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Exploring Cusco, Peru: A Solo Female Traveller's Guide

Cusco Peru where history whispers through cobblestone streets and culture dances in the vibrant plazas. As a solo female traveller, setting foot in this ancient city feels like stepping into a storybook woven with tales of empires and traditions. There's a magnetic pull to the heart of Cusco—the historic capital of the Inca Empire—that beckons explorers like me to uncover its rich tapestry of history, culture, and unmatched beauty. Come meander with me as I unravel the layers of this captivating city, sharing insights, must-see spots, and tips from my own experiences.


Cusco, a city cradled in the Peruvian Andes, was once the capital of the Inca Empire. Known as Tawantinsuyu, this city echoed the power and splendour of a civilization that predated the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.


Cusco whispers secrets of its majestic past through the remains of impressive stone walls, mysterious ruins, enigmatic structures and the lingering influence of the Inca seen in the traditions, festivals, and daily lives of the people. Cusco became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 recognizing the city's preservation and unique blend of Inca and Spanish colonial architecture.

A large Cathedral flanked by lower buildings behind a graased centraal plaza with walkways and benches. Many people are walking
Plaza de Armas, Cusco
 

 

A Brief History

The story of Cusco weaves a tale of two worlds colliding—the grandeur of the Inca civilization meeting the tumultuous era of Spanish conquest. Cusco wasn’t just a city; it was the nucleus of an empire that spanned a vast territory, stretching across modern-day Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and parts of Colombia and Chile.

Before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, Cusco stood as the epicentre of the Inca Empire, a bustling metropolis marked by awe-inspiring architecture, advanced agricultural terraces, and a network of roads connecting distant corners of the empire. The city, adorned with gold and precious stones, exuded an air of sophistication and power that reverberated throughout the Andes and announced the power of the Inca.

Golden statue of an Inca warrior in front of a Cathedral dome

However, the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro, marked a pivotal moment in Cusco's history. The city fell to Spanish hands in 1533, leading to a transformation that shaped all South American history. The conquistadors callously dismantled Inca structures and used the stones to erect their colonial edifices. The violent clash of cultures left an indelible mark, and today, Inca walls intertwine with Spanish architecture.


The People of Cusco, Peru

Beyond its historical significance, Cusco pulsates with a cultural vibrancy, where indigenous Quechua traditions blend with Spanish influences. The local population embodies a fusion of ancient Inca heritage and Spanish lineage, resulting in a culture that thrives on embracing and preserving its roots. Walking through the streets, one can feel the beat of Cusco's cultural heart, visible in the spirited festivals, the traditional clothing worn by locals, and the Quechua language still spoken by many.

A Quechuan woman dressed in traditional clothes posing with her llama in front of a colonial building.

Festivals are the soul of Cusco, breathing life and energy into the city throughout the year. Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun, stands out as one of the most significant celebrations, harkening back to Inca traditions where homage is paid to the sun god. July is the month of Virgen del Carmen Festivals throughout the Cusco region. The streets transform into a whirlwind of colourful processions, music, and dance, offering a glimpse into the city's deep-rooted traditions.

a man marching in a parade dressed in traditional clothings with a human mask.

Local customs echo the city's rich past, from the intricate textile weaving techniques passed down through generations to the markets brimming with handmade crafts and local produce. The warmth and hospitality of the locals, their pride in sharing their cultural heritage, and their openness to welcome travellers with open arms are all part of the unique charm that makes Cusco more than just a historical site—it's a living, breathing cultural treasure trove. Locals who work in the tourism business and most younger people will generally speak adequate English but otherwise, locals speak Quechuan or Spanish. I recommend learning some simple Spanish and have access to a translation app.


Things to See and Do in Cusco

The Historical Center

Plaza de Armas

The beating heart of Cusco, the Plaza de Armas, is a bustling space framed by architectural splendour and historical significance. This bustling square, surrounded by impressive colonial buildings and adorned with gardens and fountains pulsates with life and energy. Visitors can expect to be captivated by the grandeur of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, a stunning architectural masterpiece combining both Inca and Spanish influences. The cathedral's intricate façade and richly decorated interiors house priceless works of art.

Town square with large Cathedral in background

The Plaza de Armas isn't merely a picturesque square; it's a hub of activity. As the sun sets, the plaza transforms into a lively social center, with locals and travellers mingling, street vendors offering local crafts and delicacies, and a constant buzz of excitement in the air. Here, one can savour the atmosphere, sit on the benches and people-watch, or simply soak in the historical ambiance.


