If you had asked me four years ago about Cusco, Peru, I probably would not have known a single thing to tell you. If you had asked me in 2021, I would’ve excitedly told you all about my plans to visit in the fall to get my TEFL certification, but then I quickly would’ve told you about my desire and dream to teach in Europe…not Peru.
But then October happened.
After spending a month in Cusco to get my certification, I knew I needed to come back. So here I am three months into my five-month stay and very happy in this city.
Here's what you need to know if you'd like to follow in my footsteps and try living abroad in Cusco. This expat guide will walk you through the cost of living, the best neighborhoods to call home, and a few of my favorite things to do in the area.
Let's dive right in!
Why Should You Consider Moving to Cusco?
The Low Cost of Living
First, the cost of living in Peru is incredibly low. You can definitely get a great bang for your buck in Cusco, whether you're teaching English abroad, planning to expand your business, are passing through as a digital nomad, or you just want to take a nice long vacation in South America.
Let's dive into the specifics:
- For a two-bedroom apartment within walking distance of the city center, I was only paying $200 USD/month.
- A meal and cocktail at a nice restaurant are typically around $20 USD.
- A latte and brunch are around $7.
- You can take the public buses to any location in the city for $0.25 or grab a taxi for $1.
- I recently got my hair colored, cut, styled, and purchased two styling products and the grand total was around $125 when I easily would’ve paid over $250 for the same service/products in the States.
If you'd really like to stretch your money while living in Cusco, one of the best tips I can give you is to shop and eat locally! By eating local food, instead of international food, that alone will drive down your monthly costs. Head to the San Pedro Market to pick up your weekly supply of fresh produce that you can cook at home.
As you can see, compared to other countries, your money can go very far in Peru, and that’s definitely a draw for many people who try living in Cusco.
There's Something For Everyone
Second, Peru has a little bit of something for everyone. You have access to the jungle, the mountains, the beach, the city, and the desert. In Cusco, you’re central enough to easily or quickly reach any of these places.
Due to its proximity to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, Cusco is also a hotbed for tourists, so you can easily find tours or tour guides willing to take you on an adventure. You'll love being able to explore the city's rich history just outside of your doorstep.
Not only is it a great place to explore and enjoy the plethora of tourism, but you'll also have your individual needs met in Cusco. The town itself has everything you'll need to settle into a cheap and comfortable lifestyle.
The Locals Are Kind and Welcoming
Cusco has some of the kindest locals. I’m constantly impressed with servers and staff at restaurants and I meet new people all the time. I’ve been approached by many locals in a coffee shop or at a park.
Most of the time they’re either curious about where you’re from and what brought you to Cusco or, if you’re an English speaker, they want to learn from you or practice with you. While speaking Spanish isn't a necessity of living in Cusco, as they're more than used to tourists, you'll make more local friends if you do. Plus, you'll probably get better deals when shopping at the markets!
It's a Safe Place to Live
Finally, Cusco is an incredibly safe place. I think South America gets a bad reputation when it comes to safety, but Cusco is one of the safest cities in South America. Once you get comfortable living here, I suggest you see more of what South America has to offer- Colombia's Caribbean coast is especially a great place to visit!
While I do suggest you're always careful and practice basic safety tips for females abroad, it's not as scary of a place as you might have thought. I take the normal precautions that I do in any city such as keeping my belongings tucked away, keeping an eye on my drink in public, and walking in groups after dark, but I truly haven’t felt unsafe during my three months here.
6 Tips for Moving to Cusco
Learn Some Basic Spanish
One of the main questions I got asked when moving to Peru was if I spoke Spanish. While I have my basic knowledge from high school classes, I am nowhere near fluent. However, I’ve really never felt it was a problem.
There are so many travelers passing through Cusco that most people working with the public speak some English and if they don’t, the minuscule Spanish that I have has been enough to communicate.
I definitely think it’s helpful to have a base of Spanish, but at the times my Spanish wasn’t enough, for example, while shopping at the market or local craft shops, I’ve always been able to point to what I need.
If you'd like to learn more Spanish while in Peru, I suggest signing up for a course or two at a local language school. There are plenty of schools in town so it'll be easy to find one that fits your budget and your schedule.
Don't Trust the Weather App
I learned in my first month here that you absolutely can never trust the weather app.
Be prepared for rain every day, even if it’s just a little drizzle. The rainy season is technically November to April, but even when I was here in October, it rained every day.
I Googled the daily average temperature for each month of the year and it was consistently in the 60s (Fahrenheit).
Every. Single. Month.
While you might feel like that's unlikely, that’s actually pretty consistent with my time here. Some days the weather can be so nice and sunny and warm but it can very quickly change to cold and rainy. I would get one of those rain jackets that you can roll up and keep with you.
Pro Tip: Note that if you plan to travel more of South America, this is pretty standard for the entire region. Most places do not have four seasons, but instead will have 2 seasons, at max- wet and dry. Depending on the weather you like, find a city at the altitude that will give you that weather more or less year-round. For example, if you like the heat, move to the coast or jungle at sea level. If you like the cold, head to the mountains, and if you like spring or fall weather, find somewhere in between.
Be Prepared for the Altitude
Cusco sits at 3,400 meters (or 11,152 feet). The altitude sickness is real. During my first week in Cusco, I struggled with a constant headache. Some of my friends got physically sick when they first arrived.
