The city of Cusco is located in southern Peru, and is Peru's third largest city. Aside from being one of the most picturesque cities in the country, it is also famed for being the gateway to Machu Picchu. Sitting high in the Peruvian Andes at 3400m above sea level, it is surrounded by Inca Ruins and by the Sacred Valley, with many Inca towns and ruins itself. There is so much more to see in Cusco than just being a base for a trek to Machu Picchu.
This enchanting city is protected by the surrounding mountains, and on a clear day you can even see the snow sitting on top of them from the centre of the Colonial City. Cusco is a vibrant city with many things to offer: the constant buzz of festivals and celebrations throughout the year entices many locals - as well as tourists - to join the party.
You can still see the local Cusquenan women dressed in traditional skirts and bowler hats in the side street markets, or wandering the Plaza de Armas with their pet llama, hunting down tourists for photographs. With colonial style buildings, cathedrals and churches, cobbled streets and hillside neighbourhoods, bustling street markets, and an abundance of handicraft shops selling every design of Alpaca jumper you could ever imagine, it’s possible to spend weeks exploring all of the amazing things to do in Cusco. Below is our Cusco travel guide with information on all the best things to do, places to go and what not to miss.
RAINBOW MOUNTAIN - Enjoy the ultimate landscape in Vinicunca or as it is more popularly known Rainbow Mountain - It’s located about three and a half hours from Cusco by minibus. Found in the Peruvian Andes, Rainbow Mountain – is famed for its natural, multi-coloured beauty caused by the sediment and atmosphere of the area. It has only recently been discovered but is fast becoming one of THE places to visit in South America.
TREK TO MACHU PICCHU – The No. 1 reason most people visit Cusco is to explore the mountain top 'Lost City of the Incas' at Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of Peru. Machu Picchu means “old mountain” in Quechua, the language of the Incas. To this day, mystery and intrigue still veil this sacred site, which in total covers over 116 square miles. Take a train, bus, or trek to Aguas Calientes and join the thousands of visitors Machu Picchu attracts every day. Named after the mountain it sits on, there are many options of how you can enjoy a visit to one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. If you have a good level of fitness you can try one of the more challenging treks from Cusco such as the 5 day Salkantay, and for the adventurous you can zip-line, mountain bike and white water raft your way on the 3 or 4 day Inca Jungle Trek. Follow the famous Inca Trail, or simply make your own way by bus and train.
Make sure you stay the night before in Aguas Calientes. From here you can leave early the next morning and either catch a bus to Machu Picchu (a 20 minute journey), or hike for 1.5 hours.
Entrance tickets cost around $68 for tourists - there is a cheaper option of $50 which is just for afternoon entrance. However, the most magical moment is seeing the sun rise and getting those beautiful photos taken early in the morning, so it's well worth paying just that little bit extra. The operating times are from 6am until 5pm, although most visitors leave around midday.
If you are a student, don't forget your ISIC (International Student Identity Card) for a 50% discount on entry fees! You must also bring your passport or ID for this to be valid.
Children under 8 years old enter free, and those aged 8 to 17 pay the reduced student price.
Prices for food and drinks are higher than average in Aguas Calientes: bring your own water if you can, and some snacks for Machu Picchu.
The bathroom in Machu Picchu costs 1 sol, so take spare cash.
OVERLOOK THE CITY FROM SACSAYHUAMAN – On a hillside overlooking the city you can find one of the Inca Archaeological sites overlooking Cusco. Spend an afternoon hiking up Sacsaywaman or join the locals picnicking there at the weekend for some of the best views of Cusco.
Explore San Pedro Market – Just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas you can find the local vibrant market where locals buy their daily necessities, or take breakfast and lunch at some of the cheap food stalls there. You can eat for just a few soles (not the best food but an experience!). Fresh meat, fruit, juices and handicrafts are all on sale at the San Pedro Market, but be sure to bargain hard for a good deal. A great insight to Cusquenean life!
