern city of Lima is dotted with historic ruins and sacred sites, known as huacas, and the imposing archeological site of Huaca Pucllana is one of the city’s largest and most important ancient monuments, located in the coastal Miraflores district. Built around 500 A.D, the complex was once an administrative and ceremonial center of the indigenous Lima Culture civilization, constructed from hand-made adobe bricks and dominated by a 22-meter tall central pyramid.
The impressive pre-Incan ruins are now a popular tourist attraction, affording unique views from the top of the central mound and dramatically floodlit in the evening hours. There’s also an on-site museum displaying artifacts like tools, ceramics and textiles unearthed during excavations, a workshop area displaying ancient textile and ceramic making techniques, a small park growing key plants used by the Lima Culture people and a spectacularly sited restaurant that looks out over the ruins.
The 40-plus floating Uros Islands are perhaps the most photographed attraction on Lake Titicaca, famously constructed with springy totora reeds. The reeds are collected from around the shores of Lake Titicaca, and used to replenish the fragile islands every three months or so, as the bottom of the two-meter (6.5ft) totora mat slowly rots back into the lake. Thus, the islands change shape, size and even number as the centuries pass, anchored to the lake bottom but in many ways a completely separate world.
The Uros people are an ancient race, predating the Incas by millennia and, according to local legend, even the sun and stars. The “People of the Lake,” as they call themselves, once said that they did not feel the cold, thanks to their “black blood.”
Lima’s Plaza Mayor (main square) is central Plaza de Armas, the city’s historic heart and birthplace.
Landscaped with palm trees, elaborate lampposts, flower beds and greenery, the square’s focus is the 1650 tiered bronze fountain in the center and the statue of Francisco Pizarro on horseback nearby. Visit at 11:45am to watch the changing of the guard, or visit any time to find an empty seat and watch the world wander by. There’s plenty to look at, with the cathedral on one side and the beautiful balconies of the Palacio Arzobispal next door. Several other attractive buildings with balconies and arched porticoes line the square, including the City Hall and Government Palace.
Inaugurated in 1921 to celebrate a century of Peruvian independence, Plaza San Martin is named after the man who liberated Peru, Argentina and Chile from Spain, José de San Martín whose bronze likeness sits astride a bronze horse in the center of the plaza. Located within the UNESCO-listed Historic Centre of Lima and surrounded on three sides by neocolonial architecture, the plaza is considered one of the city’s most important public spaces.
The plaza becomes especially lively in the late afternoon and evening, when the buildings are lit up beautifully and locals gather to chit chat or, more often, argue politics beneath the trees. On the northwestern side of the plaza sits the Gran Hotel Bolivar, a perfect place to sip a pisco sour within the historic art deco building.
Downtown Lima’s most lively and colorful street is pedestrianized Jiron de la Union.
Lined with boutiques and stores for window-shopping, restaurants and cafes for bar-hoppers, and thronged with locals for people-watching, taking a stroll along this atmospheric thoroughfare is the best way to experience Lima in a nutshell. Taking up five blocks of prime city-center real estate, Lima’s most important boulevard was planned by Pizarro back in 1535, when the city was founded. A walk along this thoroughly commercialized car-free route takes you past City Hall, monuments, squares and the La Merced Cathedral, with its pretty square in front.
There was once a time when Cusco was the center of the powerful Incan Empire. From the coastal deserts of southern Peru to the frigid peaks of the Andes, every decision within the empire traced back to the city of Cusco. It was the beating heart at the very center of one of the greatest civilizations in history, and at the center of Cusco was the massive square which was known as Huacaypata.
When the Spanish besieged the city, however, many of the buildings around Huacaypata were viciously razed to the ground. Western structures were erected in their place to solidify the imperial dominance, and the name of the square was also changed to reflect the Spanish heritage.
San Blas is the artisan precinct of Peru’s most famous handicrafts town, Cusco. This area of workshops and studios, galleries and shops is the home of Cusco’s weavers, sculptors and potters. The artists’ enclave is ideal for a stroll, its cobblestone streets lined with whitewashed adobe houses decorated with contrasting blue doors and window frames.
You’ll also see remnants of Inca walls in this hilly enclave, where some narrow streets are so steep they are stepped. San Blas is a perfect late-afternoon destination, with bars and restaurants, galleries and studios for relaxed visits into the evening.
The pepper-pot belfry of Santo Domingo, one of Lima’s most historic churches, makes a rococo statement on Lima’s skyline. The interior has a neoclassical design in turquoise and sumptuous gold.
