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Living in Cusco, Peru has surprised us in a lot of ways. Ben was excited to be surrounded by the great outdoors, I was excited to learn Incan history, and Whit… Well, Whit never cares about where we go. But we were excited to find him a private Spanish tutor on his behalf.
The reality surpassed some of our expectations and failed others. Here’s some insight into what our month in Cusco was like.
Housing in Cusco
We were unpleasantly surprised as soon as we stepped into our AirBnB.
We’re living in a 3-bedroom, 1 bath apartment in a housing block just outside of Centro Cusco. While the location is great- 10 minutes walk to the very center of commercial and tourist downtown- Plaza de Armas, but still quiet, that’s probably the best thing this apartment has going for it.
Seven leaks emerged during our stay here, including one at the entrance of the bathroom (leaving the floor wet and cold 50% of the time), one in Whit’s room (we had to move his things around because a section of floor almost always had standing water), and two in the living room (we moved the furniture to try and avoid the leak directly over the couch, and had to keep the coffee table clear to avoid anything being damaged by the leak above it.) We were told this rainy season was worse than others, but seven leaks? Come on.
The floors are icy cold and the provided heaters didn’t work, so we asked for a bigger room heater and provided the gas for it ourselves. Whit’s room was hastily manufactured with thin plywood and an accordian door, so he can hear everything around him. The kitchen is so full of ants all food has to be kept in the freezer (the problem never really resolved, even after weekly cleanings, keeping food away, and using lots of ant killer). The bedrooms have skylights which let in so much bright light that we naturally wake up at 5:30 am.
And it’s costing us $1200/ month (after lots of extended stay discounts).
You may be wondering why we chose to live here. Well, because the pictures were stunning, it included essentials we were looking for (at least 2 bedrooms, shower with consistently hot water, space heaters, and fast internet), and almost all of the many reviews were amazing. How could we know we’d be so depressed sitting around this apartment that we’d pay an additional $9/person to spend a few hours in a coworking space most days?
But, honestly, I think this apartment is pretty good for Cusco. The area is full of expensive, small hostels and hotels closer to Plaza de Armas, and more family-living homes outside downtown. The weather is unkind to furniture and structures, so leaks, cold, and bugs are probably common everywhere.
I’m glad we found a solution to the space heater problem and that our internet was almost always working, but we still feel like the unit was a bit misrepresented online and that we overpaid for it. I’m a huge product of my environment, but even Ben has been downcast by the state of this place. It’s motivated us to look for long-term stay units more carefully and farther in advance in the future, and that we may need to open our checkbooks a little more to ensure where we stay is conducive to a happy attitude.
Food in Cusco
We love the Peruvian foods here, even though there doesn’t seem to be a huge variety. We’ve come to respect and enjoy the various ways to eat quinoa (especially quinoa vegetable soup!), have tried all varieties of lomo and pollo saltado (cubed steak or chicken mixed with sauteed tomatoes and onions over french fries in a pool of gravy), Ben loves ceviche (not me so much, since it was the last big meal I ate before getting really sick our first week in Peru), all the different ways of eating alpaca meat, and we even tried cuy (guinea pig!).
I love to cook, and cook every breakfast and a few dinners each week at home. One thing I’ve really come to love is the fresh, cheap produce that’s easily found in local markets. We have a ton of small tiendas nearby which are stuffed from floor to ceiling with an impressive variety of household needs, dry goods, snacks and drinks, and fresh vegetables. I know which ones carry peppers, tomatoes, carrots, and potatoes when I need something in a hurry. If I can plan a little more in advance I can walk 5 minutes up the street to our neighborhood’s fruits and vegetables market, where multiple women operate independent produce stalls underneath one building. The little old woman on the first corner knows me by now and gives me great advice on which of her spices and vegetables will work in the dish I’m creating, and I know I can count on getting away from her stall with everything I need for only a few soles.
We’re also pretty impressed with the variety of foods available in restaurants. There is a huge vegan/ health food initiative in downtown (I assume based on the number of tourists from Europe?), and I’m thrilled to be provided with a relatively delicious assortment of gluten free options. Ben and Whit appreciate healthy meals, too, and we’ve found a vegan/ gluten free bakery and vegan restaurants which are really, really top notch. I buy a GF chocolate chip cookie from the same bakery nearly every day for less than $1! Man, I’m going to miss those.
