The Qorikancha The Inka Musum The Plaza De Armas cathedrals The Saqsaywaman ruins
Cusco is a very walk-able city making the museums and nearby ruins easy to see on your own without a tour.
The Inka Museum
We hit the Inka Museum on an easy afternoon. I’d read it was a little let downish but if you appreciate history and pottery, I think you will enjoy it. We breezed through most of it- reading what captions they did have in English. I loved learning about the different regions the Inkas lived in, the types of food they ate in each location, and the interesting pottery they made.
The best part however was definitely the mummies. After visiting the Sacred Valley the day before and seeing some of the alcoves mummies were worshiped in, and learning about how cared for the mummies were, it was fascinating to actually see some!
*Like the cathedrals, the museum was a no photo zone so all I got was the one photo at the entrance! At only $3 it’s a quick (at your pace) interesting stop.
The museum is an easy walk from the Plaza de Armas. (no taxi needed)
Inca Museum General Information:
Cost: 10s ($3)
The Koricancha as seen from the solar garden (by the street)
After the Inka Museum, we headed to the Temple of the Sun- the Koricancha – which was my favorite building in Cusco. It’s a nice walk from the Plaza de Armas or Inca Museum so again no taxi needed. The cathedral next to it is free to visit, but as the Koricancha is a museum, it cost $3 to visit. Luckily most of this building was photographable because it was SO cool.
About the Qorikancha
Originally, this building was dedicated to the highest of Inca dieties: the Inti or Sun and was built with the highest level of stone masonry the Incas used- interlocking boulders free of any imperfections and fitted together with no mortar. They also built the layout in a way to resemble what they were worshiping- with the temple having sunrays that moved out from a central point. The temple housed mummies and so much gold that the name of the building still reflects it, Qori = worked gold and kancha = enclosed or building. While none of the gold remains and barely any of the walls, the foundations still stand the test of time.
The Spanish built the Convent of Santo Domingo directly on top of it encompassing the walls of the temple and building a cathedral adjacent to it. It was pretty insane to walk into what looks like a convent on the outside and see the inner courtyard to match, then look to the side and see Inca walls and ceremonial rooms. You can walk around the rooms and go out on the stone balconies to look down at the Solar garden. Some of the convent rooms house more artifacts and pottery, and some of the stone walls still show the etched designs from the Inca times.
An example of the “lego” stone pieces that were used for building the Temple of the Sun.
Another view of all inner courtyard for this massive convent
The Temple of the sun on the inside of the convent
Looking out one of the balconies at the solar garden
The inner courtyard from the 2nd floor
Continuing upstairs is really cool as this is one of the few cathedrals from where you can gain access to the choir balcony (though again no photos are allowed as it is part of the cathedral) Once I explored the convent and ruins, I visited the cathedral and then met up with my friends outside so we could walk back.
Awesome views of the Cusco hillside from the 2nd floor of the Convent
Qorikancha General Information:
Monday-Saturday 8:30AM – 5:30 PM
Sunday: 12:00 PM-5:00 PM
Adult Price: 15s ($4.5)
Child Price: 5s ($1.50)
Church of Santo Domingo Hours
Monday- Saturday: 7AM-7:30 PM
Sunday: 7AM-11AM and 6PM to 8:30PM
Mass: 7AM, 6:30PM, 7:30PM (Sunday only) no tourists allowed at these times
A little bit of a walk back to the Plaza but a cool one nonetheless.
More beautiful lighting on the plaza at sunset from our terrace in the airbnb.
Plaza De Armas
Like most cities constructed by the Spanish conquistadors, Cusco has a plaza de armas. The design is in military style where there is a square often surrounded by important buildings like churches or governmental works. The name is derived from the fact that this square would be a refuge where arms would be supplied to defenders in case of an attack.
In Cusco, the Plaza de Armas has 2 massive cathedrals adjacent to it- both are very cool to check it. The cathedral pictured above- Iglesia De La Compañia De Jesús is free and easy to visit. Just be sure not to take photos inside or interrupt during a mass.
