Cusco, Peru on a Budget (Takes a Little Work)

Cusco restaurant

Peru gets a lot of travelers, from budget backpackers to “money is no object” luxury travelers ticking off a box on their bucket list. Because of Machu Picchu being named one of the wonders of the world and Peru seemingly unable to stop milking that cash cow in all their marketing, an inordinate number of visitors end up in Cusco. It’s beautiful and evocative, but some people are disappointed that it’s kind of like the Venice of Latin America. In the center, you’re one more face in a big crowd of tourists.

lunch in PeruSo it would stand to reason that Cusco is an expensive place to visit, but that’s not really the case. When I get “That place isn’t cheap anymore” feedback, much of the time it’s about Peru. The complaint has more validity than people whining about the second most common destination mentioned: Thailand. I say it’s valid mostly because of Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. If either of these are on your itinerary, you’re going to blow your backpacker budget, no way around it. The very lowest-budget option I could find for getting to the wonder and back was $110 without spending the night in Aguas Calientes. That requires multiple connections via van and local train from a specific point where you can pull that off, counting the obligatory entrance and bus fees (but not the trip back to where you’re going). If you go in a more leisurely fashion and spend the night there—as you should—it’s going to run much more.

But is it worth it? If you haven’t been, of course it is.

So is the Inca Trail, which will probably cost you $100 a day now if someone carries your stuff, including tips and entrance fees, and you’ve got to add a train ticket back to that. So whether your budget is $20 a day or $60 a day, you’re going to blow it for this part of your trip.

Mercado meal

The other pricey part is visiting the big attractions of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. They make it prohibitively expensive for you to just go to Saqsaywaman or Ollaytantambo for instance, as in $23 to walk in the entrance gate of one attraction. Instead most people pay double that for a multi-pass that gets you into multiple ones. So $46 (130 soles) for example for a pass that includes Moray, Chinchero, Pisac, and Ollaytantambo. Then you have to hustle and visit them all in a set amount of time. Pay again and repeat for Cusco.

That’s the bad news. If you’re a tourist in a hurry, as most unfortunately are, Peru will not seem like much of a bargain.

Peru sodasIf you are a slow traveler, however, with more time than money, Peru will still seem like one of The World’s Cheapest Destinations once you get off that fast-track treadmill. The photos I’m putting in here are all from Cusco, taken in April of 2015 on the cusp of high season. If you were to hang out there for a week and just soak up the atmosphere, you could sleep and eat relatively cheaply. Getting a drink is reasonable too, from 35 cents for a soda to a couple bucks for a beer in a bar, a dollar in a store.

The exchange rate during my visit was 3.15 soles to the U.S. dollar, so just figure on 3 to keep the math easy. That means the meals you’re seeing in these photos are often less than $2. The pictures below are from an 8 sole meal of the day I got just three blocks from the main plaza. That was for a delicious healthy soup, the plate you see here, dessert, and a drink. I left a sole for a tip and left stuffed—for the equivalent of $3. Sure, you can add a zero and double it if you want a meal you’ll remember for life at the Marriott Convento, but you can eat well in Cusco for not much money. In this competitive restaurant market, sometimes they’ll throw in a glass of wine or pisco sour as well.

Cusco set meal Peruvian soup

If you do some self-catering, non-imported goods are quite cheap. Seasonal produce, rice, beans, cheese, and other staples are a bargain. Quinoa is not such a bargain anymore since the health food stores in Europe and North America have driven up the price. It’s still less than you’ll pay there though, at about $4 a pound in a grocery store.

Cusco hostels

This is not Bolivia when it comes to lodging prices, but there’s a huge divide between high-end and low-end in Peru and there’s plenty at the low end. If you don’t mind sleeping in a hostel, you can find a bed for ten bucks even in high season. You just need to book well in advance from May through September if you want to be close to the center.

If you don’t mind climbing up the hills a few blocks though, you can save some money on a private room. Many of the tourists in Peru are of retirement age it seems and the hotels catering to older travelers with money are all in the flat part of the city. They also don’t want to be anywhere that doesn’t look completely safe and fixed-up. If you’re a fit experienced traveler who doesn’t get freaked out by a little grubbiness, you can use that to your advantage.

hostels Cusco

There are two key strategies though to getting by for far less and both involve leaving Cusco. The immediate area nearby in the Sacred Valley is fantastic and there are multiple hiking opportunities that will get you way off the beaten path. If you’re carrying a tent, you can pitch it lots of places. Otherwise, most of the towns in the Sacred Valley don’t get very many overnight guests: the tourists in a hurry just pop by on a tour bus, snap some photos, and leave. Ollaytantambo and Urubamba get more than the others just because they’re stops on the train line to Machu Picchu, but they also have loads of lodging options. The first one is a better bet if you’re not on a tour because it’s all walkable. If you want to save some money though, go chill for a while in Pisac, Chinchero, or some town without any monuments to see. Don’t go too far down the scale though: small villages in the mountains may not even have a guesthouse.

The best way to get by for less in Peru though is to avoid the crush and go elsewhere altogether. The Amazon is another budget buster just because of the need for tours and guides. Arequipa and Lake Titicaca are in the second tier for popularity and are less expensive, Head out to the Colca Canyon and you could chill, hike, and see condors for a week on a low budget. Head to the north and you’ll find even fewer foreigners. Despite the oldest civilization in the Americas being up there, few make the trip.

Have you been to Peru? What tricks and tips do you have for doing it on a budget?

Comments
  1. Bob Weisenberg

    How very timely, since we’re headed for Cusco on June 28 for a couple of months. Another cost saving strategy, stay longer and rent an apartment. We’ve got a beautiful two-bedroom apartment with a great view near Centro for about $30 per night, or $15 per person. (Owned by doctors who live upstairs and who advertise that emergency medical assistance and oxygen is available!)

    • Tim Leffel

      Yes indeed, you’ll get more for your money that way for sure Bob. I’ve had friends who have rented a place there and loved it. Have a great time!

  2. Joey

    Great round-up and I agree with this. There are a lot of tourists with a lot of money there, but if you get out of their world and eat where the locals are, you can get stuffed for cheap and it’s flavorful. Hotels are reasonable, so are local buses.

  3. rilme

    I went to Apurimac, the empty badlands of the high plains. Wandering in silence, millions of stars, frost on the tent: everything was free.

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