The Ultimate Guide to Cusco: Explore the Ancient Incan Capital
Our comprehensive guide to Cusco, the former Incan Empire includes information every traveler needs to know before visiting the famous Peruvian city, a gateway to Machu Picchu. Read tips on the best things to see and do in Cusco, tips on the best one-day and multi-day trips from Cusco, safety tips, advice on where to stay, what to pack, when to visit, how to get to Cusco and much more.
Cusco is a captivating city. Once the capital of the Incan Empire, Cusco still keeps its grandeur, which cannot be overlooked.
Yes, it is touristy, and when walking in the center, you might have a feeling that there is not much left from the authenticity and the Incan heritage. However, take your time, and we believe, that once you get away from the crowds, once you will find an abandoned narrow stone-built alleyway or when shopping on the market, you will suddenly understand the city's rhythm.
You will notice those small little things which were covered even a moment ago, and you will appreciate how genuine the city despite its touristy reputation still is.
Believe it or not, most of the local people still live their simple traditional lives, and this is what we liked the best here.
We spent more than two weeks in Cusco because we found there so many things to see and do not only in the city itself but also in the near surroundings, that we simply could not leave earlier.
The beautiful nature and unique ruins got under our skin, and it was hard to say goodbye.
Here's our guide on everything every first-time traveler should know before visiting Cusco.
It includes advice on how many days to stay in Cusco, when is the best time to visit the city, where to stay, what to pack, and we also listed some of the best things you can see and do here.
HOW MANY DAYS SHOULD YOU SPEND IN CUSCO
We are not afraid to say that Cusco is a place where every traveler ends up at least once during the Peru adventure, and it is hard to tell what is the right length of stay.
If your main reason why to visit Cusco is to get to Machu Picchu, you still should spend here at least two days to acclimatize (despite the fact Machu Picchu is at a lower elevation than Cusco, some people still suffer from altitude sickness), and during this time you can explore the city and Sacred Valley. Because we wouldn't want to miss the Sacred Valley and ruins near Cusco by no means, we would have considered two days for the city bare minimum, but you can spend here only a day, and then travel slowly via the Sacred Valley and sleep in smaller towns on the way - that's also an option.
From our personal experience, we think that longer you can stay in Cusco it is better.
The city has so many things to see and do, not only within the city limits but mostly outwith, that it is not a problem to spend here weeks.
If you are flexible, sit down, and write down all one-day and multi-day treks you would like to do from Cusco (keep reading to get an idea on the best things you can do in the historical city and its surroundings), and you should get the optimal number of days for you.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CUSCO
Evidence proves that the area of today's Cusco was inhabited by farmers and shepherds more than 3000 years ago, but we know very little about this period.
Much later, between 900 - 1200 AD the place was occupied by Killke people (pre-Inca people) who even built the famous Cusco ruin Sacsayhuaman, but because the site was later rebuilt by Incas, we call it Inca ruin.
Until today the arrival of Inca people is surrounded by a great deal of myth, but we know this era begins around 1200 AD. Inca people were generally indigenous people who could not read or write, but they were exceptional builders and farmers.
Cusco soon became the capital of the Inca Empire and the center of religion.
For almost four centuries the Empire thrived, but it all ended when Spaniards arrived in 1533 and easily defeated Incas who did not know modern weapons, and those who survived the battles soon died on diseases Spaniards brought from Europe. Spaniards also destroyed many historical buildings in Cusco and built theirs on the remnants, but during the years several earthquakes destroyed the city, but it is impressive, that although Spanish buildings were destroyed, Incan structures withstood.
During our modern history, Cusco was recognized as an exceptional architectural and cultural place and was UNESCO-listed.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN CUSCO
Although it might seem that the best things to see and do in Cusco are not actually in Cusco, you still should spare at least one day to have time to explore the city's narrow streets and discover the indigenous heart which still strongly beats beneath.
Plaza de Armas
The main square of Cusco is a place you cannot miss.
The large plaza is an architectural and cultural center of the city with a dominating green park in the middle and a bronze statue of the most well-known Incan ruler, Pachacutec. On one side you cannot overlook the magnificent Cusco cathedral, a symbol of Spanish conquest, and the rest of the square is lined with many charming buildings with arcades where you can have lunch or your morning coffee accompanied by wonderful views.
