A Tale of Two Cities: Exploring Cusco and Lima

Visiting cities is hard for us. We’re completely comfortable getting lost in nature without a plan, but take us to a city and we just don’t know where to start. Cue the frantic googling. We took on Cusco and Lima in much the same way – without a plan. So, for those of you who struggle to put together your city itinerary, I hope this list gives you a good place to start.

Note: We spent a total of 2.5 days in Cusco before and after the Inca trail and had a 16 hour layover in Lima. Our list will obviously be constricted by that time frame but we hope it helps you prioritize.

5 Must Do’s in Cusco

Cusco is MADE for travelers, especially those without an itinerary. With most places located within walking distance, along narrow cobblestone streets, Cusco lends itself easily to aimless wandering. I’m just nudging you to wander in these directions 🙂

1. Plaza de Armas: Almost every city  in South America has a “Plaza de Armas” and they range from relaxing parks to busy town centers. Cusco’s is picturesque, colonial, and lively. The plaza is lined with places to eat (though if you want to save a little money, you should wander a few streets away), ATMs, and street vendors and Friday nights usually entertain groups of kids dancing.

2. Sacsayhuaman: This archeological site is a wonderful place to see the famous interlocking stone structures built by the Incas. The site is a 10-minute taxi ride from the Plaza de Armas (should cost you around 10 soles). Tickets cost 70 soles a person to enter and credit cards are not accepted so plan to carry enough with you while visiting the ruins.

Cusco Plaza de Armas
Cusco Cathedral, Plaza de Armas
Inca architecture
Interlocking stone wall architecture

3. Iglesia de San Blas: For 20 soles, you can take a self-guided audio tour inside this historic church. Although the church’s origins were imperialistic, many features inside were built with material sacred to the Quechuas, creating a perfect harmony between the traditional and the modern. From the detailed frescos to the beautifully carved pulpit, this small church is definitely worth a visit. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside.

4. San Pedro market: Eclectic food, local wares, and souvenirs are in abundance at this central market that is filled with personality. The market is a 10-15 minute walk from the Plaza de Armas but it feels like a world apart. The street food looks absolutely mouth-watering; the guinea pigs or Cuy, not so much (I hear it is worth a try though)!

5. Shopping, pampering, eating: Cusco has many little alleys filled with hand made souvenirs and are fun to just walk through. Don’t forget to get yourself an alpaca sweater, although it’s probably not completely made from alpaca. The real deal is very expensive, but I found nothing lacking in the ones you get on the streets. Scarves make really good gifts as well. You will also see plenty of salespeople promoting massages around the Plaza – for 25 soles! Totally worth it, especially after you come back from the Inca trails. If you are an adventurous eater, do try the Alpaca and the Cuy. You will probably not find it in Lima. And my fellow vegetarians, don’t fret. Cusco has a couple of vegan restaurants for you, but traditional Peruvian food offers quite a few options. Our favorite restaurant in all of Cusco was Deva – a great stop for your platos tipicos (local food). Lastly, a shout out to Hotel Golden Inka for an awesome stay. We highly recommend this place!

Cusco is also the starting point for a lot of day trips including Rainbow Mountain, Maras Moray, Machu Picchu and more. Looking for a good tour guide to help you? Hit up the best tour guide in town—Isacc at Chacras Travel Peru—and tell him Shreya sent you.

Streets of Cusco
Every narrow street is a beautiful little adventure
A taste of Spain in Cusco
A taste of Spain in Cusco
san-pedro-market
San Pedro market
Cusco skyline
The Cusco skyline

Things to do in Lima

Lima, on the other hand, is the urban sprawl to Cusco’s authentic embrace. Lima needs a plan if your time is short.

1. Kennedy Park: Named after JFK himself, for his aid to Peru during his presidency, Kennedy park is a park like any other. Until you see the hoards and hoards of cats all around you. These completely domesticated cats are taken care of by the city and a well fed cat is a friendly cat. Put one on your lap as you relax on the park bench, or sit near some cats and watch them walk onto your lap on their own.

2. Miraflores: We were out of luck here. The evening was too cloudy to enjoy the beach or take in the beautiful cliffside. The other attraction here (which looked really amazing) is the pre-Incan ruins of Huaca Pucllana which, unfortunately for our bad timing, closed by 5 pm. We hope your luck is better! Instead, we headed over to the Choco Museum for some hot, chocolate infused tea.

3. Barranco District: Lively, colorful, and bohemian to the core, this is where you should be the minute the sun goes down. Start your evening stroll through colonial buildings, cross the Bridge of Sighs, enjoy good food and drink from a variety of bars and restaurants, and watch entertaining street performers in this beautiful part of town.

Kennedy park Lima
So. Many. Cats
Miraflores Lima
Foggy night on the shores outside the famous Cala restaurant, Miraflores
Barranco district Lima
Strolling through Barranco

4. Dona Pochita Anticucheria: You know a food stand is good when all the Trip Advisor reviews are in Spanish! Anticucho’s or beef hearts are a popular Peruvian dish for those wanting an adventurous food experience. I can’t vouch for the taste as a vegetarian but the stall had a long line of locals waiting their turn, and that sure as hell is a good sign.

Dona Pochita Lima
Dona Pochita Anticucheria, approved by Anthony Bourdain himself

5. Museums and food tours: Although Larco museum was on our list, we could not make it there in time. But I have been told by people who did go that it is well worth the two hours or so. The Lima Gourmet Company food tour is also an excellent way to appreciate Lima through it’s food (and Pisco’s of course)! They even do a complimentary hotel pick up and drop off.

Plan or no plan, we hope your Cusco and Lima tales are filled with good food, history, and a dash of adventure!

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