Cusco is one of those legendary sites that must be visited on a trip to South America.
Aside from being close to the incredible ruins of Machu Picchu, it’s steeped in culture and is rightfully so the most popular place to visit in all of Peru.
In this guide, we’ll explore 8 of the very best things to do in Peru – from mysterious ruins to colorful markets and beyond.
We’ll also take a look at how many days are needed, and also some of our best travel tips for Cusco.
- 1 8 Top Things to do in Cusco
- 2 Our Travel Tips for Cusco
- 3 How many days are needed in Cusco?
- 4 Final Thoughts
- 5 Author Bio
8 Top Things to do in Cusco
Without further ado let’s kick off with the best 8 things to do in and around Cusco, in no particular order.
1. Ausangate National Park
This stunning national park is one of the best day trips to be taken from Cusco. Featuring seven multi-colored lakes with everything from blood red to aqua blue, this National Park really does not disappoint.
Aside from the beautiful lakes it also has a stunning backdrop of the Ausangate mountains, which at up to 6384m, towers above the rest of the surrounding scenery.
This site is a must for anyone who is backpacking in Peru and loves hiking. To get there it’s easiest to go with a tour from Cusco, where it will take roughly 3 hours to reach, and you’ll have food included as well as a stop in a small yet charming Incan town.
The circuit loop takes around 4/5 hours to complete, however at an average altitude of 4000m (and a gradual incline up to the lakes), it’s wise to first properly adapt to the higher altitudes of Cusco and also take altitude sickness tablets to prevent any difficulties on the hike.
2. Machu Picchu
How could this one ever miss out on a place on this list?! One of the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu is often the reason most decide to come to Peru.
The legendary citadel was once the kingdom and beating heart of the entire Incan Empire during the 15-16th centuries, which stretched as far as Colombia to Northern Argentina during its very peak.
Shrouded in clouds of mist on top of a mountain, it really is as surreal as it looks in the photos. Within the site, you’ll find hundreds of houses, temples, and ritual sites (not to mention the odd alpaca or two just chilling around).
It’s somewhat far from Cusco, and to get here you can either take the two-day trip which involves a small hike along the hidroeléctrica track, or the multiple-day Inca Trek. You simply cannot leave Cusco without seeing this one!
3. Moray Ruins
These ruins are very interesting to see, especially as they are a lot different from the ancient villages and structures you’d usually see. Moray is a series of circular-shaped ruins, that starts at its lowest in the middle and have rings that gradually get higher with a series of ledges separating them.
It’s still unknown their true purpose, however, the most popular theory was for irrigation and agriculture. It’s thought that since the Sun hit the varying terraces at different angles, it resulted in differing water temperatures for growing various crops.
What’s great is that the viewpoint is way above these, meaning you can see the full dome in its beauty and really appreciate just how advanced and smart the Incan empire was with the technology available to them at the time.
Fancy seeing some Incan ruins without traveling far? Sacsahuamán is your best bet. Located in the hills just above Cusco, it’s known for its huge stone walls that fit tightly and perfectly together, and also for its views over Cusco.
This fort had many towers and terraces, and also had numerous secret rooms filled with military equipment with everything from darts and clubs to shields.
It took over 20,000 men to build the site and was regarded as the “head” of Cusco due to its high plateau, with the square and rivers below serving as the body and tail (Cusco was known as the “Lion City” back in the Incan times).
As well as seeing the incredible site, here you’ll also get some fantastic views over Cusco. It’s also located close to the Cristo Blanco landmark, so once up here, it’s quite easy to walk across to it, and recommended since you’re already up the hill.
5. Plaza de Armas
The true heart of Cusco, any visit must be spent with some time in the main plaza. Every Peruvian city has its own Plaza de Armas, however, Cusco’s is arguably the best with the picturesque buildings surrounding it such as the Cathedral of Cusco and the Church of the Society of Jesus.
Here you’ll find locals selling goods and playing traditional Incan music, as well as housing many popular restaurants and tour agencies on the bordering streets. For anyone heading to Cusco and wanting to know where best to stay, this is the place to base yourself near.
