Solo Female Travel in Cusco, Peru!
I’ve spent over two months in the Peruvian city of Cusco, which sits at a lofty 11,000 feet (we’ll discuss altitude sickness later)! It’s still one of my favorite cities in the world…& while I studied Spanish there, it began my love affair with South America ~ kicking off travels that would span several years. Cusco is the gateway city to Machu Picchu: which means that nearly every traveler there, starts their journey in Cusco. So, as this is a destination for so many: how is solo female travel in Cusco?
That’s what this article is all about. I’ll give you my best safety tips, tell you where I stayed, & what my favorite adventures were in & around the city…
Map of Cusco
San Blas Neighborhood
Cusco International Airport
Why Travel to Cusco?
The main reason I first traveled to Cusco was because I was dying to see Machu Picchu, which was #1 on my “South America Bucket List.” As I’ve said, you really can’t get to there without passing through Cusco: so this is initially what put the city on my radar. But as I researched, Cusco looked beautiful in its own right, had plenty of reasonable accommodations (which I needed since I was staying so long), & several Spanish schools….which I also needed!
What I didn’t know, is how quickly Cusco would start to feel like the foreign home I didn’t know I was missing…
How Safe Did I Feel in Cusco?
In two months of time spent in Cusco, on the whole: I felt extremely safe there. While it’s not necessarily my choice if this is a first-time solo trip, I do think it’s great for a female traveler who has some solo travel experience under her belt. And if you know Spanish: that will help tremendously ~ both in navigating the city succesfully, & not getting taken advantage of (by vendors, taxi drivers), etc.
The Plaza de Armas is the heart of the city, & one of the most beautiful plazas in South America. All the action happens here! And the closer you stay to the Plaza, in my opinion: the safer you’ll feel. The JW Marriott El Convento ($150+/night) is located right by it (no hills required to get there), & Novotel Cusco ($95+) is another great hotel close-by. Each felt entirely safe, as no one is allowed to enter except hotel guests.
In the Plaza de Armas, you’ll find tour companies (we booked our Machu Picchu tour here), great restaurants (Papacho’s is my favorite!), shops, night clubs, & people milling around at all hours. All this helps to make it feel extremely safe ~ & armed guards police the Plaza as well. Cusco & Machu Picchu are two jewels in the crown that is Peruvian tourism: & the government takes special care to keep tourists safe. Any negative press could damage their international reputation, which would hurt Peru’s tourism tremendously.
Trust me: they want to help keep you safe here!
San Blas is another really popular neighborhood in Cusco, that’s loved by locals & tourists. Two of my favorite budget hotels were located here (La Bo’M Hostel & Creperie + Apu Huascaran Hotel), as well as my Spanish School. I always felt safe walking here, as there were people walking around at all hours. It’s located uphill from the Plaza de Armas…..on STEEP streets, that will get you seriously huffing & puffing. So be aware if you decide to book a hotel here.
But the views you get will be worth it!!
How to Feel Safer in Cusco
A great strategy to use, if you’re a solo female traveler in any major South American city: is to create a network of connections & friends there! This will make you feel SO much safer, & will start to make that place feel more like “home.”
How to do this:
- Take a Tour & Make Friends with Fellow Travelers, or even your tour guides ~ who can be an excellent resource for travel information. Jayder was our Machu Picchu tour guide, & I became good friends with him; he helped me a lot as I kept returning to Cusco, with great local knowledge on tours, restaurants, & safety. With him, I ventured further out into the city, & not just staying near the Plaza de Armas. Walking around with a local is a great way to really get to know the city.
Click here to check out tours to Machu Picchu.
- Frequent the Same Cafes or Restaurants, & make friends with the people who work there! This is a great way to start making any city feel like home. In Cusco, these are my favorite brunch spots: many where you can eat, work, or meet up with friends. Establishing a routine, especially if you’re in town for awhile, is a great way to become “known,” & is a great way to ask locals for travel advice (while not standing on a street corner)!
- Study Spanish at a Local School: This is an incredible way to meet both teachers & fellow students (Katya, my teacher, became a great friend & helped my Spanish sooo much….as she knew NO English)! I studied at the San Blas Spanish School, both in a group & privately: both were worthwhile. A highlight was when Katya took us up to Sacsayhuaman for a private horseback ride through the incredible ruins….including places that most tourists never get to see!
To this day, it’s one of my favorite Peruvian experiences.
- Use the People at Your Hotel or Hostel as a Resource: Some of my bellboys in Cusco (particularly at the JW Marriott El Convento) were another incredible resource; so friendly & helpful. They truly have their ears-to-the-ground ~ as they spend their whole days talking to people. Hostels in South America are also a quick & easy way to meet people, as almost everyone there is looking to go out & have adventures!
But How Bad is Altitude Sickness in Cusco?