When Spaniards arrived, they wanted to defeat Inca people in every way possible, and it included also destroying the outstanding architecture. Coricancha was once the most notable structure in Cusco known as Sun Temple, and its roof was made of gold. Spaniards melted the gold, and on top of the remnants built their church of Santo Domingo.
Nowadays, we can see in Cusco this striking building with Incan foundation and Spaniard church on top of that.
San Pedro Market
We are not saying San Pedro Market is the most authentic market you will ever see, but it still keeps its charm and its smell.
No matter you want to buy fresh meat (no refrigerators, arrive early!), fruits or vegetable, buy a sweater from llama wool as a souvenir or you want to have a quick lunch, you can find all of that at San Pedro Market.
From Plaza de Armas, steep cobblestone streets lead to San Blas Plaza, the center of San Blas district known for artisan shops, coffee shops, and galleries. It is a fun walk around San Blas as you can find here many hidden gems, hope the hippie feel won't put you away.
Twelve Angle Stone
When in Cusco, you cannot miss a walk in Hatunrumiyoc street, home to a famous 12-angle stone.
The street is lined with a stone wall where you can admire how rigorous the Incan builders were. Incas were able to cut massive stones that they fitted together with precision and with no mortar the way that these structures and walls survived numerous strong earthquakes in contrast with many modern buildings.
Churches and Cathedrals of Cusco
Cusco has many plazas with cathedrals and small churches, so take time to discover one or two outside the historic city center.
If you buy boleto turistico, you will find out you can visit some of the city's museums, but unfortunately, not all attractive museums are included in this ticket, so you will need to pay most of the entrance fees separately for example if you decide to see Museum of Chocolate, Museum of Textiles or Museum of Coca.
Sacsayhuaman is UNESCO-listed ruin close to Cusco - you can get there from the city center via a series of stone steps, it should not take longer than 45 minutes, but public transport is available as well. Sacsayhuaman is pre-Incan structure, it was built by Killke people, but Incas later rebuilt the site.
Views over Cusco
When you decide to visit Sacsayhuaman, you can walk a bit further to either Christ Statue or to another ruin Q'enqo, from where you will get amazing views over the large city.
Only a short ride from Cusco is one of the most famous valleys in the world, the Sacred Valley.
Stretching from Pisac where you can visit splendid Pisac ruins and indigenous market to Ollantaytambo, another town famous for ruins and also a train station for Machu Picchu, Urubamba alias Sacred Valley is a must-visit region.
The picturesque valley formed by Urubamba River has fertile soil, and that's why it was so crucial for Inca people - until today, we can find here many stone-built agricultural terraces from the past times, and the valley is dotted with many smaller or bigger ruins.
The valley was sacred to Incas not only because it produced food, but it connected the capital city Cusco with Machu Picchu, an important religious site.
You can visit the best sites in Sacred Valley on a one-day tour, or you can travel slowly by public transport and stop in a small town on the way to Ollantaytambo.
ONE-DAY TRIPS FROM CUSCO
Believe it or not, Cusco is not only a gateway to Machu Picchu.
You can easily spend here days, weeks, or months in pursuit of looking for communities living high in the Andes the same way their ancestors had been living for centuries. You can explore Inca ruins not less astounding than the famous lost citadel, hike in the mountains so high that you can almost touch the clouds which never stop rolling while trying to find yet another lake which would have been even bluer than the one you saw yesterday.
We spent more than two weeks in Cusco between two multi-day treks we have planned and did not have time to get bored because there are so many things to do around Cusco for all outdoor enthusiasts and architecture slash culture lovers, that it is sometimes heartbreaking to choose which things to do and which to miss out.
All one-day trips from Cusco have one advantage. Because of a large number of travelers concentrating in the area, all of them are either easily accessible by public transport, or you won't have a problem to find a tour operator who will take you to the attraction you fancy.
We've written a full post about the best one-day hikes from Cusco, so here we will only outline only a few places which are worth your time and space on your itinerary.
Humantay Lake | Take a winding road from Cusco, and in three hours you will reach a trailhead to Humantay Lake, one of the most beautifully colored glacial lakes we've ever seen.
