Your First Day
Nothing can fully prepare you for the culture shock when you drive away from the airport (unless you’ve traveled in poor countries before). Ramshackle buildings and piles of rubble near the street can read as “danger signals” to Americans, so you may feel nervous or even threatened when you see the poverty of Cusco. Approach those feelings with curiosity rather than giving in to them.
The altitude will cause you to tire easily, and you may feel like you can’t quite inhale enough. That’s because the air has less oxygen than you’re used to, and your body needs time to figure out how to deal with this. Give it time. Spend your first day relaxing in your hotel, or perhaps exploring the street you are on. If you feel OK, you might want to explore everything that is downhill from your hotel and then return by taxi (grab a business card at your hotel to show the taxi driver). A taxi inside the historic district should cost less than 5 soles.
If you’re staying in the historic area, you’ll find that it looks more like a Medieval European village than a South American city. The streets weren’t built for cars, and are extremely narrow in some places. The sidewalks are so narrow in some places that every time two people meet, someone has to step in the street to pass. Be patient and wait until it is safe to do so.
Walk carefully on the cobblestones, especially if they are wet. Wear comfortable shoes with good grip. If you’re tall, watch your head! Peruvians tend to hang their shop signs pretty low.
When you see dogs in the street, avert your eyes. They are not used to being approached by humans, and could consider eye contact a threat. If possible, alter your path slightly so you’re not directly approaching them either. Generally, if you ignore them, they will ignore you. Please treat all dogs as potentially dangerous.
Practice the same cautions in Cusco that you would in any large city. Don’t walk around with your phone in your hand or visible. Keep cash in a zippered pocket or money belt.. If you must carry a purse, use a small crossbody bag and keep it in front of you. Don’t walk down deserted streets at night, and if you drink, take a taxi back to your hotel. Phone grabs, purse snatchings, pickpocketing, and muggings are the most common risks for tourists. If you practice basic security, you will find Cusco to be a safe place.
Look under the heading Where to Eat below for food safety notes.
Where to Stay
My focus is on hotels that are mid-priced, locally owned, and well-managed with great locations. These are my favorites, in descending price order.
Tierra Viva Cusco San Blas
Calle Carmen Alto 194
Tierra Viva is a locally owned chain of hotels, with several locations around the country and two in Cusco. The San Blas location puts you in easy reach of all the tourist attractions, but in a quieter space where you can rest at night. Rooms here are reasonably priced for most vacationers (Last check: $60 for a single, $70-80 for a double). The hotel offers fresh breakfast, airport pickup, oxygen, and other amenities.
You’ll find plenty of restaurants and shops right on your quiet street. The rooms are bright and clean, and the courtyard is a peaceful oasis of calm.
Apu Huascaran Hostal
Calle Carmen Bajo # 257
Don’t let the word “Hostal” scare you off — this hotel has never disappointed me. The official rate is $65/single or $75/double, but I can usually get it for about half that much with Hotels.com member pricing (membership is free). The staff is delightful, the rooms are comfortable, and breakfast is nice. The location is just at the edge of San Blas, on a corner that’s very tricky to navigate, even on foot. Be careful out there!
Net House B&B
Calle Union 140
Net House is on the third floor of a nondescript building with no elevator, and doesn’t offer the lovely open courtyards of the hotels above. Rooms are small and cramped and water pressure is questionable. But you can get a single room here for about $25, and a double for $35. The staff are just delightful, and they will even cook you a fresh breakfast each morning.
This hotel is located near the San Pedro Market, so it has the advantage of not being uphill from the main plaza. There’s no real signage outside, just look for the label on the door buzzer when you’ve found the address and buzz to be let in. Bonus for budget travelers – there’s a large supermarket across the street.
Where to Eat
These are my favorite places to eat when I’m in Cusco. They are all mid-priced restaurants (entrees between $10-20) located within the Historic District and friendly to tourists.
A Note about Food Safety: It’s mostly the water you need to avoid in Peru. That means using bottled water for brushing your teeth as well as drinking, avoiding ice, and not eating produce that’s been washed but not cooked (i.e. salads, salsas.) Stick to cooked foods or fruits that can be peeled, and if you do your own food prep, wash produce in boiled water.
