Be warned. I am going to be gushing nonstop about Cusco throughout this whole post. As a backpacker, Cusco is a city we could only dream of. An affordable city oozing with adventure, culture, history, and nightlife? You really can’t ask for much more. Although Cusco is undeniably a hugely popular tourist destination that caters heavily to international travelers, it is still a must-visit city for all types of travelers.
I’ve visited Cusco several times during my travels in South America and it never gets old. Cusco is the closest thing that I’ve had as a home base during my travels throughout this continent. Whether I spend my days adventuring through the Sacred Valley or lazing away at a plaza or cafe, I have never tired of Cusco. This city is one of my favorites in the world and I can only hope that this guide helps you love the city half as much as I do.
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Table of Contents
- How To Get To Cusco
- How Much Time To Spend in Cusco
- Where To Stay in Cusco
- The Best Things To Do in Cusco
- The Best Day Trips From Cusco
- The Best Multi-Day Excursions From Cusco
- Nightlife in Cusco
- Safety Tips for Cusco
How To Get To Cusco
Getting To Cusco By Plane
The quickest way to get to Cusco is to hop on a short flight from Lima. It depends on when you book, but the price will usually be around $90 USD for the one hour flight (including a checked bag). LatAm, Viva Air, and Sky are the main airlines serving Lima to Cusco. If you want to save yourself a lot of time, then catching a flight will be the best option for you.
Getting To Cusco With PeruHop
If you need to get to Cusco but have a little bit more time on your hands, PeruHop is an amazing option to see much more of the country. Depending on your ticket, you can select which stops you visit from Lima to Cusco. Highlights include the desert oasis of Huacachina, the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, the stunning city of Arequipa, or even a foray into Bolivia itself. If you want, you can just hightail it from Lima to Cusco on the safest and most convenient transportation option you’ll find in South America. PeruHop is worth the premium for travelers looking to have a convenient, hassle-free adventure in Peru.
Getting To Cusco By Local Buses
If you want to see more of Peru along the way and have a bit more travel experience under your sleeve, then you might not have any qualms about taking public transportation. Although figuring out public transportation in most South American countries can be quite hectic, Peru has truly got it figured out. You are able to book online with BusBud or RedBus pretty easily. If you find yourself in a smaller town, you can also go directly to the bus station and book with no problems.
A popular route from Lima would be to pass through the cities of Ica (Paracas and Huacachina), Arequipa, Puno, and then eventually Cusco. If you are looking to speed up the pace, one can take a 20-hour bus ride directly from Lima. It says 20 hours, but it’s closer to 24 (or more). For those looking to tack on a more off-the-beaten-path destination, one can split up the lengthy ride from Lima to Cusco by visiting Ayacucho.
And before you go, make sure you have good travel insurance handy while you’re off adventuring across the world. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels for as low as $40 a month.
How Much Time To Spend in Cusco
I would recommend anywhere from a week to a lifetime for visiting Cusco. My first time in Peru, I spent a little over a week in Cusco, and that was including a 5-day trek to Machu Picchu. That left me with very little time to adequately explore the city and the surrounding Sacred Valley region. Regardless, I was still hooked. Even those few days were enough for me to know that Cusco had set the gold standard for my travels. I knew without a doubt that I would return to Cusco again someday. My second time around, I stayed for as long as I possibly could.
This latest trip, my 3-month visa expired after about three weeks in Cusco and Pisac. However, those few weeks were enough to confirm to me that Cusco was a place I could see myself settling long-term. Whether you choose to fill each day up with adventure or take a chill day or five or six, Cusco is a great city to be in. I returned for a third time following a month-long foray into Bolivia, settling for another three weeks in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. And here I am again in 2022 updating this blog post on my fourth trip to Cusco. In the ten weeks that I’ve spent in Cusco, I could not think of a moment where a day felt wasted.
But I get it, very few of us have ten weeks to spare for a whole holiday, let alone a single city. For travelers moving at a faster pace, I would still recommend spending at least a week in Cusco. For long-term backpackers, squeeze every second you can out of this amazing city. Aside from Huaraz, Cusco and the Sacred Valley region blows away any other region of Peru that I have been to. Considering how much I love Peru and its diverse regions, from the deserts to the jungles to the ocean, that is saying something. Cusco is just that good.
Where To Stay in Cusco
The Best Hostels in Cusco
Cusco’s hostel game is top-notch. There is seriously something that can fit anyone’s style or budget. The hostels are constantly improving and trying to get a leg up on each other as the best in the city. Whether they boast the best parties, best breakfast, cheapest prices, or most beautiful properties, Cusco’s hostels are amazing and constantly improving.
