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, and 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, but after that, we returned to Cusco with another long list of things to do and see.
The thing about Cusco is that there are many rich tourists visiting on a short holiday to visit Machu Picchu, and many of the services 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.
Here is our guide to Cusco on a backpacker budget…
What to Do (besides the obvious Machu Picchu)
Join 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. 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. Perfect for someone on a backpacker budget in Cusco.
Hike 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. 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 5,000m above sea level. So, only take on Rainbow Mountain after being acclimatized for a few days in Cusco (and if you aren’t feeling up to the hike, bring an extra 80 soles to ride a horse.)
Visit 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 we heard great things from fellow travelers!
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.
It is only a quick 30min ordeal but the free chocolate is totally worth it. What more could backpackers in Cusco ask for than free chocolate?
You can visit the Chocolate Museum in Cusco at: Calle Garci.aso 210. OR you can get more information by checking out their website here!
The Inka Museum (Museo Inka)
It is only a 10 soles entrance free 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.
You will find the Inca Museum located 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 are great parties every night of the week.
For a party with other backpackers in Cusco in a safe location try Loki Hostel. Even if you aren’t staying there 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 de Armas. Just be cautious of pickpockets and only take registered taxis back to your accommodation.
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. 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
Do yourself a favor and buy lunch here and any fruit or veggies you need. Everything in the San Blas market is super cheap and super good. For more details check out the “Where to Eat” section below.
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 choose between dozens of “menus of the day” (soup and a main course) for only 5 soles or buy amazing sandwiches for 2-6 soles. There is also a vegetarian place under a big sign that says “Falafel” which serves amazing food for only 6 soles.
Did I mention 1 sole Avacado’s (less than $0.50)!
This is by far the best value place to eat out in Cusco. It is only open for lunch between 12-3pm every day. A haven for backpackers in Cusco.
Maikhana is 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 anything less than stuffed, that is for sure.
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 environment.
If you are hungover and craving fast food (most backpackers in Cusco usually are), skip the overpriced western option of KFC and McDonalds and go across the street at the Plaza de Armas to Bambos! Bambos is a Peruvian fast food chain. It is cheaper and actually really good!
Where to Stay – Backpackers in Cusco
If you are looking to meet people and have a party or two this is your place!
It has a lovely bar which is open 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.
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.
Checking out the Amazon from Cusco
We recommend taking a night bus for 50 soles (8-10 hours) to Puerto Maldonado which is a town near the border of Brazil and Bolivia.
Book a three-day tour here in the Tambopata 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 thing for them, making the accommodation, tours, and transport more affordable than other areas of the Amazon in Peru.
Cusco is a great city, and not just for tourists as there are lots of great budget things to do for backpackers in Cusco too! We had a great time in Cusco. We met so many other friendly travelers, had some amazing food, and explored the area. If you have some extra time to spend in Cusco before or after checking out Machu Picchu, definitely do so!
If you have anything to add to our guide please comment below, the more information the better!!!
Traveling more in Peru? Check out our other posts!
- Colca Canyon
- Lima: More than just a Big City
- The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu: Our Story
- Machu Picchu: Our Story
- Complete Guide to Huaraz
- Hiking in Peru: Everything You Need to Know
- Highlights of Peru to Help you Plan your Trip
- Our Peru Photo Gallery
- Working in the Peruvian Jungle