UNESCO World Heritage site, Cusco, is a charming city, a getaway to all the trails to the most famous Inca ruins, Machu Picchu, and a hub for many other amazing hikes and tours. Traveling to Cusco is among the first on the bucket list of things to do in Peru. It has an interesting story, rooted culture and incredible traditions, charming cobblestone roads, and spectacular architecture. In this post, we will go through a few important pieces of information that it’s better to know before traveling to Cusco to be well prepared and informed.
Located close to the Urubamba Valley, also known as the Sacred Valley, in the Peruvian Andes, Cusco has been the capital of the Inca empire during its apogee, and it’s now one of the most visited cities in Peru attracting over 2 million visitors per year.
Her vicinity to the sacred valley and being the getaway to all the tours to the magnificent, and overcrowded, Macchu Picchu probably helped to reach its fame, although it is indeed a charming and interesting city with a lot to offer.
The following 2 weeks were still left unplanned, although I had in mind to do some more hikes and all the other amazing things to do in Arequipa.
While I was recovering from my jet lag in one of the cute cafes in Cusco, feeling already the negative effects of the high altitude in Cusco (4000mt), I was thinking about the people I met on my flight there.
All of them were on a charity mission. I thought how cool would that be to do the same while I am here. I started to search and after a lot of bureaucracy, I booked my 2 weeks of voluntary work, which would have started after the hike.
I was excited. Although I missed my other hikes, I felt I did something good, helping and teaching kids from a nearby town. But that’s for another post.
During a weekend when the school was closed I managed to plan a quick tour to Puno and visit some islands on the lake Titicaca, which I will talk about here.
Fast forward 5 years I am now on an eternal journey through the world and this year will be dedicated to discovering South America.
As I am planning my trip these days I am checking out all the most beautiful places and unmissable spots and decided that Peru must be included for sure and Cuzco as well.
Although I don’t normally like to go back to places I have seen, there are so many day trips from Cusco that I couldn’t do at that time and I decided to include them in my new itinerary.
I need to remember though, that altitude in Cusco is 4000 mt (12000 feet)and that’s not a joke. I had an altitude sickness problem and I was 4 days with a terrible headache and no Coca leaves or coca tea would help.
But as soon as you can get over the altitude sickness it’s paradise.
In this post, I will talk about the beautiful touristy city and the best area to stay in Cusco, what to visit, where to eat, and much more practical information you need to know.
21 Best Things to do in Cusco
Although Cuzco is mainly famous for being the gateway to one of the worlds seven wonders Machu Picchu, the most important archaeological site of the prehispanic population of the Incas, the charming city attracts flocks of tourists from all over the world who enjoy its vibrant historical center, its historical buildings, fancy restaurants proposing the delicious local cuisine, the narrow cobblestone roads and much more.
Here is what I have enjoyed during my trip and what I plan to see when I will be back in a couple of months.
Hang out in Plaza de Armas
The best place to start your visit to Cusco is the Plaza de Armas, the beating heart of the city.
Terraced bars and restaurants surround squared manicured gardens, where locals and tourists hang out sitting on the iron benches or walking around.
Sometimes street performers offer interesting shows as well. Right on one side is the beautiful Cusco Cathedral, which is also worth a visit.
Pay a visit to the Cathedral
Although we cannot forget that the Cathedral raise on the remainings of the old Inca temple, destroyed by the Spanish “conquistadors”, and has been built by the sweat and blood of the indigenous population, we cannot deny its magnificence and the beautiful example of gothic architecture with some baroque influence.
It is interesting to notice how the Incas incorporated some of their religious symbolism, such as the carved head of a jaguar in the doors.
The Jaguar is an important god or religious motif found widely through much of ancient Peru and among the Mayan culture in Mexico.
Admire the numerous artifacts such as a unique Peruvian touch in the replica of Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’: a CUY (local guinea pig and food delicacy – for some) appears on one of the plates.
The best way to enjoy it is to sit there for a while in silence observing every detail.
TIP: The normal price to enter the cathedral is $25 SOLES (USD 8) during the normal opening hours from 10 am – 6 pm. However, if you go during mass hours, it is free.
Cusco Cathedral Mass Times: 7 am – 9 am
Hang out in the bizzare San Pedro Market
The San Pedro market is a great place to get lost and appreciate the local culture.
You can spend an entire day browsing through the colorful stalls where they sell absolutely everything. I was especially intrigued by all the spices, candles, and various instruments used for spiritual healing. It’s fascinating.
If you are not too sensitive, you will notice entire cow heads, hanging chicken, and other macabre scenes that I would have been happy to avoid, but it is also part of the culture.
Fruits and veggies stalls were the nicest, giving so much color to the entire scene.
A lot of food vendors as well if you want to try the local street food.
Walk around the Barrio of San Blass
Barrio means neighborhood in Spanish. San Blass is on the quaintest corner of the city and one of the best places to stay in my opinion.
