“Baja, baja, baja.” The bus attendants in Cusco get aggressive. People piled onto the bus and scrambled for seats. I found one near the back when a woman smiled at me. I asked her in broken Spanish if the seat was available. We talked until the bus got to my stop about my travels and her kids and figuring out the bus system.
Three days later: Because of the hurricanes, my flight home was a mess. Right before I found out I couldn’t change my flight to Lima, I ran into the woman from the bus when we both happened to be walking up Av. Sol. She hugged me so tightly, I forgot for a moment I wasn’t supposed to stay in Peru an extra week.
- Altitude: 11,152 feet, according to Google
- Reference Point Used in this City Guide: Plaza de Armas
- The dollar is strong in Peru (S/1 is $0.31 as of October 2017), which makes it a budget travel-friendly country.
- Most meals cost between S/5 and S/15, with fancier restaurants peaking around S/35.
- Hostels and hotels will run you around S/65 per night.
- Cusco is safe, but like anywhere else you go, be aware of your surroundings and keep valuables close.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to people; they’re generally open to speaking with tourists.
- You do not need to be fluent in Spanish to visit Cusco, but it does help. Try to memorize basic phrases.
- Cusqueños usually understand you might not know much Spanish and will speak more slowly for you.
- Compared to other Spanish-speaking countries, the dialects and accents are easy to comprehend.
Start your day as close to 7 a.m. as possible with 3 stops around Cusco, then head into your night hungry and ready to dance. You should finish your daytime activities around 3:30 p.m.
First Stop: Plaza Tupac Amaru, Wanchaq District
FYI: Sometimes, taxi drivers don’t understand just “Plaza Tupac Amaru,” so try adding on “Wanchaq” if you run into problems.
How to Get There: Bus (Zorro, Leon de San Jeronimo, Imperial); Taxi (~3-8 soles from Plaza de Armas); Foot (~25 minutes from Plaza de Armas)
Where I Stayed: Casa Ananta (Avoid this place like the plague.)
Watch the sun rise over the mountains from Wanchaq and grab breakfast at El Frutal. Over the weekends, Plaza Tupac Amaru has all the appeal of San Pedro but without the crowds; head to the market in the main square to see the handmade wooden furniture and every grain imaginable sold in bulk. This market is a great place to test your haggling skills, which you’ll need throughout your time in Peru.
Not the weekend? There’s a Centro Comercial (mall) right near the main square. The bus stop to get into town is next door to the entryway.
Plaza Tupac Amaru is nice, but tucked away. It can be difficult to learn the city if you choose to stay here for your whole trip. The people are extremely friendly, but less likely to engage in conversation with you compared to other areas.
If you choose to take the bus back to the main plaza, take Zorro to Av. Sol (stand at the bus stop closest to the mall to make sure you’re heading in the right direction). Buses are touch and go in Peru, but there should be at least one bus every 15 minutes during slower times and multiple buses crowding the bus stops at busier times. Some stops are listed on the sides of buses, but if you’re ever unsure if the bus goes to your chosen stop, ask the attendant. Have your S/0.80 ready to go before you shout bajo (down) at your stop so you don’t slow down the route. They should have change, but try not to give them anything larger than S/5. The bus ride to Plaza de Armas takes 15 minutes or so.
If you’re still getting acclimated to the high altitude, walking can be difficult. But if you’re 3-4 days into your trip and you’re heading to Plaza de Armas during the day, I highly recommend walking. If you go to Av. Sol by way of 24 De Junio and Pachacutec, you’ll pass a small, hidden market, Paccha de Pumqchupan (a fountain), and Jardín Sagrado (a park). More importantly, you’ll pass Tika Chocolates. Not only do you get to sample pretty much any chocolate you’ve ever dreamed of, but the employees make you feel at home. The walk is around 25 minutes if you’re used to the altitude and don’t stop anywhere. My first day in Cusco, it took me around 40 minutes to walk to Plaza de Armas without stopping (except to breathe/curse the high altitude).
Second Stop: Plaza de Armas
How to Get There: Bus, Taxi, Foot
Where I Stayed: Andean Dreams Hotel (This place was okay. The big advantage is that it’s only about 5 minutes from the main square and pretty inexpensive compared to hostels and hotels nearby.)
Plaza de Armas is both the perfect spot for tourists who prefer the tourist experience and for tourists who prefer the local experience. It’s a 10-15 minute walk to San Pedro market as well as Barrio de San Blas. There is also plenty to do right in the plaza. Cusco is known for putting on tons of parades, so you might run into one. We even saw a motorcycle blessing one afternoon in front of Templo de la Compañía de Jesús.
For lunch, pick up some local cuisine for S/5 on Calle Santa Teresa. There’s a local restaurant with no name close to Subway and before you get to the end of the street. For dessert, head to the Santa Teresa church for S/1 baked goods; all of the proceeds go to the homeless in Cusco, so, it’s a necessary purchase (at least, that’s how I always justified it.)
Third Stop: Barrio de San Blas
How to Get There: Taxi (~6 minutes from Plaza de Armas)
Where I Stayed: Andean Dreams Hotel
Head up to Barrio de San Blas after lunch by taxi (around S/5) and check out the fountain (which lights up at night). This is a hipstery area, but is still fun to browse King of Maps and other local shops.
I loved visiting Museo de la Coca; you get a candy for coming in and can learn about the many uses for coca besides cocaine. This is one of the less expensive museums and will run you between S/5 (students) and S/10 per person.
There is a Medieval Museum close to Museo de la Coca that’s free, but tucked away, so it might take a few tries to find it. Walk inside and down a small hallway into the first of two courtyards. The museum itself is in the second courtyard in a room on the right. On the opposite side of the courtyard, you can see the workshop where they create similar pieces. (No photography allowed here.)
Extra Stops (Optional)
Barrio de San Blas is fairly close to Cristo Blanco. Although I didn’t go myself, many tourists make it a point to take a trip there. The statue is by an archaeological site, Sacsayhuaman, which you will need a tourist ticket to get into.
Cusco is filled with awe-inspiring museums, incredible restaurants, and genuinely kind people. With half of your day left, you have plenty of options for your day in Cusco.