By the time I reached Cusco, I was feeling a little bit burnt out. I’d been travelling pretty quickly and ended up using Cusco as a “base” for 9 days (the longest time I was in one place during my entire three months in South America). Luckily, there is so much to see and do in Cusco and the surrounding area that I could easily fill my time!
RELATED: See my entire itinerary for 3 months in South America here!
Cusco is located 3,400m above sea level, so you need to take appropriate precautions to avoid altitude sickness. While reading my itinerary, you should note that I had been travelling overland through South America for 1.5 months before reaching Cusco – I had already acclimatised to these altitudes and therefore could push myself further in the first few days of being in Cusco (and still got a tad sick)!.
If you are planning to complete a trek to Machu Picchu, you are advised to arrive in Cusco at least 3-4 days before the trek begins in order to give yourself a chance to acclimatise. If you are flying straight into Cusco from a low-altitude destination, you should re-jig my itinerary accordingly to best suit your needs.
If you are planning on spending a few days (at least) in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, there are two multi-activity tickets that you should consider buying.
The Religious Sites Ticket costs 50 soles (approx. £12) and is valid for 10 days. The ticket allows entrance to 5 sites in Cusco, as follows:
While this ticket will only save you a maximum of 25 soles (approx. £6) if you visit all of the sights, it’s also a time saving mechanism as you simply show your ticket at the entrance for each religious site and you don’t need to worry about having the right cash to entre.
The ticket can be bought at any of the religious sites.
The more popular option is the Cusco Touristic Ticket which gives you access to 16 of the most popular tourist attractions in Cusco and The Sacred Valley over the course of 10 days.
The full ticket costs 150 soles (approx. £30) and can be purchased at any of the following attractions (which are all included within the cost:
In the city of Cusco:
Just outside of the City:
In the Sacred Valley:
To the south of Cusco:
If you do not want to purchase the full 16 attraction ticket, there are smaller “circuit” tickets which may suit your needs, you can find out more about them here.
I like to spend my first morning in a new city enjoying a free walking tour, they are a great way to learn more about the city and get your bearings – while they tend to be a whistle-stop tour, you are then able to make up your mind on places you may like to return to. The tours operate on the premise that you pay whatever you think the tour is worth/however much you can afford, making them a great option for all budgets.
Thankfully, the company that I toured with in Cusco no longer seem to be operating as it THE worst free walking tour of my life (I have done many and usually enjoy them all)! The guide was completely uninterested and we didn’t walk very far at all. The most entertaining part of the experience was the guide explaining that she used to work on cruise ships in Europe and she misses the UK because of “cheap shoes from Primark and the ability to drink beer with breakfast” – a great summary of the UK!
I should have know that it was going to be an “interesting” experience when the website stated “this tour is free, do not expect a lot”. There are lots of free walking tour companies in Cusco, so make sure that you do your research and check the reviews on TripAdvisor.
While the tour may have been subpar, the city of Cusco certainly wasn’t! It didn’t take long for me to realise that I was really going to enjoy this city! The architecture throughout the city is stunning and it truly is littered with history!
After the free walking tour (which was fairly short), I decided to spend some more time wandering around the main city centre, enjoying the sunshine (which I was told many times was unusual for Cusco in March) and taking in all of the gorgeous architecture.
I visited the main churches in the city centre (picking up a Religious Sites ticket while doing so) which were all gorgeous.
The San Blas region of Cusco is famed for it’s picturesque streets, beautiful church and many art workshops.
I had met up with a guy that I had met earlier on in my trip and we had a great time wandering around this gorgeous area, using the many shops and art workshops to shelter from the on-and-off rain! We both fell in love with everything inside a small art workshop selling hand painted antique maps – unfortunately our backpacker budgets meant that we couldn’t purchase everything in the shop!
The church was beautiful and was included in the Religious Sites ticket I’d purchashed earlier that day.
Jack’s Cafe is famous with backpackers in Peru as it offers fantastic dishes using great quality products. If you try to visit Jack’s Café at peak hours, you can expect a queue!
