How to find an apartment in Cusco

Looking for a place to live can be stressful and time-consuming anywhere in the world, so when you’re looking for an apartment for a relatively temporary amount of time in the midst or end of travels, like me, you really don’t want to invest a lot of energy in the process. However, a bit of knowledge in advance can help smooth the way – read on for my experience of apartment-hunting in Cusco

I’ve done more than my fair share of house and flat viewings over the years, moving around regularly in London, but in Peru I was to experience a quite different process. There’s no trawling through Gumtree or RightMove here, and there’s rarely a telephone call made. We simply strolled the streets keeping an eagle eye out for signs on doorways, walls or lampposts, and popping into corner shops to ask the knowledgeable senora owners.

Apartment in Cusco

Apartment in Cusco

Where?
San Blas is the ‘artisan’ area and undoubtedly the most attractive area of Cusco, with steep cobbled lanes and white-washed houses with little blue balconies. So that’s where we started our search. Climbing up and down the vertiginous streets and steps that make up this neighbourhood soon helped us whittle down the options to the first three tiers of streets – any higher in this altitude and we’d either never leave the house or never go home. As you will read, our search later expanded to the more Cusquenian areas of Lucrepata and Wanchaq, both still in walking distance of the city centre.

When?
We had arrived in Cusco in mid-March, which is the tail-end of the low season here – it’s still raining regularly enough to put off the tourists, hippies, ‘artisans’ and others who make a living from the tourism industry – they all re-emerge in late March and early April. So in a way, we had our pick of the crop, on the other hand, the crop was sparse.

The results?

Se alquiler habitacions
When we knocked at this typical San Blas blue door, the owner took an age to answer and then peered at us dubiously, but when she found out what we were after, she became all smiles and eagerly showed us in. We stepped through a mud yard with chickens and a dazed-looking elderly man and up the wooden stairs, dodging the underwear that had been hung there to dry. We looked at the two rooms on offer – simple and unfurnished, but with sweet windows that looked out over San Blas. The price? S/.250 a month, plus S/.30 electric bill. Cheap, for sure, but we couldn’t quite get over that we’d need to step through mud, chickens and possibly an old man every time we needed to use the bathroom in the yard.

Besides, we fancied something more self-contained – our own kitchen to cook in would save a bunch of soles, too.

José’s old place
Higher up in San Blas, we came to a grocery store that had a sign up saying ‘Apartment for rent’. We enquired with the shopkeeper, who replied, “Yes, it’s upstairs, do you want to look? I’ll come with you.” The large senora then slowly manoeuvred out from behind the counter and closed up her shop to lead us up the stone steps at the side of the building. Carlos immediately recognised that she was going to show us the apartment that his friend José had lived in last year before he emigrated to Spain. “That’s the room I used to stay in!” he laughed as we walked through the three spacious bedrooms. The kitchen units lined the hallway. The price? S/.1,200 a month, bills excluded. And it had no furniture. So a bit pricey for us, but brilliant for three or four sharers.

End of San Blas
We kept walking, and a policeman patrolling the area who had already seen us once or twice asked if he could help with anything. When we explained our search, he kindly told us of all the notices he had spotted. One was at the end of that street. Thanking him for his kindness, we carried on and found the door with a sign sellotaped on saying ‘Mini apartment for rent’. We rang the bell and a young woman answered and gladly showed us in. We were immediately on a wooden staircase that went up one way and down the other. We went down a bit to the main part of the apartment – a large bedroom and a smaller room with chairs and a bathroom. The views over Cusco were tremendous, but the décor was distinctly granny-style, including an elaborate dressing table and horse-adorned clock. The kitchen was in a separate building, further down the stairs. The price? S/.780 a month, excluding bills.

San Blas neighbourhood in Cusco

San Blas neighbourhood in Cusco

We began to think this last one was our best option, though the price wasn’t good value and I wasn’t convinced by the décor nor the disjointed layout. We still had a phone number from a sign we’d seen posted on a wall though, so we called the guy and arranged to meet him that evening. This time, the apartment was in the Cusquenian area of Wanchaq, so a little way out of the historic centre, but therefore maybe better value for money and would give us a better feel of living like a local.

Wanchaq
We met the landlord by a water fountain in the pleasant Wanchaq plaza with its two big supermarkets. Enthusiastic about this new area, we had high hopes as he led us into an apartment complex. However, when he showed us the massive, four-bedroomed flat with a dirty kitchen, depressing bathroom and odd, hall-like living room, it turned out that we would be sharing this with him and three Argentineans. The price? S/.450 a month for the room, plus internet bill.

