Proclaimed a World Heritage site by UNESCO, Cusco is a beautiful destination that deserves more than just a stop to the famous Machu Picchu. Planning an itinerary to Cusco gives you the opportunity to get accustomed to the city–as well as its 3,400m altitude. Cusco is one of my favorite cities, and even though I’ve spend quite a bit of time there, I would love to spend a few more days exploring.
However, it’s likely that you are there to take on the Inca Trail, which means you’ll have probably have less time to enjoy the city. We’ve broken down the best things to do within a three-day period.
How to get there
Most likely, you’ll either get to Cusco either by plane or by bus. If you fly, remember to reserve a window seat close to the left side of the plane–you can get a glimpse of the beautiful Andes during your descent. You’ll fly into the Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport (CUZ), from which you’ll need to take a taxi or rideshare to your accommodations.
If you arrive by bus, then you will need to take transportation from the main station to your hotel, as well. Taxis are cheap in Peru–just make sure you have the meter on. Uber is also an option, as well.
When to go
Cusco is fairly pleasant all year, but you might want to head there from April to September if you want to avoid the rainier season. Prices tend to inflate a bit during the busy season, so if you’re looking to save some money, then the shoulder season might be your best bet. It all comes down to how much you want to spend on accommodations and tours to the main sights.
How to get around
Walking is definitely the best way to explore Cusco (it’s also the most sustainable option too). The city center is compact and easy to get around. Cusco also has a bus system that runs fairly often, though it can be a bit confusing for travelers. If you need to get anywhere faster than hitting the (ancient) pavement, then you can flag down one of the many taxis or order an Uber ride.
Where to stay
Tambo de Montero 222
+51 84 236738
There’s a reason this hotel is so popular among guests. As a converted 17th-century villa, it has kept all of its old charms and the details that make it one of the more unique places to stay. However, the price is also affordable, and it doesn’t feel stuffy or pretentious. You might never want to leave your bed.
Jiron Tupac Yupanqui 391
+51 84 252525
Located a bit away from the city center, this spot offers great rooms for reasonable prices if you’re willing to make the ten-minute walk into the city. It’s a great way to see a part of Cusco that you might not have if you weren’t staying there, and breakfast, great service, and help getting around is all included.
Av. Tullumayo 279
+51 84 234107
Hotel Killa is the ideal place for those who like comfort, but aren’t necessarily willing to pay for it. They have delicious beds worth falling into and serve as a haven after a busy day walking and seeing the sites. Rooms are small, but intimate—so perfect for couples enjoying some time on their own.
Day 1–City center, the San Pedro market, and Saksaywaman
After you have checked in, wander through the city center and explore Plaza des Armas. This is where the conquistadores demolished the city’s temples and built their own buildings right on top of it. The city’s cathedral is worth checking out, and if you can, make sure your visit coincides with when the local Quechua choir is performing. The Plaza des Armas is also where you’ll find some of Cusco’s best culinary spots.
Head to the San Pedro market for a glimpse into local life. This is a great place to snap photos, chat with some of the citizens of Cusco, and try some locally-made foods. For souvenir hunters, you can’t find a better spot than this.
In the afternoon, you’ll want to head up to Saksaywaman, the closest site for Inca ruins. This was the last stand for the Inca king as he faced the Spanish. The site is still being excavated, which offers a fascinating glimpse into how the professionals approach maintaining these ruins for future generations. You also get an amazing view of modern Cusco from the Christ the Redeemer statue. If you are considering checking out some of the other ruins, you should buy the full pass so you can hop from site to site.
After that, you’ll want to meander back to the city center for dinner. If you are planning on one of Cusco’s busier restaurants, make sure to book a reservation in advance.
Day 2–Sacred Valley sights
On your second day, you can hire a local taxi for $60 for the full day and take a relaxing drive to Ulubamba River in the Sacred Valley. You might also be able to find a tour company that will take you around for a bit less if you don’t mind spending the day with some fellow travelers.
Stop at the Chincero Weaving Center in order to meet some alpacas and see the local people make some gorgeous Peruvian fabrics. Take a stroll among the tiny villages, browse the Pisaq market for some Peruvian souvenirs like novelty llama magnets, water bottle holders, and more, and make an excursion to the Maras salt mines for a some amazing pictures. If you feel like exploring something slightly different from Machu Picchu, then consider the Pisaq ruins. Not only are they incredibly stunning, but they are also less crowded and offer views you won’t see from Peru’s most famous monument.
After your day in the Sacred Valley, head back to Cusco’s city center and check out one of the central parlors for a soothing foot massage or take an evening walk around the bohemian San Blaz neighborhood.
Day 3–Museums and the House of the Sun
Your last day in Cusco! It’s the perfect opportunity to spend the day exploring some of the city’s museums and cultural attractions. Visit the Machu Picchu Museum, which boasts interactive exhibits and Inca artifacts. Check out Cusco’s Museo de Historia Regional to explore some more local artifacts and learn more about the story of Tupac Amaru II, who rebelled against the Spanish invaders in 1781. Admire stunning architectural works of the Archbishop’s Arte Museum.
For your final cultural activity (if you’re not completely cultured-out), you need to make the visit to Coricancha, or House of the Sun. These giant, ancient stones were once covered completely in gold before the Spanish took over the empire’s capital. This was where all the administrative activities took place during the heyday of the Incas before it was built over as a church.
Do you have any recommendations for Cusco? Check out where to eat in our guide to the best restaurants!
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