Rainbow Mountain | Not sure if we have to introduce this spot, as it seems that everyone heading to Cusco also have hopes to see Rainbow Mountain. But you know what, after we saw Rainbow Mountain and Red Valley, we can only tell you, go for it.
Pisac Ruins | Less than an hour from Cusco you will find a small town Pisac well-known for two things. Traditional market and picturesque ruins perched atop a hill overlooking Urubamba Valley.
Sacred Valley | The famous Sacred Valley is a must-visit when in Peru. The landscape is so wonderful, plus you must visit other fascinating ruins, Ollantaytambo is one of them.
Moray & Maras | Have you thought of how were Inca people able to grow crops even from other parts of Peru when conditions were not welcoming? You will find the answer in Moray, which is an outstanding agriculture laboratory. Only a short ride away is Salinas de Maras, insta-famous salt ponds. Thousands of them.
Machu Picchu | Yes, you don't need to stay overnight in Aguas Calientes to visit Machu Picchu. When you are on a strict schedule, you can see the Lost Citadel in one day.
Best one-day tours from Cusco
If you want to visit more sites in the Sacred Valley in only one day, you can reserve this Sacred Valley tour.
Humantay Lake is quite far from Cusco with non-existent public transport, so the most popular way how to reach the trailhead is with a tour operator.
Rainbow Mountain is almost exclusively visited with organized tour unless you want to hire private transport.
Machu Picchu is easily doable on a one-day trip from Cusco - you can take the cheapest bus & walk tour or the more expensive one day train tour.
MULTI-DAY TRIPS FROM CUSCO
Cusco is not only base for one-day trips, but it is also the city from where trekkers set off for multi-day adventures.
When walking around Cusco, we immediately got the feeling that we are the worst-equipped hikers, because all tourists were dressed up in brand new and expensive looking outdoor clothes. Cusco is undoubtedly the place to see and be seen.
In Cusco, you will find hundreds of travel agencies running multi-day treks, from the most famous ones to more specialized. It only depends on your adventurous soul and level of fitness for how long you want to disappear in the Peruvian Andes. Almost every traveler arriving in Cusco has two treks in mind - Salkantay Trek and the Inca Trail.
The Inca trail is one of the most famous multi-day treks in the world because it goes via insanely beautiful landscape and several ruins to Machu Picchu, but it needs to be reserved at least a couple of months in advance. That's why your real chance is to hike Salkantay Trek if you want to reserve a trek last-minute. Unlike many travelers, we've done both treks, and you can read our comparison here.
Only small hint, Salkantay is by no means worse than the Inca Trail, it is only different. You can compare them, and decide which hike to Machu Picchu is right for you.
If you want to do something slightly different and hike off the beaten path, you can try Ausangate Trek, Choquequirau Trek or Lares Trek, which has been increasingly popular in the past few years, and it is a new alternative of Salkantay Trek and the Inca Trail.
Guides working for travel companies in Cusco are usually locals who know all the trails well, they are experienced, so you can even ask them to prepare a completely unique multi-day trail for you, it only depends on how much money and time you have.
Multi-day tours from Cusco
If you want to hike Lares Trek which walks through traditional Andean communities, you can do it on own, although it is not recommended to inexperienced travelers as the trail is not well-marked, or you can take a guided tour.
Ausangate is one of the longest and most challenging treks you can do from Cusco. To make a reservation, shop around Cusco if you want to get the cheapest rate.
Salkantay Trek is doable both independently or with a guided tour. You can shop around and try to find the best deal last-minute.
Inca Trail has the most restrictions out of all hikes in Peru, so it is not possible to hike it independently. If you want to try one of the best treks in the world, you can look for guided tours here.
If Cusco is your first destination in Peru, or if you are arriving in Cusco from lowlands or even you spent a week or so by the sea, it can easily happen you will feel dizzy for a day or two before you get used to the altitude.
Cusco sits at 3400 meters above sea level, and although some people feel completely fine here (the lucky minority), many travelers often struggle and suffer from headaches or from breathlessness for a day or two.
Generally, every day trips from Cusco are high in the mountains, so it pays off to acclimatize in the city properly before you set off for next adventures. Fortunately, Cusco has so many things and activities to do that you won't have a feeling you are only killing time. Although acclimatization might seem unnecessary for some of you, we advise you not to underestimate it.