Just off the east of the plaza, you’ll find the district of San Blas, which is easily walkable and has many bargain souvenirs to browse. It’s also home to the Twelve Angled Stonewall too, which is one of the most picturesque sights in Cusco.
6. The Sacred Valley
This region is located within the Peruvian Andes and is only a short drive from Cusco. Over 60km long, it once was the heart of the Incan Empire and as such is home to many fascinating ruins and small towns.
One of these towns is Ollantaytambo, which is known for its imposing ruins such as the Sun Temple. Here you can also visit the diverse market just outside of the ruins, which has tonnes of souvenirs and Peruvian garments.
Another town to be visited here is Pisac. Home to the ruins of the same name, here you can get a more chilled-out experience when compared with the bustling Cusco.
In Pisac, you’ll find markets pop up seemingly out of nowhere on its cobblestone streets, where you can sample many classic Andean dishes (Cuy is one for those feeling a little adventurous). Pisac is also a popular place for those looking to try the mystical San Pedro and Ayahuasca experiences.
7. Rainbow Mountain
Officially known as Vinicunca, this mountain of seven colors is fast becoming one of the hottest sights to visit in Peru. Due to the differing mineral compositions found on the mountain, there are as many as seven brightly colored faces which range from bright green and white to dark red.
It sits at a high altitude of 5200m, so you’ll need to properly acclimatize before attempting the hike. We also recommend drinking Coca Leaf tea before to help ease any altitude sickness symptoms.
Most day tours leave near the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, and the hike up takes around 2 hours (although those finding it difficult can always hire a mule to help get you up there).
8. Mercado de San Pedro
This food market is the best place to come for all things grub and drink. We always recommend following where the locals go, and in this city, there’s no place as popular as the Cusqueños.
Head here during the morning and early afternoon and take a seat at one of the many food stalls (near the main entrance in a single horizontal line).
You’ll be able to try lots of different Peruvian foods such as Papa Rellena and Lomo Saltado, as well as Andean specialties like Cuy, all for a bargain price.
San Pedro is also a great place to buy cheap ingredients (you can also find lots of exotic herbs from the region) so you can then head back and make your own food too.
Our Travel Tips for Cusco
One of our first major tips is when to visit Cusco. The best overall time for weather is August and September, where average temperatures hover around 50°F, with highs of 65°F and night-time lows of 37°F.
There’s also hardly any rain during this time, making it good for day trips and hikes. This is the most popular time to visit, however, so expect larger crowds and more expensive prices in this season.
April and May are another great time to visit with similar temperatures (and having just come out of the rainy season – so anywhere from 0.1-1 inch per month), as well as being less touristy and cheaper for the wallet.
Our second tip is to pack appropriately. Regardless of when you visit it’ll be pretty cold, so make sure you have lots of jumpers and warm layers (and also gloves, a hat, and a thick coat when heading higher into the Andes).
If you’ve already arrived without, then simply head to the local markets where you can pick up what you need for very cheap.
Lastly as already mentioned, try to stay near the Plaza de Armas. Here you’ll find everything you’ll need, with many top restaurants and nightlife options also located here.
Cusco is home to some of the best hostels in South America and the best hostel we can recommend is Kokopelli, just a couple of streets off the picturesque plaza.
How many days are needed in Cusco?
Cusco is one of those places that simply cannot be “traveled through quickly”.
You’ll feel as if you’re robbed of experience if you try this. Realistically you’ll need a minimum of 7 Days here to see the very best sights.
Most spend a couple of weeks which is great to also take in the Andean lifestyle and start to view things from a more local perspective.
Whilst I was here it was common to see people who had planned a couple of weeks and then ended up never leaving, so don’t be too surprised if this happens to you!
A fascinating imperial city, Cusco has rightfully become the most traveled-to destination in all of Peru.
It’s steeped in classic Andean culture, which can be seen in the various foods and customs that are found here.
In this guide, we’ve also explored 8 of the best things to do whilst in Cusco, including how you can get to them and what kind of experience is waiting for you in each.
We’ve also looked at how many days are needed and our very best travel tips.
Dan and George are two seasoned travelers with extensive knowledge of Latin America who write no nonsense backpacking guides. You can read all about their Latin adventures on BLATAM.