30 Apr 2014

Cusco - The Centre of the Inca Empire

In total we spent just over two weeks in Bolivia and after a sunny couple of days on Lake Titicaca it was time to board a night bus bound for Cusco in Peru. Copacabana is less than 15 minutes drive from Bolivia’s border with Peru and for the first time in South America we had a supervised border crossing by the hostess on our bus, this meant we were herded like sheep from one immigration office to the next. The Peruvian immigration office looked in need of some renovation but we were very excited to be in Peru. So many travellers had raved to us about Peru and we couldn't wait to explore.

copacabana to cusco peru immigration
"Welcome to Peru!"

We booked a direct bus to Cusco and while we didn’t have to change bus we did have to get off it and sit in Puno bus station for a thrilling hour while the staff tried to sell more seats. At 6am we arrived earlier than expected into Cusco bus station where we stayed until 7.30am before getting a taxi to our guest house. After what felt like forever we took a taxi to Casa Sihuar in the beautiful San Blas neighbourhood of Cusco. It took a while to find it as this area is a maze of cobbled streets, with many dead ends and tight corners. We felt bad for waking the owner out bed, especially as check-in time was not until early afternoon. He was a lovely guy though and showed us to our room. 

We dumped our backpacks and headed straight out in search of breakfast. Our stop-start journey from Bolivia and lack of sleep  meant we were ravenous for a full English. We’d utilised our time at the bus stations researching the best breakfast in Cusco and ended up in Jack’s Cafe. It’s quite a small cafe and gets full quickly, even at 8am we were lucky to get a table. The breakfast exceeded our expectations and we pretty much inhaled our generous portions and big pot of English tea each. Already, we could feel the difference in food vs Bolivia.

cusco english breakfast jacks cafe

The major reason we’d travelled through Bolivia so quickly was that we’d pre-booked a trek to Machu Picchu and were due to set off in a couple of days. The plan was a four day trek via an Alternative Route rather than the classic Inca Trail. There was a little paperwork we needed to do so on our first day we went to SAS Travel to go through the formalities. 

Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan. It turned out that our six person group tour was now just the two of us and an older lady. Most people might think that this almost private tour would be fantastic but its not what we had in mind. Camping in a tent, in freezing rain, after eights hours hiking, alone, when the sun sets at 6pm, is just not fun to us. We knew it was going to be a challenge and doing it with a bunch of likeminded people would help us along.

We made the decision to cancel as we didn’t think we’d enjoy it very much anymore. We were annoyed at SAS Travel as they knew we were flexible with our dates and if they’d just called us we could have delayed our arrival to Cusco by a few days to join another full group. It was a very long afternoon of ‘discussions’ with the owner, and, finally they agreed to give us a full refund. We were really gutted but looked forward to a few days exploring the beautiful, ancient city of Cusco. 

plaza de armas cusco peru

And, here are our favourite things to do in Cusco.

Find Cheap Eats at San Pedro Market

cusco street food san pedro market

Cusco is a huge tourist hotspot so its central squares and main streets are full of expensive restaurants selling the usual tourist fayre of pasta, pizza and local delicacies like cuy (aka Guinea pig!). We didn’t venture to any so can’t say how good or bad they are and remain skeptical. There’s even a KFC, MacDonalds and Starbucks on Plaza D’Armas, thankfully they are discreetly branded but it still shows the lack in tastebuds of some. Instead we spent many of our lunchtimes in San Pedro Market munching on street food with the locals and other inquisitive travellers.

cusco street food san pedro market

Even as you approach San Pedro Market there are many street hawkers selling tasty treats, from churros to 'not so exotic' plates of egg and chips. Inside the market it is huge. It's divided into sections and each aisle is made up of stalls selling pretty much the same thing so its easy to find what you’re looking for, or, to wander aimlessly. Expect to find freshly squeezed juices, biscuits and breads, chocolate, cheese, fruit, vegetables, and, more. At the south side of the market are the street hawkers that serve up cheap, hot and tasty meals. There is plenty of choice and most stalls are always busy so its difficult choosing which one to eat at.

cusco street food san pedro market
"Loved the retro packaging on the chocolate."

