Once considered the spiritual and political heart of the vast Inca empire, Cusco (meaning “centre of the universe” in Quechua) is still one of the most vibrant and historically significant cities in Latin America. Its close proximity to Machu Picchu and some of the country’s best high-altitude trekking have made this enchanting city the centrepiece of nearly every Peru itinerary and cemented its spot on the classic gringo trail, but Cusco is so much more than just a launch-pad to other adventures. It’s honestly impossible not to fall in love— with its intriguing mix of ancient Incan spiritualism, Spanish colonial architecture, and modern Andean culture, just walking down the lively, cobbled lanes of Cusco is like stepping through history.
One of the very first stops on my 3-month trip through South America in 2014, I fell hopelessly in love with Cusco and spent 2 weeks immersing myself in the sights and smells of the area, visiting local markets and just wandering through the narrow streets with no particular agenda. I had an incredible time and was dying to come back, but I spent my second visit a little differently— I wanted to uncover all of the history that I had skimmed over previously. Visiting more ruins and historically significant sites around the city to learn about the rise and fall of the Incas and the Spanish conquest ultimately gave me a much deeper appreciation for this multi-layered city. Use this complete guide to discover both the cultural and historical significance of Cusco, including all the best things to do, where to stay, how to get around, and how to deal with the altitude.
What's in this travel guide
1 | Plaza de Armas
The main square of any South American city is its lifeblood, and Cusco’s impressive Plaza de Armas is no exception. Flanked by the Catedral de Cusco and the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, the Plaza once functioned as the Incan main square Huacaypata (before the bloody arrival of the Spanish) and remains today a gathering place for tourists and cusqueños alike. At any time of the day, a flurry of activity fills the square with the sounds and smells of Cusco, and this is one of the very first places you should visit.
The Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús was built by the Spanish in the late 1500s directly atop the Incan temple Amaru Cancha, as the invaders were wont to do, but is undeniably stunning and something of a Cusco icon today. It’s possible to tour the inside of the church and see the ornate gold-leaf detailing around the altar, but the view from the steps of the Catedral de Cusco is enough for most.
Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús
Looking into the Plaza de Armas
Pachacuti statue in the Plaza de Armas
Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús
2 | Drink pisco sours at a rooftop bar
Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru and one of the country’s greatest inventions, is a sweet and tangy concoction served at every restaurant and bar in Cusco. It would be criminal to visit without trying at least one, but the very best way to enjoy your new favourite drink is from a terrace or rooftop bar overlooking the city.
Tip:Limbus Restobar is one of the most popular rooftop bars in Cusco, but it can get really busy around sunset. If you want to enjoy the view without the crowds, go mid-morning when you’ll have the place entirely to yourself.
Maracujá Pisco Sour
Cocktails at Limbus Restobar
3 | Koricancha & Iglesia de Santo Domingo
At its height, the Incan empire included more than 10 million people and countless holy temples, but the single most important religious site in the entire empire, The Temple of the Sun, was located in Cusco. Koricancha was built to honour the sun god, Inti, and is said to have been covered in gold, including a beautiful sun disc that perfectly reflected sunlight during the summer solstice into a sacred space where the Inca himself would sit.
Sadly, the bulk of these treasures were destroyed in a deal that Atahualpa, the last Incan emperor, made with one of the Spanish conquistadors— in exchange for his life, Atahualpa agreed to fill an enormous room twice with silver and again with gold for the Spaniards. Koricancha was largely stripped of its ornamentation, as were countless other temples throughout the empire, and all of the precious metals were melted down to fulfil the agreement. In the end, they killed Atahualpa anyway.
In what is perhaps the best metaphor for colonialism in Peru, the Spaniards further looted Koricancha over the following years and then built a Catholic church, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, on its foundations. It’s impossible to miss this beautiful church as you walk around the city, but I’d highly recommend a specific visit to the site. You can walk through some of the remaining parts of Koricancha and enter the Iglesia (S/10; open 8.30am-5.30pm all week and noon-5pm Sunday).
The view from Koricancha
Courtyard in the Iglesia de Santo Domingo
4 | Rainbow Mountain
Dozens of travel agencies in Cusco offer day hikes out the famous Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca) for as little as S/80, which includes return transport to the trail head (3.5hrs each way). However, if your goal is to see Rainbow Mountain with as few people as possible, it might be worth considering one of the more expensive tours that will get you there first, plus all the fancy trimmings.
