The Plaza de Armas and Surrounding Attractions in Cusco, Peru

Break_Out_of_Bushwick's picture
11 years
2013-06-02 to 2013-06-23

About an hour flight from Lima, at an elevation of 11,200 feet way up in the Andes Mountains, sits Cusco, Peru. The city, once the capital of the ancient Inca Empire, is a World Heritage Site that retains a mix of Spanish and indigenous Quechua cultures. For my first trip to Peru with my daughter, I decided to make Cusco my homebase for three weeks, using the city as a launching pad from which to visit surrounding areas of interest around the main square of the city. Below I've listed more than a week's worth of highlights, although truly, one of my favorite things to do while in the city was not have any specific destination in mind, but to walk through the streets to find some of the old Inca walls over which the Spanish later built their buildings, as well as to discover new markets and try out my Spanish.

Here are Top 10 attractions in Cusco, Peru:

View over the Plaza de Armas1. Plaza de Armas

The main square of the city, the Plaza de Armas, is a lovely spot with gardens, benches, and a fountain. Nearly every day, my daughter and I sat to practice our Spanish, and were only moderately bothered by locals who stopped to try to peddle their small woven and metal-worked wares. The plaza, the political and spiritual center of Cusco during Inca times, was the site of many rituals and festivals. Today, the plaza shares a similar purpose: we visited during the month of June, known as the Peruvian "month of festivals," and weren't disappointed. We were able to witness many exciting festivals, most of which blended Catholic and indigenous traditions and costumes. For those interested in history, be sure to read up about Tupac Amaru II, an indigenous hero who was gruesomely tortured and killed in the Plaza de Armas.

2. Cathedral of Santo Domingo

Built by the Spanish in the 1500's over the foundations of a destroyed Inca palace, the Cathedral of Santo Domingo is an amazing example of colonial architecture and art, and sits adjacent the Plaza de Armas. When visiting with children, it's interesting to point out various symbols the Incas- who were made slaves to the Spanish and had a big hand in building the cathedral- left behind. Over the main cathedral doors, for example, sits the chiseled head of a jaguar, an animal revered both by ancient Incas and many indigenous cultures today. Even cooler than the jaguar, however, is a painting of the Last Supper by Marcos Zapata, who made sure to include a meal of traditional Peruvian cuy (guinea pig) and, instead of wine made from grapes, painted chicha, a corn wine served all throughout the region.

3. Dine on Lomo Saltado

Vegetarians, be warned: Cusco is a meat-loving city. No meal is more popular with tourists than lomo saltado, a delicious stir-fry of steak, peppers, onions and tomadoes, with thick fried slices of potatoes and rice served on the side. Influenced by Chinese cuisine, the meal can be found in any of the restaurants in the area, including many located right around the Plaza de Armas- nothing is better than getting a window seat, dining on lomo saltado, and looking out over any number of the festivities going on in the main square!


Making chocolate at the Choco Museo

4. Choco Museo

Still hungry after your lomo saltado? Make your way across the plaza, and a few blocks away to the Choco Museo, a museum dedicated to all things chocolate. With a small giftshop for those only wanting to run in to apease their sweet-tooth, the museum boasts exhibits about the history of chocolate. My daughter and I took a two-hour chocolate-making class, and learned all about the art of making chocolate, from the collection of the cacao fruit (yes, chocolate comes from a fruit!), to its roasting, processing and... eating! We made a couple types of hot chocolate: the first, a Pre-Columbian brew, contained a little chili powder and was delicious and spicy, while the second, influenced by the Spanish and their cows, incorporated milk and sugar. Both were delicious. The best part? We were able to take bundles of our homemade chocolate with us after the class!

5. Museo de la Coca

One of the first things my daughter and I learned in Peru was that coca was our friend. Illegal in the United States and indeed, throughout much of the Western world because an alkeloid from the plant can be processed into the drug, cocaine, the unprocessed coca leaves serve a very different purpose: they greatly alleviate altitude sickness, are full of vitamins, and are so healthy, it's a pity the plant is outlawed. Cusco, at 11,200 feet above sea level, is high... Very high (sorry, bad joke!). Unfortunately, it doesn't matter your age, gender, or how physically fit you are- altitude sickness can strike anyone. Sadly, it struck me for four long days. Luckily, our hosts graciously served us coca tea, which, the story goes, helps oxygenate the body and, being a gentle stimulant (more gentle than coffee or tea!), takes the edge off hunger and alleviates headaches. Around the corner from our host's apartment sat the Museo de la Coca, an amazing little museum that goes over the history of the coca plant as well as the related drug, cocaine. Filled with deities such as the earth goddess, Pachamama, and displays showing how indigenous Andean people worship the plant, there's even a room devoted to showing the dangers of drugs. While the museum was a perfect place to visit for my almost-twelve-year-old daughter, I might exercise judgement when considering bringing younger children, as the anti-cocaine room displays a life-sized model of a man who has died of an overdose. That said, to learn about Andean culture and a bit about the ethnobotany of the area, this museum is a good stop on your Cusco tour.

