Cusco is one of my favorite cities in the world. As someone who thrives in the hustle and bustle of a big city but needs the occasional escape into the stunning outdoors, Cusco is as ideal as it gets. There isn’t anywhere in the world quite like Cusco. I’ve spent nearly two months in Cusco across my several trips to Peru yet have never tired of this amazing region. From the vast archaeological sites to the majestic cordilleras, one can spend a lifetime exploring the area. These are some of the best day trips to take from Cusco.
Oh, and make sure to look into buying the comprehensive tourist ticket of Cusco. It gives you access to most of these sites for one price, and gives you ten days to do it. It is much more efficient and budget-friendly than paying for each individual site. Coupled with the cheap colectivos from city to city, Sacred Valley hopping was easily one of the best things I did in Peru.
Inca Ruins and Archaeological Sites
One of the biggest draws to the Cusco Region are the absolutely mind-blowing Inca ruins in the area. Machu Picchu is obviously the most well-known, but there are a dozen other sites within the Sacred Valley and even Cusco itself. Here are some of the most jaw-dropping.
Pisac Archaeological Site (Pisaq)
After Machu Picchu, the ruins of Pisac was my favorite Inca site that I visited. It is nestled up on a mountain overlooking the beautiful Sacred Valley. The hike from the center of town takes about an hour, and can be quite challenging at times. However, it will be worth it as you could spend hours and hours exploring this archaeological complex. I even visited it a second time because it was that impressive. Pisac Archaeological Site is spread out over the mountain, and you will pass through several sections of the complex. Hiking from town, you’ll first pass through warehouses, before reaching the stunning temple of the sun.
You’ll have to hike even further up and through a narrow crack in the mountain before reaching the other side of the complex. Here, you’ll find old stone buildings, Andean terraces, and more impressive feats of Inca architecture like their water system. All the while, you’ll be surrounded by views of the lush, green Valle Sagrado.
I can’t say enough good things about this place, and I’ve fallen particularly in love with the town of Pisac itself. As one of the best day trips from Cusco, Pisac is a winner. However, you might find yourself wanting to stay for much longer than just a day.
Chinchero Archaeological Site
Chinchero might be the most overlooked Archaeological site in the area. Located in the small village of Chinchero, it is only about 30 minutes from Cusco’s city center. A $1.50 colectivo ride will get you there. Pass through the quaint colonial plaza and you’ll be met with the terraces of Chinchero. Only two other travelers were here while I was, only adding to the scope and magnificence of the site. From here, I continued hiking along an old Inca road system all the way to Urquillos before hitching a ride back to Cusco. This makes for one of the best hidden gem day hikes one can take in Cusco.
Ollantaytambo Fortress and Pinkuylluna
Next to Machu Picchu, the ruins of Ollantaytambo might be the most famous in the Sacred Valley. The town of Ollantaytambo is the gateway for the world-famous Inca Trail, so naturally, there will be a lot of tourists in the area. Despite that, Ollantaytambo became one of my favorite spots in the region. The town itself is adorable, and one could roam those cobbled alleyways without ever tiring of it. Flanked by the ruins of Pinkuylluna on one side and Ollantaytambo on the other, the town might be one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited.
Seriously, the views are surreal throughout. None more so than when you reach Inka Watana at the top of the mountian that Ollantaytambo is situated on. I’d never seen landscapes like it, and that’s not even taking into account the giant Inca fortress built into the side of the flippin’ mountain. Knock out Ollantaytambo in the morning, have a filling meal at the local market, and then do the quick (and free) hike up to Pinkuylluna in the afternoon to round out a perfect day in the Sacred Valley.
Moray Archaeological Site
The diversity of the archaeological sites in the region makes it so that you never get tired of seeing them. The concentric circle styles of Moray’s terraces is uniquely Moray’s. With views of the sacred snow-capped peaks in the background, a trip to Moray makes for some stunning views. As far as archaeological sites go, Moray is one of the smaller ones and you don’t need more than an hour for your visit. For a complete day trip, you could couple it up with the ruins of Chinchero or a more relaxing day spent roaming around Urubamba.
Sacsayhuaman to Tambomachay Circuit
The ruins of the fortress of Sacsayhuaman can be seen right from Cusco. It only takes about 20 minutes to hike up from the city center and is one of the best things to do in Cusco. One can easily spend an hour or so roaming through this massive Incan fortress. The views overlooking Cusco are equally impressive as the massive structures of stone that you’ll be dwarfed by.
A good way to make a full day trip out of Sacsayhuaman is to go all the way to Tambomachay before catching a bus or colectivo back to Cusco. Along the way, you will run into a few other archaeological sites, although none are as impressive as Sacsayhuaman. Q’enqo and Puka Pukara are the other two that you’ll find along the way, and they are included on your boleto turistico.
Tipon and Pikillaqta
Also on your boleto turistico are a set of ruins that pre-date the Inca civilization. I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to visit these myself, but if you have the time, make sure to visit these lesser-visited archaeological sites. It is only thirty minutes away from Cusco, and you can roam through the remnants of the Wari civilization from before the Inca controlled the area. You can read more about Tipon here.
Best Day Hikes From Cusco
Cusco is one of the best places in the world for avid hikers. Multi-day treks are the major draw for hikers, such as the Inca Trail, Salkantay Trek, Ausangate, and the trek to Choquequirao. However, considering the high altitudes and tricky terrains, you’ll want to get some practice runs in. Thankfully, there are plenty of beautiful day treks to do from Cusco. These are some of the best.
