Cusco is located in southeastern Peru and on the eastern slope of the Andes. It is THE tourist destination par excellence and everyone who visits it is enchanted by the kindness of its people. But also by the imposing nature of its surrounding mountains, the warmth of its streets, and the history that still lives in each and every one of its corners. This Cusco Travel Guide will make sure you will not miss out on anything!
And that´s not all: the city of Cusco is also the gateway to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Its unique landscapes, ancient culture, and famous trekking routes will leave you speechless. From both Cusco and the Sacred Valley (Ollantaytambo), you can access the wonderful Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, as well. In this Destination Guide for Cusco, you will find important information and above all inspiration to plan your next adventure in the Peruvian Andes!
The city of Cusco (Cuzco), known as the capital of the Inca Empire, is the main tourist destination in the country. Its cobblestone streets and the perfect fusion between colonial and Inca architecture will take you back in time. It will let you experience the ancient culture that still prevails in this corner of the world. It is not without good reason that Cusco was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
The City of Cusco
Located 3,399 meters above sea level, this city will literally take your breath away. Its narrow streets will lead you to one of the most beautiful main squares in the world (according to many of our travelers). This is where the Inca Roads from the four suyos (regions) come together. Once on the main square, the imposing Cathedral will reveal itself in front of your eyes. Alongside, competing in beauty is the Church of the Company of Jesus. The mountains, the tiled rooftops, and the San Cristobal neighborhood in the background complete the magical landscape.
What is the best way to tour the city? Considering that Cusco is a destination visited by many tourists, we have designed our own way of getting to know it. This by trying to avoid the crowds and showing you those hidden treasures of the city. Our Cusco Walking Tour will take you to Qenqo and Sacsayhuaman first. After that you will visit the artistic neighborhood of San Blas and the Temple of the Sun. We will also make a strategic stop to enjoy a break.
Surrounding nature, museums and Cusco’s cuisine
Apart from just wandering around and discovering lovely streets and squares, you can also go for short walks to the surrounding nature. For example to Inkilltambo or the so-called Temple of the Moon (Amaru Marcahuasi or Laqo).
If you prefer cultural activities you can visit the various museums in the center of the city. And, something you definitely should not miss is to taste Cusco´s delicious cuisine. We will help you find out which are the best restaurants around. Or, if you prefer to prepare a typical dish yourself, you can take a look at our interactive Cooking Class, including a visit to a local market. We will soon be adding more workshop-like activities in Cusco for you to dive into the art and social projects.
Cusco is a destination that positively amazes and that has a lot to offer, no matter which way you go. If you are interested in including some of the attractions outside of the city (which we highly recommend you do), read on!
The Sacred Valley of the Incas
Located at the foot of the Peruvian Andes, this territory consists of rolling rivers and small towns full of history. At the time of the Inca Empire, the valley was of great importance. It was home to palaces, temples, fortresses, and trails that are now World Heritage Sites. Examples are Machu Picchu and the Qhapaq Ñan.
The Sacred Valley of the Incas offers you an endless number of activities, depending on your interests and on the type of traveler you are. The markets, full of color, thanks to their unique textiles, clothing, and art pieces are definitely a must-see. But you can also visit the different archaeological centers, such as Pisac and Ollantaytambo. If you are adventurous, you can go biking, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding in the Piuray Lagoon or ziplining. And of course, you can also opt for one of the many hikes, which can take the form of a one day or multiple-day trip, depending on your schedule and physical fitness.
If you are interested in Community Based Tourism (you know it’s our passion!) you can visit the different communities that still inhabit the valley and preserve their customs to this day. Many of them still live under the laws that prevailed during Inca times. There are so many options: depending on whether you are more interested in gastronomy, art, culture or adventure. You will certainly find a community that offers an ideal experience according to your preferences.
Things to See on the way to Machu Picchu
From the city of Cusco, you can get directly to Machu Picchu by taking a train ride that takes approximately 3 hours and 15 minutes. But if you are already in the valley we recommend taking the train that leaves from Ollantaytambo station (approximate duration of the train ride: 1 hour and 45 minutes). In case you were wondering: there are no roads leading to Machu Picchu (only the Inca Road, haha!).