This isn’t my usual travel style, but I splurged on a tour with Flashpacker Connect (S/500 for a 1-day tour) and it was amazing to be the first ones to the top (you’ll be departing Cusco around 2.15am but, again, SO worth it).
Another excellent option is to visit the “alternative Rainbow Mountains” at Polccoyo. Tours to this area (S/90) visit a number of different rainbow-hued mountains which, if slightly less spectacular than Vinicunca, completely make up for it in amazing glacier views and a complete lack of tourists.
If you are trying to decide between Polccoyo and Vinicunca, I’ve hiked to both and written a comprehensive comparison that should help you choose COMING SOON
The “other” rainbow mountains at Polccoyo
Hiking at Polccoyo
6 | Free walking tour of the city
One of the best introductions to Cusco and a great way to learn more about its history is to join a free walking tour of the city. I absolutely love these and look for them everywhere I go— they are a great way to orient yourself when you arrive in a new place, discover interesting sites that you might want to spend more time exploring later, AND make new friends!
There are a few companies operating free walking tours in Cusco, but I’d definitely recommend Inkan Milky Way. This indigenous-operated company had outstanding reviews on TripAdvisor and their tour around the Centro Histórico was fantastic!
Tip: Even though the tour is technically free, it’s usually expected to give a tip (S/10-20 is plenty).
Minor Basilica de la Merced
7 | The Sacred Valley
Just north of Cusco in the shadow of the Peruvian Andes, the lush Urubamba Valley once formed the heart of the Incan empire and was an important agricultural area supplying food for the surrounding regions. Now, this approximately 100km-long valley is home to some of Peru’s most impressive ruins outside of Machu Picchu. Easy day trips include Pisac, Moray, Chinchero, and Ollantaytambo, all of which can be organised independently or booked as a tour from town.
Tip: If you’re interested in exploring the Sacred Valley, you should consider buying a full Boleto Turísticofor access into a number of sites around Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The ticket is S/130 and valid for 10 days; purchase it directly from any of the sites, including Moray, Ollantaytambo, and Pisaq.
Moray in the Sacred Valley
Incredible Sacred Valley scenery
8 | Via ferrata climbing & ziplining
For those seeking a more adventurous day trip to the Sacred Valley, Natura Vive operates via ferrata climbing and ziplining tours for S/275, including transport from your hostel in Cusco or the Sacred Valley. It’s also possible to join a via ferrata only tour or a ziplining only tour (each S/180), while those looking to splurge on the afternoon can include lunch in the SkyLodge with their via ferrata and zipline for a whopping S/880.
Climbing high over the Sacred Valley for an incredible condor’s view of the stunning landscape before soaring down to the valley floor on a series of exhilarating zip lines is the most exciting way to experience the Sacred Valley and one of my very favourite adventures around Cusco!
Andean ladies decked out in traditional garb are often seen wandering around the streets of Cusco with their alpacas and llamas, ready and willing to accept a few soles in exchange for a touristy photo (S/1-2 per lady is a good amount). A lot of the baby animals aren’t actually llamas or alpacas, but goats and sheep— nonetheless, SO cute.
Gimmick aside, patting a llama and snapping a few photographs with your new best friend is a rite of passage for travellers to Peru. Celebrate the friendship by indulging in a few alpaca jumpers, scarves, or socks, all of which combine to form the official Gringo Uniform of Peru.
Baby goat or baby llama, it’s anyone’s guess
Adorable alpaca around Cusco
Rasta llama at Puka Pukara
Making llama friends in Cusco
10 | San Blas
Sitting on the hills of Cusco, this hip and trendy neighbourhood is overflowing with local artisan shops, picturesque cobbled lanes, and the city’s best cafes. Coupled with fantastic views of the rest of the city, this is many travellers’ favourite spot in Cusco.
To explore San Blas, walk less than 10 minutes from the Plaza de Armas (the bustling main square) to the tiny Plaza San Blas on Calle Carmen Bajo. This square is lined with terrace cafes and the surrounding streets are equally interesting to explore. Check out some of my favourite spots in San Blas:
Mirador San Blas: The perfect place to watch the sunset over the ochre roofs of Cusco, this viewpoint is only about 200m from Plaza San Blas along Calle Tandapata.