Our favourite area was the chicken soup section where smiling ladies in pinafores tempt you over to their wooden benches with smiles and promises that their soup is the best. It was here that we met Mary and her son. They made a great team as their soup was delicious and we were always offered a little bit more once we'd hungrily slurped up bowl number one.

cusco street food san pedro market

It was lovely having lunch here, we got lots of tips about Cusco and they even sourced a couple of Cusquenas for us to enjoy with our lunch. If you’re ever in San Pedro Market we recommend you stop for a bowl of Mary’s soup. From the centre market aisle her stall is the first on the right in the chicken soup section. Enjoy a fresh tasty lunch, that supports the locals for just 5 SOL (£1.10). 

Join A Free Walking Tour

A walking tour is a fun and informative way to get know a new city in a couple of hours. Cusco’s walking tour was no exception and we enjoyed our quick tour of the city’s landmarks and overview of its Inca-Spanish history. Our guide was fun, and, a former street child as his family had to flee their farm in the Amazon a few years prior. His English was excellent and he had a real passion for Cusco and its Inca heritage. As an Architecture student he told us a lot about the Puma shaped layout of the city and key buildings there. We also enjoyed fantastic views from the San Cristobal Church that overlooked the city. 

a view of cusco peru
"The view from San Cristobal Church"

When we were nearing the end of our tour the heavens opened so we ducked into our final stop. It wasn’t even midday and we were about to be given a demo of how to make a Pisco Sour and of course, taste it. Bonus!

pisco sour tasting cusco peru

Spice up your er, palette!

Peru is rumoured to be the next foodie hotspot (you heard it hear first!). Unlike other countries in South America, Peruvian cuisine has a strong Asian influence in many of its national dishes and local dining scenes. We couldn’t wait for some proper spice and on our first evening opted for Thai food at Indigo bar. With a little scepticism we ordered two of our favourite dishes Masaman and Pad Prik. Both were fantastic! The menu was refreshingly small and they solely serve Thai food that is authentically spiced and delicious.

cusco korma sutra restaurant

The guide on our walking tour happened to mention that the best curry house in town was Korma Sutra. Like meercats our ears pricked up and as it was on the same road as our hotel we had to check it out. It’s such a cute restaurant, very small with open brick walls and a busy, open kitchen. We had to wait a little for a table as the secret was already out. It was worth the wait, both our mains (Jalfrezi and Rogan Josh) and garlic naan were delicious. Oh, how we love curry! Again the menu was small but each dish was authentically executed, and, the amount of spice jars in the kitchen was mouthwatering to see. We would happily have this place as our local curry house back in the UK. 

Raft the Whitewater Rapids of Rio Urubamba

Given our failed attempt to go whitewater rafting in Salta we were very excited to learn that it was a good time of year to go in Cusco and immediately signed up for a day on Rio Urubamba. At 9am we set off with about 20 other tourists on a 2 hour journey north of Cusco. Our first stop was a family home by the river where we changed and got kitted up before we headed a little further upriver by road. Unlike Bali, this time we had to wear a wetsuit. We wondered why...?

whitewater rafting cusco
"Really wish we had a Go Pro!"

We weren’t too nervous about the day as the strongest rapids were Grade 3+. It was our second time ever so we felt like pros. However, the safety talk we received made us think differently, it was so detailed and we learnt a few new techniques like “Inside!” which means jump inside the boat now or its going to flip! We were also taught how to paddle properly using our whole body aka with maximum effort. The rafts were bigger this time too as we had six paddlers and a guide. We managed to get ourselves in the raft with the bossiest guide and had to do a lot of practise with him before we were allowed down the river.

It was great fun and the rapids were quite wild so we got a good soaking. One guy in the front of our raft even managed to fall out which was quite funny especially when our guide got mad because we all sat there confused and laughing. The rules are you have to pull your partner back in the boat if they fall out! Anyway it wasn’t that dangerous and we all survived. There were some quiet stretches to the river in between the rapids so we had to paddle loads which was exhausting as we were expected to perform like athletes!

