Machu Picchu may be Peru’s top tourism draw, but the entire Cusco region is rich in ancient culture and natural wonder. Most visitors spend only two or three nights in the former Inca capital Cusco, before heading north to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. But they would be missing a trio of singular experiences outside the city that feature ruins of early civilizations, unique gastronomy, and untouristed small towns.
With Cusco as your base, here are three distinctive places — worthy of day trips — where you can immerse yourself in history and local traditions in the lush valley southeast of Cusco.
Peru’s most famous bakery town, Oropesa turns out large, round loaves of pan chuta, a sweet anise-flavored wheat bread. It’s made with grain brought by the Spanish that has been grown in Oropesa’s rich soil since the 16th century.
You won’t have trouble finding dozens of unsigned home bakeries. Sweet, spicy aromas waft out to the streets from courtyards where the loaves are baked in traditional adobe ovens fired by eucalyptus wood. Don’t be shy about stepping inside to watch the entire operation and taste this special bread that’s made nowhere else in Peru.
Every family has its own time-guarded recipe (some mix in cinnamon and raisins), so eat your way around town and buy some for the road. For cusqueños, pan chuta is a typical gift when visiting friends or family, a symbol of affection and trust. While you’ll find the Oropesa ladies selling loaves every day in Cusco’s busy San Pedro Mercado, there’s nothing quite like taking coffee and fresh, warm pan chuta on Oropesa’s main square.
30 minutes by car from Cusco.
About four miles from Oropesa, you can burn some calories hiking around the Inca ruins of Tipón. The 500-acre walled settlement was likely built five centuries ago as a ceremonial/religious site and estate for early Inca nobility. No one knows the original Quechua name that the Incas gave to this elite community, more than 11,000 feet above sea level, but these days it’s known as Tipón Archaeological Park.
The entire site is an ode to water. Not visible from the valley floor are 12 right-angled agricultural terraces; a sophisticated reservoir and system for collecting rainwater; complex irrigation channels fed by underground springs on Pachatusan, a sacred mountain above Tipón; and remains of a water temple. Water still flows through elaborate carved aqueducts that split off from a single channel into two, then four, before flowing back together, and cascades spill off rock into lower channels. This is a place to marvel at the engineering ingenuity of the Incas and to view petroglyphs that date back 4,000 years.
30 minutes by car from Cusco.
Prepare to be dazzled in Andahuaylillas, a little town at 10,000 feet above sea level. The main attraction is San Pedro Apóstol, a beautifully restored whitewashed church of adobe and brick, constructed in the late 16th century on a pre-Columbian ceremonial site. Other than colorful painted embellishments around the arched entry, pediment, and high porch where Jesuit sermons were likely given to convert indigenous people on the square, the exterior is very simple. But inside it’s all Baroque, or Andean Baroque — a blend of European, Andean, and Islamic styles. There’s a sensational, multi-colored coffered ceiling built not from wood but out of cane and mud (a pre-Hispanic construction method), an ornate gold-leafed cedar altar that fills an entire wall, colorful murals, and canvas paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries that are full of indigenous and Biblical symbolism. Pretty much every square inch of the interior is covered, including two 17th-century painted organs, believed to be among the oldest in Latin America.
A shop near the church sells handmade dolls in traditional costumes crafted by a women’s coop and other locally crafted goods you probably won’t find duplicated in Cusco. It’s a great place to score meaningful gifts and mementos from your day trip to the South Cusco Valley.
55 minutes by car from Cusco.