Cusco’s Top 10 List: What to Do and What to Avoid

For More Information on Planning Your Peru Trip, View This Peru Travel Planning Guide

At the two-month anniversary of my arrival in Peru, I feel ready to offer a little unsolicited advice about what I recommend as do’s and don’ts before and during your trip to Cusco, Peru, and the surrounding area. Listed in no particular order, I’ll begin with my list of do’s.

Cusco Cathedral
Cusco Cathedral & Plaza de Armas

TOP TEN THINGS TO DO IN CUSCO:

1. There are parts of your trip that you should definitely research (check out this Peru Travel Guide for information on how to plan your Peru trip) and book ahead of time. Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu are pretty easy to do on your own, but you need to put in some time before you go in order to find an awesome trip that is perfect for you. There are seemingly endless options for trip operators in the Cusco area, offering various treks and other adventure trips. But not all of these trip operators run sustainable, safe trips, or even pay their porters well. And if you wait until you are in Cusco to find a trip, you’ll be overwhelmed by the options and waste a ton of time when you could be enjoying the fun stuff Cusco has to offer.

Before you leave for Peru, you’ll want to book a trek, multisport trip, or even just a short trip to Machu Picchu. This way, you can take the time to find a local, reputable trip operator. Contacting a company like Detour, whose staff has traveled extensively in Cusco and Peru, is great because the travel advisors communicate daily with people there. Detour has vetted all the trip operators and knows what’s great about each trip option. The staff can really help you learn about available options and choose the trip that’s right for you. The staff understands your need for a great trip, and everyone on staff is on your side. So don’t be afraid to talk about your desires and concerns; feel free to ask them about all the possibilities.

Once you have the main part of your trip sorted out, whether you’ll be trekking or rafting wild whitewater, you can build in some free time to explore the amazing city of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Or if you’re short on time and want to get the most out of your stay, book a tour of the Sacred Valley and the surrounding area.

2. Learn some basic Spanish and get a decent phrase book. While Cusco is a tourist destination, it can be difficult to get the information you need entirely in English; if you’re lucky you’ll be able to rely on Spanglish and hand gestures to get you through basic conversations.

3. Spend your first day in Cusco RESTING. Upon arrival in a new place we’re all tempted to rush out and explore. You will have plenty of time to do that, so at the onset of your trip you’ll be better off if you take the time to relax, hydrate (no alcohol), eat small meals, and take a slow approach to adjust to the altitude in Cusco (11,200 feet). Help yourself to the coca tea that is offered at your hotel — it really helps you acclimatize!

Pisac Ruins
Pisac Ruins

4. Take a tour of the Sacred Valley. A tour is an easy way to experience the amazing history and Inca architecture found less than an hour from Cusco, surrounded by a landscape that is almost indescribably beautiful (believe me, I tried in one of my earlier posts). The Inca ruins in Pisac and Ollantaytambo rival Machu Picchu in scope and beauty. The still functional Salt Pans of Maras and the ruins of the experimental agricultural in Moray are worth visits as well. You can book a tour of the Sacred Valley ahead of time, so you know you will have an amazing guide and you know you won’t be stuck on a bus with 100 tourists. Alternatively, you can buy the Boleto Turistico (Tourist Ticket) and explore on your own by bus or taxi. At $45 (2015 price) it’s on the expensive side for Peru but it gets you in to 12 historic sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, and is valid for 10 days.

5. Check out the Inca ruins just above Cusco, especially Sacsayhuaman and Tambomachay. If you’re feeling up to it, you can hike up to these ruins to help you prepare for bigger, higher altitude treks.

Peruvian Cuisine . . . worth the trip alone
Peruvian Cuisine . . . worth the trip alone

6. Try some of the regional cuisine. You don’t have to eat guinea pig (cuy) or alpaca to have a true dining experience; dishes like Lomo Saltado (steak sauteed with spicy peppers and onions) are delicious, and often very inexpensive. Take advantage of the fact that you can eat like royalty in Peru for less generally than you can get a burger and a beer in the States.

7. Go shopping. There are tons of artisan markets around Cusco, but quality and prices can vary greatly. Haggling is expected and accepted. Pay what you think is fair, don’t under pay or over pay. Most of the markets do not take credit cards, only cash in either Peruvian soles or U.S. dollars. Make sure to have small bills, as change for larger bills is hard to come by. There are also many upscale shops around Cusco, and they will usually take credit cards. But keep the haggling to the markets, not the shops!

