Preparing for Your Cusco Volunteer Placement
When preparing for your volunteer placement in Cusco, you will probably have many questions. Not just about what you will be doing while at the project, but also about the city itself. What is it like? What is there to do? How do I get around? Well luckily, one of our offices is in Cusco, so our team on the ground will be able to answer all your questions and give you the best tips and suggestions. But we've also put together a guide about Cusco to get you started.
Arriving in Cusco
When you arrive to volunteer in Cusco, one of the first things you will notice is that it is a beautiful city. You will see old churches and buildings that are half Incan, half Spanish. The city is located in a valley surrounded by the Andes mountains, and during the day, you can enjoy the mountain views. In the evening, all the houses in the mountains light up, appearing like starlight above the city centre.
Cusco is the starting point if you would like to visit Machu Picchu or journey on other impressive hiking tours in the area. As a volunteer in Cusco you will get to know the city beyond its surface. You will learn about the social and economic issues in Peru that you would not know much about if you just passed through as a tourist.
In Cusco, you will find yourself 3,399 meters above sea level. The high altitude does usually not affect people too badly, as long as you take it easy your first couple days. You might feel light-headed or slightly dizzy. Also walking up the stairs will be a challenge, but this is very normal and nothing to be alarmed about. Having a cup of coca tea will help you feel better, and be sure to drink plenty of water.
More severe altitude sickness, with more severe symptoms like nasuea or vomiting, happens rarely. If you do experience stronger symptoms, you can find medicine for this in the pharmacies, as well as small oxygen shots which are known to help. Many hotels and hostels also have oxygen on site for guest that struggle with strong symptoms. It is rare that someone needs to be hospitalised from altitude sickness, but there are good medical clinics in Cusco, even some with English speaking doctors, for the rare cases where it's needed.
Accommodation in Cusco
There is an endless variety of hotels, hostels, homestays and Airbnb opportunities in Cusco. You can find everything from all night party hostels, like WildRover or Pariwana, or conscious community, yoga and garden B&Bs with a view, like the Healing House. A great social hostel, without the crazy party scene is Ecopackers, where the Globalteer's volunteers coming to Cusco have the option to stay. And of course there are many high-class hotel options such as the Belmond Monasterio. No matter what your taste and budget, there is something for everyone.
As a volunteer with Globalteer, you can choose to stay in the volunteer house with other volunteers and interns. For those that want a more local experience, we also have a homestay option where you can stay with a local family.
Globalteer provides pick-ups at the airport for volunteers, giving you a safe and comfortable arrival. We also give you a city tour and take you to your volunteer project on your first day. If you do take a taxi on your own from the airport, don’t choose the taxis that greet you at the exit. Walk a little away from the exit to find a taxi that has just dropped someone off; these are at least half the price.
In Cusco you will see older women in the streets with their traditional clothing, selling photo opportunities of themselves and their llamas. There are also endless places to find souvenirs such as hats, sweaters, keychains and warm clothes. Take some time before you decide to buy something. Compare prices and research where to find hand-made clothes! Use this as an opportunity to support the local industry and go home with an original present for yourself or a loved one.
How are the people?
As a volunteer in Cusco, you will quickly realise that the people in Cusco are very used to tourists. They are also generally very open and interested in talking to you as a foreigner, either to connect with you or to sell something. Enjoy the company and the nice conversations, or use it to try practice some Spanish. Due high tourist traffic, many of the locals in the center speak some English, and you can get around without Spanish. That being said, a large number of people do not speak English at all, especially outside the city center. Therefore, learning at least a few phrases of Spanish might benefit you as a traveller and deepen your experience. Overall, don't hesitate to approach people to talk to them, as it will be a great opening to cultural diversity.
Things to do in Your Free Time
Treks & tours
In Cusco there are countless things to do in your free time. On every corner you will find a tourist agency that can help you arrange treks or tours.
You can trek to Machu Picchu or around other areas like The Sacred Valley or Humantay Lake. You can also get to the famous Rainbow Mountains: there are now two different places to get to to visit those incredible sites. Also, you can do bike tours, bungee jump, ATV tours or zip lining for those wanting a bit of adrenaline!
If you are interested in staying a little closer to town, free sights like Cristo Blanco, El Templo de La Luna, or El Templo de El Mono, which are sacred ruins just a 20-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas, are great options. Close to here you can also find a refreshing waterfall. In the same area you will also find the impressive & mysterios ruins of Sacsayhuamán. The entrance here is 70 soles (£17), or is included on the Cusco Tourist Ticket (which gets you into several sites and museums in Cusco & the Sacred Valley for just s/130).
