Colorful. Captivating. Breathtaking. Cusco is a city where the past forms part of the present. Before visiting Machu Picchu, you will start in Cusco because it is the beginning of your journey for any trains, or treks you’ll want to take to discover the lost land of the Incas.
Cusco is so much more than a “connection point”, or a place to take time to adjust to the altitude. Most backpackers or vacationers make the mistake of flying into Cusco and staying only a day – then turning around and making the journey up to Machu Picchu without giving Cusco the time it deserves. Don’t skip Cusco! It’s a place filled with Incan history and Peruvian cuisine that you won’t want to miss out on!
Exploring the city of Cusco was one of my favorite memories of Peru. Here are my experiences and tips and tricks I recommend to make your time unforgettable.
When to Visit Cusco
You’ll see the best weather in Cusco from June to mid-September. Avoid the months of November-March as they typically experience heavier rain. It is important to know that while Machu Picchu is open year-round, the Inca trail closes during the month of February for maintenance.
Cusco Altitude Tips
Did you know that Cusco is higher in elevation than Machu Picchu? The city of Cusco is 11,200 ft (3,400 meters) and Machu Picchu is 7,800 ft (2400m).
When you first get to Cusco it’s key to understand that you’re going to need to give your body time to rest and adjust to the altitude. If you acclimatize in Cusco, then you’ll be ready for Machu Picchu in no time!
Tips to Avoid Altitude Sickness in Cusco
- Take it easy and walk slowly, don’t try to hike or run. Avoid drinking alcohol on your first day.
- On your arrival day try to eat very lightly, avoid meats and other heavy meals. Peruvian soup and bread are the best options!
- Drink plenty of water since the altitude dehydrates your body. Convenience stores in Cusco sell large bottles of water for very cheap.
- Try a cup of mate de coca, an herbal tea made from raw coca leaves that many believe helps alleviate the altitude’s affect on the body. (Don’t worry, coca leaves are relatively harmless and produce a tea that’s about as stimulating as a cup of coffee.)
What to Wear in Cusco
Because of its high altitude, Cusco temperatures drop as low 30 degrees celsius and 40’s at night year round. Warm clothes for the evenings are necessary! During the day, it will warm up by at least 30 degrees. Dress in layers, and don’t forget your sunglasses.
Must See Places in Cusco
Plaza de Armas
The Plaza de Armas is in the heart of Cusco. In Incan times Plaza de Armas was the main location used for festivals and ceremonies. In the middle of the plaza is a statue of the Inca ruler Pachacútec. Today, Plaza de Armas is still a central location in Cusco and you can always find alpacas and baby goats roaming around for a photo.
Stroll Through San Blas
Get lost through the winding cobblestone neighborhood of San Blas in Cusco’s bohemian district. Here you’ll find some of the best artisan markets, locally owned bakeries, and Peruvian coffee.
San Blas contains some of the most beautiful streets in Cusco. Take time to appreciate its beauty and see if you can find the famous 12-angled stone walls.
San Pedro Market
Spend a morning walking through San Pedro Market. There’s nothing like experiencing all the colors, sights, and smells of a bustling Peruvian market early in the morning.
Here you’ll find different types of local produce including the large variety of potatoes and colorful Peruvian corn. Take a seat at one of the several juice stands offering fresh squeezed juices from local fruits.
The San Pedro Market is also the place to find the best prices on souvenirs. You’ll find a wide selection of hats, trinkets and other colorful accessories you will be seeing everywhere throughout your stay in Cusco, and for a reasonable price here at the market.
Market Hours: Monday to Sunday 9.00 to 18.00
Where to Eat and Drink in Cusco
Just two blocks up from Plaza de Armas, Morena’s Peruvian Kitchen was my favorite restaurant in Cusco for their innovative twist on classic Peruvian dishes and drinks.
Part of the fun of this restaurant is how it’s decorated! Morena’s has a rustic decor with wicker chairs topped with colorful pillows. The service was friendly, and they love to go the extra mile on the presentation of their food and drinks.
I highly recommend trying their Sopa Criollo, or if you’re hungrier their Mixto Anticuchera. Their Pisco Sours cocktails were excellent! Pisco Sours are a iconic Peruvian cocktail you need to try! Morena’s has several different variations of pisco cocktails to choose from.
Sopa Criollo is a classic Peruvian soup with beef and noodles topped with an egg. The fresh oregano and other spices really compliment one another. Sopa Criollo and a fresh smoothie make a perfect pairing for combating the altitude the first night.
If you like seafood Mixto Anticuchera is a blend of grilled fresh fish that comes out sizzling on a skillet. The real highlight of the dish were the big chunks of Andean corn and potatoes.
Location: MORENA PERUVIAN KITCHEN | 348-B Calle Plateros Cusco
Hours: Every day from 12PM – 10PM
Pachapapa is one of the best restaurants for two local dishes known to Cusco – guinea pig (cuy) and alpaca.
Be prepared to wait around an hour for the guinea pig to cook in Pachapapa’s brick oven. The guinea pig is served to you whole and then the waiters will take it back and cut it into separate servings for you. The sight of a whole cooked guinea pig can be unsettling, and if you’re uncomfortable with it you can always request the whole guinea pig not be brought to your table.
