Cusco

Cusco: Hidden Gems, Parasites & How to do Machu Picchu Cheaply

It’s no surprise that Cusco is South America’s number one travel destination. Here you will encounter fascinating history, adorable llamas and probably the most sweaters you will ever see in your life! Oh yeah, and Machu Picchu is just around the corner.   

If you’re about to visit Cusco, here are some recommendations I would give you…

Main Square / Plaza de Armas, Cusco


1. There are affordable tour options to visit Machu Picchu. It does not need to cost $300 USD. There are other ways than taking the train or doing a crazy trek. If you’d like to skip to Machu Picchu info click here.

2. It’s very easy to get a parasite here. And maybe other things. You can try to be really careful and never eat a salad, never eat street food, never eat a menu del dia at a mercado…but honestly you might still get one anyway and you’d be missing out on some of the best parts of Cusco! I got a parasite and Salmonella and it was annoying but I don’t regret anything I ate. It was all delicious and I would probably do it all over again. If you want to see how I dealt with getting a parasite in Cusco, skip ahead here.

3. Talk to the locals! (Always my favorite advice.) If you have even basic Spanish, talking to Cusqueños is a great way to practice and learn more. When I got food from a stall in a market, I would just start talking to the person working there, if they weren’t busy. Just ask them questions, “Are you from Cusco? What are your favorite parts of the city? What are your favorite cities in Peru?” I also enjoyed drawing or writing in the main square or other park areas. Yes, a lot of people come up to you trying to sell stuff you don’t want, but sometimes random cool people would come up to me and just want to talk or practice their English.

Main Square / Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Anyway, I’m not going to give you all the typical expert advice that the real-deal travel blogs out there will give you…because I probably don’t even know that stuff! I’ll just let you know all my favorite things in Cusco, my personal experience with things such as tours and day trips and anything else I feel like sharing…Starting with cheap food!

CHEAP FOOD

Peru is known as one of South America’s culinary capitals and there is surely no shortage of delicious food in Cusco. When you are spending time in Cusco’s center, it’s all too easy to get caught up in touristy establishments that are pricey yet not necessarily the best or most unique.  Let’s talk about some of the places where you can get the biggest bang for your sol.

Quinoa – Menu del Dia S/. 7
I walked in simply because it smelled heavenly as I was passing by. The vegetable soup was simple but very big and warm. The pollo de seco included good quality chicken in a really rich green sauce with rice carrots and potatoes. This restaurant is right around the corner from a bunch of S/. 15-20 menu del dia places.

Outside of Quinoa

Ayni Organic – Gourmet Food + Magical Prices
The menu has so many irresistible sounding options, I’m honestly sad I only went here once. The prices are pretty good for dinner, with many options in the 20s. I got the alpaca which was one of the only items in the 30s, (I believe S/. 35). Hands down favorite dinner in Cusco. The tender meat came with sauteed vegetables rolled with some kind of cheese in the middle and mashed potatoes with a red berry sauce. 

Mama Seledonia – Great Quality Dinner at a Good Price
I got the alpaca a la plancha. It was a little more simple compared to fancy Ayni but very good equality, a little cheaper and a little bigger. It came with a nice side salad, a generous portion of avocado and some killer fries. They even threw in a mini free dessert of sliced fruit and chocolate sauce. 

Waykiss Restaurant Cafe – Bangin’ Breakfast
If you want a giant desayuno full of carbs but want to spend less than you would at Jack’s Cafe, this little gem lies just down the road. For S/. 13 I got 2 eggs, 2 pieces of bacon, bread with butter and jam, a chocolate crepe, a glass of orange juice and a coffee with warm milk.