Limbus Restobar: Widely regarded as one of the most scenic bars in Cusco, expect crowds but also some pretty incredible sunset views from the terrace. Book in advance if you want to go in the evening, or go in the morning to avoid queuing for a photo. The bar is on Calle Pasñapakana.
View House Restobar: Located on Kiskapata just behind Limbus, this bar is another great option for sunset that can often be less crowded than Limbus.
San Blas Artisans Market: On Saturday mornings, sunny Plaza San Blas is filled with stalls selling everything from artisan jewellery and alpaca scarves to paintings and leather goods.
Iglesia de San Blas: Climb the bell tower of this charming little Spanish church right on Plaza San Blas for excellent views of Cusco and Iglesia Sán Cristobal.
Tip: On your way to San Blas from the Centro Histórico, be sure to stop by the 12-Angled Stone on Calle Hatunrumiyoc (more details below).
Plaza San Blas
Iglesia de San Blas
View from Limbus Restobar in San Blas
Overlooking Plaza San Blas
Markets in San Blas
11 | Ausangate Circuit
The Incas believed that the Andes were an intensely spiritual and sacred place, each of the country’s tall peaks seen as divine spirits that provided a link between the human realm and the sky. At 6,384m, Ausangate was considered to be one of the holiest mountains, so a trek around its base is every bit as mystical as it is breathtakingly scenic. This is a moderately challenging 70km hike at high altitude that is typically completed in 4 days, either with or without a tour group, and is sure to be a highlight of your time in Cusco.
Tip: For those trying to cram in as much as possible, consider hiking an abbreviated 2-day Ausangate route, incorporating the best scenery from the traditional Ausangate Circuit with a visit to Rainbow Mountain($350USD), or the 1-day 7 Lagunas tour offered by several travel agencies in town (S/100).
So much more than just a rock, this famous 12-angled stone forms part of the Lienzo Pétreo wall on Calle Hatunrumiyoc and is a great example of the impeccable and puzzlingly precise masonry for which the ancient Incas were known. Without any sophisticated machinery, iron tools, or even mortar, the Incas were able to construct towering temple complexes and vast estates out of often truck-sized stones, perfectly interlocking every piece. Even hundreds of years later, as many Spanish-built churches have crumbled from earthquakes or simply from age, the stones of Inca-built sites around Cusco still fit together like jigsaw pieces, so tightly that even a single piece of paper can’t be slid between individual stones.
Other attractions around Cusco may have more flash and wow-factor, but the 12-Angled Stone and its laser-precise edges is an important legacy of the advanced civilisation that was able to construct, some 600 years ago, structures that continue to baffle modern engineers and archaeologists today.
Tip: If you want to get a good picture of the stone itself, set out early in the morning; otherwise, there are heaps of fewer-angled (but still equally impressive) stones to observe along this wall and at various Incan ruins around the city.
Picture *near* the 12-angled stone
Amazing Inca stonework around Cusco
13 | Sample some of the best local cuisine
Ají de gallina: shredded chicken dish with a fantastic chilli-based sauce, served with rice
Cuy: guinea pig is a traditional Andean meal and, if you can get over eating something so cute, it’s actually quite good
Ceviche: I wouldn’t recommend seafood ceviche in Cusco because, well, it’s a long way from the sea.. but cusqueños love trout and make a fabulous ceviche de trucha
Lomo saltado: a beef and veggie stir-fry with incredible flavour, one of my absolute favourites
Papas a la Huancaina: simple but delicious potato dish with a similar chilli-based sauce to ají de gallina, often accompanied by salty Andean cheese
Chicha morada: the most incredible non-alcoholic drink made from purple corn, tastes like a sugary punch
Emoliente: a hot, slightly thickened drink made from local herbs, typically sold from street vendors around the city
Pisco sour: the national drink of Peru, a cocktail made from Pisco (fermented grape juice), lime juice, and egg white
Inca Kola: delicious soft drink that tastes just like creaming soda
Papa a la Huancaína
There are more than 4,000 varieties of potato in Peru!
