Cusco was the capital of the mighty Inca Empire that stretched from Ecuador all the way down south as far as Santiago, Chile. For it to be the heart of such a huge empire, Cusco must’ve been founded at a perfect location. This perfect location is surrounded by a beautiful landscape that remained unspoiled even today. This powerful beauty and history are what attracts thousands of travelers to Peru every year, and it’s easy to understand why there are so many things to do in Cusco that any type of tourist will enjoy a trip there.
Adventure, culture, history and food, Cusco and the whole country offer incredible attractions all year around. Planning a trip to Cusco is essential, you need to think about the weather, the tours you want to do, the day trips from Cusco, how you gonna get from Cusco to Machu Picchu and other places around.
When is the best time to travel to Cusco, Peru?
You can travel to Peru during the whole year, but the best time to visit Cusco and also the best time to go to Machu Picchu is during the winter [cold temperatures, but sunny days], from June to August. This period is also the high season when most of the travelers flock to Peru looking for the best things to do in Cusco and around. Pay extra attention to the holidays that happen in the of July and also de Inti Raymi, the Sun Festival that happens on June 24 in Cusco. It’s one of the biggest attractions in Cusco, but also a busy time to visit Peru.
The rainy season starts from December all the way to April, it’s not the best time to travel to Cusco especially if you are looking for outdoor activities and trekking, but it’s totally doable. Just be prepared for muddy tracks and pouring rain. We would say that the best time to visit Machu Picchu and Cusco would be between seasons, like May, September, and October, the weather will probably be good and the places to visit in Cusco and around won’t be packed with people.
Where to Stay in Cusco, Peru
Before we dive into the list of what to do in Cusco and around you need to think about where to stay in Cusco. There are plenty of hotels in Cusco, from 5 star to hostels and guesthouses. Here it is our list of the best places to stay in Cusco, you can choose the one that suits your travel style and budget.
Top things to do in Cusco for all type of travelers
Cusco has activities for everyone, and today we’ll look at how each traveler type can enjoy the beauty, the history and the culture of the Inca Empire. Pick your favorite ones or pack all them in an ultimate travel itinerary to Cusco, Machu Picchu and around.
Things to do in Cusco for the history buffs
Machu Picchu is the most famous attraction in Peru and the main reason most travelers visit Cusco. Built in the 1400s, Machu Picchu escaped the Spanish conquest and remained hidden from the outside world until 1911. It served as the religious and political capital of the Incas and is regarded to be one of the most sacred sites of the Inca empire. Machu Picchu receives over 3000 visitors per day, but still exudes a mystical feeling to its visitors. You can take a luxurious train ride or do a multi-day trek to Machu Picchu. There are many options of Machu Picchu tours from Cusco [click here] and maybe choose one of them.
If you prefer to avoid the crowd, the Choquequirao site is a good alternative to Machu Picchu. Like her iconic sister, Choquequirao was a sacred site that was hidden from invaders and the first excavations done only in the 1970s. Even now, only 30% of the archaeological site is excavated. It served as a ceremonial center and a spiritual site, although guides will be quick to admit: not much is known about the place. Unlike Machu Picchu, Choquequirao only receives around 30 visitors a day – partly due to its isolated location. To get there, travelers must hike across a challenging canyon. It takes 4 days to get there and back, it’s definitely a unique experience to have in Peru.
The Sacred Valley is a combination of history and beauty across a series of towns, valleys, and historical sites. The most famous are the terraced ruins of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, the alien-like agricultural laboratory at Moray, the photogenic salt mines of Maras, and the colorful village of Chinchero. You can rent a car to go from Cusco to Sacred Valley by yourself or you join a day trip from Cusco, check the possibilities at one of the many tour agencies lined along the main square. A guide will explain how the Incas built their fortresses high up the mountains, experimented with different crops and harvested natural resources with technologies way advanced than its time!
Things to do in Cusco for the nature lover
Ausangate is the name of a sacred Apu [mountain in the native language]. The 5-6 days Ausangate trek is touted as one of the toughest but most beautiful in the Cusco region. You’ll trek for long hours in high altitude and sleep in freezing temperatures. But you’ll also walk under towering snow-capped mountains and camp near mesmerizing blue lakes. You’ll interact with indigenous communities and get up close with playful llamas. You’ll see some of the most incredible landscapes and feel that the challenge is all worth it.