We met a couple of hikers who were seriously ill, were even hospitalized, and one girl from our hiking group even could not finish the Inca Trail.
Although you can never know how the altitude will affect you (it has nothing to do with physical ability or how your body reacted to altitude previously), there are several simple rules you should follow to maximize your chances to enjoy your time here.
Stay in Cusco at least two days before the hike or a one-day trip to adjust your body to a higher elevation.
Drink enough water, do not eat heavy meals, don’t drink alcohol, and try to do some light physical activity.
When planning on visiting ruins or museums in Cusco or outside the city limits, you will soon come across a term boleto turistico.
Simply put, this is a ticket you will most likely need to purchase in case you want to see at least some of the best sights Cusco and the Sacred Valley has to offer. Because it is no longer possible to buy a single ticket for each attraction (we are now talking about the picked best attractions), you need to know how much time you possess to explore Cusco and its surroundings and what you want to see.
Based on this information and your plans you will find out if it pays off to purchase the full ticket for S/.130, which includes all 16 sights and you can visit them in 10 consecutive days, or if it is enough to have a partial ticket for S/.70 which is valid for either one or two days, depending on which circuit you will choose.
At the moment there are three circuits, and each contains several sites you cannot mix together.
The full ticket is quite expensive, especially for budget travelers, but we think it is worth to buy it.
Frankly, how many times will you have a chance to visit Peru?
IT IS A GATEWAY TO MACHU PICCHU
Although Cusco is not that close to Machu Picchu as you might think, it is the official gateway to the most famous destination on the continent.
You can be sure that every single traveler you meet in Cusco already visited or is going to visit Machu Picchu.
Although we recommend you to buy Machu Picchu tickets in advance, especially when traveling to Peru in the high season between May and October, you can buy your tickets here in Cusco in Dirección Regional de Cultura Cusco office as well.
Everything connected with Machu Picchu starts in Cusco. Both Salkantay Trek or the Inca Trail begins here (not the trails but the tours), when traveling on a budget you must get from Cusco to Hydroelectrica by bus and then carry on to Aguas Calientes on foot, and the famous train set off on the journey to foggy mountains either from Cusco (the station is twenty minutes from the city), or from Ollantaytambo, where you need to get again, from Cusco.
WHEN TO VISIT CUSCO
Generally, when to visit Cusco depends on whether you want to have a higher chance to enjoy sunny days with clear blue skies, or if you don't mind to experience shower from time to time and enjoy Cusco and all other sights nearby without crowds.
The Cusco region has two distinct seasons.
The dry season runs from May to October. During this time it rarely rains, especially between June and August, the weather is usually sunny, day temperatures are pleasant, but because this period is Peruvian winter, you can expect chilly mornings and evenings, and temperatures at night drop even to 0°C. Because the weather is so promising and it falls on European and the USA holidays, you cannot be surprised that you will have to share Cusco with many other travelers, also expect higher prices, and you should reserve all the services well-in-advance.
Out of winter months, May might be the best pick, because nature is still lush green after rains, and there are not that many tourists yet.
The wet season (when we stayed in Cusco) from November to April is, as the name suggests, predominantly wet, but it is not that bad how it sounds. When it rains, it usually happens in the afternoon, temperatures are a bit higher during the day than in dry season, and nights are much warmer as well.
Not that many people travel to Peru during this period (except for long-term travelers), so you can take advantage of emptier streets, lower prices and you might even get that moody picture of Machu Picchu towering out of the clouds. It rains the most in January and February, so we would recommend not to have a strict schedule, and be able to adjust your Peru itinerary to the situation as landslides can occur (the Inca Trail is even closed for maintenance in February).
Generally, we would not avoid visiting Cusco or Peru overall at any time of the year we would be only more cautious in January and February.
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HOW TO GET TO CUSCO & HOW TO GET AROUND CUSCO
Cusco is the top destination in Peru, so you cannot find surprising that the city is easily accessible no matter where are you traveling from - you can get to Cusco either by bus or by plane.
Budget travelers, including us, usually get around Peru by overnight buses. Distances between cities are vast, so it is a great way how to save time and money for accommodation.