The One
We’d become a little down-hearted and decided to give house-hunting a rest for a couple of days. Then we were recommended to buy the local listings paperRueda de Negocios (available on all newsstands – look for the blue-ink paper). For just 50 centimos, we got three pages of apartment rentals listed. However, we bought it on a Friday, and we later found out that it comes out on Mondays and Thursdays, and most opportunities are snapped up even by noon the same day. So by the time we rang round the ones that sounded ok, they had already gone. There was one gleaming ray of hope though – a ‘mini-apartment’ that the ad said was part-furnished and preferred to be rented to foreigners. We called and it was still available so we arranged a viewing for that day. We were pleased to find it in the pleasant neighbourhood of Lucrepata – adjacent to San Blas, so still near the hub-bub, but quieter and more residential.

The neighbourhood of Lucrepata in Cusco

The neighbourhood of Lucrepata in Cusco

The apartment was in a modern five-storey building facing a peaceful square with well-kept gardens. It was indeed mini – with a lounge, bedroom, bathroom and the world’s tiniest kitchen, but it would suit us perfectly for a couple of months. It was clean and new and had all the right amount of furniture – sofas, bed, table, fridge, cooker, and the most perfect views through its massive windows across the park out the front to the mountains beyond. The price? S/.680 including all bills. We moved in that very night. And yes – things can happen that quickly. The landlord lived in the ground floor apartment so he wrote up the contract and we paid up two months’ rent while we were there.

The exchange rate at time of publishing was £1 to S/.4.

Here

Here cars run straight at you on zebra crossings
But the locals know they’re just getting on

Here manners are part of nature
And ‘bon appetit’, ‘thank you’ and ‘good day’
Are said by all, always

Here some things take weeks longer than they should
While moving house takes less than an hour

Here there isn’t the choice
To buy in the shops
But you realise you never needed it anyway

Here some houses are left unfinished and unsightly
Baring concrete, breeze blocks and metalwork
But indoors is a warm home with grandparents, parents and young

Here hardly anyone has a car
And carry heavy loads on backs
But they get to work together with friends inside the bus

Here children run wild and grubby
Always close to danger
But gleefully free of imagined fears

Here animals roam without leashes or fences
Living as they were meant to be

Here I don’t agree with things
Here I changed my mind

My love affair with books

Wanderlust Blog of the Week award

I’ve been very generously given files of books to read on my computer. I’ve got all the classics – from Carroll to Chekhov and from Kipling to Dickens; I’ve got all the titles by my favourite author, E M Forster; I’ve got poetry by all the greats, too.

I’d been desperate for a good read for a while, as English-language books are sparse in South America. I came from England last year with a ration of two books that I managed to stretch out over a few months, but by the time I hit Argentina, I was in need of a novel. The bookshops of Buenos Aires had small sections of ‘Pocket Books’– a euphemism for English books – but my eyes scanned and scanned the spines to see nothing but modern trash written by unknown authors. Finally, on a dusty hostel bookcase, I scavenged a 1986 copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. A young Meryl Streep’s face peering out from the cover reminded me I had seen the film version years back, and somewhat enjoyed it, so the book must be worth a go.

The battered book stayed wedged down the side of my backpack as a mammoth voyage across the continent ensued. When I finally settled in Cusco, had time to unpack, and even more time to sit and read, I at long last opened the cover of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and turned those first, delightfully aged and yellowed pages. I brought the book up to my nose and drank in the musty smell from the antiquated paper. And I settled down into what was to be one of the best stories I’ve read.

Would I have enjoyed it half as much if I read it on my odourless, clinical laptop screen? I don’t think so.

Since bookless, I have made several attempts to start reading my favourite books from their computer files – A Room with a View, Howard’s End, Through the Looking Glass, Wordsworth’s poems. But something just isn’t quite right.

Of all the books I have read in my life, I can remember the physical book as well as – or even as part of – the actual story. I remember my 1970s series of Famous Five books that lined my childhood bookcase; the big old hardback copy of Peter Pan and Wendy with its colour plates; and then I remember my first borrowed copy of Wuthering Heights; and, for me, A Room with a View will always be associated with a sturdy hardback borrowed from the library that I got sand between all the pages as I read it on the beach one summer between college years.