The church was completed in 1599, though it’s been rebuilt over the centuries following several earthquakes. The grand church has three naves, several altars, chapels and shrines, and Peru’s oldest choir stalls. Paintings and Seville tiles decorate the main cloisters surrounding the tranquil central gardens. Many visitors make the pilgrimage to the Iglesia de Santo Domingo to pay their respects to the Americas’ first black saint, San Martin de Porres. Santa Rosa de Lima also has a chapel in Santo Domingo.
The Iglesia and Museo de San Francisco is a spectacular example of Moorish-inspired Spanish baroque colonial grandeur, but the real highlight is the spooky labyrinth of catacombs underground.
One of the best preserved churches in Lima, the Convent of San Francis of Assisi also has a remarkable library of antique texts and a tranquil cloistered garden. A guided visit to the Museum and Convent takes you through the buildings’ history and architecture, before venturing into the underground passages lined with the bones of 25,000 Lima citizens from over 200 years of burials. Bones were interred here until 1808, when Lima’s cemetery was established, and the catacombs lay undiscovered until 1943. A visit is not for the fainthearted, but those who do make the journey will be surprised to see the various skulls and thigh bones arranged in decorative patterns.
Dominating the northern quarter of Lima’s UNESCO-listed Plaza de Armas, the grand Presidential Palace, or Casa de Pizarro, is one of the city’s most impressive historic buildings. Built in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro to mark the founding of the city, the Presidential Palace has been the official home of the Peruvian government since the viceroyalty of Peru was first established.
Designed by architect Ricardo de Jaxa Malachowski in a French Baroque style, the original building was erected on the site of Indian chief Taulichusco’s former home, and was later the site where Jose San Martín declared the Independence of Peru in 1821. Along with its historical importance, the building itself has undergone numerous renovations and restorations throughout the years, and today, most of the existing structure dates back to the 20th century.
Sacsayhuaman is the largest and most impressive of four archaeological ruins on the outskirts of Cusco, Peru. Built by the Incas, it served an important military function and was the site of a major battle with the Spanish in 1536. The name itself can be translated as “speckled head” and some say that the city of Cusco was laid out in the shape of a puma, with Sacsayhuaman forming the head.
The complex was constructed out of massive stones, some weighing as much as 300 tons, cut to fit together without the use of mortar. Today, many of the outside walls, built in a tiered, zigzag formation, remain, as do several tunnels and the “Inca’s Throne.” The latter is a series of large rocks with well-worn grooves used by many visitors as slides. A large, open plaza holding several thousand people was once home to ceremonial activities and continues to be used today – most notably for the annual celebration of the Inti Raymi festival in late June.
Cusco’s Cathedral of Santo Domingo is a colonial gem, boasting an altar of silver and a magnificently carved choir. The building stands on the site of an Inca palace, and was built from stone blocks removed from the nearby Inca city of Sacsayhuaman by the triumphant conquistadors.
The elaborately decorated cathedral was built from 1559 to 1654 on the city’s main square, Plaza de Armas, and is filled with colonial artworks, artifacts and richly decorated chapels. The most famous artwork is a Last Supper painting by Marcos Zapata featuring a meal of local guinea pig served with an Inca corn beverage. The highly ornamental facade features two domes flanking the chapels and nave, built in a Gothic-Renaissance hybrid style.
Tambomachay might not be one of the biggest ruins in Cusco, but it’s definitely one of the highest, topping out at nearly 13,000 feet.
Located five miles from the city center, Tambomachay is also known as “the Baths of the Inca” due to the multiple baths which are scattered about the site. The Inca held water in a spiritual regard as one of the sources of life, and the spring waters at Tambomachay are masterfully diverted into aqueducts, baths, and stone-carved waterways which would divert the water through the stone. Given the site’s natural beauty and the spiritual significance of its waters, it’s believed by historians that Tambomachay was reserved for Inca royalty. When visiting Tambomachay today, be sure to admire the smooth mosaic of stone which forms the walls of the ruin. The way in which the stones are perfectly stacked on each other is an example of the handicraft for which the Inca were famous.
The Inca site of Qorikancha forms the foundations of the colonial church of Santo Domingo, creating an unusual combination of monolithic Inca and arched colonial architecture.
Qorikancha means ‘Golden Courtyard’, and in Inca times the temple walls were clad with 700 sheets of solid gold, proving a tempting lure for the conquistadors. The gold sheets and gold and silver statues are gone, melted down and recast by the Spanish, but the impressively hewn curved wall of basalt stonework remains. The temple complex is thought to have been built by the first Inca emperor, Manco Capac, 100 years before the coming of the Spaniards. It was built as an observatory and religious temple to the sun, housing the mummified bodies of the Inca rulers. When you enter the courtyard, imagine the octagonal front clad with solid gold, flanked by temples to the moon and the stars draped in solid silver.