If you do not have time for a multi-day trek, the Humantay Lake is a great day trip from Cusco. This glacier lake blew me away the first time I saw it. The lake lies at the feet of the majestic Apu Humantay and its crystal blue water sparkles when the sun shines on it. You can even climb up to a narrow ridge above the lake for a beautiful view of the surroundings. Most tour agencies in Cusco offer day trips to Humantay Lake and it’s definitely one of the top things to do in Cusco.
The Rainbow Mountain is another great day trip from Cusco. It was discovered less than 10 years ago and recently exploded in popularity. The 2-hours hike up the 5200 mountain is extremely challenging but when you finally reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with an unbelievable view of the 7-color mountain, possibly the most Instagrammable mountain in Peru! Do note that at over 5000m, the main difficulty is the altitude. Horses are available for rent the whole way up the mountain.
Things to do in Cusco for the adventure seeker
If adrenaline is what excites you, then the Slingshot by Action Valley is for you. The Slingshot is like a reverse bungee where you blast off into the air like a human catapult to over 120m in 3s. This intense experience lets you live off your Superman fantasy – even if just for a few seconds.
Among the fun things to do in Cusco is the highest bungee jump in South America. Jump off from a platform 120m high and free fall into the beautiful Inca region of Cusco. Conquer your fears and strike off an item on your adventure bucket list with Action Valley, who has more than 20 years of experience and a solid track record of 100 000 jumps.
Things to do in Cusco for the Foodie
Cuy, or guinea pig, is a popular dish in Peru. Guinea pig meat is high in protein and low in fats and was a staple diet of the Inca empire. Some people cringed at the sight of this rodent, some love it. Be warned though, this novelty food does not come cheap but should be on an adventurous foodie’s must-try list.
Ceviche is the [unofficial] national food of Peru, made up of raw fish slices ‘cooked’ with citrus juices and spiced with chili peppers. It tastes a little sour, a little spicy and very, very fresh. Try it at a fancy restaurant or have it alongside locals at the San Pedro market. If you’re a seafood lover, you’d love ceviche very much.
Peru’s national drink is the Pisco Sour, an alcoholic cocktail that is considered a South American classic. The drink is a mix of Pisco – the base liquor – and lime juice, syrup, egg white and a little Angostura for a slightly bitter taste. Order it at a bar, try it for free on a walking tour in Cusco or learn how to make it in a cooking class.
Things to do in Cusco for the culture geek
There is a whole range of museums in Cusco that will satisfy any culture, history and art lover. Learn about Inca history at the Inka Museum, or appreciate art at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Discover the benefits of Coca leaves at the Coca Museum or indulge in some chocolate at the Choco Museum. Visit the Machu Picchu Museum to learn more about the wondrous ruins or know more about the region at the Cusco Regional History Museum. If the weather is not so good and you are wondering what to do in Cusco, the answer is museums.
The Qorikancha, or Temple of the Sun, was perhaps the most sacred and most important building in the Inca empire. During the Inca period, this building was covered in sheets of gold and decorated with gold statues. Presently, it acts as a church, museum, and convent under one roof. You can clearly see the architecture from three distinct eras: pre-Inca, Inca and Colonial, a must see in Cusco. The entrance fee to Qorikancha is PEN $10. Guides can be hired for a more detailed explanation of the historical significance of this building.
Things to do in Cusco for the shopaholic
I’m sure you can’t miss out the bright, colorful artisan markets in Cusco. They are all over the Andean region! You can buy all sorts of souvenirs like wool sweaters, shoes, jewelry, paintings, accessories, notebooks etc. Most of the textiles are hand-knitted, vibrant and extremely detailed. They will remind you of your awesome time in Cusco. They are relatively cheap, but don’t forget to bargain!
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Owen Ter is a travel blogger from Singapore. After graduating from university, he bought a one-way ticket to South America, backpacked for one year and visited all countries on the continent. Oh, and he brought along an inflatable graduation hat. His favorite city is Cusco. He writes at My Turn to Travel. You can also follow him on Facebook or Instagram.