When I did the Salkantay Trek back in 2016, Laguna Humantay was a show-stealer. Aside from Machu Picchu itself, Humantay Lake might have been the most amazing thing we saw along the way. These days, you don’t need to go on a 5-day trek to see it. Many tour companies now offer a day trip to Laguna Humantay, where you can see it in all it’s glory and be back in Cusco by the evening. The hike is a little challenging, but clearly very worth it.
Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain
As far as day trips go, is there anything more famous than Rainbow Mountain? Vinicunca is definitely Cusco’s most popular day trip, and how could it not be? Despite the lengthy, high-altitude challenge, hundreds of people make the difficult journey to see Rainbow Mountain up close and personal. And it is 100% vale la pena. The landscapes you see along the way are almost as rewarding as the destination itself. I won’t go into too much detail since you’re likely already aware of this one. Just make sure you are prepared for the challenge.
Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain
Rainbow Mountain’s popularity has admittedly been off-putting for many travelers who find themselves scrambling amongst hundreds of people for their photo ops. An alternative that not too many people might be aware of is Palccoyo, home to not just one but three Rainbow Mountains. While you can’t get too close to the mountains, they still make for beautiful sights if you just wanted to get your Rainbow Mountain fill. The hike is also much easier, so for those who might not be up for the challenging hike to Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain, Palccoyo is a good alternative.
Chinchero to Urquillos
Like I mentioned up in the section about Chinchero, I rounded out my trip to the archaeological site with a hike through the Sacred Valley. I ended in the tiny village of Urquillos, nestled in the bowl of the Sacred Valley and surrounded by towering mountains on all sides. The hike was beautiful, although judging by how often I lost the trail, quite off the beaten path. I had to ask locals for directions several times but in the end, survived to tell the tale. This hike really puts you in the heart of the Sacred Valley, where few tourists have wandered. Considering the crowds you’ll find elsewhere in the region, this peaceful day hike was a serene change to the hustle and bustle of Cusco’s more popular attractions.
Laguna Kinsa Cocha
One of the most mind-blowing hikes that I’ve been on in the region was the hike along Laguna Kinsa Cocha. About three hours by taxi from Cusco, or two from Pisac, Laguna Kinsa Cocha looks unlike anything else in the area. The landscapes felt like those you would stumble upon in Iceland. It was a cold, gloomy day with steely green landscapes. The hordes of alpaca were the only way I knew I was still in Peru and had not accidentally teleported to Iceland.
The hike is relatively easy, though the high altitude will potentially play a factor. The hike, while mostly flat, is at a thin 4,200 meters above sea level. Even for the well-acclimatized, you might find yourself running low on breath throughout.
Other Day Trips From Cusco
Salineras de Maras
One of the more unique attractions that one can visit from Cusco are the salt pools of Maras. Most tour agencies will bundle it with a trip to the nearby archaeological site of Moray. However, you can visit the Salineras on your own either from Urubamba or catching a bus or colectivo directly to Maras. You’ll have to pay a 10 soles entrance fee. While there isn’t much to do here besides look at the seemingly endless pools of salt, it is still marvelous to look at. Back in the early days, tourists could walk through the actual pools and get those killer Instagram photos. These days, we’re restricted to catching a bird’s eye view from the many viewpoints.
Pisac Sunday Market
There is no shortage of local markets in the area, but none are quite as good as the one you can visit in Pisac on Sundays. While the tourist market happens every day, Sundays in particular are especially ideal to visit. The local indigenous men and women from the surrounding smaller villages all come to the main plaza. They occupy every inch of the cobblestoned square and the plaza explodes in color as it gets lined in fruits, vegetables, paints, and vibrant handicrafts sold by people in equally vibrant garb. Be careful though. You might find yourself coming for the market and falling in love with Pisac like I did.
The same goes for all the other little towns scattered around the Sacred Valley. Even if you aren’t into Incan ruins or epic hikes, the small towns are worth the visit. Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Urubamba particularly stand out. Smaller villages like Yucay and Urquillos are also picture-perfectly situated in the Sacred Valley and worth seeing. For more on the Sacred Valley, check out my comprehensive guide to the region, covering everything from the best things to do down to the specific roads you’ll have to catch the $1 colectivos from.
Did I miss anywhere? Cusco is one of those places where I feel like you can discover new things with every trip. I have visited Cusco nearly half a dozen times throughout my trips in South America, and have never once felt like I’ve had enough or seen it all. It is impossible to truly do it all, considering just how vast the area is and all of the marvels that it holds. One could spend a lifetime here and still feel like it would be too short.
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one time I walked for 5 days to see this pile of old rocks 🤷🏽♀️ jokes aside, where to even begin with Machu Picchu? Nearly four years later, it’s still one of the mornings that I remember most vividly. I had been backpacking for less than a month and Machu Picchu without a doubt played a massive part in my eventual addiction and transition to full-time travel. • Like, the world has so many mind-boggling places that we know very little about. I was low-key a mega nerd growing up. While other kids played Pokémon, I immersed myself in dorky history games and geeked out over Age of Empires and the like. I remember visiting Rome and being disappointed that it was in fact, no longer inhabited by gladiators and legionnaires. But Rome lives on through its well-kept history and modern-day contributions. Looking at a place like Machu Picchu, we know so little and can only extrapolate so much. Where would this civilization be today if it was given another 500 years to develop and grow? Colonization is a topic I’m not going to get into, but damn it I want an alternate timeline where the Native Americans, Aztecs, Mayans, Inca and so on were allowed to thrive and develop as a civilization for several more centuries. One of the only world wonders I’ve been to that truly deserves the title.