Postcards & Passports

Colorful Cusco: Base for Machu Picchu

This post was most recently updated on September 22nd, 2020

A vibrant adventure awaits you in colorful Cusco, the perfect base for Machu Picchu! The food, the clothing, the sights all continue to reflect the rich indigenous and Inca history of this city in the sky. Cusco rests in the heavens at over 11,000 feet elevation and my son and I recently had the good fortune to visit this historic Peruvian capital. As we spend a few minutes recapping that trip you’re sure to feel at home in this vivid center. Also, I suspect you’ll feel a yearning to visit this remarkable mecca.

Finding the best route from San Diego to Cusco

Our adventure to Cusco begins in Southern California with a flight on Avianca. It is a journey of 19 hours, two connections and 1 taxi to the hotel. This will be the priciest part of the pilgrimage. We check routes even from major airports that are 2 hours away. And what we find is that the ticket price out of such an airport is ⅔ the cost of the closest airport. That is well worth the cost of gas and even a week of parking near the airport. We ask Google to find inexpensive, off-airport parking and there it is at a near-airport hotel. $7 per day for covered, restricted entry parking and a free shuttle to and from the airport. Booyah!

With Avianca Airlines as our carrier we are fortunate that they belong to the Star Alliance where our frequent flyer status is recognized. That gets us into shorter security lines to start with. Since this is an international itinerary it also gets us into the lounge while we await the flight. Our arrival to the club is perfect as they still have breakfast at the buffet then swap in lunch before we have to leave! We also get all our electronics charged up and use the wifi before going largely off the grid until tomorrow morning. We’re off to colorful Cusco!

Three legs to Cusco without much sleep

Our itinerary takes us first to El Salvador in 5 hours. The next leg brings us to Lima, the capital of Peru, in a similar amount of time. Here we spend a couple of hours in the middle of the night. Banks of chairs here do not have armrests, allowing us to snooze until boarding. We set alarms for what should be the beginning of boarding. Yet we find upon arising that they are making the last call for Cusco! Crisis avoided, we board and complete the one-hour flight. The descent into colorful Cusco is especially impressive with all the Andes peaks surrounding the city. Outside at ground transportation we find the taxi our hotel has arranged for us.

Getting money in Cusco via ATM

In the airport we have used the ATM’s to get Cusco dollars (Soles). Not all ATM’s are equal when it comes to transaction fees so we each try a different one. The first costs us 19 Soles (divide by 3 to get $US) and the next only 14. There are numerous ways to get money but with the prevalence of counterfeiting, damaged bills and varying exchange rates we feel it best to go the ATM route. Our first purchase in Peru, the taxi ride, confirms all the monetary idiosyncrasies of Peru. The driver checks the condition of our Soles, assures they’re genuine and asks if we don’t have exact change; no one likes making change in Cusco!

Checking in 

It’s 8 am on a Saturday and Cusco is starting to show its colors. But we have arrived at the Hotel Principe III and are worried about checking in so early. In North America, we typically have afternoon check-ins but in Cusco, the check-in time is 9 am, so no problem! We drop our belongings in the room and head straight to the complimentary breakfast in the lounge. We make our omelet order and then plate an array of local tasty foods. It’s back onto the grid using the free wi-fi to let loved ones know we’ve arrived. Also, the red-eye commute is taking a toll so after eating we grab a nap in the room.

2 days to acclimatize at our base for Machu Picchu

Our early Saturday arrival is beneficial for many reasons. We now have today and Sunday to acclimatize to the high elevation before beginning a 20-mile hike in the Andes towards Machu Picchu. Saturday is also the day for the Cusco flea market, so we’ll head there first thing. Sunday allows us a chance to attend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints which is on the same block as our hotel. We love the camaraderie and spiritual renewal of our church family and it is a fitting activity given our presence in what is known as the Sacred Valley. We love experiencing everything and everyone we visit in Spanish.

Cusco markets

Off we walk to El Baratillo flea market where the streets are filled with the trappings of colorful Cusco. We easily and agreeably pass a couple of hours and we still don’t see it all. The variety of things to purchase is impressive. And if you forgot anything for the trip, you’re sure to be able to rectify that here. We don’t see any signs of pickpockets or hustles. Still, I always carry my wallet in the front pocket of my trousers. Haggling is de rigueur for anything that gets your fancy. And there are plenty of sources of refreshment for a mid-morning recharge.

