Are you planning a visit to the Peruvian Andes and wondering what else there may be worth noting besides the altitude and the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu hike (though that’s totally worth it on its own!)? Well, in the gateway city of Cusco in Peru and the neighboring region you will find an area filled to the brim with amazing historical sites to discover and adventurous things to do, along with other fun activities to try.
From markets to museums, there are plenty of things to do in Cusco, which was once the capital of the Inca Empire, but also venturing outside the city on a day trip (or an even longer itinerary) will prove to be just as exciting. Due to the relatively close proximity, you can absolutely fit both Cusco and Machu Picchu onto one itinerary (I did!), but this bucket list has so much more that you won’t want to miss out on.
The Best Things to Do in Cusco Peru: Machu Picchu’s Gateway City
1. Hike to Cristo Blanco
If you choose to take the short but steep hike, not only will you be able to see the Cristo Blanco statue, similar to Rio de Janeiro’s statue of Jesus Christ (named Christ the Redeemer) although smaller, but you’ll get some incredible views of Cusco in Peru along the way. Namely speaking, you’ll have panoramic views of Plaza de Armas, the whole of Cusco’s historic center, and even some views of the San Sebastian District.
If you choose to take the short but steep hike from Plaza de Armas, you will get an interesting peek into an area in the city that is less traveled. The way up is also quite an intriguing sight, as much of it is surrounded by houses—especially some very incomplete ones! It may look odd to your eye, but it’s all done purposefully, as in Cusco, the higher your house is, and the more incomplete it is, the less taxes you’ll be required to pay. You may also find a little cafe along the way to take a break!
With the Cusco altitude, the walk up may be a bit of a challenge and will take about 35 to 40 minutes. You can easily take a taxi the, but if you’re up for the challenge then you can get walking directions here.
2. Creep Through the Caves at the Qenko Ruins
Located in the Sacred Valley, Qenko is an archaeological site that’s not to be missed on your list of things to do in Cusco. It is one of the largest holy places—or huacas, as locals call them—in the region, thought to be a spot where mummification and sacrifices occurred. It’s made entirely of rock formations, with underground passageways and zigzagging channels carved on the rocks. You can even find a large amphitheater-like structure on the site!
The full-day Sacred Valley Ruins Tour will take you here and to four other archaeological sites closest to Cusco
3. Cross the Puente Qeswachaka Bridge
The thrilling Qeswachaka Bridge was built from grass-made ropes and crosses the Apurimac River. It’s the last Inca rope bridge that remains in existence today! Despite the addition of a more modern bridge nearby, the locals still keep up its maintenance on a yearly basis.
There is a little bit of a hike to get to the bridge site, but it’ll be worth it once you get the adrenaline rush of walking across the swaying bridge. For an extra special bucket list experience, you may want to catch the locals in the process of actually making the bridge. To do this you will probably have to camp out for a few nights as it takes a couple of days to make by hand each year.
You can make your way there on your own, but it may be best to take a tour. Here are some highly rated ones:
4. Day Trip to Montaña de Siete Colores
No trip to the region of Cusco in Peru is complete without visiting the picturesque Montaña de Siete Colores, the mountain of seven colors (also known as Rainbow Mountain))! Need I say more? Originally the mountain was covered in snow, which has since long ago melted away, revealing the colorful mountain, its color formation being due to the mineralogical composition of the mountain.
To get to the rainbow mountain, you can use local transportation and taxis, but tours by companies such as Get Your Guide are not expensive, like these:
5. Drink a Inca Kola
Made using lemon verbena as its main ingredient, Inca cola is a soft drink that has a flavor that’s sweet and fruity. Some say it’s so sweet, in fact, that it reminds them of bubblegum. Even if you’re not big on sweet drinks, it’s worth giving this national pride of Peru a go. Despite the fact that this beverage was originally invented by an English immigrant to Peru, the Peruvians have thoroughly made Inca Kola their own.
You don’t have to travel all the way to Peru to get an Inca Kola, you can buy a 6-pack online.
6. Shop at San Pedro Market (Mercado de San Pedro)
From souvenirs to fresh fruit to street food (like empanadas and salchipapas), at San Pedro Market you can find a whole array of interesting local things. A visit there could take several hours, especially when you are having to decide which of the dozens of identical vendors to buy a juice from.
7. Eat the Local Dish: Guinea Pig!
For many of us, eating guinea pig (cuy) is something fitting for a Weird Food Bucket List, but in Peru they’ve been a traditional food eaten since the Incan times. They’re typically prepared by either roasting or frying them, then served whole with fries and salsa. You may be able to find a street vendor selling some cooked whole ones, or you can go to a restaurant who specializes in the dish. FYI: Pachapapa restaurant is popular for their bake guinea pig,
*While this is a must try on visit to Cusco, know that locals typically reserve eating this delicacy for special occasions like birthdays and holidays.