Situated at 10 minutes walking distance from the city center, the picturesque parish is where you will find the most interesting artifacts, cobblestoned narrow roads, lined by cute little cafes’ and local restaurants.
A lady and her son will walk with a lama to offer a picture for a few soles. I didn’t take it, but it would certainly make a great Instagram picture despite doubtful ethics. I still need to figure it out, though.
Try the local food
I was still vegan at the time, and I wasn’t certainly interested in trying the roasted cuy, guinea pig, a local delicacy. But if you don’t mind, they say it is good.
I went for the quinoa soup, instead. You can have it with chicken or vegan. I had it vegan, and it was delicious. Quinoa is an endemic cereal cultivated in Peru, and they make it in many different ways, but the soup is the best.
I will tell you where in the below section on the best restaurants in Cusco. The Peruvian ceviche is worldly famous, and the Inka Cola is a super sweet soda which I didn’t really like but worth tasting just for the sake of information.
Learn how to make chocolate
I had a blast in the Cacao Museum, where they organize workshops on how to make chocolate. So much fun and you got to taste your product as well. It’s also a good way to make friends. You can either book your class on the spot or prebook it here.
Enjoy the nightlife in Cusco
There are many bars where you can hang out at night with good music and great drinks. Of course, you need to try the Pisco sour. I am not a drinker, but I loved it.
I was there for St Patrick’s day, and I went to the Irish pub Paddy’s, right at the corner by Plaza de Armas, to celebrate with my Inca trail hiking companions. We had a blast…and many pisco sours.
Other places to enjoy at night are:
Mama Africa, Portal de Panes 109, for techno music all night long until 5 am ( I know for a fact as my hotel was right there 🙂
Ukukus Bar, Calle Plateros 316, for live music and different shows
For more options on the nightlife in Cusco, it’s better if you check out this guide as I am not much of an expert on nightlife in general :).
Visit the planetarium
This was not there during my visit, and I can’t wait to check it out when I go back. It’s a family-owned project which has the purpose of educating locals and tourists alike on the ancient Inca knowledge about the stars and planet the power of their influence on our earth.
They have different options, private and group tours, and also great initiatives with kids. You can check their site here.
Check out the 12 angles stone
Among all the ancient ruins that you can visit around Cusco, you can’t miss the 12 angles stone, located at a five-minute walk from the main square.
A piece of history, the heritage of the ancient Inca civilization, and an example of their perfect architecture. The stone is presently part of a wall of the palace of the Archbishop of Cuzco.
Address: Hatunrumiyoc 480
Take a cooking class
Since 2012 for 6 years in a row, Peru ranked first in the world travel awards as a culinary destination. They must be doing something good. So why don’t you take some cooking classes and learn from the best? You can check out different options for cooking classes here.
Refresh your spanish and learn it from the source
If you want to learn a new language, it’s always a good idea to do it in a place where they speak the language so that you can practice, and it’s twice as effective.
Many people decide to merge a vacation with an opportunity to learn. I did it when I wanted to learn English in England and Spanish in Spain, and I will do it when I get to Brazil as I want to learn Portuguese. It’s exciting, especially for the opportunity to mingle with the locals in their language.
Walking in Cusco
Everywhere I go, I always look for a walking tour or a bus tour when available. I schedule it on day one or two as it helps to familiarize myself with the city and get to know interesting tips from a local perspective. And sometimes you also make friends.
Normally there are free walking tours available but you are always required to leave a tip. So it’s not properly free.
There are also paying tours that are longer and include some of the archeological sites in the vicinities of Cusco. Before booking make sure you check what’s included in the tour.
To book the free walking tours you should ask your hotel reception. They will know for sure.
Otherwise here below you can find some tours at a cost.
Sightseeing bus tours in Cusco
If you don’t feel like walking, there are several bus tours available that offer 2-hour guided tours around the city covering all the major sights of Cusco.
You don’t have to do anything, sit back and relax while listening to the guide and looking at the colorful historical city. One of the companies I have heard of is Cusco Sightseeing Bus.
Visit the convent of Santo Domingo
This is probably one of the most meaningful construction in Cuzco and among your priorities, if you are short of time.
Inside what is now the Convent of Santo Domingo, you can admire what remains of the old Inca construction– the Temple of the Sun (Qoorikancha), the most important sacred temple in the Inca civilization.
It was covered with gold, and precious golden statues were erected within its beautiful courtyards. Just like it happened for many ancient precious buildings, even the Temple of The Sun has been demolished by the Spanish conquerors and replaced by the convent built by the Dominican priests.
Visit other churches
I always love to enter all the churches I see, be it for a second or for more, depending on how I feel at the moment. I love to check out the architectural details and take a moment of reflection and give thanks for my life.