At one point our team agreed that yeah, we want to flip the boat. So, about one hour in when we were starting to lose the feeling in our toes we were instructed to sit on one edge of the boat. And then we were all in the freezing water! It was funny and even more so when we were the only boat out of five that agreed to do it. Gullible, much? Then it started to rain so our last hour on the river was a very cold one.

whitewater rafting cusco peru

Our rafting session ended back at the house where we'd gotten changed. There was supposed to be hot showers and a sauna awaiting us. In reality, the showers were cold and the sauna was so not hot that one girl even wore a jumper inside. We skipped them both and changed into warm clothes, then we played with a couple of huge St Bernards whilst waiting for lunch. The post lunch activity was a zipline across the river and back, it looked a little homemade but nobody fell or died especially not Vicky who decided to skip it.

whitewater rafting cusco

Overall it was a really fun day out and excellent value at 240 SOL (£50) for two. We definitely recommend it! 

Make Your Own Chocolate (Kind Of)

Everywhere you go in Cusco you will see adverts for the Choco Museum and if thats not tempting enough they also host chocolate making workshops. The truffle making session had us salivating so we decided to get involved. Involved is a key word in this story because for most of the class we just watched the teacher who seemed a bit overworked. 

cusco choco museum

It was a two hour ‘workshop’ where at one point Vicky crushed some smarties and Steve stirred a bowl of melted chocolate. Riveting! 

chocolate making in cusco peru

We also rolled six truffles into balls and then rolled them in our choice of toppings. To be honest it was quite boring and not very interactive BUT we did walk away with 12 chocolates each, six of which were these divine passionfruit truffles. We can’t fault the chocolate and that's probably because we didn’t actually make it!

Visit Christo for Panaromic Views

cusco christo

Like many cities in South America, Cusco also has a huge statue of Christo overlooking it. Its a really easy uphill walk through Calle Palacio in San Blas, keep walking past the car park and there’s a path on your right that crosses a small river. There are many trails here made by horses and humans, they all end up at the same place so you shouldn’t get lost! 

cusco christo view

You can also hop on the open top tourist bus.

Enjoy Happy Hour Pisco Sours

Cusco was our first stop in Peru and we instantly fell in love with the national cocktail, Pisco Sours! It was great that so many places had them included in Happy Hour. Casa San Blas Boutique hotel served some great ones and we really enjoyed a Peruvian dinner of Lomo Saltado here too.

pisco sours cusco peru
"Enjoying Happy Hour!"

It was sad that we had to cancel our trek to Machu Picchu but it actually gave us more opportunity to explore Cusco, we really enjoyed this city. Yes its full of tourists, and street sellers want to sell you all kinds of souvenirs or shine your shoes, so it can definitely be annoying when you’re on the main tourist drag. There are so many day excursions you can do though and plenty of Inca ruins or Chechen villages to visit. 

In total we spent a whole week in Cusco and kept extending our stay at Casa Sihaur as it was so homely. We definitely recommend staying in San Blas, its a beautiful part of town with a very Mediterranean feel to it and its just a few minutes walk from Plaza De Armas. 

street scene cusco peru
"Cusco hearts the VW Beetle."

Did we make it to Machu Picchu? If we're Facebook buddies or you follow us on Instagram then you probably know the answer. Our next post will reveal all...


  1. Wow what a good post! I'm heading there early next year (actually doing a similar route to you by the sounds of things) and I'm definitely going to make some notes from all your tips - so thanks for that!

    Because it is rainy season I'll probably take the train to Machu Picchu, contemplating wayna picchu too. How many days would you recommend for Cuzco?

  2. Aw, thanks so much. Glad you like it. There is so much to do in Cusco we'd recommend at least four days or longer if you plan on day excursions to the nearby Inca ruins. We also did Machu Picchu by train, keep an eye out for our next post ;)