I didn’t try the guinea pig, but I can say the alpaca meat at Pachapapa was delicious! Did you know that Alpaca meat is also very low in fat and has the lowest cholesterol of any meat? Perfect excuse for seconds -or at least it was my excuse.
Address: Pachapapa | Plazoleta San Blas 120, Cusco, Peru
I love recommending that travelers take a cooking class when they’re somewhere new. Cooking in a new country let’s you discover ingredients you’ve never heard of, and create a dish that’s special to that culture.
Visit Peruvian Cooking Classes in Cusco for their friendly chefs who guide you through every step of the process, including a guided tour of San Blas Market to help you prepare your three course Peruvian meal. My favorite part of this class was the chance to make Peru’s famous cocktail a pisco sour.
Location: Peruvian Cooking Classes | 283 San Juan de Dios, Cusco
Cost: $45 USD
The view at this bar is one you can’t miss! Limbus Resto Bar is located in San Blas and overlooks all of Cusco. It will take your breath away – and that includes the hike up to it.
Come around an hour before sunset to snag a balcony table. Sip on a pisco sour and soak in the view of Cusco below you. A Pisco Sour is Peru’s National drink and is made using Pisco brandy, lemons, sugar water, egg whites, ice and finished with bitters, or a dash of cinnamon.
Location: Limbus Resto Bar | Pasnapakana 133 | Cusco, Peru
Best Trips from Cusco
Experience Machu Picchu
It’s nearly impossible to visit Peru without making the journey to every traveler’s dream – Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu does require advanced planning. It’s important to do research when it comes to choosing a trekking company. The quality of trekking company you chose can really make or break your trip.
Hike to Rainbow Mountain
Thanks to the growth of Instagram, Rainbow Mountain has exploded in popularity since 2016. The landscape is absolutely beautiful. Its famous striped colors are even brighter in the sunshine. The colors in the mountain are created from weathering and mineral deposits.
A trip to Rainbow Mountain will take the full day with typical very early morning pickups (around 4 a.m.) and around 6 hours of driving. I would strongly avoid going if the weather has any rain in the forecast. If the weather conditions aren’t favorable the trail will be muddy, and the colors on the mountain won’t be as vibrant.
Lastly, the altitude here is intense and not to be taken lightly. The hike up isn’t very long, but you’ll start at 15,000 feet and end at 17,00 feet. If you’re worried about the trek up you can rent a horse for only $25 that will take you a majority of the way up. The altitude is so thin at the top you’re only recommend to stay 20-30 minutes.
I wouldn’t recommend the tour company I went with – not terrible, but nothing special. Based on traveller reviews and price, I’d recommend this full-day tour for $31.50.
ATV in the Sacred Valley
I love renting an ATV on a trip it’s a much better experience compared to a crowded tour van. Riding on a quad bike through the Sacred Valley is a must-do experience for any adventure seeking traveler!
On this tour you’ll stop by Moray and Maras two must see sights in the Sacred Valley. Moray, is an impressive Incan ruin used for agricultural and experimentation purposes (it looks similar to crop circles!) Maras, is a salt mine that’s still active today.
I highly recommend Cusco Moto Tours Peru! Our guides were friendly and patient with taking pictures of us! A 5 hour Scared Valley ATV tour was $85 per person for on your own quad bike. You can book your tour here.
Sip Wine and Paint
On all my travels I’ve never seen an experience quite like this! Carnaval Wine and Painting let’s you sip South American wines while painting the beautiful Sacred Valley. You’ll be met by the owner, Mariagracia, who will lead you step by step to create your own watercolor piece.
It’s a true hidden gem and must do when you’re in Cusco!! Mariagracia was so kind, and the painting session couldn’t have been more perfect. The picnic set-up of local red and white wine, cheese, nuts, and homemade bread adds a welcoming touch. Mariagracia thinks of everything and she’ll even have a mini poster tube that you can roll your painting inside that makes it easy to travel. You can book the tour here. It also includes transportation from Cusco to the Sacred Valley!
Cusco Travel Tips
Arriving to the Cusco Airport
The city center of Cusco is around 4 miles from the Velasco Astete Airport (CUZ), but there are no public transportation options to get you there. You’ll need to arrange an airport transfer with your hotel, or take a taxi. Agree to the price of the taxi before you leave, but the cost should be around S./ 20 Peruvian Soles ($7 USD).
The currency in Peru is the Peruvian Sol, and ATMs are widely available both at the airport and in the city centre. Restaurants and shops love to advertise that they take Visa almost everywhere you look. While many places do accept Visa, keep plenty of cash on hand for tips.
The most popular taxi company is Taxi Turismo Cusco. If you’re hailing one off the street, look for the taxis with signs on the roof, rather than independent, unmarked drivers.
You’ll need to confirm the rate before accepting the ride, but generally, a ride within the city centre is about $1.35 USD.
Final Thoughts on Cusco
Cusco is a wonderful city with so much to see. I would recommend at least 3-5 days to proper acclimate to the altitude before heading to Machu Picchu. Splurge on a nice hotel to relax your tired muscles and get a good nights sleep.
What did you think of my Cusco travel itinerary? Are you planning a trip to Cusco or have you already been? I’d love to hear your thoughts!