- Kokopelli – social, aesthetic, great breakfast and great location
- Pariwana – social, great breakfast, great location
- Wild Rover – wild parties, cheap drinks, very social, great views
- Selina – great location, stunning property, great amenities, but quieter
- Loki – crazy parties, very social, and cheap
- Milhouse – great location, good parties
- The Point – great location, more laid-back
- Inka Wild – great location, cheap, free breakfast
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View all Cusco hostels on Hostelworld
As touristy as the center of Cusco may seem, it is far from an accurate representation of one of Peru’s largest cities. Once you venture 10 minutes in any direction from the Plaza de Armas, you might be the only gringo in sight. I’ve met quite a few people staying in Cusco long-term as a volunteer that allows them to stay with a family. For a less touristy experience that still allows you take in all that Cusco has to offer, a volunteer experience or a homestay is a great option.
Another great thing that attracts backpackers to Cusco are the number of WorkAway opportunities. For backpackers on a budget looking to cut costs while living and working in a beautiful setting, Cusco is a perfect place.
The Best Things To Do in Cusco
One of the best things that separates Cusco from other “adventure” cities in Peru is that the city itself is an adventure. As much as I loved cities like Huaraz and Chachapoyas, the cities themselves had very little appeal. It was the adventures surrounding them that were the main draw. Cusco itself holds so much to see and so much to do. It is one of the most significant cultural and historical cities in the world, and I am not exaggerating.
Once the most important temple of the Incan Capital of Qosqo, it has unfortunately been stripped and uglified by the Spanish colonizers and conquistadors. It is believed that this church once was home to so much gold that even the garden ornaments were made entirely of gold. Today, it looks more like a typical church but there are still remnants of the Inca Empire within. It also is home to a library, art gallery, and a beautiful garden as well as a museum.
One of the best ruins that you can access straight from Cusco, Sacsayhuaman is a must for any enthusiast of history or culture. They are one of the most impressive Incan ruins in the area. Within walking distance (or a short taxi ride from the city center), it is one of the more easily accessible attractions of Cusco. It is a bit of a hike up but along with the incredible ruins, you also get an unbeatable view of the city.
Further down the road from Saqsayhuaman are the ruins of Qenqo. Although admittedly not as impressive as the others in the area, the views overlooking the city are stunning. This seemed to be a popular location for locals to hang out, have picnics, and laze the day away.
A little further out from Sacsayhuamnan are the ruins of Tambomachay. Although it is not quite walking distance like Sacsayhuaman is, Tambomachay is worth the stop if you’re already up there. It can be a short bus, colectivo or taxi ride away, or a bit longer of a walk to see one of the lesser-visited Incan ruins of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. I walked the few kilometers from Saqsayhuaman to Tambomachay and then caught a 1 sol bus ride back to the city center.
Close to Tambomachay are the ruins of Puka Pukara, famed for how the Inca architecture turns a shade of red during the hours of dusk and dawn.
Museo De Arte Contemporaneo
The Contemporary Art Museum of Cusco is located close to the city center and is included in an all-inclusive Tourist Ticket of Cusco. While not particularly large, it is still worth paying a visit on a day spent roaming around Cusco. You only need about 30 minutes for this visit that gives you a glimpse into the art and history of Cusco.
Museo Historico Regional
Another museum included in your Cusco tourist ticket is the Museo Historico Regional. Although the museum is quite small, it gives a good glimpse into various facets of Cusco’s history. You can learn anything from the cultures that inhabited the region to the flora and fauna from millions of years ago. It is on the other side of the plaza from the art museum, so it’s easy to knock these two out one after the other in about an hour.
Mercado San Pedro
Although not as local as it once was, Mercado San Pedro is still a popular spot for both travelers and locals. It is a one-size-fits-all market, selling everything from fresh produce to alpaca goods. You’ll also find a wide range of restaurants selling all types of food. If you’re into traditional medicine, you’ll find powder of all kinds, from San Pedro to rapé and even ayahuasca. It is a very cheap one-stop-shop, as well as an exciting cultural experience.
Plaza de Armas
I mean, you are undoubtedly going to end up here one way or another. Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is arguably the most beautiful in all of Peru. With stunning colonial architecture and gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains, the Plaza de Armas is a beautiful place to hang back and chill. It becomes especially magical at night, as the lights start to turn on and the nightlife of Cusco starts to get underway.
