What to do in Cusco

by Freddy October 13, 2022
packages cusco

Cusco is the center of tourism in Peru and one of the most important cities in the country. Its vast array of natural and archaeological sites offers visitors from all over the world a unique perspective into the history of the region, and a lasting experience to take home for years to come. Cusco is full of natural charm, scenic beauty, cultural diversity, and ancient history that is still preserved in the customs and traditions of its people. If you plan to travel to Cusco, in this blog we provide you a list of activities you can do and the places you should know.

Explore the monuments of Cusco

Main Square (Plaza de Armas) –

Cusco’s main square, the Plaza de Armas, is the central core of modern Cusco. These days the square is flanked on all sides by restaurants, gift shops travel agencies, as well as two Catholic churches built during the colonial period. The cathedral of Cusco and the Church of the Society of Jesus. During Inca times these sites housed the palaces of the Inca rulers, but have since become the foundations of Catholic temples. Throughout the main streets you can find relics such as the stone of the 12 angles, impressive stone walls, palaces, and well-preserved buildings from the Inka period. Each providing an opportunity for some magnificent souvenir photos to take home.
plazacusco1 machu picchu viajes peru

The Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun) –

The Temple of the Sun or Qoricancha, was the religious, geographical, and political center of Cusco during the period of the Incas, as it leads to all four quarters of the Inca Empire. Qoricancha also offers a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the building methods of the Inca’s of old, and modern-day Catholicism. Its internal convent was built on the spectacular Qorikancha place of gold, a site dedicated to the worship of the sun, whose walls were covered with sheets of gold. The convent stands on a foundation of polished stone structures, the most finely crafted in the Inca Empire. Its gate is an excellent example of Renaissance, and its unique tower, baroque, is prominent on the tiled roofs of the city. Like all churches, it has an important collection of paintings of the Cusquenian School.
koricancha machu picchu viajes peru

San Pedro Market –

San Pedro market is the oldest, most central and most famous market in Cusco. Founded in 1925, it is the commercial core of the city and still remains the largest concentration point for the supply of essential materials for Cusco and its visitors. Without a doubt, San Pedro market offers a cultural experience like no other, as its bursting with Andean traditions including sounds, smells, local gestures and of course the native Quechua language. Vendors inside the market are selling everything from fresh produce to meats, to handmade garments and crafts and even precious delicacies of the Andean people.
mercado san pedro

Sacsayhuaman, Q’enqo, Tombomachay and Puca Pucara

These four archaeological centers offer visitors some real highlights throughout a visit to Cusco.

The fortress of Sacsayhuaman is a stunning example of Inca military architecture. The complex was originally dedicated to safeguarding the city of Cusco from attacks by invaders from the east. Sacsayhuaman was built using giant slabs of granite and dry-stone walls and is made up of three large terraces which overlap in a ‘zigzag’. The terraces are flanked by enormous stone ramparts up to 300 meters in length. Due to its proximity and elevation to Cusco city, and its 5 meter high stones (weighing up to 350 tonnes), the site served as a quarry for certain structures inside the city of Cusco.

Q’enqo is located 4 kilometres northeast of the city of Cusco, and was once a spiritual center of the Inca’s, built on a singular outcrop of limestone. Its underground galleys and semicircular amphitheatre fulfilled a purely religious function. Hosting ceremonies in honor of their major gods such as the sun, the moon, the mountains and the earth. Q’enqo is also home to the Intihuatana, an astronomical observatory used to calculate the position of the sun and to predict changes in the seasons.

Tambomachay is another ceremonial center that is part of the Sacsayhuaman archaeological park. It consists of a series of aqueducts, canals and waterfalls that run through the terraced rocks. The complex is situated near natural springs that have been channelled through its flowing waterfalls. The function of Tambomachay is thought to be anything from a military outpost to a spa resort for the Inca political elite, or even an imperial bath house, since the sacred water fountains have been found in all of the major Inca temples.

Puca Pucara was once an important military outpost and administrative center of the Incas, thanks to its strategic positioning on high ground, alongside a major road just 7km from Cusco. Its large walls, terraces, and stairways are constructed of irregularly shaped stones, that famously change to a red color after nightfall.
sacsayhuaman1 machu picchu viajes peru

Explore the Sacred Valley of the Incas

If you plan to spend your vacations in Peru, then look no further than the picturesque Sacred Valley for a deep dive into the history of the Incas. The valley is a hub for some of the most important archaeological complexes in the region, and is the gateway to the Sanctuary of Machu Picchu. Its agricultural terraces and native Quechua villages permeate the landscape, and give visitors an insight into the ancient lives of the inhabitants. It is also home to the famous network of Inca Trails that once facilitated communication channels through the Inca messengers called ‘chasquis’.

