Things to Know Before a Trip to Cusco

For any traveller exploring South America, Cusco is almost definitely on the itinerary. There is one reason for this – Machu Picchu.

The iconic, historic landmark is one of the ‘must-sees’ on the continent and, as Cusco is the gateway to it, thousands descent on the city every year.

If you’re planning a trip there you might want to know is it safe? How bad will the altitude affect you? Are there any other attractions than the aforementioned spiritual spectacle? In this post Hostelworld.com’s Tracy Lynch and Colm Hanratty have the answers.

Orientation

There are two things you need to know about Cusco in terms of orientation:

Altitude:

One thing to keep in mind before your trip to Cusco (and you won’t be able to forget it once you arrive) is that it is situated at an elevation of approximately 3,400 m (11,200 ft). So remember that it will feel a bit strange as your body adjusts to the altitude, which can take a couple of days. Many travellers stop off in Cusco before they embark on a trip of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. However, it is advisable to get to Cusco 2 – 3 days before you set off on your trek as many travellers experience altitude sickness on arrival and it takes a few days to adjust.

It’s Easy to Get Around:

In comparison to other South American cities, Cusco is extremely compact and can be explored easily on foot. Its focal point is Plaza de Armas (one of many in South America – both Lima and Santiago also have a ‘Plaza de Armas’). This is where you will base yourself when exploring. Two of the city’s main attractions are here, most of the nightlife is here and when finding your bearings, you will always refer to this square.

While you can let your legs be your primary mode of transport around this Peruvian city, there is still some hill climbing involved. One of its top attractions, Sacsayhuaman, is at least a one-hour walk from the city centre. Unless you’re in the mood to battle some steep inclines, we suggest you take a bus or taxi there – neither are expensive. Another part of the city you’ll want to explore is the San Blas neighbourhood. Again, this is up hill from Plaza de Armas, but still easily reached by walking.

Safety

Speaking of walking, you’re probably wondering whether or not it’s safe to walk around Cusco at night? I can tell you that I walked around this city for two days and didn’t spot any trouble. This was with a digital SLR camera that might’ve attracted the attention of undesirables in other cities on the same continent. It definitely has a better reputation in terms of safety than its counterparts.

In saying that, I did speak to different people who encountered trouble walking the city’s streets. So, like with any city anywhere in the world, be street smart and be safe. Avoid walking on your own. But try not to feel threatened. There’s a good atmosphere in this city, not a menacing one.

Bars

Cusco is no shrinking violet when it comes to nightlife so prepare for lots of partying. And it’s also worth noting before you book your accommodation in Cusco that two of its most popular hostels are renowned for their bars and entertainment...

The Wild Rover, Calle Matara 261

If you’ve booked a bed here and you want to party hard then you really won’t have far to go once you’ve danced the night away. The Wild Rover is a hostel and nightlife institution around South America and this one in Cusco is no different. This infamous Irish Bar is home to great music, fancy dress parties and lots more.

Pariwana Hostels' Bar, Mezon de la estrella 136

Another hostel/ bar combo, this is a favourite with many travellers to Cusco mainly because of the popular ‘Happy Hour’ everyday. There’s also drinks promotions, pub quizzes and live music in the bar depending on what night you’re there.

Mama Africa, Portal de Panes 109, Plaza de Armas

Definitely one of the bars you will hear most about in Cusco is Mama Africa and after one night out here you will see why. Every night in Mama Africa’s is party night and they’re main aim is to make sure that you have fun no matter where you’re from.

Restaurants

You will find some mouth-watering restaurants and cafes across Cusco offering a lot of tasty fare. And you can also find something to suit all tastes and budgets. But if you want to reward yourself after a long trek in the mountains, one of Cusco’s many fine eateries is the ideal place to do so without breaking the bank. Here are three of our favourite Cusco restaurants...

A Mi Manera, Triunfo 393

If you want to experience a local delicacy then come to A Mi Manera for dinner during your Cusco trip and order the ‘coy’, or roast guinea pig as it’s also known. This is the speciality dish of Cusco and they serve it up in the traditional way – whole. That’s right, head and limbs still attached so it’s looking straight at you as you pick up your fork. Not exactly for the squeamish eaters out there but definitely worth trying. There’s also a lot more options on the menu if you want something less traditional or whole.

Open daily 12 noon-10pm

Pacha Papa, Plazoleta San Blas 120

If you want to try some local dishes but don’t particularly want to eat something that you once had as a pet, then check out Pacha Papa. There are a whole host of Peruvian dishes on offer here including alpaca stew. But it’s also a great choice for pizzas and tempting stew dishes. It’s got a great outdoor patio that really adds to your dining experience.

Open daily, 11am – 11pm

Jack's Café, Choquechaca 509

If you’re looking for breakfast, a lunch-time eat or even just a snack around the Plaza de Armas area then make your way towards Jack’s Cafe. The menu is full of great salads, sandwiches and more. It’s also a great place to stop off for just a tea or coffee... and you may as well sample some of the yummy cakes while you’re there.