Next on our stroll is the San Pedro Market which is open all days, not just Saturdays. While there are wares here as well, much more of the floor space is allocated to meals and produce. We enjoy so many sights and aromas as we traverse the walkways. Before long lunchtime has arrived. We review all the offerings around us and settle on a crazy affordable two course lunch. Bottled water to drink while we enjoy a savory soup followed by fried trout and lomo saltado. Eating in Cusco is not going to set us back much. For the whole week we’ll drop only $75 US on some of the best meals we’ve ever had!

Plaza de Armas and public WiFi

Now the beautiful Plaza de Armas calls us. Here we see stunning architecture, an array of shops, a grassy area (but don’t step on the turf or a policeman will appear out of thin air!), and an energetic dance performance. We are both pleased and surprised to find, in what looks like a knickknack shop, the fuel canisters for our camping stoves (can’t bring them on the plane!). We sign onto the Plaza wi-fi which is free of charge but kicks us off after an hour. During our 3 days in Cusco we’ll get on and off this wi-fi numerous times and even log a couple free wi-fi international calls. There is also a live webcam on the plaza so we go wave at our friends back home.

Arranging transportation from Cusco

We have an important detail to work out for our Monday morning departure from Cusco to our 20 mile trek on the Lares Trail. We need to transport about 3 hours to the trailhead in the village of Lares at the thermal springs. If anything can be found in abundance in Cusco it’s drivers! We go from taxi drivers to other private car drivers and large van (Micros) drivers. Even before our trip we asked the hotel to arrange something which they did but at a cost of 700 Soles, gulp. Gradually we go from one “deal” to a better one getting the cost down to 150 Soles for both of us. Yet in the end, we’ll take a colectivo on the same block as our hotel half the way, to Calca, for 10 Soles. And from there we’ll jump on another to get us to Lares. Using Cusco as our base for Machu Picchu works well because it is not difficult to arrange transportation.

More Cusco culture and dining

Time to return to sight-seeing in Cusco! We enjoy walking the narrow, cobblestone streets around the plaza. After confirming the location of the restaurant we’ll visit tonight for dinner, we find a local artist’s gallery, observe his works and talk with him a bit. There are murals on many streets that depict life in Cusco both anciently and currently. We see walls dating back to the Inca, more amazing structures and an archway. We talk with some of the residents and observe all the things we love about Cusco. Many vendors have approached us throughout the day but one especially sweet little girl has us by the heart strings and we purchase her llama keyring for a single sol.

Dinner calls and we’re headed to Nuna Raymi, according to one blogger on Pinterest, home of the best lomo saltado ever. It is just off the plaza, another easy walk. We’ve arrived early enough to have the place to ourselves for most of our meal. The people, place and meal do not disappoint! The presentation of this colorful Cusco cuisine is a fitting reflection of its delicious taste. This is more of a tourist eatery and we’re using the credit card. We’ve checked that our card does not charge any fees on foreign transactions as well as alerted the company that it’ll be getting some exercise in Peru. While we have not tipped at any of our other meals, this restaurant adds a healthy tip, even though it is just the two of us. Didn’t see that coming.

Churches, Cristo, and an Inca fort

Sunday morning dawns and we’re afoot to the chapel. First is a sacrament service then instruction in the priesthood. We meet lots of wonderful Cuscans and enjoy the interchange in Spanish. After lunch of cheese empanadas at the hotel, we are off to see more sights. On the itinerary are three cathedrals, the Cristo Blanco statue, not unlike its famous counterpart in Rio De Janeiro, and an Inca fortress near the Cristo.

On our way to the statue we encounter a local game of soccer and stop to take it in. It didn’t hurt that this was midway through the nearly thousand foot climb to the peak where the Cristo and the fort reside! We end the day’s explorations early to eat dinner at the hotel, prepare our backpacks and get to bed.

Catching a Cusco colectivo

Monday we’re up with the sun to check out for our three day hike/train to Machu Picchu. It’s earlier than the free breakfast time but the staff have prepared us sack breakfasts for the journey! They are also storing the rest of our luggage until our return Thursday night, free of charge of course. (Another reason why Cusco makes a good base for Machu Picchu backpacking!) The ride to Lares we had arranged on Saturday stands us up! But we just walk around the block to the colectivos station and catch the next departure to Calca at just $5 Soles each. The driver gives us directions to the station in Calca where we catch another colectivo to Lares and the trailhead. The colectivos are “culturally immersive” for sure. Even if we weren’t headed to hike the Lares Trail it would be a good day outing from colorful Cusco to take this drive.