The restaurants listed below are all “safe spaces” that understand what tourists need. I wouldn’t hesitate to drink water or eat salads in any of these restaurants, and I’ve never gotten sick after eating in any of them.
Morena Peruvian Kitchen
08000 B, Calle Plateros 348
Some of the best food in Cusco is just a few blocks away from the Plaza de Armas. If you’re willing to sacrifice the view and eat in this brightly-lit downstairs location, you’ll be rewarded with excellent food and service. The menu features a wide variety of local favorites, including vegetarian options.
La Bodega 138
You might be surprised to learn that pizza is a very popular Peruvian food. The traditional wood-fired brick ovens found in local restaurants are perfect for creating a delicious thin-crust treat. Toppings vary from what you would find on an Italian pie, but not so much as to be jarring.
La Bodega also serves amazing salads and pastas and has a full-service bar. Very popular spot for lunch or dinner. If the wait is too long here, or you want a less-expensive alternative, visit La Pizza Carlo at Calle 381 Maruri instead. It’s close by and almost as good, with a more casual atmosphere.
Jack’s is the place to go when you want comfort food that reminds you of home. The menu features breakfast, soups, salad, sandwiches, and other flavors from England, the United States, Thailand and Mexico (just like you might find at home). Prices are moderately high, portions are huge. If you come at mealtimes during the high season, you will wait for a table.
The location near the Plaza de Armas makes Jack’s a great place to stop for a quick rest and a shake or fruit frappe.
Gustitos De Loli
Recoleta Angosta 613
Ready for a nice dinner? This tiny restaurant in the San Blas area is one of the best places in the city to try the local cuisine. The menu features Peruvian favorites like quinoa, trout, alpaca, and the local take on fresh pasta, all beautifully prepared and seasoned. Vegetarian options available. Prices are moderate ($10-15 per entree).
Walking here is a bit of an adventure — the road is narrow and the sidewalk even narrower. A true Historic Cusco experience.
Plazoleta Nazarenas 167 | 2nd Floor
On a chilly Cusco evening, it’s heavenly to enter this warm space and eat a spicy stew in front of the fire. The food is a fusion of Peruvian and Venezuelan influences, and most of the offerings are perfectly seasoned stews, served in clay bowls with crusty bread for dipping. The cuisine is very meat-based, and vegetarians will find the offerings limited.
Can’t decide what to order? The carne picante is my favorite!
Calle Teatro 382 | 2nd Floor
I eat at Korma Sutra as often as I can when I’m in Cusco. It’s that good.
If you like Indian food, you will be very happy here. The spice levels run a little high, so be cautious, but the flavors are wonderful and the atmosphere is really pleasant.
What to Do
Cusco is a glorious city, and the Historic District is very compact. You can wander the streets without a plan and you’ll find jaw-dropping views around every corner and stumble onto everything you need, from restaurants to shopping opportunities.
The Plaza de Armas & Cathedrals
.The central Plaza is the heart of historic Cusco. It was the center of the Incan Empire, and the Spaniards built their own plaza and cathedrals over the Incan buildings they demolished.
Every few steps you’ll be offered a massage, a hat, a necklace, a sweater. Learn to brush away the offers with a simple “no thank you” and try not to get irritated — these people are just trying to earn a living in a very hard world.
You’ll also see locals in traditional dress, walking with llamas or carrying baby lambs. They’ll offer you photo opps for just a sol or two, which is a very good price. (one sol is about 30¢ as I write this). They are also trying to earn a living, so please don’t try to sneak their photos.
The Plaza offers remarkable views of the surrounding mountains and you’ll frequently find events there ranging from book sales to dance parades.
Entrance to the Cathedral is free during mass, or 25 soles at other times. It is a glorious piece of architecture. If you’re interested in visiting other religious sites in Cusco, you might be interested in a multi-site Religious Ticket.
