Our next stop was Cusco.
The city itself was amazing. Cusco has a palpable character to it. You walk the streets and there’s something in the air. You’d be hard-pressed to be in the city for more than a few days, and not see fireworks, a parade, or some other kind of festivities.
Asking one of the locals why there were so many parades only got us “Por que es Cusco!” (because it’s Cusco).
If you’re staying in Cusco, the whole city is easily accessible on foot, via short taxi rides, or some of the buses that run around the city. Don’t be afraid to take the bus! It’s a great, cheap way to explore, and with even a bit of Spanish and a map, you’ll be fine.
The city has plenty of food and things to do, not to mention a decent bar scene. I think all of the backpackers have definitely been able to lend some financial support to the bars… One or two places we went had a healthy dose of locals, but many of the bars in the center of the city were filled with an assortment of global citizens.
I left a piece of my heart in Cusco, and I have a feeling I’ll be back to pick it up soon.
Check out some of my favorite spots in the city:
Plaza de Armas
The plaza is the place to go. All of the Peruvian cities we visited have a main plaza, and plenty of smaller, neighborhood plazas scattered around as well. Literally, “weapons square,” the plaza de armas serves as kind of a city center. You typically find plenty of restaurants and shopping around the plazas. Warning though: walk a few blocks off the plaza if you want more authentic food or souvenirs.
There’s plenty of plazas in Cusco, but I’m partial to the Plaza Regocijo. I was lucky enough to pass through it on our way to volunteer work from our accommodations. A bit quieter than the Plaza de Armas, Plaza Regocijo is located a block southeast of the main plaza. There are a few small walking roads that connect the two.
Best souvenir selection and prices I found in Cusco. Always shop around though, and it’s definitely worth haggling too. Walk to the east-most corner of the Plaza de Armas, follow the road northeast. Go past Paddy’s Irish Pub (stop for beers later), past the 12 angle stone (you’ll know it’s there from the crowd of tourists taking selfies with a wall), and you’ll find a small walkway with steps on the right (southeast) side of the street. Llama lady is the first store on the left that has two entrances. I’m not sure if that’s the official name though….
The Meeting Place
I have to tell you, I feel like there’s a huge Irish population in Cusco. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s plenty of pubs and places you can go for some decent greasy food. The Meeting Place is one of those places. Coming from New England, I have a thing for frappes, and The Meeting Place’s is one of the best I’ve had. The rest of their food is good too, but you could find cheaper elsewhere, if you’re on a budget. If you’re craving a good Western breakfast: eggs, bacon (tocino), the whole deal, go to Jack’s Get a table on the second floor overlooking the Plaza San Blas, it’s a great view.
Indigo is a neat little bar, located about a block northeast of the Plaza de Armas. Indigo is great for a beer or two. They have cards, games, and hookahs too, so it’s an awesome spot to sit and relax or bring a few friends and have a good time. Or hey, make some new friends!
Juice Bar at San Pedro Market
San Pedro market itself can be a bit overwhelming. Come prepared for a lot of noise and new smells. The shopkeepers might get in your face if you look particularly touristy, but you can find some good deals too. Walk through the market, and you’ll definitely see the juice bar. The women that run it are super friendly, and always willing to lend an ear to those with too little Spanish, and a little too much Spanglish. The juice is phenomenal, and there are plenty of options, like beet juice and ginger root.
Loki is a pretty popular party hostel. They have locations in Lima, Cusco, and Mancora, Peru, as well as La Paz, Bolivia, and one in Salta, Argentina. Although we didn’t stay at Loki while in Cusco (we were covered by our volunteer accommodations), I went there for drinks a few times. It’s got a great atmosphere. If you’re looking for the party hostel atmosphere and want to meet some new drinking buddies, Loki’s the place. Check out Wild Rover (closer to the Plaza) while you’re at it too.
The real reason behind our adventure in Peru was some volunteer work. My girlfriend and I had both volunteered in the past, and were itching to get out there and get some more experience. I have to say though, we got so much more out of the whole trip than just some volunteer work.
The GF’s one week gig was with a small hospital, and I served my time with a motley crew of other construction volunteers. We were working on a small building that had plans to become a kindergarten on the outskirts of the city. Every morning began with 15 minute bus ride, and then a massive climb up at least 100 steps. If that wasn’t enough, we had to climb a solid 50 more to and from our only water source. We were mixing a lot of concrete, which means we needed plenty of water.
In 5 days, we were able to put up the last of the brick walls, and form a majority of the remaining concrete supports needed. The work was rewarding, challenging, and still plenty of fun. Volunteering is something I have always loved, starting my journey in Biloxi, MS after Hurricane Katrina, a number of years ago.
Needless to say, my Cusquena experience was eye-opening. I find myself happiest when I’m volunteering, and when I’m able to genuinely feel like I’m making an impact somewhere. Ever feel bored at work? Like you could be doing something more? Like you should be doing something more important? More meaningful?
Try volunteering somewhere. I’m serious. You don’t have to go halfway across the world, just start with a local volunteer organization. I’m always amazed at how much I get out of an experience when I’m helping others.
I should mention that we volunteered with Maximo Nivel, after finding them through IVHQ. Both organizations were great. IVHQ offers so much flexibility, with over 30 destinations, and multiple projects at each. Maximo Nivel, on the other hand, focuses its efforts in Peru, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Essentially, IVHQ partners with local organizations, like Maximo Nivel. So, even though we volunteered with IVHQ, Maximo Nivel was our boots on the ground. They have a great partnership, and both organizations are dedicated to their cause, and supportive of their volunteers.
Tips & Tricks for Cusco
- Don’t be afraid of the street food! Know yourself, of course. If you have a weak stomach, go easy. Seriously though, some of the best food I had in Cusco was hastily shoved in my mouth as I ran to catch the bus.
- Likewise, don’t be afraid of the locals. Some people will pester you to buy this or that, but most everyone is genuinely nice.
- Shop around for souvenirs. As I mentioned above, my favorite was “alpaca lady.” Tell her you’re with Maximo Nivel, she loves those people. No matter where you go though, there will be different prices on the same stuff. If you have time, look around for the best price, and definitely haggle! (Especially if you look particularly gringo…)
- Give yourself some time to adjust for the altitude. Don’t go out and run a marathon the day you get there. If you can acclimate at a lower altitude, it might be worth it (maybe at Urabamba, Ollantaytambo, or Machu Picchu). Altitude sickness varies, though. My girlfriend felt awful for the first four days. I had to catch my breath only twice during the entire trip.
My next post will be on some more of the adventures in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, I didn’t want to make this one too long. Stay tuned for some info on the Qorikancha, Sacsayhuaman, Moray, y la Salinas de Maras!