Cusco is a popular tourist destination in Peru. Once the historical capital of the Incan Empire, it is now a major launching point for tourists visiting ruins in the Sacred Valley and of course the Incan city of Machu Picchu.
Language: Spanish – Not spoken as fast as Chilean or Argentinean Spanish, and without the famous “sh” sound so ubiquitous in Argentina, I found Peruvian Spanish to sound surprisingly “normal” to my ear. While I personally prefer the soft “lisp” unique to Spanish in Spain (Spanish Spanish?), I appreciated the relative easiness of Peruvian Spanish, especially after traveling in Chilean and Argentine Patagonia. While in and around Cusco, I noticed occasional words in another language, Quechua. While Spanish seemed pretty universal in Cusco, Quechua is the indigenous language of the Incas and today is the most widely spoken language native to the Americas. It tends to be more common in the remote farming areas outside Cusco. A phrase I learned from a local group of helpful boys on a fieldtrip (who also spoke Spanish) was “su-mak-ketch-ka-SAN-kee.” It means “you’re a beautiful girl,” the phrase they most wanted to be able to say in English.
Currency: Peruvian Nuevo Sol (S/.) – Over the course of my trip in late 2014 and early 2015, the exchange rate averaged S/.3 per 1 USD. A basic local meal (potatoes, a little meat, and a few vegetables) cost 6-8 soles and quite descent fare (or a hostel room) could be had for 15 soles. The downside, though, is that many places don’t take big bills because they only have small change. I once ate at a restaurant where the waiter had to go to a bank to get change for my 50 soles note (about $15). For what it’s worth, both times that I ate a restaurant meal for under S/.5 I had stomach problems and diarrhea afterward. Yet I never had a problem with any street food.
Getting in: No visa is required for US citizens traveling to Peru. When you enter Peru, a customs officer will ask how long you plan to stay in Peru. You should be able to request up to 180 days. (As a word of caution though, the number they write in your passport may not be the same as what they put into the computer system. At least, it happened to me. When you leave, you’ll be fined $1 for every day you overstay.)
Getting around: There are lots of taxis and buses in Cusco. For getting to the surrounding areas, shared taxis (or colectivos) can be used, and many depart from the Pavitos colectivo station.
When to visit: The rainy season in the Cusco area occurs from December to April. The best time to visit Machu Picchu is during the rest of the year, though I would recommend the months right before and after the rainy season when there’s a little more greenery and fewer tourists. The Inca Trail is closed in February each year.
How to visit: Using American Airlines miles is the best way to get to Cusco, and it only costs 35,000 round-trip from the US or Canada (easily obtainable with a single credit card bonus). Using United miles is also an option, but it will cost you 40,000. If you plan on paying for a ticket, it’s common to fly into Lima and then buy a separate ticket from there to Cusco. The prices change based on the season, but a round-trip to Lima will cost between $500 and $800 and the second ticket to Cusco will probably cost between $200 and $300 more round-trip. The other option is to bus from Lima to Cusco which takes about 24 hours and costs $40 one-way. However, if you bus I’d recommend both choosing a well-known company and bringing anti-nausea pills for the winding roads.
Highlights of Cusco:
Once the capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco was captured by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Even today the identity of Cusco and Peru is still closely tied to the Incas. Incan ruins contribute significantly to Peru’s economy, helping make tourism the third largest industry in Peru. The most famous Incan ruin, Machu Picchu, is visited by a million people every year. The best way to see Machu Picchu if you have the time is to hike there over the Inca trail. To do this you’ll have to go through a tour company (it’s the law) and the hike will take several days. However, there are other ways to visit as well if you are in a time crunch or on a small budget.
Another partially excavated Incan city (but one that you can only reach by hiking and which therefore doesn’t have anywhere near as many tourists) is Choquequirao. Here’s a 360 panorama I took of part of the site (it doesn’t work in older versions of Chrome):
Cusco is near the Sacred Valley, home to many ruins and famous places near enough to see on a day trip, including ruined towns, restored farming terraces, and salt flats. In addition to the old buildings inside Cusco’s historic center, right outside is an old fort called Sacsayhuaman, famous for its incredibly large stones and built on a hill overlooking the sprawling modern city. To visit most historical sites requires an entrance fee, so if you plan on visiting multiple sites it can be worth buying a tourist pass from the government. It’s cheaper than paying all the entrances individually. One ruin that doesn’t require a fee, however, is the Templo de la Luna (temple of the moon) right outside the city. Make sure to visit the cave and altar, said to possibly pre-date the Incas. However, remember that walking up the hills on the sides of the city (and sometimes even just around the main city itself) is more strenuous that it may seem because of the altitude. On the plus side, houses and hostels on the edges of Cusco are often cheaper and have good views.
Ruins aren’t the only attraction. There are many restaurants and plenty of street food. There are also tourist shops around the historic center (generally around the main Plaza de Armas), a local street market called the baratillo, and San Pedro market closer to the main plaza. San Pedro is a bustling covered market the size of a city block that has all sorts of food, trinkets, and clothes. Wherever you go, you’ll find Peruvian food tends to involve lots of potatoes. Papas rellenas are mashed potatoes mixed with vegetables and fried—great street food. Lomo saltado is a common restaurant dish of potatoes, meat, and vegetables that often comes with a soup. Cuy (guinea pig) is also a famous dish for special occasions. My favorite Peruvian dish was rocoto relleno—peppers stuffed with vegetables, meat, and cheese, and sometimes covered in dough and then fried. The signature alcohols from Peru are chicha (made from corn) and pisco (a type of brandy). Personally, I really enjoyed pisco sours but disliked chicha.
It’s worth noting that while there is no violent crime, there are pickpockets. One common method to watch out for (it happened to me and several other tourists I met) starts when someone dumps sand or dirt down the back of your shirt. Upon turning around, you’ll see a helpful person point up at the sky as if it came from above. If you look up, someone will sneak a hand into your pocket to grab your phone or wallet. So use common-sense precautions like not storing your money in your pockets and always be generally aware of your surroundings.
Overall I found Cusco a great place to meet other travelers and locals. It was also a great launching point for visiting the surrounding area. If you plan on staying a while, consider volunteering at an NGO or wwoofing on a nearby farm like I did. Along the way, practice your Spanish and maybe even learn a little Quechua too!