I had already eaten half of the food by the time the crepe came, but you get the point

Pantastico – Coffee + Baked Good S/. 10 
This tiny cafe only has a few tables but has a great view of the city if you sit at the bar. You can pair your coffee with certain baked goods like chocolate bread or carrot cake for just S/. 10 altogether. There are also a lot of other options for S/. 1 or 2 more such as cheesecake or empanadas.  Really the whole San Blas area is the best place to get coffee. (located in San Blas)

San Blas area of Cusco

Mercado De San Blas – Wins Cleanest Market & Best Sandwich
This mercado offers all the fun of food stalls and fresh produce…but its very clean and organized compared to most others. It is probably the most touristy but you’ll still see locals eating lunch here too. There’s plenty of great typical lunch stalls, but the real stars of the show are the vegan place which offers up a slightly bougie, yet still affordable menu del dia and then the sandwich place. The famous sandwich to get is the Machu Picchu and it’s LOADED with chicken, avocado, fried cheese, and some veggies.

The Machu Picchu Sandwich, San Blas Market


Mercado de Wanchaq – Ceviche & Jugo Especial

I went to this market based on the recommendation of a Brazilian couple I met, who told me I could find ceviche for S/. 8. They also raved about this bizarre traditional drink called ‘Jugo Especial’. This drink was the size of my head and included fruits, vegetables, beer, a raw egg and a bunch of other stuff.  It was actually pretty decent. It tasted like a smoothie with a more neutral low key flavor as opposed to a sweet fruit smoothie. WARNING: I left Peru with a parasite and salmonella. There is no way to know what I got it from…I ate all sorts of crazy crap. You have been warned. This mercado is a little off the main path so you will see way fewer tourists, but it’s really only about a 10 minute walk from the touristic center. 

S/. 8 portion of ceviche, there are larger portions available for a few soles more


Marcado de San Pedro – The Big Kahuna
This is probably the biggest, craziest market in Cusco’s center and you can find any type of cheap lunch menu that your heart desires. It has a reputation for being not the cleanest…but really most big mercados in Latin America get similar reps so you might as well not worry about it. Just being in Cusco…there’s a good chance you will get something. As long as you don’t have a deathly fear of taking antibiotics for a week, you will be ok.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU GET A PARASITE IN CUSCO

Symptoms / Timeline
Day 1: I woke up with a slightly upset stomach. By mid-day, I felt pretty nauseous. By the end of the day, I was feeling really nauseous and had the sensation of a heavy brick in my stomach above my belly button. It felt like a band of pressure was wrapped around my waist. I felt really bloated even though I hadn’t eaten much that day. I stayed up most of the night running to the toilet, I never threw up but I had diarrhea. I felt so bad I almost considered going to the hospital.
Day 2: In the morning it felt a little better, so I assumed maybe it was just food poisoning.
Day 2-4: I didn’t feel as bad but I didn’t feel completely normal either. The diarrhea had stopped, but I still felt like there was a bowling ball sitting in my stomach. I also notice that when I walked a lot I would start feeling kind of nauseous.
Night 4: Things got worse again. My stomach pains and nausea started growing stronger and the diarrhea came back. I felt completely miserable. In the morning I knew that I had to go to the doctor.

Doctor
I went to S.O.S.  Medical Group and in total my bill came to S/. 525. 
This included the blood test, stool test, and medication. 
The doctor told me I had Giardia, (the most common parasite), and a little bit of Salmonella. She prescribed me Cipronor and Metronidazole for a week. The doctor spoke perfect English. 

After
I started feeling at least somewhat better within a day or two. I continued to feel really bloated a few days to a week after my medication finished.

Dusk, not far from the main square


WHERE TO LIE YOUR HEAD AT NIGHT

Over my two and a half weeks in Cusco I stayed at 4 different locations. Three of these were Airbnbs and one was a hostel. Magic Packer Hostel, was the only place in Cusco that I found HOT WATER. As in just as hot as I would have back home, with good pressure, every time. This hostel was the perfect place to relax in a room and chat with new people, yet feel at home. It’s not a party hostel, you can easily go to bed at 10 pm without people waking you up. A couple people in my 6-bed dorm were actually doing internships at travel agencies and living in that room, so it almost felt more like having roommates. It would be a great place to stay the night before waking up early to do a trek. At the same time, the hostel has a bar and some activities throughout the week, so it’s not hard to meet people and go out if that’s what you want.