Inca Kola [photo from Pinterest]
Street vendor selling Emoliente outside San Pedro Markets
14 | Laguna Humantay
An impossibly blue lake below Humantay Mountain in the Peruvian Andes, Laguna Humantay has recently gained popularity as an excellent day-trip from Cusco. Tours are as cheap as S/65 and include return transportation out to the trailhead at Soraypampa, from which it’s only a 1hr hike up to the Laguna. On a clear day, this is one of the most beautiful views in the world, but be warned that the 4,200m altitude can be really troublesome if you’re not properly acclimatised.
The ruins of Sacsahuamán (pronounced amusingly similar to sex-ay woman) is located on the outskirts of Cusco and is believed to have been the site of the most spectacular complex ever built by the Incas. Although much of the structure was torn apart by the Spanish after their bloody conquest of Peru, archaeologists have speculated that if the complex was left intact, this site would actually be more magnificent than even Machu Picchu (!?).
All that remains of Sacsahuamán now is a three-tiered wall, but even this is impressive— some of the boulders and stones that have been slotted together to form this wall are estimated to weigh as much as 200 tonnes, and yet they are just as laser-cut and perfectly Tetris’d together as the famous 12-Angled Stone in town.
Within walking distance of Cusco city, a number of impressive and lesser-known ruins provide the perfect opportunity to explore Incan history beyond just Machu Picchu. Perhaps the best thing about these ruins is that they are easily accessible entirely on your own, no guide or tour bus necessary— take a break from all the organised tours and instead hit the road yourself on this excellent DIY adventure. For all the details on buying a Boleto Turístico and getting between the sites on your own, check out this post.
For the best view of Cusco, you only need to walk about 1.5km from the Plaza de Armas, uphill through San Blas. A miniature version of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer (although still 8m tall, so not that miniature) sits atop Pukamoqo Hill, and from this spot, you can see the entire city stretch out beneath you, as well as the mountains surrounding Cusco.
Tip: Even though it’s a short walk to Cristo Blanco, it definitely helps to be acclimatised, so maybe save this activity for day 2 or 3.
Looking down at the Plaza de Armas from Cristo Blanco
Looking back at Cristo Blanco from Sacsahuamán
18 | Salineras de Maras
Just outside of Cusco and easily accessible on a half-day trip, the Salineras de Maras are an incredibly impressive collection of some 3,000 salt pans built up the side of a mountain. Believed to have been constructed by the Wari civilisation, the salt mines were greatly expanded by the Incas and used, in conjunction with a natural spring, to harvest enormous amounts of salt from subterranean deposits. Essentially, water flows through the salt deposits and the brine settles into the pans; as the water evaporates, the local Andean people are able to collect the salt and package it for sale.
I joined a quad-biking tour out to the Salineras de Maras and nearby Moray with one of the travel agencies in Cusco back in 2014 (I can’t find the exact website, if they even have one), but this tour is very similar to the one that I enjoyed so much. Just FYI, most tours do not include the S/10 entrance fee (which is also not part of the Boleto Turístico).
Maras, Sacred Valley
Salineras de Maras
19 | Machu Picchu
It’s safe to say that just about every traveller to Peru already has specific plans to see Machu Picchu, an impeccably preserved Incan citadel nestled high in the Andes. One of the 7 Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Machu Picchu is an enduring legacy of the ancient Incas and their astounding architectural achievements, which included constructing terraces in seemingly impossible mountainous locations and entire cities of stone without the use of iron tools or wheeled vehicles.
The Incas also had an incredibly sophisticated understanding of geography and astronomy, calculating the exact angle of buildings to directly face Salkantay or Ausangate mountain in the distance and the precise location of windows so that sunlight would filter through only on the winter solstice. It defies reason that an ancient civilisation could have created something, not just so beautiful, but also so perfect, which is why you need to see Machu Picchu for yourself.
I’ve visited Machu Picchu twice now and I can honestly say that it’s one of the rare sites that actually lives up to all the hype, even on a repeat visit. There are an overwhelming variety of options for visiting, so whether you’re joining a guided tour, taking the train independently, or trekking to the ruins, you can find absolutely everything you need to know about planning your visit to Machu Picchu, including getting there, buying tickets, what to bring, and more in this comprehensive post.