We’ve also found that nearly every restaurant offers pizza (Ben and Whit love trying out as many as possible, but haven’t found “the one” yet), many restaurants claim to serve Mexican food but it’s not authentic, there are designer chocolate shops everywhere, and you’re never a stone’s throw away from quinoa vegetable soup, lomo or pollo saltado, or polla a la braza (delicious baked chicken). We haven’t been impressed with the Indian or Korean food we found, but they were there for anyone who really needs a fix! In short, if there’s something you’re craving you’re bound to find it here. And if you end up loving one or two local dishes you’ll always find something to eat.
Expenses in Cusco
We are surprised at the price discrepency among a lot of things in Cusco and how expensive some stuff gets, but we probably shouldn’t be. That’s what happens in a tourist market, right? Not to mention a tourist market that’s in the middle of Andes mountains and no less than a plane ride away from any other large city…
More expensive than we expected:
- Eating out (it’s typical to get a meal for around $8-10, which is close to double what we’re used to in other developing countries)
- Certain souvenirs (not that they don’t deserve it- it can takes days to make a single product from alpaca wool! I’m just surprised that the prices are barely negotiable)
Less expensive/ as expensive as we expected:
- Transportation (more on that later)
- Buying things from small tiendas (liter of milk: $1, 1/2 kilo of eggs: $.50, snack bag of chips: $.35)
- SIM Cards ($4 for 2 GB of data, refillable in seconds at most tiendas)
Spanish Schools in Cusco
We knew we would need Whit to be enrolled in some sort of school or camp while we were in town so Ben and I would have a chance to work and, frankly, to get a break from each other. Enrolling him for one month in a local school wasn’t an option as it’s currently summer break in South America, so we looked into enrolling him in a Spanish school. It took a while to figure out, but we finally found a Spanish school, Mundo Antiguo, with reasonable hourly rates ($8.5/hr) within walking distance to our house.
He goes to Spanish class from 9:00 am – 1:00 pm most days, with the 4 hours being broken into two blocks with one teach in the morning and the second teacher in the afternoon. The teachers have different teaching methods but are both great with children, and Whit has loved being with them. His Spanish seemed to immediately improve, and I was so impressed with the fun but thorough lessons in his notebook every day!
We had three small issues with the school while we were in town:
- The teachers asked us to give Whit some money each day so they could walk around town and practice speaking by talking with shop owners. This was a great idea, since Whit enjoys moving around, but he was soon taking advantage of his 5 soles/ day allowance. Instead of buying lunch he’d buy a soda, candy, and souvenirs. We tried talking to him about only buying healthy food and not buying “stuff”, but he’d end up with that stuff, anyway. When I knew he’d brought home more than 5 soles worth of goods he’d admit that he asked a teacher for something and they’d bought it for him. On the one hand I desperately want my son to listen to his parents and follow our wishes without a second thought and to understand that other people may not be in a position to spend money on him, but on the other hand I’m a tiny bit proud of his gumption and think it’s up to his teachers- grown women- to be strong enough to turn him down. We finally only gave him 3 soles/ day and told his teachers he wasn’t allowed to buy sweets. I just don’t think he’s old enough to understand the responsibility of making his own choices. I get that.
- One of his teachers is more strict than the other, which we appreciate. We want him to be learning Spanish, after all! (And don’t worry, she’s teaching him with fun techniques.) His second teacher has become so smitten with him (and who could blame her?) that they spend the majority of class time walking around town, shopping, and speaking in English. Part of the reason we wanted to enroll him in classes was so we’d have some time apart, so we still appreciated that he was being watched over, but I’m not paying for a babysitter- I’m paying for him to learn while being with someone else! I ended up pretty annoyed over this and had a conversation with the school director over it. She immediately and wholeheartedly understood my frustration and things seemed to get a bit better with her by the end of our time.
- Halfway through our month in Cusco the school changed locations. Instead of being on the closer side of Plaza de Armas they moved to the farther side, adding an extra 10 minutes of walking through throngs of people to get Whit back and forth to class each day. When he’s only entertained for 4 hours taking an extra 30 minutes out of our work time to get to him made us both a bit anxious. That’s our fault for not having all the information ahead of time.
We were so concerned with finding him a Spanish school before we got here that I didn’t realize how many Spanish schools we’d come across once we arrived. We pass 4 just on our way to his school’s old (closer) location! I do love the school he’s in, but I think I could have saved myself some stress if I’d known quite how many options we’d actually have.