If you have a more active spirit, you can choose one of the multi-day treks that lead to Machu Picchu such as the Lares Trek or the Salkantay Trek. Or opt for one of the most requested routes by travelers from all over the world, the famous Inca Trail.
Other treks like the Ausangate offer spectacular mountain landscapes. We trek Ausangate on our 5-day Ausangate Lodge to Lodge Trek. If you´re up for a physical challenge, Choquequirao can also be considered. Choquequirao features an archaeological site of Machu Picchu-like grandeur, though without the large crowds.
And should you tend towards avoiding the crowds when you can, we recommend our Coffee Route to Machu Picchu. A hike that will allow you to meet and share stories with coffee-growing families while enjoying beautiful landscapes. Our Coffee Route comes in several options but if you can’t find your ideal Coffee Route, get in touch with our dedicated travel designers for a bespoke experience to Machu Picchu.
What we recommend for you when traveling in Cusco
If you come to Cusco directly from the city of Lima or from any city that is close to sea level, we recommend you go straight to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. This way so you can acclimatize better and avoid altitude sickness.
There are lovely accommodations to meet everyone’s taste. Do not forget to check out the must-see places such as Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Maras, and Moray. Read our article staying safe when traveling in Peru for everything you need to know about altitude sickness when in Cusco.
What to pack for your trip to Cusco?
To prepare for your trip to the altitudes and strong sunshine of Cusco, take a look at our blog about What to Pack for your Trip to Peru. You will find recommendations on the essential clothing you should pack for the different terrains you will explore, and tips on toiletries and medicines that are good to have with you. Additionally, a full packing list can be downloaded so that you will enjoy Cusco and its surroundings in the best possible way.
How much time should I spend in Cusco?
Please leave enough time for Cusco itself, as you can easily spend several days in the city. With all the activities that can be done outside of the city, time flies when you also include the city’s cultural visits, shopping for the most beautiful souvenirs, and dining in the many great restaurants.
Did you know that the biggest Inca festivity is also held in Cusco? It is called Inti Raymi and is celebrated each year on June 24th. If you like a colorful experience and don’t mind the crowds, this spectacle should not be missed!
How a trip to Cusco connects to other destinations
Thanks to the fact that it is an important tourist destination, the city of Cusco connects very well with several other regions.
There are flights to and from many destinations throughout the country. For example, from Lima, Arequipa, and Juliaca a flight takes approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes.
We always recommend traveling by bus to the closest cities, because you are able to enjoy beautiful landscapes and are more environmentally friendly. If you are considering visits to these destinations, you may also want to check out our Guide to Lima and Travel Guide for Arequipa & Colca Canyon in Southern Peru.
By bus, you reach the city of Puno. The 7-hour direct trip will take you to the city from where the boats depart to the islands of Lake Titicaca. Travelers to this marvelous region can read our Travel Guide for Lake Titicaca & Puno.
From Cusco, you can also access Arequipa by bus, the trip will take you 10 hours and 30 minutes. Here you can enjoy the views of the Misti Volcano and visit the Colca Canyon. Great tip: three times per week, there’s also a direct tourist bus service between Cusco and the Colca Canyon.
If you want to add the jungle area to your itinerary you can get from Cusco to the Tambopata jungle. To do that, take the 10-hr bus to Puerto Maldonado and then head on to Tambopata. You could also visit the Manu Reserve, a destination for people who really want to disconnect from the modern world for a bit. For both destinations, it is best to add at least 4 to 5 more days to your trip.
If you want to leave Peru through the south, you can travel from Cusco to the city of La Paz, Bolivia. The trip will take you approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes by air. There are direct buses too, which take 14 hours.
As you can see, Cusco is a destination rich in landscapes, activities, gastronomy, history, and above all a good connection point to visit other places inside and outside of Peru.