The famed city of Cusco as written by Mark Adams in the book “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” (which is a fantastic book on adventures past and present in the area by the way) was the Incas’ holiest city, translating to the ‘navel of the world’. The city was considered so sacred that commoners were expelled each night. Five hundred years later, many things have changed and the stone blocks from its temples have often become the foundations for colonial cathedrals themselves looking ancient. The city has withstood the Spanish invasion and colonization and the more recent tourism boom that have made its marks on the city without completely erasing the past Incan spirit that peeks through in the Incan walls that still lay out the gridwork of the city and the puma faces on the lamposts (see my write up here). The city is still booming and really it has never stopped amazing visitors whether you were an Incan, a Spaniard, or a modern backpacker. The past feels real in the city, even to the point that “commoners” are expelled from many of the sites if you’re a budget traveller.
Everything seems to have an entrance ticket and to make it worst, the most important and historical places and archaeological sites in the city and sacred valley are all grouped together in one ticket costing a whopping 130 sols ($52 CDN). Many of these places on the list for the Cusco Tourist ticket can not be bought individually. The Cusco Tourist ticket (http://www.cusco-peru.info/cusco_tourist_ticket.htm) includes 16 sites all around the city and some archaeological sites in the Sacred Valey, making it worthwhile if you plan to visit all or most of those sites. A little known fact, if you only plan on visiting a few of the sites, the tickets can be seperated into three different circuits – the city circuit, the archaeological sites around the city and the archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley – which can be bought individually for 70 sols ($28 CDN) each.
However, there are other ways to explore amazing Cusco city cheaply without the tourist ticket and here are a few ideas below:
1. Go on a Free Walking tour.
Free Walking Tours are popping up all over Latin America and actually Lima, Arequipa and Cusco all have them now. Cusco actually has two different providers! The premise is that a local guide (Spanish and English tours offered) gives you an inside look of the city, telling some of the legends and stories about places you wouldn’t get on a conventional tour and often will take you to get free samples. The tours are run on a tips basis and you have the option to tip your guide at the end whatever you feel is best. As I said, there are two tour groups running in Cusco – one in a pink shirt that meets at 12:15 Monday to Saturday at the central fountain in the Plaza de Armas and another group in green vests that meet in the nearby Plaza Regocijo for two different tours Monday to Saturday at 10:30am and 12:15pm. The pink shirt tours seems to advertise better and I ended up attending that one. To be honest, I wasn’t really impressed as I felt like the guide was making up a lot of the stuff. We went to the green vest tours in Arequipa and they were fantastic. Their tour in Cusco seems equally fantastic including free pisco sour samples, free cooking classes and more (http://www.fwtperu.com/fwt-cusco.html)
2. Cusco Cathedral
The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, aka the Cusco Cathedral, was built on the foundations of Kirswarkancha, the glorious sun temple of the Incans, starting in 1559. It was the center of the city for the Incans and continues to be central in the modern city of Cusco located in the Plaza de Armas central square. The cathedral is a grand structure in it of itself but it also an art gallery and museum holding much of Cusco’s colonial art and archaeological artifacts and relics. Behind the main alter on the left is the large painting known as the “Andean Last Supper” where Jesus is dining on cuy – guinea pig – and drinking chicha – maize beer sacred to pre-Hispanic peoples here. The Cathedral is one of the sites that makesCusco a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Cusco Cathedral is on the Tourist Ticket but it is also a functioning place of worship and is free to visit between 6 and 9am. After 10am, the front doors close and the only way to visit is through the ticket office at the side.
3. Visit San Pedro Market
San Pedro Market is next to Plaza San Francisco and the old Cusco train station. It is a busy place full of both locals and tourists so that means you can shop for your favorite alpaca sweater here or get a freshy made fruit juice beside a local man from one of the many stands. San Pedro market is full of everything from local herbal remedies to wheels of Andean cheese with a distinctive almost seashell patterning on its outside from its rope molds. It’s great to wander through to experience the sounds of Spanish and Quecha being spoken side by side, the colours of all the fruits and vegetables and the smells of home cooking but also the sometimes sour smell in the meat isle (I tend to skip that isle). Markets are always the cheapest places to eat with a huge section of the market devoted to little eateries where a market lady cooks stews and rice right there. You eat on benches crowded with local people. However, as a note of caution, sanitary standards are going to be less than what you expect at home so if Cusco is one of your first places visited in Peru and your stomach hasn’t gotten used to the local bugs yet…and you are planning on going on a Machu Picchu trek the next day…I wouldn’t recommend eating here. Once your body adjusts and you don’t have pressing plans, eating at a local market is an interesting …and cheap!….experience.