If you’re able to get prescription medication before you arrive, I definitely recommend that. There is medication you can purchase here at one of the many pharmacies but I think having it in your system prior to arrival would be helpful.
Just know that for your first few weeks, you may run out of breath faster than normal or not be as comfortable hiking or running as you normally are. I have a friend that has lived here for six years and runs almost daily but she still gets breathless climbing stairs.
Public Transportation Is Your Friend
When I first visited Cusco, Peru in October for my teacher training, I never once used a taxi because I was too scared.
While it is definitely possible to walk everywhere in the city, sometimes the best way to get around is a taxi or bus, like when you get caught walking home in a rain and hail storm (yep, I was still stubborn enough to continue walking).
The buses are actually very easy to navigate - they have each of their stops painted on the side - and they only cost one sol (around 25 cents USD).
The taxis are also very efficient. If you’re prepared with what street you’re heading to or a key location nearby, you can definitely use them without being a master Spanish speaker. Taxis typically are 5 sols (Around $1 USD) and a taxi to the airport from the city center is only around 10 sols ($2.50 USD).
Exchange Money in Cusco
Prior to traveling, I was told to exchange my money at the airport to get the best rate but I’ve found the “casa de cambio” stands in Cusco are the best option and give me the exact rate I find on Google.
As of the publication of this article, the exchange rate is $1 USD = 3.81 Sol.
There are so many of these money stands close to the city center, within walking distance to the main square, so if you do find one that is trying to give you a worse rate, you can “shop around” until you find the best rate.
You don’t need to carry a lot of cash with you because most places do accept cards, but if you want to explore outside of the city center or you go into a smaller shop, they may not accept cards.
Familiarize Yourself With the Neighborhoods of Cusco
I mentioned before that housing here can be incredibly affordable. The farther you get from the city center, the cheaper you’ll find, but you also may be getting closer to crime, so do keep that in mind while you're apartment hunting.
While some people prefer to find their apartments abroad online before arriving, I prefer to find them in person so I can get a good feel for the neighborhood before committing to a lease.
My personal favorite neighborhoods in Cusco are:
- The Historic District: The Historic District is a great area due to its location. You are so close to the plaza that you’ll never need to use a taxi. The buildings that surround the Plaza de Armas also have a lot of character because they’re older. At the historical center of Cusco, you'll only be a short walk from many restaurants, local shops, and entertainment options.
- The San Blas Neighborhood: The San Blas area is where most of the tourists are so it is a little more expensive, but the views are amazing since you’re up higher in the city and the apartments are a little more modern. As the expat neighborhood, it's the best place to be if you'd prefer to be around more foreigners.
- Magisterio: The Magisterio neighborhood is also an affordable option and a good area to live. You’re farther from the city center but closer to the mall. You’re more likely to need a car or be comfortable using public transportation.
- Santiago, Zarzuela and Almudena are the neighborhoods you should absolutely avoid. These areas are very unsafe for tourists.
The Legalities of Moving to Peru
Let’s talk about that visa.
Post-pandemic, the visa rules have changed for Peru and now you can only have 90 days at a time on a tourist visa.
Work visas are incredibly difficult to come by if you’re not from Peru. If you are able to receive one and you want to work towards residency, you have to keep a visa for three years and then you can apply for permanent residency.
As far as how much money in savings you need before moving, I honestly think you wouldn’t need more than $1000. You could easily make it two or three months on that if you're smart about how you spend your money.
My Favorite Peru Must-Dos
Whether you're living in Cusco for three months, six months, or indefinitely, there are so many fun excursions you really need to take advantage of. By living here, you're so fortunate to be located near so many important historical sites and beautiful vistas that it'd be a real shame for you to not take advantage of at least a few.
- Machu Picchu: As one of the seven wonders of the world, it’s definitely worth a visit. You can choose to do a two or four-day hike through the mountains and jungle, or you can take a train to Aguas Caliente and a bus straight up to the site. As an important site to the long-ago Inca Empire, it's a great place to visit.
- Huacachina: This oasis in the middle of the desert is truly a sight you have to see. This can easily be covered in one or two days, but the sunset dune buggy tour definitely needs to be on your Peru list.
- Ballestas Islands: Did you know Peru is the home to Humboldt penguins? If you take a boat tour to these islands, you can see these penguins as well as sea lions and the blue-footed booby.
- Amazon Jungle: Personally, I am a mosquito's best friend, so I’ve been hesitant to take a trip to the jungle, but I’ve heard taking an Amazon Riverboat tour is also a must-do if you make it to this part of the world. Iquitos, Peru is the capital of the Peruvian Amazon but I've heard it's best to get out of the city and into the more remote villages of the region.
- Sacred Valley: This is possibly one of my favorite places in Peru so far. This is roughly 60 kilometers of stunning vistas and ancient Inca ruins. This valley near the Urubamba River served as the heart of the Incan Empire. There’s beauty around every corner in this valley so I never get tired of visiting this area. When you're here, you won't be surprised that the Incas decided to call this Valley home!
With so much amazing history and unique culture, there's really no wonder why I've fallen in love with Cusco. I've genuinely enjoyed my life in the mountains and can't wait to see what the next few months I'm here will bring.