By Alice Evans
Cusco, once the capital of the mighty Inca Empire, is one of the most fascinating and mystical cities in the world. Bursting with history, dramatic scenery and a year-round carnival atmosphere, not to mention being the gateway to Machu Picchu, this majestic destination cannot fail to excite the imagination.
Situated at an altitude of 3,310 metres, it is not uncommon for travellers to experience slight altitude sickness before acclimatising. The best way to cope with this is to eat small and simple meals, stay hydrated, avoid overexertion, and steer clear of sunburn and alcohol (at least for the first few days!).
The local currency is the Nuevo Sol (£1 is about 4.7 Sol). Although for some bigger transactions US$ dollars can be used, you’re best off bringing soles in cash and using them as frequently as possible.
In English summertime you’ll be lucky to get a flight from London to Lima for less than £700. Cusco airport is even more expensive to fly to than Lima, so if you’ve got time fly to Lima instead and then get the 22-hour bus from Lima to Cusco. Although overly luxurious for student backpackers, Cruz Del Sur is the only bus company with a website, and is therefore the sole option for this Lima-Cusco journey because you must book in advance. Once in Cusco, there are loads of companies that offer far better prices than Cruz Del Sur, all to be found at the terminal terrestre in Cusco. Book all overnight journeys in advance.
In the dry season (April to October) night temperatures can drop below freezing, especially from July to September, so take a warm sleeping bag!
There are lots of budget hostels around the city, perhaps the best being Apu Wasi. This hostel is up the hill out of the main Plaza de Armas – a good steep climb, providing the perfect way to acclimatise when you first arrive! Another option is a homestay in the La Florida neighbourhood. Your host may or may not speak English and it’s a great opportunity to improve your Spanish and learn to cook the way the locals do. Staying in a local neighbourhood rather than in a touristy hostel also allows for a greater cultural understanding of the Cusco people.
Chew on coca leaves to alleviate altitude headaches. This sounds a bit dodgy (since cocaine comes from this plant) but it works and it’s legal. Don’t try to smuggle any back to the UK though, they have coca-specialist sniffer dogs at the airport….
The locals all eat caldo de gallina (chicken soup) in the San Pedro market for tiny amounts of money. Be brave and join in – it’s a lot of fun. Also try out the various street food vendors who hang around in the same area after the market has closed for the night. This is your chance to try delicious and weird assortments, such as anticucho (marinated beef heart roasted on a skewer), corn pastries wrapped in corn leaves, and choclo con queso (corn on the cob served with a hunk of halloumi-esque cheese).
Eat avocados from Wanchaq food market, where locals buy food for a pittance. These are the cheapest, ripest and creamiest avocados you will ever taste.
The menú is a lunchtime deal that many restaurants put on but often only advertise subtly, so you may have to ask for it. It consists of a three course meal for about 12 soles.
Guinea pig, or cuy, is a Peruvian delicacy, unsurprisingly horrendously overpriced because tourists all want to leave the country posting Facebook statuses like ‘OMG I ate guinea pig’. It’s an okay taste, nothing special, kind of chickeny. You decide if it’s worth the social media kudos or not…
Bring a student card, as there are loads of discounts up for grabs, such as for the Boleto Turístico. This boleto is a 10-day ticket that allows access to all of the ruins in and around Cusco, as well as to the ruins in the Sacred Valley (which can be all be visited by local bus to make a fun weekend) and many museums in Cusco.
Sacsayhuaman (included in the boleto) is an Inca fortress giving breath-taking views of Cusco, only 15 minutes’ walk from Apu Wasi hostel. Go in the early morning to soak up the tranquil atmosphere of these incredible ruins.
Go to mass in the Cathedral – you have to pay to go in as a tourist, but if you want to go for free turn up before 9am and say you are there to worship. Once you’ve sat in on the Quechuan service you’ll be free to wonder around!
Amble through the San Blas neighbourhood for a taste of the artsy and modern side to the city. There are many excellent cafes to be found around here, as well as great views of the city.
Trek to Machu Picchu: the lost city of Machu Picchu was hidden by the lush vegetation of this region until 1911 and is probably one of the best-preserved ancient kingdoms in the world. For many visitors to South America, Machu Picchu tops the list of must-see destinations. Wayki Treks are a brilliant company to opt for, and they offer several different routes to the Sacred City. They provide excellent equipment, food, and wonderful guides, many of whom have grown up in the Andes and have mesmerising stories to tell!
Cusco is home to hilarious karaoke bars with cheap cocktails (the ‘Machu Picchu’ is highly recommended) and pints for less than £1. For less of a local feel try Paddy’s Pub on Plaza de Armas, which claims to be the highest 100% Irish owned pub on the planet, at 11156ft above sea level. For an English speaking, backpacker-infested pre-drinking session, try Loki’s hostel, then go more cultural with salsa dancing in Mama Africa (free lessons from 9-11 every night).
Illustration: Mariam Hayat, photograph: Alice Evans