So now I have a vast digital library full of great books, but will I ever read them? I suspect not in that form.

No, not for me the Kindle, iPad or any other electronic device to read my stories; no, I’m going to wait for the next crumpled, fusty tome abandoned on a shelf and with which I can delve deliciously into another time, another place.

Rachel with The French Lieutenant's Woman in Cusco

Rachel with The French Lieutenant’s Woman in Cusco

 

This post appeared as Wanderlust’s blog of the week.

A grand adventure part 8 – The home stretch

Puno is another town we never expected to return to – merely a stopping off point for visiting the floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca, and apart from the views of the lake and mountains, the town itself is a little ugly and dull.

Puno's harbour on Lake Titicaca

Puno’s harbour on Lake Titicaca

However, it was still only early in the day yet and all the buses to Cusco didn’t leave until night, so we had time to kill in Puno. Our added challenge now was that we were down to our last few soles – how to make them stretch yet keep ourselves fed until we could access more money in Cusco tomorrow morning?

We bought S./1 (25p/38c) of bananas at the market, shared a market lunch (so half a soup, half a main course each) for S./7 (£1.70/40c) and then bought S./1 of bread and a S./1.50 packet of jam to have later. Now we were absolutely exhausted and large black clouds were rolling ominously in, so we headed back to the bus terminal and found a quiet spot upstairs to set up camp on the floor with our rucksacks as pillows and get some sleep. Even though I was lying on the cold hard floor of a bus station, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the rucksack. After a couple of hours though, the cold started to creep in, so we got up and went to sit with everyone else on the plastic seats downstairs and got out the laptop to watch a film.

The shores of Lake Titicaca at Puno, Peru

The shores of Lake Titicaca at Puno

When the film finished, we still had three hours to wait, so went for a lakeside stroll. It was dark and there was no one else out and about. As we neared the artisans’ market by the harbour, a man who had been leaning up against the wall muttered something as we approached and then started walking alongside us. Suddenly aware that both of us were carrying all our wordly possessions – two laptops included – I became convinced we were going to get mugged. Then when he spoke to a dog who started barking in attack mode at us, I thought “This is it!”.

But no, the mysterious man was just the night-watchman for the market who in fact was quelling his dog. He wished us a good night and we continued with our lakeside stroll, my heart took a while to slow down though.

Somehow, eventually, we had made eight hours dissolve and it was time to board the Cusco bus in what was now a torrential downpour.

Four months ago, I remembered, the route from Cusco to Puno was quick and painless, giving me the confidence to take on the much longer bus journeys in the rest of the continent, but this time for some reason, the bus was bumping and swerving all night. It soon became the worst bus journey I had had so far in terms of travel sickness and I was never so glad to see Cusco again.

It was 5 o’clock in the morning when we auto-piloted through Cusco’s bus terminal pursued by a taxi driver. We agreed to his rate – our very last few coins – and let him sweep us up to a hostel high up in the San Blas neighbourhood, where we collapsed into bed.

Some hours later, I awoke to the sun glowing through the door, and stepped out in to the hostel’s garden. Sparrows and hummingbirds fluttered around the fuchsias, and beyond, lay the terracotta tiled roofs of Cusco. I had been here before, but this time the city looked even more beautiful, and I knew there were many new adventures to come.

The rooftops of Cusco

The red rooftops of Cusco. Photo: Rachel Ricks

A grand adventure part 7 – Crossing borders again

We had gone round all the ticket booths at La Paz’s bus station to establish prices and routes to Cusco. Bs.170 (£16/US$25) was the average price for the 12-hour journey. We decided we could do it cheaper.

So on the morning of our departure we rose early to beat the marathon that was starting at 8am and would mean closures (and the resulting mayhem) of the city’s streets. After a fond farewell to our hostel, we backpacked to the corner where we caught one of La Paz’s funky Guatemalan public buses to the Cemetario – a district where not only do you go to get buried, but also to catch onward buses. Here, we could pick up a colectivo to Desaguadero – the border town with Peru.

Public city bus in La Paz

Public city bus in La Paz

I was feeling heavily nauseous with altitude, exertion and travel, so was not looking forward to the two-hour ride on a pull-down seat in the back of this minivan. After half an hour the driver stopped to try and pick up more passengers to fill the van. When people looked in and saw the only seats left were in the very tiny, very back row, they were reluctant to board, so the driver started shouting at Carlos, accusing him and his guitar of putting people off, “We can’t leave because of you!” Carlos demonstrated that he and his guitar weren’t taking up any more than one seat, but still the driver argued. Finally the couple sitting in the front got fed up and transferred to the back to get things moving.

