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14 Surprising Things About Cusco, Peru

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1. Seeing alpacas in the street is totally normal

The other day, I was walking a treacherously narrow, steep and uneven cobblestoned street when I witnessed a Quechuan woman desperately trying to push her alpaca up onto a narrow ledge, and out of the way of oncoming traffic. Ah, just another day in Cusco…

You’ll often see women dressed in traditional Quechuan garb, either carrying a baby lamb in their arms or walking an alpaca. Most of the time, these women are soliciting tourists to take their picture for a “donation.” Be warned though, I once took pictures of women doing this, and they told me I was free to give however much I wanted. When I gave them one sol, they started complaining and asking for more.

2. Guinea pigs are not pets–they’re food

Guinea pig in Cusco, called cuy
It tasted better than it looked, but not good enough to ward off the impending guilt…

Guinea pig, called cuy here in Cusco, is considered a delicacy. It was traditionally reserved for special occasions, but because of all the tourists wanting to try this “exotic” food, it’s often found in many restaurants.

I also got the chance to see live guinea pigs in a house in Ollantaytambo, Cusco. This happened after I ate the cuy, and yes, I did feel a pang of guilt…

Aren't they cute?? These guinea pigs, in a house in Ollantaytambo, Cusco, are being raised for food.
Aren’t they cute?? These guinea pigs, in a house in Ollantaytambo, Cusco, are being raised for human consumption.

3. You might get electrocuted in the shower

Most showers in Cusco use electric shower heads, which function by instantly heating cold water as it flows through the shower head. Not only is this just slightly dangerous (electricity + water? Bad combo), it also requires tons of patience. I spend a good five minutes adjusting my shower knob, millimeter by millimeter, before I get what I consider to be an acceptable temperature. Usually if you want hot water, you have to sacrifice good water pressure. Obviously this is because if there is less volume flowing through the shower head, there is less water to heat, and therefore, a small amount of water will get hotter than a large amount of water.

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    4. Water shuts off at night

    No one seems to be able to give me a good explanation for this, but almost every night, the water shuts off in the city around 9:30. I’ve been told this doesn’t happen in the main square, the Plaza de Armas, because that’s where all the tourists are and the government wants to keep them happy.

    The complications of not having water? You can’t wash your hands, flush the toilet, or take a shower. I’ve adjusted to this by always keeping hand sanitizer nearby (many families have bottles of this near the sink for this purpose) and making sure to shower during the daytime. I also keep face wipes handy so I can “wash” my face before bed. As for flushing the toilet? Sometimes you just have to wait until morning. To counteract this, some families install a backup reservoir tank of water that they turn on when the city shuts off the water at night.


    Again, no one seems to be able to give me a good reason for this. But most people say it’s because the city’s plumbing just can’t handle toilet paper. So instead, you’re supposed to throw used toilet paper into the trash can.

    In case you’re worried about forgetting, there are many, many signs to remind you.

    Toilet paper sign in Lima airport
    In the bathroom at the Lima airport
    No toilet paper sign in Peru
    Sign in a restaurant in Cusco
    Don't throw toilet paper in toilet sign in Cusco
    Sign in a bakery in Cusco. In THREE different languages–just in case!

    Does anyone actually know what happens if you DO throw toilet paper in the toilet in Peru? MAYBE THE WORLD EXPLODES?

    6. Eggs are never refrigerated

    Unrefrigerated eggs in tienda in Cusco, Peru
    Oh, just some raw eggs sitting unrefrigerated in the middle of a convenience store in Cusco

    This baffles me. I’ve always been led to believe the eggs are highly perishable and filled with bacteria, therefore needing constant refrigeration. But in Cusco, I have never seen an egg refrigerated. I’ve seen them in baskets in little family-owned tiendas, and on shelves right above the sugar in the supermarket. Even in my hostel, the guests here store their eggs outside the refrigerator. I just can’t see how this is safe…

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    Unrefrigerated eggs in Cusco grocery store
    Unrefrigerated eggs in a major grocery store, Plazavea, in Cusco.

    7. Taxis don’t have seat belts or meters

    Taxi in Cusco, Peru
    The typical taxi in Cusco looks like this, an unmarked small SUV/car looking vehicle with no meter or seatbelts.

    The lack of seat belts shouldn’t be so surprising, but it is unnerving, especially given how crazy Cusco drivers can be. Also, none of the taxis have meters. Before you get in, you and the driver agree on a set price. Simply tell the driver where you want to go, and ask him, “Cuanto cuesta?” He’ll tell you the price in soles, and if you agree, get in. If not, walk away.

    8. Strangers will call you “mamá” or “papá” regardless of your age

    This is a facet of Spanish characteristic to the Andean region. “Mamá,” “papá”, “mamí,” “papí” and various forms of it are used in Cusco as a term of endearment, even for complete strangers. At first, I found this uncomfortable and confusing. The first time I encountered it was when I was buying souvenirs at San Pedro Market, and the 40-year-old woman kept calling me “mamá”! Now I find it incredibly comforting, and I love going around calling complete strangers “mamí.” Makes me feel like a part of a family.

    9. Despite being in the Andes where temperatures fall into the 30s at night–no one has heaters

    My first homestay in Cusco didn’t even have space heaters, and I was freezing at night. The solution to the cold here is to pile on more alpaca wool blankets. Don’t get me wrong, these blankets work wonders. They’re thin, yet heavy and really trap in heat. But the problem with this is you have to stay in your bed to keep warm. I did manage to find a different hostel that has space heaters, and you can also buy space heaters in the markets, but you won’t ever find central heating. Most Cusqueñans go without any source of heat at all. Well, besides the alpaca blankets.

    My bedroom at my first homestay in Cusco. Notice there is no space heater, even though temps fell into the 40s. But that's okay, there were about six layers of alpaca blankets on my bed.
    My bedroom at my first homestay in Cusco. Notice there is no space heater, even though temps fell into the 40s. But that’s okay, there were about six layers of alpaca blankets on my bed.

    10. Prices will vary depending on if you’re a foreigner or not

    Ah, the problem with traveling anywhere. If you’re a tourist, you’re probably going to get charged more. My suspicions were confirmed when I was apartment hunting the other day, and a Peruvian friend called a woman who is renting out a place. When she asked the woman how much it cost, the woman insisted on knowing where I am from before she would give a price.

    11. Cheese is not the cheese I know from back in the States

    Cheese in Peru
    See that white slice of what looks like tofu? THAT is supposed to be cheese.

    Cheese here tends to be like tofu, in texture and in taste.

    12. Good chocolate is hard/impossible to find

    Bad chocolate in Cusco, Peru
    Chocolate gone horribly wrong…

    Cacao grows abundantly here in Peru, yet no one seems to know how to make good chocolate! I have tried many brands, even going so far as to pay about $1USD per tiny 1-inch square pieces of chocolate from a specialty chocolate store. None of it was good! The chocolate here tends to be very chalky in texture.

    The best Peruvian chocolate I’ve found so far is Orquidea. Pretty decent.

    13. People run on “Peruvian time”

    This one is pretty easy to get used to. Did a Peruvian tell you to meet them at 8 a.m.? Just add 30 minutes to that time, and you’ll be good. While the perpetual tardiness of Peruvians irks some people, I love it because I’m always late anyway…

    14. Expect fireworks at any time of day, for any or no reason

    Cusqueñans love their fireworks. You’ll often hear the jarring “pop pop pop!” of them. I heard them at 10 last night, and I heard them at 9 this morning; I think Cusqueñans just like to celebrate. Everything. All the time.

    Have you been to Cusco? What surprised you about this city?

    14 Surprising Things About Cusco, Peru

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