Tip: I’d highly recommend reading Mark Adams’ Turn Right at Machu Picchu before visiting. This book is a perfect synthesis of adventure and history, both of the ancient Incas and Hiram Bingham’s “re-discovery” of the site in 1911, that will give you infinitely more appreciation and context for what you’re about to see. Hiram Bingham’s own account of his expedition (The Lost City of the Incas) is also interesting, but a much drier read.
The top of Huayna Picchu, looking out over Machu Picchu
Golden light at Machu Picchu
The Inti Huatana at Machu Picchu is believed to have been used as a sundial or calendar
Machu Picchu bathed in golden early morning light
20 | San Pedro Markets
For an experience that will overwhelm every single one of your senses, visit the vibrant San Pedro Markets. There are dozens of stalls selling fresh-made juice, alpaca jumpers, nuts, and woolen socks, all alongside whole cow heads and goat tongues hanging on meat hooks.
The lively chatter and strange smells are just about as quintessentially Peruvian as you can get, and the market feels a world away from the orderly shops in the Centro Histórico and San Blas.
Fresh juice at San Pedro Markets
Flowers at San Pedro Market
San Pedro Markets
21 | Catfetín cat cafe
Catfetín is an awesome cafe that also functions as a shelter for stray cats in Cusco, collecting sick kitties off the street, providing them with medical care, and feeding and housing them until they are re-homed. You can support their efforts by grabbing a coffee or delicious crepe from the cafe; entrance to the “cat lounge” is a further S/7, but it’s an extremely worthy cause and such a fun afternoon.
Cusco’s cat cafe
Cuddling kitties at the cat cafe in Cusco
22 | Inca Trail
This is honestly one of the best ways to appreciate Peru’s rich history and natural beauty, and the only way to hike directly to Machu Picchu! Over 43km, hikers struggle up impossibly steep mountain passes, descend through lush, seemingly impenetrable jungle, discover lesser-known Incan ruins, and experience the undeniable mysticism of the Peruvian Andes en route to one of the world’s most spectacular ancient wonders. By the time you arrive at Machu Picchu on day 4, the citadel will be so much more than a photo op.
The government only allows 200 hikers to depart on the Inca Trail each day, all of whom must be accompanied by a registered guide, so it’s recommended to book a trekking tour at least a few months in advance. In 2014, I hiked the Inca Trail with Wayki Trek, a local company who also offers a free community immersion experience the night prior to the trek where we visited a school to sing with the children, helped out on a farm, and spent the evening dancing and laughing in our lead porter’s home. Not only was Wayki Trek‘s commitment to giving back to this rural community thoroughly inspiring, but the quality of the trek itself was worth every penny of the $780USD I paid.
Tip: If you’re having trouble deciding between different trekking routes to Machu Picchu, read this post for a comparison of the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek. I loved them both, but they are definitely different.
Dead Woman’s Pass, the high point of the Inca Trail
Llamas along the Inca Trail
Amazing Inca stonework along the Inca Trail
23 | Iglesia Sán Cristobal
This Spanish church on Plaza Sán Cristobal is another fantastic city lookout, even offering views as far as Ausangate on a clear day. Believed to have been constructed on top of Incan warrior barracks, this church is an excellent example of the often puzzling coexistence of Catholicism and spiritualism in Peru even today— alongside intricate carvings of the Pachamacha (the Andean concept of Mother Earth), Jesus Christ hangs on his cross.
It’s possible to tour the church if you are really fascinated by its history, but the main attraction here is really just the view, which can be enjoyed for free from Plaza Sán Cristobal (Don Bosco), a 10min walk north of the Plaza de Armas.
Tip: If you visit Sacsahuamán, you will walk right through this Plaza on your back down to the Centro Histórico.
View from Sán Cristobal
Iglesia Sán Cristobal
24 | Volunteer through Máximo Nivel
One of the best ways to learn more about life in Cusco and give back to the local community is to undertake a volunteer project with Máximo Nivel. This is an excellent organisation that coordinates volunteers across a number of different areas, including medical placements, construction, animal welfare, conservation, and teaching. Back in 2014, I worked in a medical clinic in Cusco and helped with a jungle conservation project in Manú National Park for two weeks, both of which were unbelievably rewarding.
