Tips for Travelling, Living & Working in Cusco
by Willow Vanderbosch
In an attempt to go to new and more exciting places, South America is an increasingly popular destination. The airfare to get there from anywhere is expensive, it's far away from everything, and therefore it's worth going for an extended trip if you go at all. Many backpackers are taking the opportunity to live and work their way through the various countries. I myself went with $500* for three and a half months, so I knew ahead of time that I had to work or starve.
The Lonely Planet on a Shoestring recommended Cusco as a destination which might offer opportunities for employment. No one is particularly bothered about the legalities of work visas, and when your tourist visa runs out, you can just take a trip across the border into Bolivia and get your passport stamped again.
The first and best advice for living, working, traveling in South America is to buy the best travel insurance you can. I was hospitalised twice and thanked God that I had the insurance to save me! The second piece of advice of course is to not eat on the street, no matter how temptingly cheap it is.
I've seen a lot of online tours for Peru, the Inca Trail and various ruins around Cusco go for thousands of dollars, NOT including airfare! Here's the scoop. If you go on your own, it's not that difficult and you can save a lot of money. Almost all tour agencies have someone that speaks English, and you can find tour agencies either at the bus station, or exit the bus station and take a taxi to the Plaza de Armas.
In Cusco a taxi anywhere is two Soles (three if you don't speak spanish). From inside the station it's three soles (exit the security fence to save one sol). I've heard that in Lima it's generally more. DO only take taxis with a yellow sign on the window with their official number. This is the government's attempt to organise the system and also lowers your chances of being robbed by the taxista. This is a country where you need to practice your street smarts. I highly recommend the Lonely Planet guide. It has all of the advice you need on how to be safe. Then enjoy!
Facing the main church in the Plaza de Armas, on the left hand side, the streets Procudores and Plateros (at the top and bottom of the square) have excellent tour agencies including one that offers environmentally friendly tours (on Plateros). Fully portered and catered, the Inca trail should run between $200-$250. Everything including tents and sleeping bags are available, so just bring a light pack with a change of clothes, bug/sunscreen, etc.
Touring the other ruins can be arranged by agency or for the brave with Spanish, often you can find a taxi driver willing to take you to all of the ruins- some of which are about two hours away- for 90 soles (roughly $30 or so) plus the ticket to get into the ruins, available at the information office or any agency. At the ruin sites, you can walk around and meet guides in many languages. I had an excellent and very knowledgeable guide at Sacsayhuaman which made for a very interesting walk through.
Living and working:
For those gringos that want to hang around and enjoy the life, there are jobs to be found either teaching English or working in the clubs in and around the main plaza. Staying for a time gives you a different perspective than breezing in and out. I stayed two months, I met an American girl that loved it so much she came for three weeks and last I heard she'd been there fifteen months. You can live for as little as $250 (hard) or like a king for $500+ There's internet every couple of blocks, so staying in touch with those you love is no problem. It's about $1/hr.
There are at least three language schools in Cusco that offer English classes. The largest is El Centro De Idiomas, located on Mason de Estrella, about 2-3 blocks from the main square. I went in once and left my CV to no avail. The next time, I insisted on seeing the principal instead of leaving my CV and I was hired on the spot. Being a fully qualified teacher, she offered me as many classes as I wanted.
The contract is month by month, and with three classes a day I made about $250 a month. It was a very rewarding experience. I'm a teacher by trade, but the conditions were very different. Overcrowded classrooms, students had to pay for the photocopies to take their tests... it was different but I loved it. I'd do it again.
Sights in and around Cusco not to be missed:
Coricancha was the Incan Sun Temple in Cusco
Hatunrumiyoc Street which is named for the 12-angled stone that is clearly visible in the remaining walls of what was Inca Roca's palace.
Sacsayhuaman, a spectacular hilltop fortress and temple complex with commanding views of the Cusco valley, and Tambo Machay whose ceremonial baths' clear, cool springs continue to flow 500 years after they were built.
The ruins of Inca Yupanqui's palace.
The Sacred Valley of the Incas, and the ruins at Pisac, and trip to Ollantaytambo.
Of course, Machu Pichu and Aguas Calientes.
The best place I stayed was El Tuco Hospedaje, Av. Grau 835 (www.chez.com/eltuco/) it was the best experience I had in Cusco. The owner lives on site and speaks English. Rooms range is between $15 and $30 a night and with all the hot water you could want, it's well worth it.
For the Budget range, there are a variety of hospedajes on the lower left hand street (Plateros) off the Plaza de Armas. The Israeli or truly savvy can talk the price down to 10 soles a bed but for everyone else the average is 15 soles a bed, backpacker style, common bath. I shared with an Israeli and paid 10 soles.
If you want to rent longer term, you can pick up a local newspaper and rooms range from $60-$90 a month. Another option is to ask around in the local clubs and bars, where many of the bartenders are ex-pats. Do look for a place with an electric shower. You may get the occasional jolt along with the electrifying buzz of the shower, but at least you won't be showering in icy Andes water.
Mama (Afrika, America) seemed to be expanding rapidly. When I arrived it was just a club, when I left there was a restaurant/ internet cafe, a club and a travel agency. Excess, and more... there are lots of people standing in the plaza offering free entrance and a free drink with entrance cards. Just go to the Plaza de Armas and you'll find your way.
The Blueberry, to the left of the main church in the Plaza is a funky little place with DJs on Sunday afternoons. There are also a couple of Irish pubs that are easy to spot for their Shamrocks.
Beware of Mexican food on the small street to the left of the main church. When I was diagnosed with Typhoid Fever, the Dr. knew exactly where I ate! If a place doesn't feel clean, DON'T eat there!
That said, there are lots of wonderful places off the Plaza de Armas. Mama Amerikas has a decent spread. Jack's near Plaza de San Blas got rave reviews from some friends.
My favourite place is a quiet getaway, Dos Equis 3. From the Plaza de Armas, walk up Mantez towards Mason de la Estrella, and it's on the left hand side less than a block from Mason. It's small, painted red inside with drawings of famous South American writers on the wall. It has the best ice-cream sundaes around in addition to mate de coca, espresso, and enticing things to nibble on or to make a light lunch. The owner is a delightful old man who will be happy to chat.
There is also a wonderful restaurant with fresh trout from their own pond near the ruins of Sacsayhuaman. Excellent cooks.
I highly recommend the bookstores. Pick up a copy of Lost City of the Incas, The Story of Machu Picchu and its Builders by Hiram Bingham, the discoverer of Machu Pichu. It will make you a lot more appreciative of your trip to Machu Pichu. You can buy it before you go, or pick it up in English, Spanish, and sometimes German once you get there. It's a great read and will add more to your trip than you imagined.
South American Explorers
*Prices and other details will have changed since this article was first published