Cathedral of Santa Domingo

The Cathedral of Santo Domingo, a majestic edifice adorning the Plaza de Armas, symbolizes the blend of Inca and Spanish influences in architecture and history. Visitors stepping into its hallowed halls will find themselves amidst a treasury of art, from exquisite paintings by local artists to intricate woodwork and ornate altars adorned with gold leaf.

portion of a painting of the Last Supper with Jesus and the apostles. The main platter shows guinea pig as the main course.
Peruvian style Last Supper with guinea pig for the meal

This cathedral isn’t just a site for architectural marvel; it's a window into Cusco's layered past. As travellers explore its chapels and sacristy, they'll encounter a convergence of cultures and histories. The Cathedral of Santo Domingo holds within its walls the stories of conquest, conversion, and preservation. When looking at the stunning paintings inside, take note of the uniquely Peruvian vignettes that were inserted into traditional Catholic religious scenes. The guide informed me that this was the local artists' way of protesting when they were forced by the Spanish to build and decorate the Church.


The 12-Angle Stone

Located in Hatun Rumiyoc Street, the 12-Angle Stone is an unassuming yet extraordinary stone that exemplifies the architectural brilliance of the Inca civilization. The stone, part of an Inca palace wall, draws visitors who are awestruck by its perfectly carved edges and the precision with which it fits into the surrounding stones. The magic of this stone isn’t just in its unique shape but in the mystery surrounding the techniques used by the Incas to carve and fit these stones without the use of mortar, creating a seamless, intricate wall that has endured for centuries.

a close up of a stone within a wall. It is basically rectangular in shape but with notches cut out to fit surrounding stones.
12 Angle Stone

The narrow street where the stone is located was always hugely crowded, except the one time I arrived very early in the morning. It was pretty easy to locate due to a costumed Inca warrior standing at the end of the street who will pose with tourists for a fee.

An Inca wall oof rectangular shaped rocks tightly fitted to eaach other

Explore Inca Sites in the Sacred Valley

For travellers in Cusco, delving deeper into the Inca heritage means venturing beyond the city's borders to explore the awe-inspiring sites nestled in the Sacred Valley. These day trips are a pilgrimage to the heart of the Inca civilization, revealing the splendour of ancient ruins and the breathtaking landscapes that cradle them. From Pisac's terraced ruins to the mysterious agricultural terraces of Moray, each site holds a piece of the Inca legacy, waiting to be uncovered.

A view of ruins at Machu Picchu

In my previous post "Inca Sites in Peru's Sacred Valley," I detailed the beauty and significance of these remarkable Inca sites. This guide offers insights into the historical importance and the magic of each location, providing a roadmap for travellers eager to explore the Sacred Valley's treasures.


Museums and Art


Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun) and Convento

Cusco holds a treasure trove of historical and cultural gems, and among these is the Golden Temple of the Sun, or Qorikancha (with many different English spellings) and the Convent of Santo Domingo that stands upon it. Qorikancha was once the most important temple in the Inca Empire, dedicated to the Sun God, Inti. The temple was adorned with walls and altars covered in sheets of gold, a reflection of the Inca’s reverence for the sun. The Spanish, upon conquering Cusco, constructed the Convent of Santo Domingo on the ruins of the temple, merging Inca stonework with Spanish colonial architecture.


Visitors exploring Qorikancha and the Convent of Santo Domingo will encounter a captivating blend of Inca and Spanish influences, with remnants of the original temple juxtaposed against the convent's colonial architecture. The site houses various chambers and courtyards, each telling a story of spiritual significance and architectural marvel. From the remarkable precision of Inca stonework to the exquisite Baroque art found within the convent, it's a convergence of the two conflicted cultures.


I recommend taking a tour which will point out little treasures along the way not mentioned in English signage (which is limited). Don't forget to check out the beautiful gardens behind the Convent.


Traditional Textile Center of Cusco

The Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco (CTTC) is where visitors are greeted by a treasure trove of vibrant textiles, each piece demonstrating the skill, heritage, and stories of the weavers. The center serves as a preservation hub for these traditional techniques, offering a glimpse into the intricate processes and cultural significance behind each textile.

A female weaver in traditional garb sitting behind her loom holding up her tools.

During my visit, I was fortunate to witness a woman in traditional Quechua garb, her nimble fingers dancing across the loom as she skillfully wove vibrant threads into a stunning textile. The rhythmic clack of the loom served as a backdrop to her quiet concentration, a mesmerizing sight that illustrated the intricate artistry behind these textiles. We were able to communicate mainly through gesture and mime and as she worked, she graciously shared insights into the patterns, symbols, and techniques passed down through generations, each piece speaking volumes about the stories and traditions of her community.


