Cusco – Gateway to Machu Picchu

By on June 15, 2015

One of my favourite stops in Peru was the beautiful town of Cusco, a stop off for most backpackers travelling Peru as it is the gateway to Machu Picchu. It’s also probably where we felt most like backpackers/ travellers than anywhere else so far as you see and meet so many here, all with one of two stories – planning their trek to Machu Picchu or unwinding after it. And there are two things you’ll find a lot of around Cusco that reflect both of these stories – tour agencies to plan your trip with, and massage and nail salons to relax in after it!

If you’re limited on time and want to get your trip started straight away then get straight to Plaza de Armas and visit some of the many tour companies there that run the popular, and cheaper ‘jungle treks’. Many travellers opt for these treks as they are cheaper (from $200-250 USD for 4days/ 3nights), can be booked just a few days in advance, and also they offer more than just trekking. Many include mountain biking as part of the trip, zip-lining and rafting are optional extras for an added fee. If you want to do the official Inca Trail you need to book a good bit in advance as places are limited and it is a bit more expensive. I’m going to leave talking about our Machu Picchu experience for another post!

There are no shortage of places to stay in Cusco to suit all budgets. We opted for the Wild Rover Hostel as we had heard a few stories about this chain, as well as this hostel. And they all turned out to be true! We had a lot of fun here, and met a lot of great people, including all the staff who pride themselves on getting you nicely drunk at the bar (namely Colm!). There’s also a tour desk at the hostel – Southern Peru Explorers and we actually booked our Machu Picchu trek with them.

Cusco

Cusco is a relatively small place to get around and you can wander through the busy cobbled streets with quiet a few people around at most times of the day. It’s got everything you would expect from a tourist town – markets, restaurants, etc. Check out the Mercado Central de San Pedro just off of Plaza San Francisco after the archway. It’s a great market with lots on sale, as well as a food market down the back where you can get soups, rice dishes, steak sandwiches, fresh juices and more for a fraction of the price you would pay anywhere else in town. Keep an eye out for a couple of more slightly hidden markets through little doorways in this area as they’re home to beautiful jewellery, scarves and more. And don’t be afraid to haggle with the vendors… this is where we really got to learn our numbers in Spanish while saving a lot of Soles!

There are also a whole host of restaurants around Cusco, many famed for the local speciality of ‘coy’ aka guinea pig. I opted not to try it as it can be a little expensive and there’s not actually much meat on it, as you would imagine from a guinea pig. If you take a little stroll away from the main plaza you’ll find some great places to eat and not pay through the roof. Jack’s is a popular stop here for travellers who’ve been away from home a while as it offers the closest you’ll get to western food in Peru. ‘Gringo Alley’ has some places that are worth checking out for lunch too as they’ll offer you the Menu del Dia – three courses with probably a free pisco sour thrown in, something that finishes a lot of restaurant deals in Peru.

And if you’re looking to stay out late and dance. Mama Africa’s is where you’ll find all the tourists until the early hours, particularly those celebrating after there Machu Picchu trek.

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