Cusco was one of our favourite cities during our seven month trip around South America. We spent two enjoyable weeks there over Christmas and New Year, pottering around and recharging before the next leg of our journey into Bolivia.
Steeped in history; Cusco was the centre of the Inca Empire and it is the archaeological capital of the Americas. The streets are narrow and cobbled, lined with massive Inca stone-walls, each one with a story to tell. Indigenous ladies wander around the town in traditional dress clutching fluffy lambs and life is a fascinating mix of traditional Andean culture and modern Peruvian life.
There is so much to do in and around Cusco and it is a great city for travellers looking for hiking, outdoors adventure, history and culture or just somewhere to eat good food and drink before and after visiting Machu Picchu.
Here are our highlights:
1. Machu Picchu
It would be crazy to come to Cusco and not visit nearby Machu Picchu, an ancient Inca city set high in the Andean Mountains and one of the seven wonders of the world. It was built in the 15th century and later left abandoned. Although it is the best known archaeological site in South America it still retains an element of mystery owing to the fact that we know very little about its people as they left no written records.
If you are active and enjoy hiking there are a number of multi-day hikes to choose from including visits to this incredible site. For the less active, it is also possible to get the train to Aguas Calientes and visit the site from there:
The Inca Trail – We decided we wanted to do the four-day Inca Trail, the only hike that actually follows in the Inca’s footsteps and ends at the Sun Gate, overlooking Machu Picchu. It combines beautiful mountain scenery, lush cloud forest and subtropical jungle as well as the fascinating Inca ruins. We would recommend a moderate level of fitness as some of the trekking is difficult and also it is worth spending a couple of days in Cusco to acclimatise as the highest point on the trek is 4,215m. We booked the trek four months in advance through Loki Travel (a local tour company). It cost $450 per person. This is one of the cheapest options available and if you are on a tight budget it is a good choice. We really enjoyed our experience and the food was excellent. However, we were slightly disappointed by our guide and his level of English and also where we ended up camping on the final night (the furthest point from the Sun Gate, meaning an even earlier start).
If you have a bit more money to spare it is worth investing in a more expensive company, we heard great things about G Adventures and SAS. There are only 500 permits a day available for the Inca Trail itself and it tends to get booked up months in advance in peak season. However, in low season (December to March) it is possible to book last-minute. An American couple on our tour in December booked two days in advance for $400 per person. It’s always worth checking if there are permits available when you arrive in Cusco.
Salkantay – This seemed to be the most popular choice for backpackers we met on the road who wanted to do a trek that could be booked at the last minute and that wasn’t too expensive. It is an ancient and remote footpath through the highest peak of the Peruvian Andes. The snow-capped mountains, emerald green lakes and lowland jungle will not disappoint. Although, unlike the Inca Trail, you can’t hike all the way to the Sun Gate. Instead you hike to Aguas Calientes on the third day and stay there for a night before either getting the bus or walking up the hill to the Machu Picchu site. The trek can be booked in Cusco through your hostel or any tour operator in town. Prices range from $180 – $700 per person. Similar to the Inca Trail you get what you pay for.
Lares – Another good alternative option to the Inca trail, this four-day hike can be booked a few days before departure and is reasonably priced. Similar to Salkantay, on the fourth day you visit Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. We didn’t meet that many travellers who did Lares but it is another beautiful part of the Peruvian Andes without the crowds of the Inca Trail.
Jungle Experience – This is a great alternative for travellers looking for a fun and adventurous four-day trip including hiking, rafting, mountain biking and zip-lining in the jungle as well as visiting Machu Picchu at the end. Prices range from $250 – $700 per person and it can be booked through your hostel on arrival in Cusco.
Walk the train tracks – If you are on a very tight budget there is the option to get the bus from Cusco to Hidroelectrica and then walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. The bloggers from Scratch My Pack have written a long post on how you can visit Machu Picchu for only $19 per person by doing this, you can read more here.
2. Rainbow Mountain
This is a popular day hike from Cusco and it can be booked with one of the many tour operators based there. Prices do range, but as with all of these things, if you’re able to round up a few people you can usually wangle a discount of some sort. We paid 80 sols per person (additional 10 sols pp entrance on arrival) which was great value and given you all end up in the same shack, eating the same food and walking the same route, worked nicely for us. After an early 4am start you get driven to a meeting point where you have a bite of basic breakfast before commencing the hike where everyone hikes at their own pace. The scenery is beautiful and we almost enjoyed the walk more than Rainbow Mountain itself, although it is impressive too.
