It might be well known as the gateway to Machu Picchu, but Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, is a destination in its own right. It’s also arguably one of the most photogenic cities in South America. The southern Peruvian gem offers amazing scenery for photographers, including urban-scapes which blend Inca and Spanish architecture and striking high altitude mountain landscapes.
Color is everywhere – from dazzling parades and vibrant quinoa fields to traditionally dressed women towing pom pom-decorated llamas. Most tourists who visit Cusco quickly head to Machu Picchu and nearby Inca ruins like Ollantaytambo and Pisac in the Sacred Valley. But it's worth taking some time to explore this charming city through the lens of your camera.
Here are the 8 most Instagrammable spots in Cusco, all within walking distance of the center.
1. Plaza de Armas
The nerve center of Cusco, Plaza de Armas is the city’s bustling main square where life revolves for both locals and its 4000-5000 daily visitors. It’s home to two iconic buildings - the Cusco Cathedral and the Church La Compania de Jesus, Inca king Pachacutec who stands guard from his fountain throne, beautiful gardens and wide stone pathways. Spanish colonial buildings and long stone arcades dominate the architecture of the plaza, but many perfectly carved Inca walls remain as foundations. There’s almost always something happening in Plaza de Armas – unbelievably colorful parades with dazzling costumes, dancing school children and marching military and police are common. You’ll also spot plenty of women in traditional dress with llamas and adorable baby lambs wearing tiny woolly hats in tow. One of the best ways to photograph the plaza is by choosing a restaurant/café/bar above you, pulling up a chair on the balcony, ordering a drink and capturing the spectacle below. Make sure you visit the square in the night-time too when it’s beautifully lit up.
2. San Blas
Head uphill from Plaza de Armas into the steep stairwells and stone-paved streets of San Blas, a gorgeous and quieter district which offers fine views over the city. This picturesque little bohemian neighborhood is full of cool bars and restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and small boutiques. With white-washed walls, blue doors and cascading pink flowers, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a Mediterranean village in some parts. San Blas Square features a beautiful waterfall and when the markets are on, it becomes a riot of color and activity with locals selling handicrafts like beanies, ponchos and paintings.
Perched above the historic center and walkable from the plaza, Sacsayhuaman (which sounds a lot like ‘Sexywoman’ with a bad accent) is Cusco’s most significant ruins. The ruins provide the best views over the city, which was designed in the shape of a puma. Sacsayhuaman is supposed to be the head, with the site’s impressive zigzagging walls forming the puma’s teeth. What’s most impressive perhaps are the massive stones from which the ruins were built and their incredible masonry which the Incas were legendary for. Some stones weigh more than 360 tons and reach over 26 feet (eight meters) high. They are fitted together with mind-boggling precision and without the use of mortar.
4. Christo Blanco
A much smaller and more misshapen version of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer, Cusco’s Cristo Blanco sits atop of a hill with his arms outstretched protecting the city. Towering some 26 feet (8 meters) high, the ‘White Christ’ was a gift from Arabic Palestinians who sought refuge in Cusco after WWII. Cristo Blanco is a 10-minute walk from Sacsayhuaman and also offers panoramic views of the city below. A visit to Cusco wouldn’t be complete without a pic at this famous structure.
5. Temple de la Luna
Not many tourists make it here, but if you have the time to visit Temple de La Luna, or Temple of the Moon, it’s more than worth it. Set in the stunning countryside about 35-45 minutes’ hike uphill from Plaza de Armas (and also near Sacsayhuaman), this ceremonial Inca temple is a giant rock hill with two altars and carvings inside. You can climb to the top for incredible views and wander around the area, where on a clear day you can see the sacred Ausangate - the highest mountain in the Cusco region. If you wander into the surrounding hills you’re likely to encounter a shaman who will be keen to show you some of his sacred ceremonial spots (yes, that really happens), and locals carrying out rituals. You can also explore this breathtaking area on horseback.
6. San Pedro Markets
Jam-packed with vibrant colors and exotic sights, Cusco’s most famous markets are where locals have gathered to sell and buy items since the time of the Incas. You’ll find handicrafts of all sorts, a gory meat section full of llama snouts and pigs heads, incredibly colorful fruits, vegetables and flowers, a bustling food court and a little old lady famous for selling skinned frogs. There is also a fascinating section selling mystical powders and potions which can allegedly cure almost anything, from a dull love life to a lack of money. If you look up, you also might see some llama foetuses which are used for ceremonial/good luck purposes.
7. Santo Domingo and Qorikancha
Qorikancha was the most important temple in the Inca Empire. The name means golden enclosure in Quechua, as its exterior was once covered in sheets of gold and dedicated to the sun god, Inti. When the Spanish arrived, they demolished much of Qorikancha, stripped it of its gold and erected the Church of Santo Domingo. The only thing that remains of once-glorious Qorikancha is the Incas' incredible stonework, which forms the church’s foundation. The site also features an underground archaeological museum displaying relics from Qorikancha, including mummies.
8. Twelve Angled Stone
Walking the narrow streets of Cusco past its perfectly constructed Inca walls is like walking through an open-air museum. You can find Inca walls all over the city, but one of the most famous spots to photograph them is along the street of Hatunrumiyoc, located northeast from the Plaza de Armas. It’s famous for the Twelve Angled Stone which demonstrates the amazing precision of the Inca masons. It’s so perfectly assembled that not even a sheet of paper can fit between the stones. Placed in the wall of what was once an Incan palace, this legendary stone is said to hold up the structure.
Have you been to Cusco and photographed any of these great sites? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below. Please share this article if you enjoyed it!