Cusco is beautiful. No one who arrives here will be immune to the charms of its colonial architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, and inexpensive way of living.
For many people, however, Cusco is not the end destination itself. They come here for one thing: Machu Picchu. I have friends and friends of friends who said they just stayed here for one day before leaving for Machu Picchu.
I have decided, therefore, to create a guide on what to do in Cusco in one day, for those tourists who don’t have the time to stay but still want to see what this city can offer.
Plaza de Armas — The Heart of Cusco
If there is only one place you can go to in Cusco, it should be to Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square (aerial photo above). Roam around in the colonial arcades surrounding it, now occupied by commercial establishments, or if the sun is out, you can also just sit in the plaza and absorb the views. There are numerous benches in the center; you can even sit by the fountain and listen to the water falling.
The 15th century Cathedral, flanked by two other churches, Jesús María and El Triunfo, dominate the square. Make sure to go inside, the treasures you can see there make the entrance fee more than worth it.
Come back at night; Plaza de Armas all lit up is a treat.
A must-do when you’re in Plaza de Armas in Cusco is to enter its Cathedral. Built in 1654, it stands on the exact location where the Incan temple Kiswarkancha used to stand.
Aside from being a place of worship, however, the Cathedral also houses many colonial art and archaeological artifacts that’s definitely worth checking out. The main altar is completely made of silver, and the Capilla de la Platería (“Silversmith Chapel”) also has a small silver temple that used to be a processional portable platform for the Corpus Christi.
The Cathedral also has furniture, ornate carvings, and over 400 paintings that highlight the best of that period. Take a look, for example, Marcos Zapata’s The Last Supper, which shows a mix of European and Andean culture. The apostles are depicted as dining on cuy, Cusco’s roasted guinea pig.
Quricancha — The Inca’s Temple of the Sun
Qurikancha is a Quechuan word meaning “golden enclosure.” Dedicated to the Sun God, it used to be the most important temple of the Incan Empire, with walls lined in solid gold.
Today, the Santo Domingo Church stands on its ruins and all you can see of Qurikancha (or Coricancha) is the Inca stonework forming the foundation of the church.
Make sure to go inside the museum in the courtyard, you will see a lot of Incan and pre-Incan and colonial artifacts excavated in the Coricancha.
The Stone Fortress of Sacsayhuaman
Sacsayhuaman is one of the four Incan ruins close to Cusco. Situated on a hill overlooking the city, the name means “speckled falcon” or “speckled head.” The primary attraction of this Incan fortress is its gigantic stones that somehow fit together perfectly without the use of mortar. A lot of the stones are even bigger than a car, and the biggest one weighs 200 tons!
If you’re checking out Sacsayhuaman on your own (versus taking a group tour, see below), you can either take a taxi to go there (it’s the nearest one) and the other three Incan ruins, or walk from Plaza de Armas. It’s all uphill and will take you around an hour or so, depending on your fitness level.
Sacsayhuaman was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983.
Puca Pucara, The Red Fortress
Puca Pucara is another Incan ruin close to Cusco. This Quechuan word means “red fort” or “red fortress,” and is characterized by large walls and terraces. Its name was derived from the color of rocks at dusk.
Puca Pucara is located on a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside. Aside from serving as a fortress, though, it was also an administrative center, and a place where travelers and merchants stayed before entering or leaving Cusco, based on the evidence of luxurious baths, rooms, and plazas seen in the area.
Tambomachay, El Baño del Inca
Tambomachay or Tampu Mach’ay means “inn” or “guest house” in Quechua. It is another Inca ruin close to Cusco. Based on its structure–there are three tiers, with large terraces, canals, aqueducts, and waterfalls–it seemed to be more than just another military outpost.
Its Spanish name is actually El Baño del Inca or “the bath of the Inca,” given the number of baths inside it, and the quality of the stonework of the site.
Holy Rituals at the Q’enko
Q’enko, like the other archaeological sites near Cusco, is also located on a hill. In Quechua, the word means “zigzag.” Unlike the other ruins, however, Q’enko (or Q’inqu, Quenco) was a holy place, serving as a site for funerals and other rituals.
There’s an altar for sacrifices, mostly llamas, although human sacrifices were also used occasionally, according to historians. Interestingly enough, Q’enko also has a stone sundial with markings showing the solstices and the equinoxes.
Book a Group Tour
While it’s nice to go around Cusco on your own, it’s highly recommended to book a group tour to see all these, given your limited time in the city. Tours last from half a day to one day, and range in prices from S./20 onwards per person. The price includes transportation and guide, but doesn’t include the entrance fees to the attractions.
To save money on the entrance fees, buy the Boleto Turistico (S./130) which will give you access to most tourist attractions in Cusco and nearby sights, including those in Sacred Valley (e.g., Ollantaytambo, Pisac). It’s valid for 10 days, too.
You can also buy a day pass for S./70 or $26. However, entrance fees for the Cathedral (S./25), the Temple of the Sun (S./10), Machu Picchu, and the salt mines are not included.
If you have more than one day to spend in Cusco, make sure to check out the Best Places to Visit in the Cusco Region.