It’s hard to find a backpacker out there who hasn’t fallen head over heels in love with Peru’s Andean city of Cusco. Snuggled in lush green mountains lies the red roofed city center, where a perfect mix of gastronomical bites, nightlife, and never ending adventures awaits.
You’ve seen pictures of the iconic Machu Picchu, and incredible hikes will take you out to the lands that the Inca built. However, stay right in the city center and you will find enough to keep your backpacking spirits mighty high (Cusco’s location of 3,300 meters will definitely help with this as well)! Stroll through markets of local delicacies, overgrown avocados, and freeze dried potatoes. Stop in to a shaman shop and purchase incense (palo santo) and dead llama fetuses, all in preparation for a blessing to Pachamama (mother earth). Eat like an absolute king, we’re talking vegetarian buffets of quinoa meatballs, seabass sushi dipped in yakatori sauce, huevos rancheros, and avocados stuffed with chicken and beet salad. Party until sunrise, with plenty of places offering live music and enough venues for dancing to burn a hole right through your trekking boots (this is Cusco after all, no need to dress up).
Yes. Most backpackers will agree Cusco is one incredible city.
Places to Stay:
- Milhouse: With a sister location in Buenos Aires this place screams cool (there is even a ball pit in reception). Three floors of entertainment zones and comfy dorm rooms make this place a no brainer. We liked them so much we added them to our list of best hostels in South America!
- Kokopelli: One of Kokopelli’s four locations, the Cusco location is extra charming. With a range of dorm rooms and private options, a great bar (that is well removed from your sleeping accommodations), and a location right in the heart of the city.
Things to Do:
Boleto Turistico: Most of Cusco’s touristic sites are all accessible with the purchase of the Boleto Turistico. The ticket will cost you a flat price of 130 soles And grants you access to the locations for a total of ten Days. Sites include museums which explain the history of the Inca’s, a dance show of traditional Andean dances, and the many ruins around the area (where you really get the bang for your buck). Included is perhaps the most impressive site in the city, Sacsayhuman, where huge ceremonial walls loom over splendid views of the city.
Trekking: The surrounding area gives you plenty of reasons to lace up your hiking boots! There are day long treks into the Sacred Valley or longer ventures for the more hard core backpacker. Most longer hikes end at Machu Picchu, a pretty epic finish!
Machu Picchu: If you’ve come to Cusco it would be silly to miss one of the seven wonders of the world, located just three hours away. If you aren’t keen on setting up a trek to the site you still won’t miss out. Machu Picchu is also accessible by combi to Ollantaytambo, a train to Aguas Calientes, and then a bus to the top. Almost every agency in town can help you out with organizing your transport here.
Chocolate Factory: Located on the Plaza Regocijo is Cusco’s cozy little chocolate museum and store. The place offers a free, but brief, guided tour where you will get to sample a range of chocolate treats – we were huge fans of the chocolate flavored tea! Available for an extra cost are chocolate making classes and cooking classes.
Massages: “Massage lady, massage.” Around every corner you will hear the promise of an end to your aching muscles. One of the cheapest places in South America to indulge, the facilities are not all that impressive, but don’t be deterred these woman are good with their hands!
Visit the Sacred Valley: Just a stones throw away from the city where the Urubamba river starts are the charming villages of the Sacred Valley. In the city you can hop in a combi (collective taxi) that will take you to any of the towns for a ridiculously cheap price. The first town is Pisac, a bustling market town that gets busy on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Make sure to climb the Pisac ruins which offer stunning views of the valley, sip a tea at one of the many bohemian cafes in town, and pick up a couple more Peru sweaters from the market!
Nightlife: If you’ve come to Cusco prepare to get your party on. With so many backpacker’s pouring in and out all of the time you will find something going on every single night of the week. Some of the best places in town include: Nortons, Mama Africa, Mythology, The Muse, and Siete Angelitos.
Rafting: White water rafting trips are available in the nearby Sacred Valley. Group trips are a fun way to meet others in the city and most groups will end the day with a slideshow of the best photos from the trip at one of Cusco’s many bars!
Yoga Classes: Inbound yoga is our favorite studio located in the artisanal neighborhood of San Blas. People say that Cusco has a spiritual heart and what better way to tap into it than with a little yoga?
Markets: Cusco has an exorbitant amount of markets, from artisanal craft stops, to produce centers that will make your head spin, to knock off centers stocked full of fake goods. The central market located across from the San Pedro church is a great place to stop for a bite to eat or simply to sample the range of food products that are unique to the Andean region. We also love the artisanal market on Plateros street and the Molino market for bootleg copies of your favorite television shows and North Face jackets for your treks (even if the labels are sewn on backwards).
Places to Eat:
- KM O: Located in the artsy neighborhood of San Blas this bar/restaurant is a great place to kick off a night out. Serving up heaping plates of flavorful Thai curries and wicked mojitos. Most weekend nights the venue offers live music downstairs, while the second floor remains a place perfect for cozy conversations.
- Los Perros: This couch bar is a long time favorite in the city. Owned by Australians the menu includes a range of dishes which all promise a mighty punch of flavor. We can’t get enough of the wanton appetizer which comes with three decadent dipping sauces. Feeling ravenous? They also serve one of the most massive burgers we’ve ever seen!
- El Encuentro: Located right around the corner from Los Perros this vegetarian hole in the wall offers a killer buffet. For just 6 soles you get a main course, soup, and an unlimited salad bar. This place is for more than just the veggie lovers out there.
- Limo: Dig out your least wrinkly shirt and head over to this swanky eating option. Most likely a wee bit out of your backpacker budget, but worth every penny. With a dining room overlooking the Plaza de Armas and a full sushi and pisco menu, you won’t be disappointed!
- Jacks: There will most likely be a line out the door, indicating that you have made it to one of Cusco’s most talked about restaurants. A welcoming environment serves up some of homes tastiest comforts, huevos rancheros, incredible breakfasts, and hummus and eggplant sandwiches. Backpacker’s you’re in luck!
You can fly straight in to Cusco from Lima, a short one hour flight will deposit you straight into the city. Buses are also available, though the journeys are long and the mountains make for pretty hairy traveling conditions. The journey takes 22 hours from Lima and about 15 from Nasca.
Where to Head Next:
- Manu National Park: Tour operators set up all over town offer excursions into the nearby Amazonian jungle. Most tours are all inclusive and will take you animal spotting into the nearby reaches of the park. However, you can also jump on a bus and tackle the jungle on your own!
- Arequipa: Peru’s southern city of sophistication. Only eight hours away by bus, head here for incredible food and access to some of the world’s most dramatic scenery- volcano treks and canon hikes.
- Lima: The capital of Peru is not necessarily close by, but many travelers head here after their stop in the city of Cusco for onward travel to other locations in South America.
By Tyler Protano-Goodwin