We arrived at Desaguadero and I could see right away how it had acquired its name – translated into English: ‘drain’ – the effluent from Lake Titicaca all comes this way, and inbetween the usual unfinished houses and muddy roads of these parts, were big swamps floating with rubbish. We couldn’t move quick enough to the border post.

We crossed the Desaguadero river and entered Peru. Now I had a small worry – I had overstayed my Peruvian visa last time, and this time I wanted to request the longer, six-month one – how was that going to go down?

Some charming words from Carlos and a friendly immigration officer saw I got a six-month visa for Peru. Now first things first, some breakfast before progressing on to the next bus. We changed our bolivianos to soles with one of the senoras who sit along the road in a row under parasols and with six blankets wrapped around them, then moved on into the town. The market was right beside where the buses depart so we were able to check prices and schedules before grabbing avocado sandwiches for S./1 (25p/38c) each from a market senora. The colectivos to Puno run constantly, so as soon as one fills up, the next one pulls in to call “Puno! PunoPunoPunoPunoooo!” Always keen to get the front seat, I leapt up to the car, but a schoolgirl beat me to the best seat by the window. So I was stuck in the middle seat next to the gearstick, where there was nowhere for my legs. If I sat up straight, my head came above top of the windscreen so I couldn’t see out.

Two hours later, I had manoeuvred my aching legs into every position imaginable and all the time craning my head to try and see out, and was getting pretty desperate to get out of the car. The road follows the shores of Lake Titicaca the whole way, so I tried to distract myself with what I could see of the serene, glass-like waters of the lake. Then, like a mirage, Puno appeared on the horizon.

See how my epic voyage ends in part 8 coming soon!

A grand adventure part 6 – Lovely, lovely La Paz

Outside Oruro’s bus terminal, we asked a man with a heavy basket balanced on his shoulder whether there was a bus to La Paz. The answer was no – and indeed, the road we were on had already been blockaded – butcolectivos (private mini-vans) were able to go. “Do you know a reliable one?” We called after the man. “Yes – me – my car’s over there. 50 bolivianos.”

Done deal. We headed over to where all the colectivos were parked. A woman with a clipboard came to take our payment: “70 bolivianos”. No way. Luckily, we had a man from the army on our side and we told her 50 was the agreed price – take us or leave us. Thankfully, she didn’t leave us. Army Man explained the reason for the protests on the roads – the people are unhappy with the new name of the airport. He rolled his eyes.

We were glad we had this escape route out of funny Oruro. Eight of us and a baby squeezed into the car and I slumped low in the seat to try and get some sleep and make the three hours disappear. With our driver’s speedy progress, though, we were seeing the sprawling outskirts of La Paz within a couple of hours. He deposited us in a crazy street entirely dedicated to terminating or departing buses, colectivos and taxis. I sprinted to the baño (toilet) before we hailed a taxi into the centre.

I had left La Paz on this same road to the airport without an ounce of regret some three months previously. This time, however, as the road curled down the side of one of the mountains that surround the city centre, I couldn’t help admire its stunning location. The city fills a bowl-like canyon encircled by immense mountains of 4000m or more; there is little left of nature to see as red breeze-block houses cover every inch of ground from the lip of the bowl to the bottom on all sides, but for the occasional spur of unyielding rock that no amount of concrete can surmount.

At the bottom of the bowl is the commercial centre with its shops, offices, markets, hostels and more importantly – places to get breakfast. Yes, I was quite happy to see La Paz again.

The street outside my hostel in La Paz

The street outside my hostel in La Paz

We chose a different hostel to the one we stayed in before, this time one that the guidebook described as small and quiet. The Hospedaje Milenio was perfect – run by an incredibly friendly and helpful family, cosy little rooms surrounded an inside courtyard and everything felt very homely. We strolled out in the crisp, sunny climate and found great places to eat for minimal prices. We ended up feeling so glad to be in La Paz, we thought we’d give it a try for jobs, and proceeded to send our CVs to every hostel, hotel and bar in town.

Newsstands in La Paz

Newsstands in La Paz

Over the next week, the jobs we were offered were: 50 bolivianos (£5) per eight-hour shift in an English pub; 20% off accommodation to work eight-hour shifts five times a week in a hostel bar; and finally, our best offer was free accommodation to work in another hostel’s bar four shifts a week. Unimpressed and now panicking slightly about money, we decided it was time to leave La Paz – by now we had been hanging out there for two weeks. At least in Cusco, we thought, there’ll be more work options – and better pay…

See part 7 coming soon!