WHERE TO GET A BACK ALLY MASSAGE

I got 3 during my stay and the last was by far the best. I’m not sure if the prices were so low because they had recently opened and were trying to get their name out there, but definitely worth a try even if you are reading this much later. For S/. 30 I got the Inka massage which included the hot coals. Most other places tried to charge S/. 80-150 for that, though I’m sure you could haggle from there. But I didn’t even have to haggle, this was just the normal price! The woman I had seemed genuinely interested in massage therapy as an art and even stretched me out at the end. This place is on the same street as the restaurant, Hanz Homemade, on the same side but closer to the main square. If you’re walking from the main square to Hanz Homemade it should be the first massage place on your left.

One of Cusco’s city gates


GET OUT OF CUSCO, BUT DON’T DO A DUMB TOUR
Now that you have experienced some of Cusco’s gems, it’s time to get out of the city…which is where the real magic happens! There are so many ruinas to see; which are breathtaking, fascinating and historically important. You might as well accept now, that you probably won’t be able to make it to everything…and if you do, you’ll be so burnt out by the end that you won’t even care what you are seeing anymore.

My shadow, Sacsayhuamán ruins in Cusco


That’s why you should do a little research, think about what interests you the most, pick a few things and make day trips out of them. You can do the Sacred Valley tours or city tours if you want…but honestly, they are crazy and disorganized. You run around from site to site, spending the majority of the time listening to your guide talk, and then you get 10 minutes to actually explore the ruins. You’re going at the same time as the masses. I would rate the experience a 0 out of 10. 

BUY A BOLETO TURISTICO AND GO YOURSELF
You have two options when it comes to buying the tourist pass, which admits you to all the most important ruins and museums of Cusco. You can buy a 2-day pass for S/. 70 or a 10-day pass for S/. 130 (If you are 25 or under bring your student ID and get a student one for 70!) Sadly, the 2-day pass can only be used two days in a row. So if you buy it on a Monday, you better do something worthwhile Monday and Tuesday because on Wednesday you won’t be able to use it anymore. There are a couple of locations right out of the main square where you can buy the tickets and you must have your passport with you. (Even if you book a tour you will still need to buy the boleto turistico in addition to the cost of the tour, in order to get into the ruins during the tour).

View behind one of the ruins on the city tour


I bought the 10-day pass but only really got somewhere 4 of the days, and one of those days was the city tour which I’d highly not recommend. If you only have a week or less in Cusco, I would say do Machu Picchu, maybe rainbow mountains or one other hiking excursion if you can and then get the 2-day boleto turistico. My favorite day trip was the town and ruins of Pisac. Ollantaytambo is a very popular one as well. I didn’t get to Moray or the salt flats but they may be a couple of the easier locations to get to when you need a chill day trip.

PISAC

If I could only recommend one day trip out of Cusco it would be Pisac. It’s closer than some of the others, not as crowded and really beautiful. Go on Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday to catch the artisan market. 

The town itself is honestly really cute with little cafes going down cobblestone streets featuring a network of skinny waterways down the middle. I really wish I would have had more time to explore this area. If possible, I think it’s worth staying a night.

Choclo con Queso, Pisac


How to get to Pisac from Cusco

Take a colectivo from Puputi st for around S/. 4-6.  It takes about an hour to get there.

When I walked up, there was a lady with a Pisac sign advertising the almost full colectivo in the street. I jumped in and we were off in about five minutes! Cars leave whenever they are full and I would assume that happens at least every hour, but it can depend on the weather, time of day etc.