Ollantaytambo –

Ollantaytambo is a picturesque Inca settlement in the Sacred Valley, home to bustling local markets and the famous Inca fortress that towers above the town. It was named in honor of the chieftain ‘Ollanta’, famous for his romance with the Inca princess, daughter of Pachacútec. The impressive archaeological site is located on temple hill, overlooking the Vilcanota river below, and was once the royal estate of the Inca Emperor Pachacutec.

An established Inca Trail also starts from Ollantaytambo, which ascends to the Málaga pass at an altitude of 4’200 m / 13,780 ft. The trail follows the direction of the mountain, passing through towns like Huilloc, home to the renown Huairuros.ollantaytambo3d machu picchu viajes peru
Pisaq –

Pisac is located at 33 km from Cusco, in the heart of the Sacred Valley. It is comprised of an ancient village, occupied by the native Quechua inhabitants. A 15th century archaeological site situated atop the Apu Inti Huatana mountain, at an altitude of 3,300 m / 10,826 ft. And a modern town of colonial origin located in the base of the valley.

Pisac’s archaeological complex is one of the most important Inca jewels of the Emperor Pachacutec, as it was his most treasured defensive fortresses in all of the Sacred Valley. In the Inca times, the site fulfilled many functions including ceremonial, religious and astronomical, being home to the famous Intihuatana astronomical clock or ‘sundail’.ollantaytambo3d machu picchu viajes peru

Maras and Moray –

The Salineras de Maras and the circular terraces of Moray, are 2 of the most popular tourist attractions of the Sacred Valley.

The town of Maras is famed for its unique stepped ‘salt mines’, located at an altitude of 3,200 m / 10,500 ft. The ‘mines’ comprise of 4,500 small wells, formed into stepped terraces, fed by a natural water source coming from the mountains. Salt is obtained once a month by means of drying the salt water under the sun, evaporating the liquid and leaving behind crystallised layers of salt. The salt is then flavoured and packaged and sold to all corners of the Cusco region.

7km from Maras are the famous circular terraces of Moray, which are considered to be the agricultural laboratory of the Inca empire. It is believed that the Inca culture brought products from all over the territory for the purpose of planting them in the fertile land of Moray. The complex is divided into groups of 4 terraces, each with its own microclimate. The individual stepped terraces boast different temperatures, heights, characteristics and respective irrigation canals. This unique set of conditions allowed the Incas to cultivate many different types of plants and grains in one controlled area. Andean culture also gives voice to the concentration of feminine energy at Moray, making it a magnetic center of mother earth Pachamama.cusco machu picchu 6d machu picchu viajes peru

Chinchero –

Chinchero is located 28 km from Cusco, along the road to Urubamba. The towns’ greatest asset, and what it is most famous for, is its beautiful colonial temple, built upon Inca foundations.

In the 15th century, the temple served as the residence of the Emperor Túpac Yupanqui, son of the Inca Emperor Pachacutec. Sadly, much of the complex was destroyed in the 16th century by the Spanish, in place for a colonial catholic temple. Today the site boasts beautiful agricultural platforms and terraces arranged over many hectares and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Sacred Valley.

Chinchero is also renowned for its bustling Sunday market, that offers a spectacle of colours and pre-Columbian style crafts, handmade by the local indigenous people of the valley.mercado de pisac machu picchu viajes peru

What to do in Cusco in 1 day?

The central location of Cusco means that there is much to do in and around the city on a one-day tour. 

  • 1/2 day guided city tour : visiting the Cathedral of Cusco, Qoricancha, Sacsayhuaman, Q’enqo, Plaza de Armas and San Pedro market (available in time slots of 8:30am-1:30pm or 1:30pm-6pm).
  • 1/2 day tour of Cusco’s South Valley : visiting archaeological sites of Tipon, Pikillacta, and Sistine Chapel of America in Andahuaylillas (a 5-hour tour involving a 1-hour car journey to the first site).
  • Full day Sacred Valley tour : visiting Chinchero, Moray, Maras salt mines, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo (available as a traditional guided excursion or ATV tour).
  • Full day Machu Picchu tour : visiting Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu (involves car journey to Ollantaytambo, train to Aguas Calientes and bus to Machu Picchu and back).
  • Full day Rainbow Mountain tour : Visiting Cusipata, Rainbow Mountain and Red Valley (involves 3.5-hour car journey to Rainbow Mountain and back).  
  • Full day Laguna Humantay tour : visiting Mollepata, Soraypampa, and Humantay Lake (invloves 3.5-hour car journey to Soraypampa and a 90 minute hike to Humantay Lake and back). 

cusco3 machu picchu viajes peru

Cusco Natural Attractions

Cusco is home to both impressive archaeological complexes and picturesque natural sites. Below is a list of popular destinations for visitors looking to catch a glimpse of the breathtaking landscapes that can be found around the region.