It is endlessly frustrating to have the time and the desire to volunteer, and yet not be able to afford it, but one of the things that I loved most about Máximo Nivel, other than their wonderful projects, was their reasonable fees— $875 for 2 weeks, which covers all of your housing and food. I set up a GoFundMe page so friends and family could contribute to these fees and it ended up being a fulfilling experience for everyone involved.
Tip: Máximo Nivel also offer private or group Spanish lessons, which are perfect if you’re going to be in Cusco for a week or two and want to brush up on your communication skills (or learn the basics for the first time).
Volunteer in the local community
Volunteer in the local community
25 | Salkantay Trek
Emerging as an excellent alternative to the pricey, often sold-out Inca Trail, the 70km Salkantay Trek traverses high mountain passes and stunning alpine scenery to reach the incredible ruins of Machu Picchu on day 4 or 5 of the trip. The route itself may not be as historic as the Inca Trail, nor does it arrive directly at Machu Picchu (you’ll trek to Aguas Calientes and then enter through the main gates with everyone else), but the landscape is arguably even more impressive.
Unlike the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek has no daily limit on the number of hikers (and is no where near as popular), so it’s entirely possible to book this trek closer to your travel dates or even solo hike this route without a guide. I went on the 4-day tour with Salkantay Trekking ($400USD) and I honestly can’t say enough good things about the experience. Tours depart Cusco just about every day of the year, but I’d recommend the Andean summer (June-September), as the dry, clear days tend to make for perfect trekking weather.
Incredible night in the Sky Domes along the Salkantay Trek
Stunning Apu Salkantay
Getting to Cusco
Many visitors will catch an inexpensive flight from Lima to Cusco (1.5hr, S/130-300) and then take a S/15-25 taxi from the airport into the city; this is the best option if your main objective is to get there quickly and comfortably.
My first time in Peru, I was determined to save a few Soles and opted instead to take a 24hr bus ride over the Andes (S/80-120). It ended up being the most excruciating journey of my entire life and I spent most of the day laying in the aisle of the bus near the toilet because I was too sick to even sit up. Likely a combination of severe motion sickness, wild driving on windy roads, and the dramatic increase in altitude, I got off the bus convinced that I had made a grave and stupid mistake for the sake of a few dollars. I can’t stress this enough: do not take the bus. If you are travelling from Lima to Cusco, look for an inexpensive flight with Latam, Viva Air, Peruvian, or Sky.
From Paracas or Arequipa
There are other (far better) ways to get to Cusco than flying from Lima, though! I’d definitely recommend taking some time to see the coast, including Paracas, Huacachina, Nazca, and Arequipa, en route to Cusco.
From Arequipa, buses are well-timed so that you can depart after dinner and arrive to Cusco first thing in the morning (10hrs, S/40-80). Use RedBus to find bus times.
Peru Hop also drives the routefrom Arequipa to Cusco, including a few interesting stops and some much-needed stretch breaks over the 12hr journey.
Thankfully, Cusco is a relatively compact and very walkable city, which makes it easy to get around! From the Plaza de Armas, you can walk to either San Blas or San Pedro Markets in under 10min and up to Sacsahuamán in under 30min. The cobbled lanes and beautiful buildings make it one of the best cities to explore, so expect to be stopping frequently for photos.
Colectivos, Uber & taxis
If you want to visit one of the more distant points around Cusco (like Tambomachay, the bus terminal, etc) there are colectivos (shared minibuses), Ubers, or taxis that can get you there very inexpensively— usually S/1-2 for a colectivo and S/5-8 for an Uber or taxi from one side of town to the other.
If you have wifi or a SIM card, I’d recommend Uber as a generally safer, slightly cheaper, and more convenient option. If you do need to take a taxi, it’s unlikely you’ll have any difficulty flagging one down on the spot, just be sure to negotiate a fair price with the driver before departing, as meters are pretty uncommon.
Where to stay in Cusco
Unlike other cities in South America where you can just arrive and find somewhere to stay on the fly, it’s a good idea to book your room in Cusco online, as the best places tend to fill up quickly. Millions of people visit Cusco every year, with a particularly large influx during the austral winter, so you’re more likely to snatch a good room at a decent price if you plan ahead.
