Welcome to Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire. In this comprehensive travel guide, we will take you through the best things to do, provide practical information, and offer valuable tips to make your visit to Cusco truly unforgettable.
Getting to Cusco
Flying into Cusco is the most convenient way to reach this enchanting city. Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport serves as the main gateway for tourists. You can find direct flights from major cities in South America, as well as connecting flights from international destinations. Be sure to check for the best flight deals and book your tickets in advance to secure the best prices.
For those seeking a more adventurous journey, traveling to Cusco by land can be an incredible experience. There are several bus routes that connect Cusco with neighboring countries and cities. Additionally, the train offers a scenic and comfortable option, allowing you to enjoy the breathtaking landscapes along the way. Research recommended bus companies and train services to find the best routes and schedules that suit your travel plans.
Best Time to Visit Cusco
Cusco’s climate and seasons play a significant role in planning your trip. The best time to visit depends on your preferences and the activities you wish to engage in. The peak tourist seasons in Cusco are generally from May to September, coinciding with the dry season and pleasant weather. However, keep in mind that these months can get quite crowded. If you prefer to avoid the crowds and enjoy more comfortable temperatures, consider visiting during the shoulder seasons of April, October, or November.
Top Attractions in Cusco
Cusco is teeming with historical landmarks, cultural experiences, and breathtaking natural wonders. Let’s explore the top attractions you should not miss during your visit.
San Pedro Market (Cusco)
Statue of Christ offering panoramic views
Impressive Incan fortress near Cusco
Piedra de 12 Angulos
Baths of the Inca
Huaca de Pachacuteq
Inca Religious Site
San Blas Square
Museo Casa Concha
Machu Picchu Artifacts
Incan Ceremonial Site
Local Workshops Cusco
Cusco Regional History Museum
Machu Picchu: No trip to Cusco is complete without a visit to the awe-inspiring Machu Picchu. This ancient Inca city perched high in the Andes Mountains is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Take a guided tour to learn about its fascinating history and marvel at the remarkable architecture.
Sacsayhuaman: Discover the ancient ruins of Sacsayhuaman, an impressive Inca fortress located just outside of Cusco. Explore the massive stone walls and soak in the panoramic views of the city below. Don’t forget to bring your camera, as this site offers incredible photo opportunities.
Qoricancha and the Cathedral of Cusco: Immerse yourself in the rich history of Cusco by visiting the Temple of the Sun, known as Qoricancha, and the Cathedral of Cusco. Admire the exquisite architecture and intricate artwork as you delve into the city’s colonial past.
San Pedro Market: Experience the vibrant atmosphere of San Pedro Market, where locals and tourists alike come together. Explore the bustling stalls filled with fresh produce, local crafts, and traditional Andean ingredients. Indulge in delicious street food and interact with friendly vendors to get a taste of the local culture.
Festivals and Celebrations: Cusco is known for its lively festivals and traditional celebrations throughout the year. If you have the chance, witness the vibrant Inti Raymi festival, held in June, which commemorates the Inca Sun God. Be captivated by colorful costumes, music, and dance performances that showcase the region’s rich cultural heritage.
Local Workshops: Engage in hands-on experiences by participating in workshops that allow you to learn about Andean traditions and customs. Try your hand at traditional textile weaving, pottery making, or even learn to play a traditional Andean instrument. These workshops provide unique insights into the local way of life and make for memorable experiences.
Sacred Valley of the Incas: Explore the breathtaking beauty of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. This picturesque region is dotted with ancient Inca ruins, charming villages, and terraced agricultural fields. Visit the Pisac Market, marvel at the Ollantaytambo fortress, and soak in the tranquility of the Moray circular terraces.
Trekking Adventures: Lace up your hiking boots and embark on a trekking adventure in the majestic Andes Mountains. The Inca Trail is a classic route that takes you through stunning landscapes, cloud forests, and impressive archaeological sites before reaching Machu Picchu. If you prefer alternative routes, consider the Salkantay Trek or the Lares Trek for equally rewarding experiences.
Rainbow Mountain and Humantay Lake: For nature enthusiasts, a visit to Rainbow Mountain and Humantay Lake is a must. Marvel at the vibrant colors of Rainbow Mountain, caused by unique geological formations. Hike to Humantay Lake, nestled amidst snow-capped peaks, and be mesmerized by its turquoise waters. These natural wonders offer breathtaking vistas that will leave you in awe.
