Cusco will always be one of my favorite places on Earth, although some of the landscapes will have you questioning what planet you’re actually on. I’ve visited Cusco four times, yet each visit still feels as magical as the first time. The historic and cultural capital of Peru has captivated travelers for decades. It’s not hard to see why. Cusco is a stunning city with no shortage of things to do. Despite having spent months exploring every alleyway of the city and every mountain range nearby, I’ve never once found myself bored in Cusco.
This city is just one endless adventure. Without further ado, here is the ultimate bucket list for Cusco, Peru.
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Archaeological Sites and Ruins
Machu Picchu doesn’t really need an introduction. If you come to Cusco, then Machu Picchu is a no-brainer. Despite how touristy it has become over the years, it’s still absolutely worth visiting. Machu Picchu was named a World Wonder for a reason. It’s a distinction that is highly-deserved.
Ollantaytambo Archaeological Site
This archaeological site is nothing short of incredible. The whole time I was walking through it, I just wondered to myself how anyone could see this place and decide to destroy it. Along with the surrounding natural beauty, Ollantaytambo might be the best non-Machu Picchu archaeological site in the country.
Pinkuylluna Archaeological Site
Across from the ruins of the fortress of Ollantaytambo, you’ll find the smaller archaeological site of Pinkuylluna. It’s free to enter and it’s a short hike of about 45 minutes to reach the ruins. The views from here are beautiful and I’d recommend it as a quick adventure from Ollantaytambo town.
Pisac Archaeological Site
Pisac Archaeological Site is an experience that can’t be missed. I recommend spending a couple of days in Pisac town and visiting these ruins on your own. These ruins are usually included in Sacred Valley tours from Cusco, so if you can time your visit to not coincide with those tour groups, you’ll have an unbelievable time at Pisac. One could roam through the ruins for hours without running into another person. It’s a surreal experience, and vastly different than the one you’d get at Machu Picchu or Ollantaytambo.
Waqrapukara Archaeological Site
Waqrapukara translates to the Horn Fortress, and it’s one of the most bada** places in Peru. It looks like something straight out of Lord of the Rings. It’s a long drive from Cusco, but still doable as a day trip through a tour agency. From the trailhead, it’s about an hour hike to get up to the archaeological site. The natural scenery is beautiful all throughout, and the ruins did not disappoint. If you have a spare day in Cusco, it’s worth visiting Waqrapukara.
Ruins of Moray
There are a lot of archaeological sites in Cusco. I don’t personally think that Moray should be a priority, but it’s a popular tour offering by tour agencies. The ruins of Moray are difficult to get to on your own, so I’d recommend visiting it through an agency. They’ll usually pair it with the salt pools of Maras, which makes the excursion worth it.
Chinchero Archaeological Site
The town of Chinchero is home to a small but beautiful archaeological site. It’s not very popular, so odds are, you’ll have the place all to yourself. If you’re short on time in Cusco, this could be worth skipping. However, if you like hiking, it’s also the starting point for a short hike along an old Incan road to the town of Urquillos.
Ruins of Sacsayhuaman
These are the closest major ruins to Cusco’s historic city center. It only takes about 20 minutes to get up here from the main Plaza, although it is quite a steep incline. Sacsayhuaman is a very fascinating archaeological site, once an old fortress overlooking the Incan capital.
Q’enqo, Puka Pukara, and Tambomachay Circuit
If you haven’t had your fill of archaeological sites after Sacsayhuaman, there are several other ruins along the same highway leading out of Cusco. You can hike, take a colectivo, or take a bus to each one, but I found hiking from site to site to be just fine. It’s about a 12-kilometer total roundtrip hike, but the archaeological sites are spread out evenly enough to keep the walk interesting.
The Ruins of Tipon and Pikillacta
These are two sites that I didn’t get a chance to visit. They are about an hour and a half outside of Cusco. Unlike the other famous ruins of Peru, these sites aren’t Incan ruins. They pre-date the Incan Empire, and pretty much every human civilization to live in Peru. They’re included in the Cusco tourist ticket, so if you’ve got a free day, it might be worth it to check it out.
Day Hikes and Day Trips from Cusco
There’s a reason why Cusco is one of my favorite hiking meccas of the world. The landscapes are so diverse and so otherworldly. I’ve been visiting Cusco for years and still find myself surprised by its surreal landscapes. Without a doubt, you’ll fall in love as well.
Oh, and before you take to the trails, make sure to 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.
Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain
After Machu Picchu, Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain might be the top attraction for travelers coming to Cusco. It was only discovered in 2015, but since then, it has skyrocketed in popularity. It’s a tough hike up to over 5,000 meters above sea level but the reward is well worth it. Be warned, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. The hike is challenging and the altitude is not to be messed around with. Rainbow Mountain was my first bout with altitude sickness and I was miserable all throughout. Here’s everything you need to know before taking on Rainbow Mountain.
Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain
With the popularity of Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain, it was only a matter of time before alternatives started popping up. Peru is full of otherworldly landscapes, and there are actually a few Rainbow Mountains in the Cusco area. Palccoyo was the second to gain popularity among tourists. It’s a much easier hike, although also reaching altitudes of over 5,000 meters above sea level. For a full comparison between Vinicunca and Palccoyo Rainbow Mountains, check out my post comparing the two here.
Pallay Punchu Rainbow Mountain
This is the new Rainbow Mountain in town, and I must say, it’s easily the best. I’ve been to Vinicunca, Palccoyo, and now Pallay Punchu, and my experience at Pallay Punchu was by far the best. It’s 4 hours outside of Cusco and requires a very early morning wake up. However, as of 2022, it is virtually unknown to the tourist masses of Cusco. My guide, Wilfredo, and I were the only ones there the entire day. The hike didn’t take long, but the reward was massive. In my opinion, Pallay Punchu is the most beautiful of the three rainbow mountains, and the experience is only amplified by having the entire place to yourself. Seriously, from the top of the mountain, it was amazing hearing just dead silence and truly feeling immersed in nature to its fullest.
Aside from the Rainbow Mountains, a top day trek from Cusco is the hike to Laguna Humantay. This sparkling glacial lake is absolutely breathtaking. If you do the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, you’ll pass by Laguna Humantay. If not, then you’ll definitely want to tack this day trek onto your Cusco itinerary.
7 Lagunas Trek in Ausangate
The 7 Lagunas trek near Ausangate is not as well-known as Laguna Humantay, but I’d argue that it might be even better. This high-altitude trek will take you through rugged landscapes passing by, as the name suggests, seven different lakes along the way. Each one of them is breathtakingly beautiful. Laguna Humantay will have daily departures due to its popularity, but you might not have the same luck with the 7 Lagunas trek. I’d recommend asking some agencies right when you arrive to Cusco so that you can find out when they have departures and plan around that.
Pisac Sunday Market
I recommend staying in Pisac town for a couple of reasons. Of course, you’ve got the archaeological site, but the town of Pisac itself is also quite charming and beautiful. Make sure to be in Pisac on a Sunday, when the indigenous women from the neighboring villages come into town. The Sunday Market is a sensory overload of colors and sounds. It’s one of my favorite non-hiking things I got to do in the Cusco area.
Kinsa Cocha 3 Lagunas Hike
A couple of hours outside of Cusco, you’ll find landscapes that you’d expect from Iceland, not Peru. Seriously, though, Peru has some crazy range. To visit Laguna Kinsa Cocha, I’d recommend using Pisac as your kick off point. Find some friends and split a private taxi to take you there and back. It cost about 180 soles between the six of us, so for less than $10 roundtrip, we had an unreal hike all to ourselves. It’s not a popular tour offering, so it’ll be difficult to find anything but a private tour from Cusco or Pisac. However, if you can assemble a group or don’t mind shelling out a bit of money, it’s definitely one of my favorite hikes in the Cusco region.
Salineras de Maras Salt Pools
No words needed, really. This place is beautiful, especially if you’re lucky enough to see them when the pools are pinkish-white. Even though I got browner waters, it was still gorgeous. People used to be able to walk along the salt pools, but now, tourists are restricted to viewpoints overlooking the pools. The Salineras de Maras only need a quick stop, which is why it’s good to pair them with a tour to Moray. Otherwise, it’s a lot of effort to get here and hang out for a half hour.
Hike From Chinchero to Urquillos
Chinchero is also the kicking off point for a beautiful hiking trail to the town of Urquillos. It goes through the forest along an old Incan road. You’ll hike through forests and valleys and see snow-capped peaks and some waterfalls along the way. Make sure to have Maps.Me downloaded to follow the trail. There won’t be many other hikers there, so having an offline map downloaded will help you avoid getting lost.