Ruins of Pisac


I ended up meeting a really nice Brazilian couple in the car ride over and hung out with them all day. When we got to Pisac we split a taxi up to the top of the ruins. It was S/. 10 each and I’m pretty sure you could find a much cheaper price, we just didn’t try very hard. You could also walk, I think it may be a 2 or 3 hour hike but I’d recommend the taxi up so that you have more time to explore the town after the ruins. You could easily spend an hour walking around the ruins before enjoying the almost 2 hour hike down, which ends right where the market begins.

How to get back to Cusco from Pisac
Just go back to the place where your colectivo dropped you off. I got there at 6 pm and pretty much just missed the last one. The one leaving said another should be there within 15 minutes but another one never came. We ended up having to stand the whole ride back in a bigger type of colectivo van/ almost minibus that I think locals normally use. There were also people offering taxi rides back for a little more but nothing horribly expensive. You’ll find a way home if you miss the last colectivo but if you want the experience to be easy, it may be a good idea to head out closer to 5 pm.

OLLANTAYTAMBO 

Ruins of Ollantaytambo…The only not crowded part



The ruins of Ollantaytambo seem to be some of the most popular, though I would say they were less visually interesting than Pisac. The town is perhaps a bit bigger and more touristy and they also have a great artisan market…which I believe is open most days? I’m not sure if it’s just because the weather was nicer on the day I went to Ollantaytambo, but it was WAY more crowded than Pisac. The amount of people at the ruins made the experience feel less special and made it almost impossible to take a good photo but if you have the time and the boleto turistico, why not go?

Little side market (separate from the main artisan market), Ollantaytambo


How to get to Ollantaytambo from Cusco
Take a colectivo from Pavitos st for around S/. 10. The journey is around an hour and a half. Again, when I showed up to the little building there was an almost full colectivo ready to go. A man actually came up to me while I was still a couple blocks away, advertising the colectivo. (It’s the same colectivo for Urubamba).

At the end of the day
 
Around 5 pm I stood in the main square and just looked for colectivos with a driver kind of repeatedly saying “Cusco Cusco” out the window and just flagged it down and got in.

My Feet, Machu Picchu


HOW TO DO MACHU PICCHU CHEAPLY

You may have noticed that traveling to Machu Picchu can be quite costoso. The average tourist train from Cusco is around $100 USD each way and I believe the entrance ticket to Machu Picchu is $50. When I found out that a pilgrimage to the world-famous Machu Picchu would be $250 before food and accommodation, I kind of freaked out. However, once in Cusco I quickly discovered that there are about a billion companies that offer tours for around $100! These tours include transportation, entrance to Machu Picchu and a guide, some food, and 1-2 nights of accommodation depending on how well you haggle.

Does it sound too good to be true? A little…and honestly in some ways it is. But if you don’t have a lot of cash to spend, it’s worth it. My tour was pretty crazy and disorganized, and everyone else I met had a pretty similar story. If you are a really nervous traveler by yourself who doesn’t speak ANY Spanish and you need things to run smoothly, these tours may not be for you. Otherwise, you will make it there and everything will be fine in the end…you just have to roll with the punches. The many punches. 

Below I will share my experience with a cheap Cusco tour to Machu Picchu and you can decide for yourself if it’s something you can deal with.

Girl sitting alone, Machu Picchu


So first thing’s first, where to find the tour? When you go to the main square and the surrounding touristy areas you will see…no mejor, you will be confronted with dozens and dozens of tour offers. All sorts of representatives will be standing outside of their tour agency trying to attract your attention. I’d recommend you shop around and see what offers you can get, try to talk them down. I ended up putting a deposit down in the first tour agency that I walked into because I was just so excited to find out that I wouldn’t have to spend $300 like all my friends in Lima were telling me. 

For $100 USD my tour included:
-Transportation to and from Hidroelectrica in form of a colectivo (big van)
-One night at a hostel in Aguas Calientes
-Entrance to Machu Picchu and a guide/group tour through the ruins
-Supposedly lunch on the way…though that didn’t happen
-Dinner upon arrival, which was fought for but happened

I met someone who paid the same price and had all the same things included but got 2 nights at a hostel! So don’t stop where I did, If you have okay Spanish you can probably get more.

