Cusco is the launchpad for some of Peru’s best adventures. Most travellers stay here on their way to visit Machu Picchu or the Sacred Valley. It is the ideal layover before embarking on the Inca Trail or other alternative multi-day treks.
After spending more than a month in Cusco, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Here’s my guide to spending time in and around Cusco. I've also included my favourite Cusco hangouts and advice for making the most of your stay.
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Cusco City Travel Guide
Cusco is so more than just a place to rest and prepare for your Machu Picchu trek. This is a lively city with plenty to do and even more to see. The fun vibe is due to a healthy blend of locals, tourists, and expats that make up this locale.
Getting To Cusco
Unfortunately, there are no direct international flights to Cusco. The easiest way to get here is to take an international flight to Lima. From Lima, you will be able to catch a connecting flight to Cusco (which is about an hour long).
There is also the option to take the long road. Many bus companies run routes between Lima and Cusco. If you do it in one trip, this takes about 24 hours on the road.
If you have the time, you could break up the journey. I’d suggest taking a less-direct loop via Ica (a desert oasis) and Arequipa. While in Arequipa, you may even want to hike up Misti volcano or Colca Canyon.
You could also organize a private transfer between the cities. However, this will cost you as much (or more) as a flight. It may be worth it if you are traveling with a larger group.
If you are traveling to Cusco from the south, or Bolivia, there is an option to go by rail. Train services run between Cusco, Arequipa, and Puno (located on Lake Titicaca).
A Brief History Of Cusco
People have been living in Cusco for over 3,000 years. This makes it the longest inhabited city in all of the Americas. Before the Incas, Cusco was home to the Killke people (900-1200AD).
The Incan ruler, King Pachacuti, is credited with expanding Cusco into a great capital city, which was during the height of the Inca’s reign (13th -16th century). It is believed that Cusco was purposefully planned to be in the shape of a puma. This cat is one of the Incas' sacred animals (see Machu Picchu animals).
The Spaniards first arrived in Cusco in 1533. Famous conqueror Francisco Pizzaro claimed the city in the name of the Spanish King. A war ensued between the Incan people and the Spanish, which went on for almost 20 years.
In 1572, the last Incan King, Tupac Amaru, was captured and executed in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas. The Spanish knocked down most of the structures and built on top of some walls and foundations. You can still see these Incan walls around the main square and San Blas neighbourhood in the main section of Cusco.
In 1821, Peru finally gained independence from Spain after an ongoing rebellion from the native population. Neighbouring countries eventually stepped in to support Peru’s push for independence.
Today, Cusco is the archaeological and tourist capital of Peru. UNESCO declared it a world heritage site in 1978. If you visit Cusco, you will be one of 3 million tourists to pass through this city each year.
Altitude In Cusco
Cusco sits at an elevation of 3,400m (11,155 ft) above sea level. For most people, it is not normal to be at such a high altitude.
When you arrive in Cusco, there is a good chance that you may experience symptoms related to altitude gain. At the very least, you will find yourself out of breath very easily.
To minimize the negative effects of altitude sickness, take it easy for a few days. Drink lots of water and coca tea. You should also avoid doing anything too strenuous. After 2-3 days, your body should be better acclimatized.
Take a minute to read our full guide on altitude sickness symptoms and prevention.
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Top Things to Do In Cusco
There is a lot to do in Cusco. How you spend your time will depend on how long you have and your own preferences. This is a summary of the top things to do in Cusco.
For a more detailed description of these and other Cusco highlights, read our full Cusco activity guide.
Take A Free Walking Tour
In Cusco, you will find offers for several free walking tours. These tours usually start at 10 am or 3 pm from the main square. I recommend this be the first thing you do In Cusco. You will learn a lot about the city, including fun details that you can’t find in guidebooks.
The guides are also a great source of information on places to visit during your stay. Don’t forget to show your gratitude with a decent tip!
Visit Cusco’s Ruins
At Saqsaywaman you will need to pay an entrance ticket of 70 soles which includes 2 other sites. Visiting the Moon Temple is free and is also a great place to go on a short hike along the Incan pathways.
You can also do a day trip to Rainbow Mountain.
Browse The Market
Cusco Markets are not just for shopping. These collections of stands are a complete cultural experience. It's worth meandering around and soaking in the explosion of color, noise, and smell.
Of course, these markets are the best place to buy fresh fruit, chocolate, cheese, coffee, and meat. If you can think of it, it’s probably sold at these markets.
You will find all the souvenirs your heart desires at San Pedro Market. I’d also recommend visiting the smaller San Blas Market.
Kiss an Alpaca
If you want a picture with an Alpaca or Llama, head to Campo de Artesenos. The animals here are visibly happy and walk around freely. It’s a perfect fix for some alpaca cuddles!
This is a small, non-profit organization trying to improve animal welfare in and around Cusco.
Please Note: Although tempting, I would avoid supporting the ladies dragging around alpacas and lambs in the central plaza. This is not the best treatment for animals. Sadly, it's foreigners who encourage this type of tourism.
Spend A Night On The Town
Cusco has some of the best nightlife in Peru. If you want to know where the party is, walk down Tecsecocha Street. You will find it just off the central plaza.
There are numerous dive bars and discotecas here, all trying to lure you inside with free shots. I enjoyed the cozy atmosphere and live music at Rock House Cafe.
Looking for something more relaxed?
Best Places to Eat in Cusco
Cusco has restaurants to match the multicultural inhabitants of the city. From local dishes to fine dining, there is something for everyone's taste. Below are some of the best places to grab a bite:
Morena Peruvian Kitchen
San Blas Market
San Blas Market is one of the smaller and more peaceful markets in Peru. Here, you will have a variety of options at the food stalls. This is the best cheap eats on offer in town.
I have done a more in-depth review of these and more restaurants in Cusco, which you can read all about in greater detail.
Where to Stay In Cusco
In Cusco, you will find a whole range of available accommodation - everything from luxury suites in 5-star Cusco hotels to cheap backpacker rooms.
If you are on a tight budget, your best bet is a bed in a shared dorm. Chusay Rooftop has great views over the city at an affordable price.
If you are looking for something more comfortable, I recommend Estancia San Blas. This hidden gem has a warm atmosphere and you will immediately feel right at home.
You can also find really good homestay accommodation in Cusco. La Casa de Ingrid is one of my favorites.
For more options on Cusco accommodation, you can read my Best Hotels in Cusco article.
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Start planning your Machu Picchu hiking holiday.
Thanks for reading my Cusco guide! Whether you're on a hiking tour or on a cultural pilgrimage, there is so much to do in this beautiful town hidden amongst the clouds.
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