Cusco is a place that has a very unexpected quality about it – it is more captivating than most expect. Many travelers end up staying here well beyond their anticipated leave date. Not just because of its close proximity to the grand world wonder Mach Picchu, but because it is such a different sort of place, and in the most irresistible ways. Cusco seems to capture the essence of life in Peru, and it is a city of color, vibrancy, and an ancient culture that never ceases to be fascinating.
Choosing Cusco to live in for a month was a random choice, and as soon as we found out just how awesome this place was we were ecstatic we’d be there for a while. It felt special to be a part of a city where the winding cobblestone streets and whitewashed buildings were visible remnants of the ancient Inca society itself. Cusco is a place that pulls you in and doesn’t let go, and it’s unlikely to resist the opportunity to stay in its clutches.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF LIFE IN PERU – CUSCO IS THE HEART
Within the first 48 hours, Cusco had us swallowed up and star struck with its kind people and unique energy. We did not experience the same levels of uncertainty we felt while living in Granada Nicaragua. In Cusco, we felt completely comfortable from the start. We felt at home and safe – like we could fully relax into life in Peru and just enjoy.
Peruvian people are genuinely sweet, kindly giving greetings in passing with a nod. The elderly and people with children are given priority in grocery lines, and there was always a focus on family and tradition here.
Ladies in traditional garb with long, dark braids carry woven shawls full of goods on their backs. There’s no need for strollers… young kids are carried right on the back in these brightly colored handwoven cradles. At the same time, Cusco has a modern feel and the style of younger people is fashionable and metropolitan.
Color and culture is bursting at every corner, with immaculate cathedrals and old-style buildings making up most of the hotspots of the city. The streets are narrow, and the cobblestone bricks are almost as smooth as glass from over 3,000 years of foot traffic. Precisely cut Inca stones make up the base of buildings, and intriguing marketplaces can be found all over the city.
The streets of Cusco are reasonably clean, but there’s still concentrations of litter and grime in some places. After all, this is Latin America. Shop owners scrub their slice of the sidewalk with soap and water, but some areas are dirty and grungy just like anywhere else in the world. Though there’s many stray dogs here, the poop on the street problem isn’t that bad – especially not as bad as what we experienced in Granada. (At least it was only one kind)!
The Effects of High Altitude
The high and dry mountains surrounding Cusco were amazingly beautiful and always a daydream distraction. No snowy tops, just green rolling peaks cradling the city on all sides and dotted with thin patches of trees. With epic mountains comes an epic altitude – and Cusco is over 3400 meters high.
For the first 24 hours or so, this altitude is rough on non-locals, even for those who believe they have a high tolerance for it. A short walk up a steep flight of stairs can get you incredibly winded and out of breath. Our first day, we experienced altitude-induced fatigue like never before, including the whole dizziness effect that leaves you feeling like you can’t take in enough deep breaths.
The keys to treating altitude sickness:
We learned to drink A LOT of water (purified only in this area of course). Chug it like you’re doing a keg stand if you have to, because it helps immensely in bringing oxygen to your brain and also clears up minor altitude headaches a lot faster. Buy a couple of 2 liter bottles, and drink them both on the day of arrival. It cures. Plus, lots of sleep the first day not only passes the time it takes to get over the altitude, but it really helps in the energy sector.
There’s also the well-known coca leaf remedy. Not the tastiest leaf, this stuff is said to give you a boost of energy and a better physical footing to cope with the altitude, and we can say first hand that it works. You can buy a bag of freshy dried coca leaves at any market for about 1 sole (.31 cents USD). You can brew it in tea, or roll it up and shove it in your cheek to chew on local style. Just don’t swallow the leaves unless you’d like a killer stomach ache.
With such an epic monument like Machu Picchu nearby, you can imagine there’s a massive industry in Cusco for tourism, and many people make their living through visitors. Downtown Plaza de Armas is packed full of tour companies looking to sell adventures, and an array of other things.
The most hilarious service to us was massages. We couldn’t quite tell if these came with happy endings or not. Young women with massage “menus” stood in the streets surrounding the plaza literally every few feet, waving their laminated ads and projecting loudly, “Massage! Massage! Massage!” to every single passerby. A simple “no gracias” did the trick to stop the advances, though they had perfected the pout and let-down look to make you feel especially guilty for not partaking.
Peruvian food is famous, and there’s plenty of excellent restaurants around the city. A couple of our favorites included Jack’s Café near the 12-sided stone attraction downtown, and the small but very delicious Cuse Smokehouse by San Blas Plaza. Family owned traditional cafes are everywhere to be found, and a 3-course meal for dinner or lunch complete with soup and a full plate of meat, rice, and salad runs around 7-10 soles (2-3 USD).
Oddly enough, tiny boiled quail eggs are a common snack in Cusco and seem to be a staple of the street food scene. There’s also cuy (pronounced “coo-ey”); it’s cooked up guinea pig! For drinks, pisco sours are excellent and always on happy hour menus.