The cafe has a hipster-feel and is a great way for backpackers to have high quality dishes at reasonable prices and also treat themsleves to a few “home comforts”. If you are only going to be in South America for a short time, I’d skip Jack’s and try some more local dishes!
One thing to be aware of is the portion sizes… they are VERY generous! When you are travelling at altitude, it is recommended that you eat “little and often” as your body will struggle to digest larger meals. I’d seen someone at another table eating a huge fry-up and decided that I needed to get in on that action, so ordered one for myself…. While it tasted great, I paid the consequences later on in the day….
Sacsayhuman (pronounced like “sexywoman”, to most tourist’s delight) is a huge fortress-style Incan ruin complex which can be reached by foot from Cusco city centre. The walk talks around 30 minutes and is quite steep in places, so may not be a great option if you have only just arrived in Cusco and are still acclimatising.
If this is the case, you can jump in a taxi which should cost around 50 sols (you can ask your hotel/hostel to call you a taxi if you are uncomfortable getting into a taxi in the street). Some taxi drivers will attempt to sell you transportation between Sacsayhuman and a number of other Inca ruins outside of the city centre – if you are travelling in a group and can split the costs, this can be a great way to see the main sights. We didn’t have time to fit them all into our first day, so decided to take the scenic walk!
Now here is where that huge fry-up at Jack’s wasn’t such a great idea… I started to feel really nauseous towards the end of our walk but decided to soldier on to reach our destination.
On arrival at Sacsayhuman, I was so excited to see my first Incan ruin (besides the many Incan walls still standing in Cusco city centre). The complex is large, so you will need to make sure you have enough time to fully explore.
Unfortunately, I started to take a turn for the worst, so ended up only exploring a small portion of the ruins before needing to jump in a taxi back to my hostel – so learn from my mistakes and have a smaller lunch!
If you are more sensible than me, you can also visit the nearby San Cristobal Church. There are another three sites where are usually visited after Sacsayhuman as they are all in a similar area, being Tambomachay, Puca Pucara and Q’enco. If you don’t get sick, I recommend doing these on the same day, but we had to save them until Day Nine!
Of course, a trip to Cusco wouldn’t be complete without seeing Machu Picchu! There re a number of ways that you can reach Machu Picchu including by bus, a luxury train or a various treks.
I opted to complete the 4 day Inca Trail which was an incredible experience. I had zero hiking experience prior to The Inca Trail, so I didn’t know how much I would enjoy it, but it turned out to be four of the best days of my trip.
There are various treks that you can complete, which all vary in length, so be sure to have a look at your options and which trek would suit you the best before booking your stay in Cusco.
As I’ve already mentioned, please do not try to complete a trek to Machu Picchu on Day Two of your time in Cusco if you are not already acclimatised.
You can read more about my experience here:
You can book various Inca Trail tours here:
If you’re travelling on a strict budget, hate the idea of massages or are an accustomed hiker, a massage won’t be neccessary!
I have issues with my shoulders/neck which were becoming worse from lugging around my huge backpack, so I knew I would need to get a massage at some point during my trip (they are a regular occurrence at home), so the day after the Inca Trail seemed like a great way to relax!
My legs were definitely aching after The Inca Trail and it was really suprising how much they muscles loosened after the massage. I fully recommend booking a massage for after your trip if you already suffer with muslcle pain (or if you want to treat youself)!
There are lots of shops selling VERY cheap massages in the city centre. I’d already been warned by other travellers to avoid these at all costs. Instead, I booked with Paramatma who had great reviews online and didn’t disappoint!
Another top-tip, if you book into a hostel after completing a trek, you may want to think about requesting a bottom-bunk as you may not be able to handle climbing into a top bunk after days of hiking!
As a backpacker, fine dining experiences aren’t usually on your to-do list; however, when I was told about Limo, a fine-dining Peruvian/Japanese fusion restaurant which was “close to a Michelin star experience” and wouldn’t completely break the bank, I decided to treat myself!
