The ancient capital of the Incan Empire, Cusco (or Cuzco in Spanish), is a charming city steeped in history and legends. In Quechua, the official language of the Quechua people, the name is pronounced Qosq’o and translates as “navel” or “belly button” as all roads in the Incan empire once spread outwards to and from Cusco making it the most important city in the kingdom.
Cusco is also one of the most visited cities in Peru. Fortunately it’s an easy place to wander around making it a fun place to explore with kids of all ages; although there is much more for older kids to do than little ones. Don’t forget that you are very high up here; Cusco sits at an altitude of 3,400m (11,152ft) so altitude sickness is a very real possibility. We recommend that your start your Peruvian adventure in the Sacred Valley, which sits much lower at 2,792m (9,160ft), and enjoy all that Cusco has to offer at the end of your trip.
1. Put on Your Walking Shoes
The streets of Cusco were made for walking; this is the kind of place where you really can wander around without a map and still stumble upon amazing Incan ruins. Characterised by narrow cobbled streets, red tiled roofs and incredible views, it’s a wonderful place to get lost. La Plaza de Armas is the main square and historic centre of Cusco, it’s also the city’s tourist hub and a good starting point from which to start your walking tour.
There are a number of ornate cathedrals here including Cusco Cathedral, otherwise known as Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin that was built in the early 1600s. Ask the kids to look out for the painting of The Last Supper inside and see if they can work out what Jesus is having for dinner (clue: it’s cuy one of Peru’s most famous dishes!). One of the most impressive sights are the dramatic Inca walls that dominate the ancient streets; amazingly they were all built without mortar or cement of any kind.
2. Get Your Chocolate Fix
Located two blocks from La Plaza de Armas, the ChocoMuseo offers two-hour chocolate-making workshops for children aged eight-years and older. During these workshops kids can learn just how their favourite sweet snack is made, from coco beans to chocolate bar. Even if you don’t take part in the workshop, however, it’s definitely still worth dropping by for a tour of the small museum that explores the 2,000-year-old history of chocolate.
We especially enjoyed sitting on the balcony of the ChocoMueso’s café drinking our fair-trade hot chocolate and chomping down on chocolate cake. Yum! The museo also organises chocolate farm tours close to Santa María.
3. Unleash Your Inner Artist
The bohemian neighbourhood of San Blas is one of the most charming areas in Cusco and well worth a visit, particularly if travelling with older kids or teens. It’s positioned up a steep hill so take a taxi if you’re still getting used to the altitude (or you’re travelling with younger children). This is the artisan district and the streets are lined with artists’ studios and workshops as well as cool cafés and bars. It’s a great place to wander or pick up some souvenirs, we purchased a characterful ceramic cow from Tater Camilo Vera Vizcarra, an artist who specialises in traditional glazing techniques (and who, I later discovered, recently won a UNESCO Excellence Award). You can find his store on #705-B Calle Suyt’uqhatu in San Blas.
San Blas also boasts some of the most spectacular panoramic views in the city as well as the oldest parish church in the city; El Templo de San Blas. This little white structure might not look like much from the outside, but it’s home to an incredible pulpit carved from a single tree trunk. Legend has it that the woodcarver responsible for the pulpit was rewarded by having his skull placed within the carving (look for it beneath the feet of St. Paul). Finish your day off with pizza at Pachapapa, cooked in a wood fire oven.
Above video: Musicians in San Blas, Cusco. Click on the image to play.
4. Be Amazed by the Incan Sites
The countryside surrounding Cusco is home to some mind-boggling Incan sites including Sacsayhuman, Tambomachy, Pucapucara (or Puka Pukara) and Qengo. We hired a car and guide for a fantastic half-day tour of all four sites.
5. Hug an Alpaca
Without doubt one of the highlights for my son from our trip to Cusco – if not our entire Peruvian holiday – was hugging an alpaca. Plenty of these friendly creatures wander the city streets with their owners, both animal and keeper dressed in traditional Peruvian dress. This is obviously entirely aimed at tourists but it really doesn’t matter, these photos are some of my children’s favourites! You are expected to pay a small amount to have your photo taken with them. The Instagram video below is from Sacsayhuaman, one of the Incan sites just outside the city. Click on the image to play…
6. Drink Chicha
Chicha is a fermented or non-fermented drink typically made from maize (corn). My children loved it, even more so when they discovered it turned their tongues red! Alcoholic varieties include chicha de jora (corn beer) and the non-alcoholic chicha morada, a Peruvian speciality made by boiling corn with pineapple, cinnamon, clove and sugar. You can find chicha on menus in most Peruvian restaurants, our favourite being the aptly named Chicha!
7. Visit a Museum
Cusco is home to a number of good museums, in addition to the ChocoMuseo. Top or our list is the Museo Inka home to a large collection of jewellery, pottery, mummies, textiles and more. My children particularly enjoyed ogling at the massive stairway guarded by sculptures of mythical creatures and watching the women from the Centro del Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco weaving in the courtyard. This was one of the best weaving cooperatives we came across and the kids were fascinated by the weaving work.
The Museo de Machu Picchu came highly recommended to us and although we ran out of time to visit it, I wish that we had gone! On display are some of the artefacts that Hiram Bingham unearthed when he “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911. What is really worth seeing here (so we were told) is the video that explains the findings on each of these pieces. Another museum that came highly recommended is the Museo de Arte PreColombino (MAP), home to a wonderful collection of pre-Columbian art. And, for kids, there are sometimes llamas in the garden!
8. Take a Coffee Break
Given the high altitude it helps to take things slowly and El Belmond Hotel Monasterio is a truly beautiful place to stop and pause for a moment. A former monastery, today El Belmond is a luxury hotel in the heart of Cusco. Come and admire the hotel’s private art collection, order a cup of coffee and then play a game of of Inca chess or Inca cards – both these games kept my kids amused for hours on our travels!
One of the many things we enjoyed during our time in Peru was the food. My son loved the traditional ceviche and both my kids really enjoyed the fish soups – although neither were keen to try Peru’s most famous dish, cuy, guinea pig! If energy is lacking then there’s always the fluorescent-yellow Inka Cola to replenish sugar levels, although I was too scared that my youngest would go haywire so they stuck to the traditional chicha juice instead! In the meantime, I developed quite a liking for Pisco Sours!
10. Go Shopping
Cusco is a great place to buy souvenirs and we were spoiled for choice. Things to look out for include hand-woven textiles, alpaca-wool sweaters, hats, ponchos and other clothing, silver jewellery, woodcarvings and ceramics. The artisan neighbourhood of San Blas is a great place to start as are the streets around Plaza des Armas and Plaza Regocijo. If you are looking to buy textiles then head for the Centro del Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco. The quality of the weaving is extremely good and 70% of the sale price goes directly to the six communities and individual artisans the organisation works with. Expect prices to be a bit higher but this is reflected in the quality and, more of your money goes to the women who made the piece.
My kids came home with a Peruvian doll, a baby alpaca made from alpaca (a present for the latest addition to the globetotting team) and a granite ‘medicine man’ for my six-year-old son who is determined to become a doctor one day! (The woman who sold it to him engraved his name on the back, prefixed with ‘Dr’!) I stuffed my suitcase full of Republica Del Cacao’s Pink Rock Salt chocolate. The salt is from Maras and the chocolate is devilishly good.
11. Taste the Andes!
Since publishing this post, we were contacted by Auke of Faces of Cusco who told us about lots of fun family activities that they organise in Cusco, including these chocolate & ceramic making workshops.
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