For most, Cusco, Peru is the starting point for their journey to Machu Picchu. As the cradle of the ancient Incan Empire, this makes sense. The city is smack dab in the middle of everything in the Sacred Valley. We stayed here for a month, and we think we got to know the city well enough to share a list of Cusco travel tips that we think you should know about before you visit.
Here are some things to know about Cusco that we’ve learned along the way.
Table of Contents
1. Prepare for altitude issues
Cusco is 3,400 meters high. If you’re flying from Lima to Cusco, the altitude is going to change by a lot. 3.400 meters is over 11,000 feet. To put that in perspective, this is 1,000 feet more that when the airline captain turns on the WiFi and tells passengers that they can start using their electronics equipment.
When you get to Cusco, give yourself a day or two to get used to the altitude before you do anything too strenuous, like hiking. Chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea – both of which you can get anywhere in Peru at altitude – is also a good idea.
Water boils at 96.5 degrees Celsius
For most people, this won’t matter much because someone else will be preparing your cooked meals anyway. But, if you’re like us and rented an apartment, or if you’re staying in a hostel or hotel with a kitchen, this one is important.
We eat a lot of pasta. The package says to boil the pasta for 11 minutes. I always had to boil it for about 15 minutes until it was done.
96.5 Celsius: Water boils at approximately 0.5 degrees Celsius lower for every 500-meter increase in altitude. When you’re cooking pasta, this is not such a big deal. But if you’re cooking something that requires thorough cooking, it can be.
Temperatures vary widely
Cusco is beautiful, especially in the Spring when we were there (mostly in September). When we arrived, the mornings were quite cold, the days were fairly mild, and the nights got cold again. As our month there went on, we still had cool mornings and evenings, and the days got warmer.
Because of this, visitors can often be fooled into believing that the sun is not an issue. It is. You’ll need sunscreen every day. In fact, I even started adding sunscreen to my hair gel because I have short hair and my scalp was burning!
If you leave your hotel or hostel in the afternoon, you’ll probably want to carry a light jacket with you, even if it is warm when you leave. And if you forget, don’t worry. There’s always someone trying to sell you a crazy cheap sweater/jumper in Cusco.
Cusco Travel tip: The temperatures and sun can be misleading. Always wear sunscreen.
2. Embrace the Dogs of Cusco
There are nearly 12,000 dogs in Cusco. That’s a lot even for Peru. If you’re there for any length of time, you’re going to meet a good number of them.
One misconception is that most of these dogs are strays. The truth is that most are pets. In Cusco, owners let dogs out during the day, the dogs do what they want, and they go home at night.
To see dogs as family members is a common way to see dogs in the United States, but in Cuzco they are not perpetually bound to home or leash. Dogs are independent and work for their food. They are contributing members of the family, perhaps you could even say, of society. They socialize, go for walks, get sick, get into trouble, and have adventures which depend on their own will, rather than being served a life under the control of the humans that own them.
That’s not to say they’re all friendly, but the vast majority are. We encountered hundreds of dogs and there were only a couple of cases where we steered clear of one. I may put together a compilation video of me petting dogs. It would be a long video.
Cusco dog tips: If you’re a dog lover who likes petting them, bring hand sanitizer. They’re not exactly the cleanest dogs in the world. Also, at night some dogs tend to form packs. We’d advise staying away from these ones.
3. Know the geography of Cusco
Go grab a bowl and look at the inside bottom flat part. That’s the main part of Cusco – Plaza de Armas, the cathedral and other churches, a few markets, etc. Now, take a look at the sides. That’s where people live and where you’ll find the vast majority of the hostels, hotels, and Airbnbs.
One of our top Cusco travel tips is to know exactly where you’re staying before you go! When you choose your accommodations on Booking.com, Airbnb, or any other booking site, you may look at a map that shows your place is just 400-500 meters away from the Cathedral.
Know where you’re staying in Cusco
Take our Airbnb as an example. It’s just 900 meters away. That doesn’t seem very far – I can walk 900 meters in 15 minutes no problem!
So that’s where the taxi dropped us off so we could walk with our luggage to our Airbnb. Except here’s the thing: those two longest stretches of blue on the map are all stairs…
SIX HUNDRED AND FIFTY STAIRS!
When you book your accommodations in Cusco, keep that in mind. The farther you go from the middle of the city, the more likely you’re going to have to deal with steep stairs in Cusco. Lots and lots of stairs.
Cusco travel tip: Spend several weeks on a Stairmaster before you visit, especially if you’re staying in a place on the side of the hill! Your calves will thank you.
4. Uber can be terrible
When we first realized how far (up) our apartment was from the city center, we were horrified. We booked the place for a month and this Airbnb had a strict cancellation policy – meaning we’d be out over $500 if we moved to a place downtown.
Turns out that Uber is available in Cusco. But don’t celebrate just yet. While it was about S/. 8 (less than $2.50) to get from the center of town to our apartment, it wasn’t really something the Uber drivers of Cusco were interested in doing. In fact, one dude outright kicked us out of his cab.
