Updated February 3rd, 2020.
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 centre, 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 centre and you will find enough to keep your backpacking spirits mighty high (Cusco’s altitude at 3,300 meters will definitely help with this as well)!
Stroll through markets of local delicacies, enormous avocados, and freeze-dried potatoes. Stop into a shaman shop and purchase incense (palo santo) and dead llama foetuses, 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 yakitori 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, there’s no need to dress up). Yes. Most backpackers will agree Cusco is one incredible city.
Where to stay in Cusco – Top 3 Hostels!
Located just a stone’s throw from the famous San Pedro Market, Magicpacker Hostel is in a prime spot. They offer a range of dorms and private options as well as boasting a great bar and restaurant upstairs. It is a social hostel without a crazy party atmosphere but Magicpacker is still a great place to meet other backpackers. If you decide to take advantage of the many trips outside of Cusco, they even offer secure luggage storage for guests at no extra charge. Dorm beds start at $8USD per night. Read our full review of Magicpacker Hostel here.
With a sister location in Buenos Aires this place screams fun (there is even a ball pit in reception!). Three floors of entertainment zones and comfy dorm rooms make this place a no-brainer for budget backpackers. Located in an old colonial building with a large courtyard that’s home to bean bags and table tennis tables, this hostel is a great place to meet fellow travellers. They also have an in-house travel agency where you can book a variety of Machu Picchu treks and tours. A basic breakfast buffet is included in the price. A single bed in a dorm room costs $11 USD.
One of Kokopelli’s four locations, the Cusco one 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, this hostel is a big hit with backpackers. Travellers rave about the breakfast buffet with decent coffee and warm bread. With an inner courtyard and sunny common areas, Kokopelli is both a great place to meet travellers and chill out after a long trek! A dorm bed costs just $10 US per night.
Top 13 Things to do in Cusco!
1. Boleto Turistico (Cusco Tourist Ticket)
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 (approx $40 US) and grants you access to the locations for a total of 10 days. Sites include museums which explain the history of the Inca’s, a dance show of traditional Andean dances, and the many Incan ruins around the area (where you really get the bang for your buck). Included is perhaps the most impressive site in the city, Sacsayhuamán, where huge ceremonial walls loom over splendid views of the city.
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 adventures for the more hardcore backpacker. Most longer hikes end at Machu Picchu – a pretty epic finish!
3. 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. If you’re in the process of deciding how you’ll get to the Latin America’s most iconic site, check out our article on the 7 ways to reach Machu Picchu here.
Located on the Plaza Regocijo is Cusco’s cosy 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 flavoured tea! Available for an extra cost are chocolate making classes, workshops and cooking classes where you learn more about how chocolate is made right from the cocoa beans and learn to prepare your own chocolate candies.
5. Treat yourself to a massage
“Massage… lady, massage.” Around every corner of Cusco, you will hear the sweet 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! Why not try a hot stone Inca massage for ultimate bliss!
6. Visit the Sacred Valley
Just a stone’s throw away from the city where the Urubamba River starts are the charming villages of the Sacred Valley. From 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!
Cusco has an exorbitant amount of markets, from artisanal craft stops, to produce centres that will make your head spin, to knock off centres 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 favourite television shows and North Face jackets for your treks (even if the labels are sewn on backwards).
8. Yoga Classes
Inbound yoga is our favourite studio located in the artisanal neighbourhood of San Blas. People say that Cusco has a spiritual heart and what better way to tap into it than with a little yoga at altitude?
Head down to Cusco’s first cat cafe for the opportunity to make some furry friends. Entrance into the cat lounge is 10 soles per persons and all of the money goes towards taking care of the kitties. The cafe also doubles up as an adoption centre which helps to find these cats forever homes.
10. Take a Cooking Class
Whilst in the food capital of South America, why not take a cooking class with the awesome folks at Cusco Culinary. During a full day’s cooking class, you’ll explore a local market and learn more about the ingredients that go into Peruvian cuisine. You’ll learn to make ceviche, causas, how to cook quinoa and other Peruvian delights. You’ll even learn how to make the perfect Pisco Sour. Oh and of course, you’ll get to taste all the food that you’ve cooked! You can read more about our cooking class in Cusco here and book a place!
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.
Whitewater 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!
13. Check out one of Peru’s Rainbow Mountains
Vincuna Rainbow Mountain is a hugely famous tourist attraction outside of Cusco. However, with increased visitor numbers, it could be fair to say that the colourful mountain is now simply too popular for a lot of backpackers wanting to get off the beaten track.
To make sure you don’t miss out on this natural marvel and also to get a chance this landscape without crowds of people, head to the ‘Alternative’ Rainbow Mountain. Palccoyo (or Palcoyo) is a much less visited mountain in the Rainbow Mountain range and offers a more exclusive experience for visitors.
Places to Eat in Cusco
While we’re on the topic of food, here are some must-try restaurants and cafes in Cusco!
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!
KM O: Located in the artsy neighbourhood of San Blas this bar/restaurant is a great place to kick off a night out. Serving up heaping plates of flavourful Thai curries and wicked mojitos. Most weekend nights the venue offers live music downstairs, while the second floor remains a place perfect forcosyy 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!
Getting to Cusco:
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: Ready for a change of scene (and temperature)? 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!
Nasca: Always wanted to lay your eyes on the famous Nasca Lines? These ancient geoglyphs in the Peruvian desert have been puzzling archaeologists for years. In Nasca, you can take a short flight to see the 10,000 lines in all their glory.
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 canyon hikes.
Lima: The capital of Peru is not necessarily close by, but many travellers head here after their stop in the city of Cusco for onward travel to other locations in South America.