Returning to Cusco

The Lares Trek and Machu Picchu are epic elements of any trip to Cusco. Read about them by clicking the links! The time flies and now we’re back in Cusco Thursday night. Good eats and cheap abound so it’s just a short walk from the hotel after checking back in, reclaiming our stored luggage and shedding our backpacks. This restaurant is a family affair and we see mom and daughter hard at work. Their residence is the floor above their eatery. We are satiated and savor the great tastes.

As we amble back to the hotel the night sky erupts in fireworks — those Cuscans, they think of everything. A quick Googling reveals no holidays or celebrations today in Cusco; they must be bidding us a fond farewell!

Pro Tips:
  • Check flight costs even from distant airports. You may save 33% or more per ticket.
  • Choose an international carrier that is a member of an alliance that includes your frequent flyer status.
  • Latin America moves more quickly through the boarding process; be there and be ready.
  • Alert debit & credit cards that they’ll be getting a workout in your country of destination.
  • Get Soles upon arrival at an ATM. Check the fee on adjacent ATM’s, they’ll differ.
  • Take advantage of early check-in times at hotels.
  • Make friends at a church service.
  • Arrange a meeting with home at a local live webcam.
  • Try transportation “locals style” for the immersion and the cost savings.

Probably you’ve found that our virtual trip to colorful Cusco has come and gone too quickly. That seemed the case as we departed this breathtaking region. If it hasn’t already, your day will come to see these remarkable sights for yourself. Make Cusco your base for Machu Picchu — you’re going to love it!

This post was composed for you by my husband, Darren Wilcox. We are a traveling family, and I often encourage my family to record their travel experiences for you — especially when I am not fortunate enough to accompany them. 

base for Machu Picchu

Cusco is the base for Machu Picchu


22 thoughts on “Colorful Cusco: Base for Machu Picchu

  1. Heather Young

    Wow! Cusco sounds so full of heritage and culture! The expedition to get there sounds completely exhausting, but all the food you tried there looked superb! Perhaps it was worth the effort after all…?

  2. Jenn and Ed Coleman

    We always just Ubered to SAN from Pacific Beach. As long as we weren’t parked on the wrong side of the street during cleaning day…

    Cusco looks beautiful. I definitely think flying in is the way to go instead of taking ground transportation in Peru.

  3. Renata -

    Although it is very touristy, Cusco was my favorite city in Peru. This colonial architecture, the wonderful paintings of the Baroque Cusco school and, of course, the proximity to the Valle Sagrado and Machu Picchu – just such a beautiful place!

  4. Alli

    I adored your photos – they brought back such wonderful memories of my time in Cusco! So I have to ask… did you try any “cuy” (guinea pig)????

    1. darren

      Couldn’t bring myself to do it 🙂 I had a pet guinea pig as a boy, just couldn’t imagine eating my pet!

  5. Linda (LD Holland)

    Our friends just recently visited Cusco and sent back such great images. I have been worried about the altitude. Certainly a few days would be needed to acclimatize. But it does look so tempting. But the three hop trip there is a bit daunting. I love how colourful the buildings are. I did not realize that Avianca is part of Star Alliance. This will definitely work for us.

    1. darren

      It is a little bit of work, the logistics, but it comes together. And Avianca and the Star Alliance treated us so well!

  6. Indrani

    So good to know about Cusco. Seems like a hidden gem. I liked the old streets and the little shops. Thanks for the valuable information on transportation there.

  7. sherianne

    I am so afraid of altitude sickness I do not think I will ever make this trip. But, the city of Cusco looks like there is a lot to do while adjusting. I would head straight to the Cusco markets and go on a street art hunt for sure

  8. Jean

    I loved Cusco but we arrived by bus which was an adventure in itself. The atms can be oh so tricky. We found it was a game of hit and miss with which ones did or didn’t take our cards

    1. darren

      I can imagine the bus would be an adventure! We only used the ATM’s at the airports (Lima and Cusco) and they were all good.

  9. Nicole LaBarge

    i Loved Cusco too! Such good food and free wifi everywhere like you said. A great base for Machu Picchu.

  10. Claudia

    What a great destination, my son loved his time in Cusco. He didn’t have any altitude sickness, and really enjoyed wandering the streets and visiting the incredible Inca civilization museums there. It’s so worth the journey. I hope to make it myself someday!

  11. Ami Bhat

    Seems like you have to keep aside a lot of time for Cusco. What with those colorful markets and quaint homes. I even loved the look of that Basilica. Thanks for sharing the tips along the way

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