Cusco, Peru: The Backpacker’s Paradise
Cusco is most commonly known as the first, and major pit stop on the way up to legendary Machu Picchu. However, it’s much more than just a city people travel through; it’s an exceptionally beautiful and charming town where backpackers from all over the world come together.
This was part of my first leg of my trip to South America, about a year ago. On the small plane to Cusco, most likely from Lima, (Peru’s capital and largest city) you can expect to be surrounded by backpackers of all ages and ethnicities eager to start their trek up to the lost city of Incas. Since this was my first international trip in over three years I forgot how travelers interacted with each other. It was like the person they were talking to, no matter who, had all the answers. Travelers are so interested in learning and listening to other backpackers’ insights into life and listening to everyone’s travel stories. I remember the other American girls next to us on the plane asking the Aussies “What place in the world most inspires you?” This is when I knew I wasn’t in America anymore. People in America might talk like this, but not to complete strangers. It was time for me to put my instinctive free spirit foot forward and embrace the process. The process of traveling, the process of meeting others from around the world and having those thought-provoking deep travel convos we as young travelers all love to have. Cusco, and Machu Picchu nonetheless was nothing shy of countless eager young travelers.
Located in the middle of the Andean Mountains, as you fly into Cusco all you see is green. A major bonus of this town, it’s not only endearing architecturally and visually but also very inexpensive and jam-packed with fun activities and things to do for travelers of all ages. When you land in the teeny little airport you can catch a taxi for 4 Soles a person to town, that’s about $1.50! You get to town and your taxi can barely get through the crammed narrow streets. As you drive in you see markets, goats, llamas, produce, clothing, and authentic Peruvian wood and brick buildings. We only had twenty-four hours in Cusco before our four-day jungle trek to Machu Picchu began, but we were determined to get the most out of it.
On our list of things to do, get massages, shop, eat, shop, get massages, eat, and get massages. Did I mention get massages? For 20-50 Soles ($14-25) anywhere in Cusco, you can get hour-long massages. (Also amazing for those sore bodies passing through Cusco on their way back from climbing Machu Picchu) Although the location may be a little questionable, like a room on top of a muggy market with no running water, no running toilet, and no windows, I kind of found it exciting. It was all part of the experience. We had talked about getting massages first thing after getting settled in town. We threw our bags in our lockers at our fun and trendy hostel, The Pariwana, http://www.pariwana-hostel.com/pariwana-hostel-cusco.php, definitely recommend for young travelers looking to meet other young travelers) and walked steps outside our door to find several Peruvian woman offering massages. The first lady we saw approached us. It took about three seconds to look over the options and we both nodded our heads, we were sold! For 40 Soles each ($14) my friend Cory and I both had hour-long reflexology massages with fragrant local-made lotions. We were so content.
Everything in the center of town is located around the main plaza, the Plaza de Armas or the “Square of the Warrior,” (pictured above). Ironically, like I mentioned, this massage room was in the upper level of a market. We may have never found it if the lady hadn’t pulled us off the street to take us in to get our massages. This incredible clothing market was tucked back in an alley streets from the Plaza de Armas; these types of hidden markets are everywhere in Cusco! They have alpaca furs, blankets, tapestries, sweaters, scarves, shoes, everything authentic from Peru you could want. We were in shopping mode. After a little bartering with the locals, we realized almost everything was priced the same, and that meant low. The sweaters about 30-45 Soles, scarves for around 15-25 Soles and 200+ for baby alpaca fur (the good stuff.) After wandering around the town shopping for two hours we managed to get some great deals. I spent 75 Soles total for three alpaca items plus some little souvenir goodies, that’s about $30. I personally think I walked away with some great deals!
After losing track of time and being completely immersed in the shopping we realized it was almost four pm and we needed a little pick-me-up. Our friend told us about this old-world café only a few blocks from the main square, Jacks. We sat down and had some tasty cappuccinos. The barista, Juan, helped us and was more than friendly. I’m sure the fact that we were two young, attractive Americans didn’t help at all. We chatted it up with him for a few minutes while he laughed at our attempt to speak Spanish. Then, he invited us to learn salsa later at this club in town, Mythology.
I had never danced salsa before, but I knew if I was going to be offered free salsa dancing classes, no matter how stupid I looked, I wasn’t about to turn that down. We headed back to the hostel, showered, put on some salsa dancing clothes and left for the night.
Juan from the café said he would meet us right next to McDonalds and take us in the club. Well, we waited about thirty minutes and then realized we were being stood up. Great start! Hesitantly, we walked in the club…and there were tons of people learning to salsa, tons. This town seriously is a young person’s dream. So many twenty-something’s everywhere. Since we waited for Juan so long we were joining the mass salsa lesson late. I was the only one wearing stilettos. Everyone was staring.
At first it was a little embarrassing; salsa dancing is hard, people! However, the thirty plus other travelers trying to do the same thing made the embarrassment a little less painful. After about forty-five minutes of trying to do steps that seemed to make as much sense as my college econ classes, I decided I had enough. I didn’t have one step down; it was kind of sad and discouraging. Maybe if Juan had showed up like he said he would I would’ve learned some more steps! I decided to leave it to the pros. We spent the next hour watching the talented sexy salsa dancers who knew what they were doing. Salsa dancing is incredible. They swing their hips back and forth faster than you can even move your head to watch them.
We stayed at the club, Mythology, until one in the morning. They played local music as well as hip-hop and classics. We had a lot of fun dancing with all the young travelers we had met in Lima. However, we had to be up in five hours for our trek. No mas tequila. We peeped our heads in the clubs, Mama Africa, and Temple. These are two well-known clubs every young person in the town knows about. If you have the time, make it to these hot spots. Although it was fun and the music was pressuring us to stay just for one more drink, we had to wander home, 6am pickup. We headed back to our hostel and prepared ourselves for our four-day jungle trek that was just upon us. Cusco was an exhilarating lovely city. Next time I hope to enjoy the fellow young travelers a little more and stay for a few weeks.