Hidden Gems and Off-the-Beaten-Path
While the main attractions in Cusco are undoubtedly impressive, there are also hidden gems and off-the-beaten-path destinations that offer a more intimate experience of the region.
Lesser-Known Archaeological Sites
Tipón: Discover the ancient Inca terraces and irrigation systems at Tipón. This lesser-known archaeological site showcases impressive engineering and agricultural techniques used by the Incas.
Choquequirao: For those seeking a remote adventure, embark on a multi-day trek to Choquequirao. Often referred to as the “sister city” of Machu Picchu, this site offers a similar grandeur but with far fewer visitors.
Moray Agricultural Terraces: Explore the enigmatic Moray circular terraces, believed to have served as an Inca agricultural laboratory. These concentric terraces offer a unique perspective on the Inca’s advanced knowledge of agriculture.
Hidden Trails and Secluded Natural Wonders
Huchuy Qosqo: Trek along the less-traveled Huchuy Qosqo trail, which takes you through remote Andean villages and offers stunning views of the Sacred Valley. This lesser-known route is perfect for those seeking tranquility and breathtaking landscapes.
Humantay Waterfall: Escape the crowds and visit the secluded Humantay Waterfall. This hidden gem can be reached by a short hike, rewarding you with a mesmerizing cascade surrounded by lush vegetation.
Maras Salt Ponds: Venture to the Maras Salt Ponds, an intricate network of salt evaporation ponds that have been used since Inca times. Witness the fascinating process of salt extraction and capture stunning photographs of the terraced landscape.
A visit to Cusco is incomplete without savoring the region’s delicious cuisine. The blend of traditional Andean flavors with Spanish influences creates a unique gastronomic experience. Here are some highlights:
Cuy: Try the famous Peruvian delicacy, cuy, which is guinea pig. Roasted or fried, it offers a unique taste and is a must-try for the adventurous foodie.
Anticuchos: Sink your teeth into anticuchos, marinated and grilled beef heart skewers. This popular street food is packed with flavor and pairs well with a spicy dipping sauce.
Ceviche: Taste the refreshing ceviche, a dish made with fresh raw fish or seafood mar
inated in citrus juices and spiced with chili peppers. It’s a true delight for seafood lovers.
Pisco Sour: Wash down your culinary adventures with Peru‘s iconic cocktail, the Pisco Sour. This refreshing blend of Pisco (grape brandy), lime juice, sugar, and egg whites is a favorite among locals and tourists alike.
Cusco’s natural beauty provides a playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Whether you’re seeking adventure or tranquility, there’s an activity for everyone.
Trekking and Hiking
Inca Trail: Embark on the classic Inca Trail, a multi-day trek that leads to Machu Picchu. This ancient route takes you through diverse ecosystems, from high-altitude passes to lush cloud forests, and offers awe-inspiring views along the way. Make sure to obtain the necessary permits in advance.
Alternative Treks: If the Inca Trail permits are sold out or you prefer a less crowded route, consider alternative treks like the Salkantay Trek or the Lares Trek. These trails offer equally stunning landscapes and the opportunity to experience the Andean way of life in remote villages.
Packing and Preparation: Proper preparation is essential for a successful trek. Make sure to pack appropriate clothing, sturdy hiking boots, and essential gear. Don’t forget to acclimatize to the high altitude before starting your trek to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Hiring a knowledgeable local guide is highly recommended to navigate the trails and gain insights into the local culture.
White-Water Rafting: Get your adrenaline pumping with white-water rafting in the Urubamba River. This thrilling activity allows you to navigate through rapids while enjoying the stunning scenery surrounding the river.
Mountain Biking: Explore the Sacred Valley on two wheels and go mountain biking along the picturesque trails. Feel the wind in your hair as you ride past ancient ruins, terraced fields, and charming villages.
Paragliding: Soar high above Cusco and take in the breathtaking views of the city and surrounding mountains. Paragliding offers a unique perspective and an exhilarating experience for adventure seekers.
Accommodation Options in Cusco
Choosing the right accommodation in Cusco is crucial to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable stay. The city offers a wide range of options to suit every budget and preference.
City Center: Staying in the city center allows easy access to Cusco’s main attractions, restaurants, and nightlife. Luxury hotels and boutique stays offer impeccable service and amenities, ensuring a memorable stay in the heart of the city.