Local Life

The population of the city of Cusco is approximately 430,000 people. The metropolitan area, which includes the surrounding urban and suburban areas, has a population of around 1.2 million. Roughly 70-80% of the population in the Cusco region identifies as Quechua or of indigenous heritage. The remaining percentage consists of individuals of mixed heritage, Mestizos (people of mixed indigenous and European descent), and those of predominantly European ancestry.

Street scene showing a street vendor and customers with an arched stone gate behind.

San Pedro Market

San Pedro Market is a bustling hub in Cusco, isn't just a place to shop; it's an immersion into local life. Its history dates back centuries to the Inca Empire. Today, it's a thriving marketplace that draws locals and visitors alike, offering a sensory explosion that reflects Cusco's cultural richness.


Upon entering, the air is infused with the aromas of freshly cooked food and the vibrant colours of handcrafted textiles and produce. Stalls brim with an array of goods—piles of vividly coloured alpaca wool garments, intricately woven textiles, and shelves laden with aromatic herbs and spices. Visitors can explore stalls offering an array of traditional Peruvian foods like quinoa, potatoes, and local delicacies such as ceviche or empanadas. The market also hosts stalls selling handmade pottery, jewelry, and souvenirs, providing a glimpse into the artisanal skills and craftsmanship of the locals. The energy is infectious, with vendors warmly engaging visitors, making the market not just a place to shop but an interactive cultural experience.

San Blas

San Blas, a charming and bohemian neighbourhood nestled atop a series of cobblestone streets and staircases, offers a distinctive vibe that beckons visitors to ascend and explore. Beyond Cusco's historic center, the ascent to San Blas leads travellers to a haven of artistry, culture, and panoramic views. The neighbourhood is a kaleidoscope of art galleries, artisan workshops, and quaint cafes, all nestled within narrow, winding streets adorned with blooming bougainvillea. Artists and craftsmen call this neighbourhood home, filling its streets with their works and inviting passersby to witness their craft.

Culinary Delights

Peruvian cuisine is a culinary fiesta, with a tasty fusion of flavours and traditions. From the coastal ceviches to the highland delicacies, Peruvian food is a gastronomic journey that mirrors the country's diverse landscapes and cultural influences. The irresistible combination of indigenous Inca ingredients with Spanish, African, Asian, and other global culinary influences creates a symphony of tastes that encapsulates the essence of Peru's rich history and geographical diversity

A plate of ceviche and a Pisco drink

Peruvian Specialties and Restaurant Recommendations

Peruvian cuisine, a culinary masterpiece, boasts of a vibrant fusion of flavours and tasty dishes. Traditional specialties like ceviche, the emblematic dish of fresh fish or seafood marinated in citrus juices and spiced with aji peppers, capture the essence of the country's coastal flavours. Lomo saltado, a tantalizing stir-fry of beef, onions, and tomatoes, seamlessly melds Peruvian and Chinese influences. And then there's the earthy delight of causa, a layered dish of seasoned mashed potatoes, avocado, and various fillings, presenting a textural and flavorful explosion in every bite.

A plate with rice and a stirfry dish inccluding beef, red peppers, french fries, and onion.
Lomo saltado

Cuy is guinea pig, a staple protein in Peru. It will appear on menus but you are most likely to encounter cuy split and grilled by street vendors. As I had guinea pigs as pets growing up, I wasn't interested but when I asked I was told it tasted like gamey chicken.


There are many street food stalls and carts serving fresh fruit, juices, grilled meats and vegetables, and bread. Street vendors sell hard-boiled chicken and quail eggs from carts for those wanting a quick snack. Eggs are used in many drinks and dishes. I am highly allergic to eggs but had no problems getting the needed changes to dishes in Cusco.

A decorative Pisco barrel

Pisco, the national spirit, takes center stage in cocktails like the iconic Pisco Sour, a refreshing blend of pisco, lime juice, egg whites, and bitters, serving as the perfect accompaniment to a memorable dining experience.


Some Recommendations

In Cusco, an array of dining options cater to every palate. For a Peruvian fine-dining experience, Calle del Medio is consistently rated amongst the best in Cusco. I did not visit myself but this was the restaurant that fellow travellers who declared themselves ass "foodies" raved about.


