Everything You Need To Know before traveling to Cuzco, Cusco or Qosqo in Peru
(Tip #1 – They’re all names for the same city!)
~ Weather and Clothing ~
Regardless of the time of the year, Cuzco and its valleys always feature the same bizarre ambivalence of extreme heat under the sun and chilly cold in the shade or at night. Temperatures drop drastically after sunset, and at any time of the year you will need a warm winter jacket to face the cold of the night (especially during trekkings at high altitudes, for example the Salkantay Trek. Therefore, plan to wear several layers of clothes in order to avoid freezing when dusk comes or to be terribly sweating after a minute walking on the sunny side of the road. In this regard, vests are a useful piece of outfit to keep up with the changing temperatures. Scarves, too, are a necessary accessory throughout the whole year. Hand-made baby alpaca scarves are the very best, and you can find them quite easly in Cusco. Moreover, plan ahead to bring warm socks and pajamas to keep warm in you bed, since not many accomodations provide central heating. Obviously, try not to wash your hair at night and sleep with your hair wet: it will almost surely cause you an uncomfortable sleep and a bad cold. Finally, one point about the bright sun of Peru: bring good sunglasses and a hat to protect your skin, and wear sunscreen every morning. The crisp air of the mountain and the high altitude are the perfect vectors for the sunshine, which can burn your face in just a morning.
~ Money ~
Currency Exchange: The most commonly accepted foreign currencies are USD and EUR. You will need to change your currency into soles in one of the many money-exchange offices. When you change money, make sure to always ask for a so called “sello”(you pronunce it “seyyo”); in case the person in charge of the process does not understand you, just make a stamping gesture with your clenched fist. This stamp allows you to return your money if it is proven to be fake – in Peru the problem of fake money is a common one. Furthermore, always double-check that the exchange rate regulating your transaction is correct (ask for the calculatur to do your own maths); and always re-count the money you receive.
Traveler’s Cheques: Cuzco and Lima provide many locations exchanging Traveler’s Cheques, but this won’t be the case for other smaller towns or rural locations. Turn your Traveler’s Cheques as soon as you get into a main urban center, avoiding the risk to turn them into worthless pieces of paper.
Bills Condition: Be careful to bring only new bills in perfect condition (no writing nor rips, even the most unnoticeable, smallest ones) – many locals won’t accept even slightly damaged bills. On the other hand, the Soles bills will be accepted no matter how old and ruined.
Credit Cards: As far as credit cards are concerned, you won’t be able to use them as often as you are used to. In fact, most restaurants, hotels and travel agencies do not accept this method of payment in Peru. Even though things are starting to change, especially in tourist-friendly locations like Cuzco, Cash is definitely the best way to transact. Moreover, make sure to warn your bank or credit card company that you will be travelling in Peru. Otherwise their systems will suspect a fraude and block your card, which could prove to be quite annoying in absence of wifi or telephonic cable.
ATMs: Two quick points about ATMs.
First, they are really easy to find in Cuzco and Lima, but many smaller towns do not have any.
Again, try to always carry cash with you.
Second, do not trust ATMs too much, because cards happen to be cloned pretty often, and because forgetting your bank card in the ATM would certainly correspond to its complete loss. Always check your bank statements while travelling, and always bring more than one ATM bank or credit card in order to have a backup method to withdraw cash.
~ Machu Picchu and Train Tickets ~
It is highly recommended to be holding both the Machu Picchu entrance and train tickets before arriving to Cuzco, unless you are planning to travel for an extended period of time and are unable to set precise dates for your trip to this Inca wonder.If you decide to get tickets on your own, be aware of the following points. First, never purchase train tickets and Machu Picchu entrance tickets separately: it might easily happen that the entrance tickets are all sold out for the day you have booked your train, and you will have to change the date of the trip as well as trying to be reimbursed, which is never easy. Second, the train provides limited seats and, being Machu Picchu a very popular destination, you will only be able to travel there on certain particular hours. This might cause you to be obliged to sleep one night in Aguas Calientes, or to be able to see Machu Picchu only for a few hours before having to run back to the train. Third, beware that if you do not have the printed version of the tickets in your hands it might mean that you did not book them properly. Unfortunately, confirmation numbers often do not correspond to an actual booking, because reservations online are held only for 2 hours before they are given up to someone else. Definitely, make sure you get tickets beforehand.