Chill out at Urubamba
Urubamba is a larger city in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. I found it a great place for chilling out and getting away from the crowds of Cusco. Urubamba is very local, and you won’t find any other tourists here. For a glimpse at the real local life in the Sacred Valley, Urubamba is the spot. It’s got some good hikes and an archaeological site to visit within the city as well.
Things To Do in Cusco City Center
Get Your Instagram Shots at Calle Siete Borreguitos
Look at this place! It doesn’t get much cuter than this. It’s a short uphill hike from the Plaza de Armas to get here. It’s basically just this alleyway lined with flowers, but as far as Instagram spots in Cusco go, this has got to be up there.
Qorikancha (The Temple of the Sun)
Ahh, to have seen this place in its glory days. This place is more of a museum now, but it used to be a hugely important site in the Incan Empire, filled with artifacts of gold. It’s all since been stolen and melted down by the Spanish conquistadors, but Qorikancha remains a significant historical site in Cusco’s city center.
People Watch at the Plaza de Armas
I mean, you’ll make it here one way or another, but few places make me feel as home as Cusco’s Plaza de Armas. I’ve roamed these streets at every hour of the day, and it never fails to make me happy. People watching, taking in the sights, watching the hillsides light up as nighttime sets in, walking home drunk while tossing bits of my kebab to the stray dogs… Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is where the magic happens. Just kick back on the steps and watch the world go by, or hop into a cafe with a balcony and take it all in from above.
Shop at San Pedro Market
This is Cusco’s most famous market. Despite becoming a popular tourist hotspot to pick up cheap souvenirs and clothing, it’s still a hugely local market where the locals come to eat, shop, and sell their goods.
Hike up to the Cristo Blanco
It’s no Christ the Redeemer, but it’ll do. From here, the views of Cusco are incredible. It’s also free to enter, so you’ve got nothing to lose except a little sweat getting up here. It’s a short walk from the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, so make sure to stop by on your way out.
Mercado Feria San Francisco
While this market isn’t particularly famous, it’s my favorite one-stop-shop for tourist fare and hiking gear. There’s a hiking store in the back left that has everything you need at unbelievably low prices. Sure, they may be knock offs, but trust me, you’re getting maybe 80% of the quality for 10% of the price.
Multi-Day Trips from Cusco
The Salkantay Trek is the most popular alternative to the Inca Trail. If you’re trying to get to Machu Picchu as a backpacker on a budget, the Salkantay is for you. It’s affordable and you don’t need to reserve it too far in advance. It’s a beautiful trek all throughout, taking you through snow-capped peaks, glacial lagunas, cloud forests, and more. It was my first ever multi-day trek and one of the reasons I fell in love with Peru, hiking, and traveling.
For nature-lovers, the Ausangate Trek might be the best option in the Cusco area. I only did a portion of the trek and it was absolutely stunning. Red lagunas, green lagunas, blue lagunas, snow-capped peaks, and so much more await in this beautiful mountain range.
Choquequirao is an archaeological site that’s starting to gain some popularity as an alternative to Machu Picchu. It typically takes four days to do the Choquequirao Trek. I haven’t done it myself, mostly because doing it through a tour agency can be quite expensive. If you want to attempt the Choquequirao Trek solo, here’s a good guide on how to do it.
The Lares Trek is another alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It’s not as popular as Salkantay, but it’s good for people who might not want to be off the grid for too long. The Salkantay takes either 4 or 5 days, while the Lares Trek is only 2 or 3 days.
Manu National Park
If you want to escape into the jungle, Manu National Park is the top option from Cusco. Most trips to Manu National Park will take several days because hey, getting to and from the jungle is an adventure in itself. Be sure to set aside at least four days if you want to experience the Peruvian Amazon.
Tambopata National Reserve
The alternative to Manu National Park would be Tambopata National Reserve. It is more affordable than a trip to Manu National Park. If you just want to say you’ve been to the jungle in Peru, Tambopata might suffice. However, be sure to compare both options thoroughly, as sometimes it is well worth paying more to have a more complete and enjoyable experience.
Restaurants, Accommodation, and Nightlife
Party at Wild Rover
Wild Rover is basically a bar that also happens to have beds that you can sleep in. It’s one of the craziest party hostels that I’ve ever been to. It’s an essential stop for any backpacker passing through Cusco. You don’t have to be staying here to take advantage of the lively bar. It’s always a guaranteed good time.