We found buses in Peru comfortable and safe, and they arrived almost every time on time.
In Cusco, you will find the main bus terminal Terminal Terrestre a bit out of town, and it was one of the few occasions we had to use taxi to get from the station to the city center in South America. The price for gringos is S/.10, but it was S/.7 when the hostel owner called us a taxi, and the driver did not know it is not for a local but for travelers.
Tourists usually travel by bus from either Puno close to the borders with Bolivia, Arequipa, or Nazca.
Cusco has the airport receiving both domestic and international flights (only from Colombia and Chile), so you will need to fly to Lima, and from Lima take a short direct flight to Cusco. Traveling to Cusco by air is for sure the best options for everyone visiting Peru only for a short period of time because flights are not expensive, and it will save you lots of time and you will avoid a certain level of discomfort. Getting from the airport to the city center is quite cheap when comparing to rates in Europe, you can reserve your transport in advance here.
When looking for flight tickets you can search Skyscanner to find the best price.
We found the city center of Cusco very compact, and when we needed to get from our hostel to a colectivo station, for example, to Pisac or anywhere else, we walked. Here we must confess that when our destination is within 30 minutes walk, we don't bother to call a cab.
WHAT TO PACK FOR CUSCO
When in Cusco, you must be ready for hot days, chilly nights, and some rain especially when visiting the city during the rainy season. We've created a full post on What to Pack for South America, but here are seven absolute essentials you need to pack when traveling to Cusco.
Rain Poncho | In the rainy season, you can experience short but powerful showers. Although having a good waterproof jacket is a must as well, we have nothing but words of praise for rain poncho which also helps to keep our valuables dry.
Sunscreen | When the sun shines or even when it is cloudy, do not forget to apply strong sunscreen.
SteriPen | Tap water is not drinkable in Peru. To reduce your plastic waste, buy this travel gadget which will clean your water, and you won't have to buy single-use plastic bottles anymore.
Camera | You really don't want to forget this one.
WHERE TO STAY IN CUSCO
Cusco offers a large network of reasonably priced hotels in the historical part of the city, and you don't need to stay anywhere on the outskirt to save money when traveling on a budget.
Cusco is a popular destination, so book your accommodation well in advance.
Budget | Cusco Bed and Breakfast - Spacious and clean rooms, comfortable beds, very quiet at night, excellent location.
Mid-range | Tierra Viva Cusco Centro - Providing a tranquil environment, beautiful rooms and also has one of the top-rated locations in Cusco.
Luxury | JW Marriott El Convento Cusco - The hotel features impressive interiors, has a charming colonial courtyard, luxury rooms and Cusco’s cathedral or main square are only 3 blocks away.
SAFETY IN CUSCO
Cusco is a touristy city, and most of the locals live from tourism, so crime against tourists is frowned upon which does not mean it cannot happen from time to time.
That's being said, we spent plenty of time in Cusco and felt here very safe, much safer than in other destinations in Peru.
You should follow the same general rules of safety you usually do.
Try to minimize to minimum walking alone at night (we did it a couple of times, and the city did not feel sketchy), keep an eye on your valuables, or better leave it in your hotel room, do not show off your expensive camera, and travel by radio taxi.
WHAT TO EAT AND DRINK IN CUSCO
It is no secret that we were not big fans of South American cuisine, at least in our budget category. But here are a couple of things you should taste when in Cusco.
Every restaurant in the city will try to sell you cuy alias guinea pig. What our guide on the Inca Trail disclosed us, locals never go to a restaurant to eat cuy without calling there, at least one day in advance and making a reservation. They also do not forget to mention they want to have a fresh guinea pig. Do it the same way otherwise, you will get a defrosted meat which will be hard to chew.
Our lifesaver in Cusco was our favorite restaurant serving Pollo a la Brasa alias rotisserie chicken with fries or rice and salad. Yes, it is not traditional Peruvian cuisine, but it at least had some taste.
We usually don't eat sweets, but we made an exception here in Peru, where we tried delicious churros for only S/.1.
If you don't know what to drink in Cusco, you can always try coca tea, which will also help you to deal with altitude sickness or the all-time favorite alcohol drink Pisco Sour.
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