~ Transportation ~
Taxis: A taxi ride from the airport to the city center (or the other way around) will cost between 15 and 20 soles. In order to obtain a most favorable price, exit the airport and address the drivers on the road. The self-defined “official”drivers bothering you inside the terminal will ask 30 soles or more. Inside the city center, any taxi ride will cost about 4 or 5 soles, but make sure to adjust the price with the driver before you board the car.
Buses: There are several little public buses travelling around the neighbohoods of Cusco. You will board at one of the many bus stops (ask your host or hotel-reception for details), and pay the person in charge only when about to get off. Any ride should be around 70 cts. of sol. These buses usually offer either breath-taking views of the city or a true local experience (you will be shoulder to shoulder with children doing their homeworks, women knitting, friends laughing, old women carrying their shopping,…).
Collectivos: if you want to travel outside of Cusco, the cheapest and fastest way is to organize a “collectivo”, that is a shared car. “Collectivos” are usually vans, and they can take you further than normal taxis. If you are interested in setting up a ride of this kind (absolutely safe).
~ Altitude Adjustment ~
This is really something to worry about, as Cuzco is 11,000 ft. above sea level. About 50% of the foreigners visiting the city suffer from the effects of extreme altitude. The symptoms can be more or less harsh, and generally include a feeling of dizziness, annoying headaches, shortness of breath, nausea, fever and vomiting. This initial discomfort is the price to pay to access this wonderful land, and usually never lasts more than 1 or 2 days. Absolutely, never leave for a trek the day of your arrival in Cuzco, nor the following one. In order to get acclimated to the altitude it is important to avoid extreme physical exercise an to stay well hydrated (prefer water and hot infusions to coffee and alcohol the first day or two). Also, at the beginning it is best to eat light. Besides these common-sense remedies, you can consider taking a medication against high-altitude symptoms. We suggest Diamox, which usually works well in the extreme case you have to leave for a hike or a mountain-biking trek while under the effects of the altitude. However, make sure you can take the medicament: in cases of diabetes and cipro, for example, this medicine not only won’t work, but will also cause terrible side effects.
~ About Lima ~
Just a few words about Lima. Because of its international airport, the Peruvian capital is a mandatory stop for many travellers heading to Cusco – whether you like it or not. Beware that this is a very dangerous city, and that no matter in what area you are staying you will never be completely safe. The danger starts at the airport, where potential robbers and rapists will offer you a ride to the city center on fake taxis. The official taxis are marked as “Green Taxi” and they should be safe, but it did happen to some travellers to be dropped off in obscure neighborhhods and subsequently robbed and beaten. If you are a girl, send the picture of the car’s license plate to your emergency contact, and make sure the driver notices – but try not to travel alone or without the company of a man. In general, the best way to reach the city from the airport is to have your hotel or guesthouse organize a pick-up (it usually costs around $20 and it is completely worth it). While visiting the city, do not leave the areas of Miraflores, Barranco and Central Lima. If you are not going to travel in Peru for a long time, we suggest to spend maximum a couple of days in Lima and to save precious days for the more welcoming side of Peru.
~ Culinary Risks ~
Depending on your approach to Peruvian cuisine, there are two distinguished categories of travelers: some, who are willing to try and experiment with any sorts of food they encounter, are ready to pay the price of food poisoning; and others, who wish to avoid any kind of sickness and be 100% for the duration of the whole trip. Here are some tips that might be useful to both categories:
– Try to use alcohol-gel to disinfect your hands before eating, and wash your hands as often as you can.
– Obviously, never drink tap water.
– Whenever you are eating out, prefer cooked foods to raw ones.
– All fruits or vegetables should be washed with a disinfecting solution or, if you cannot find it, something as simple as bleach (1 drop/L). Try to also wash fruits and vegetables that you will peel, as you will be likely to touch their inside with the same hands which touched their outside.
– Avoid lettuce and other kinds of salads, or you will surely get sick sooner or later. Some touristy restaurants are likely to wash the salad leaves with the correct solution, but be careful to ask whether this is the case (bleach is known as “Cloro” in Peru).
– Avoid fresh fruit juices where the fruit might not have been properly washed and where the blender is rinsed with tap water and not dried: you do not want to risk to drink that water with your juice.
– Even though you might enjoy eating at markets or on the stands on the side of the road, avoid cheap street meat: Trichinosis is very common in Peru, and there is no regulation on street vendors.
– Eat alpaca and pork meats only if you are in a reliable touristic restaurant.