San Blas Neighborhood
This district of Cusco is popular among travelers as the bohemian district of Cusco. With cute markets, hole-in-the-wall shops, and one of the best views of the city, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the most popular places for travelers to stay and wander. It is also home to Mercado San Blas which is a great place to get some cheap and delicious food. It is lesser-known than the more central Mercado San Pedro, so it is definitely worth stopping by while you are in the area.
Although not super impressive to look at, there is a lot of historic significance to this stone. The wall is one of the only remaining walls in the city that have stood since the time of the Incas. The Twelve-Pointed Stone, as the name suggests, has twelve sides. Since that is more sides than the other stones have, that clearly makes it the best. You’ll undoubtedly find a ton of people lining up to take photos with this stone.
Without a doubt, you’ll take notice of the big, white Jesus statue overlooking the city of Cusco. It is close to the archaeological site of Sacsayhuaman and if you are up for a little hike, you can reach it in about an hour from the main plaza of Cusco. It is a stunning view of the city and one that is definitely worth hiking up for. If you don’t feel like hiking, you can catch a colectivo towards Pisac for 5 soles or take a taxi up there for about 10-15 soles.
Mercado de Baratillo
Known by some as the black market of Cusco, this market is a popular one for locals and travelers alike to buy goods for as cheap as possible. Seriously, the prices here put San Pedro to shame. However, it is also notorious for being teeming with pickpocketers so approach this mercado with caution. It is at its best on a Saturday morning, so make sure to go early to get first dibs on whatever goods you want.
The Best Day Trips To Do From Cusco
While Cusco itself is an amazing city, the best thing to do in Cusco is to get out. The otherworldly natural beauty, ancient archaeological sites, and calmer local villages are the real draw to the Cusco region.
Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca)
Everyone knows about this one. It’s become like Instagram’s poster child with how frequently I see it pop up on my page. When I went a few years back, there were only a couple dozen of us on the trail. Apparently now, you’ll be lucky to only have a hundred or so people in the background of your iconic Rainbow Mountain photo. However, it is still absolutely worth it. All along the challenging high-altitude trek you will find stunning views and otherworldly landscapes. Although the rainbow at the end of the trail is stunning, I found the views along the way to be just as impressive. Here’s my full guide to Rainbow Mountain.
Pisac Archaeological Site
Located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas is Pisac. This was one of my favorite spots in Peru, and maybe even all of South America. I decided to escape Cusco and the temptations of a good time and took a one hour colectivo down to Pisac. The vibe here is much more tranquil and serene than Cusco, which can admittedly get pretty crowded and chaotic at times.
The highlight of Pisac for travelers is the archaeological site atop the mountain overlooking the small village. This impressive archaeological site was also somehow one of the quietest I visited in all of Peru. One should definitely make the visit to Pisaq before it loses its status as a hidden gem, like so many places in Peru already have. Looking at you, Huacachina.
The archaeological site of Moray is one of the more popular destinations from Cusco. Since it isn’t the largest archaeological site, tours often combine it with the Salineras de Maras. The landscapes surrounding Moray are stunning, and you can often see snow-capped peaks in the background on a clear day.
Salineras de Maras
I pretty much knew this was going to be a tourist trap going in but it was still impressive. The Salineras de Maras offers one of the most unique landscapes and views that you’ll find in this area. You can take a guided tour from Cusco for pretty cheap. I paid 25 soles to combine Moray and Maras and then an additional 10 soles to enter the Salineras de Maras. You only get about 20-30 minutes there and there really isn’t much to do besides look at it. If you’re running out of things to do in Cusco, it’s worth the visit.
Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain
Palccoyo is often referred to as the alternative Rainbow Mountain. Although not as impressive as the original Rainbow Mountain, it is still worth the trip. The views are still stunning and you will encounter far less tourists along the way. Although it has an altitude similar to that of Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain, the hike is a relaxed 90-minute round trip. With views of a red river, terraced mountainsides, red valleys, and three different Rainbow Mountains, Palccoyo is very much worth the visit.
Which Rainbow Mountain Should You Do?
One of Cusco region’s most marvelous ruins are those of Ollantaytambo. Combine that with being a very tranquil and beautiful town and Ollantaytambo is worthy of a quick getaway from Cusco. This was one of my favorite small towns that I visited in South America. The stunning scenery, beautiful streets, and laid-back vibe made for a nice spot to relax away from the hustle and bustle of Cusco.
A small village boasting some of Peru’s finest artisans, stunning nature, and archaeological sites, Chinchero packs a lot of punch for its small size. It is halfway between Cusco and Urubamba, and you can catch a colectivo here for about 5 soles. Although it only has enough to do for maybe a day or two, it is worth a visit. It also boasts one of the Cusco regions most beautiful day hikes, the trail from Chinchero to Urquillos.
