Cuzco is a beautiful, old city with many stone paved streets in the city center. We stayed at the Amaru Hostal, which is on a narrow, single lane stone road named Cuesta San Blas. It was only 2 blocks NE of the Plaza de Armas. We found the Amaru convenient to everything around the city, yet far away from the Plaza to avoid the noise. The hostal was well maintained and the people their were friendly and very helpful. We paid $25 US for a double (two beds and private shower). The hostal was quick to give us our Mate (coca tea) to help us adapt to the 11,000ft elevation of the city. The tea tasted much like Ginseng or Green tea to me, and we drank it most of the time we were in the Sacred Valley area. The tea is very relaxing which is surprising since it is derived from coca leaves.
I know that some of the locals enjoy chewing the coca leaves, but I tried this and found the leaves to be bitter tasting and not very pleasant. My friend and I drank the tea very often and I bought a few packages of the tea to take back home to enjoy, unfortunately my supply did not last long enough. However, I have found a supplier online that I use and continue to stay stocked up on the tea.
One negative I must mention about Cuzco is the number of vendors hawking their souvenirs; some were just too persistent. If it wasn’t a vendor pushing their wares on us, it was someone trying to sell us a “great” tour package as we passed their shop. I’m one of those that pride myself on making my own travel arrangements, so they had no chance with me. The vendors mainly congregated around the city center and the typical tourist spots, so it is possible to avoid them if you wanted.
There are plenty of good places to eat, whether you want something Westernized or Peruvian, and all budgets can be accommodated. A couple of my favorite dishes were the Ceviche and Aji de Gallina. Peruvian ceviche is fish and seafood marinated in limejuice piled atop a cooked potato and lettuce. As a finishing touch, onions are piled on top of the seafood. The fish and seafood is raw and is “cooked” by the limejuice, very delicious. Aji de Gallina is boiled chicken pieces, potatoes, olives, and other seasonings all smothered in walnut gravy. The dish did vary slightly between restaurants but differences were mainly in the garnishes. There were quite a few roasted chicken restaurants around the city that were a very good value and tasty, too. Getting something good to eat in Cuzco is not difficult at all.
Cuzco was perfect to take day trips around the Sacred Valley. It was quite easy to catch a bus to Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Sacsayhuaman, Urubamba, and other cities and ruin sites. If your Spanish is not too bad, you can probably work out a deal with a taxi driver to take you to any of these places for not much more than the bus would have cost. We found a taxi driver to take us to Ollantaytambo, which is nearly 2 hours from Cuzco, for only 5 Soles each. The local bus would have been 1 Sole each and the trip would have taken much more time. Our taxi ride proved to be an even better situation when the driver picked up a local businessman that was going our way. This additional passenger turned out to be a history buff and became a wonderful, energetic tour guide. During the drive he was pointing out all the interesting sites along the way and giving us background information about the local fauna, some history, even the names of the peaks of the nearby Andes mountain range.
If you plan on going to Machu Picchu, you should visit some of the other sites in the Sacred Valley first, such as Pisac or Ollantaytambo. Machu Picchu is the crown jewel, so if you see these other sites after, they will not seem as impressive. Cuzco is the best place to take the train to Aguas Caliente, which is right next to Machu Picchu. The train ride is 4 hours, so I recommend you get up early and catch the morning train.