A one hour bus ride from Cusco (for just s/6 - s/10), you will find the Sacred Valley. There are several destinations in the Sacred Valley, the most popular ones being Pisac, Urubamba, Chinchero or Ollantaytambo. Here you will find a little warmer weather, restaurants, cafés, beautiful scenery close to the mountains and a relaxed atmosphere. Close by you can also find impressive Inca ruins, Moray and the Maras salt mines.
Cusco City Center
If you would like to spend time in the city, there are free walking tours around the centre that you can find near the Plaza de Armas. Close to the San Pedro neighborhood you will find the Baratillo, which is a local market where they sell everything from clothes, traditional textiles, kitchen supplies and cake!
For a cold night, take a trip to the sauna! They have a dry room, a wet room, a juice bar, and it only costs 45 soles (£10).
Around Plaza the Armas, you will find several impressive churches which you can visit for a small fee. Or check out traditional art at the Museo de Arte Precolombino. There are also several opportunities for yoga, indoor climbing and salsa dancing close to the city centre.
Food in Cusco
There are many options for food in Cusco, catering for all tastes and budgets. There are several open-air food markets like San Blas market, Wanchaq market, and San Pedro market. They all have cheap, traditional Peruvian food, including ceviche! In San Pedro marked you can also buy clothes and souvenirs once you have finished your lunch.
Some of our staff favorites include: Sumaq, a cosy restaurant with Peruvian food and a 15 soles menu. La Bo’m, a warm atmosphere with sweet and savoury crepes. Green Point, a great vegan restaurant. And for a good cup of coffee try Cafetalito in San Blas. Peruvians love their cakes, so if you have a sweet tooth, you are in the right place. Check out La Rabona, The Little Bakeshop or De Tradición.
Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu. If you are interested in going to Machu Picchu, you can ask our Cusco team for recommendations, and we can get you in contact with agencies here that we work with and that we know are trustworthy.
To go to Machu Picchu there are several options. The first and most well know is the Inca Trail. The Inca trail is a four-day hike that follows the route that the Inca people used to take to get to and from Machu Picchu. This trek takes your through beautiful mountain scenery, seeing other ancient ruins on your way to the ancient Inca Capital. But due to the limit on the number of hikers allowed on the trail and it's popularity, you need to book it at least 6 months in advance. But don't worry; if you are unable to plan this far ahead, there are alternative ways to get there!
Alternative Ways to Get to Machu Picchu
The Salkantay trek is a great option - a five-day trip, hiking through the beautiful scenery by Salkantay mountain. Also, there is the Jungle trek which is a four-day trip including rafting, zip lining, a visit to the hot springs and a day of hiking in the jungle. The Lares trek is a four-day trip, for those who prefer a quieter route. These tours all include one day in Machu Picchu, so you will have time to tour the ruins and take in the experience. All of these options can be booked ahead of time or once you arrive in Cusco, as little as 1 or 2 days before.
For those who have limited time or are not up for the trek, you can also go to Machu Picchu by train. This can be done as a day trip or over 2 days. Most tours will pick you up from Cusco and take you to the train station in Ollantaytambo (about 1.5 hours from Cusco). If doing a 2 day tour you will spend a night in Aguas Calientes, the small town just below Machu Picchu. You can also do this without a tour (just ask our friendly Cusco team how).
For the really adventurous with a lot of free time, you can try the daring 10 day hike to Machu Picchu through it's sister city, Choquequirao! But if that sounds a bit too much, you can also just visit the Choquequirao ruins. This 4 day trek is a nice alternative for those looking for a more quite site and trek that also leads to magnificent Inca ruins.You can only visit these ruins by hiking, so it attract significantly less people than it's sister Machu Picchu.
How to get around
Getting to Cusco from Lima is recommended to do by plane, as the bus ride is long (24 hours!), and the roads can be unsafe. There are many daily flights from the capital. Once in Cusco, you will find it quite easy to get around. The centre of Cusco is not too big, and you can easily get around walking. For longer distances, buses are available that will only cost you 80 centimos (£0.2) and get you almost anywhere you want to go. Just don’t forget to scream out “BAJA” when you want the bus to stop and let you off. Taxis are also available on any corner and are very affordable. For longer travels, for example to the Sacred Valley, you can take "collectivos," which are mini buses, shared with other passengers, that leave town regularly throughout the day.
Climate in Cusco
Deciding when to visit Cusco can be a bit tricky when it comes to the weather; the seasons may not be quite like what you are used to at home. You will experience great variety of climates depending on where you find yourself in Peru. There is also variety within Cusco iteself, even within the same day. In Cusco rainy season is generally from November to April. During rainy season, you will experience showers of rain, with heat and very strong sun in between. In May, the rain stops, and it will slowly get colder. June and July are the coldest months, where it can get below zero (Celsius) during the night, but it is still warm and sunny during the day.
