A few days in Cusco…
It has always been a dream of mine to visit all (or most) of the Wonders of the World, including Machu Picchu. I was extremely fortunate to travel to Cusco for a work retreat in August 2016, and of course I decided to take some additional time off to travel around by myself. I spent hours researching travel blogs, sites, and asking friends for recommendations in Cusco, and eventually put together an amazing itinerary!
There are a few different things that you will need to do in preparation for your trip to Peru. Check out my post about prepping for a trip to (Cusco) Peru.
Cusco is a culturally rich, vibrant, and bustling city filled with lots of history. This city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and is well worth a visit!
When you arrive into Cusco:
The Cusco airport is extremely tiny and does not have air or heat. If you are arriving early in the morning, be prepared to find minimal shops and restaurants open and lack of Wi-Fi availability. I highly recommend taking a taxi from the airport to the city center (or where you are staying) and be prepared to pay about 10-15 soles ($3.06-$4.59 USD) for the 20-minute ride. Make sure that you bargain with the taxi drivers, as they will be a bit overbearing and typically will try to rip you off by offering a higher price. Make sure that you set a firm price before getting into the car, as taxis are not metered in Cusco.
Take it easy your first day, as your body won’t be used to the 11,000 ft of elevation! Drink more water than you are used to, sleep, and drink the Mate de Coca tea to help too! Mate de Coca tastes a lot like green tea and you likely will want to buy some to bring home, but buyer beware!… Mate de Coca is derived from the coca plant, which is also used to make cocaine, so it is illegal to bring this into many other countries, especially the United States. My Airbnb host and hotel both had this tea readily available each morning, which definitely helped ease the elevation sickness.
Getting around Cusco:
Taxis are the easiest way to get around the city. It is best to use the taxis that are marked and not just the random cars that come up to you asking if you want a ride. If you’re hailing one off the street, look for the taxis with signs on the roof, rather than independent, unmarked drivers. You’ll need to confirm the rate before accepting the ride. As a general rule of thumb, a ride within the city center is about S/ 4 PEN ($1.22 USD).
Most hotels can also hail a taxi or book one in advance for you. To get to and from the airport, be sure to haggle prices and confirm the price with the driver before you get in or walk with them. It should cost around 15-20 PEN (Peruvian Sol)!
It’s also an easy city to walk around, just be careful about the narrow streets and sidewalks with the uneven surfaces and cobblestones. Make sure you bring comfortable walking shoes with you!
Accommodation in Cusco:
There are many different options for accommodation in Cusco. I stayed at an Airbnb my first night in Cusco, and absolutely loved it. There are TONS of great Airbnb’s across the entire city, and I personally love using Airbnb over a hotel due to cost and because you get to interact with the locals who live there or run the place you stay at. Plus, they usually have the best tips too! But it’s all up to you on preference.
If you haven’t used Airbnb before, use this link to sign up and get $40 off your first Airbnb booking! I also spent five other nights in a hotel, which was much more expensive. If you are looking for a classy and beautiful hotel, then I highly recommend staying at the Palacio Del Inka.
Although you could spend a full week in Cusco, I personally think that 4-5 days is the perfect amount of time to explore the city and its surrounding parts. From my personal experience, I would highly recommend adding the following to your itinerary…
Machu Picchu Day Trip:
Take the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and spend the day exploring Machu Picchu. There are many travel agents and tour companies that coordinate excursions to Machu Picchu, but their prices are extremely inflated. I spent time researching alternative ways to visit Machu Picchu on my own (and without spending a couple hundred dollars) and was very happy that I did.
As a UNESCO site, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture has placed a daily cap of 2,500 visitors in an effort to protect the historic landmark. As of July 2017, they have also changed the entry system by separating tickets between morning and afternoon in order to limit the number of tourists on site at one time. If you are interested in visiting this magnificent piece of history, I highly recommend purchasing tickets on your own and not paying for the walking tours on site. Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu is also an adorable place to wander, explore, and shop the markets. Be sure to plan enough time to wander around if you can! A detailed blog post about purchasing tickets and visiting Machu Picchu will follow soon! (NOTE: this is a full day trip outside of Cusco)
Explore the Sacred Valley and Incan Ruins of Ollantaytambo:
Many people think that Machu Picchu is the only historical ruin site left standing and worth visiting, and that is not the case. I encourage you to spend a day in the Sacred Valley. I promise, you will have a completely different experience than you would at Machu Picchu. My colleague hired a travel group to coordinate a tour of the Sacred Valley and immerse our team into the Peruvian culture. I highly recommend paying a travel agency to coordinate this daily trip, as there are many sites to see and they provide information from a local’s perspective. We used Llama Path and would highly recommend their tours! (NOTE: this is a full day trip outside of Cusco)
Visit the Pisac Ruins- This village has a unique historic background and its unique design was built to resolve the problem of planting agricultural products on the steep slopes of the mountains.