Most Uber drivers also drive taxis, and that’s what they pick you up in – their taxi. Taxi drivers make more than Uber drivers, so it’s almost certain that your Uber driver, when he picks you up in the taxi, is going to ask you how much Uber is quoting you if it’s a long drive. They’re trying to guilt you into giving them more money for that drive.
And I kind of don’t blame them. Driving up a very large hill via switchbacks takes about 20 or more minutes. And for $2.50? Still, it’s annoying when an Uber driver knows exactly where you’re going and accepts your ride, and then tries to swindle you out of more money.
Don’t like what Uber is paying you? Don’t drive for Uber – or at least don’t accept the ride. We stopped using Uber after just a couple of days.
Use Cusco local buses
Sometimes when you visit a place that’s really super foreign to you, there’s a tendency to be nervous about doing things that seem really local. For me, one of those things was always the local buses. They seem crazy crowded and there were never any tourists on them.
Until we tried it.
When we decided we had enough with unscrupulous Uber drivers, we knew we had to find a cheap way home. So we tried the buses. And they were awesome. We walked down the stairs every morning, spent our day in Cusco or on a day trip, and took the bus home right to our door at night – for S/. 1.00 – about 30 cents each.
We were the only foreigners on the bus as far as we could see, and it was awesome!
Cusco travel tip: Save a ton of money when you learn to use the local buses in Cusco.
5. What are those explosions about?
We stayed in Cusco for a month. And for the first week or so, we were baffled at the seemingly continuous series of bangs we heard every couple of hours.
- Did Cusco have fireworks in the morning and mid-day?
- Was it just kids setting off firecrackers?
- Was it something the city did to scare off pigeons?
After a week, we finally took a free walking tour of the city and just asked the question straight out.
As it turns out, the explosions you’ll hear several times a day are a call to Mass! That’s how they do it here. When the church is ready to celebrate Mass, they blow stuff up! Some Cusco churches are more elaborate. Instead of just blowing up a few firecrackers to announce Mass at night, they stage cool fireworks shows!
If you’ve been in Cusco for a few days already and were going crazy trying to figure out the POP! BANG! POP! POP! you were hearing several times a day, now you know!
Cusco Travel tip: Head over to Iglesia de San Francisco on Sunday just before 3 PM. They shoot fireworks from a homemade bamboo platform. It seemed a little dangerous to us, but it was very cool to watch.
6. Buy one ticket. See lots of stuff
Most people come to Cusco on their way to Machu Picchu. But Cusco is so much more than that. If your Cusco itinerary is going to last more than 3-4 days, then we highly recommend buying the Cusco Tourist Ticket.
For S/. 130, about $40 U.S. dollars, you get access to 16 archaeological sites, museums, and more. Even if you bought the ticket and visited just 2-3 of the archaeological sites, like Tipon, Ollantaytambo, and Pisac, the Cusco Tourist Ticket would more than pay for itself.
We used it, and it made our trip to Cusco so much better than it would otherwise have been
Cusco travel tip: The Cusco Tourist Ticket can be an incredible value if you see just a few things. Learn more about the ticket here along with a similar ticket – the Cusco Religious Circuit Ticket. Posts include the cost, validity, and all the things you can see right here.
Plan your trip: Here’s a more in-depth view of all 16 parks, museums, and more things you can see with the Tourist Ticket.
7. Cusco has great coffee, but it’s not cheap
We’re coffee drinkers. Naturally then, we look for decent coffee wherever we go. Yes, there is a Starbucks in Cusco. It’s right on the main square. And, as you might expect, it’s more expensive than your average coffee shop.
That’s not to say we don’t like Starbucks. Sometimes, we just want a big ole coffee in a big ole cup to carry around with us that reminds us of home. In that case, it’s totally worth it.
But when we just want a latte, a pastry, and a quiet place to work with a decent atmosphere, we always look for a nice local shop to settle down in.
Our favorite Cusco coffee shops:
In our case, we found two coffee shops we liked in Cusco for different reasons. A third one is quite popular, but it wasn’t our favorite. Links go to TripAdvisor pages.
Panam Cafe-Pasteleria: This was our go-to coffee shop for one reason. They have the best, hugest croissants! OMG! My favorite was caramel-filled; Halef loved the chocolate one. These massive pastries were just over a dollar each!
Coffee – very good | WiFi – decent | Other – tables a bit small, but OK
Museo de Cafe: A close second for us. We loved the staff here, they recognized us with a smile every time we came in, and they usually knew what we wanted. We never ate here, but the food we saw come out of the kitchen always looked delicious.
Coffee – very good | WiFi – very good | Other – great staff
Laggart Cafe: This cafe near San Blas Market gets a lot of attention. But we found it lacking. Still we think you should give it a try because the coffee is actually excellent. Maybe it was just us.
