Most people head to Peru to visit Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. However, in order to get there, you’ll need to fly or bus to Cusco, the nearest major city.
Luckily, Cusco is delightful and full of great food and nightlife, day-trip adventures, and culture – don’t think of it as just a stop-over town. Instead, dive into the Cusco community to learn about its history and the many nearby adventures it has to offer. Here’s where you should eat, play, and stay in Cusco, Peru.
Jack’s Cafe is a bustling restaurant located just a few blocks from Plaza de Armas on a slightly quieter street in the hip San Blas neighborhood (and it often has a line out the door). But don’t worry, people move through their food pretty quickly and we were able to order what we wanted while waiting in line.
Everything on the menu came in huge (i.e. you’ll take leftovers home) portions. Although the restaurant, owned by Australians, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we recommend going for the breakfast. Start with a coffee and a fresh-squeezed orange juice. From there, stuff yourself with one of their huge waffle or pancake entrees, a delicious toasted sandwich complete with sides, or their Gordo Eggs on Toast with bacon, fresh tomatoes, and plenty of seasoned potatoes. The entire meal, drinks included, will run you around $12.
Located about two blocks from Jack’s, Qura bowl bar is a quaint cafe in Cusco that specializes in rice and poke bowls. Plus, for those with vegetarian and vegan friends, this place has copious all-veg offerings.
Each dish is prepared with plenty of fresh vegetables and is filling enough for lunch or dinner. Try a smoothie bowl for breakfast; for lunch and dinner, order the Buddha bowl, the hummus bowl, or the curry. Qura also has coffee, smoothies, and even kombucha. Although some might describe Qura as hipster (they actually have non-dairy milk for coffee), don’t let that sway you from enjoying a nice meal here. And for those that have to work while traveling, Qura has reliable and fast WiFi.
For a nicer evening out and one with traditional Peruvian fare, head to Pachapapa. The busy restaurant has mostly outdoor seating nestled into a cute open-air courtyard, but heaters help keep patrons warm on the chillier nights.
We made a reservation earlier in the day, as our group was eight people, and opted out of the traditional Cuy dish (roasted Guinea pig that they prepared ahead of time; pronounced koo-ey or kwee). However, if you are going to try the traditional dish anywhere, a nicer establishment is the place to do it – it’s quite tasty. Our group opted to share a few appetizers and a few entrees, while each delighting in our own cocktails (like the Chola Sour, a different take on the popular Pisco Sour). Everything we ate was delicious. With a few of the appetizers, we even ordered twice immediately after we finished the first round, like the tender alpaca skewers and the stuffed avocado. Main entrees, like the lamb stew, are about 45 soles (or about $13).
The Salkantay Trek
There are two main treks to Machu Picchu – the Inca trail and the Salkantay trail – with many tour operators and agencies offering guided treks. I went with Salkantay Trekking for the four-night, five-day Salkantay Trek, which includes Humantay Lake on the first day and Machu Picchu on the last day. I’m coming from Colorado and a spring full of avid hiking, but this trek is not easy. It’s doable, fun, and filled with absolutely stunning scenery, but it is four long days of trekking. However, you only have to carry a day pack, and the food along the entire trek was some of the best I had during my six-week travels through Peru. If you are into trekking, this one is highly recommended.
Rainbow Mountain Day Trip
Cusco is one of the main outdoor adventure areas in Peru, especially with it being the largest city and starting point for treks to Machu Picchu. Most travelers will spend a few days in Cusco before heading to the Incan citadel, situated high in the Andean mountain range. Cusco sits at 11,152 feet, so those coming from sea level will feel the elevation. A day trek, though, to Rainbow Mountain is a great way to get acclimated and experience a gorgeous mountain while you’re at it. The day trips leave really early (like, 3 a.m. early) since the mountain is about a three-hour ride from Cusco. Then, you’ll have a six-mile hike to the summit of the gorgeously colored Rainbow Mountain. Almost every single hostel, hotel, and tour agency offers daily trips.
Selina Cusco Plaza de Armas
For those who are on a budget but aren’t looking to fully slum-it at a backpacker’s hostel, check out Selina Plaza de Armas. The boutique hotel chain is in eight countries across Latin America with more locations coming to Europe and the U.S. soon. The best part about the Selina chain is that you know exactly what you’ll get at each location – gorgeously styled rooms, a bright and welcoming atmosphere, a yoga studio, a co-working space, and a bar and restaurant.
Every Selina has the same amenities, but still has its own unique vibe and comforts. There are two in Cusco, with one being a three-minute walk near the main plaza, Plaza de Armas. When I stayed in this Selina, I opted for a six-bedroom dorm room, but each location also has very nice private rooms. Dorms start around $17, which is more pricey than other hostels that will cost about $10 a night; private rooms (that are much nicer than hotels nearby) will start around $60.
If you are on a tight budget or are looking for a more backpacker-style hostel, check out Intro Hostels, which is about a 10-minute walk to the main plaza. Although there are plenty of hostels in Cusco that boast a very large party scene, like Loki, Pariwana, and Wild Rover, Intro isn’t one of them. It isn’t boring, but has more of a laid-back feel and lets you party all you want, just out at some of Cusco’s very fun bars and clubs (hit up Mama Africa if you like dancing).
Amenities include free breakfast, a bar and restaurant onsite, reliable WiFi, a pool table, outdoor terrace, onsite travel agency, and a bonfire for any chilly nights. Rates start at $10 for a dorm and $34 for a private room.
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