1. Cusco is very popular with tourists
The city is beautiful, with a multitude of things to do (including excursions in the Sacred Valley), however you’ll also find McDonalds and KFC surrounding the Plaza de Armas. Shops for hiking gear are also in abundance, which is great if you need to pick up something last minute before your hike, but kind of ruins the atmosphere.
2. THE ALTITUDE IS NO JOKE
We went to Paddy’s on our first night in Cusco, the self-proclaimed “world’s highest Irish pub”. The old Incan capital is 3,400m above sea level and we underestimated how big an effect this would have on us.
It seemed that every hour in Paddy’s was happy hour and the drinks are relatively cheap considering it is situated in the Plaza de Armas (city centre). However, we would recommend allowing yourself to acclimatise to the drastic change in altitude for a few days in order to minimise an oxygen-starved hangover.
We spent a week in Cusco prior to our trek, and five nights afterwards, which meant that neither of us suffered too much from altitude sickness, and we had plenty of time to explore the city and the surrounding sites in the Sacred Valley. If you don’t have as much time in the city as we did, make sure you spend the first 24-48 hours acclimatising before you attempt any kind of hike, as the effects of altitude sickness can be very serious if you’re not careful.
3. another quick note on altitude…
…It makes cooking very tedious. Boiling temperatures decrease at altitude, meaning that those backpacker-friendly staples like pasta or rice take a lot longer to cook. This was really not ideal in a hostel like ours where the kitchen was always busy (aside from that, we really enjoyed our stay there).
The elevation also makes the nights quite chilly, regardless of the time of year. We visited in April, a shoulder month between the ‘summer’ (wet season from December to March) and ‘winter’ (dry season between May and September), and although the days were sunny, we appreciated the blankets provided by our hostel at night.
4. DOgs everywhere
Many places in South America have a huge population of stray dogs, and Cusco is no exception – you’ll spot them everywhere, particularly around the Plaza de Armas where they are accustomed to a snack or two from the tourists. There is currently no government programme to control the stray population meaning they are free to breed, and you can tell – on a bus journey to our quadbike tour we counted 130 dogs.
5. Cusco is a haven for vegetarians/ vegans
Eating out in restaurants in South America can be difficult if you’re veggie, Cusco is an exception. There is a vast array of restaurants that cater for or are specifically serving plant-based food. This is the case for much of Cusco, not just the tourist hotspots.
We recommend the following places for delicious plant based food and cafes:
- Green point restaurant – Amazing vegan restaurant with an 18 soles set menu (£4)
- Cappuccino cafe – Coffee shop that looks out onto the Plaza de Armas
- Allin Trattoria Pizzería – Wood fire oven pizza, great for takeaways
- Siete y siete restaurant – Peruvian style vegan-friendly restaurant
- Balkon Azul Restaurant – Quaint cafe in the centre of Cusco. Great for grabbing lunch
6. be cautious when using taxis
You will be made aware of the sheer numbers of taxis present in Cusco as soon as you leave your hostel. They will honk you at every opportunity.
After some research, and conversations with reception staff at our hostel we found that there are many unregistered taxis operating in Cusco without a licence. Because of this, we advise travellers to use Uber when possible (there are some areas that Uber doesn’t cover) to ensure your journey is as safe as possible.
If you find yourself in an area that Uber cannot access, Turismo taxi service was very reliable when getting into the city centre from our Airbnb. Make sure you agree a price prior to entering the taxi using your best Spanish skills, as the taxis don’t have meters. And in the situation that you must hail a taxi from the street, make sure to check that the registration number is printed on the outside and inside of the back doors.
Another thing worth noting is that some areas are inaccessible to vehicles due to the narrow streets. Make sure you know of a landmark that is close to your hotel or hostel to get picked up from in a situation like this.
When leaving the city for trips into the Sacred Valley, we recommend a colectivo (essentially a minibus used to take people to and from local destinations). If you’re in a rush, it may not be the best choice, as they leave once full, as opposed to on a specific schedule. However from Pisac back to Cusco we paid S/. 4 pp (or roughly £1/$1).
7. The massages are genuine but be prepared to haggle
The Plaza de Armas is full of street vendors offering massages for prices as low as 20 soles (around £5) but you will have to barter for this. We managed to get our price down to 35 soles each for an hour-long full body massage. This went down a treat after our 4 day hike to Machu Picchu.
We had no problems at all during ours, however it is worth being aware of where your belongings are as there have been stories of theft during the massage – so, as you should when travelling anywhere, try to leave valuables locked in your hostel where possible.
8. Fake Alpaca wool
Almost every market stall in Cusco will offer ‘genuine’ alpaca wool products for very cheap prices. This is of course always too good to be true. An alpaca wool jumper will not sell for less than £100. Despite the market wool wear being synthetic material, it is still relatively durable for the price and will still keep you warm if you’re on a tight budget and eager for a souvenir (it also helps on those chilly nights mentioned in 3.).
9. Machu Picchu has a one way system
Due to crowding and congestion in popular spots inside the citadel, a new one-way system has been implemented so as to keep the flow of tourists moving. This means that once you have passed a spot, you cannot return to take more photos (which is enforced by park rangers and their whistles). We highly recommend exploring slowly (obviously depending on the speed of your guide), to really take in everything this incredible site has to offer.
10. pack smart for the trek
The most important tip for trekking to Machu Picchu is to pack LIGHT. If you book online, the tour company will probably have a packing list on their website, but here is a rough guide (from someone, meaning Ellie, who packed too much in her day bag):
We were provided with a duffel from Alpaca Expeditions, and with the sleeping bag and air mat that we rented from the company, we had 3.5kg left in our duffels for clothes etc (as the porters are only permitted to carry a certain amount).
- Hiking socks – these double layer ones are my favourite (tip: pack more socks than days hiking – you’ll thank yourself when you get to camp and have a clean pair of socks to put on).
- Passport and entry ticket (given to you by your guide) – you can also stamp your passport at Machu Picchu which, contrary to our concerns, will not nullify your passport.
- Water bottle/reservoir – we each took two 1L water bottles (having picked up the second in Cusco before departing), and that was plenty for us, seeing as there was drinking water provided at each stop so you could fill up.
- Trekking poles – not a necessity, but especially helpful for extra stability on day two’s descent (we rented ours from Alpaca Expeditions).
- Raincoat – the weather on the Inca trail was very temperamental, especially at the trek’s highest point of 4,215m.
- Clothes – whatever you feel most comfortable in, Elliot mainly wore hiking trousers, while Ellie packed only leggings, and we both opted for wicking tops.
- Walking boots with high ankle support – some people preferred to do it in trail runners, but weak ankles and the Inca stairs are not a good mix.
- Flipflops/sliders – walking around camp in the boots you’ve been wearing for eight hours isn’t that pleasant, taking a pair of flip flops meant we could give our feet some air.
- Wetwipes – as you are camping for three nights without showering, wipes were an easy way for us to freshen up after each long day of hiking. Obviously they are not great for the environment though, so try these.
In your day bag (less is more):
- Portable charger and cable
- Hat – depending on when you travel, and of course the altitude, the nights on the trek could be quite cold.
- Head torch – in case you need a toilet stop in the middle of the night/for packing up the tent on day 4.
(This is by no means an exhaustive list, but just a brief guideline as to which items we actually used – I’ll say it again, pack light)