Cusco is a dream of a city. From the cobblestoned alleyways to the beautiful monuments from a bygone era, there is no shortage of wonders to marvel at in Cusco. I have spent several months in Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley of the Incas yet have never come close to tiring of this incredible region. From every grand adventure to each lazy day spent aimlessly wandering, it never felt like a moment wasted as long as I was in Cusco.
These are among my favorite spots to catch an amazing view and take some photos for the ‘gram. Hey, gotta take advantage of those photo opportunities, right? I’ve done all of these things myself, and only included the ones that really possessed some sort of “wow” factor. Cusco is a wanderer’s paradise and has no shortage of stunning photo opportunities. Let your feet guide you and you’ll inevitably run into plenty more places that aren’t yet on this list.
The Plaza de Armas of Cusco
It was the last week of my most recent trip to Cusco. After about three months and four separate trips to this fantastic city, I was roaming around the Plaza de Armas just taking it all in. I overheard a group of young travelers stumbling onto the Plaza de Armas for the first time. I had walked these streets dozens of times, but hearing and seeing the giddy excitement and wonder of those girls reminded me just how impressive this place was. It had served as the meeting spot for every hangout or roam around that I’d plan with any of my friends. It holds a really special place in my heart and it seems like I always find a new angle or new view while I’m here. You’ll obviously find your way here at some point, but seriously, take it all in.
This place doesn’t really need words, does it? This is the main draw for travelers coming to Peru, and no trip to Cusco is complete without it. This is the must-do thing when it comes to Peru. No matter how popular or touristy it gets, there are few things in the world that compare to Machu Picchu.
Rainbow Mountain Vinicunca
The recently discovered Rainbow Mountain of Vinicunca has quickly become Cusco’s most popular day trip. The cascading colors of the mountain have drawn travelers far and wide. Rainbow Mountain is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. The grueling high altitude trek takes you through some otherworldly landscapes that are just as beautiful as the pot of gold at the end of the literal rainbow.
Rainbow Mountain Palccoyo
For travelers looking for something more off the beaten path than Vinicunca’s Rainbow Mountain, Palccoyo might be the place to be. Boasting three different “rainbow mountains” and a much easier hike, Palccoyo is becoming a popular alternative to the increasingly overcrowded Vinicunca. Along the way, you’ll also drive past Cusco’s famed Red River.
Salineras de Maras
About an hour outside of Cusco are one of the most unique views of the region. The Salineras de Maras are an endless field of salt pools tucked away in Cusco’s Sacred Valley. There isn’t much else to do here, but feasting your eyes upon this marvel is well worth the quick trip.
Moray Archaeological Site
Cusco’s Sacred Valley of the Incas is full of incredible archaeological sites, many of which are relatively unknown, especially compared to Machu Picchu. Moray is a unique archaeological site, best recognized for the circular pattern of the structures and layout of the complex.
Pisac Archaeological Site
It is hard to rank my favorite ruins in Peru, but Pisac is definitely in the top three. The grueling hike from Pisac village makes it much less frequented by tourists than Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo, the other two that round out my top three. Pisac was one of my favorite experiences, so much that I did it twice. It has endless views and various archaeological sites spread throughout a massive area. You’ll encounter very few other travelers here, giving you a much more authentic and serene experience than other archaeological sites in the area.
Pisac Sunday Market
My favorite of the many markets you’ll encounter in and around Cusco is the one at Pisac. It is largest on Sundays, when all the indigenous people come to the main plaza to sell their goods. However, it does take place every day of the week if you find yourself unable to make it for the Sunday market. The quaint streets of the small village of Pisac are filled to the brim with vendors selling everything you could imagine.
Kinsa Cocha Three Lakes
Yes, I took this picture in Peru. The almost Icelandic landscapes of the Kinsa Cocha hike are absolutely breathtaking. It is hard to believe that just an hour away from Pisac, you can find something that looks like it belongs on the other side of the planet. This is one of the Sacred Valley’s best kept secrets. We were the only hiking group out there the entire day.