Downtown Cusco is buzzing with energy, and it is a lively historic hub. Colorful textile markets add splashes of color add life to an already amazing scene, and the San Pedro market is hopping with busy energy and all sorts of fresh goods. We made it a habit to wander downtown once per week, and the area around the plaza was always perfect for people watching or an afternoon wander.
During our month in Cusco we lived in the Manuel Prado neighborhood, or barrio, and it was a pleasant place. Though our apartment was only a few blocks from the main shopping mall Real Plaza, the area was quiet and tranquil. The surrounding Peruvian hills were a nice sight to be had in the mornings and at sunset.
Square multi-level buildings of red brick make up the majority of the residences, and creep upward onto the face of the mountains from the Cusco valley. At night, the city lights seemed to be suspended against the dark backdrop of the hills, and the nights in May were chilly but comfortable.
Three times per week, the trash man would walk down each street of our neighborhood ringing a handheld bell, to remind everyone of trash pickup. On Saturdays, a group of male and female soldiers would go on their morning runs along our street, chanting and panting the whole way up the block.
Taxis to just about anywhere in Cusco are only 5 soles during the day, which is just about $1.50 USD, so we never had trouble getting anywhere except for the often insane traffic that plagues the city. We also had to be careful that the driver didn’t pretend like he didn’t know where he was going and thus charge a higher rate, but we managed.
There is indeed a stray dog problem in Peru, just like the majority of Latin America. Unfortunately, as we were told by a local restaurant owner, people begin to raise puppies as part of the family but don’t take care of them when they are no longer small and cute. As a result, there are many stray dogs running about, but the people have an interesting way of handling the problem.
Rather than shoo them away, the people of any given neighborhood pitch in to feed the dogs, and when it’s cold out, they fit them with little jackets and even little beds outside to keep them warm. In exchange, the dogs hang around on the street and act as guard dogs for the neighborhood. One pup barked at us on sight as we approached our building for a few days, but became familiar with who we were afterwards and no longer bothered us.
These dogs are loyal to the neighborhood, and know who lives there and who does not. Oftentimes we would see the neighborhood dogs barking at more shifty people who had a definite bad energy about them. Dogs definitely have a sense about people.
We’ve seen similar situations practiced throughout our trip in Latin America, but not so strong as in Cusco. Here, it’s not just a strong attempt to handle a stray dog problem, but it’s a way to try to help everyone in the neighborhood, whether they be furry friends or human.
COSTS OF LIVING
Life in Peru was simple and relaxed. For just $581 USD to rent our place for the month, we had more than enough amenities and even the luxury of our own washing machine (backpacker score!). Still, Cusco is one of the more pricier places to live in Peru next to Lima, but it’s still reasonable.
Most nights we enjoyed sitting around the fireplace playing cards and drinking wine – there’s excellent wine in Cusco for a great price. Our quaint studio apartment was the perfect size, and came with cable and a strong wifi connection. We had a steady supply of hot water, though the city turns off the water supply in the late-night hours. Our host and his wife were very kind people, and we especially liked that we didn’t need to go far for restaurants or groceries.
Groceries from the nearby supermarket were reasonably priced, and we could usually pick up meals and essentials for the week for around $50 USD (~165 soles). Fresh produce at a local market was extremely cheap, maybe only .25-.50 cents USD per piece, and artisan cheese was half the price at the local market as it was at the supermarket.
If you find yourself needing antibiotics or other medication, it’s easy as cake to pop into a pharmacy like Inka Farma or Botica and get exactly what you need without going to a doctor, and for an extremely reasonable price. For nine large antibiotics pills, I paid 18 soles, just about $5.50 USD. You simply let the pharmacist know your symptoms, and they diagnose you on the spot.
Since taxis and public transport were budget friendly, we had a nice cost of living in Cusco which made us love it even more. Tours on the other hand, can be expensive. Multi-day hikes to Machu Picchu can cost upwards of $700 USD, and to take the train instead and pay for entry we paid around $230 USD each to see the legendary site. Still, it was absolutely worth the cost. Other ruins like the Moray Terraces and the Salineras salt pools could be done on our own without tours, and that helped in the pricey Cusco tour market.
We love Cusco, and for so many reasons. The ambience of this ancient city is both busy and relaxed all at the same time, and the people are part of a vibrant culture that is always a privilege to be around. As expats, this place was an amazing place to settle. There is so much to do here you’ll never get bored, and we really couldn’t beat the low cost of living.
Peru is an intriguing country, and there is so much more to it than the main tourist attractions, especially in Cusco. Those who get to spend extended time here are definitely lucky, and get a true sense of life in Peru. Though it can be a place of contrasts, this place was one we truly enjoyed living in. We will never forget our time here, and we will always be grateful to have experienced such a place long term.
Have you been to Cusco? What did you like most about it? Let us know in the comments below!