Cusco is the capital of today’s Cusco region and the historical capital of the Inca Empire. It was also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. This article explores some of the tourist attractions and things to do in Cusco.
When we landed at Cusco, we immediately felt the change in elevation. Cusco sits at 11,000 feet of altitude. There are a lot of stairs going up and down the city. We were constantly out of breath, even just after climbing one flight of stairs. It is a good idea to give yourself at least a day or two in Cusco to get acclimated to the elevation before continuing on the Inca Trail hike. One of the people in our group got altitude sickness during our hike and had to be carried out of Machu Picchu. Read more about that here.
We paid 50 Soles for a local taxi to take eight of us from the airport to the Central Plaza in Cusco. I definitely recommend going the local taxi route and haggling, since taking an Uber is more expensive. We were told by one of our Peruvian friend who arrived later that even paying 50 Soles was too expensive for the ride. So haggle, haggle, and haggle! 🙂 Once you get to the Central Plaza, everything is within walking distance. There are also taxis next to the Central Plaza if you are traveling a little further.
We had some issues with the Airbnb that we initially booked so we randomly walked in to Hotel & Mirador Los Apus and it worked out very well. Los Apus is very reasonably priced with their walk in rate for 11 people, 5 rooms (one triple) for $557 USD . The walk in rate was also cheaper than their rates on the official website. The hotel is centrally located and it is a ten minute walk to Cusco’s Central Plaza. There are many more options with either closer proximity to the Central Plaza or fancier accommodations, but both come at higher price points.
Their hospitality was bar none to what we get in the US. Their breakfast spread is impressive and filled with Peruvian pastiries and other American style offerings such as sausage, egg, toast, and avocados. When they found out it was Aristo’s birthday during our stay there, they even got a cake for us! Furthermore, on the morning that we left for the Inca Trail, they even provided simple breakfast in brown bags for us at 4AM!
Luggage while trekking the Inca Trail
We left our luggage with Hotel & Mirador Los Apus while our four day trek on the Inca Trail. Most hotels in Cusco offer this service, as they are used to travelers staying in Cusco for the Inca Trail and other long treks.
On the morning of the trek, we got luggage tags with perforated stubs. We put our names and phone number on the tag that went on the luggage and we kept the stub part with an unique identification number matching the one on the luggage. The luggage went into their storage unit until we returned from the Inca Trail Trek.
Most places at Cusco are cash only, especially at souvenir shops, smaller restaurants, and taxi fares. So it is a good idea to exchange for cash before your trip. But if you didn’t plan ahead, don’t fret! The BCP bank, which is in the Central Plaza, will allow you to take out large amounts of Soles with a valid credit or debit card. There is also Scotiabank in the Central Plaza and many smaller banks near by. Most of these banks work with your international credit or debit card.
What to do in Cusco
There were a lot to do in Cusco while we got acclimated to the elevation. Here are some of the activities we did.
The Central Plaza, aka Plaza de Arma, is one of the most popular attraction in Cusco. It was the historical center of colonial Cusco with Spanish-style churches like the Cusco Cathedral and Church La Compania de Jesus, souvenir shops, and restaurants.
We joined the “From Bean to Chocolate” class at ChocoMuseum for one of the mornings. It was a five minute walk from the Central Plaza. The class was fun and interactive. We turned cacao beans into milk chocolate during that class. It cost ~$21USD per person (2016 rates). As of May 2018, it’s $25USD per person.
Here are some photos of chocolate making process.
All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) Rentals
You can sign up for a bunch of day trips while at Cusco. Aristo and Wilfred joined an all terrain vehicle day trip while in Cusco. This was actually something that was more of a spontaneous decision and not everyone in the group did but was an amazing experience. There are many tour operators in Peru and they are all along the central square. Feel free to haggle with the tour operators on the prices for the ATV rentals. We got the tour price down to 100 soles per person.
The tour itself takes around 3 hours and you follow the guides around rural villages, mountain towns, and some other locations but the best location was the salt pits which we would not have seen otherwise. Here they take extract salt by evaporating extremely salty water.
We highly recommend the ATV tour if you’re into taking a more active and cool tour. It is also much more affordable than ATV tours elsewhere in the world.
There are other adventure and sight seeing day tours that you can join at Cusco. Another tour that I highly recommend is the Rainbow Mountain tour. Jack and Aristo did not have enough time in Cusco to join this tour, otherwise we would love to have experienced it. Depending on your haggling skills, you should be able to join the Rainbow Mountain day tour for 80-100 Soles.
The tour starts around 3:30AM and ends around 6:30PM. The day trip starts with a 3 hours drive from Cusco to the Rainbow Mountain. From there, it’s an 8 hour round trip hike, at an elevation from 14,000ft to 17,000ft. Once the hike is completed, it’s another 3 hour drive back to Cusco. The hike is very strenuous and not for the faint of heart. But the views are amazing. I would love to go back at some point to do this trek.
There were a lot of street hecklers around the Central Plaza recruiting customers for massages. Usually we haggled for a while, and once we agreed on a price, we were led to their massage shop and proceeded with the actual massage. We went a total of three times, twice when we first landed at Cusco and once more after our Machu Picchu hike. All three times we were able to haggle down to 20 Soles per person. With tip, we paid 30 Soles per person per massage. We were slightly embarrassed about how smelly and grimy we were for our post Inca Trail massage. But the masseuse told us that people do that all the time and it doesn’t really bother them. The massage after the hike was much needed and certainly the cherry on top after an enriching trek to Machu Picchu.
Here are a few restaurants that we dined at.
Price range: $$$
One liner: Peruvian fusion with a classy vibe. Decent cocktails too.
Price range: $$
One liner: Traditional Peruvian food with a show
Price Range: $
One liner: Budget friendly and decent Peruvian food with a cafe vibe and patio seating