How To Spend Your Time & Money Wisely In Cusco

Monday, 2 April 2018

Cusco is a brilliant city, so much more than a jump off point for Peru’s star attraction - Machu Picchu. Take the time to wonder around the cobbled streets of San Blas, get cultured through visiting some genuinely interesting museums and spend more money than you have in Cusco’s markets, without considering how you’ll transport all your new jumpers and rugs home. Although the tourist capital of the country, Cusco doesn’t have to be an expensive city, with some decent hostels and hotels only costing $10us pp and an artisan burger with potato wedges and a drink coming to a staggering $2.50us - you just have to know where to look! In total we spent 7 days in the city alone, not counting trips into the Sacred Valley and for us it’s one of those places we’ve had to force ourselves to leave (because it’s just so easy to get settled). There’s so much to discover and with this in mind we believe Cusco should be a stand-alone point on any itinerary to Peru, rather than simply a 1-day convenience on the way to Machu Picchu. We’ve put together a comprehensive guide of the best activities, restaurants, cafes, museums and anything in between all for you to enjoy! So here goes...

What to do in Cusco???

Plaza de Armas
If you’ve been travelling through South America for some time already, you’ll soon realise that the main square of pretty much any town/city is called Plaza de Armas. They are named as such because in the past this would be where citizens would go to arm themselves when the city was under attack (Armas meaning arms/guns). The Plaza de Armas in Cusco is particularly impressive and is pedestrianised, therefore making a good spot and starting point for exploring the city. Beware of pickpockets here, just like in any other major city square.

Cusco has a great amount of markets selling all sorts, from alpaca jumpers to freshly squeezed juices. A nice small market is situated on a hill in the corner of San Blas district, which has a more relaxed vibe and sells mainly food and drink. The biggest (and best) market is Mercado San Pedro about 10 minutes walk from the main square. The market is undercover, it is open every day and has long hours, closing at 8pm.

Walk through the main entrance and you’ll find all the tourist ‘tat’ you could want - although the word tat isn’t fair to describe a lot of the beautiful textiles that are on sale. Carry on down the market and you’ll reach the food area, where ladies will compete for customers to which they’ll sell their juice and other locals will be selling local produce from fruit and veg, to cheese and meats. At the end of the market is a restaurant area where you can get very cheap set meals.

If you get excited by alpaca clothing, bags etc then Cusco is the place for you. Similar as to in La Paz, Bolivia, there are a huge amount of shops selling alpaca made products, some cheap which are normally mixed with acrylic and some more expensive 100% alpaca clothing. 

If you’re on a budget the best place to shop in our opinion is San Pedro market again. The quality is not always the best here but the prices certainly are. For middle of the range quality and price your best bet is to head to the narrow streets leading off Plaza de Armas. If you’ve got the money then the more western style shops on the main square itself only sell the best quality alpaca and vicuña products and are worth checking out.

Note: Bargain for your price! Especially in market stalls where you’re more likely to be ripped off, make sure you haggle for a reasonable price.

For a ‘mixto’ touristy alpaca jumper you shouldn’t pay more than 40 to 50 soles.

Churches & Temples
To be honest, we’re not really ones for going in churches and tend to find that kind of thing a bit tedious. However the Cathedral in the main square really is worth a visit. There are so many interesting paintings which aren’t in the normal old Christian style (there’s probably a proper name for it) but anyway they are slightly more contemporary and therefore caught my eye a lot more. The church is spectacularly decorated and there’s a lot to see, so worth the entrance fee in our opinion, which was around $10us.

The Temple of the Sun, or Qorikancha in its Quechuan name is another great place to visit, especially because it doesn’t come under the ‘Boleto Turistico’ meaning you can pay for it separately. The site provided lots of interesting information about the Incas and it too hosted some interesting artwork. It’s much bigger on the inside than it seems!