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

A grand adventure part 5 – Buses, trains and automobiles

Day 6
Back at the station, all seemed to be in order, though there were hardly any other passengers waiting. We realised we would be the only ones in ‘Executive’ class – the equivalent of first class, which for us in Bolivianos was cheap, and would mean we’d get more comfortable, fully reclinable seats, plus blankets and pillows. Excited at the prospect of a civilised journey at last, we settled down contentedly in our seats to watch the film showing on the carriage’s television. But then the train began to move, and it became apparent it wasn’t going to be all that peaceful as trains we know and love. The narrow-gauge line meant the shallow rails could easily be strewn with rocks and debris from the mountainsides, so the resulting noise resembled travelling in a metal box being constantly pelted with a hammer. Luckily, I was so exhausted I passed out for most of the night.

Inside the Executive class carriage on the Expreso del Sur train, Bolivia

Inside the Executive class carriage on the Expreso del Sur train, Bolivia

We were woken abruptly at around 6.30 in the morning by the militant train assistant who yanked the pillows and blankets off us. Annoyed, I hoped it at least meant he was going to bring round some breakfast, but no, we had arrived in Oruro – some six hours earlier we were expecting!

The Expreso del Sur train in Oruro's station at 6am

The Expreso del Sur train after arriving in Oruro’s station at 6.30am

Bleary-eyed, we wandered out into Oruro in search of breakfast. We intended to stay at least a night here to catch up on sleep and sanity, and then move straight through La Paz and on to Cusco in one swoop the next day. However, after walking the length and breadth of the bleak, former mining town to find not one shop or café open, we decided the three-hour bus to La Paz was preferable and made for the bus terminal.

Here, we found a small café serving tea and bread, and then we were ready to get our bus tickets for La Paz. However, now all the buses had disappeared and the ticket offices were all closed. Thinking it was just the weird Bolivian town’s way, we redirected our search to the road outside and got talking to some people – road blocks were being set up around the town as part of a protest – no buses would be able to leave Oruro for the rest of today!

Now go to part 6!

To plan your rail journey in Bolivia, go to the Empresa Ferroviaria Andina (FCA) website, and ask plenty of locals!

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

A grand adventure part 4 – Abandoned in Atocha

As the bus drove off from Atocha in a cloud of dust, we asked directions to the train station. People happily gave them, with none of the sucking of teeth or shaking of heads we received in Villazon, so maybe, just maybe, there was hope!

The little, almost silent mining town of Atocha didn’t much look like it held a railway station, but sure enough, just behind the plaza, there it was – and there was the Expreso del Sur train waiting! And there was the ticket office open! We bought our tickets with a shaken mixture of disbelief and relief. We had finally caught up with the train!

Expreso del Sur train in Atocha station

Expreso del Sur train in Atocha station

After leaving our luggage, we headed back down to the plaza for a, by now, very late lunch. In this odd, isolated place we were surprised to find a café-bar with a full menu and were soon happily tucking into beef and chips.

Now there were a few hours to kill before the train left at 9.45 that night. We wandered round the town with everyone staring at us intruigedly – yes, it seems no other tourists come here in crazy pursuit of trains like us.

A plane monument in Atocha's main plaza (don't know why)

A plane monument in Atocha’s main plaza (don’t know why)

The sights were few and dull: an ominous-looking grey quarry dominated one side of the town, while along the river bank were dumped the shells of old cars. We passed some boys amusing themselves by cycling through a big muddy puddle. We wondered how a public toilet had ended up being donated to the town by the European Union. Then we were back at the railway tracks. Lots of people were walking across and up and down them determinedly – where they were going to or from, we couldn’t quite fathom. All we knew is we had nothing left to do, so we went to the market hall for dinner. As we’d only eaten about 45 minutes ago, we weren’t very hungry, so we managed to drag the meal out over the next two hours.

Our third thunderstorm in as many days rolled in and we sat listening to the stereo-sound claps of thunder and the torrential rain clattering on the market hall roof. Then I realised – what if more of the railway tracks get damaged and the train can’t leave Atocha either?!!

Atocha train station

Atocha train station

Now go to part 5! And have you seen parts one, two and three?

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.