The Rainbow Mountain –

The Mountain of 7 Colours, or Vinicunca as it is locally known, is one of Cusco’s most prized natural attractions. It is located in the Andes mountains, 3 hours’ drive from Cusco city, at an altitude of 5,000 m / 16,404 ft. To reach it, we advise visitors to acclimatize for at least one day in the city of Cusco, which has an altitude of 3,400 m / 11,155 ft. This will reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness and ensure you have the most fulfilling experience at the summit. The striking colours of the Rainbow Mountain and its surrounding Red Valley, brings thousands of visitors to its viewpoint every year.
montana vinicunca cusco

Humantay Lake –

The Humantay Lagoon is one of the most picturesque tours visitors can find in the Cusco region. On the journey from Cusco city, you will get to know the lush valley of the Apurímac River, passing through Andean towns where the native Quechua people keep the Inca traditions alive. The hike up to the lagoon follows the mountain trail for 90 minutes to an altitude of 4,180 m / 13,714 ft. After which you’ll be treated to one of the most stunning views of an Andean valley that can be found in the area. On a clear day the breathtaking waters of the turquoise lake reflect the snow-capped peaks of its glacial mountain, Humantay. Filling your heart with joy and your camera full of jaw dropping souvenir photos to take home with you!
laguna humantay 2 machu picchu viajes peru

The Red Valley –

The mountains surrounding Vinicunca comprise the breathtaking hills of the Red Valley. The mountains get their name from the distinct presence of iron oxide in the rock, giving visitors a unique viewpoint of a deep red mountain range. Should you wish to view the valley from the Mirador del Valle Rojo, you should continue along the trail from Rainbow Mountain for an additional 30 minutes. From this viewpoint you can take some astonishing photos from an altitude of 5,053 m / 8,923 ft. The Red Valley is much quieter than the trails of Rainbow Mountain, treating you to an exclusive experience amongst the Cordillera de los Andes.

tour vallerojo machupicchuviajesperuj

The Mountain of Colours Palcoyo –

The Rainbow Mountain of Palcoyo is a set of peaks dyed in colours similar to the Vinicunca (Rainbow Mountain), due to a mineralization process over millions of years. From the Palcoyo Mountain viewpoint, you will be able to see the three rainbow mountains, including the majestic peaks of Ausangate. Unlike its neighbour, the Rainbow Mountain, the Palcoyo Mountain is at lower altitude, takes half the time to walk, and is less known to visitors, making it much less crowded throughout the day. Perfect for those visitors seeking colourful mountain views and an adventure without the fuss!montana de colores palcoyo

The Ausangate Mountain –

On a clear day, the snow-capped peak of Ausangate can be seen from Cusco city. It’s one of the most sacred mountains in all of Peru and according to an ancient legend, is the brother of the famous Salkantay. Ausangate is considered to be an Apu, a mountain spirit, or protective deity of the people. With an impressive altitude of 6,384 m / 20,945 ft, it is considered the fifth highest mountain found in Peru, and is home to hanging glaciers, alpine lakes and sky-scraper mountain passes.salkantay2 machu picchu viajes peru

Recommendations when visiting Cusco

As Cusco is the capital for tourism in Peru, it is a popular destination for visitors and backpackers alike. This is especially true during the high season between April and July. We therefore recommend that you book your entrance tickets in advance, particularly those hoping to visit Machu Picchu or hike the classic Inca Trail.

We also recommend spending at least one day in the city upon arrival to help you acclimatise to the high altitude, before embarking on tours into the mountains or the valley. To mitigate the effects of altitude sickness, we also recommend drinking the locals’ favourite, a cup of hot Coca tea, and/or taking any relevant prescribed altitude sickness medication.

The climate in Cusco also varies throughout the year as the rainy season comes and goes. We therefore recommend preparing for all seasons by packing the appropriate clothing to avoid any inconvenience.

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