Waqrapukara Archaeological Site
Waqrapukara is an archaeological site that hasn’t quite made it on the tourist radar yet. It’s a long journey from Cusco, but easily one of my favorite archaeological sites in Peru. It involves an early wake-up call at around 4 AM, 4 hours of driving just to get there, and an additional 4 hours to get back. All that driving is worth it, though. Waqra Pukara, meaning Horned Fortress, is absolutely stunning. While the natural scenery of the region alone is worth going for, the fortress itself is something else. This archaeological site is a place straight out of Lord of the Rings. Very few travelers visit Waqrapukara, so it’s an excellent choice if you want to get off the beaten path.
If you’re doing the Salkantay trek, you’ll pass by this stunning lake along the way. If not, it’s one of the best day trips from Cusco. It’s arguably the most beautiful laguna in the region, with sparkling glacial waters and a colossal snow-capped peak as its breathtaking backdrop. A day tour to Laguna Humantay here calls for an early morning start, but it’s an absolutely unforgettable adventure.
The Best Multi-Day Excursions From Cusco
The Cusco region is a trekker’s paradise. While you have the iconic treks like the Inca Trail, there are also dozens of options for whatever your taste is. Breathtaking mountain ranges? Sweaty escapades into the jungle? Lesser-known multi-day treks to surreal archaeological sites? Yeah, Cusco’s got you covered.
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Okay, I mean… Do I really need to talk about this one? Machu Picchu is a world freakin’ wonder. It’s a destination that needs no introduction. The Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu belongs at the top of your Cusco bucket list.
But hey, I get it. The Inca Trail is expensive and needs to be booked quite a bit in advance. This is the most popular alternative for those who were unable to book the Inca Trail. AKA backpackers who don’t plan ahead. AKA me. However, it is definitely a serviceable alternative, taking you through some stunning landscapes and nonstop adventure. Here’s my full guide to the Salkantay Trek.
The Lares Trek is another alternative to taking the Inca Trail. This one usually is about 3-4 days and is a good option for people who want to trek to Machu Picchu but don’t have as much time as taking on a longer trek like the 5 day Salkantay Trek or the 8 day Choquequirao trek.
Perhaps one of the top treks on my bucket list right now, the Ausangate trek is a multi-day trek of 4-8 days that takes you through some of the most stunning and remote landscapes of Peru. Many Ausangate treks will also end at Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain. If you’re looking for a more adventurous route to one of Peru’s most stunning destinations, the Ausangate is a great option.
This is a lesser-known trek that you might have a harder time finding people to join you for. However, with it being lesser-known, you’ll also have the mountains, lagunas, and glaciers in all their glory all to yourself. Here’s more on the Vilcanota trek.
Choquequirao is gaining popularity for being the new Machu Picchu. These Incan ruins are tucked away deep where only the adventurous can reach them. Choquequirao requires a 4-day trek to get there and back and is one hell of a challenge. You can do this on your own or with a guide, but it is apparently relatively easy to do by yourself. If you want to do it with a guide and get a cheaper rate, it is advisable to go straight to the town and book there as opposed to booking in Cusco.
Manu National Reserve
Aside from trekking, a popular multi-day excursion from Cusco is to the jungles. Manu is the most famous jungle destination from Cusco, although it takes a bit of time to get to. However, if you want an authentic jungle experience, Manu National Reserve is your best bet.
Another option for those wanting to visit the jungle without having to delve too deep is Tambopata. It is cheaper and it is not as far in the jungle, making Tambopata a good option for people who are short on time or low on budget.
A great option for exploring the jungle from Cusco is flying or taking a bus to Puerto Maldonado and figuring things out from there. The tour agencies in Cusco offering jungle tours often lack actual knowledge and are nothing more than third-party salesmen. By going to Puerto Maldonado, you bypass the middlemen and can sort things out with more knowledgeable guides and get a significantly better deal than if you were to book a tour from Cusco.
Where To Party in Cusco
Cusco’s party scene is pretty crazy. For me, it is easily one of the best party cities in all of Peru. There are lots of bars and clubs to choose from, and as a backpacker, you’ll have no problem making party pals at your hostels. Drinking in Cusco is affordable and the party typically rages on until 5 or 6 in the morning. After that, you’ll undoubtedly wander outside to find that the streets of Cusco are still buzzing with energy as everyone makes their slow commute home as the sun rises.