I doubted how good the experience would be once I saw the location – the main central square of Cusco. The usual rule of tourism is that the restaurants closest to the main tourist plazas will be over-priced and low quality, but thankfully this restaurant breaks this rule!
Peruvian/Asian fusion foods are very poplar throughout Peru and originate from the East Asian workers who immigrated to Peru to work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chifa (a Peruvian/Chinese rice dish) became one of my staple meals throughout Peru and Ecuador; and most Peruvian/Asian dishes, like Chifa, are cheap and cheerful, so the ability to experience high-dining equivalents was really exciting!
As I was booking at the last minute, I opted for a lunchtime reservation rather than dinner, and thankfully they let me in, despite looking like a real backpacker!
Carrying on the theme of “treating myself”, I spent the afternoon enjoying a chocolate making experience at the Choco Museo! The workshop was super informal and really good fun – thankfully, no prior culinary experience is required!
The Choco Museo has a great shop attached to it, so if you don’t have time to take a chocolate making experience, be sure to stop by and buy yourself a bar!
While enjoying my chilled-out and relaxing post-trek day, I met up with my friend again and we booked some excursions for the next few days. As I’ve said before, we were starting to feel pretty burnt-out from constant travel, so decided to keep our bases in Cusco and use organised group tours to see some of the Sacred Valley.
For the next few days of our trip, you could make your way through the Sacred Valley by yourself and stay at hotels/hostels along the way. This would be a more cost-effective method of travelling but will mean packing your belongings most days to move to a new town (something we both weren’t prepared to do)!
Rainbow mountain has become an Instagram sensation in recent years (and understandably so)! However, the glossy Instagram pictures usually miss a few important details… you will need to be prepared for a very early morning wake-up call (think 3-4am) and a very long, steep hike at extremely high altitude (many say that this say hike is harder than the multi-day hikes to Machu Picchu).
We had read about a little-known different set of three rainbow mountains which are much closer to Cusco (meaning the early wake-up call and extremely long day aren’t required) and the car is able to drive further into the mountains (meaning the hike is much shorter). All of this sounded great to us, and we booked a tour with Kana Travel straight away!
One of the best things about this alternative adventure to Palcoyo was the lack of people. We had spoken to other travellers who complained of hoards of people visiting the “original” rainbow mountains, meanwhile, we saw no more than 15 people during our day (including us and the other 5 people in our tour group).
I’d highly recommend this option if you aren’t a confident hiker but still want to see these beautiful “rainbow” mountains!
RELATED: Read about my entire experience at Palcoyo Mountains and the difference between Palcoyo and the “original” Rainbow Mountain here!
Day Eight involved another guided tour, this time we booked with the tour agency inside Kokopelli Hostel. There are so many small tour agencies within Cusco, you will find so many options on most streets! Most offer exactly the same packages, so you can’t really go wrong!
You could definitely complete this sightseeing on your own (which would be cheaper), but we were tired and happy to sit in a guide’s mini bus rather than try to navigate a whole bunch of buses and collectivos.
Our first stop on the tour was Pisac market where we were taken to a silver jewellery shop and given a talk by the owner – this is the only downside to a guided tour, you may end up being taken to shops which have a commissions deal with the tour agency. Luckily, we managed to sneak off to the bakery next door where we purchased some incredible empanadas!
We then had some free time to explore the market, which was great! Fuelled on empanadas, we got lost in the many streets of brightly coloured paintings, wool goods (jumpers, blankets etc) and souvenirs. I loved all of the paintings and wish I had more room in my bag to bring one home!
Pisac is known for both it’s market and it’s archaeological ruin, so we headed to the latter for our next stop.
Pisac ruins were very similar to some of the stops on the Inca Trail, the mountainous area around the ruins was absolutely gorgeous!
I really enjoyed having a guide at these sights as they are able to offer information and stories that wouldn’t usually be available to you (there generally aren’t many tourist signs at the ruins). The guide explained that the holes that we could see in the side of the cliffs were thought to be Incan graves – how on earth they managed to dig these holes/put a body into them is beyond me! I probably wouldn’t have noticed the holes if the guide hadn’t pointed them out!
