The once capital of Inca time, Cusco is such a sight to behold. A city laced from top to bottom with stone; pebble stones from rivers, eroded stones from the bottom of lakes and large boulders, all mismatched to clash and complement.
The best part? The Incans so brilliantly designed and built Cusco to represent one of the Incan deities, the Puma. Like, how did they do that?!
These fascinating streets, again, all of which are aligned with stone cut to perfection, the Incas didn’t believe in mortar and instead crafted the large rocks to perfectly slot into each other. Still to this day, thanks to the genius architecture, the slightly slanted Cusco city walls stand tall and proud, having withstood a number of earthquakes over the years.
As you can probably tell, I’ve never felt so intrigued by walls and paths in all my life!
And just like the thousands of tourists who visit Cusco each year, we arrived pumped and ready to explore but even more so, ready to embark on a journey to the nearby Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.
But before racing off towards the world wonder, or the valley of the Incas, take a day or two to walk the diamond-shaped pathways, explore the cobblestone streets, marvel at the towering arched cathedrals and watch over the bright orange-slabbed rooftops.
Visit the nearby ruins, hike the hugging mountains, stroll around one of the three main markets, lounge in the local parks and take advantage of the many ‘Free Walking Tours’.
Whether you are a history buff or not, every corner will deliver some sort of historical reference, or share an insight into the genius race that was the Incas. You really don’t need to spend money to learn here. In fact, we urge you not to spend at all. Save your budget for Machu Picchu and The Sacred Valley.
So although one might say we didn’t do much, we still left content and satisfied. Here, we didn’t feel the pressure to see and do everything. Know that by simply walking down the street, you’ll see and or learn something new. Not many cities can offer such an experience.
So enjoy our very quick guide to Cusco City, we hope any or all of the below can help in some way.
Table of Contents
From Arequipa to Cusco:
For many, Arequipa is usually the stop after Cusco. But since we were travelling from the jungle, we enjoyed a few days in the white city before hitting up the home of the Sacred Valley.
Either way, if you’re coming from or going to Arequipa, the below still applies including prices and times.
Walk or take the local 1 sol (€0.25) bus to Arequipa’s Terminal Terrestre.
Nearly every company has a bus running to Cusco, overnights run right up to 10.30 pm. We went with the company Romeliza for 30 sol (€8) pp.
We decided on the 8.30 pm bus and booked it around 5 pm. The bus was empty when we chose our seats, so I wouldn’t worry about advanced booking.
The staff were very helpful and happily stored our bags from 5 pm, for free. Always a winner in our books. The 10-hour journey was quick and comfortable, and there were free snacks! Living like kings, lads.
We would certainly use this company again, and not just because we found a passenger’s puppy under our seat. But that was a nice cuddly bonus.
Accommodation in Cusco:
We stayed within walking distance from both the bus terminal and the Plaza de Armas, in a beautiful neighbourhood called Wanchaq.
We opted for a guesthouse and pre-booked Casa Ananta Family House via Booking.com, ahead of our arrival. The cheap €10 per night, for a private room with a shared bathroom, was too good to pass up.
It’s clean, and quiet, with a comfortable common area, a strong connecting Wi-Fi and a kitchen. However, let it be known that it costs an extra 15 sol (€4) to use the kitchen, something they should really advertise on Booking.com.
On arrival, make it clear that you’re only willing to pay the flat rate kitchen fee. Frustratingly, the day before our departure, the owner tried to charge us 10 sol per day stating “We use the kitchen a lot” (Of course we do, mate. We’re budget backpackers, and you’re budget accommodation!).
The issue was soon resolved when we point blank refused to pay.
The family itself lives on the grounds but in another guesthouse. They’re always on call to help and will pop in throughout the day. You can book any tours you wish with the owner, trips to Machu Picchu start at around €100.
Things To Do in Cusco:
There is plenty to witness around the uneven streets of Cusco city. As I said, merely strolling around Puma town will provide some form of entertainment or learning experience.
Here are a few ideas that will cost you nada.
Free Walking Tour:
We know, we know. A walking tour is ALWAYS on the list but rightly so. It’s our ‘go-to’ when we arrive at any location that offers one. It always beats the tourist hop on/hop off buses, is the most effective way to see the key locations and attractions, it’s an opportunity to meet a local who is willing to answer any and all of your questions, and IT’S FREE. Well, donation based but that’s a given.
In Cusco you will find umpteen Free Walking Tours, too many if you ask us. Based on reviews and self-glorifying websites, it was difficult to pick the ‘right one’. Some offer freebies in the form of food, pisco sours and snacks, along the way (a sure tell-tale sign that the walking tour is used to promote local businesses. Not always a bad thing but not always informative!).
In the end, we went with the one-man show and tour guide Jose, from Free Walking Tour Cusco (red t-shirt and body warmer). We were hugely impressed and satisfied.
With a small group of 6, Jose told us everything there is to know about Cusco.
The tour was based mostly around the Centro Historico, so while we didn’t visit San Blas or San Pedro, Jose brought us to many points of interest, with all of his attention on the infrastructure of the city. He told us all about the basic facilities, and installations needed for the functioning of the community, dating back to Inca years.
He is the reason I’m now obsessed with Inca walls and while two of the other tourists seemed bored, we were fascinated and hooked on his every word.
Passing young women cradling baby llamas, fully dressed in their rainbow attire, Jose explained the high-waisted skirts with colourful blouses and wide flat hats. A hat with flowers symbolises the woman is single, with no flowers they’re married and the taller or deeper the hat, the more status the wearer has.
He also advised us that if you want photos with the women and llamas, you’ll need to fork out. However, in the Sacred Valley, you’ll get your Instagram shot for half the price.