Twelve-Sided Stone 6. San Blas neighborhood and the Twelve-Angeled Stone

The San Blas neighborhood of Cusco, renowned for it's excellent shops selling alpaca clothing and art galleries displaying both contemporary and "old" (up to you whether you want to believe it's all authentic!) art, also boasts being the home to the Twelve-Angled Stone. The Inca were extraordinary masons. The walls they built were without mortar, and are purported to be so snugly put together that the blade of a knife can't even fit between the stones! While many Spanish constructions have been destroyed by either fire or earthquakes, the Inca constructed their walls and buildings to withstand just about anything. Our Spanish teacher, who works at the Mundo Antiguo Spanish school, pointed out to us the famous Twelve-Pointed Stone, which, using only stone, bronze and copper tools, was carved to have- you guessed it- twelve sides! The sheer size of the stone, coupled with the understanding that the Inca didn't have modern tools to work with, makes the stone even more impressive.

7. Museo de Plantas

The Museo de la Coca was just the tip of the ethnobotanical iceberg... The Museo de Plantas discusses not only the history of the coca plant, but of countless other plants medicinal plants that grow in Peru. Visited by scientists and tourists alike, my daughter and I visited the museum on a rainy day, and ended up staying for hours. Because the museum requires visitors to do some heavy reading, if you have kids, I'd make sure they were strong readers before bringing them to this museum. My daughter and I were enthralled by the ancient shamanistic traditions of the country, and found it worth our while to learn about many of the medicinal plants in the region (which we were able to later spot growing in the wild!).

8. Museo de Arte Precolombino

Originally the site of an Inca ceremonial courthouse, the museum is housed in the residence of a Spanish conquisdidor. In the foyer of the building- much to my daughter's delight- stood a group of Peruvian musicians playing tunes while in ancient Inca regalia. Inside, we paid a few soles each (worth about a third of a dollar) and entered the museum. Works of art are thoughtfully displayed in ten galleries dedicated to different periods of time and art movements: Formative, Nasca, Moche, Huari, Chimu, Inca, and a range of materials (gold, wood, etc.). Like many of the big museums in Peru, real mummies are displayed. While neither my daughter nor I found them to be scary, parents should use their judgement when accompanying their young children.

Local children dressed in costume in the Plaza de Armas9. Admire the traditional costumes of the locals

Peru is a relatively poor country. As such, many of its marginalized, indigenous people rely heavily on tourists to provide a portion of their income. While it's fine- indeed, accepted- to barter, giving a sole (about 35 cents) to a Quechua woman in costume posing with her llama or baby sheep doesn't hurt your pocket, but sure helps her buy household goods. While it can feel tiresome to continually be bombarded by locals trying to sell you something, if you're not interested in what they're offering, a simply, "no, gracias," will suffice. Note: often you will get the best bargains for woolen wares and trinkets from street vendors rather than in stores.

10. Spanish Classes and a Homestay through Mundo Antiguo Spanish School

As my daughter and I planned to be in Cusco for three weeks, and as we went to Peru knowing virtually no Spanish, we decided to take classes for two hours a day at the Mundo Antiguo Spanish School. Indeed, the price was so reasonable, and the owners made us feel so comfortable via email before arriving in Peru, that we ended up booking a homestay for the entire duration of our trip! As Spanish is a second language for many people living in the mountains, it's the perfect place to learn the language: there's less slang, I found, than in other countries, and the accent was incredibly easy to understand. The materials the school had created were fantastic, as was our teacher, and we left not only having learned a lot, but we went home wanting to resume our studies! 

View over the Plaza de Armas
Catholic festival in Cusco
Display at the Museo de la Coca to the goddess, Pachamama
Twelve-Sided Stone
Local children dressed in costume in the Plaza de Armas
Mundo Antiguo Spanish School
View of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo from the Plaza de Armas
Statue of Pachacuti in the center of the Plaza de Armas
Lomo Saltado
Making chocolate at the Choco Museo
Museo de Plantas
Making a couple of new friends
Article Type: 
In-Person Impressions


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