Nearly every trip to Peru will include some time in Cusco. This is where many people come to before setting out on their way to Machu Picchu as well as a place to acclimatize to the altitude. If you're headed to Cusco, don't just treat it as a stop-over city on your way to Machu Picchu. The small city has much 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 and there are so many of them! You'll be able to find all your souvenirs here and we'll be impressed with your will-power if you don't buy one of everything!
We did the type of shopping that requires buying a duffle bag to get everything back home. Don't take the first price they ask for. Everything is negotiable, 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 you are bartering and reach a price that you think is fair, you can still assume that it's still higher than for a local. But, if you don't mind paying a bit more to support the locals and their craftsmanship, this is a great way to get the profits right to the person that handmade the goods!
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 us, we suggest you be wary.
No matter how good it smells and looks, we 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"
We know we just told you to stay away from some of the local food at the market. But, don't completely skip out! Take a little walk outside the main area of Plaza de Armas, and 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 it 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 our opinion, 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 razor blade 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 we're going out to get a beer with someone, we usually plop down and have some conversation over our drinks.
We met some Chileans at one of the hostels we stayed in, and they insisted we go to the disco. We don't know where they get the energy to do that on a regular basis. It was 4 hours straight of dancing. Followed by dragging us both up on stage to show off our horrid dance moves, while they moved gracefully and inspired us to take dance classes. And of course, they wanted to go out the next night and the next and the next. We just couldn't keep up!
If you're like us 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 we've not seen anywhere else.
Here's some of the popular disco's in Cusco:
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.
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 we left around 4 AM there was a line out the door of people waiting to get in. Personally, we 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. We personally didn't get one, even though it sounded amazing after a 5 day hiking excursion. From what we heard from other travelers who got a massage, it was an odd experience to say the least. An Aussie we 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.
Our 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 we 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.
For small tours like Rainbow Mountain, The Sacred Valley 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.
Our 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!
We know how hard it is to get everything organized in life. Between working full-time, running errands, spending time with family + friends, and having a little bit of time for yourself -- the thought of alllllll the things that go into going on a trip can be majorly overwhelming.
That's why we put together and 11 page travel planning timeline to help you stay on track. Everything from when you should start saving for your trip, to when to purchase your international flights and get your home and bills taken care of while you're gone exploring the world! We don't mess around, because we know organization is life.