I think most would agree, some museums are fascinating but a lot of museums are dreary. Well the first museum on our list, the Pisco museum, is neither, in fact it’s not really a museum at all and I don’t know why it fits into this category...but it does. So, the Pisco museum is more like a bar that serves more pisco cocktails than you can imagine, along with fantastic tapas. This is a real Cusco ‘must’ in our opinion. The food, and of course the cocktails, were amazing. We’re still not too sure about the whole museum element but if you drink enough of the pisco you’ll learn something about the power of alcohol.

The chocolate museum is another which seemed to be good fun. Although we ran out of time to go there it seemed to be half museum, half shop of all things chocolaty.

The Machu Picchu museum is more traditional compared to the other two mentioned. It is however really interesting to learn about the ancient Incan site. We’d recommend going after visiting Machu Picchu so you can relate to the parts of the archaeological site it is talking about.

San Blas
No visit to Cusco is complete without spending an hour or so wondering around the area of San Blas. About 10 minutes walk from the main square, San Blas is perhaps the prettiest area of Cusco and is full of great cafes and restaurants. We found it the best place to get a more exciting set meal (whilst still cheap) and a great budget dinner option.

There are a number of Incan ruins outside and around Cusco, the most famous and most impressive being Saksayhuamán. To visit all of these you’ll need to purchase a Boleto Turistico, which will also grant you access to other Archeological sites across the country. This will set you back $45us approx, or $25us if you have an ISIC student card. For us this wasn’t worth the money as we knew we’d be exploring ruins when visiting Machu Picchu and didn’t feel a strong desire to see more. However if you’re planning on heading to Ollantaytambo shortly after your time in Cusco, the ruins there also require you to purchase the Boleto Turistico and these ruins are particularly impressive, meaning you might want to consider buying the ticket.

Tours from Cusco
There are heaps of different tours that leave from Cusco, some of which are related to Machu Picchu, some not. We did the Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu which was a 4 day tour, as well as the 1 day group hike to Rainbow Mountain, SEE POST, both of which we’d recommend. Other day tours from Cusco include: Sal de Maras tour, Humantay lake tour and various other treks which end up at Machu Picchu.

Spanish School
Walking around the city we noticed a number of places which offered Spanish lessons and it occurred to us that Cusco would be a really nice place to slow down and spend some time to learn Spanish, like we did in Sucre, Bolivia. Here’s a couple of highly rated schools in the city: San Blas Spanish school , Amigos Spanish school 

Volunteering in Cusco
We met someone who had an amazing experience teaching English for some time in Cusco and thought it was a great place to hang out for some time - and we see why! So, if Spanish school isn’t for you, why not try out these websites and see if there’s some volunteering you can do in return for free food and accommodation! Workaway & GoAbroad

Our Top Restaurant pick...
Tacomania- The best Mexican food outside of Mexico! (And not too spicy)

Our Top Cafe pick...
Valeriana - There are a couple of these around town, one near the main plaza and one opposite the Temple of the Sun. Both serves great coffee and top notch cake!

Our Top Bar Pick...
The Pisco Museum! - As we said, not so much of a museum, but this place had a great vibe and nothing was over-priced. The best place to try pisco in all its forms! 

Where we stayed

We stayed at a couple of different places during our time in Cusco. The first was Tayta Wasi. This is a real recommend from us if you're travelling as a couple or with a friend as it offers a decent hotel quality for a cheap hostel price, at around £13/$18us for a room, sleeping two. Its a little further out but the area felt safe and you could reach Plaza de Armas in about 15 minutes by walking.

The second place we stayed was called Munaycha Wasi and was also excellent. We stayed here because our Mums were coming out to visit us and so for 10 days we were a 4 rather than two people. The appartment was in a great location, just outside San Blas and cost around $45us a night which works out even cheaper than the first place per person.

If you're travelling alone or like staying in party hostels then Wild Rover Hostel is for you. So many people we met had a great time there and would recomend it to others.

We really hope this is useful.

Thanks again for reading,

Will & Melissa

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