If you want to travel to Cusco, Peru and stick to a tight budget, you’re going to have to learn how to use the buses in Cusco – often called combis.
Cusco is basically a giant “bowl” in the mountains of Peru. It’s a town completely surrounded by hills on all sides. Those mountainsides are themselves covered in houses, hostels, businesses, and more. If you’re familiar with the area, you know that there are very few roads that go up the sides of these mountains – at least not in a way that makes them friendly to pedestrians.
Most of the roads in the hills of Cusco are switchbacks. It takes a while to drive them. It takes far longer to walk them.
That said, most of Cusco’s historic district is very pedestrian-friendly. Even some of the areas in the lower hills are easily navigated on foot. But once you go higher than that, you’re looking at literally hundreds of stairs, often on steep inclines of hundreds of feet.
Where are you staying in Cusco?
Why is a topic like this in a post about buses? Because whether or not you need a bus (or taxi or Uber) will largely depend on where you book your accommodations in Cusco. Whether it’s the Wild Rover party hostel or the classier Hilton Garden Inn, you’re going to have to walk uphill, take a taxi or Uber, or jump on a bus.
In our case, we didn’t know a lot about the city when we booked our Airbnb in Cusco. We picked an apartment we liked, with all the amenities we wanted, and booked it. And the best part was that we got all this for an inexpensive price and just 0.2 miles from the center of the Historic District.
That’s just a little over 1,000 feet! 320 meters!
It didn’t take us more than 15 minutes to discover that this 320 meters was all very steep stairs. And if you know anything about trigonometry, you know that the base of the triangle was the 320 meters. The hypotenuse – a.k.a. “the stairs” is much longer.
Getting down to the Historic District was not a problem. We don’t mind walking down over 600 stairs. But we booked our Airbnb in Cusco for a month. There was no way we were walking up over 600 stairs every day with our day packs and camera gear.
How would we get home at the end of every day?
Uber in Cusco, Peru
In Cusco, Uber seems to work well, as long as you need to get to a destination in the downtown area or historic district. But when you need to go up the side of a mountain, Uber drivers don’t seem to like it all that much – at least the 5 we used.
I’m not sure if it has something to do with how Uber sets rates, but a drive from the Historic District to our Airbnb costs about 7.80 soles. And that’s only about $2.40 – a pittance. That’s not very attractive for an Uber driver who has to drive 15-20 minutes through winding streets up the side of a steep hill.
In one case, our Uber driver refused to take us (we assumed this was to get us to promise to add a large tip). Another tried to get us to tell him how much Uber was quoting. In the other three cases, the drivers brought us up but clearly didn’t like it.
In our limited experience (5 Ubers), most of the Uber drivers in Cusco seem to also be taxi drivers. Taxi drivers make more to go up the hill than Uber drivers. In other words, you can take a taxi, but you’ll probably pay handsomely for it.
Travel tip: Looking for things to do in the city? We’ve compiled a list of the top things to do in Cusco. Check it out!
Taxis in Cusco are ubiquitous. You can’t glance anywhere without seeing one. They are, arguably, the main source of traffic congestion in Cusco.
There are two types of taxis in Cusco – official and unofficial. Official Cusco taxis are marked with “Taxi Autorizado” – they’ll just look like a taxi. Unofficial taxis aren’t marked at all. You only know them because the driver will toot his or her horn as they pass by.
Taxis in Cusco do not use meters. You must stop one and negotiate the price quickly before you get in. They are usually more expensive than an Uber, but not always. One thing you’ll rarely see in a taxi is a seatbelt – except the one on the driver’s side – that the driver is always wearing.
Save money riding the buses in Cusco
Nearly all of the buses in Cusco are private combis – colectivos that bring passengers from one place to another at rock bottom prices. And they go just about everywhere. Within a certain distance, Cusco bus prices are about 1 sol or less – roughly 30 cents.
They go up the hills, down the hills, into neighborhoods, and everywhere in between. You can ride a Cusco bus for 1/10th of what you’d pay an Uber driver after you add the tip in the Uber app.
But the best part is that riding the bus in Cusco is practically stress-free. You will get where you’re going. You won’t have to worry about the price. No one will drop you in an app.
Is there a Cusco transit app?
Speaking of apps…
All of Cusco’s combis/buses are private. So you might think there’s really no consolidated application you can use to plan your journeys in the city.
Thankfully, there is. It’s the Moovit app.
We found out about the Moovit app about a week after we started using Cusco’s transit system. So we ended up not needing it (because our routes were fairly simple). But for a more complex ride, it’ll save you lots of time.
How to use the buses in Cusco
This is the tricky part – though not really. It only takes a little while to get used to Cusco’s buses. Using the buses in Cusco is a very local thing. You won’t see many non-locals using them. And I think that’s because they kinda look a bit intimidating at first.
You might occasionally see livestock.
