A Backpacker Guide to Cusco

Cusco is the city every tourist floods to in order to begin their trip to Machu Picchu. Many people make the mistake of allowing for only one or two nights in this city while allowing much more time to spend in other cities such as Lima. Surprisingly, Cusco is actually quite an interesting city with various activities to do, a ton of culture to experience, as well it offers many western creature comforts which makes it an easy place for backpackers to get “stuck” for awhile. This happened to us…”we will only need to spend about three days in Cusco” we said as we were arriving by bus from Arequipa…four weeks later we found ourselves STILL in Cusco.

That being said, we didn’t spend the entire four weeks in Cusco as there is so much to do around Cusco. We actually went to the nearby amazon jungle for two weeks (we will save that for another blog) but after that we returned to Cusco with another long list of things to do and see.

A view of Cusco city center

The thing about Cusco is that there are many rich tourists visiting on a short holiday to visit Machu Picchu and many of the amenities cater to these people who have much larger budgets than backpackers. Therefore, you can easily find yourself spending too much money by either getting ripped off with extreme tourist prices or visiting the high end tourist agencies and restaurants. In Cusco we have discovered some of the best places for backpackers on a budget.

A man playing traditional Quechua instruments on the street

Here is our guide to Cusco on a Backpacker budget: 

What to do: (besides the obvious Machu Picchu)

  • A free walking tour – Cusco is surprisingly large and the best way to get your bearings once arriving is to join a free walking tour. We aren’t always fans of these tours (sometimes we think they are boring) but Cusco is an exception as it has a lot of interesting history and hidden alleys that only a local could show you. Show up at the Plaza de Armas any day at 10am 12:30pm or 3pm and there will be a tour you can join which costs nothing but a tip at the end.
The streets of beautiful Cusco
  • Rainbow Mountain – this mountain isn’t quite a rainbow but it is colorful and beautiful and cheap. It is a new gem as the mountain was only discovered in 2016! Don’t pay more than 70 soles for a full day tour including breakfast, lunch, and an English speaking guide! This is a fair price and unfortunately a lot of people end up paying double and get the same thing as the Tour agencies just keep the extra cash as a commission and everybody ends up with the same few tour operators. Keep in mind that it is a 12km hike at over 5000m above sea level so only do this after being acclimatised after a couple days and if you aren’t very fit to hike, bring an extra 80 soles for a horse.
The Rainbow Mountain
The hike to the Rainbow Mountain
  • The Sacred Valley– if you love Inca ruins then this day tour is for you. You can do it for as cheap as 50 soles plus all entrance fees. We didn’t try this one as we felt we saw enough ruins but heard great things from fellow travellers.
  • The Chocolate Museum – it isn’t really a museum, more of a store that offered tours about chocolate. BUT, they also give free chocolate, free liquor, free hot chocolate, and the tour is also actually free and nobody asks for a tip. It is only a quick 30min ordeal but the free chocolate is totally worth it. Website: https://www.chocomuseo.com/      Address: Calle Garci.aso 210, Cusco, Peru 
  • The Inka Museum (Museo Inka)- It is only 10 soles entry and is one of the few museums we have found in South America which actually has English descriptions throughout. The best part of the museum is the mummified Inkas you can see at the end – if you haven’t already seen the one in Arequipa this is something you need to check out.  Location: Directly behind KFC at the Plaza de Armas, follow the ally one block and you will see it
  • Hit the streets and PARTY – Because Cusco is such a tourist location there is great parties every night. For a party with other backpackers in a safe location try Loki Hostel, even if you aren’t staying here they welcome visitors to go to the restaurant or bar. If you are looking for something more local, try Tecsecocha Street just behind the Plaza del Armas, just be cautious of pick pockets and only take registered taxis back to your hostel.
Cusco is just as stunning at night
  • Go to the San Pedro Market – this isn’t a market for buying anything but souvenirs, however you can get some really cool souvenirs here for the best price as it is a bit out of the tourist circuit. There are also some cool local clothing shops around the area if you are in the mood to shop.
  • Go to the San Blas Market – buy lunch here for sure and any fruit or veggies you need, super cheap and super good. For more derails check out the “Where to Eat” section below.

Tour Agencies: 

We hate to recommend specific tour agencies as sometimes the service can vary so much depending on who you talk to and what tour you book. However, in terms of getting a good price and being able to compare various agencies within a short distance check out Procuradores street just off of the Plaza de Armas. Make sure you talk to various agencies to find out where you will get the best price and never pay for anything without getting a signed receipt. Any “extras” they promise you (such as a private room, extra meals, etc) ask them to write it on the receipt, this will help you get a refund if you don’t get what you were told.

Where to Eat:

  • San Blas Mercado – you can chose between dozens of “menus of the day” (soup and a main course) for only 5 soles or buy amazing sandwiches from 2-6 soles. There is also a vegetarian place under a big sign that says “Flalafel” which serves amazing food for only 6 soles o and did i mention 1 sole Avacado’s. This is by far the best value place to eat out in Cusco. It is only open for lunch between 12-3pm everyday.
  • Maikhana – an Indian restaurant which offers an all you can eat Indian buffet including bottled water for only 15 soles. The owner is lovely and speaks English so she will explain what is in every dish. You cannot leave this place hungry, that is forsure.
  • Paddy’s Irish Pub– right on the corner at the Plaza de Armas this place offers great western dishes at a decent price (20-30 soles) as well as the expected lively Irish bar enviornment.
The busy Plaza de Armas during midday
  • Bambos– if you are hungover and craving fast food, skip the overpriced western option of KFC and McDonalds and go across the street at the Plaza de Armas to Bambos, which is a Peruvian fast food chain. It is cheaper and actually really good!

Where to Sleep:

  • Loki Hostelif you are looking to meet people and have a party or two this is your place! It has a lovely bar every night, a good restaurant, a good location within walking distance to the Plaza, as well as dorms with lamps and plugs at each bed. Also, you can get your laundry washed across the street for only 2 soles per kilo for 4 hour service! They also have hot water, walking tours, games throughout the day, good wifi, and free coffee and tea all day.  Address: Cuesta de Sta. Ana 601, Cusco, Peru Website: www.lokihostel.com/cusco
  • Hostal Cusi Wasi – this place offers affordable private rooms in a great location. It is quiet, clean, and comfortable if you are looking to just relax while in Cusco. They also include an amazing breakfast of eggs, ham, fresh fruit juice, and proper coffee.  The place is spotless and the staff are very helpful. Address: Av. Arcopaya 466A, Cusco, Peru 

If you are planning on checking out the Amazon: 

We recommend taking a night bus for 50 soles (8-10 hour) to Puerto Maldonado which is a town near the border or Brazil and Bolivia. Book a three day tour here in the Tampopata region for about $200usd. This region is relatively untouched and much more affordable than the tours offered in Cusco to Manu National Park. The highway to Puerto Maldonado just opened in 2008 so tourism is still a new things for them, making accommodation, tours, and transport more affordable than other areas of the amazon in Peru.

If you have anything to add to our guide please comment below, the more information the better!!! 


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