The village of Ollantaytambo turned out to be one of my favorite small towns in all of South America. The narrow cobblestone roads flanked by colonial houses with Inca bases is quite the sight to see. It is the gateway to Machu Picchu, so you’ll find quite a few other tourists around but it is still well worth the visit.
I wasn’t particularly sure what to expect when I rolled into Ollantaytambo but I was immediately captivated. The village is flanked on seemingly every side by towering mountains. Along those mountainsides, you’ll find massive structures of stone. Ollantaytambo, one of the Inca’s greatest fortresses is among the most impressive archaeological sites that I’ve ever seen. One can only imagine the civilization that was housed among the incredible ruins that still stand today.
On the other side of Ollantaytambo ruins are the smaller ruins of Pinkuylluna. This short and free hike is a must-do while in Ollantaytambo. The views, the ruins, and the dogs that will inevitably join you on your hike make it one of the best quick trips you can do in the Sacred Valley.
Plaza de San Blas
Okay, let’s head back to Cusco for a bit. This plaza and the surrounding San Blas neighborhood are home to some of Cusco’s best views. Along with incredible views, you’ll be able to find some of the trendiest restaurants, cafes, and bars Cusco has to offer.
Formerly a palace of gold during the time of the Inca, Qorikancha has since been turned into a colonial-style church by the Spanish conquistadors. While it is a pity that we aren’t able to witness the marvel that it once was, walking through Qorikancha is still a must-do thing while in Cusco. It doubles as a museum and a gallery, and outside is an open space with botanical gardens and more ruins.
Cerro Santa Ana
For partying travelers, this is likely a site you already know well. The infamous party hostels of Loki and Wild Rover are located along this hill. The difficult walk uphill is made a lot better thanks to the views. You can give yourself a break every few steps to catch a view, which is especially nice during golden hour.
While it’s no Cristo Redentor, Cusco’s own Jesus statue offers beautiful views overlooking the city. It takes about 30 minutes to hike up to it and is a popular spot among locals and travelers alike to catch an epic view of Cusco.
It’s hard to describe just how impressive the fortress of Sacsayhuaman is. Very few places have made me feel quite as small as these ruins did. Along with the archaeological site, you’ll be able to catch an amazing view of Cusco as it is situated on a hill overlooking Cusco. It is right next to Cristo Blanco, so if you are in the area, you might as well pay it a visit.
One of the most overlooked archaeological sites is that of Chinchero. The small village isn’t much, but the small plaza and the neighboring archaeological complex is absolutely worth the visit. Only a handful of other travelers were there during my visit, which was surprising considering that it is only half an hour away from Cusco.
Walk past the terraces of Chinchero and you’ll find yourself on one of the lesser-traveled Qhapaq-nans of Cusco. A qhapaq-nan is part of the extensive Inca road system, and the one connecting Chinchero to Urquillos is a hike that one can’t miss.
Mercado San Pedro
Cusco’s San Pedro market is no longer much of a secret. While many of the stalls now cater solely to tourists, there is still a very authentic feel to parts of the market. The dining section at lunchtime has an electric aura about it and can’t be missed. The colors you’ll encounter at this market are absolutely eye-catching.
The ruins of Puka Pukara are either a day hike or a short taxi ride from the center of Cusco. On this road, you’ll find four archaeological sites, starting with Saqsayhuaman and ending with Tambomachay. Right before Tambomachay is the small but scenic site of Puka Pukara. It is best known for how the stones will have a reddish glow when hit by the proper light at golden hour.
If you are planning on doing the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, then Laguna Humantay will be one of many breathtaking highlights. If you aren’t able to do Salkantay, then Laguna Humantay is now also offered as a day trip from Cusco. If you’ve got eyes and can see the photo above, then it goes without saying that this is one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful places in all of Peru.
There is so much to do and so much more to see in Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley of the Incas. I’ve spent months in Cusco and have never run out of things to do or places to see. While this list isn’t all-inclusive, it does round up twenty of my favorite places in Cusco. Whether you’re a newcomer to Cusco or have been here a hundred times, these iconic places never get old.
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- Cordillera Huayhuash
- Salkantay Trek
- Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain
- Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain
- Laguna 69
- Colca Canyon
- Floating Islands of Puno
- Pisac Archaeological Site