8. Eat Treats at the Chocolate Museum (Choco Museo)
A fun thing to do in Cusco for those with a sweet tooth is visit the Chocolate Museum (Choco Museo). It’s a great opportunity to learn a couple of things about how to make chocolate, but I’m warning you that you’ll also be tempted to sample all the flavors available and pack your suitcase full of chocolate-y souvenirs.
If you’ve got the time and interest to spare, there are some fun workshops available at the museum as well, including one that teaches you how to make your own chocolate bar starting from the cocoa bean!
9. Explore the Pisac Ruins
Although less world famous than Machu Picchu, the Pisac Ruins are an impeccably intact ancient site, showcasing the ingenious Incan architecture perfectly. You may be inclined to only hike up or down, and take the taxi the other way, but do not pass by your chance to commit to at least some hiking to see the amazing sights along the way, before getting to the ruins and the gorgeous views of the countryside below. The Sacred Valley in general is wonderful to explore, but the Pisac Ruins are certainly its biggest highlight.
The full-day Sacred Valley Ruins Tour will take you here and to four other archaeological sites closest to Cusco. But, there are other tours leaving from Cusco too to consider:
10. Explore the Ruins of Sacsayhuaman
One absolute must see site near Cusco in Peru is Sacsayhuaman. It’s an old citadel built in the 15th century, having earned the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage site today. Mostly what exists of these ruins today are the dry stone walls of the fortification, but that is plenty left to showcase the skills of the architects of Incan times.
We just took a taxi, but most city tours include a stop at Sacsayhuaman, and here are a couple to choose from:
11. Get an Animal Education at Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary
The Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary (Santuario Animal de Cochahuasi) is a privately owned and family-run sanctuary in the Cusco region, which rescues animals which have fallen victim to poaching or other type of wrongful treatment, with the intention of rehabilitating them. There are llamas, alpacas, pumas, Peruvian hairless dogs, and Andean condors living in the facility.
Visiting the sanctuary makes for an amazing moment of connecting with animals and learning about them in close contact. It’s perhaps the most excellent place to spot the gorgeous Andean condor, with which the sanctuary is currently running a breeding program in order to revitalize the species and release them back to their natural habitat.
12. Go to the Moray Ruins
If you are hoping to see some Incan ruins that differ from the most well-known sites, the Moray ruins are a great option. These ruins have been constructed in an unusual way, with terraces formed in circular depressions, and it is also unclear for what purpose they were built. Many archaeologists agree, however, that the most likely use for the Moray ruins was farming. PS: the Sacred Valley Tour stops there.
13. Hang Out in the San Blas Neighborhood
Want to experience a slightly different looking and feeling Cusco? Then head over (or should I say up?) to the San Blas neighborhood, located north of Plaza de Armas. It’s quite a steep walk up, but once you’ve made it there you’ll have plenty to see, such as the oldest parish church in all of Cusco. You’ll also get a good chance to rest your tired feet at one of San Blas’ various cafés and pop into one of the many shops to buy a cute souvenir.
14. Indulge in Ice Cream at Qucharitas
Located right at Cusco’s historical center, Qucharitas is a well-known family-owned dessert shop. All of their ice cream and other sweet treats (like waffles!) are made using local natural ingredients. From Lemongrass ice cream to a dulce de leche topping, there are more than 100 different combinations of handmade ice cream for you to choose your from!
15. Learn at Cusco’s Historical Center
Cusco is a place filled with history, thanks to much of its past involving the Incan and the Spanish Conquest. By visiting Centro Historico De Cusco, you’ll get to explore old architectural sites and learn in more detail of Cusco’s colorful history. As there are approximately 10 sights to see and plenty of alleyways to discover, take your time to explore the historical center, which showcases Cusco’s history from pre-Colombian times to the Spanish conquest.
16. Ogle the Maras Salt Mines
Another UNESCO World Heritage site in the region, the Maras Salt Mines are among the largest salt extraction sites in Cusco with prehistoric origins. The salt mines, located 50 km northeast of Cusco city, are still in use today, with the salt being extracted from the site once a month, with better quality salt extracted during the dry months of the year.
You can book the half-day Maras Salt Mines Tour, that includes a few other stops too! But, for an extra fun bucket list experience book the exhilarating Moray and Salt Mines Quad Bike Tour that will have you zipping around the landscapes of the Andes Mountains on an ATV.