4. Go for a massage
Whether you’re saddle sore from cycling across Peru or from a long bus ride from Lima or just sore in general from a strenuous trek in the Andes up to Machu Picchu or another amazing location, a massage is well deserved. Every corner in Cusco has someone hawking flyers for massages and competition seems stiff in the city. We were able to find an hour long basic massage for 20 sols and an hour long mixed massage (with reflexology, deep tissue Swedish and many other massage techniques mixed) for 25 sols at Sumaq Maki (Marquez 250 Centro Aretesanal Inti killa, office #8 on the second floor – on the pedesterian street between Plaza Regocijo and the Plaza de Armas). $10 bucks for an hour long massage? Sign me up….twice!!
5. Eat at El Encuentro Vegetarian Restaurant
After riding for a while in rural Peru and in many places in Latin America, I am really feeling the lack of vegetables. Local dishes are cheap, tasty and filling, usually consisting of rice and some form of meat. In the most rural places, this is the meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner – rice, rice and ….more rice! Let’s be honest here, I like rice. However, veggies more than a sad excuse of a salad consisting of a piece of wilted lettuce with a slice of tomato on top and maybe a ring of onion you’re lucky? That’s the dream. Peru’s actually been better than many other countries in terms of veggies in their food. Because of a strong Cantonese Chinese influence in national cuisine, you get dishes like lomo saltado which is a beef stirfry with onions, tomatoes and Peruvianized with french fries! However, this doesn’t beat a vegetarian restaurant!! Sure, Cusco is a tourism mecca but touristy does come with some perks…especially in the food department. Any long haul traveller would probably agree that food is something that becomes longingly reminised. For those wanting a healthy dose of veggies, you can’t get better than El Encuentro Vegetarian Restaurant (http://restaurantelencuentro.blogspot.com/) on Santa Catalina Ancha #384 down the street from the Santa Catalina monastry off the main Plaza de Armas. They have lunch menus (set meals) including a salad bar, hearty veggie soup with homemade whole wheat bread, a herbal infusion drink and a main course of your Peruvian favorites but completely vegetarian for 8 sols ($3.20 CDN). They have amazing blended fresh juices starting at 4 sols ($1.60 CDN). The small restaurant is busy especially during lunch and often locals and travellers share tables together.
6. Find a cheap place to stay
For our family vacation time when Bryan’s parents came to visit, we swapped travelling by bike with the much larger, automatic, gas guzzling version, a bus. For more info on our wonderful trip with Peru’s first hop-on-hop-off bus, Peru Hop, check out my write up here. When we were travelling in the backpacker circuit, I was shocked at the prices. Though backpacking is supposed to be a budget way of travelling, I found many of the backpacker hostels much more expensive than local little guesthouses and hospedajes. A dorm bed at one of the big backpacker hostels in Lima or Cusco can run around 35 sols per person while we found a very nice and clean hotel room in Cajamarca with wifi and private bathroom with hot water for the same price! Cusco is the same. I was shocked when our bus guide told us that a private room in one of the hostels they’re affiliated with was 120 sols per night. Eventhough Cusco is a city fueled by tourism and experiences thousands of visitors a day, you can find cheap places to stay. Often, this just involves walking around the city to find the hotels that are not in a guidebook or on the internet. If that’s too much work, a great place we found was Guest House Estrelitta on Av. Tullumayo 445. It is a favorite for cyclists and motorbike touring people. Infact, everyone at the hostel seemed to have some form of two-wheeled transport. Set around a lovely quiet courtyard, there is wifi, public kitchen, storage, hot water in the shared bathrooms and included breakfast for 15 sols a dorm bed or 20 sol per person for a private room.
With the money saved, you can splurge a bit on one of my favorite things, good food! This is actually a budget traveller’s version of splurging as it is actually quite reasonable and cheaper than if I got the same meal at home…but after travelling awhile in another currency, it can seem like more. One of my favorite restaurants in Cusco is Korma Sutra! Curry House up on the quaint pedesterian Calle Tandapata just above the stairs behind the San Blas church. Mains are around 27 sols (chicken and vegetarian dishes) 30 sols (lamb) and 35 sols (alpaca specialities!) and they are so delicious. You can get unique Peruvian- Indian fusion such as curried alpacas and tandori guinea pig that you probably can’t find anywhere else in the world. It is a cosy restaurant open Monday to Saturday from 6-10pm in the quaint San Blas neighbourhood. A narrow winding colonial street lit up by the warm glow of yellow lanterns, Calle Tandapata is a wonderful lane to stroll down in the evening. The San Blas neighbourhood is also set on a hill above Cusco downtown so you also get a great view of the San Blas church lit up at night with all of the twinkling lights of the city below.