You’re in Peru, specifically Cusco, which means you probably have Machu Picchu somewhere in your itinerary. As one of the Seven Wonders of the World, this is definitely a can’t-miss – but don’t stop there!
As the OG site of the Incan Empire, Cusco has so much to offer and your breath will be taken away by its stunning landscapes, epic adventures, and yes, high altitudes (are we done with the altitude puns? Not yet? Perfect).
Here are some of the top things you need to do when visiting Cusco.
Protect yourself from altitude sickness
At three, four, and even five thousand metres above sea level, many travellers experience altitude sickness in the region of Cusco – so before we get into the fun stuff, our #1 reco of things to do is to listen to your body and stay healthy!
Drink plenty of water and electrolytes. Dabble in the locals’ altitude remedy of coca through leaves, tea, candy, and other goodies. Take your time and let your body adjust to the new heights before you dive into anything too strenuous.
Drink a pisco sour
Now that we’ve covered the hydration aspect above, it’s time to “hydrate” yourself with the Peruvians’ bevvy of choice – pisco sours! Made with pisco (a local brandy), lime juice, simple syrup, egg white, and bitters, this drink will be on every menu across the region.
Kick off your city tour at the main square
To orient yourself with the beautiful city that is Cusco, start off at the main square called Plaza de Armas right in the heart of the historical centre. This is a great spot to take in Cusco in all its glory, with a central fountain, stone pathways, manicured gardens, and orange-roofed buildings scaling the hills that surround you. It’s especially lovely at night when the hills are dotted with lights.
The square is adorned with a cathedral, church, and plenty of options for food and drink, as well as shopping to satisfy your souvenir needs or prepare you for your adventures in the Andes (there’s even a Patagonia store!).
Hike Rainbow Mountain
Located a three-hour drive from Cusco city, Rainbow Mountain is attracting tourists from around the world due to its different coloured stripes that have been formed from a unique combination of the tectonic activity and erosion of various minerals. Ranging from an hour and a half to three hours, the trek is extremely difficult and cold, and you will certainly be short on breath as you near the peak at 5,200 metres. But keep breathing and don’t fret, because the view of the surrounding landscapes is absolutely stunning.
You’re in Latin America – it’s time to get your salsa on. Check out our guide of where to drink in Cusco for some recos, or just head over to Mama Africa in the main square and shake it till dawn.
Visit an alpaca farm
Located 30 minutes from Cusco city and a stopover on Contiki’s Inca Panorama tour, alpaca farm Awana Kancha is the perfect opportunity to get that prized llama selfie (also that alpaca selfie). Quick lesson: Llamas and alpacas are both part of the cameloid family, but alpacas are shorter, fluffier, have their ears back instead of forward, and are generally cuter and cuddlier… no offence llamas.
Awana Kancha also offers the opportunity to experience a variety of cultural activities such as wool spinning, tapestry weaving, and wood carving. Make sure to check out the gift shop, it is awesome!
Buy all the things at the local markets
Cusco and Peru, in general, have some the most beautiful, unique souvenirs on the planet. Across the region, you will come across countless markets selling alpaca attire ranging from sweaters, gloves, socks and blankets, and it is all oh-so-soft. Make sure to save some room in your suitcase for this one.
San Pedro market is located in the heart of Cusco city, just a three-block walk from the main square, and is a great look into the locals’ day-to-day life. This is where the people of Cusco come for fruits, vegetables, grains, sweets, as well as other supplies.
You can also find many tourist-focused markets on Avenida del Sol, with all the cool stuff you’ve been saving room in your suitcase for. With plenty of artisan goods, this street is perfect for picking up gifts for your loved ones back home, or, you know, yourself.
Experience the magic of Machu Picchu
You don’t come to Cusco and not check out Machu Picchu — in fact, it’s probably the main attraction that brought you here in the first place. This historic Incan city built into the majestic high jungle mountains will truly take your breath away. You can access via a one day or four day hike along the Inca trail, hiking up the hill from the nearby town Aguas Calientas or taking to bus up to the main gate. Get those cameras ready, people! Prepare to be amazed.
Check out the museums
Cusco city has a number of museums to satisfy your craving for knowledge and insight into the Peruvian way of life. An important monument of colonial times, the Inca Museum is a display of Pre-Inca and Inca archeological and cultural treasures. You can find gold, pottery, jewelry, mummies, and other materials that will give you a fascinating look into the Incan empire.
Try the local cuisine
Peruvian cuisine is mm-mm delicious. Make sure to try out the local eats while you’re in Cusco, including ceviche, alpaca meat, guinea pig meat, or the traditional dish lomo saltado, which is a stir-fry of beef and vegetables served with fries. Cusco has plenty of internationally inspired places to eat as well – check out our guide of the best places to eat in Cusco for our full list!
Immerse yourself in a true Peruvian experience at Qolqanpata Inca Park
For an in-depth look at all things Peru, visit Qolqanpata Inca Park located right outside of the historical centre. You will experience the best of Peru’s cultural and natural attractions, including authentic cuisine, alpacas, a suspension bridge, and tons of beautiful orchids and butterflies. There is even a children’s play area to let the little ones burn off their energy!
Take a day trip to Humantay Lagoon
If Peru’s landscapes haven’t blown you away yet, this turquoise lake nestled amongst snow-capped mountains absolutely will. There are plenty of tour operators across Cusco to help arrange guided treks to the lake. Make sure to pack warm, as at 4,200 metres above sea level you’ll be up against some chilly temperatures!
Visit the Temple of the Sun (Coricancha)
Right in the centre of Cusco city, you can find ancient grounds that were home to the most revered temple of the Incas, which was re-built into a Catholic church during the Spanish Conquest. From above, the complex is a design of a sun with 41 rays pointing to various sacred sites around the empire. Known as the crown jewel of the Incas, it’s a great site to get a pre-Machu Picchu taste of their meticulous stonework and also has a great view of Cusco city.
Go river rafting
If you love nature and adventure, stop right here. The Sacred Valley has some awesome (and picturesque) adrenaline-rushing activities, and one of the best is to navigate the rapids on the Urubamba River. Surrounded by spectacular scenery and a taste of Incan ruins, this activity will check all your boxes. You can pick your degree of difficulty of the rapids but no matter what, make sure to wear waterproof clothing – splashing is in the forecast!
Take in the views from the San Cristobal mirador
Cusco is a stunning city, with densely packed buildings populating the rolling hills that surround the city centre, small and charming streets lining the hills, and orange-coloured roofs as far as the eye can see. The views are amazing no matter where you are, but heading up to the San Cristobal mirador is the Instagram shot you don’t want to miss.