Usually a stop in Cusco is necessary for at least a few nights to acclimatize before heading out to Machu Picchu. So, while you’re there for a few nights, you might as well check out what this vibrant little city has to offer.
1. Markets, markets, markets
Get all your shopping done here if you’re moving on to other parts of Peru. These markets are some of the best I saw and there are so many of them! You’ll be able to find all your souvenirs here and I’ll be impressed with your will-power if you don’t buy one of everything. I mean, I did the type of shopping that requires buying a duffle bag to get everything back home.
Don’t forget to barter
Don’t, and I repeat, don’t take the first price they ask for. Everything is negotiable there and you’ll surely be subjected to the “gringa tax.” Be sure to barter for everything and have a quick lap around the market to get a feel for how much things should cost. When I was bartering and reached a price that I thought was fair, even if I can assume that it’s still higher than for a local, I don’t mind paying a bit more to support the locals and their craftsmanship!
The San Pedro Market is the huge central market in town. Many of the locals get their produce, meat and everything else here. In the back section of the market you’ll find stalls of locals cooking up dishes. You can get a meal for dirt cheap and pull a chair right up to the stall and chow down. But, if you have a sensitive American stomach like me, I suggest you be wary. No matter how good it smells and looks, I heard a few too many horror stories about the salmonella and food poisoning. Not that the food is not amazing — the standards of refrigerating meat and cleanliness are not what we’re used to at home. So, if you’re pulling up a chair, do so at your own risk!
2. Local food & “bucket juice”
I know I just told you to stay away from some of the local food at the market. But, don’t completely skip out! If you take a little walk outside the main area of Plaza de Armas, you’ll find tons of little restaurants offering set menus for about 3 USD. These menus include the appetizer, soup, main course (there are usually three or so main courses to chose from), dessert and a drink. A similar meal in the main area will be 10-12 USD and is not nearly as good!
“Bucket Juice” can be found everywhere in town. Literally sold out of a five gallon bucket, and using a ladle to scoop it into a plastic bag — this bucket juice comes in all varieties of fruit juice. So, on a hot Peruvian day, a ladle of bucket juice is just the ticket!
3. Christo Blanco
You’ll see this looming Christ statue as soon as you arrive in Cusco. The hike up there takes about 30-40 minutes, but you’ll be rewarded with views over all of Cusco. Since this statue is at the tippy-top of the city, the hike up there is a bitch and goes up seemingly endless stairs. On the bright side, you’ll wind your way through less touristy parts of the city and see how locals live. In my mind, the Christo Blanco statue is nothing outstanding, but the Sacsayhuamán ruins are up there as well, and are worth checking out.
4. Plaza de Armas
This is the main square of town and you’ll be able to find everything here; restaurants, coffee shops, souvenir shops, and tour agencies. The square is full of people, tourists and locals alike. The tourist police have put barriers around the square, so there are no cars are allowed in the area. While there’s not much activity going on in the square — no music or performers — it’s a nice place to enjoy a sunny day and check out the Spanish architecture and cathedral.
These ruins are the ones you’ll find about a ten minute walk from the Christo Blanco statue. From the outside, you can see the massive stones and a little bit of the inside. But you’ll have to pay about $22 USD to get inside the ruins and really check them out. Sacsayhuamán is an ancient walled fortress and a prime example of the Incas amazing masonry skills. The largest stones here weigh upwards of 150 tons. They are so precisely cut and fit with the other stones so well, that a thickness gauge can’t even be inserted in between the stones.
As many of us know, Latin Americans are dancers. When the rest of us Northern Americans “go out” we may do some dancing. But if I’m going out to get a beer with someone, we usually plop down and have some conversation over our drinks.
I met some Chileans at a hostel I stayed in, and they insisted we go to the disco. I don’t know for the life of me where they get the energy to do that on a regular basis. It was 4 hours straight of dancing. Followed by dragging me up on stage to show off my horrid rectangular dance moves, while they moved gracefully and inspired me to take dance classes. And of course, they wanted to go out the next night and the next and the next. I just couldn’t keep up!
