What to Do in Cusco Before You Hit Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is one of those must-visit wonders of the world, the kind of historical site that really is as magical as it looks in pictures (and then some). Virtually every traveler passes through Cusco, the area's biggest city, en route to the ruins—but too many of them blow right through it, rather than appreciating the historical city's own charms. Don't make that mistake. Cusco, once the capital of the mighty Incan empire, deserves its own days on a Peruvian itinerary.
The JW Marriott El Convento Cusco sits on top of Incan and even pre-Incan ruins in a restored 16th-century convent carefully excavated and constructed with the help of a team of archaeologists. Head down to the basement and you'll see some of the structural remains (along with artifacts from the same period) restored and preserved as an exhibit, with daily guided tours. The five-star hotel does have plenty of 21st century amenities, though, including oxygenated rooms, which you might need considering Cusco’s 11,150-foot altitude.
Eat and Drink
Peruvian cuisine includes many ingredients most Americans will find exotic, like guinea pig and alpaca. Those eager to dive in without chomping into a whole fried guinea pig on the street (which is certainly an option) can satiate their curiosity at the hotel's Pirqa restaurant, where these native ingredients are treated with care and creativity in the hands of accomplished chef Rely Alencastre: think alpaca with a quinoa stew, or crispy cuy (yep, that guinea pig) with mashed Andean corn.
Not up for that level of edible immersion? Pirqa's sophisticated menu draws from many aspects of Peruvian cuisine, including plenty for the not quite as adventurous.
Outside the hotel, explore Peru's native drink, the pisco sour, in all its delicious forms at the Museo del Pisco, right across the street; or sample Peruvian classics like lomo saltado (a stir fried beef dish), ají de gallina (a spicy chicken dish), and ceviche at Limó, overlooking the Plaza de Armas.
El Convento Cusco's central courtyard hosts local artisans who sell their wares on site, often weaving their intricate patterns right in front of you, so you're supporting indigenous weavers with the assurance you're getting a high-quality product.
We probably don't need to sell you on Machu Picchu. But Cusco itself has plenty to keep you busy—take a stroll around the grand Plaza de Armas and inside its two impressive churches, La Compañía de Jesús and the Cusco Cathedral. Explore the immense Incan ruins at Saksaywaman, just a few miles' drive from the city center. Or visit the Museo de Arte Precolombino, a beautiful museum documenting artwork from ancient Peruvian cultures.