Open daily 7.30am-11.30pm

Attractions

Many will argue that the main reason travellers come to Cusco is because of the attractions in its surrounding mountains and jungles, and they would be right. But make sure you take a few days to experience the culture and charm of the city and check out some of these attractions...

Machu Picchu

Cusco is such a popular stop-off for many travellers in South America because it is the gateway to Machu Picchu. And because of the sudden increase in altitude in this location, it’s wise to stop off here for a few days to acclimatise. There are many tours and options available for seeing Machu Picchu for many budgets and timeframes, so just pick one to suit your pocket and time constraints, but just make sure you pick one and don’t miss out on a visit to this amazing attraction.

Plaza de Armas

This landscaped square can be found in the heart of Cusco and is the city’s focal point. Translated to the ‘Square of the warrior’, this has been the scene of many important events throughout the history of the city. You will find the main cathedral and the Church of La Compañía on this breathtaking square. It’s the perfect place to sit back on one of the benches and take in the stunning surroundings.

Sacsayhuaman

This walled complex can be found in the northern outskirts the city of Cusco and it is believed to date back to approx 1100AD. Like many other Inca structures, Sacsayhuaman is made up of large polished dry stone walls from massive boulders that are still a mystery as to how they got there. This site is at an altitude of over 3,700m and it’s on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It’s often referred to as a fortress and the views from here are breath-taking.

Museo Inka, 103 Cuesta del Almirante

One thing you won’t forget in a hurry during your stay in Cusco is that it was once the centre of Peru's Inca civilisation. So in order to understand more about this vast history and civilization take a trip to the Museo Inka. Here you can learn a lot about the life of the Incas as well as what was there before they came along. You can avail of the Spanish information on hand or pay a small fee for an English speaking guide. 

How to Save Money

Cusco can be deemed expensive by some travellers, especially if you’ve just paid for one of the many hikes or treks of its surroundings. However, it can be easily enjoyed on a budget if you shop around for where you eat, as well as when you eat it, and also take advantage of some of the free things on offer in the city.

Check out Iglesia La Companía de Jesús

While most visitors to Cusco will go straight towards the main cathedral, Iglesia La Companía de Jesús often gets overlooked. Dating from the 16th century this is arguable the most impressive religious building in Cusco with its colonial Baroque architecture, some of the best in the Americas. It’s also home to some very impressive pieces of art so you’ll get an impressive religious building and art museum in one and it’s all for free too.

See the '12 Cornered Stone'

In Cusco you can still find the ancient Inca Walls and there’s a particularly popular point to visit called the ’12 Cornered Stone’. Here you will find many travellers taking photos of this stone as it’s an engineering marvel – you won’t even fit a blade of grass between the stones. Another great free attraction in Cusco worth checking out.

Wander through the San Blas neighbourhood

From Plaza de Armas, make your way up to the top of the steep hill to the San Blas neighbourhood. Here you will find Cusco’s more bohemian-type citizens. There are some great cafes and restaurants around its focal point Plaza San Blas and they tend to be quieter and less touristy than around the rest of the city. Definitely a neighbourhood worth exploring. 

All images courtesy of Hostelworld.com

About Hostelworld

Hostelworld.com has hostels, budget hotels, guesthouses in more in destinations in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. You can keep up to date with everything they do by liking their page on facebook and following them on Twitter.

4 Comments

  • David Edwards said

    Be careful in Cusco. I was robbed by a guy in a red hoody working with a guy in a white hoody on the main square. I have been around Latin America for over 6 months and this has been the most dangerous place so far for me.

  • Lopez said

    Is it? Ohh...!!! By the way, Cosco is an amazing place to visit. I am very much excited to visit the place. I already booked my tickets to visit the place with the help of Green Peru Adventures. And the most interesting fact is that Machu Picchu is one of the seven wonders. Thank You for sharing your experience.

  • Gabi Coatsworth said

    Do try to get to the covered market if you can. It's worth it just for the incredible varieties of potatoes they have! Including the ones that have been freeze dried. The Peruvians invented this centuries ago, I was told, by putting potatoes on glaciers in the sun. Even if not true, it's a good story! Those potatoes weigh next to nothing, and keep indefinitely, but throw one into boiling water and it becomes a potato again. Something unique to Peru.

  • Martin said

    On the whole I found Cusco to be the safest city I visited in South America, at least in terms of the people.
    Two things to watch out for that are no different to most other cities on the continent. One is the ever present dogs, not all of whom are friendly. We had to ward off a few - a good trick is to pick up a rock and gesture as if you're about to throw it at them. It works, even pretending to pick one up. DO NOT actually throw it unless it really is the last resort!!
    The other thing is the traffic. Cusco wasn't built with cars in mind and drivers don't drive with Cusco in mind! Sadly we witnessed someone get killed in traffic in front of cafe Fruta Madre. She was a local as well which goes to show you cannot be too savvy!
    That aside, if I could go back to Cusco tomorrow I'd not hesitate! Another place I recommend visiting is the animal sanctuary roughly 20 miles down the road to the sacred valley. We couch surfed with a guy who works there and he took us for close​ encounters with their breeding pairs of condors.

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