Stay at Kokopelli Cusco
Kokopelli Cusco is a hostel that will always feel like home. This hostel is just a few blocks away from the main plaza and is a great mix of chill and social. Free breakfast and a very lively bar are some highlights of Kokopelli. It’s easily my favorite hostel in Cusco.
Chill Out at Wolf Totem Nomad
If you need a place to crash in Pisac, look no further than Wolf Totem Nomad. A 20-minute walk from the city center, you’ll find this gorgeous hostel nestled in the lush, green hills of Pisac. The views are spectacular. The hostel itself is beautiful, modern, and uniquely detailed by Ivan, the friendly and sometimes eccentric owner. Best of all, lots of dogs. What more could you ask for? Fiber wifi? Oh yeah, they have that, too. It’s one of my favorite hostels in the world, and it’s worth visiting Pisac just for this hostel alone.
Dance the Night Away at Chango
Ugh, my love/hate relationship with Chango cannot be exaggerated. Like truly, I have nothing good to say about this place, but I’ve been at least a dozen times. It’s the main spot for gringos, and staying in a backpacker hostel basically guarantees that you’ll end up at Chango at one point. I don’t get it. Like, there are other bars and clubs that I consider better just minutes away, yet Chango just takes all the business. If you want to dance to the YMCA then Daddy Yankee then Calvin Harris or something, then Chango is for you. It seems like they feel like they should accommodate to everyone’s music taste instead of sticking to one dang thing.
Feast on Crepes at La B’om
For an amazing view of Cusco with even better crepes, check out La Bo’m Creperia. It’s also a hostel, so you can actually stay here, too. It’s in the San Blas neighborhood, so a bit more uphill from the main part of town. It’s worth it for the chill vibes, beautiful views, and amazing crepes (both salty and sweet)!
Eat Vegan at Green Point Cafe
Green Point is my go-to vegan spot in Cusco. This is probably the restaurant that I’ve eaten at the most, and I can never get sick of it. The lunch special can’t be missed. Show up around lunchtime and ask if they still have the menu del dia. You’ll get 4 courses + a drink for 25 soles (as of spring 2022). For amazing vegan food, it’s the best value you’ll find anywhere in the world. The place itself is beautiful, with a calm outdoor garden setting in the neighborhood of San Blas.
Enjoy Peruvian Fusion at Morena Peruvian Kitchen
This incredible Peruvian restaurant is right on the Plaza de Armas. Try to snag a table with a view overlooking the plaza. Even if you can’t, the food is well worth sticking around for. The unique take on arroz con mariscos is to die for. It’s one of my favorite meals I had in all of Peru. Morena is a great restaurant for treating yourself after a long trek or just because hey, you’re on holiday.
Sip on coffee overlooking the Plaza at Cappuccino Cafe
Cappuccino Cafe is a second-floor cafe on the Plaza de Armas. They’ve got three balcony-side tables that offer some of the best views of Cusco’s Plaza de Armas. I’ve been to this cafe when they were absolutely jam-packed, and then the same time the next day when it was completely empty. It’s a crapshoot whether or not you’ll actually be able to get those desired balcony seats. Either way, I’d stop by for an iced coffee and an unproductive work session on their brutally bad wi-fi.
Eat Peruvian at Kusy Kay
It might not seem like much on the outside, but this is one of my favorite restaurants in Cusco. It’s almost impossible to find if you weren’t actively looking for it, but my homestay happened to be right around the corner. The name in Quechua translates to “always happy”, and it describes this place perfectly. The staff were so kind and helpful, making this meal more of an experience. Throw in an excellent view and amazing food, and it’s easily a top dining experiences in Cusco.
Have an organic meal at Rucula or Organika
My mouth still waters thinking of the alpaca tenderloin at Rucula. Although I don’t eat much meat, my curiosity got the better of me and I caved and decided to try alpaca at least once. I chose Rucula because their food is organically-sourced, but more importantly, mouthwateringly tasty. Rucula and Organika are right next to each other on Calle Ataud, but their network of organic restaurants includes a few other locations.
San Blas Market – The Green Falafel
While San Blas Market is not as famous as San Pedro Market, I actually quite prefer it. It’s less chaotic trying to find a seat for lunch. It’s more wide open so you’re not bumping into people like you would in the narrow alleyways of San Pedro market. The Green Falafel is a tasty and affordable vegetarian spot in Cusco. You can get a big glass of juice for 4 soles, or stock up on a variety of fruits for even less.
Of course, there’s so much more to Cusco than this list. However, this is definitely a good starting point that will keep you busy for a long, long time.
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