I just got back from Cusco, Peru and what a life-changing trip. Not only are the views out of this world, the people are too –and despite language barriers, they were extraordinarily friendly, beyond my wildest dreams. My trip was so incredible, I have to share my experience with all of you in hopes that one day you, too, will take the journey to magical Cusco, Peru.
Something super important for first-time travelers to Cusco –it is situated at an elevation of approximately 3,400 m (11,200 ft). At first, you might feel out of sorts, some symptoms could include: being sleepy, a loss of focus, and shortness of breath. However, your body will adjust to the altitude, but it might take up to one day or as little as a few hours. I noticed within the first few hours I felt a little dizzy and foggy.
Tips: To make the transition a little easier for foreigners, many hotels provide coca tea or ‘mate de coca’ to guests. An important point about the ‘mate de coca’ tea is this –the coca leaf is where cocaine comes from, therefore one cup of coca tea can cause a positive result on a drug test for cocaine. Therefore, it is advisable to avoid drinking the tea if you have drug tests coming up, like for a new job. In more extreme cases hotels provide oxygen. Talk to your doctor before you go so you can find the best solution for the altitude. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
What To Pack: Clothing
While we all want to look our best when traveling, some cities aren’t the types of places you’ll want to show off your fashionista flair. Cusco is gorgeous, but don’t worry about being gorgeous yourself. This trip is all about being casual and exploring your surroundings.
Wear comfy shoes –there is no other way to explore Cusco unless you want aching feet. Cusco, Peru is extremely condensed which means it can be explored easily by foot. There are several hill climbing adventures involved and the majority, if not all, of the streets, are cobblestone. I mention this point because I made the mistake of bringing a lot of sandals and ended up wearing the same pair of sneakers the entire trip. Save yourself the luggage space and weight for more important items or for some unique souvenirs you want to bring back home.
Dress in layers –the weather fluctuates throughout the day. In the morning and late at night, it’s chilly, enough for a light sweater or spring jacket. However, during the day it can get really toasty, think shorts, t-shirt and a hat to protect you from the sun. Do not forget sunscreen, you’ll be sorry if you do, the sun in Cusco gets pretty intense.
When to Visit
November to April is considered the wet season. From May to October is the dry season. As long as you are prepared for the season, traveling during either the wet or dry season is perfectly fine. No matter if it’s the wet or dry season, Cusco, Peru is busy all year round. Busier months tend to be from June to October and during the festival weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year. Cusco has many annual festivals and celebrations, so consider if you want to be a part of them or avoid them. I was lucky enough to be there for one festival that for me it was a pleasant surprise. South Americans love a good fiesta.
The Nuevo Sol is the official currency in Peru. While you can exchange currency at the airport, the rates won’t be so great. Consider exchanging a little at the airport and the rest of your cash closer to the city center where exchange rates will be in your favor. No need to speak the language when exchange rates are clearly marked. Or better yet, you can withdraw Soles directly from the ATM and skip all the hassles.
Customs and Things To Keep In Mind
There is no shortage of Insta-worthy moments in Cusco, especially in the city center and around touristy spots. But remember, the photo opportunities aren’t free! In Cusco, Peru women are dressed in traditional outfits and are often accompanied by a lavishly adorned llama or alpaca. The women charge one or two soles for a picture, which is less than fifty cents. This is how they earn money. Don’t be shy to ask for a picture, but be sure to ask before taking someone’s photo and don’t just snap away because it’s considered rude. Keep in mind that a service charge/tip may be necessary. Remember, this is their livelihood.
Do haggle –but not too much. Prices on most items in the markets and on the streets have been doubled or tripled, of course, like in many other tourist towns around the world. Don’t be scared to ask for a discount, but if they insist on a price, don’t feel like you’ve lost if you give in. Remember the exchange rate and what you’re really paying for an item. A few bucks might not be much to you, but to locals, it can be the difference between eating and not eating. So don’t overthink haggling. Naturally, bear in mind that Peru is relatively poor so offer what you think is fair but no less.
Drink a pisco sour which is a popular drink in South America. In the Andean area, you’ll find pisco sours everywhere, as traditional as wine in France or beer in Germany. If you love sour, lemony flavors, then the pisco sour needs to be on your list of things to sample. Keep in mind there are alcohol and egg whites for anyone who has an allergy or is on a strict diet.
Study Spanish or revisit your Spanish skills. Or make sure one of your travel mates speaks Spanish. Most people don’t speak English in Cusco despite the tourism. They might know a few words, but conversations will not be likely. Bring a pocket English-Spanish dictionary if traveling alone or with people who don’t speak Spanish –it will come in super handy.
Where to Stay
I can’t say enough good things about my stay at JW Marriottt El Convento Cusco. It felt like I had picked the perfect hotel, both modern and majestic, historical and homey. The décor blends original Inca design and colonial style.
The JW Marriott El Convento Cusco is built on the site of the 16th century San Agustin Convent which I could feel immediately. There is a great sense of history roaming throughout the hallways and into the rooms where I was able to see pieces of history captured in the form of photos on the walls. These photos show archeological ruins and artifact exhibition areas on the property. JW Marriott El Convento Cusco is one of the city's newest five-star hotels which amazing customer service and staff that welcomes guests as if they were coming home.
