We loved Cusco! The city is packed with history, llamas and friendly people. It is the gateway to the Inka Trail, but should not be underestimated. You’d be sorry if you merely passed through in a hurry and missed out on all the colourful amazingness the former Incan capital has to offer.
When we think of Cusco we remember narrow, cobble stoned streets that somehow function as 2-way roads; colonial style buildings next to Inkan walls; baby llamas with tiny knitted hats, willing to cuddle you for a dollar or two; colourful stores selling trinkets and the like; steps that seem to go on forever; lots of bars, restaurants and chicha morada (a sweet local drink); some of the nicest people South America has to offer; and having an amazing time even though Flo was violently ill for most of it.
Basic Tips for Cusco
1. Not all beanies are created equal
If you have not packed warm enough clothes you definetly have the opportunity to do some shopping here! There are lots of stalls and stores selling woollen hats, gloves, jumpers and the like. We found that prices at San Pedro market were much lower than closer to the plazas or busier (read: more touristic) sections of the town. Be careful when selecting your goodies – we fell for some cheap gloves that were actually made out of acrylic, which means they do not keep you warm at all. We found these tips super helpful, courtesy of Alpaca Expeditions
Touch it- alpaca wool is cool to the touch, acrylic is warmer.
Pick it up – alpaca wool is quite a bit heavier than synthetic.
Check the inside of the garment – when acrylic is brushed it is smooth and soft on the outside and appears much more like alpaca. The inside is usually rougher. Many high-quality products (but not all) do not have inner seams.
Any super-bright colors are going to likely be synthetic. Many alpaca products are made in the natural color of the wool, or only dyed with natural dyes, which are more muted and never fluorescent orange, chartreuse or magenta in color.
2. Most places only take VISA or cash
We had a lot of difficulties finding restaurants and shops that accepted our MasterCard credit card. VISA is accepted widely – for some reason there are 2 different card machines, one for VISA and one for everything else and most stores only accept VISA. You will find that the majority only wants cash.
3. Taking cash out is expensive
We (and many others we spoke to) could only withdraw a certain amount of money at a time because our card is not Peruvian. At the same time each transaction cost us a fee from the ATM as well as the fee from our bank. This and the fact that almost nobody accepted our MasterCard to pay for things meant that we had to adjust our budget for Cusco quite a bit. A much better thing to do would be to bring US dollars or Euros and exchange money for a smaller fee. You can also check with your bank if they have a Peruvian buddy bank.
4. Cusco is great for shopping
When it comes to things like llama key rings, finger puppets, warm clothes and board games (to name a few ‘necessities’) Cusco’s (or Peruvian) prices are way better than what you might find in other South American countries The items are mostly identical (unless you want the city’s name on it off course) so if you are planning on trinket shopping do it in Cusco!
Where to stay
We stayed at Samay Wasi Hostel in a private ensuite room. This hostel offers HOT water 24/7 (trust us, this is important!) amazing views of the city, friendly staff, free storage for your bags when you are off adventuring and decent Wi-Fi. Samay Wasi is on top of a hill and you will have to climb stairs to get there, but we found this to be an excellent opportunity to get used to the higher altitude. In exchange for burning calves you get to enjoy breakfast with a view of Cusco.
Where to eat
There are lots of lunch and dinner deals available in various restaurants in Cusco, but the most authentic Peruvian cuisine for the smallest price was the lunch or dinner deal at Quori Sara. You get a starter, main and desert for a few pesos and the menu changes daily. Be extra cool and order a Chicha Morada – the local drink. It tastes like some sort of fruit juice but is corn based. Make sure you get here on time before the special sells out (lunch starts at midday and dinner at 7 PM when we visited) and bring a translator app of some sort if you do not speak Spanish. The staff are super nice but do not speak English. You can only pay in cash here.
If you miss English or European food, head to Per.UK – a more expensive restaurant that makes up for the higher prices with excellent services and truly amazing food. Alan had the blue cheese alpaca fillet and it was spot on. The small place fills up rather quickly, so if youre a larger group you might have to reserve a spot in advance.
Jack’s Café is a cute looking place that does not get too crowded, the prices are more sensible compared to Per.UK and you will find a wide variety. Alan loved the burger so much we came back a second time and the soup was a life saver for Flo when she was sick. Their coffee is on point too!
For desert, you can be cheeky and just try lots and lots of chocolate at Tika Chocolates (but please buy some and say hello to the loveliest sales girl from us) or visit the best ice cream shop, called HelArte. They have the classics as well as Unicornio and Coca flavours and their servings are more than generous.
What to do
The best way to see lots of the city and the surrounding Inka sites are day trips. Without giving too much away, our itinerary looked like the below.
An important tip for all tours: make sure you specify if you can or cannot speak Spanish. There are multi lingual tours and most guides’ English is great so you’d think you’re OK but if you are the only English speakers on a mostly Spanish tour you get 1 sentence worth of explanations compared to an essay in Spanish. If you are, however, the majority the English part will magically become just as important as the Spanish one.
Day 1 – walk aimlessly (you see the best stuff when you don’t have a goal), shop and eat.
Day 2 – Sacred Valley Tour
If you get the choice, ask to have lunch at Tunupa where you can enjoy an awesome lunch buffet, live pan flute bands and a stunning view.
The sacred valley tour offers great first impression of the Inkan ruins, you will stop at Ollyantambo, Pisac and Winay Wanay. On the way there you will also stop at the village of Ollyantambo where you can get some last minute beanies, scarves or other trinkets.
Day 3 – Maras Moray and the Salt Pools
Maras Moray used to be an important agricultural site where the Inkas used terraces made out of stone walls to “experiment” find out which crops grew best at what temperature. The salt pools have been around for over thousand years (pre-Inka) and are still in use today the same way they were when the Inkas tended to them. Make sure you get some pink salt and locally made salted chocolate when you are there!
Day 4 – City Tour
This includes a bit of the city of Cusco but you will then drive to more Inka sites close by. This is only a half day tour and gives you a nice overview of Cusco, if you are not too badly affected by the altitude we’d suggest doing this one on day 1 instead. However, the Sacred Valley is lower than Cusco and good way to ease into the height difference.
Day 5 – (after returning from the Inka Trail) Eat some more great food and do some last minute souvenir shopping
Please reach out to our most amazing guide and helper JAMES. He was not only helpful and friendly but super thorough and caring. He picked us up from the airport, walked us to the busses when we embarked on our day trips, showed us where to eat and what to order and made the best coca leaf tea in his office. If you read this James – we hope you’re well and thank you again!
We hope this guide has helped you to get a better idea of what Cusco has to offer an how to best enjoy your time here. We would love to hear from you in the comments!