As a volunteer in Cusco, the recommended period to arrive is August, September and October. These are lovely months with warm sunny days, usually no (or very little) rain, and milder nights. It is still always recommended to bring warm clothes to Cusco, as the nights can be chilly, and there is usually no central heating in houses.
Phone and money
You will have plenty of access to Wi-Fi in most cafés, restaurants and hostels (all of Globalteer's volunteer accommodation includes WiFi). Also, you can go into any Claro or Bitel shop and buy a local sim card, which you can recharge when neeed in most small shops or kiosks. There are many ATMs throughout the city where you can access your money. Just be aware that some only let you withdraw 200 soles (£47) at a time. Others will allow you to take out up to 700 soles at a time. If you need to withdraw larger amounts, bring your bank card and passport and go to the BCP bank located right on Plaza de Armas. They can withdraw a larger amount for you, usually with cheaper fees or for free, depending on your home country/bank.
Volunteering in Cusco
The Peru Dog Rescue Shelter
As you arrive in Cusco you will notice that there is a high number of dogs in the streets here. Abandonment of puppies is a big problem. The dog shelter we partner with takes care of abandoned dogs, gives them a safe home and medical treatments as needed. Volunteers at the shelter help take care of the dogs at the shelter in the mornings. Volunteers usually finish up around lunch time, so they have the afternoon to explore the city.
The Horse Sanctuary
The horse sanctuary is located in a beautiful, peaceful area just outside of Cusco. The owner of the project rescues horses that are mistreated by their owners or destined to become meat. He feeds them, cares for them, trains them and gives them a peaceful place to live. Volunteers help him with the daily tasks in the mornings and can explore Cusco's wonders in the afternoons and evenings.
You can also volunteer in Cusco at our after school program in the Oropesa community. It is designed for underprivileged children in order to give them access to a better future, by providing additional educational support. This is an afterschool programme in the afternoons, so volunteers have the mornings free to explore and enjoy the city before heading out to the project.
Other Volunteer Programmes in Peru
Our other options for volunteering in Peru include: the Peru Wildlife Sanctuary, where you work with rescued animals in the Amazon. The Amazon Conservation Project, where you help an important conservation project in the Amazon River Basin. And you can also make your way up to the northern coast where you can volunteer with Marine Conservation, including studies with sea turtles, whale sharks, rays, sea lions and other species.
Other destinations in Peru
What is truly special about Peru is the variety of nature, landscapes and climates that exists within the country. On the coast you will find the desert and beaches. There are beautiful mountains in the Andes, vast rainforests in the Amazon, and much, much more. And getting around in Peru is relatively easy. Buses are a great option as they are relatively cheap, comfortable, and connect you with most places in Peru. There are also airports in all the major cities and regions of Peru that connect to Lima airport.
Lima is the bustling capital of Peru. It is well-know for it's great food, including world-class ceviche. The most popular option for visitors is to explore the ocean-side area of Miraflores or the bohemian area of Barranco. For the beach goers, Lima has surfing opportunities too. Don't worry if you haven't got any experience, you will find plenty of instructors on the beach where you can learn in a very short time! A few hours south of Lima you will find Paracas, with amazing coastal scenery and many varieties of sea-dwelling wildlife, and Huacachina with warm weather and an oasis in the desert.
From Cusco, the Amazon is only a night's bus ride away. You will arrive in Puerto Maldonado, where you stay in the city to have accommodation and food, but where all sorts of jungle activities are just a day-trip away. You could also explore a bit more and stay in one of the hotels deeper within the Amazon rainforest.
You can get to Lake Titicaca by bus, train or plane to either Puno or Juliaca. Then you can head to the peninsula and stay at Llachon or Paramis, little villages on the banks of lake Titicaca. Otherwise you can head to one of the islands located on the lake such as Taquile, Amantani or the Urcos islands.
Arequipa is a beautiful city which, like Cusco, is surrounded by mountains. It is full of colonial Spanish architecture so breath-taking you could spend a full day simply walking around the city, admiring it all. However, there is no shortage of things to do here either. As well as the famous Colca Canyon outside the city, there are plenty of museums to visit, the incredible Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a city within the city, and the bustling San Camilo Market. Accessible by bus and plane from Cusco or Lima, it is well worth a visit.
Peru is a country which it would take a lifetime to fully explore. Take your time, discover each place with an open mind and curiosity, and enjoy the diversity!
Come Volunteer in Cusco!
If your plan is to come volunteer in Cusco, as you can see, you won't have time to be bored! If you plan to explore more of Peru at the same time, you will have plenty of options. Cusco is a very safe city, so if you are planning to solo travel do not hesitate. If you have any questions about these different places, feel free to email our friendly Cusco Team at [email protected] We hope this guide will help you when you come volunteer in Cusco!