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An Expat’s Guide to Living in Cusco

In 2014, I packed what I needed into a 40-liter backpack and boarded a flight for a 3-week trip to South America

…that turned into a nearly 5-month stay in Cusco, Peru.

That definitely wasn’t part of my plan. But after experiencing the rich culture, mouthwatering food, fascinating people, and incomparable beauty of this ancient Inca city nestled in the Peruvian Andes, how could I leave? It soon became clear to me that I wasn’t the only one enchanted by Cusco. There is a growing expat community that wandered into this place and somehow never left.

If you’re considering a visit or move to Cusco, here is some info to get you started…

*Note: This was written in 2015. Some information may have changed.

Why Cusco?

Cusco is unlike any place in the world. Best known for its proximity to the stunning Machu Picchu (one of the seven wonders of the world), Cusco is the perfect base from which to explore ancient ruins and geological beauties, of which there are many, such as the salt mines of Maras, the Inca ruins in Ollantaytambo, and of course, the Amazon rainforest. All of these excursions can be reached by bus or a short plane ride from Cusco. It is an explorer’s paradise.

Ollantaytambo ruins
Ancient Inca ruins in the nearby town of Ollantaytambo
Maras salt mines
Salineras – Thousands of salt mines in the Sacred Valley in the Cusco region

Visa Requirements

Americans visiting Peru as tourists do not need to apply for a visa. You will receive an entry stamp on your passport that says how many days you’ve been approved to stay. The maximum amount is 183 days, though most will receive 90 days—UNLESS you ask for more. Immigrations officers are usually pretty generous in this area, so if you want 183 days, ask for it. Peru no longer offers extensions for tourist visas.

Culture of Cusco, Peru

Peruvian culture is steeped in history and heavily influenced by the Inca Empire and Spanish colonization. History has left its mark on Cusco, from the 15th century baroque cathedrals that dot the city, to the Quechua language (the language of the Incas) still spoken by many locals today. Life in Cusco is slower than the hustle and bustle Americans are used to. Natives run on what is endearingly known as “Peruvian Time.” Simply add 10-15 minutes to whatever time someone tells you to meet them, and don’t be surprised if you show up to a restaurant during its posted operating hours–only to find they decided not to open that day.

Cusco Cathedral in Plaza de Armas
The Plaza de Armas, the main square in Cusco

Money in Peru

Peruvian currency is the Peruvian nuevo sol. One unit is sol; more than that is soles. Because Cusco is such a tourist town, US dollars are in wide circulation, but generally speaking, you will get a better exchange rate by dealing only in soles. At the time of writing, the exchange rate is about 3 soles to 1 US dollar.

Learning Spanish

Cusco is a favorite among Spanish learners for two reasons

  1. Peruvian accents, particularly in Cusco, are among the best in the world. Peruvian accents are known for being rather neutral and easy to understand. In Lima, however, Peruvians tend to speak more rapidly and have their own slang. In Cusco, Peruvians speak at a slower pace, and the accent is my favorite.
  2. The locals in Cusco are patient with foreigners because so many pass through here. It is intimidating to practice your Spanish with a local, but in Cusco, locals tend to be very patient and forgiving. Why? Thousands of tourists pass through here every month, so the natives are used to those who can’t speak Spanish well. In fact, in Cusco you’ll be able to pretty easily find someone who at least understands English if you’re stuck in a bind (but don’t use that as an excuse not to practice your Spanish!)

It’s no wonder there are Spanish schools and private tutors all over Cusco offering to teach you Spanish. My personal favorite is Maximo Nivel on Avenida el Sol. You can sign up for group classes or private classes.

Having said that, it is definitely not necessary to speak Spanish before coming to Cusco. I know several expats who have lived in Cusco for years and never learned the language because they got by just fine with English.

So You Wanna Live in Cusco?

Living in Cusco is within your reach. Don’t think you lack the courage or the money to take the leap. Throughout my 5 months living, working, and volunteering in Cusco, I learned so many things that I wish I had known before arriving, more than I could ever hope to fit on this page.

Read The Rest of My Cusco Posts!

Here are a few popular posts of mine about Cusco. Or you can click here to see them all.