Coffee – excellent | WiFi – good | Other – everyone seems to love it
Cusco travel tip: Try a lot of different coffee shops. We often find a couple of great coffee places and stick with them when there are so many more. We probably miss out on others because of this.
8. Cusco’s two seasons – wet & dry
Like many areas around the tropics, Peru, and Cusco specifically, has two seasons – wet and dry.
Cusco’s high season
June -September is the high season in Cusco. It’s also the dry season. It’s the time when most tourists come to the city. We came to Cusco using Peru Hop and we spent the entire month of September there. It rained twice – and one of those times was overnight.
Mostly, the days were sunny with blue skies. It’s also the busy time of the year when the Plaza is crowded every day with people selling tours, massages, food, souvenirs, and more massages. If you’re coming in high season, book your accommodations early.
Low season in Cusco
Low season happens from December through April. It’s still reasonably busy in Cusco because it’s a year-round tourist destination. It’s just not as busy. It rains a lot more, and it’s substantially warmer. This is the time of year when you’ll get better deals on accommodations in Cusco and have a much better chance to negotiate rates on tours and activities.
9. It’s very safe in Cusco
We stayed in Cusco for a month. In the entire time we were there, we didn’t feel unsafe for a minute – even at night. We carry a good deal of travel vlogging equipment when we travel. And although we rarely have it all on us at once, it never occurred to us that we might be in any danger of having it swiped.
Always take the normal precautions you’d take when you travel anywhere, including here. Of course, we won’t guarantee that nothing bad will happen to you in Cusco. But we’re pretty confident that when things like that happen here, they are out of the ordinary.
And if something does happen, you’ll almost certainly be able to find a security officer or police officer within sight because they are quite obvious, as they are everywhere.
10. Market meals are a great value
One of the ways Halef and I saved money was by eating many of our meals at either San Pedro Market or San Blas Market. In both places, you can get a full meal for about S/. 5-6 – or about $1.50.
They’re not skimpy meals either. You’ll start with a large bowl of delicious soup, like quinoa. The second course consists of meat, beans, rice, and salad. Vegetarian options are available too. You’ll usually get a drink of some sort and a small dessert might even come with it.
Being in Cusco meant we ate out a lot. Some of our nicer meals cost us as much as S/. 70-80 or $20-25. We didn’t do that often, but every time we did, we’d laugh at the fact that this would be equal to 16 meals at the market.
Those market meals are good. They may not be fancy, but you can tick a few of the meals off of a self-guided Peruvian Food Tour if you decide to do one!
Cusco travel tip: Moderate your spending by having a few meals at San Blas or San Pedro market. This is where the locals eat and it’s far cheaper than restaurants or even cooking at home.
11. Vegetarian food is easy to find
If you’re a vegetarian in Cusco, you will not be disappointed. First, there are several vegetarian restaurants here. And those that are not strictly vegetarian or vegan usually have veggie options (and not just salads and veggie burgers, either).
Here are a couple of places we liked:
El Encuentro – We found this place one night while wandering through an area close to Plaza de Armas. The food here hits the spot. We ordered two different veggie burgers and they were both excellent. Our favorite things were the small “buffet.” It was really tiny, but the potatoes, corn, and sauce were excellent.
The Green Point – This is the place everyone talks about in Cusco because the meals are completely vegan, very high quality, and inexpensive. They have set lunch menus (app, main course, drink) for about S/. 18-20 – about $6. You’re just as likely to find carnivores here as vegans.
12. You can take a lot of day trips from Cusco
I don’t think we’ve ever been in a city before where there were so many day trips you could take. From hiking to the Devil’s balcony, to Rainbow Mountain, and the wonderful market just 40 minutes away in Pisac, Cusco has incredible places nearby that will suit everyone.
As the base for Peru’s Sacred Valley, it probably goes without saying that Inca civilization plays an important role in Cusco. It was, after all, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire. Looking for day trips to see Inca ruins that aren’t Machu Picchu (but are sometimes just as cool)? Cusco has you covered.
Cusco travel tip: Learn to use the colectivos. Buses and colectivos to towns outside of Cusco rarely cost more than S/. 10 each. That’s about $3 U.S. The places you’ll see are worth 10 times that cost.
13. Cusco’s Rainbow Flag
You might have noticed in the photo above the flag of Cusco is a rainbow flag. But it’s not the same flag you see at Gay Pride events. If you look closely, you’ll see that there are two “blues” in the flag. The Cusco rainbow flag is red, orange, yellow, green, baby blue, dark blue, purple. The Pride Flag only has one blue.
Cusco’s flag is in honor of the indigenous people. It’s thought that the earliest version of the flag may even have been used by the Incas, but no one knows this for sure.
The rainbow flag flies not only in Cusco, but all over Cusco province, which is quite a large area. And you tend to see a lot of them everywhere. Like this one in Pisac Market, about 40 minutes away from Cusco.
What to do here: Looking for things to do in Cusco? Check out our list of the top things to do in Cusco.
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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert. Michael has traveled to over 50 countries learning how to experience more for less as he travels.