For many travellers, Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu; the city one flies into in order to start their trip to one of the wonders of the world. However, this enchanting old city is a remarkable destination all by itself! Sitting atop the site of an ancient Incan city, Cusco is filled to the brim with colourful markets, local art, historical significance and a certain calming aura that made us feel as though we could live there! Though it has a colonial past, the combination of Incan and Spanish influences makes wandering the cobblestone streets an activity in itself. We only spent four days here and wish we could have spent at least a week! Come to Peru for Machu Picchu and Peruvian sweaters, but plan to stay for the magic of Cusco!
How to Get There
We flew from our hometown of Toronto, Canada to Lima, Peru and transferred to a local flight to Cusco. We opted to fly to Cusco to save time, as the other option was to take a bus through the mountains. We’ve heard this bus can be a rough, long ride and it was not worth it to us. Note that at the Lima airport, you can access free wifi pretty much anywhere, but it’s only available for 30 minutes, so use it wisely!
When it comes to buying flight tickets, be aware that there are local and tourist tickets. Often the “economy” tickets are only for locals and will not be available to purchase if you access the airline website from a foreign country. If you do happen to buy the economy ticket, we’ve heard that foreigners aren’t allowed to board the plane until they pay a $180 USD fee. The “foreigner” flight price from Lima to Cusco should be between $100-$130 USD (we paid just under $150 CAD with the airline LCPeru). The flight costs don’t vary a whole lot, and if you find yourself paying less than $100 USD make sure to double check that it’s actually a foreigner ticket.
Taxi from the airport to our hostel north east of the city (on Tandapata Rd.) was 30 soles. We could’ve gotten one for 15-20 soles but in our fatigue we went to the “official taxi booth” which was definitely not official and paid too much to get into an unmarked car. The guy was nice enough, but it definitely wasn’t a real taxi. We recommend not going to the official taxi booth and instead finding someone standing outside of an official taxi outside of the airport doors. Don’t worry, they will make themselves known to you!
We also travelled from Peru to Arequipa on an Oltursa bus. It’s an 8-10 soles short taxi ride to the bus station (Terminal Terrestre). The bus station is a loud busy place, and you might need to go to a few different company booths to find a bus leaving to Arequipa within a reasonable amount of time. Most bigger bus companies have websites where you can check departure times, you can read more about them in our Peru Bus Companies post. Make sure to also go to the Bus Tax Booth (TAME) in the middle of the station and pay you bus tax (1.40 soles) before you board, as you’ll need that receipt to enter the departure area. The trip cost 70 soles and departed/arrived right on time, taking 8 hours and 15 mins. The Oltursa experience was very nice! There was an Adam Sandler movie playing with English subtitles (a rarity!) and we got a blanket and decent meal on our ride.
Where to Stay
- Sunset House Hostel – A friendly hostel with a great view of Cusco. They didn’t originally have space for us but still invited us in to eat at their reasonably priced café/restaurant (with a great first view of Cusco!). The guy at the front desk also helped us with booking the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, storing our big bags while trekking, and helped with recommendations for places to eat and things to do. We were very impressed with their service. At 25 PEN (soles) for a dorm bed and 70-90 PEN for a private double room, we were very happy! They are quite popular so we would recommend booking ahead if you can.
Sithuar Hostel – This quiet hostel sits just down the road from Sunset House and it is where we actually stayed for our time in Cusco (because Sunset House was all booked up!). It was clean and warm with some of the comfiest beds we could ask for! For a double room with a private bathroom we paid 80 soles. There is also a very simple included breakfast of bread, jam, butter and instant coffee. We think it was a family bakery since there were constantly fresh baked pies and cakes covering many of the public surfaces. They ran their own laundry service as well and after hiking Machu Picchu, we were so happy to have everything in one place.
What to Do
- Plaza De Armas – Get your bearings in this lovely city by walking to the main square. It’s thought to sit on what was once an ancient Incan Plaza, called Huacaypata. The square is filled with beautiful old architecture, and home to many landmarks; Cusco Cathedral (25 soles entry) and The Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (Church of the Society of Jesus), built in 1576 on an old Incan Palace. The latter is one we visited and found it to be very lovely. The square is bustling with local vendors, dozens of restaurants and free walking tours of the city! You can also find community of local artists selling their creations in one of the churches at night. We used the square as a base to start each day!
- Book a trip to Machu Picchu – Cusco is an amazing destination in itself, but most also use it as a base for their visit to Machu Picchu. Check out our Complete Guide to Trekking to Machu Picchu for everything you need to know before booking your trip!
- Take a Free Walking Tour – In the bustling square, Plaza De Armas, you will find friendly locals with T-shirts advertising different walking tour companies. There are about two or three, and they are always free. There are many free walking tours in South America, however the Cusco one is known to be a great one! Take the opportunity to learn something new during your first few days. All the tour guides expect at the end is a tip for their time; totally worth it.