Ruins, Machu Picchu


I feel like I still got a decent bang for my buck…HOWEVER, with these tours, you must be very vigilant and make sure you really stay on top of things and figure things out for yourself. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE SOMEONE’S NUMBER from your tour agency. I bought my tour with a lady named Ana. She told me that when I arrived at my hostel I would have to meet downstairs at 8:00 pm for a free dinner and a briefing with my Machu Picchu guide. When I got to my hostel the man at the front desk said he didn’t know anything about that. I then messaged Ana on Whatsapp and luckily she responded pretty quickly, made some phone calls and fixed things…otherwise I would have just been out of luck and not received two of the things I had technically paid for.

**MAKE SURE YOU HAVE YOUR MACHU PICCHU ENTRANCE TICKET before you leave Cusco. A couple of days before my tour I randomly ran into Ana while walking in the square. She was just like, “Oh! Here’s your entrance ticket!”. But I hadn’t received a message from her telling me to come pick it up. If I hadn’t run into her at that moment, I really don’t know if I ever would have received the ticket, as she wasn’t there for the trips’ departure. I met a girl at the base of Machu Picchu who was denied entry because all that her tour company gave her was the receipt and not the official ticket itself. That could have easily been me.

Story Time

My experience started on a lovely Saturday morning at 7:30 am…at the time which Ana told me to be in the main square…and about 2 hours before we actually left the main square. After moving to several different locations and switching vehicles 3 times, we were finally off! I was the only solo-traveler and the only English speaker in my car, but it was a great opportunity to practice Spanish. We drove higher and higher up into the mountains and at one point we were completely surrounded by a snowy wasteland where we couldn’t see more than a few feet out the car windows. All the while, an artsy Chilean girl came over to talk to me and I tried very hard to understand what exactly we were talking about. I think the ride is supposed to take 5 or so hours on a good day (depending on snow conditions), but then our car broke down. 

Pushing the colectivo, on the way to Machu Picchu


All the sudden we pulled over in a tiny pueblo and everyone started getting out. I turned to a Colombian woman and asked in Spanish, “What are we doing?”. She replied something like “We’re getting out”. Then I asked a Bolivian guy, “What’s going on?” and he responded something like, “We have to leave the car”. Then finally after asking a third person, “So like WHY are we leaving the car?”, I got a response containing details. Apparently, the car had a flat tire…and maybe another problem, and our car had to go to the nearest repair shop. We hung out in the small town for an hour or so, but it wasn’t necessarily the least productive pit-stop. 

Some people got food, some people found bathrooms and a middle-aged Colombian woman decided to give me Salsa dancing lessons. I kinda just went with it because why not. By the time we stopped there was a small gathering of locals sitting and watching us.

Bathroom guarded by a duck, tiny town where our car broke down


We were supposed to get to Aguas Calientes around 5 pm, enough time to enjoy the hot springs and still be ready for our 8:00 pm dinner and briefing. In reality… we got to Hidroelectrica at 6 pm and started our 2ish hour walk to Aguas Calientes.

What I didn’t realize before the trip was that, everyone else in my car had signed up through different agencies, were staying at different hostels, going to Machu Pichu at different times and even returning to Cusco on different days. Luckily, everyone really stuck together and waited for each other along the “treck” to AC. I mean it was fairly flat, however… at night there were absolutely no lights, yet there were absolutely giant holes in the path! There were certain sections where you could only cross the river by walking through the middle of the train track. I would have been a little nervous if I was alone. Also luckily I had a Peruvian sim card, otherwise finding my hostel would have been a bit harder. 

