Most people know Cusco as the main access point for a trip to the famous Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. Whilst a trip to the ancient site is a quintessential part of any trip to the city, Cusco has so much more to offer!
At 3400m above sea level, my first few days in Cusco were a challenge as I battled altitude sickness. I spent my whole first day in the city in bed at my hostel watching a movie while my heart raced as if I was running a marathon. Although I never completed assimilated to the problems of high altitude, a day or two made the lack of oxygen more manageable.
Soon, Cusco become one of my favourite spots in all South America and one of the cities that I know one day I am going to have to return to. I didn’t have a conventional trip to the city, and some of the things I wanted to do, like hike up Rainbow Mountain, just didn’t happen because of my apparent propensity for altitude sickness. Hence instead of writing a destination guide I’ve put together this list of why Cusco is such a favourite!
1. The Wild Rover
Cusco is home to some of the best hostels in South America. I stayed at the infamous, Irish owned, Wild Rover Hostes. The hostel was a short walk (or very cheap taxi ride) up a hill and had incredible views over the city. Wild Rover had only just recently moved to this new location so the facilities were superb. The beds were incredibly comfy and given the chill of nights at 3400m we got a thick, cozy duvet on our beds. But the highlight is the party atmosphere- the bar also serves as a restaurant and they have events on every night. All the bar staff that work there are so friendly and make it easy for you to make new friends. It’s also not a hostel where you need to have much of a plan- the guy from the desk comes around to rooms at around 11am in the morning and politely asks those that were meant to be checking out if they want to stay. It’s easy to see how we ended up spending an extra three days in the city!
2. The Nightlife
The party atmosphere of Cusco is mostly due to the presence of big party hostels such as Wild Rover and Loki. I didn’t sleep for the first 48 hours that I spent in Cusco because I got so caught up with the party. The local clubs are pretty crap if like me you are well and truly sick of reggaeton music. But if you have a good bunch of people together, a night out on the town after the hostel bars close is lots of fun. My biggest piece of advice is to leave your phone locked up back at the hostel. Thieves like to take advantage of the drunk backpackers.
3. The Old Town
Cusco is one of those cities where I loved wandering around downtown with no direction. Some of my best photos are taken from random spots that I stumbled upon while walking with no purpose or destination in mind. Don’t be afraid to get lost, and don’t worry that you’ll miss things, one way or another you’ll find yourself in the main square which is home to some of Cusco’s most famous and best buildings.
4. Opportunities for adventurous eating
I love to try new and bizarre things while I’m travelling and Cusco offered an opportunity to try two new animals; Cuy (or Guinea Pig as we like to call it) and Alpaca. I’ve been brave enough to eat live octopus in South Korea, but even I have to say I felt a little queasy when they brought the Cuy out, complete with its own little hat. After we took some photos they took it away again to cut it up and make it easier to eat. I’m glad I gave it a go but I didn’t find it delicious at all- the meat felt very greasy and stringy. Alpaca, on the other hand, if cooked perfectly is delicious. It’s a lean, red and gamey meat and as such if overcooked it can be chewy and tasteless. Luckily, we splurged on a nice restaurant and were served some delicious and tender Alpaca steaks. The taste reminded me a lot of Kangaroo !
5. Machu Picchu
My list would be incomplete if I didn’t put Machu Picchu on this list. If I had to pick the top five travel experiences I had while in South America, Machu Picchu would make that list every time. Yes, it does get touristy and crowded but nothing beats the site of the ancient city after you have completed the gruelling climb from Aquas Calientes. Walking around the site was awe inspiring and something that I’m unlikely to forget.
6. Exploring other Incan ruins
In a recent post, I described a day’s adventure trekking between the Incan ruins located just outside of Cusco. I loved getting out of the city and discovering this other piece of Incan culture. It was one of the only days in Cusco I completely dedicated to sightseeing and I felt super accomplished when arriving back at the hostel.
7. Shopping opportunities
The Alpaca wool jumpers are the quintessential wardrobe of the South American Gringo backpacker. Everyone I ran into on the gringo trail had some version of an Alpaca jumper. I’d been largely unprepared for the cold weather in Cusco so the two Alpaca jumpers that I bought in Cusco served me well. I loved all the designs so much that it was difficult to pick just two. I left Cusco with a much heavier pack with two of my jumpers, and a jumper each for my sisters. If you are going to do souvenir shopping Cusco is the perfect city for it, and you’ll find good deals if you venture into the smaller shops a little further away from the main part of town.
8. Cultural experiences
I think I hit peak tourist when I paid a small amount of sols to take a photo with some women dressed in traditional wear while holding a lamb. But even if some of the depictions of local culture in Cusco seem put on for the tourists, the city is still home to many different Peruvian ethnic minorities. Even on an overnight bus from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco, the bus was half full of women in traditional dress, and they weren’t dressed for the benefit of any tourists. The strong links to ancient cultures are particularly evident in Cusco and it was probably the best thing about the city!
Did you love Cusco? Do you have any questions about the city? Comment below!