Budget-Friendly: For budget travelers and backpackers, Cusco provides numerous hostels and guesthouses that offer affordable rates without compromising on quality. These accommodations often have communal areas where you can meet fellow travelers and exchange tips and stories.
Alternative Neighborhoods: If you prefer a quieter atmosphere, consider staying in neighborhoods such as San Blas or San Cristobal. These areas offer a more local experience, with cozy guesthouses and quaint boutique hotels tucked away in narrow cobblestone streets.
Transportation in Cusco
Getting around Cusco is relatively easy, with several transportation options available to suit your needs.
Public Transportation: Cusco has a well-developed public transportation system, including buses and minibusses known as “combis.” These are an affordable way to travel around the city and its surrounding areas. However, keep in mind that they can get crowded during peak hours.
Taxis: Taxis are a convenient and safe mode of transportation in Cusco. Make sure to negotiate the fare or ask the driver to use the meter before starting the journey. It’s always a good idea to have small bills on hand for taxi fares.
Car Rentals: If you prefer more freedom and flexibility, renting a car in Cusco allows you to explore the region at your own pace. However, be aware that traffic in the city can be congested, and parking can be limited in some areas.
Rideshare Apps: Popular rideshare apps such as Uber and Beat are available in Cusco. These services offer a convenient and reliable way to get around the city. Be sure to have a working internet connection to book your ride.
Safety Tips and Travel Precautions
As with any travel destination, it’s important to take precautions to ensure your safety and well-being during your stay in Cusco.
Avoiding Tourist Scams: While Cusco is generally safe for tourists, it’s essential to be cautious of common tourist scams. Keep an eye on your belongings, especially in crowded areas, and be wary of individuals offering unsolicited assistance or trying to sell you unauthorized tickets or tours. Research reputable tour operators and use licensed guides for your activities.
Altitude Sickness: Cusco is located at a high altitude, and some visitors may experience symptoms of altitude sickness, also known as soroche. To minimize the effects, take it easy upon arrival, stay hydrated, and avoid strenuous activities for the first few days. Coca tea, a traditional remedy, can help alleviate symptoms.
Travel Insurance: It’s highly recommended to have travel insurance that covers medical expenses, trip cancellations, and other unforeseen events. Ensure that your policy includes coverage for high-altitude destinations and any activities you plan to engage in, such as trekking or adventure sports.
Emergency Contacts: Familiarize yourself with emergency contact numbers, including local authorities, medical services, and your embassy or consulate. Keep a copy of important documents, such as your passport and insurance information, in a safe place.
Cultural Etiquette and Respectful Travel
Respecting the local customs and traditions is essential when visiting Cusco. Here are some guidelines to ensure a culturally sensitive and meaningful experience.
Dress Appropriately: When visiting religious sites or participating in traditional ceremonies, dress modestly and respectfully. Cover your shoulders and knees as a sign of respect for the local culture. Additionally, remove hats and sunglasses when entering sacred places.
Ask for Permission: If you wish to take photographs of local people, always ask for their permission first. Respect their privacy and avoid taking intrusive photos without consent.
Sustainable Tourism: Practice responsible and sustainable tourism by respecting the environment and local communities. Avoid leaving litter, stick to designated trails when hiking, and support local businesses and artisans by purchasing their products directly.
Shopping and Souvenirs
Cusco offers a myriad of shopping opportunities where you can find unique souvenirs and locally crafted items.
San Pedro Market: Visit San Pedro Market, the bustling central market in Cusco. Here, you can find a wide variety of goods, including fresh produce, textiles, handicrafts, and traditional Peruvian ingredients. Bargaining is common, so don’t be afraid to negotiate prices.
Artisanal Shops: Explore the narrow streets of Cusco, where you’ll find numerous artisanal shops offering beautifully crafted textiles, ceramics, silver jewelry, and traditional artwork. These unique pieces make for memorable souvenirs and gifts.
Fair Trade Practices: Look for shops and cooperatives that support fair trade practices and directly benefit local communities. By purchasing from these establishments, you contribute to sustainable development and ensure that artisans receive fair compensation for their work.
Nightlife and Entertainment
When the sun sets, Cusco comes alive with a vibrant nightlife scene. Here are some options for entertainment and nighttime activities.