If you aren’t into hiking there are horses you can jump on for an additional cost. However, they can only take you so far on the trail. We would recommend taking at least two days to acclimatise to altitude in Cusco before you do this hike as the highest point is 5,300 metres. It is much higher than the highest point of the Inca Trail – only 4,215 metres! We felt fine as we had been at altitude for at least a week but an American girl we met, who had flown in from sea level the day before (crazy!) was very sick. Not much fun at all. Be warned the toilets are basic…
3. Choquequirao Trek
This is the most extreme of the hikes in the mountains surrounding Cusco and Machu Picchu and it takes you to the most remote of the Inca ruins. Very few people do it, and although you can do it self-guided, it is recommended to get a guide as it requires some fairly serious technical knowledge. That said, we have heard from people who’ve done all the hikes in the region many times, that it is the most interesting and challenging. Unfortunately we didn’t get the opportunity to do it for various reasons but it is definitely something we would love to go back and do. There are plans to build a cable car to the ruins in the not so distant future and so it would be worth doing the trek now before the crowds start appearing. It currently only receives 2,000 people per year, whereas the Machu Picchu site has 2,500 people visit daily.
4. Shop till you drop
This was one of our main activities during our two weeks in Cusco, especially as we were there over the Christmas period. It is definitely our favourite town for shopping in South America due to the variety, quality and reasonable price tags. We came away with real alpaca jumpers, fake alpaca jumpers, hats, gloves, rugs, llama key rings and fluffy llama slippers. The only way we were able to get so much was thanks to one of our friends coming out to visit us with an empty bag which we filled with presents for our families, friends and us!
5. Get pampered
Everywhere you go you will have ladies crying out to you ‘massage, massage’, only 20 sols! It can be overwhelming, not to mention irritating. The best thing to do is go to a get a massage at somewhere you have already been recommended. We went with a recommendation from a guy we met at a hostel to a little place on one of the main streets called Hampi Maki. They offer everything from special Inca treatments with hot stones, Swedish massage to facials and reflexology. We were generally quite happy with the treatments (it’s relatively cheap – 40 sols for an hour long Swedish massage) although it can be quite inconsistent in terms of quality. Definitely take advantage of this whilst you are in Cusco, as in most other places in South America it is far too expensive to be an option whilst backpacking. Believe me, I looked!
6. Free walking tours
There are a few companies in Cusco offering great free walking tours for tips. On our first day in town we did a morning tour with FTF Peru. They wear yellow vests and offer three tours a day at 10am, 1pm and 3.30pm, departing from Plaza Regocijo/ Cusipata in front of the city hall. We had a informative and engaging guide who took us to some really interesting historical sites in the city including the San Pedro market, San Francisco Plaza, Plaza de Armas, Acclla Wasi Temple and more. Our guide also gave us some tips on how to shop for real alpaca and offered us some local fruit to taste at the end of the tour.
The second walking tour we did was with Free Walking Tour Cusco and our guide who wears a red shirt took us to a completely different part of town. We met Jose Martinez in front of the Inca Statue in the Plaza de Armas at 3.30pm and he took us to many interesting places including Sacsayhuaman, an Inca ruin, and the Christ statue from the San Cristobal Church, which overlooks the city.
7. Get a picture with a llama and the traditional Inca Ladies
It might sound a bit touristy and naff but this is a must-do whilst you are in the archaeological capital of Peru. During the morning walking tour we were taken to a square just off Triunfo street where a little troupe of llamas and alpacas graze and amicably get ready to have selfies taken by tourists. Just be careful one doesn’t nibble your ear! There are also ladies wondering around the streets in traditional dress holding lambs and asking for pictures. Pete wasn’t convinced but my friend Nicky and I enjoyed it…
8. Have a drink in a café overlooking the Plaza de Armas and people watch
In the heart of the city is a beautiful square surrounded by traditional colonial houses with quaint wooden balconies, a perfect spot to relax with a hot chocolate and people watch. Here you can see Cusco’s cathedral, which took almost 100 years to build. There is also the church of Jesus Maria (1733) and El Triunfo (1536), Cusco’s oldest church. Not to mention watching the many people dressed in traditional dress mixed with the tourists milling around. We would recommend having a drink at Hotel Plaza de Armas Cusco, which has a nice little balcony overlooking the square.
9. Eat lots of yummy food
During our stint in Cusco, we also tasted lots of traditional Andean and western food from a vast array of restaurants and cafes thronging the streets. For recommendations on where to eat, you can read our blog post here.
10. Have a fun night out
A trip to Cusco wouldn’t be complete without either staying at or going for drinks at one of the party hostels. The two main ones in town are Loki and Wild Rover. They both have a reputation for lots of drinking, dancing, dressing up and general mayhem. We decided to stay at Wild Rover over New Year’s Eve as we wanted a big night out and had also met a lovely Irish couple who were staying there. Get ready for bar dancing, lots of glitter and Jagarbombs. It is a fantastic hostel to bring in the New Year as it is high on a hill and you can watch the magnificent fireworks from the balcony. If party hostels aren’t really your thing, we also stayed at Pariwana, which is still very social but not quite as crazy. It is also more centrally located and saves you walking up the hill, definitely a blessing when you are at such high altitude.