The very best areas to stay in Cusco are either San Blas or the Centro Histórico. San Blas is a trendy, artsy neighborhood on the hills of Cusco, still within walking distance of the Plaza de Armas but also located near some of the best artisan markets, coffee shops, and Sacsahuamán. Expect accommodation here to be slightly more expensive, but the views and atmosphere are surely worth the price. The Centro Histórico is also a wonderful place to stay, perfectly located for access to any of Cusco’s main attractions and with a wide variety of hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs on offer. I would suggest looking for a hostel near either the Plaza de Armas or Koricancha, as these areas are super central.
Kokopelli: My absolute favourite hostel in Cusco is Kokopelli, which is slightly more expensive than other dorm rooms, but worth every sol. They offer pod-style dorm beds (S/50) that make it feel like you’re in a private room, a great free breakfast (or free packed lunch if you’re departing on an early morning tour), on-site tour booking, and a lively bar and restaurant with surprisingly reasonable prices.
Loft in Cusco: If you’re travelling with friends or family, another highly recommended option is this awesome Airbnb near Koricancha. There are 2 levels with multiple beds, a full kitchen, and lots of space to hang out. Plus, it’s super reasonably priced!
Where to eat in Cusco
Organika: Without a doubt one of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at ever, this organic farm-to-table Peruvian fusion restaurant serves food grown in the Sacred Valley. I’d highly recommend the alpaca steak and the mint lemonade, but honestly, I tried my friend’s meals too and it was all incredible.
Rucula: One of Organika’s sister restaurants, this is an Italian-inspired restaurant with homemade pasta, pizza, and meat dishes.
The Meeting Place: Charming cafe in San Blas serving huge plates of breakfast food, like drool-worthy waffles.
San Pedro Markets: Eat like the locals at the Markets, where you can get a delicious, authentic meal from one of the stalls at the back for just a few soles.
Restaurante Qori Sara: For an incredibly inexpensive Peruvian meal, try the S/10 menu del día at this local restaurant on Plaza San Francisco. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but for the price, it’s still bloody good.
Antojitos Cusco: Authentic but inexpensive Peruvian food off the menu del día.
Churro stand near Plaza Limacpampa: There are street vendors all over the city selling incredible churros (slightly different to the Mexican variety you might be imagining), but this seems to be a pretty consistent spot to find them.
Dealing with the altitude
Considering that altitude begins to affect our bodies at 2,500m and Cusco sits at 3,400m, there is a very real possibility that you will experience some symptoms associated with the altitude while exploring the former Incan capital. In most cases, your physiological response to the altitude won’t amount to anything more than some shortness of breath walking up stairs and minor lightheadedness— basically, you’ll just feel really unfit for a few days after you arrive in Cusco.
However, some people might suffer from altitude sickness (Acute Mountain Sickness) and experience symptoms like headache, feelings of dizziness or nauseous, difficulty eating, exhaustion, and diarrhoea/vomiting. According to recent research, only about 17% of travellers to Cusco will experience true altitude sickness, but you should still know how to recognise AMS early and take appropriate preventative/treatment steps just in case.
Get a SIM card when you arrive in Peru, as this well enable you to use Google Maps and Uber to get around in Cusco. Claro and Movistar are the main providers, but Bitel also offers good packages specifically for travellers: get 20GB of data, 500min calling, and international call credit for S/49.
Avoid pulling money out of any GlobalNet ATM (these are located in the airport and scattered throughout the city), as they charge a much higher fee than other ATMs.
Even as a solo female traveller, I felt totally safe carrying my camera and handbag aroundin Cusco at all hours of the day and night. As long as you take basic safety precautions, you’ll be right (so leave the weird nude-coloured money belt at home).
As with all places in Peru, a basic knowledge of Spanish is pretty much essential for visiting Cusco. At minimum, make sure you know how to check-in to a hostel, order food, ask for directions, and buy bus tickets in Spanish, because it’s pretty rare for anyone to speak English outside of tour companies. That being said, Peruvian people are amazingly friendly and truly want to help, so they will go out of their way to understand you even if your Spanish is somewhat clumsy and you can’t remember the exact word for something.