A Shoestring Budget Travel Guide to Cusco, Peru
In my travels around Peru, I’d heard that Cusco was an expensive city compared to other parts of the country. Given Cusco’s focus on tourism and the sheer number of travellers of all budgets coming through the ancient Incan city, I didn’t doubt the rumours. Having spent a month in Cusco, however, and being a naturally stingy person, I was pleasantly surprised to find that with a little extra work, Cusco can be just as cheap as anywhere else in Peru. To make it easier on the rest of you, I’ve put together a budget travel guide to Cusco. I’ve found shoestring options for the main areas of a traveller’s budget—food and drinks, lodging, tours and activities, and random expenses—to keep your mind on your travels and off your wallet.
Food and Drink in Cusco
Although it doesn’t quite compare to the gastronomy of Lima, Cusco has a variety of delicious food for all budgets.
The city centre and neighbouring San Blas neighbourhood is filled with nice restaurants catering to tourists, but unfortunately these places come with prices to match. If you are looking to splurge on a nice meal, I recommend Feria, on the north side of the Plaza de Armas, for a delicious menu of semi-traditional comida peruana and live music a few times a week. A main course and a glass of wine or cocktail will run you s/.50-60 ($15-18).
The mid-range is where Cusco’s options open up a bit more. It only takes a little searching to find really tasty meal for s/.15-30 ($4-8). Generally, anywhere more than 3 blocks from the Plaza de Armas and 12-angled stone will see a fairly significant drop in price. For a (vegetarian-friendly) burger try Chakruna Burger on the edge of San Blas. They have a daily lunch special on a stellar quinoa burger, fries and a drink for s/.15, as well as non-veg burgers for a few soles more. Cafe D’wasi, two blocks east of the Plaza de Armas, has great coffee and breakfast options.
Bars & Pubs
For a couple drinks, visit Paddy’s Pub (reportedly the highest Irish pub in the world) or Norton Rat’s, both on the south corner of the Plaza de Armas. Here you’ll find your typical happy hour deals—2 for s/.20 all day at Paddy’s or 2 for s/.15 in the evening at Norton—as well as decent beers on draft. Norton Rat’s has a pool table and several dartboards as well. Try Cholos, just a block from the 12-angled stone, for a variety of craft beers less than s/.20.
Menu del Dia
Finally, you have the s/.5-10 range ($1.50-3), otherwise known as the land of the menu del dia. Once you leave the touristic areas in city centre, these restaurants are plentiful and often nearly identical in price and offerings, so trial and error is the only real solution here. My personal favourite (I couldn’t tell you the name of it if I tried) can be found only a few blocks southwest of the Plaza de Armas, sharing a courtyard with Koko’s House Hostel (there are actually two, but the one that’s ten times busier is the one you want). Here, s/.5 will get you a quality soup, a good portion of main course, and unlimited refresco.
Also near the Plaza de Armas are a couple of pollerias that offer a ¼ chicken with rice, potatoes and a buffet salad bar for s/.9. Head towards San Pedro Market from the Plaza de Armas and look left just before the sidewalk goes through a small tunnel (incidentally this is also the location of the city’s best churros, only s/.1). Finally, the San Pedro Market itself offers a great selection of cheap menus, options a la carte, as well as desserts, smoothies, and other random foodstuffs.
Where to Stay in Cusco on a Budget
Hostels in Cusco are very affordable, on the whole. Often, the hostels on the more expensive side (think s/.30-45) are the well-known chain hostels. Places like Wild River, Loki, The Point and Kokopeli are known for their popular bars and great social atmosphere. Personally, I prefer the cheaper local hostels, especially because all of those mentioned allow outside visitors at the bars. I found a great compromise in Inka Wild, which is very affordable at around s/.20 a night and also offers a large bar and social area.
For a truly shoestring option, I recommend Koko’s House. It can’t be beaten at s/.15 ($4) per night, with comfortable beds and all the necessary amenities (WiFi, hot water, guest kitchen, and a common area with Netflix). Alternatively, if you’re travelling with a group you can get a nice Airbnb for as little as s/.30-40 per night.
Tours and Activities
For most people visiting Cusco, the largest part of their budget is going to be the tours and activities. Entrance tickets to attractions like Machu Picchu can cost as much as s/.150, ($44) with tour operator costs on top. It’s a bit more work than booking a tour, but I like to find my own way and save a few dollars. Although many tour operators will claim differently for obvious reasons, most of the major attractions around Cusco like Machu Picchu, Rainbow Mountain, and the Sacred Valley are completely accessible without a tour by bus or colectivo van. Just make sure you sort out any entrance fees or tickets before you leave!
There are also some great cheap and even free activities around the city. For s/.130 you can purchase a ten-day multi-ticket called the Boleto Turistico del Cusco that includes many of the popular archeological sites and museums around Cusco and the Sacred Valley. There are also various partial passes, which last one or two days and offer entry to only some sites.
Cheaper (or Free) Hikes
Visitors can hike to the Cristo Blanco statue overlooking the city, as well as some smaller ruins. El Templo de la Luna, for instance, is absolutely free as long as you hike to Cristo Blanco directly, rather than entering through the gate to Sacsayhuaman. Hiking in the sacred valley around Ollantaytambo and Urubamba is also free, and only a s/.10 colectivo ride from Cusco. It can be a bit tricky to find, but one of my favourites is a very interesting pre-Incan archaeological site (featured on Ancient Aliens) called Naupa Iglesia. Follow the road a couple kilometres southwest out of the village of Pachar until you come to a dry creek bed and an abandoned boxcar. Then look for a short trail off to the right (the site is on the hill on your right).
For a more serious hike day on a budget, I highly recommend the 11-mile trek down an ancient Inca trail to Huchuy Qosco (Little Cusco). Start by catching a colectivo (s/.6) from Estacion Papitos in Cusco to Laguna Piura about an hour away. Make sure your driver knows this is where you’re going, as you’ll have no idea where to stop. From here, flag down any car to take you to the trailhead of the Camina de Inca, another 20 minutes and around s/.10. The site itself is s/.22 to enter and very impressive. After you finish in Huchuy Qosco, keep going for another hour or so down a steep set of switchbacks and take another colectivo from the town of Lamay back to Cusco (s/.10).
In general, most other cost of living expenses in Cusco are pretty nominal. Laundry costs between s/.3-5 per kilo, a haircut runs between s/.10-15, and groceries and consumer goods are relatively inexpensive. For souvenirs and touristy goods, the San Pedro market is often the cheapest option.
Just a few blocks to the south of San Pedro is a large blue warehouse-type building containing hundreds of individual stalls that sell cheap clothes, shoes, electronics, etc. Also worth noting are the seamstresses inside, who can fix, tailor and even create clothes for very reasonable prices. Another couple blocks to the west of this is the site of the Baratillo Market, Cusco’s infamous Saturday flea market (the joke goes that if you lose your phone in Cusco, visit Baratillo to buy it back). Anything you could ever need exists somewhere in Baratillo market, along with many things that presumably nobody could ever need. For example, at various times my purchases from the market included an electric beard trimmer, a tent, a Swiss army knife, several small plastic jars, and a replacement buckle for a broken strap.
Overall, Cusco can be a very budget-friendly city despite its focus on tourism. If you know where to look, Cusco can be totally accessible to visitors of all budgets. So keep your eyes peeled for deals and don’t be discouraged by the price tags of the Plaza de Armas.
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