It doesn’t matter what religion you are. I am not even sure whether I am Catholic or not, and I would do it in a synagogue or any other sacred place when they inspire peace and spirituality.
- Temple of San Blas
- Church and Convent of Our Lady of Mercy
- Convent of Santa Catalina
- Church of San Cristobal
- Church of San Pedro
- Archbishop’s Palace
NOTE – When I went to see the church of San Cristobal, a few lamas were hanging out freely in the garden just by the church. It was hilarious. I sit there and watch them for a while, and suddenly they started mating.
Buy Colorful andean themed souvenirs
I love the colored artisanal clothing and textiles in Latin America, from Mexico to Guatemala and South America.
They are all quite similar and yet very different in many ways. You will find them a lot. If you walk along the Avenida del Sol, the main avenue, you will see many shops. Some of them have the finest pieces of local art.
Yield to the temptation to buy them. You will bring a piece of the Quechua tradition with you and help the local population keep their tradition alive.
You will also find local street vendors selling their homemade artifacts, maybe even cheaper but still original.
On the way from Pukamuqu to Saqsaywaman, along with the nice walk in the woods, there is a big local shop with lots of textiles and artifacts. I remember they also had 2 sweet local dogs (Viringo Peruano) that I saw for the first time.
Visit a less touristy local market
If you love markets and find San Pedro too touristy, you can check out Wanchaq Market, tiny and very local.
Give back by volunteering, but do it right
I am going to write an entire post on this since I have contrasting feelings about volunteering. I did it, and I felt good about it.
However, I am not sure who gets the most benefits if the kids or the companies, which are supposed to be no profits, but they are. I feel that sometimes they hide behind the “charity” name to make more money. And I don’t think they should ask volunteers to pay to help them in the first place.
We volunteer already do our part by… volunteering, why do we also have to pay? It just doesn’t make sense. However, it is also true that these charity companies need money more than volunteers’ help to run their company and help those in need.
Most of the time, the volunteers’ work does more harm than good. This article from the Guardian explains exactly what my concerns are about volunteering.
Learn about the inca history by visiting the local museums
There are many museums in Cusco, especially about the Peruvian culture and traditions. There is a pass that you can buy, and it includes the main ones.
You can check it with the tourist office and see what is more convenient for you. My favorite is the Inka Museum, The Quechua Museum, The Museo de arte precolombino and the Textiles one.
Read my guide to the most popular Museums in Cusco
Let’s talk about the Ayahuasca ritual in Cusco
If you haven’t ever heard of it, you will in Cusco as they advertise it everywhere as if it was the most common and commercialized thing in the world. Instead, you need to be careful.
The Ayahuasca is a drug that was used in the past by the indigenous people to get closer to the Gods during their religious rituals.
Now it is commercialized as a healing method that cleanses your body and soul from the rubbish from the past and transforms you into your real being.
It would be all amazing if it were not for the huge business they have built around it and, consequently, lots of scammy people offering the “service.”
I was offered an ayahuasca treatment of 3 days for 500 USD! Crazy.
The real Ayahuasca ritual is assisted by a local expert shaman who should be willing to perform it for free or a small offer because he does it for spiritual vocation and not as a business.
It must be executed and assisted by experts and “elected” people who know what they are doing.
On the contrary, if it’s not done properly, it can negatively affect you. After all, it’s a real drug and not a light one.
Therefore if you want to do it, do your homework and research very well and make sure it’s real. If they ask you for lots of money and they are foreigners, I would stay away. But also, in case you find a cheap one, investigate the supposed shaman, ask around and listen to your gut feelings.
Take a day trip from Cusco (or many)
There are several day trips from Cuzco that you can choose from, all of them exciting and entertaining.
The easiest day trip from Cusco that you can do on your own is to a group of archeological sites Saqsaywaman, Qenqo, and Pukamqu at only 30 minutes taxi ride from Cusco.
You go to the first one and climb your way down to the others. I did it on a rainy day, but it was so enjoyable. That was my first hike in Cusco, Peru, before hiking to the Macchu Pichu.
Other day trips from Cusco go to the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo, Maras, the rainbow mountain, and many more.
You can check out my guide to the 10 amazing day trips from Cusco to know more about your options.
Where to stay in Cusco
There is an incredible variety of hotels in Cusco for any budget and style. From cheap hostels to luxury properties that have been previously old mansions of the Spanish aristocracy.
Here are my top picks:
Luxury stay: Antigua Casona San Blas
If you chose to stay in the funky barrio of San Blass, I found this hotel to be the best option, with an old feeling but still very modern and elegant is what I call laid-back luxury. Chic but not pretentious. The austere rooms with parquet floors and raw wooden furniture make your stay comfortable and cozy.
Check rates & availability: Booking.com
ANAHUARQUE Hotel Boutique
Cozy hotel in a precious historical courtyard right behind plaza de Armas and at ridiculously low prices.