- Hike to Cristo Blanco (White Jesus) – Rising above the city is a large white statue of Jesus Christ, and hiking up there will give you a panoramic view of Cusco nestled in it’s valley. Pair this with the next two activities on our list for a great day. However, we would definitely recommend NOT doing this hike on your first day in Cusco (like we did…), because the altitude will make it extremely difficult! You can get there by walking up the roads and paths north from San Blas.
- Sacsayhuamán – Just a 10 minute walk away from the Cristo Blanco lie massive Incan ruins built in the mid 15th century. The ruins are made from huge stones, some measuring up to 9 metres in height! The fee to enter is 70 soles, and we loved walking through the ruins and marvelling at the phenomenal architecture and views over Cusco. We spent about an hour and a half exploring and watching llamas run through the large main field.
- Q’Enqo (Qenko) – This is another ruin a short walk from the more famous Saqsaywaman that we enjoyed checking out. It has a cool cave to walk through, and a nice wooded area that would be perfect for a picnic. It’s less busy and a good addition to visiting Sacsayhuamán and Cristo Blanco. You can find its location on Maps.Me!
- Shop for Souvenirs – Stroll anywhere through the streets of Cusco and you’ll find dozens of colourful shops selling the popular Peruvian sweaters, ponchos, and hats, plus tons more souvenirs. If you are planning to do a trek and you don’t have a hat or a sweater, this is the perfect time to get one! Now, normally we would say to buy your souvenirs at the end of your trip, but the prices and variety are by far the best in Cusco. We got wool hats for 10 soles each, and we found sweaters here for 20-30 soles, the cheapest we saw in Peru. So wherever you are in your trip timeline, stop here for some shopping!
- San Pedro Market – You can get to this indoor market after just a quick walk from the Plaza de Armas. It’s split into clothing and souvenirs on one side, and food on the other, with tasty smoothy stands running down the middle.
- Qorikancha – This was once the most important temple in the Incan Empire. When Spanish colonists invaded, the tore it down but used the Incan foundation to build their cathedral. The result was a mixture of Spanish and Incan architecture that was cool to see. Not the most exciting attraction we visited, but worth an hour or less of your time if you’re into ancient architecture! Entry was 15 soles.
- Visit Salinas de Maras/Salt Flats – Apparently the Incans have been mining salt for thousands of years at this picturesque destination, which is quite popular among tourists. Due to time, we didn’t get a chance to see them, but it is only a day trip from Cusco, so it is very doable! We would recommend going with a tour company so you can learn and appreciate the history of these mines.
- Rainbow Mountain – We didn’t do this but it is another popular tour many backpackers do from Cusco. It’s a day trip, with a very early start, and ends with a very cool view of the naturally multicoloured Rainbow Mountain. We heard different reviews from friends we met in Cusco about this trip. It seems like the colours aren’t as amazing as the pictures portray, and that the experience really depends on the weather, but most seemed to enjoy their trip anyway! Be aware that you end up at a very high altitude, so you should adjust in Cusco a few days before tackling this trip. You’ll be able to book this trip through most hostels and travel agencies.
Where to Eat
- Prasada – A delicious vegan restaurant with TONS of amazing burgers, a huge varied menu and the friendliest owners. We were so happy with our meals and definitely felt comfortable there during our first few days in South America. It’s located on Choqechaka Street just a few minutes walk from Plaza De Armas, but you can easily find it on maps.me too!
- Jack’s Cafe – It’s nice to find some American style food at the start of your trip as your acclimate to a new country. Jack’s helped us with exactly that, offering burgers, American style breakfast and tasty sandwiches in a cozy cafe setting.
Las Mustas – We got some very tasty chicken sandwiches here!
- San Pedro Market – This market is split into two, half being food, the other half being souvenirs and clothing. Tons of booths offer pretty much the same options all around, and if you don’t know Spanish you will probably have a little trouble ordering anything. But don’t let that deter you! We knew very little Spanish at the start of our trip, but Alex somewhat unknowingly ordered a fried chicken meal, with a mountain of rice, fried veggies and fries for just 6 soles. Sometimes you just have to go for it! You can also get very tasty smoothies for 8 soles. Pro tip: This is a great place to buy a souvenir sweater as well!
- Keep it Simple – If you are in Cusco, you’re probably gearing up for a trek to Machu Picchu. If you flew directly into Cusco, you’ll need to adjust to the altitude and should take it easy. However, if you aren’t too affected by the altitude, take this opportunity to explore. Our best recommendation would be to stick close to the main square (Plaza De Armas). This area is alive at night with tourists and locals trying to get you to come to their restaurant, often offering drink deals and food specials. Take a stroll and see what kind of offers you can get! Staying near the Plaza de Armas will also make it easy to find your way home in a new city.