Cusco is the tourist center of Peru, a country that makes a good portion of its revenue from the tourism industry. Though I was concerned by my lack of Spanish, I was thoroughly surprised by how many people spoke English. My boyfriend and travel companion, Drew, speaks Spanish well – so we had no difficulty getting by in Peru. Cusco was our home base for the week and where most folks stay when heading to Machu Picchu – more to come on that.
Our trip to Peru was my first time in South America, and a wonderful introduction to the continent. Lively culture, great food and history pour out of every street. Cusco is nestled in the mountains and is much more relaxed than the capital city of Lima. Cusco is very touristy and offers plenty of Western cuisine and shops to find souvenirs.
What to Know
One word of wisdom/caution – ALTITUDE. Cusco sits at 11,152 ft (3,399m) above sea level and it can definitely take a toll on your body. Living in the Mile City of Denver for nearly all of my life, I’m used to a good 5-9,000 ft of elevation. But Cusco was a different ball game. I think being above 10,000 ft for a prolonged amount of time definitely made me feel a little “off.”
One thing that you most certainly should do if you’re planning a trip to Cusco is to get altitude medication prescribed by your doctor. Plenty of people get altitude sickness and you wouldn’t want to miss any of your vacation being sick in bed.
The high altitude also means that it is imperative you drink a lot of water during your first couple of days in the country. As I mentioned in my travel guide post on Lima, you can’t drink the tap water in Peru, so it’s essential for you to be prepared in order to stay hydrated. Drew and I opted to purchase LifeStraw water bottles before our trip and were so glad we did. They purify water through the straw so we could fill up directly from the tap.
San Pedro Market
I would venture to say that San Pedro Market is one of the most famous sites in Cusco – fittingly, it was one of my favorite parts of our entire trip to Peru.
Not only is San Pedro a great place to find the perfect souvenir to bring home, it is overflowing with the sights and smells of the culture-rich town of Cusco. Though there are more than a fair share of tourists wandering the aisles of San Pedro, the majority of its bustling visitors are Peruvian, coming to the market for its vast food and spice inventory.
San Pedro Market is home to a bunch of vendors selling everything from alpaca sweaters, scarfs and bags to flowers, spices and meats. There is literally a new sight (and smell!) around every corner.
Where to Eat + Drink
Not being able to drink the water in Peru obviously made some foods off limits – we didn’t eat any salads or uncooked produce.
When it comes to the actual cuisine though, I was pleasantly surprised with how great the food was in Cusco. There was a great variety of Peruvian fusion restaurants that I loved.
One word of caution – not all of the food sat well with my or Drew’s stomachs. I’m not sure our discomfort was caused by the different qualities of food or from eating at such a high altitude. However, I did feel very sick upon returning to the U.S. and it lasted for about a week and a half.
I have to begin with my favorite restaurant in Cusco – Kion! This restaurant was recommended to Drew and I and it certainly did not disappoint. Kion is a Chinese-Peruvian fusion restaurant that had some of the best fried rice and crunchy noodles I’ve ever had. But not only was the food great, the atmosphere was so cool. If you’re a fan of Chinese, Kion is a must.
P.S. They also had some of the best cocktails we had while in Peru.
One morning, Drew and I set off to have breakfast and a cappuccino overlooking the main square of Cusco – we ended up settling on Papacho’s.
The brunch and lunch menu were great and the balcony offered a scenic view of the bustling square below.
Chicha por Gaston Acurio
The restaurant everyone was buzzing about in Cusco was Chicha. We ate here at the tail end of our visit and certainly after both Drew and I were not feeling too hot. Though, they have great vegetarian options and some authentic Peruvian delicacies like guinea pig!
My recommendation for a bar would have to be Limbus Restobar! Drew and I stopped by midday and the place was packed! Luckily, we managed to grab a table on the outdoor patio that overlooked Cusco. As you can see in the video below, Limbus has one of the best views overlooking the city. The cocktails, ambiance and company were great!
Hanz Craft Beer + Restaurant
The final place I’ll mention is Hanz. Located right on the main square, Hanz had the best service and most thoughtful waitstaff. I ordered a delicious vegetarian pasta and the cutest matcha cappuccino. They also offered free water when we sat down, a much-missed American nicety while you’re abroad!
Where to Stay
As we did in Lima, we thought staying in an Airbnb would be best while in Cusco. Pro: the kitchen made our little apartment feel homey. Con: Airbnbs can be less reliable than hotels.
We stayed in a great area of Cusco, just steps from the San Pedro Market and a quick 10 minute walk from the main town historical center Plaza de Armas. While our Airbnb worked just fine, there are plenty of hotels and hostels in the city. Since the Peruvian sole is pretty cheap compared to the U.S. dollar, room and board is very cheap – our Airbnb was aroun $45 a night.
Here is the Airbnb we stayed at while in Cusco.
Stay tuned for my future posts on day trips and where to travel to from Cusco – including an entire blog post dedicated to what Machu Picchu is really like! And if you haven’t already, check out my travel guide for Lima, Peru.