A moderate option with fantastic food and a cozy atmosphere is Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse. Their emphasis on quality ingredients (South American beef is outstanding) and inventive preparations made for a delightful meal. My perfectly prepared steak melted like butter in my mouth.


For a more modest and authentic taste of Peruvian cuisine, Pachapapa offers a traditional experience in the heart of Cusco. Their focus on local dishes and warm atmosphere make it a memorable choice. I especially liked their Lomo Saltado.


If you're in the mood, located overlooking Plaza de Armas, is Paddy's Irish Pub which boasts it is the "highest 100% Irish-owned pub on the Planet". Paddy's offers everything you would expect from an Irish pub but also some local specialties. Check out their website here.

A plate of guacamole and chips on a table.
Authentic Irish guacamole and chips

Hands down, the best meal I had in Cusco was at the vegan restaurant, Green Point. I had received multiple recommendations for this restaurant even before I left home. I am not vegan but I had heard such good things that I decided to check it out. The menu has a good variety of items and everything I ate was fresh, vibrant, and beautifully presented.

Dinner table with plate of cooked vegetables and noodles plus assorted glasses and cups

Chocolate Museum

Peru's chocolate is a delectable treasure, created from mountain-grown cacao. The ChocoMuseo in Cusco is a paradise for chocolate lovers. Visitors can expect a fascinating journey from bean to bar, and will learn about the history, cultivation, and production of this beloved treat.


At the ChocoMuseo, enthusiasts can engage in workshops where they learn about the entire chocolate-making process, from roasting and grinding cacao beans to moulding and tasting the final product. The museum showcases the significance of cacao in Peruvian culture and its global impact, offering a hands-on experience that educates and tantalizes the senses. The interactive exhibits and guided tours provide a delightful insight into the world of chocolate.

Sign advertising the Choco Museo

The ChocoMuseo's official website offers information on workshops and tours.


Navigating Cusco, Peru as a Solo Female Traveller

While Cusco is generally safe, like any tourist destination, it's wise to be mindful of your surroundings and take precautions. I felt very safe and encountered no safety concerns. Simple strategies like staying in well-lit areas at night and avoiding desolate alleys, especially after dark, can contribute to a sense of security.


Engaging in conversation and building connections with locals is one of the joys of travel, but it's wise to maintain a balance and exercise caution when doing so. Trust your instincts and be wary of unsolicited offers or overly persistent individuals. Keeping a close eye on your belongings, particularly in crowded places like markets or tourist spots, should be part of your regular routine.


Choosing reputable accommodations in safe neighbourhoods and relying on trusted transportation options, like tours, registered taxis or rideshare services, adds an extra layer of security. Overall, maintaining awareness and preparedness without letting it overshadow the joy of exploration is the key to a fulfilling and safe solo adventure in Cusco.

Practical Tips

Adjusting to the Altitude

Cusco is about 3400m above sea level. People begin to feel the effects of altitude sickness (called siroche in Peru beginning at about 24o0m. There is no way to know if you will be susceptible as altitude sickness is fickle. Fitness is not a protection. A previous episode of altitude sickness does not mean you will react the same another time. Having said that, there are ways to protect and treat mild altitude sickness so you can return to your usual self. Check out my previous post How to Prevent Altitude Sickness for some tips.

A graphic of a woman hiker bent over her poles with mountains in the background

Plan on taking it easy the first couple of days. Don't plan anything strenuous, avoid cigarettes and alcohol, and drink lots of water and coca tea. If your schedule allows, make the ascent slowly.


When to Visit

My Peruvian adventure covered the months of July and August. The days were short and when the sun wasn't shining, it was cold. By mid-morning, the sun would warm up the air and would become quite toasty in the afternoons. Plan to dress in layers.


The air is generally dry, and frost is rare even during the coldest months. Northern hemisphere dwellers are reminded that June and July are the coldest months. The rainy season is from November to February.


Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turistico)

Many sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley use the tourist ticket. There are several different ticket combinations available so knowing what you plan to see is essential in determining which ticket you'll want. Check it out on the official website.


Accommodations

Cusco has the full range of hotels, hostels, and resorts that you would expect in a popular tourist destination. Most are clustered in the area and neighbourhoods surrounding Plaza de Armas. Many smaller 3-star hotels are located a little further out from the center but still within easy walking distance. You'll find lots of options on your favourite booking site. Always read the reviews carefully, giving greater importance to the most recent.