The second church is the Cathedral of Cusco. It costs 10s/$3 to enter but has really stunning architecture and artwork within. (Specifically a painting of the last supper in which Cuy is the main event) The history of this cathedral is what really sets it apart. It shows a prime example of the Spanish dominating the Inkan culture by being built on the spot of the old ruler’s palace and being constructed of stones stolen from the Sascayhuaman temple.
Sacsayhuamán is a massive Incan complex high above Cusco. It’s main plaza was capable of holding 1000s of people and was the length of at least 3 football fields. While the structure was not intentially built as a fortress- it’s elevated ground, immense walls, and overall size made it essential to the defense and control of Cusco. Once the Spaniards had gained control of the temple, they began tearing it down to use the stones for their buildings in the city. While we unfortunately didn’t get to explore it due to time- we drove by it on various tours and I was definitely impressed with its size.
Sacsayhuamán Practical Information:
How to get there: You can follow a walking trail from the Plaza de Armas uphill for 45 minutes. This will take you through the beautiful San Blas neighborhood and is not a bad option. You could arrange a city tour where they provide the transportation. Or you can hire a taxi for the 10 minute drive there (this would cost ~$10)
Hours: Open 6AM-7PM
Cost: Included in the Tourist ticket 70-130 soles.
* Sacsayhuamán does not have its own private ticket. You must purchase a Cusco Tourist ticket which ranges from 70-130s ($21-$40) and includes entrance to multiple other archaeological sites and museums.
There you have it. The best sites to see within walking distance of Cusco city center without a tour. See also my post for my complete guide to Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Pin me:
I literally can’t read Cusco without singing it in my head exactly as it is sung in the Emperor’s New Groove. ( In fact I quoted/ sung a lot of parts from that movie throughout this trip) Cusco is hands down and incredibly beautiful, historic city. This city has ANGLES. Everywhere you turn there are either idyllic cobblestone alleyways, ancient palace ruins, cathedrals, and rolling hills that in the words of Pacha, “the hills just sing.”
Top things to do around Cusco
1. Check out my city guide here for all the walk-able, no tour needed sites.
2. Take a horseback riding tour. I’ve done several riding tours in 4 different countries now and nothing holds a candle to this tour.
3. Branch out to see the Sacred Valley of the Incas. There are so many archeological sites around, if you’re on a time crunch, best book a tour to see them all.
4. Visit the salt mines.
5. Hike to the Rainbow Mountain
Where to stay in Cusco
My top pick: Airbnb apartment $33/night
This is where I stayed with 3 friends for 3 nights in Cusco. It had a kitchen, living room/dining area, 2 bedrooms, private bathroom, washing machine and drying area, and best of all- views of the Plaza de Armas from the covered terrace. It’s also a super easy walk to all the historical sites in the city, great restaurants, and perfect for walking around at night in a safe area.
Rooftop view from our airbnb
Other great options include:
*Keep in mind that while some of these places have incredible views- it also means you’ll have to hike up them hills at the end of the day sight seeing.
Another rooftop view from our airbnb terrace
Plaza de Armas- a 5 minute walk from our airbnb
Where to eat in Cusco
Ceviche- located right on the Plaza de Armas. Excellent seafood, excellent pasta (if you aren’t into seafood), best dining service we had, and a really clean restaurant with reasonable prices.
Pachapapa- located a 5-10 min walk from the Plaza de Armas, this restaurant was recommended to us by our trekking guide. It had very good food and a very romantic atmosphere. You might want to make a reservation here if you want to sit out under the heaters and twinkle lights on the patio. Otherwise inside is very nice too.
Kusikuy Resaurante- Another easy 5 minute walk (and 1 minute walk from that airbnb) this restaurant had amazing fruit juices and the cheapest price for Cuy that we saw and was fairly good. So if you are wanting to try Cuy on your trip- this would be the recommended place.
A Note on Cuy
After learning about the traditions of eating guinea pigs, something they have done in the Andes for over 5,000 years, I wasn’t as shocked as I thought I would be. I was glad I didn’t order it- I just sampled some, but understanding that it is something they have eaten for so long, eat at celebrations like Christmas and the like, made it easier for me to compartmentalize and not condone a culture that is not my own. Yes I’ve had guinea pigs as pets, and NO if I’d held one earlier in the day, I’d likely not have been able to eat one. BUT that being said- if you can try it, I recommend you do. It was quite the cultural experience.
