Getting Around Cusco: A Local Transportation Guide to the Imperial City
Until someone invents tele-transportation, getting from point A to point B will remain the aggravation of our daily schedule. You don’t have to let local transportation be the drag of your day, however, while traveling abroad in Cusco, Peru. Navigating the streets of Cusco can be a fun adventure if you know how to stay safe and be aware of your surroundings. Seeing the Imperial City from the perspective of a local Peruvian on a city bus gives you glimpses of the real Cusco you would never catch from the sight-seeing tour buses. Check out the options below to figure out what local forms of transportation will give you your best in-siders view of Cusco.
Explore Cusco by Foot
If you don’t plan on straying far outside the historic district, getting around by foot is your best option. Cusco itself is a small city and the tourist center is easily managed with just a pair of thick-soled shoes. Don’t wear heels unless you are a professionally-certified Cusquenian woman! They have years of practice walking in spindly six inch heels over uneven cobblestones that hide cracks the size of the Colca Canyon. Do not attempt this feat unless you seriously wish to see what the Peruvian healthcare system is like from a patient’s perspective.
Despite the practical perils of cobblestones, they do add an undeniable charm to a historic center already brimming with enchanting architecture. Pedestrian-only streets curl along the contours of the mountain side and hide picturesque mixtures of Incan and colonial architecture. Don’t miss out on Calle Siete Culebras or Calle Carmen Alto, both in the San Blas district right above Plaza de Armas. If you want to go on a self-created walking tour, we have a scavenger hunt just for you. Can you find the seven streets who’s names begin with the number ‘seven?’ We’ve already started you off with Calle Siete Culebras. Comment below if you’ve found them all but don’t give anything away to the next explorer! Bonus points go to the traveler who figures out why seven is such an important number in Cusco.
Explore Cusco by Taxi
If you have farther to go than a short walk and the altitude is making your lungs feel like a pair of overworked leaky bellows, take a taxi. Most taxistas who are working and have an empty car will honk at you as they drive past to let you know they are available. Flag one down and don’t be afraid to negotiate the price. Especially if you just arrived in the airport, drivers assume you don’t know how much a normal fair costs and will sometimes try to charge you as much as 20 soles more than they ought to. For most destinations around Cusco you should pay around S/.2.50 or S/.3.00. For destinations slightly outside the main city in the countryside, Saqsaywaman for example, expect to pay around S/.7.0 to S/.10.00. At night fairs always rise. If you’re stumbling out of a bar or discoteca looking for a ride home at 1 in the morning expect to pay around S/.5.00 or more for the same destination.
During the day it is generally safe to take a taxi alone although it is always better to have a friend with you. At night do not go alone unless there is absolutely no alternative. While Cusco is a pretty safe city and petty crime is normally the main worry, even Peruvians choose to play it safe at night and take a friend when they travel by taxi. We don’t mean to alarm, but prevention is the best safety course.
Explore Cusco by Bus
For the truly adventuresome we recommend the local buses, often called combis, or minivans, since only recently have bus lines begun to really employ full-sized buses. The bus system is Cusco is not a government-run program but rather consists of dozens of privately-owned bus companies that all operate a separate route. Each company and their route has a name that they either post in nice big letters or aggravatingly small letters on their windshields. With the advent of large buses to most of the lines, descriptions of destinations on the sides of the busses have also been added. This is a huge help to those unfamiliar with the routes because the only way to know where they went previously was by tapping into the collective Cusco hive mind. Either you just knew where they went like you knew how to get from the kitchen to the bathroom in your own home, or you were overwhelmingly confused and thought you had no hope of ever figuring it out. You took a bus one day and the next day the same bus went in a different direction. Answer: sometimes if traffic is really clogged in Cusco a driver might slightly alter his route to avoid the worst of the congestion. Of course you don’t know this and think ‘Oh well, another hive-mind message I missed out on, what else is new?’
Besides the chauffeur, he (I have never seen a female driver so far in Cusco) will have an assistant in charge of opening the door, announcing stops, and depleting you of your carefully allotted travel budget. Don’t worry, if money is an issue you can’t get cheaper than combis. All stops inside the city of Cusco are S/.0.70 (U.S. $0.24 at the time of writing) and this includes as far down the valley as you would wish to go and even up to Saqsaywaman. The assistant will sometimes call out the bus stops they go to and if you have a specific stop you are aiming for, just ask them as the bus rolls to a stop. They will collect your fair either en-route or as you disembark.
To get to Saqsaywaman or Cristo Blanco by combi, take the buses marked Huerto or Cristo Blanco. Warning: There are two variations of the Cristo Blanco bus line. One just says Crist Blanco, take that bus. One says Cristo Blanco, but then down below in small letters that are often green it says ‘Ayuda Mutua.’ Do NOT take this combi, it will not get you to Saqsaywaman or Cristo Blanco. You can catch both variations of Cristo Blanco at the bus stop in front of the post office or in front of Mercado Wanchaq. You can board Huerto in front of the Rosaspata market on Calle Collasuyo. (Follow Calle Recoleta out of the San Blas district. It will magically become Calle Collasuyo after intersecting with Calle Retiro. Don’t ask about the name change. Take a look at Av Grau below in ‘Explore the Sacred Valley by Bus.’ Some streets in Cusco just have personality disorders).
This website attempts to lay out all the combi routes of Cusco. We raise them a toast and just shake our heads in amazement at what must be a new feat of human ingenuity akin to mapping the source of the Amazon.
Knowing how to stay safe in combis is very important. The buses can get very, very crowded and it is all too easy for thieves to sneak into your pocket without you noticing. When I say crowded, think about those clown cars you see at the circus. After a certain point the clowns would say, ‘Nope, we give up. We can’t possibly fit in one more person.’ In Cusco it is assumed you can always fit in at least two more. The sliding door slides shut across your butt pushing you face-first into the back of the person in front of you if you’re lucky. If you’re not you get shoved into the other less pleasurable body parts of total strangers who push back as if it is your personal fault the combi is so full. Normally it takes a few minutes for the shifting to settle down and for everyone to get marginally less-uncomfortable.
Due to this crowding always wear your backpack on your front. Hang on with one hand and use your other arm to protect your backpack. If you are a woman, keep your valuables in your bra. If you are a man, keep them in an inside pocket of your coat, zipped up. NEVER leave ANYTHING in your back pocket. Do not leave anything in your front pockets either.
If you are lucky enough to get a seat, be aware that the first two seats on the right hand side when entering are reserved for the elderly, handicapped, pregnant or people with small children. If these seats are available, sit down, but expect to give them up to anyone more needy than you. If these two seats are already taken by people in need and a third person boards the bus who due to their status needs a seat, it is not officially mandatory to give up your seat to them but it is the common polite practice in any society to do so. Please be considerate and enjoy your Cusco adventures