After over 12 hours of waiting around/traveling/walking/ I arrived at my hostel…though it was pretty hard to check in as 6 Spanish ladies were FREAKING OUT about their lost reservation. After waiting for close to an hour I finally got to check in. I met a nice Brazilian girl in my room who had stories very similar to mine regarding her Machu Picchu tour from Cusco. After fixing the miscommunications of who my guide would be, getting dinner and then some much-needed chocolate dessert, I didn’t get into bed until almost midnight. And lucky for me, my turn into Machu Picchu was at 6 am. With the enterance line and then the 1.5 hour hike up the steep stairs, the guide recommended I leave my hostel around 4 am. So after 4 hours of sleep, I was up again, ready-ish for action. My hostel did prepare a take-away breakfast, which was pretty cool. Within minutes of walking out of my hostel, I saw others obviously heading for the mountain so I started following them. A few moments later I said, “Hi” to a girl who I was walking alongside and we ended up talking the rest of the way to the entrance. 

The way up wasn’t that long but pretty steep. I overheard several people saying that it was the hardest thing they had ever done, while some people actually jogged up! Once at the top, I found my guide and he was actually able to switch me to an English-speaking group. The ruins of Machu Picchu are definitely the most impressive ones I have seen yet, though I must admit I would have appreciated them more if I was less exhausted. I think staying 2 nights and going to Machu Picchu in the afternoon would be much better.

More ruins, Machu Picchu


After 4 or 5 hours walking around the ruins, I was READY for an overpriced sandwich at the cafeteria outside of the entrance. After that I started the 1.5 hour walk back down. Somehow it takes about the same amount of time to get down. After learning that everybody in my car was returning to Cusco on different days, I realized I didn’t really know how to return myself. I was simply never given this information. I texted Ana and she told me to be in Hidroelectrica at 2 pm and a car would be there by 3 pm at the latest. I asked if the driver would like…Know about me?…Have my name on a list? I don’t think she directly answered those questions but just kept telling me to go there at that time and look for a car called “Pullman”. So I pretty much immediately headed for Hidroelectrica after finishing the descent and got there around 2. There was a big parking lot with hundreds of people sitting around, some in big group tours, some alone. Around 2:30 I started walking around asking every car if they were “Pullman”. A few said they thought Pullman is usually a bit later in the back section, but most just said no. There were a dozen different tour leaders/ drivers calling off people’s names…but not even really saying them correctly or loudly.  I started to get nervous about how I was supposed to find my car. Every time a new car pulled into the parking lot I would ask and they would just look confused and shake their head. Finally sometime much after 3, I notice a car with a group of people basically in the road leading to the parking lot but not even really in the parking lot…I figured I would just ask them incase. Turns out they WERE “Pullman”. The driver did not know of me. He did not have my name on a list. He would have never known about me without me finding him. At first, he seemed reluctant to believe me but he knew Ana’s name and I think called her to see and eventually just said, “Ok fine, you can come with us”. 

There were a few buses returning to Cusco offering rides for people who didn’t have rides yet…So I would not have been stranded in Hidroelectrica. However, I had already paid for the ride back in the price of my tour. If you want to actually get everything that you pay for out of your Cusco tours, you really have to fight for it on your own. They won’t just hand over the ride home or the dinner…you have to find it, prove it, demand it. If you are okay with that, then you will be fine. If you go with a group of friends and you are doing everything together, I’m sure it’s easier. A driver would probably notice that a group of 5 people is missing, while one person alone can slip through the cracks.

Famous Inkan symmetry, Machu Picchu


Cusco is an interesting place with a lot of energy. It’s a city where you can’t put your camera down, as something beautiful lies around every other corner. Especially when the sun gets low in the sky and the surrounding mountains turn gold. Every traveler needs to go there at least once, and probably every person in general. Even if you’re not much of a hiker or a history buff, you will find something here that speaks to you. 

I hope these recommendations and reviews gave you some ideas or at least were somewhat entertaining to read. Happy travels!

Dusk, not far from the main square, Cusco

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