In 1911, as American historian Hiram Bingham combed southern Peru for the Inca city of Vilcabamba, an 11-year-old Quechua boy led him to an old citadel perched high above the Urubamba Valley. Its stone structures, standing for almost 500 years, were grown over with vegetation; some were even inhabited by the local people. But Bingham had inadvertently stumbled upon a treasure—one he would introduce to the outside world as The Lost City of the Incas.
For the past century, visitors from all over the world have flocked to Machu Picchu—some braving the Inca Trail on foot, others riding in style on the Hiram Bingham train. But for nearly all of them, the gateway to the Sacred Valley of the Incas lies in Cusco, a beautiful mountain city 50 miles southeast of Machu Picchu. Most trekking agencies ask their hikers to spend at least three days in Cusco to acclimatize at 11,152 feet, but it’s no chore for long weekenders who enjoy rugged Andean scenery, fascinating history, and awe-inspiring architecture.
Make your home base for the weekend at Niños Hotel, a colonial home-turned-charming inn just five blocks from the Plaza de Armas. You’ll be greeted with a soothing cup of coca leaf tea, and heartened by the knowledge that your room rate is benefiting Peruvian children in need.
So grab your hiking boots and conserve your oxygen. If you find yourself in the capital of the Inca Empire, here are some unforgettable ways to spend three days.
In this bustling city of nearly 350,000 people, there’s no better place to begin your visit than the Mercado Central, a humming central marketplace for meat, produce, and delightfully cheap meals. This energetic market near the San Pedro train station is also a great place to invest in a bag of coca leaves, Peruvians’ preferred antidote to altitude sickness. The leaves can be chewed in a bunch, brewed as tea—or even used to make cocaine in a long, complicated chemical process.
The Man Of Qoricancha
For three centuries, Cusco was the spiritual centerpiece of the Inca Empire—a city of holy temples laid out in the shape of a sacred puma. But the arrival of the Spanish in 1533 ushered in the final years of the empire, as buildings were destroyed and citizens succumbed to smallpox and warfare.
Cusco, however, has remained a city of mixed influences—a place where indigenous and Spanish architecture often exist on the same street, the same block, or even within the same structure. Enter Qoricancha, the Incas’ most important astronomical observatory and temple to Inti, the Sun God. With walls and floors that were once covered in gold, the temple was stripped and demolished by the Spanish, who spared only the foundation to support the new Church of Santo Domingo. But in a small victory for the Inca Empire, an earthquake in 1950 severely damaged the church, while the sophisticated Inca masonry still survives today (Plazoleta Santo Domingo).
It’s Hip To Be In The Square
As late afternoon rolls around, stroll along Avenida El Sol to the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s most beautiful square for picnicking, people-watching, and gathering with friends. The site of Francisco Pizarro’s proclamation of the conquest of Cusco in 1534, the Plaza de Armas today invites visitors to peruse its many shops and peek inside its two stunning churches—although a seat by the fountain will keep you equally entertained for hours.
That’ll Do, Guinea Pig. That’ll Do.
It’s a blissfully short walk to dinner at the Inka Grill, a favorite among locals and visitors for its modern take on Peruvian classics. With a prime location on the Plaza de Armas, chef Coque Ossio’s menu highlights quintessential Andean ingredients, from sautéed alpaca to roasted guinea pig. That’s right, roasted guinea pig (Portal de Panes 115).
Sweet Valley High
Rise and shine for an early departure to the Sacred Valley of the Incas, an adventure that will lead you to some of the most extensive and beautiful ruins near Cusco. You can rent a car and drive the 96-mile loop yourself—or relax and leave the navigating to SAS Travel Peru, an outstanding trekking and touring outfit that offers day-long excursions through the Urubamba Valley.
Begin the morning 18 miles northeast of Cusco in Pisac, an Inca settlement guarding the southern entrance to the Sacred Valley. Destroyed by Pizarro in the 1530s, Pisac—now home to a popular artisans’ market on Sundays—remains a prime example of the Incas’ sophisticated agricultural strategy. By terracing steep hillsides and hauling rich topsoil to higher ground, they maximized crop production and stored surplus food for the winter months.