We got used to cheap taxi rides in Colombia, and, luckily, the trend generally continues in Peru. We are usually charged 5 soles for short distances, 7-8 for 10-15 minutes in a car, and 10+ for 15 mintues or longer. We don’t use apps to find drivers, though. At first we were annoyed at all of the needless honking in Peru, then we realized it was actually personally-owned cars as well as taxis indicating they were available with a soft honk towards pedestrians. We often choose to walk to a destination up to 20 minutes away, but are often confused for tourists looking for a ride. We now expect the constant honks everywhere we go.
We have been really impressed with the ease of using colectivos (small local transport vans or buses), as well. Ben has been able to find information on where to catch colectivos going to farther distances pretty easily, so we simply walk to the right place and wave down a van with the correct sign on it. Colectivos can get crowded, but are cheap, easy, and effecient. When a taxi ride to ruins an hour away costs 80 soles but a colectivo is 5-10/ person, I don’t mind holding Whit in my lap for an hour while a Peruvian woman smiles at him!
Doing Things Around Cusco
Cusco has turned me into more of an adventurer than I ever was!
Ben has always needed to strongarm me into hiking with him, but the Andes are so beautiful that I can’t help but want to be outside here. I’m surpirsed at how different and interesting each of the big Incan ruins sites are, and I’m genuinely excited to spend an afternoon exploring a new area to see them. The mountains around everything is just incredible, and I’m glued to the window every time we take a bus anywhere.
Ben is glad I’ve come out of my “City Girl” box more, but, honestly, it’s largely because there isn’t much else to do. We get bored on days that we don’t have afternoon plans, and would get really sick of walking back and forth to Plaza de Armas if we didn’t have so many day trips nearby. Luckily each surrounding pueblo is as unique as the Incan ruins, so we find fun things to do in neighboring towns before or after exploring the ruins.
I’m here to confirm that most people aren’t in Cusco for the city. It’s full of European architecture, Incan stone walls, and interesting streets and buildings, but the most consistently “fun” thing to do inside the city is eat out. I welcome othes who have a different opinion, but sorry not sorry.
Other things that surprised us about Cusco:
- The sun is really strong here. It’s blindingly bright and can quickly lead to sunburns.
- Wild dogs are bolder than we’ve ever seen. Groups of 3-5 dogs hang out on most corners and will angrily chase after people, bikes, or cars which dare to come near.
- Cusco difinitely is centered around the tourist industry. There are shops EVERYWHERE! We hate being catcalled by shop owners all day. “Hola, masaje? 20 soles!” We completely understand that you make a living hocking stuff to tourists, but you literally just saw me pass by 5 minutes ago and 4x/ day for the 3 weeks prior to that. I’m not getting a masage! We like to fit into a local culture, but in Cusco we will never not be seen as tourists.
- Weather changes on a dime. It can be a warm, sunny afternoon and I’ll have my fleece jacket and wind breaker in my backpack at all times because you never know when the clouds will swoop in and it’ll turn cold or rainy.
- Even the most expensive bottled water is pretty gross
- Many streets are very narrow. We stay on raised sidewalks barely 1′ wide and have to dart in-between cars to walk around people coming from the opposite direction
- Ice cream in all sorts of weather! People love it!
- I feel pretty safe. My biggest concern is getting hit by a car or bitten by a dog, but we’ve had nothing but good experiences with other people.
- Lots (not nearly all, but lots) of people speak passable English. It’s easy to break into English at restuarants, for example, because their limited English on a very specific topic is better than most tourists’ general Spanish.
How does it feel to be leaving Cusco?
To be honest, I don’t think we’ll miss Cusco when our month is up. We’ve done a ton of exploring and had enough extra time to exploit our favorite things, so we don’t feel like we’re leaving anything to do or see “on the table.” It’s easier to walk away when you’ve been 100% commited to experiencing something, you know?
We’ll be happy to leave our apartment, sad to leave the stability of Whit being in Spanish school, we’ll miss some of our favorite restaurants (my GF chocolate chip cookies! Waaah!), we won’t miss being treated as little more than money bags, we won’t miss the random rain storms and wearing our one pair of pants daily, we will miss the convenience of local tiendas (though we’ll probably find that in our next South American locations), we will miss the incredible scenery and outdoor activities.