The locals, also called Cusqueños, are very friendly and outgoing. The easiest way to get to know them was talking to them. Bus passengers, taxi drivers, and even people walking the same direction as you were very open to conversation. One of my favorite ways to discover new restaurants was to ask the taxi drivers their favorite spots. I ended up finding one of my favorite bakeries, Povea, through a taxi driver!
There are certain tips and tricks to meeting locals though. First, practice your Spanish! Outside of the tourism industry, very few of the locals spoke English. Many solely spoke Spanish and sometimes Quechua. If you are interested in a certain topic, look up vocabulary related to this topic to develop your conversational Spanish. I noticed that many of the locals genuinely appreciated the effort put in to learning their language so they were very patient with slow or choppy speech. So for tip one: practice your Spanish and do not be ashamed about your abilities; the locals will recognize that you are still learning.
Secondly, try local businesses and restaurants. Oftentimes the restaurants and businesses away from the main tourist centers have more locals as well as better deals. Venturing away from La Plaza de Armas can show you a different side of Cusco. I really enjoyed some of the places along La Avenida de la Cultura, it is still a central street but it has a very different makeup than the Plaza. Instead of museums and international restaurants, I saw grocery stores, traditional food, and a variety of services catered towards permanent residents such as hairdressers and ballet studios.
Additionally, time your conversations. During the morning rush to work, the streets will be busy and oftentimes the people on the streets are in a hurry. They have work, school, errands, and other daily activities. This is not the best time to seek out a conversation partner. Wait a few hours until the morning rush has died down and the people out and about are participating in more leisurely activities. Mid-morning and lunch are often good times to target. Lunch in Cusco is often multiple courses and eaten at a leisurely pace. You can look for a busy restaurant and converse with some of the other diners. If the restaurant is full of locals that is also usually a sign that it will be delicious!
In summary, meeting locals is very easy in Cusco. The people are friendly and very understanding about people still learning to speak Spanish. They appreciate the effort being made! Look for locals around mid-morning to lunch time in spots away from the typical tourist areas and make an effort to talk to people on buses or your taxi driver. Locals can be a great source of information and are a crucial part of the Cusco study abroad experience!
The world awaits…discover it.