17. See Pikillaqta Archaeological Site
One of the most well-preserved and famous sites from pre-Incan times, visiting Pikillaqta is another must among the things to do in Cusco. It used to be one of the most important cities and administrative centers for the Wari culture, older and structured somewhat differently from Incan ruins.
18. See Stars at Planetarium Cusco
Planetarium Cusco, located right by Saqsayhuaman and Llaullipata’s ecological reserve, promises its visitors a unique and original experience of stargazing. Not only can you use telescopes to inspect the skies, but you’ll be taught plenty about the constellations and Incan astronomy.
19. See the Guinea Pig Last Supper Painting at Cusco Cathedral
Painted in 1753 by Marcus Zapata, this painting is an intriguing take on the iconic The Last Supper painting by Leonardo, by featuring a full guinea pig as the last supper’s meal, instead of the traditional bread and wine. The Cusco Cathedral it is located in is full of art and archeological relics, but this is perhaps the biggest stand out among the entire collection.
20. See the Preserved Inca City of Ollantaytambo
In the times of the Incan Empire, Ollantaytambo operated as the royal estate for the Empire Pachacuti. Once the Spanish conquest began, it became the stronghold for the leader of the Inca resistance. It is located in the Sacred Valley and is one of the many important Incan ruins, often becoming the starting point for those embarking on the Inca Trail.
21. Spot the Twelve Angle Stone
Once upon a time the twelve-angled stone was part of an Incan palace’s stone wall, before becoming the archeological artifact it is today. Currently it is part of the wall for Cusco’s Archbishop’s palace, and along Calle Hatunrumiyoc that is a main walkway for tourists.
22. Stop by Tambomachay
Tambomachay is another Incan site where its functions have remained unclear, theories ranging from military outposts to imperial baths. Its terraced rocks are run through with waterfalls, canals, and aqueducts. As it is located near natural springs, the waters from these springs used to flow through Tambomachay’s waterfalls, and still do today!
23. Stop by the Puka Pukara Archaeological Complex
On the way to Pisac is the Puka Pukara archaeological complex which used to operate as a military fort during the Incan empire, possibly during Empire Pachacuti’s time. Thanks to being located on high ground, it offers gorgeous views of Tambomachay and the Cusco valley.
24. Stroll Through Plaza de Armas
Many Latin American cities have a plaza named del Armas, and Cusco is no different. It’s a stunningly beautiful plaza, much of it filled with colonial time buildings telling the story of how the Spanish conquerors impacted life and culture in Cusco. Originally Plaza del Armas served as the starting point for where the Incan Imperial City began building from.
25. Take a Free Walking Tour (Inkan Milky Way Tours Cusco)
With Inkan Milky Way Tours you can join a FREE walking tour that takes you through Cusco. On this tour, you’ll be exploring the historical center, visiting and viewing the main attractions on the outside. On some days you may have the option to visit the interior areas for sights such as Mercado San Pedro and the Palace of Pachaquteq. This is a perfect activity to start your visit to Cusco with, as it will give you a good overview of the city.
26. Take a Peruvian Cooking Class
There are various spots around Cusco where you can take a cooking class to learn how to make some authentic and traditional Peruvian dishes. For example, with Taste Peru you can choose between a cooking class for lunch or a cooking class for dinner, scourge the San Pedro Market for fresh ingredients to cook the meal with, create a three course meal inspired by Peruvian and Andean dishes, and also learn to make a Pisco Sour.
27. Take a Pisco Sour Making Class
Alternatively, you can also just take a class solely dedicated to learning how to make the most exquisite Pisco Sour! The tour by Urban Adventures may be to your liking; you’ll not only learn how to make the Pisco Sour, but you’ll learn a lot about the distillation process and history of Pisco, which is a Latin American type of brandy and the national drink of Peru, as well as sample a few different Pisco flavors.
28. Tour the Inca Museum
As you walk from Plaza del Armas towards Plaza Nazarenas, you’ll cross paths with Museo Inka, a museum dedicated to the Incans. It’s located in a 17th century building that once belonged to the Spanish Admiral Francisco Alderete Moldonando, who built his palace in Cusco over Inca ruins. The museum hosts a massive collection of artifacts that date back to Incan times as well as the pre-Incan time period; they’ve been found in the Cusco region as well as other regions. You can explore by yourself, or get yourself on a guided tour in either Spanish or English.
29. Trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
While it’s possible to get up to Machu Picchu on a one-day tour from Cusco (like this one) , but the absolute best way to discover the ruins and its surroundings is by hiking the Inca Trail. There are three different routes you can take on the trail, each varying in difficulty and how long they last; some may trek it up to Machu Picchu in as little as 2 days, but the average visitor will spend 4 to 5 days on the trek up to Machu Picchu (I did the 4-day classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu!).