Next, trace a route northwest along the Urubamba River to the spectacular ruins of Ollantaytambo, home to some of the Incas’ most mystifying feats of stonemasonry. After ascending 200 stairs to reach the top of the terraces, catch your breath by exploring the temple sector and, most notably, the unfinished Temple of the Sun and its immense Wall of the Six Monoliths. It’s a confounding display of boulders that were somehow transported, cut, polished, and locked together without the use of mortar—and all of it was done more than 500 years ago.
As you make your way back southward toward Cusco, stop first in Chinchero, a town that rests at the top of a winding mountain road. Spend the late afternoon strolling through the ruins or browsing the textiles sold by Quechua women in the market square—perhaps the best, and most scenic, market in the Sacred Valley.
A Little Night Music
Nestled in the heart of historic Cusco is the Belmond Hotel Monasterio, a breathtaking former monastery and national monument dating back to 1592. High rollers can brave the steep room rates to enjoy fresh oxygen being pumped into their rooms, but the rest of us will be reserving a table at El Tupay, one of the hotel’s elegant restaurants. With impeccable service and a globally inspired menu, El Tupay offers one of the most intimate dining experiences in Cusco—complete with live opera music three nights each week (Calle Palacio 136).
I’m Too Sacsay For My Shirt
With two days in Cusco under your belt, put your newly acclimated lungs to the test with a morning stroll through San Blas, the city’s most eclectic and picturesque neighborhood. Situated on a steep hillside above the Plaza de Armas, the narrow streets of San Blas are lined with art studios and artisan workshops, most of which lay claim to the best views in Cusco.
On the ridge just above San Blas is your morning destination—the immense stone ruins of Sacsayhuamán. Constructed over a century beginning in the mid-1400s, this enormous walled complex served both defensive and ceremonial purposes for the Incas, and was the site of one of the bloodiest battles against the Spanish in 1536. And remember how scholars believe that Cusco was designed to resemble a puma? It was the jagged walls of Sacsayhuamán that made up the animal’s head and teeth.
A Game Of Chicken
Just as you wouldn’t travel to France without eating several croissants a day (anyone?), no visit to Cusco would be complete without a hearty helping of pollo a la brasa, Peru’s simple, unparalleled version of rotisserie chicken. Just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas, Los Toldos is a fast, friendly, no-frills joint, specializing in some of Cusco’s favorite pollo a la brasa. If you conserve stomach space for the salad bar, you’re a far better person than I am (Calle Almagro 171).
Fragile! Must Be Italian!
As the sun sets on your final evening in Cusco, join the bustling crowd of expats and locals at Cicciolina, an exciting and relatively new addition to the local culinary scene. The name may sound Italian, but the menu is locally sourced Andean cuisine, updated with delicate international flare (Calle Triunfo 393). So grab a table and enjoy the evening—this long weekend is officially in the books.
A Few Notes
In an ideal world, after three days in Cusco, each and every long weekender would be setting out the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu, a more secluded and challenging version of the overcrowded Inca Trail (stay tuned for The Long Weekender’s dispatch). However, if your itinerary just doesn’t allow for an additional five days in Peru, be sure you spend one of your three days on the Hiram Bingham train to Machu Picchu. It wasn’t voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World for nothing.
TITLE: The road between Ollantaytambo and Chinchero | SATURDAY: The Plaza de Armas; Niños Hotel | SUNDAY: The Urubamba Valley, or the Sacred Valley of the Incas; the walls of the Sacred Valley; the ruins of Pisac; Pinkuylluna, the mountain facing Ollantaytambo; Quechua women at the Chinchero marketplace | MONDAY: The walls of Sacsayhuamán; a llama built into the walls; Cusco, from Sacsayhuamán; sunset over the Plaza de Armas.