8. Do the 5-day trek on the Inca Trail, and visit Machu Picchu. Yeah, the hype can be overwhelming, but there’s a reason people from all over the world descend upon Peru every year for this experience. [Permits are required for this trek and must be arranged far in advance]. If you can’t get a spot on the Inca Trail (or want to avoid the crowds), check out alternative treks that end up at Machu Picchu like the Salkantay trek or Lares Valley trek. The scenery is equally amazing, and you won’t have 499 fellow hikers on the trail that day. You might even have a better experience on one of these lesser-known treks.

9. Get off the beaten path, and do an adventure day trip! There is some bad ass mountain biking around Cusco and the Sacred Valley (which you can do as day trips or as a packaged trip). Or you can go stand-up paddle boarding, whitewater rafting, or horseback riding. These are all special ways to experience the area, and you’ll get breathtaking views of the mountains and visit traditional communities without a ton of other people around.

10. Dance all night in one, or any combination of, Cusco’s discotheques. Because you can, that’s why.

Now for my list of don’ts. Again, I’m a fledgling expert, but here are the top 10 experiences or places I would suggest avoiding before and during your trip.

TOP TEN THINGS TO AVOID IN CUSCO:

1.Don’t just eat anything, anywhere. I’m going to go out on a limb here to say that Salmonella is going to stick out in my mind as my least pleasant experience in Peru. So, I recommend exercising caution with where and what you decide to eat in order to avoid similar food-borne illnesses. Trust your guide book and your hotel staff with restaurant recommendations. The fare offered by street vendors is tempting, but even a sample is playing a game of digestive-tract Russian Roulette.

2. Don’t book a trip with a local trip operator before reading reviews or doing some background research. I’ve heard of people booking trips with a local company months in advance, only to find out the company went out of business a few weeks before the departure date. This is another good reason to trust someone like Detour who vets all the companies it recommends.

3. Don’t book a room in a hostel known for its party-friendly atmosphere, unless you do not want to sleep…at all. Look for hotels off the main squares and streets. Did I mention Cusco is a party destination?

4. Don’t enter a crowded place or situation without a death grip on your wallet. Cusco is absolutely a safe city overall, but during fiestas and in the more crowded markets pickpockets will take advantage of the gringo target on your forehead. Don’t carry around a lot of cash. Keep the bulk of your cash in your hotel safebox rather than with you. Just bring what you may need. Along similar lines, DON’T CARRY YOUR PASSPORT ANYWHERE UNLESS YOU HAVE TO. Make copies to carry with you, and leave the original in your hotel’s safe box. Losing a passport is a monumental PITA anywhere; losing a passport in Peru could lead you in to the darkest depths of South American bureaucracy. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

5. When you decide to go out dancing all night, don’t walk home drunk. Actually, just don’t walk around at night, period. I think this one falls into the common sense category. A taxi ride anywhere in the city will cost you around 5 – 7 soles (approximately $2). No need to bargain as rates are set in town. Official taxis have hexagonal badges in the windscreen and many have telephone number light boards mounted on the roof.

Boy & Llama
For a few soles, you can have your photo taken with a llama.

6. Don’t lose the little white ticket ripped from the custom form given to you in the airport; you’ll need it for customs when you’re returning home. You’ll also need to show it to get into Machu Picchu, to get on the train, to hotel staff along with your passport, etc.

7. Don’t buy bottled water. The plastic waste generated by tourists drinking bottled water is staggering. Respect where you travel, and do everything you can to avoid plastic waste. Take with you a small water filter (hand pump, UV light, etc.) or purification tables and a refillable water bottle. This way, you can filter the water at your hotel or hostel or treat it in your water bottle. It may not taste great, but it’s better than adding more plastic waste to the environment.

8. Don’t change your money in the street-side casa de cambios. You’ll get a better exchange rate in the banks that line Avenida de Sol. Better yet take your ATM or credit card and get money as you need it.

9. Don’t take photos of locals and indigenous folks without their permission. It’s not cool. If you do ask for a photo, expect to be asked for a couple of soles in exchange or to be flat-out turned down.  If they say they don’t what their photo taken, don’t take it. Period. Or if you don’t want to pay a few soles, don’t take the photo. Most locals won’t look directly into the camera, so don’t give modeling directions.

10. Don’t forget to get your picture taken with a llama in the middle of the city. Why not? When is this situation going to arise in your life again?

I think these top 10 lists cover the major points, but post a comment if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to respond.

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