Getting Around Cusco

Getting around Cusco is an adventure in itself, with the city's walkability making it a joy for explorers. Most attractions are a mere 15 to 20 minutes' walk from the city center. While taxis are readily available and useful for longer journeys or late-night travel, the incessant tooting of their horns might become a bit wearing. Although Cusco typically doesn't have the same safety concerns with taxis as some other South American cities, using Uber during late hours or for extra peace of mind is a recommended option. The app's arrival time might sometimes be a bit longer, but it's a handy choice, especially after tiring day trips.


For those opting for taxis, the cost typically ranges between 5 to 8 soles for a trip within or across Cusco. Negotiating the price in advance is common practice, as taxi meters are rarely used in the city. Uber estimates can serve as a helpful guide for agreeing on fares. Additionally, after 5 p.m., numerous minivans and buses crowd the streets, offering rides all around the city for just 1 sol.

A white 16 seat van

Collectivos, the minivans connecting Cusco to neighbouring towns and villages, operate from various spots around the city. These are essential for day trips, providing an inexpensive and efficient mode of transportation to explore the Cusco region.


Final Thoughts

Cusco is a city that not only echoes the tales of ancient civilizations but also breathes life into the vibrant culture of present-day Peru. Its streets, steeped in history and tradition, welcome travellers with open arms. From the enigmatic ruins to the brightly coloured clothing of the locals, every step in Cusco unveils yet more to explore. As you make your way around this city, you'll savour the flavours of Peruvian cuisine, immerse yourself in the patterns and colours of local crafts, and thrill your sweet tooth.


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11 Comments


What a magical city! I didn't realize it had so much. The chocolate museum sounds right up my alley though! I love learning about ancient cultures and often seeing their influences even in today's society. Great tips for altitude sickness that is one of my concerns.

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There's a chocolate museum? Sold! Please let there be tastings. I'll take that over guinea pig any day. I was excited to read about the vegan restaurant, and your review of it. I'm vegetarian so this is great to know. It's nice to see that Cusco doesn't start and end only with the colonial impact which is evident in some of the grander buildings, I really like that they value the traditions and local customs there. That weaving was beautiful. I'm still a little gun shy around high altitudes but Cusco is a place I'd be interested in testing it out again, especially for all those epic Incan

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Guest
Dec 31, 2023

Visiting Peru is very high on my list, and I'm glad to hear that even though it is touristy as hell it has retained some local and authentic charm in places. One of the things I'd love to do is to go alpaca clothes shopping, so I was intrigued by any local weavers and clothes-makers you've encountered on your stay. I'm concerned about altitude sickness and will now follow up with your post on how to prevent it.


Carolin | <a href="https://solotravelstory.com/">Solo Travel Story</a>

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Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Dec 31, 2023
Replying to

I over-indulged in alpaca wool sweaters and yarn! I am a knitter and made myself, friends, and family sweaters, socks, gloves, scarves and toques (what we Canadians call those woollen hats) The weavers were fascinating to watch and loved showing off their techniques. Altitude sickness is very real and can really mess up your trip. For those who don't have the luxury of slow travel into the Andes, there are prescription medications that can help. The Coca tea can ease the symptoms, too. A doctor's visit before travelling to Peru would be a good plan.

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Guest
Dec 28, 2023

What a lovely post on Cusco and anyone who plans to travel to this beautiful part of the Andean lanscape might find this post extremely enriching - without the altitude sickness of course. I always wanted to visit Cusco and experience the pull of its cosmopolitanism and the old charm. Plus I have heard of its wonderful cuisine and where I can dress up in a finest alpaca sweater. Can't wait to visit #flyingbaguette


Jan - https://flyingbaguette.com/

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Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Dec 31, 2023
Replying to

oooooo, the sweaters! I bought several and stuffed my suitcase with alpaca wool to bring home for my knitting projects. There are few things as wonderful as the feel of the wool against the skin. It is a beautiful city with a fascinating blend of indigeneous and colonial history. I hadn't realized it was known for great cuisine until I arrived... but quickly discovered my love for Peruvian food.

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Guest
Dec 22, 2023

I'm very curious to visit Peru and I'm sure its capital is just as captivating for intrepid explorers :)

In addition to all the well-organized and explicit information, the article contains practical and useful information for those visiting the city on their own. It's an incentive to visit Cusco, that's for sure.

I speak for myself, I'm even more eager to visit this spectacular South American capital.

Angela | Blonde Around The World Travel -

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Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Dec 31, 2023
Replying to

I love Peru and found Cusco fascinating. Most importantly for a solo female traveller, I felt very safe as I meandered around.

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