Since Cusco sits at the incredible height of 11,000 feet, you might be wondering: how bad is altitude sickness there? And the answer: it can be REALLY BAD. Cusco is one of the highest cities in the region, & is usually where people feel the worst in Peru. Even though I didn’t personally experience it, I know MANY who did….& it can really ruin your trip.
So this begs the question: should you even start your trip in Cusco??!
I have a controversial opinion about this: even though I love Cusco, I think you should end your Sacred Valley trip there. Why? Because the 11,000-foot altitude crushes so many people, I think it’s a bad place to start your Peru trip. In every group I talked to: someone had gotten SUPER sick in Cusco. Like, huddled in a ball-on-the-floor kind of sick.
If you’re so out of it that you can’t even walk: this will not help you feel safe, especially as a solo traveler, in Cusco.
Where to Start Your Peru Trip Then?!
I think it’s better to acclimate elsewhere, & then return to Cusco. You’ll appreciate the city so much more. For example, the second time I visited: my friend Nina & I were picked up at the airport by our hotel, & we drove straight to Pisac ~ which is about 45 minutes from Cusco. The altitude in Pisac is 9,751 feet: so still very high, but not the dizzying heights of Cusco. Neither Nina nor I had any serious altitude issues in Pisac….& we were able to hike up to their incredible ruins.
Machu Picchu is also lower in altitude, at 8,000 feet. So you could head straight to Machu Picchu, & its town of Aguas Calientes: where you’ll have a much easier time of acclimating.
My Favorite Adventures by Cusco….
There are so many things to do in & around Cusco. Here were some of my favorites:
- Hiking to incredible Rainbow Mountain…..before it became super-popular on Instagram! The hike took us across 17 beautiful miles….but now, I’ve heard there’s a “short-cut” that only requires about 30 minutes of hiking.
- Take a guided tour up to Sacsayhuaman (which is only about 10 minutes from Cusco). Any Cusco trip MUST include a stop here: & a guided tour can tell you all about the amazing history of this former Inca stronghold. After my first visit, I returned many times: locals love to come up & play soccer here on Sundays, which is an amazing local tradition.
- If you have time, travel to the crop circles at Moray (my friend & I got in an accident here & had to hitch-hike back to town!!), or take in the incredible Salt Mines of Maras ~ which can be done in the same day as Moray. Pinkish-hued salt mines tumble down the steep hills…making for incredible photos.
- On the way to Machu Picchu: another great stop is in Ollantaytambo. I love the El Albergue Hotel here…it’s a fantastic garden oasis hidden behind the train station. And the hillside ruins in town are spectacular.
- Taking a train either to or from Machu Picchu is another MUST. You’ll be with tons of other tourists & locals, & get to watch as the train follows the snaking Urubamba River. You can see video of our journey here…
- Speaking of Machu Picchu: What’s the best way to get there as a solo traveler? I would definitely go as part of a guided tour. Personally, I wouldn’t do the longer 4 & 5-day hiking treks, like Salkantay & the Inca Trail (I’d really want to do those with a friend, just in case anything goes wrong ~ or you get major altitude sickness). If you’re with a friend, & both are fit: by all means, take that Inca Trail! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But if you’re solo, simply take the train to Aguas Calientes & hop on a tour from there; or get picked up by a 2 or 3-day tour in Cusco like we did….& they’ll handle all your transport & baggage handling, etc.
Check prices for the mountainous Salkantay Trek or iconic Inca Trail here….
Where Did I Stay in Cusco?
In short: I’ve stayed everywhere in Cusco!!
Haha ….not exactly, though it kind of feels that way. I’ve returned to Cusco twice since my first visit, & have stayed in at least fifteen hotels there! The amazing thing: there’s a charming hotel choice for every single budget. Even less than $20/night! Some of my favorite hotels in Cusco are: 1) The exquisite JW Marriott El Convento ($150+/night), 2) Novotel Cusco ($90+/night), & 3) Apu Huascaran Hotel, in the San Blas neighborhood ($35+/night) ~ a great example of a budget accommodation that still has a TON of charm.
And felt completely safe.
For a more complete run-down on my favorite hotels in Cusco: read this article.
Solo Female Travel in Cusco, Peru
If you have any questions about Peru….like whether or not you should do Ayahuasca ~ reach out in the comments below! I’ve tackled that subject briefly in another article, but as a solo female travler: I don’t recommend it. Women have been taken advantage of while not in their right minds, & I would ONLY do it if you’re in a setting where you feel 100% comfortable, with people you trust.
I know it’s a very popular thing to do in Peru right now, but as I was told by a wise man in Cusco: “It’s not for everyone.” And it’s certainly not a normal “drug” ~ we’re talking about a 12-hour experience that is at times, far from pleasant.
Bottom Line: Exercise extreme caution & DO your research if this is something you truly want to do in Peru.
Read Next: Best Brunch Spots in Cusco, Peru