The hotel is steps away from the Plaza de Armas, a short train ride away from Macchu Pichu, and a car ride away from the Sacred Valley. From the hotel, it’s beyond easy to explore these noteworthy attractions. What a thrill to think that I slept literally steps away from the hearthstone of a rich living culture and was able to discover the past.
Qespi Restaurant and Bar and Pirqa are the two on-site restaurants that are surrounded by a stone wall which was part of the original cloister. Both have outstanding menus and views. The staff is incredibly polite, they’ll make you feel like family.
If you’re into learning about the local cuisine, the hotel also offers interactive mixology and cooking lesson, so feel free to mingle if the mood strikes.
Where to Eat
MAP Café: Located in the courtyard of the Museum of Precolumbian Art, this is considered one of Cusco’s finest restaurants. In South America, coffee is not just a beverage, but a ceremonial drink tied to ancestors –so is a hot chocolate, so try both and feel the energies of Cusco move you.
LIMO: LIMO offers simply the best Peruvian cuisine in one place. There is a real variety of dishes to sample and clients have been raving about this place for a few years now. Even though I didn’t get to try it, it’s highly recommended.
Street Food and Local Flavors
You may or may not know this, but I absolutely love to try local food. What better way to know a culture than trying real local food and not some of the fancy dishes in high-class restaurants. It also allows me to mingle with the local people which I think is so important. Here were some of the things I tried and loved.
Anticucho:“meat on a stick” grilled to perfection on the streets of Cusco, Peru after 6 pm. The traditional anticucho is ‘corazon’ (cow heart, but if you aren’t feeling that adventurous, you can try the chicken or regular old beef.
Tamales: Tamales are a staple in Cusco, Peru. These tamales are made from boiled corn, which is mashed into a paste, flavored and seasoned, and cooked inside the corn leaves. Usually, street vendors offer two types of tamales: sweet or salty. Some of the most popular fillings are chicken or pork with olives, and the sweet tamales sometimes contain raisins. Tamales are a tasty and cheap snack.
Picarones: Many will refer to picarones as a kind of doughnut or sweet bread, they are actually quite different and unique to Peru.
Choclo: When it comes to corn, the Peruvian mantra is the bigger the better –the corn in Peru is massive. Nothing like we North Americans know corn to be. North American prefer the small kernels yellow or white sweet corn of the vast central plains, however, in Peru, they eat choclo, a young corn that is plump and juicy.
Lucuma: Lucuma is a fruit that is not readily available in North America. It is often described as having an unforgettable taste. Some describe the flavor combination to be reminiscent of maple syrup, caramel, and sweet potato. If you like sweet, then lucuma is for you! Many use lucuma to make ice cream in Peru. I had a taste of the fruit and was instantly hooked!
Pan chuta: ‘Pan’ (bread) is baked in wood-burning ovens with eucalyptus leaves, which give the wheat-based bread a distinct flavor. Pan chuta is sold at every street corner and market in Cusco, Peru.
Paria Cheese: In the Andes, cheesemaking has a history and a great tradition. The lush green pastures and fresh mountain air allow the animals, like goats and cows, to offer tasty dairy. Now much of paria cheese made with milk from cows, which were introduced to Peru by the Spanish. Among the varieties is one called paria, a highland cheese said to channel the flavors of the Andes.
Points Of Interests
Cusco Cathedral: Almost all trips to South American villages or major cities are not complete without a stop at a cathedral. Be sure to respect their prayer service times and ask if you can take photos.
Plaza de Armas: The Plaza de Armas is a must-see spot. You’ll quickly see that it’s a top tourist destination once you see all the people gathered around admiring the architecture. The main square is the perfect place to soak in the past and present of the Inca’s imperial city and sample some local cuisine and culture, too.
Hatunrumiyoc Street: It’s easy to get here, just take the ancient Incan road, Hathunrumiyoc (Quechua for “great stone street”) towards San Blas. Full of Cusco vibes and Insta-worthy shots.
San Blas District: Wander around in the cobblestoned streets, enjoying old Inca buildings and charming streets. You will quickly fall in love with how the past meets the present in the San Blas District.
San Pedro Market: Cusco locals come here to buy fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts, and other staples. My absolute favorite of Cusco, Peru. I recommend it 100%! Among the interesting things, you’ll see are pigs’ heads and chicken feet and fruits that will not be familiar to you –feel free to ask the names and the vendor might even cut open the fruit to let you sample. One of the coolest sights at the San Pedro Market was seeing booths where shamans sell all manners of herbs and potions.
Festival Corpus Christi Cusco, Peru: Dates vary each year, so check the coming year’s calendar to be sure you don’t miss the Corpus Christi Festival if it’s on your must-do list. This year happened to be on June 15th and I was there to witness the festivities. Wow, what a celebration! The festivities for Corpus Christi in Cusco are one of the most important and enthusiastic religious celebrations of the year in Peru. Expect colorful processions, traditional dances and music, amazing costumes and typical Andean food and drinks. It was the highlight of my trip, without a doubt!
Remember traveling is about heightening your life and connecting to the world in special ways, but that doesn’t mean it comes without some strategic planning. It will make your trip so much more enjoyable and relaxing when you have tips to guide you and suggestions to make your stay incredible. Have fun traveling to Cusco, Peru it will be a trip of a lifetime, that I can guarantee.