** Also it’s so ingrained in the culture, the cathedrals in Peru literally placed Cuy as the main dish in the Last Supper paintings. Not kidding –
Other popular foods at restaurants- grilled alpaca and creamed quinoa
You’ll have no trouble working off those meals in hilly Cusco and at least in the historical center- it was very safe to walk around in the evening.
A Note on Altitude Sickness
Everyone reacts to high altitude differently- you can be in seriously amazing shape and suffer from it- or (such as myself) in decent hiking shape and still experience it. From experience I know that I can breathe fine at 11,000+ feet and don’t really feel nausea, but can experience headaches…
and headaches it was. Cusco sits right around 11,000 feet and can be challenging to fly into because of the extreme change from lower altitude to high. I did try to drink water (which I’m normally terrible at when travelling) and also tried the tea but neither of those things really helped with my headaches. Sadly advil/ ibuprofen only dulled the ache without ever really getting rid of it.
With all that being said- unless you are taking Diamox (high altitude sickness medicine) you really SHOULD plan a few days to chill/ explore Cusco BEFORE your treks – JUST IN CASE to acclimate. It definitely would’ve sucked having to hike with my head feeling ready to explode- especially considering our first camp on our trek was around 12000 feet. The other unexpected part of altitude sickness was inability to sleep. So moral of the story: plan a couple days pre-trek or take Diamox if you don’t have enough a long enough trip to acclimate.
3 days in Cusco costs
Taxi from Airport to Airbnb $22 split 4 ways- $5.50 pp
OK Time for the ULTIMATE CONNECTICUT HISTORY SITE TOUR! First stop: The Nautilus Submarine Museum in Groton, Connecticut.
I kid you not, this is one of the coolest museums out there. (AND IT IS FREE!!!!) Hours of operation: everyday 9-5, closed Tuesdays. They WILL kick you off the property by 5:15. haha
As the sub part of the museum closes a bit earlier than the museum, we hit that up first.
They have a 20-30 minute audio tour that guides you around the sub. We didn’t have to ask “Permission to come aboard”
Tight quarters, steep ladders, and tight spacers. Do NOT recommend wearing a dress or flipflops. (My dad taught me well so you know I was in my closed toed shoes)
Back on top with the “Don’t tread on me” flag.
The entrance to the museum. I LOVE the contrast of the smallest sub vs. the largest marking the gateway to the museum.
Overall AMAZING museum for history on the Nautilus as well as Navy Submarine uses. They have family friendly activities including being able to look through a periscope to see real time “outside the museum” as you turn in different directions. Left: a crazy “bomb” planter that people would literally pedal to power and would use to put explosives on the ocean floor.
Nautilus cool history: One of the first subs to be powered by Nuclear energy (as opposed to Diesel fuel) which allowed her to travel far greater distances submerged under water and at faster speeds. She broke quite a few records in her day, most notably as being the first sub to make a submerged transit of the North Pole in 1958.
For those not cool with the confined spaces on the sub, there is a lovely model in the museum with explanations of the various sub compartments. You can get a pretty good idea of what life was like on the Nautilus without having to step foot on it.
From Groton we headed across the water to Fort Trumbull in New London. Looking back across you can see General Dynamics (manufactures submarines!)
Fort Trumbull was a HUGE fort that I bet would be SUPER cool to explore, but alas we were there before it opened for the year. Hours of operation: Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm from May 21 through Labor Day. For entrance to the visitor center museum and for fort tours, there is a fee.
The fort is considered a state park however and you are still able to walk around and enjoy the beautiful outside walls and ocean views FOR FREE! The park itself is open daily from 9-8. So bummed we didn’t get to tour around the fort, but hey free is free and the outside was QUITE impressive.