Visit the Sacred Valley – An hour outside of Cusco is the Sacred Valley, home to many attractive colonial towns and more Inca ruins. Visit the weekend markets of Pisac or Ollaytantambo. Rock climbing, zip lining, and even quad biking around Maras and Moray are all on offer as fun ways to see the sacred valley.
*** WHAT NOT TO MISS ***
A visit to the Pisco Museum – not only a museum but also a lively bar on a weekend with some of the best Pisco Sours in Peru.
Inti Raymi festival (June 24th): this is the second largest festival in South America. Watch the many processions and celebrations by the Indigenous Andean people.
From street food and smokehouses, tapas and Irish pubs to the fancy Chicha restaurant of famous Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio (Calle Plaza Regocijo 261), you are spoilt for choice when it comes to places to eat in Cusco. One of the more famous delicacies of Peru that is common to try here is cuy (guinea pig). During festivals, you will find many street stalls just serving beer and cuy. The locals love it!
Try Morena Peruvian Kitchen (348-B Calle Plateros) for anything Peruvian, or Barrio Ceviche Seafood Kitchen (Portal Harinas 181) for the best seafood.
Centred around the streets of the Plaza de Armas is an abundance of pubs, bars and clubs, ranging from typical Peruvian live music bands to DJs and street music. There is pretty much something to offer everyone in Cusco.
For the best deals, you can find free drinks offers or 2 for 1 vouchers outside most bars in Plaza de Armas. Upmarket bars can be a bit more expensive – around 20 soles a drink. Small side street music venues in trendy San Blas are also worth visiting. Nightlife in the backpackers hostels is also a very common way to start your night, with cheap drinks and loud music to get you in the party mood.
Try Ukukus (Calle Plateros 316) for something a bit different; this place has psychedelic wall art and cool lighting. There's live music, drinks deals, and the crowd is a mix of locals and tourists.
The dry season runs from May to September and the wet season from October to April. During the dry season the temperature usually stays around 22 degrees in the day, and reaches highs of 30 degrees in the wet season. When the sun goes down in the mountains the temperature soon drops, and you will feel the chilly Cusco nights. Be sure to take a jumper with you if you will be back after dark, as night-time temperatures can reach freezing.
January and February are the wettest months, so in order to avoid heavy rain it’s best to visit Machu Picchu outside of these times. In contrast, July and August are the peak tourist months.
You can fly into Cusco easily from Lima and Arequipa. There are many flights daily, you might notice the turbulent entry via the Andes, but it's an incredible view as you land in Cusco. The airport is conveniently located just 20 minutes by taxi from Plaza de Armas.
Some airlines charge a foreigner fee when you buy your plane ticket - always check carefully on the website.
Buses from Arequipa take 10 hours, from Puno 7 hours, and from Lima 22 hours.
Remember that prices for bus tickets vary, depending on what kind of seat and company you choose.
Many guesthouses and hostels are found around the Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Francisco, and the trendy San Blas area. The more upmarket hotels tend to be located on the main avenue called Av El Sol. It runs from the Plaza to the bus station.
Stay in San Augustin International (Maruri 390) if you're after a good hotel in a central location. The intriguing labyrinth-style corridors are beautiful, and the breakfast/restaurant area also has interesting architecture. If you're looking for a hostel, then go to Pariwana (Meson de la Estrella 136), perfect for young, sociable travelers who like to have a good time. It's well-located, and the rooms are clean and comfy.
Be careful in unlit areas at night, try to take a taxi with friends, and choose your taxi wisely (practically every car in Cusco is a taxi!).
Be careful of the hallucinogenic Ayahuasca spirit offered by some of the local tribes – it is very dangerous to drink.
If you plan to do the Inca Trail, remember that in February it is closed due maintenance. Machu Picchu can still be visited however!
Make sure when choosing your Machu Picchu tour that the company is well known.
Due to the high altitude in Cusco, you may suffer from altitude sickness. To avoid this, stay hydrated and well nourished. You can also try chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea. Soroche (Diamox) pills are available to buy at any pharmacy, which help prevent altitude sickness. Some people visit Arequipa before going to Cusco, as a way to adjust their bodies slowly - Arequipa is at a lower elevation than Cusco.