Although seeing Machu Picchu is the highlight for many, there are several incredibly beautiful and interesting spots for you to discover along the way, such as Sayacmarca, Runkuraqay, and the Phuyupatamarka ruins.
30. Visit Coricancha
Another must see sight in Cusco in Peru is Coricancha, the Sun Temple, which once upon a time was the most important temple of the Incan Empire. It was dedicated to Inti, the ancient sun god for Incans. Sadly much of the temple was destroyed by the Spanish, and using its stonework the Convent of Santo Domingo was built. Today the site operates as a museum, and there’s still plenty to discover among the ruins.
31. Visit Museo del Pisco
Don’t let the name fool you, Museo del Pisco is actually a bar! For nearly a decade it’s been a favorite among Cusco’s nightlife lovers, located in a colonial house that has been restored, which was built on a site originally inhabited by the fifth Inca Capac Yupanqui’s palace. Beyond simply serving amazing drinks, the walls of Museo del Pisco are covered with information of pisco, its history and culture, as well as introduction to the different flavors of pisco available.
32. Visit the Museo de Arte Precolombino
Lovingly shortened as MAP, the Museo de Arte Precolombino is an art museum that has dedicated itself to showcasing archaeological artifacts and art from all regions that belonged to pre-Colombian Peru, ranging between the time periods of 1250 B.C and 1532 A.D. You’ll find the museum in the San Blas District, located in an old Incan ceremonial courthouse.
33. Visit the Secret Templo de La Luna
Although the Secret Templo de La Luna (Moon Temple) is not officially a secret temple, it’s one that’s yet to be discovered by many, despite its close distance to Cusco’s city center and the free entrance. You’ll have to walk through some rural paths to get there, and enter through a rocky entrance to get to the site. Today it may not look like much more than ruins, but in the old times it was an especially important place to visit for couples with trouble conceiving.
34. Visit Tipon Archaeological Site
Its origins in the early 15th century, Tipon is an archaeological park consisting of several ruins, all of which are enclosed into one space by a defensive wall that’s a whopping 6 km long. There are various sights to see at the site, from ancient residential areas to fountains and ceremonial plazas. You can make a whole day’s trip out of visiting the Tipon Archaeological Park.
. . .
Now that you’ve been introduced to Cusco in Peru a little bit more thoroughly, has your Peru bucket list begun bulging with items taking you to this ancient capital region of the country? From Incan ruins to sampling local brandy, your adventure to Cusco will be a memorable one, with plenty to take home with you afterwards – and no, I’m not just talking about alpaca ponchos as souvenirs for the whole family! Book those flights, pack that bag, put on your best walking shoes, and get onto discovering the ancient and historical wonders of the area!
Getting There: Cusco: Alejandro Velasco Astete Cusco International Airport is a major hub and most airlines will fly into it. You can easily check for the best fare deals at Skyscanner, which also has the option to choose ‘cheapest month’ as the departure to find the lowest priced dates to fly to your destination. From the airport to the city center, you can use the subway, take a shuttle or take a taxi. For the taxi option, at the baggage carousels there are a couple of desks that will offer transfer to the city—Llama Taxis is know known to be reliable. It’ll cost about $20 for this tax, which is more expensive than the ones you will find just outside the airport doors, though with those you will need to negotiate pricing.
Where to Stay in Cusco: It’s best to stay near the city center, public transportation or the area that you will be spending the most time in. Casona Corrales (moderate) is a great choice in the Cusco City Centre district, close to the Inka Museum. For something on the less expensive side, try MOAF Cusco Boutique Hotel (budget). For a hotel with a little more extravagance, book a room at the Casa Cartagena Boutique Hotel & Spa or Aranwa Cusco Boutique Hotel (luxury). We stayed at Hotel Rumi Punku which was moderately priced and in a good location. Or search some great deals on hotels of your choice at Booking.com. If you’re looking for more of a home atmosphere (or are traveling with a group of people), head over to Airbnb that has houses, apartments and even just a room for rent in every price range.
Best Tours in Cusco: You can find some of the top tours at Get Your Guide or Viator, and here are some of the top ones. tours:
Insurance: It’s always a good idea to travel fully insured so you are protected in case of trip cancellations or medical emergencies. You can check out pricing at Travelex Insurance.
Universal Adapter: Most outlets are a flat to prong like in the US, but you may also find three-prong or two-prong round outlets, so it’s wise to bring an adapter just in case. I use the Celtic Universal Adapter, which has brought me around the world with no problems.
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