Once the capital of the Inca empire, Cusco is a city frozen in time. The city is well known for being the starting point to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley but it’s much more than that. From Cathedrals to Inca ruins, there are plenty of things to do in Cusco that are well worth your time (and budget-friendly)
How long should you stay in Cusco?
I recommend staying no more than 4-5 days in Cusco. Make sure to add a 1-day buffer in your itinerary to adjust to the altitude.
I’ve rounded up some of the most amazing sites and activities to add to your Cusco visit.
1. PLAZA de ARMAS
Plaza de Armas is the historical center of Cusco. I highly suggest staying at a hotel or hostel near Plaza del Armas as it’s where you’ll find the most hustle and bustle. Stop and take a photo in front of the Cathedral. It’s hard to miss with its magnificent stature which took over 100 years to complete. The Cathedral houses a huge collection of Cusco’s colonial art and archeological history if that’s your thing.
2. WALK AND SHOP AROUND CUSCO
What I appreciate most about Cusco is how much history has been preserved within the city. Look beyond the Cathedral and you’ll catch a glimpse of Inca ruins. Most buildings have kept its historical elements with a select modern improvements. There are street vendors almost everyday selling beautifully woven knits and fun Peruvian trinkets. Buy your souvenirs in Cusco — it’s cheaper!
PSA announcement: Wear comfortable shoes in Cusco.
The sidewalks are made up of cobble stones and my clumsy self tripped plenty of times. Something else to keep in mind are the steep stairs in Cusco that are unavoidable. Cusco’s Airbnb, hotels, and hostels are built on higher grounds than the city center therefore hiking uphill is necessary. At an altitude of over 3,400 meters, walking uphill was brutal. Pay attention to your breathing and recognize that the air in Cusco is thin. I recommend drinking coca tea as a daily ritual while in Cusco to help with altitude sickness. You can find coca tea in just about every restaurant, bar, and cafe.
Once the most scared shrines during the Inca empire, Qorikancha now houses the remains of the temple and other historical artifacts. After the Spanish took over Cusco and diminished the Inca empire, they built the Church and convent of Santo Domingo on top of the shrine. Earthquakes have since damaged parts of the site, but the incredible stonework of the temples have resisted. It costs 10 soles to tour the site and a guide is an inexpensive and recommended add-on.
The UNESCO World Heritage protected site is pronounced “Sexy Human”, as our Uber driver described. The fortress carries a significant amount of history and is magnificent to see even from afar. It costs 5-10 sol to visit.
*Note: Each archaeological site can be purchased individually. However, if you’re set on visiting all the attractions, I recommend purchasing the Tourist Pack that gains you access into all sites to save some money!
5. SACRED VALLEY ATV TOUR
This ATV tour is an experience you don’t want to miss. The tour takes you through two attractions of the Sacred Valley: Moray and Maras Salt Mines.
6. TRY CUY
Cuy, or guinea pig, is a delicacy in Cusco. I love to experience other culture’s food during my travels. This is a hot topic, but I will try (most) exotic foods and to keep an open mind beyond my comfort zone.
The meat of Cuy is high in protein but it’s a lot of work as there isn’t much meat on the bones. The dish is presented whole with the guinea pig’s head attached. Sort of a mortifying sight but after presentation, they take it in the back to chop it up for you. The taste is similar to dark meat chicken, or duck without the sweetness.
7. THEN, TRY ALPACA
My boyfriend ordered Saltado, a popular Peruvian dish of your choice of meat mixed with onions, peppers, rice, and potatoes. His choice of protein was alpaca so naturally, I had to try it. The taste of alpaca is gamey and similar to lamb or venison. Definitely not my cup of tea after my first bite, but Brian would describe it as “rich, balanced and fascinating combination of flavors.”
8. PARTY IT UP IN HOSTELS
A little fun fact: Peruvian hostels throw great parties and are easy to spot from the bumping music heard from a mile away. Loki Hostel and The Point throw some of the biggest parties on a nightly basis so either of those two places would be great accommodations for night owls.
9. RAINBOW MOUNTAIN
We did not get the chance to climb Rainbow Mountain since we had a 4-day jungle trek to look forward to. From what we have heard about the climb, it’s an absolute must for hikers and adventure seekers. Rainbow Mountain is not for the faint of heart as hikers go through levels of different elevations and weather changes throughout the hike.
10. TREK TO MACHU PICCHU
If you’re in Cusco, chances are your next stop is Machu Picchu. There are two ways to tour one of the seven wonders of the world: by train or with a tour agency. Read more about my Jungle trek to Machu Picchu and see for yourself!