Some people might even think that Cusco buses are for locals only – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We’ve been using the bus system in Cusco for a few weeks now and we’ve had no issues whatsoever. For us, taking local transportation has been one of the most unique experiences in Cusco.
Finding your Cusco bus route
How do people get around in Cusco? Well, currently, there are 28 urban bus lines – meaning they run inside the Cusco city limits. There are also nine interurban bus lines – meaning they run from inside the city to areas just outside.
All of the buses have the route name (not always the number) across the top of the windshield. Each bus has a list of the major stops printed on its side.
These buses are heavily used in Cusco by the local residents. It’s rare to see an empty combi driving by.
Cusco Urban Routes/Rutas Urbanas
The Cusco Urban Routes run inside the city. For the most part, tourists won’t use these lines because most people will be walking in the Historic District.
You can find all of Cusco’s Urban Routes, along with their maps, right here.
Cusco Interurban Routes/Rutas Interurbanas
These lines run both inside and slightly outside the city of Cusco. You may pay a little extra to go outside. For example, inside the city, the fare may be S/. 1.00. Slightly outside might be S/. 1.20. Most likely, as an obvious foreigner, it’s going to cost you S/. 1.00 no matter where you go in Cusco. That was the case with us. Sometimes we paid slightly less than S/. 1.00. But almost always, it was S/. 1.00. Never more.
How Cusco local buses work
This is the easy part. You’ve found your route – or a bus that will put you close to your Cusco Airbnb, hotel, or hostel. Walking a few steps after being on a bus is better than walking up 600-700 steps.
So, what’s next?
Getting on a Cusco Combi
Find a bus stop along the route. They are fairly easy to spot. Each major Cusco bus stop has a large blue sign identifying it. Sometimes, there’ll even be a bench to sit on and wait. But don’t worry, you won’t be waiting long. Buses generally arrive every 5 minutes – sometimes less. We never really found ourselves waiting very long.
If you don’t see a sign along the route, don’t worry. See your bus coming down the street? Just flag it down. Trust me, they will stop. The one thing about Cusco is that every business – from taxis to buses and restaurants, is cut-throat. Every bit of money counts on Cusco buses and they will stop for you.
When the bus arrives, the attendant will jump off and loudly say, “Sube, sube, sube!” – which means “climb up!” He or she may also say other things about the route. But nothing you need to worry about.
And don’t worry about paying yet. They just want to get you on the bus. Paying normally happens when you get off. Just take a seat and wait for your stop (or, most likely, stand). Many times, it’s a tight squeeze. But if you’re on a budget in Cusco, paying S/.1.00 and being a little uncomfortable for 20 minutes is better than a little more comfy with an irritated Uber driver for S/.11.00.
Getting off at your stop and payment
That’s what you’ll hear people saying at each stop. It literally means something like “Get Down!” – meaning they want to get off at the next stop. When the attendant announces your stop, simply shout, “BAJA!” (if no one else does) and the bus will stop. But it will probably stop anyway.
When you get off the combi, the attendant will collect your money – usually S/.1.00. And that’s it. Sometimes towards the end of the line, the attendant will collect your money while you’re still on the bus.
Are Cusco buses safe?
We used two routes – Cristo Blanco and Señor del Huerto – every day we were in Cusco. Most times in daylight, other times after dark. We never once had any safety issues.
There are sites out there that claim that Cusco’s combis are prime targets for pickpockets because they are crowded and hectic. I’d say to use caution just as you would anywhere. That said, most of the customers I saw on at least these two routes were students, women returning home from selling their wares in town all day, and other people minding their own business on the way to where they were going.
Not once did we feel like we were at risk – and we were carrying backpacks and expensive camera equipment. It was obvious we were tourists who had at least a few valuables.
Usually, people ignored us like we were any other passengers. When they didn’t, it seemed mostly as though people (usually smaller children) were curious about the white guy and the Asian guy on the bus. After all, it’s not every day that foreign tourists use the local buses!
Cusco buses will save you money
We’re in Cusco for a month. We know that’s a little unusual, as most people come here for a week or two. But even for a short stay, the Cusco bus system can save you a lot of money. If you take an Uber up the hill twice a day and tip, you’re looking at paying at least S/. 10.00. That’s about $3 US. Over a period of a couple of weeks or so, that $6 a day turns into almost $90.
Those same trips on a Cusco combi? 60 cents a day – or less than $10.
That $80 (S/. 260) savings will get you FIFTY-TWO full meals at Mercado San Pedro. (Not kidding! For just 5 Soles, you can get a full meal – soup, main dish, and a small drink – at San Pedro Market in Cusco!)
But that’s a post for later.
The best way to get to Cusco
Hey! We came to Cusco using Peru Hop. Whether you’re an experienced traveler or a novice, we highly recommend Peru Hop. They make the journey from Lima to Cusco both fun and super easy.
You can read about our trip from Lima to Cusco on Peru Hop right here.
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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.