If you’re like me and don’t have a dancing bone in your body — you have to go at least once. And embrace all those uncomfortable feelings of “dancing” among people whose hips move in directions I’ve not seen anywhere else.
Here’s some of the popular disco’s in Cusco:
- Mama Africa
While this is a perfect taste of Cusco’s nightlife, it’s packed with tourists and is a classic backpacker hangout. Located in the main square of Plaza de Armas, it has plenty to offer. Drinks are expensive and it’s not necessarily an authentic experience as it’s the tourist bar. There are free dance lessons (salsa, batchata) early in the night, so dragging your group there will still be a good time. You’ll be able to dance all night long here, literally until the sun comes up, if you want.
- Chango Club
This is the less touristy of the two, and while they play a good mix of Reggaeton, they slip in a few American song for the tourists that wander in. The music is loud, you can smoke inside, and there’s no windows, so it gets hot as all hell in there. When I left around 4 AM there was a line out the door of people waiting to get in. Personally, I like to be in bed before the sun rises — but hey, if you want to stay out and dance til morning, there are more than enough people on the same page as you!
7. Get a massage (only if you like to be surprised)
You will be constantly propositioned for massages as you walk the streets of Cusco. And at around $7 for an hour massage — it’s certainly tempting. I personally didn’t get one, even though it sounded amazing after a 5 day hiking excursion. From what I heard from other travelers who got a massage, it was an odd experience to say the least. An Aussie I met said her massage consisted of strange leg stretching and 10 minutes of actual massage. Yet another guy said his could only be considered as a mix of uncomfortable fondling and some sort of massage technique.
My main point here is, your hostel or hotel can recommend a massage place that has a good reputation. Don’t take any offer someone throws at you from the street, you may find you’ll be getting your legs stretched for an hour.
8. Scout out some local tour agencies
From what I observed, there’s about one tour agency per person in Cusco. Every time you wander the streets, you’ll be bombarded by people asking if you want to go see Machu Picchu, The Sacred Valley, Rainbow Mountain, Urubamba River and any other attraction possible. So, you’ll never be hard pressed to find a tour, but some of these tour companies are not as good.
There is a tour agency in Cusco for everything…here’s how to save a bit of money.
I found that booking with a tour agency beforehand from home will cost you more. For example, I did the Salkantay Trek with the company Salkantay Trekking. I paid about $400 online, at home. I spoke with other trekkers once I was in Peru that paid half that for the same 5 Day hike. BUT, waiting until you get there to book your tour may not always work, especially in peak season. If you have some flexibility on when you can do your trip to Machu Picchu and you’ll be in the area for awhile, you may be able to save a couple hundred bucks by booking your trek when you get to Cusco. Again, I wouldn’t recommend this during peak season (July, August). You don’t want to find you’re unable to get in with a tour company last minute.
9. Take a day trip out of Cusco
If you’re hanging out in Cusco for awhile, there are amazing things to be seen just outside the city. For small tours like Rainbow Mountain, The Sacred Valley, rafting the Urubamba River, and the like, there are generally departures everyday and if you’ll be around for a few days, you can pop into a tour agency and book a day that works.
These tours will be an all day activity and generally start before the sun comes up!
My last note here is to do your research on a few of the tour companies you plan to use. Research a few & read reviews — and then go ask for prices and compare. Keep in mind that some of these prices you can barter on! On a Pisco tasting tour, I paid nearly double what other girls in my hostel paid for the same tour. Literally, they got a taxi and were on the same tour as I was.
10. Spend some time in the outer areas of Cusco
This is your opportunity to see Cusco void of tourists and see how people are really living there. This is not to say that Central Cusco is not authentic, but like anywhere that is inundated with tourists regularly, that certainly has an effect on the city. Simply taking a cab outside the city 20 minutes will let you see the difference in life. Whether it’s to the San Blas District, Independencia, or Abanhuay Districts — go spend some time out in these areas. You’ll see a whole different side to Cusco than many travelers do.