Best Nightclubs in Cusco
- Mama Africa
- Inka Team
Best Party Hostels in Cusco
- Wild Rover
- Inka Wild
Where To Eat in Cusco
One of my favorite things about Cusco is just how amazing the food is. Peru is world-renowned for its gastronomy and Cusco is no different. The cool thing about Cusco is that it combines local gastronomy and ingredients with international tastes and flavors. The variety and diversity of dining options in Cusco is unreal. As a vegan or vegetarian, Cusco also a wide range of options, including some of the best vegan food I’ve ever had.
Best Vegan Restaurants in Cusco
- Green Point
- Vegan Temple
- Green Falafel
- El Encuentro
- El Jardin
Asian Food in Cusco
- Korma Curry
- China Fusion Wok
- El Hangar
- Kao Yun
Cheap Food in Cusco
- Mercado San Pedro
- Mercado San Blas
- Menu del Dias
Drunk Food in Cusco
- My Kebab Guy, Rolando
- The Inferior Kebab Guy Down The Street
- KFC lol
Important Safety Tips For Cusco
- Dealing With Altitude Sickness in Cusco
This is one of the main concerns you should have prior to arriving in Cusco. My first time traveling through Peru, I was in a bit of a rush. I spent one day in Cusco, found myself doing fine with the altitude, and then booked Rainbow Mountain for the following morning. I thought I was going to die on Rainbow Mountain.
Take your time to acclimatize in Cusco, giving yourself 2-3 days before moving on to higher altitudes like Rainbow Mountain or the Salkantay Trek. Although I was fine without medication, it could help greatly for some people. Locals use coca leaves, and when I asked for altitude sickness pills back in Huaraz, they basically gave me what seemed to be ground up coca leaves in pill form with a few other ingredients added in. Acetazolamide or Diamox is the main medication people use for altitude sickness and you should have no problem finding it in Cusco. However, it works better if you take it before getting to high altitudes, so if you are concerned about the altitude and want to be safe, try to get some in Lima or wherever you are before you get to Cusco.
- Pickpockets and Thieves in Cusco
This is a concern pretty much anywhere in the world, and one that I didn’t think was much of a problem in Cusco. The only time I would really worry about pickpockets is if you were taking public transportation or walking through crowded markets.
- Rabid Dogs in Cusco
I am a dog person. I love dogs. When people bring home girls from the clubs at 5 AM, I’m prancing home with 4 or 5 stray dogs in tow. I have been lucky so far but sober me will admit that this is not the best practice. Drunk me doesn’t give a shit. Give me all the dogs.
However, with so many stray dogs in Cusco, you might have the misfortune of stumbling into some of the more aggressive ones. I actually had one bite the back of my leg as I was walking around late on a night out. I was wearing pants so he fortunately didn’t break skin, but if anything like that happens, you’ll definitely want to get checked out just to be safe.
- Scams and Haggling in Cusco
As a tourist, especially if you are a non-Spanish speaking Gringo, you will be the target of scams. Taxi drivers, vendors, tour operators, and others will almost inevitably bump up their standards prices. Thankfully, it is pretty easy to try to haggle the prices down without much resistance.
For example, say someone charges you 35 soles for a tour. Getting it down to 30 soles won’t be much of a struggle, but you can realistically bump it down to 25. Considering this is about $10, I usually won’t bother since I’m of the principle that those 5 soles would be more important to them than it would be to me. However, when dealing with larger sums of money, this can be significant. When buying presents or any artisanal goods, going down from 300 to 250 soles is a sizable amount of money. Haggling down to 75-80% of the original price is a good rule of thumb.
To Sum It Up…
Cusco is rad. Come spend some time here and love life for a while. This is one of my favorite cities in the world and easily my favorite city in South America. I speak extremely highly of Cusco for good reason. You’ll want to stay forever in this backpacker’s paradise in the mountains.
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8 thoughts on “The Backpacker’s Complete Guide to Cusco, Peru”
We visited Cusco in 2016 — it needs a year to appreciate all there is to see. It was a marvelous experience.
I’ve heard so much about how gorgeous Peru is! I would love to visit it soon, so beautiful.
Cusco is so beautiful! There is so much to explore! The ruins, the rainbow mountain, the architecture of the buildings! All so worth visiting! Thanks for the virtual tour of the place.
Peru is so beautiful and I would love to visit it one day…your images are beautiful of Cusco…what a sight!
What a wonderful time you had. I would love to visit some day. I need to learn how to put all my items I need in a back pack.
I love how thorough your blog post is especially for someone like me who has never been to Cusco before. All the information you have included is so helpful
I so want to visit Peru ! your gudie actually made me want to start palnning my holiday
Peru is my bucktet lit of all times. I am looking forward to visiting perhaps in 2021.I will make sure to follow this guide.