Stop to eat local Cuy (guinea pig)!
Visit the archaeological site of Ollantaytambo- This is the only Inca town with houses still intact and are even inhabited by their descendants.
Stop by a weaving cooperative in Chinchero and purchase handmade textiles! You will have the opportunity to watch local Peruvian women hand dye fabrics (mostly alpaca wool) with natural ingredients and weave beautiful textiles. These handmade textiles are for sale and WELL worth the purchase (scarves, blankets, socks, sweaters, hats, mittens)! I found the prices to be cheaper than the shops and stalls in Cusco, so do your shopping here! I fell in love with the gorgeous blankets and scarves. I may or may not have brought a few pounds worth of scarves back to the US with me!
Shop for Alpaca Wool & Other Peruvian Gifts:
Outside of Cusco, you can find hand-woven Alpaca wool gifts and other handmade items for a bit cheaper than Cusco, as it is a tourist hub spot. If you are interested in buying items for the cheapest price, then be sure to shop when you are in the Sacred Valley or Aguas Calientes near Machu Picchu. There are many little shops on side streets and fancier stores within Cusco as well. I found a few smaller privately-owned shops on the side streets in Cusco to be reasonably priced as well, and you can bargain with them! I brought my colleagues back to the same store that I shopped at earlier in my trip, and the owner gave me a discount. I still have the business card from the shop. If you stop by her store, please tell her I say hello!
Wander through the San Pedro Market:
This is another awesome place to go shopping and even just explore. I didn’t buy anything at this market, as many items were clearly made in a factory and sold for tourists, however, the locals were also selling some interesting items to look at. This market is mostly made of food stalls and is quite the experience. Just be sure that you watch your bags here, as this can be a pick pocketing spot with crowds.
If you decide to purchase any food or drinks, make sure you ask about how it was made so that it is sanitary. For example, there are many juice stands and if you decide to purchase juice, please be sure to ask if it was made with bottled water so you don’t get sick! If you do decide to purchase any souvenirs, be weary as they tend to make up higher prices for tourists and can rip you off! You can always bargain, and it is encouraged, but do know that you can always walk away and try another stall. The best time to visit is in the morning before it gets too crowded. (About 1-2 hours of your time in Cusco)
Treat Yourself to a Massage:
While Cusco isn’t exactly the most well-known place for massages and spas, there are options available within the city. I booked in an hour deep-tissue massage the day after visiting Machu Picchu. If you are looking for a reasonably priced massage, then make sure you check out Paramatma Holistic Healing. My deep tissue massage cost around $40 USD, which is around 130 Sol. I didn’t have an international phone plan, so I had to WhatsApp message the owner to book in a massage, which worked perfectly.
Try the Local Cuisine & Delicious Restaurants:
Cusco is filled with amazing cuisine in a variety of restaurants for everyone and every price range. A few restaurants which I had the pleasure of visiting include the following:
- La Valeriana– Bakery/Breakfast. Try the passion fruit juice and quiche lorraine! $$
- Jack’s Cafe– American/Peruvian. More of an Americanized breakfast, so delicious though. The strawberry & banana french toast was good! $$
- Inti Raymi Restaurant (at the Palacio del Inka hotel)- Andean. This was hands down the best restaurant I have ever been to for breakfast. I am not sure how much it costs exactly or the process of booking if you are not a hotel guest, but if you can find a way to book it in and eat here, please do! Their breakfast served fresh squeezed juices, local meats, eggs, fresh honeycomb and jams, breads, and so much more. They also serve dinner and it is very delicious. This is a white tablecloth restaurant though, so be prepared to spend much more than other restaurants. $$$$
- Limo– Peruvian/Asian fusion with good sushi. The quinoa shrimp is amazing. $$$
- Fallen Angel– Peruvian. Very different themed restaurant with an interesting environment. Tables are made out of old bathtubs filled with live fish and topped with a glass table top. The drinks and food are great, just not your typical restaurant design. $$
- Morena Peruvian Kitchen– Contemporary Peruvian. I went here alone and loved their food! It’s located downstairs just for your reference. They are also well known for their pisco sours! $$$
- La Feria Cocina Tradicional Peruana– Peruvian/Latin. They have some delicious squeezed juices that go great with their Peruvian food. $$-$$$
- Greens Organic– Peruvian/Healthy. I never made it here unfortunately, but it was highly recommended by my Airbnb host. $$
There is so much more to do and see in Cusco, including a visit to the Plaza de Armas, museums, churches, and other historical sites in addition to everything else mentioned above. No matter how much time you spend in Cusco, it will be a memorable visit and experience! If you have any questions, feel free to comment below and I would be happy to get back to you!