Sacsayhuaman (pronounced like “saxy woman” is an Incan site high above the city that was originally part of the Incan center here. If you’ve adjusted to the altitude, you might want to hike up (it’s easy, just start walking up Chokechaka street with Jack’s Cafe to your right and keep going upward). It’s also possible to get a taxi to take you up, or to book a tour. Entry costs about $15. If you are interested in visiting a variety of sites close to Cusco, there is a one-day Touristic Ticket to several sites that costs about $26 or a multi-day ticket to all regional attractions is $46.; you can buy either ticket at the entrance to Sacsayhuaman.
From this height, you can also hike to the White Jesus statue on the neighboring hilltop.
You will find a museum to meet every interest in Cusco. The best-loved Cusco museums include:
- Museo de Arte Precolombino: Pre-Columbian Art Museum
- Museo Inka: Learn about Incan culture
- Museo de Historia Natural: Mostly taxidermy animals, with lots of snakes
- Iglesia y Monasterio de Santa Catalin: Nuns still live here, but it is also an educational site
- Museo de la Coca: Learn about this native plant, so important to local culture
- Museo Machu Picchu: Personally, I wish this museum focused more on the original use of the site, rather than centering its “discovery” by Europeans.
- Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo: Small museum featuring contemporary art
- San Francisco Church and Convent of Cusco: Well worth the 5 soles admission price just to see the view from the bell tower and hear the stories of local history.
You won’t need directions to find the shops, they are everywhere. There are two classes of merchandise on offer: Tourist goods, which use inferior materials but are very reasonably priced, and higher-end goods, which are beautifully hand-crafted from fine materials and tend to be expensive. The higher-end shops are usually closer to the Plazas and are recognizable by the amount of empty space inside the shop.
If you’re in a shop where cheap merchandise is piled in the store, you are more likely to end up with a machine-made wool blanket than a handcrafted alpaca one, no matter what the seller tells you (although an experienced textile artist can probably tell the difference and could find a bargain). But you will find lots of fun souvenirs at great prices in these shops, so keep in mind what your goals are and try not to get frustrated when you hear the “finest baby alpaca” lie over and over. That’s how the game is played here.
Bargaining is part of the game; no one expects you to pay the price they name. It’s a fantasy number. If you say “Oh, no, it’s too much” and start to walk away, they will call out “Wait! How much you pay?,” trying to entice you to come back and play the game “properly.” Try offering half the asking price and see what they say. You’ll know you’ve really heard their bottom price when you try to walk away and they don’t chase you any more. Then you can go back and make the purchase.
San Blas Plaza and Saturday Art Market
The San Blas Plaza (an easy first-day walk if you’re staying at either of the San Blas hotels I recommended above) is the heart of the art district. The streets surrounding the Plaza are lined with unique galleries and some interesting restaurants. (You’ll also find some secure indoor ATM machines on the corner of the Plaza). On Saturday mornings, artists sell their wares in the Plaza at a lively art market.
Maximo Laura Gallery
While most of the textiles you’ll see are traditional designs, Maximo Laura is a Peruvian master weaver who creates stunningly innovative blends of color and light. You’ll see imitations of his style in other galleries around Cusco, but nothing rivals his real work. If you love textiles, or just love art, this is worth your time.
The chef will meet you in front of the San Pedro market for a guided market tour, where you’ll learn a lot about local ingredients. Then they’ll walk you the their kitchen classroom (if you have mobility issues, ask for a taxi) to prepare a delicious multi-course meal.
The facility is very nicely laid out, the menu is delicious, and the recipes taught are very different from the usual fare, making use of unusual local ingredients like freeze-dried potato and inca berry. You’ll also learn to make a pisco sour cocktail.
Massages & Energy Healing
Paramatma Holistic Healing
You will be offered cheap massages every few minutes as you walk near the Plaza de Armas — but of course you get what you pay for, and there is no law in Peru requiring any level of training for massage therapists.
However, if you want a serious massage from a highly trained therapist, you can’t do any better than Druva at Paramatma Healing. Druva charges prices you’d expect to pay in the US, but he delivers a transformative experience. His deep tissue work and Thai massages are the stuff of legends. I like strong pressure, and Druva didn’t disappoint me. Druva speaks quite a bit of English and now has a convenient location near San Blas, on a side street made up of stairs, right around the corner from Gustitos de Loli restaurant.