~ Travel Medication ~
The most common – and most serious – sickness that travelers encounter is the sadly famous “traveller’s diarrhea.” Often, travel clinics recommend to take a cure of ciprofloxacina, which lasts 7 entire days or more. If you are going to undergo the cure, absolutely take its full course, and never limit to a couple of pills or the dose for 2-3 days. In fact, if your diarrhea happens to be something worst than a normal “adjustment to the food” – i.e. shigella, E.coli, salmonella, typhoid fever – an incomplete dose of the cycle of ciprofloxcina will cause these diseases to become more resistant, and will enable them to attack you later, stronger than ever. Even better than taking a whole cycle of medicine is to have a Peruvian laboratory analyze what you exactly have. These analysis are extremely cheap and easy to find in Cuzco and Lima, and claryifying the nature of your illness will save you the trouble to take unnecessary medicines – it might well happen that what you need is only to rest and to rehydrate with some herbal infusions.
If you are into natural remedies, here are some suggestions: carbon fixes many stomach troubles; ginger incredibly helps for indigestions and car-sickness (especially if you are taking an overcrowded 24 hours bus); oregano extract kills the bacteria in your mouth and in your throat, and cocoa leaves (chewed or infused) are useful to adjust to the altitude.
~ Travel Insurance ~
Having a travel insurance before leaving for your trip is highly recommended, mainly because during an adventurous trip anything can happen – and we have seen it all. First, in case you get sick and are unable to fly or to travel by bus, the cost of changing your plans will be covered. This instance is very common among travellers, and should not be underestimated: do not risk throwing your money away and ruining your memories. Moreover, if you happen to suffer of a complicated injury such as bad fractures or harsh illnesses, a travel insurance would make the processes of hospitalization and travel-delay way easier to deal with.
~ Lost Luggage ~
When you are flying to Peru and going through any international hubs (like Mexico City, Panama, Lima), make sure to pick up your luggage, no matter what anyone tells you. You do not always have to re-check your bags, most of the times you will just transfer them from one belt to another – follow the clerks’ instructions. Be very careful with this, as many visitors do visit Peru wearing somebody else’s clothes.
~ Bathrooms ~
The sewer systems of Cusco and Lima are very old and, unfortunately, can collapse quite easily. For this reason, never ever throw toilet paper or anything else in the toilets. No matter where you are, from the fanciest resort to the poorest pueblo, toilet paper has to be deposited in the bins located next to the toilets. Moreover, except for the most tourist-conscious restaurants and cafes, you will hardly ever find toilet paper in the Peruvian bathrooms. Get the habit of keeping napkins or bundles of toilet paper in your pockets while you walk around, unless you want to find yourself in unpleasant situations.
~ WiFi ~
Wifi in Cusco and Lima can be found almost everywhere. Most restaurants and cafes, as well of all the main hostels, provide free wifi, and both cities abound with internet cafes.
This being said, forget to find even remote wireless connection outside of these two main urban areas. If you go on a trek or on a visit to Machu Picchu, you will be able to post your memories on Facebook and Instagram only once you came back to town.
~ Bargaining ~
As in many areas of South America, bargaining in Cusco is not only allowed but even encouraged. Unless you are buying goods in a shop over which employees have no jurisdiction (for example a supermarket or a big hotel), you will be able to negotiate better prices. Try to buy many of the products you desire in the same place, encouraging the seller to give you discounts; or ask for prices and come back the following day, leaving the seller ruminating about his missed opportunity. Knowledge of Spanish – or even Quechua– will help infinitely in this process.
~ Vegetarian, Vegan and Gluten-Intollerant Diets ~
Travelling with strict food regimes is never easy, but Peruvian cuisine is surprisingly friendly in this respect. No matter where you are planning to eat, whether at the market or in a fancy restaurant, you will always be able to find various interpretations of “arroz” (rice), “papas” (potatoes) and “frejoles” (beans). Moreover, Peru is rich of delicious vegetables and fruits that find their way in delicious delicatessens. In Cusco and Lima you will find amazing vegetarian restaurants and traditional Peruvian restaurants offering several vegetarian options- including our favorite, D’Gusto y Preferencias. If you are intolerant to gluten, you might have to skip the delicious pizzas and hamburgers that you can find in the international venues of these two cities, but you won’t have many problems in enjoying truly Peruvian dishes, where pasta is replaced by rice and grains by quinoa. If you still crave bread, a good gluten-free bakery is Masa Madre.