The spacious and colorful rooms will allow you to rest comfortably after a day of exploring the city and surroundings. In the historical patio, you will enjoy a delicious breakfast.
Check rates & availability: Booking.com
Cusco Travel tips
The origin of the name Cusco
An estimated population of about 435,000.
Where is Cusco located?
Situated in the southeast region of Peru, Cusco is the capital city of the Region and the province of Cusco.
Language in Cusco
The original dialect is Quechua but the official and spoken language is Spanish.
The local currency is the SOL
1 USD equals 3.30 Sol at the time of writing.
As in every tourist place, the best and safest place to exchange money is in banks.
Altitude in Cusco
The altitude in Cusco is about 3.600 mt (12.000 feet). It takes time to get used to it. I remember panting while exploring Cuzco through the steep and cobbled stoned roads.
All worth the efforts though. They would sell you coca leaves to chew or to make tea to drink. They even have chocolates made with coca.
In my case, it didn’t help and I had to get to my old friend Paracetamol. But altitude sickness affects every individual in different ways. Just be mindful and listen to your body.
Suggestion to fight altitude sickness:
- They suggest spending a couple of days in Cusco before visiting the Machu Pichu so that you can use to the altitude. In fact, Machu Pichu is at a lower altitude so by the time you get there you will be fine.
- drink a lot of water
- avoid alcohol, at least the first couple of days until you feel better
- during the hike they say not to get any medicament so that in case of sickness the guide would be able to interpret the symptoms and advise accordingly.
Temperature in Cusco
Temperatures go from 4º to 17º (39F to 63F) all year round except winter, in June and July from -3 to 17 (27Fº to63Fº).
At night the temperature drops significantly.
The rainy season is from December to March and the rainiest month is normally January whereas the driest months are June and July.
Best time to visit Cusco
According to the weather, it would be June and July which would be colder but sunnier. However, those are the months with more tourism and more expensive rates.
I went in March and although I got some good rain during my hike to Machu Picchu I enjoyed that it was relatively less crowded and had warm temperatures during the day.
The best time to visit Cusco would the be same as for visiting Machu Picchu, the shoulder season, End of April, May and October- November when you get the best of both worlds:
- Little rain
- not too cold weather
- clear sunny skies
- fewer crowds
- great hotrel deals
Safety in Cusco
I didn’t feel any particular danger in Cusco.
However, unfortunately, there is a lot of poverty and lots of beggars on the roads, sadly the majority are kids who are sent by parents to beg for money.
Who doesn’t melt at the pleading of those sweet pretty faces?
It’s hard to resist handing them some coins but I discourage you from doing it as you would support kids’ exploitation. It’s a huge problem.
Also, as in all places with a high poverty rate street crime, including muggings and thefts are quite common. Use some common-sense rules like the ones I listed in this post and you will prevent some unpleasant situations.
How to get from Lima to Cusco
As all international flights get to Lima (although Cusco is considered an international airport but only flights from Bolivia get there, all the others are domestic flights) you will need to find the best transportation option from Lima to Cuzco.
You can opt for a longer but more scenic Bus ride or jump on a plane and get to Cuzco in a blink of an eye. There is no better or worse it is totally up to you depending on how much time you have and what you prefer.
How to get from Lima to Cusco by bus
If you have time on your side and decide to take advantage of a bus ride to see the beautiful Peruvian landscapes you can opt for the comfortable buses. There are a lot of bus companies and different routes that take you to Cuzco from Lima and I have found a great guide to help you make up your mind. Click here to read it.
How to get from Lima to Cusco by plane
The city’s international airport code is CUZ. It normally connects with Lima, Juliaca, Puerto Maldonado, Arequipa in Peru, and La Paz (Bolivia) and Santiago de Chile (Chile) internationally.
Cheap flight from Lima to Cusco
You have a lot of options and choose from many different local airlines LATAM, TACA, StarPerú, and Peruvian Airlines, all have regular flights from Lima to Cusco and vice versa. As usual, I suggest you should check them all and choose what suits you best for their schedule and price.
Prices range from 90 USD to 110 or more depending on time and airline. You can either click on the different airlines and check out prices or check an aggregator such as Skyscanner to compare prices. I would do both.
TIP – Taxis from Cusco Airport to the city can be expensive. You can pre-book your transfer here, for only 7 USD.
What is the tourist ticket?
The touristic ticket ( Boleto Turistico) it’s a way to save money if you are planning to visit many places that imply an entry fee, including archeological sites and museums.
As you could see there are a lot of interesting places to explore and if you buy each ticket it would be much more expensive.
On this site that I have found, you can check the price options and the sites included, and where to buy it.
Fun Fact about Cusco
Did you know that the city of Cusco has been designed in the shape of a Puma? Somebody took the time to do some research about and here you can read what he has found.