The three-hour tour, which leaves from Plaza de Armas, and runs three times a day every day (9.30 am, 12.30 pm and 3.30 pm) ends with an optional trip to the Cristo Blanco. You will cab share and split the small cost of 10sol (€2.60).
At this point, the four other walkers had bailed, two had already seen the Cristo Blanco and the other two were lost in translation after the whole ‘stone wall’ thing.
Normally we would visit something like the Cristo Blanco in our own time, without taking a cab. Instead, we enthusiastically joined Jose to the top, making the most of our now private tour guide, soon turned friend.
En route, the cab stopped at a viewing point of Saqsaywaman (pronounced ‘sexy woman’, I shit you not!) and here Jose shared some Inca history and theories.
After a visit to Cristo Blanco, where Jose doubled as our personal photographer, we made our way back to the Plaza de Armas on foot, swapping stories and asking a handful of silly questions along the way.
For us, Jose made this tour. His knowledge and passion, mixed with his great sense of humour, meant we formed an instant bond.
You could now go as far as saying we’re biassed.
Visit Cusco Cathedral For Free:
We’ve been a little deterred from visiting Cathedrals as of late. It’s blasphemous! But the Cusco Cathedral stands proud, intriguing and not your average-looking cathedral; built sideways instead of lengthwise.
It costs around 25 sol (€7) to enter and explore, however, if you visit before 10 am, and attend the morning mass, you can freely explore the grounds afterwards at no cost.
Visit the Nearby Incan Ruins
Only 5km from the Plaza de Armas, make a day out of it by taking a local bus to Tambomachay and descending all the way back to the city; visiting ruins such as Pukapukara, Temple of the Moon, Q’enqo And The Temple of the Monkey along the way back.
Usually to enter you need to pre-purchase a ‘boleto turistico’ which allows you access to 4 ruins at the price of 70 sol (€19). You can buy this ticket at the Ministerio de Cultura near the Plaza de Armas.
For the cheap-skates like us, we shared a detailed guide on how best to avoid this cost, and instead play ninjas, and have some fun sneaking into 6 out of 8 ruins.
It deserved its own blog post, so here it is.
San Blas Neighbourhood:
A quirky neighbourhood with such hipster vibes, walk from the Plaza de Armas to its beautiful mini plaza and join the locals for a rest in front of the fountain. Take the stairs over the mini plaza and walk the skinny streets that sneakily climb up over the city.
The views as the sun sets are simply gorgeous. To your right, the rooftops of Cusco, to the left mismatched houses, all crammed on top of one another, queue up the overlooking mountain.
It’s also worth noting that any and every type of gringo food can be found here. We were tempted by Shepard’s Pie, but the budget prevented it!
San Blas’ small market, compared to other Wanchaq and San Pedro, is a compact room of madness. Grab a cheap 1 sol mora and breathe it all in, even the usually rotten smell of gutted fish is refreshing here.
Whether you took our advice above or not, a visit to the Cristo Blanco is worth the shapely walk in the sun.
Cusco’s answer to Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer, it’s basically a giant Jesus overlooking the city. Let’s just say he has the best view in the house, so go share it with him.
There is a path and stairs that lead directly from the corner of the Plaza de Armas.
Facing the church, take the top left-hand corner or ask any local. Follow the streets and take the next set of steps on your right. You will eventually arrive at another church. Cross the church grounds and follow the main road to the stairs that are signposted for Saqsaywaman.
Here you will be asked to show your ‘boleto touristico’ but if you explain you are going to Cristo Blanco, they should let you in.
Walk up the steps and take the nearest right towards Cristo. You won’t be able to walk to the very top of said stairs, they’re way more strict with tickets there. Suppose, you are technically on the Saqsaywaman site.
On the off chance they won’t permit you to enter the stairway, continue to follow the main road, a longer walk yes, but rewarding.
Thanks to our readers Janna and Jouke for letting us know that there is a local bus that departs around 100 metres from the corner of Avenida Prado and San Andres (Google Map link) for 1 sol (€0.25) pp. The bus will have ‘Cristo Blanco’ displayed on its front and side. It is possible to take the same bus up and back as it stops at the Cristo Blanco for 15 minutes. Although, as Janna and Jouke say “walking back is more fun” and we couldn’t agree more.
A taxi will take no more than 10 minutes and costs 10sol (€2.60) in total. If you are looking at taking a taxi, why not go with the Free Walking Tour Cusco, split the costs and have a free guide?
Visit the Wanchaq Market:
Having visited San Pedro, San Blas and Wanchaq Market (for non-spenders, we have such a thing for markets), our favourite has to be Wanchaq. Not only is its maze-like self the biggest but since the other two are more popular among tourists, you’ll be the only gringos in town here.
Fruit and veg are so cheap, however, we found staples such as rice to be more expensive than in other markets and cities around the country.
For these, we headed to the nearby Orion supermarket where, unfortunately, rice, pasta and porridge were much cheaper. We say unfortunately as we always and I mean always prefer to put our money in the hands of locals.
OK, so it’s a standard park and wouldn’t be near as beautiful as Plaza de Armas, San Francisco etc. but I found myself here on more than two occasions, and each time I thoroughly enjoyed the vibes.
And sure, if you’re visiting the market why not pop over to the nearby plaza?
Busier in the late afternoons, the park is alive with teens practising traditional dance, buskers performing Andean music and locals enjoying their street food. There is more of a local vibe here, and before you wonder if it is safe. I was on my own in this park after 8 pm and it was so lively, open and police on foot patrol, you can’t help but feel comfortable.
After a cheap and cheerful few days, we took some time to acclimatise while making the most of the city on a budget.
As you can tell, the above cost very little so we left feeling accomplished and content, ready for our wayfare through the Sacred Valley. For more guides to town-hopping The Sacred Valley and visiting Machu Picchu for only €47, visit here.