History of the fort: The original fortification (nothing like the current fort) was completed in 1777 and was attacked/ surrendered to the British in the Groton Heights Raid in 1781. (Much more on that later) There is only one small building from that time period left which housed the battery. The current fortress was built from 1839-1852 and served many a purpose throughout the years including a Union headquarters for recruiting and training during the Civil War, as a headquarters for the many other forts in the area in the time after the Civil War, as a Merchant Marine officers Training school until WWII where lastly it was used as a Division of War Research that developed Sonar systems. It opened as a State park in 2000.
My next favorite history spot is actually back in Groton at the Fort Griswold battlefield which I explored one day while Katie worked so Olive accompanied me instead. (so yes Dogs are welcome here as well as long as they are leashed.) Fort Griswold is ALSO a state park and the battlefield is free to explore and open daily. The monument and museum onsite is also free and open from 9-6 but closed on Mondays and Tuesdays which means.. I didn’t get to go in them. 🙁 (also like Fort Trumbull is only operational in the summer from Memorial day to Labor day)
BONUS THOUGH: Fort Griswold has a CELLPHONE Audio tour. and it is AWESOME. You just call (860) 424-4005 and select which stop you are at. (Unfortunately you do have to call again at each stop but there are only 5… so not a big deal) It took me maybe 20 minutes to listen and explore all 5 stops. The main gate and cannons at stop 2 (with the monument/museum being stop 1)
It’s a bit small in this photo, but looking across the way you can actually see Fort Trumbull.
A summary of the battle here is that on September 6,1781 the infamous traitor Benedict Arnold led the British in a raid on the Groton area with troops of 1700 men to take down both Fort Trumbull and Griswold. The British forces were divided into 2 groups of around 800 men. Fort Trumbull fell first, after which the British were able to turn their full attention on Griswold. There were only 166 American volunteers defending Fort Griswold so to say they were the underdogs is an understatement for sure. This realization didn’t take long to sink in, however the British offered no quarter so the Colonel Ledyard led his men to continue in the battling in the fort’s defense. The fort did push the British back a time or two, however they still were able to overtake the Americans. When the British asked who was in command, Colonel Ledyard handed over his sword and said “You are now” and was reportedly then killed with his own sword. While some men were able to escape using the various dry moats around the fort, over 80 men were massacred as the fort was surrendered and another 60 men were “mortally” wounded according to General Arnold’s reports. The British losses were 45 men killed and another 145 men wounded causing General Arnold to complain of the high casualty rate on their side. As this battle occurred towards the end of the Revolutionary war, it was one of the last British Victories as only a few months later, General Washington led us to victory in Virginia.
This is the main gate into the fort. It was recorded that one British solider was able to successfuly scale the fort’s walls and opened the gate for everyone else to invade. The fort has sunk quite a bit in but still remains pretty tall, especially with the dry moat running around the outer edge.
On the other side of the fort is a smaller tunnel entrance.
I absolutely loved the audio tour (if you couldn’t tell) as I actually remembered all of that information (though I did fact check my memory when I typed it all up) so I definitely recommend the audio tour. There are a few informational plaques that have a summary of the day’s events at the entrance to the fort. There is also a memorial plaque dedicated to those volunteers who fought at Fort Griswold, and another plaque within the fort dedicated to Colonel Ledyard (where it is said he was killed with his own sword)
A view from one corner looking at the inner fort with the monument in the background. The monument is super interesting as well as it was the FIRST obelisk monument built within the United States and was constructed from 1826-1830. It stands at 135 feet tall and has 166 steps, 1 step for each volunteer that fought in the battle for Fort Griswold. (I really wished it was open but alas… I was there on my last day, a Tuesday.)
Sooo there you have it, a lengthy overview of the incredible historic sites/museums that were all within 30 minutes of Stonington Connecticut. I’m glad that I was able to glimpse a bit more of American history both Revolutionary time periods and modern while I was visiting out there. As I visited over Memorial day, it was so much easier to ponder these battlefields and the men who fought on them. Again price recap: All of these places are FREE (with exception to tours in Fort Trumbull which I wasn’t able to do anyways) If you are in the Connecticut area, I highly recommend a visit to each of these places.