An old man was asking me something in Spanish as I sat, hunched over and groaning, on the side of the main square where the colectivo (shared van) had dropped me off.
I had just finished a nearly two-hour ride through curvy roads and high mountains to get to Ollantaytambo, a city in the Sacred Valley of Cusco, and even though my body was now on stable ground, my stomach felt like it was still on that colectivo. I couldn’t think of how to reply to that man in Spanish when I was so concentrated on not spewing my breakfast all over the place.
Being a vehicle passenger in the Cusco region requires a stomach of steel. Drivers are fearless, roads are steep and winding, and seat belts are a rarity. The good news? Transportation in Cusco, Peru, is extremely inexpensive, and taxi and bus rides within the city itself are relatively tame.
While Cusco lacks a sophisticated public transit system, it does have a few transportation options, and I never had any problems getting where I needed to go when I lived there in 2014 (besides a few bouts of motion sickness).
Here are four options for getting around in Cusco, Peru:
Taxis are everywhere, at all hours of the day and night, so you’ll never have trouble finding one. Cusco taxis don’t have meters, and almost never have seat belts. (The unsettling thing about it is though the passengers don’t have access to a seat belt, the drivers do! And they use it.)
To hail a taxi, simply stand by the street and stick your arm out. Taxis here are pretty aggressive, so many times they’ll solicit you by honking their horns and slowing down to see if you need a ride. If you don’t, simply shake your head or ignore them. If you do, then nod and wave your hand.
Once the taxi driver pulls over, lean toward the (usually open) window and tell them where you need to go. Then ask, “¿Cuánto cuesta?” (“How much does it cost?”) or “¿Cuánto es?” (“How much is it?”). The taxi driver will tell you the cost in soles. If you agree, get in the car. If you don’t, tell them how much you want to pay. Agree on the price before you get into the car.
Safety Tip: Many of the taxis operating on the streets are not regulated. Many people will tell you that the safest option is an authorized taxi, which can be identified easily by company signs on the top of the car and numbers on the side of it. I have always just stuck my hand out and gotten into whatever taxi stopped, and never had a problem. But be aware that there have been instances of riders being robbed by taxi drivers. A Cusco native once suggested that if I take a taxi at night, I should ask the taxi driver if I can write down the number of his license plate before I get in. The thinking behind this is that if the driver knows I have his license plate number, then he knows I could report him if he tries to do anything illegal.
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Overall, I found taxi drivers to be helpful and friendly. One time, when I was moving into an apartment, I needed to take a taxi to a store to find a bed frame. Upon learning this, my taxi driver made it his personal mission to find me the best deal. He drove me to at least four different places, even going so far as to have me wait in the car while he negotiated on my behalf, so I wouldn’t get slapped with the notorious “gringo pricing.” Three hours and several stops later, he had managed to find me a solid wood bed frame for an excellent price (S/. 80) and even offered to help me assemble it. After dropping it off at my apartment, he drove me to my Spanish class so I wouldn’t be late. I was afraid he’d charge me an exorbitant fee for all the time and effort he put into what was supposed to be a one-stop trip, but he ended up asking for only S/. 30. I’ve had drivers charge me S/. 15 for a 20-minute drive to the airport, so obviously this price was more than fair.
These are a less expensive way of hitching a ride through the city than via taxis, but be warned they can get very crowded and hectic.
Bus stops can be identified by small signs on the side of the road, and sometimes there are even benches. When the bus comes, hurry! There will be an employee who steps down from the bus door and yells, “Sube, sube, sube!” (“Climb up, climb up, climb up!”) very rapidly. Once on the bus, keep an eye on your valuables because the crowds make it a prime area for pickpockets. When you need to get off, just yell “Baja!” multiple times to the driver. “Baja” literally translates to “get down.”
Combis and Colectivos
Combis or colectivos are large shared vans. They are an inexpensive way to get around the city and to travel to neighboring towns, such as Pisac, Chinchero, and Ollantaytambo. Colectivos don’t really have set schedules. Instead, drivers solicit passengers by yelling out the destination to people and urging them to hop on board. The colectivo leaves as soon as it’s completely full. No space is ever wasted on a colectivo, so expect to cram inside with many people standing and some even sitting in the trunk area.
Cusco is a city for walking! So forget the high heels and pack comfy shoes. Also, be aware that Cusco is full of narrow, steep cobblestone streets. For the first few weeks, you will probably be sore as your body adjusts, but on the bright side, you’ll get pretty fit hiking up and down the hills of the city every day. What’s even more amazing is the amount of Quechua women and men you’ll see, many of them in their 60s, hauling huge sacks of grain up and down steep stairs.
I hope this short guide helps you navigate transportation in Cusco, Peru. ¡Buen viaje!
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