Bars and Clubs: Enjoy a night out at the lively bars
and clubs in Cusco. From cozy pubs serving craft beers to vibrant dance clubs playing a variety of music, there’s something for everyone. Sip on signature cocktails, mingle with locals and fellow travelers, and dance the night away.
Live Music Venues: Immerse yourself in the vibrant music scene of Cusco by visiting live music venues. From traditional Andean music to contemporary fusion, you can find a diverse range of performances that showcase the region’s musical heritage.
Traditional Dance Performances: Experience the richness of Andean culture through traditional dance performances. Watch skilled dancers donning colorful costumes and showcasing captivating choreography that tells stories of ancient traditions and customs.
Money Matters and Currency Exchange
Understanding the local currency and handling your finances is crucial for a smooth travel experience in Cusco.
Currency: The official currency in Peru is the Peruvian Sol (PEN). Familiarize yourself with the current exchange rates before your trip to get a sense of the value of the Sol compared to your home currency.
Currency Exchange: Currency exchange offices, known as casas de cambio, can be found throughout Cusco. Compare rates and fees at different establishments to ensure you get the best exchange rate possible. It’s advisable to exchange money at reputable places or withdraw cash from ATMs to avoid counterfeit bills.
ATMs: ATMs are widely available in Cusco, especially in the city center. Make sure to notify your bank of your travel plans to avoid any issues with card usage. Check with your bank regarding any fees or restrictions for international withdrawals.
Handling Cash and Credit Cards: It’s a good idea to carry a mix of cash and credit cards for convenience and security. However, be mindful of your belongings and avoid displaying large sums of cash in public. Notify your bank or credit card company of your travel plans to prevent any unexpected blocks on your card.
Language and Communication
While Spanish is the official language in Cusco, English is spoken to varying degrees in tourist areas. Here are some language tips to enhance your communication during your visit.
Basic Spanish Phrases: Learning a few basic Spanish phrases can greatly enhance your travel experience and interactions with locals. Phrases such as greetings, asking for directions, and ordering food can go a long way in making connections and showing respect for the local culture.
English-Speaking Services: Many hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions have English-speaking staff. However, it’s always helpful to carry a pocket-sized phrasebook or use language translation apps to bridge any language barriers.
Photography Tips and Best Photo Spots
Cusco’s stunning landscapes and rich cultural heritage provide ample opportunities for photography enthusiasts. Here are some tips to capture memorable shots.
Golden Hour: Take advantage of the soft, warm light during the golden hour, which occurs shortly after sunrise and before sunset. The golden hour casts a magical glow on the city’s architecture and landscapes, creating stunning photographic opportunities.
Panoramic Viewpoints: Cusco offers several panoramic viewpoints that provide breathtaking vistas of the city and its surroundings. Head to spots such as the San Blas neighborhood, the Cristo Blanco statue, or the Sacsayhuaman ruins for unparalleled views. Remember to respect the privacy of locals while taking photographs.
Respect for Local Privacy: When taking photos of people, always ask for permission and respect their privacy. It’s important to strike a balance between capturing beautiful moments and respecting the dignity of the local community.
Departing from Cusco
As your time in Cusco comes to an end, here are some practical considerations for a smooth departure.
Checking Out and Settling Bills: Before leaving your accommodation, settle any outstanding bills and check out according to the agreed-upon procedures. Ensure you have all your belongings and conduct a final sweep of the room to avoid leaving anything behind.
Transportation to the Airport: Arrange transportation to the airport in advance to ensure a stress-free journey. Taxis and private transfers are available, and it’s advisable to leave with ample time to navigate through traffic and potential delays.
Last-Minute Souvenirs: If you haven’t already, use your remaining time in Cusco to pick up any last-minute souvenirs or gifts. Take a stroll through the artisanal shops or visit the San Pedro Market for unique items to remind you of your time in Cusco.
Cusco is a city that offers an incredible blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. From exploring ancient ruins and trekking through the Andes to immersing yourself in vibrant markets and indulging in delicious cuisine, Cusco has something for every traveler.
As you plan your trip to this enchanting destination, consider the tips and recommendations in this comprehensive travel guide. Whether you’re an adventure seeker, a history enthusiast, or a culture lover, Cusco will captivate your heart and leave you with lasting memories of an extraordinary journey. Farewell, and may your adventures in Cusco be truly unforgettable!