The ruins of Ollantaytambo are a huge sprawling area and our guide graciously gave us a tour around the entire complex. Visiting Ollantaytambo’s ruins will involve a fair amount of walking, so make sure that you have appropriate footwear and clothing to hand!
The weather in Cusco and the Sacared Valley changes regularly, so you need to be prepared for all eventualities! I had chosen to wear jeans as the beginning of the day was relatively cloudy, it was scorching hot by the time we reached Ollantaytambo and I really regretted by decision!
If you are planning on visiting the ruin s without a guide, make sure to give yourself enough time to do Ollantaytambo justice. There is so much to see!
Our final stop for the day was Chinchero. The ruins of Chincero are much smaller than that of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, but still certainly worth visiting. I’ve come to the conclusion that I do not tire of Incan ruins!
The main attraction for us as the alpaca wool factory and shop. It was so interesting to see the women weaving intricate designs by hand and learning about the traditions.
All of the items in the shop were incredible. Real alpaca wool items are expensive, so we spent A LOT of time deliberating making purchases (a £75 blanket in particular)… sadly we walked away with nothing!
We used day nine to “finish up” the last few sites that we hadn’t seen. Tambomachay, Puca Pucara and Q’enco are usually visited after Sacsayhuman, but as I was so sick on day 1, we missed out! We decided to jump into a taxi and head straight to Tambomachay, the furthest ruin from Cusco city centre, then used collectivo services which run between each site to make our way back to Cusco – super easy and convenient!
Tambomachay is a large complex, so you will need a little while to explore, especially as it was quite busy when we visited.
Supposedly, Tambomchay was a place of worship for water. The Incas prayed to the gods to increase rainfall to increase the fertility of their soil for crops. Tambomchay is sometimes therefore referred to as “The Temple of Fertility” – local stories say that if a woman drinks from the water channels in the complex, they will easily conceive – so ladies wanting to start a family, this is the place for you!
Puca Pucara (or “The Red Fort”) is a smaller complex than some of the others and will not take more than 20-30 minutes to explore.
The Incas are known for their perfect architecture – each huge brick fits perfectly with the next in a formation which is so unique compared to anything I have ever seen. However, Puca Pucara doesn’t quite fit this mould! It’s thought that the less than perfect construction is due to the fortress being needed quickly to defend the area from attack.
Q’enco is very different to the rest of the Inca archaeological sites that we had seen – the complex is made up of one large rock with a series of caves and tunnels carved underneath.
The chambers within the caves are thought to be used for ceremonial purposes – namely sacrifices and death rituals. Despite the dark history, Q’enco is a very interesting place to visit!
On your way back to Cusco from Q’enco, be sure to stop at the Cristo Blanco statue for epic views of the city from above!
Wanting to do something a bit different on our last afternoon in Cusco, we booked a quad-bike ride to Moray and Maras Salt Mines!
When we were shown to our quad-bikes, the panic started to set in, I hadn’t realised that there would be so many controls – I had naively thought it would be an “accelerate” and “break” scenario! Thankfully, once we got going, it was easier than the instructions seemed, although I still meandered along at the back, going nice and slowly while the rest of the group zoomed ahead – I like to say that I was taking in the scenery!
In the end, I loved this change of pace. Given that we had been travelling by way of buses and mini vans visiting he other sites, this was definitely a great way to change things up!
Moray is a circular terrace structure, which is obvious from pictures. What wasn’t obvious was the sheer size of the terraces! As we walked over to the first viewing platform, my friend turned to me and said “wow, did you know it was going to be that big?!” So it’s safe to say that we were both suitably impressed at this spot!
While the exact use of Moray isn’t known, it’s thought that it was an agricultural laboratory. There is a difference of 15°C (27°F) between the top and bottom terraces, so the different micro-climates allowed the Incas to experiment with what crops grow best in what conditions. It’s crazy how clever these Incas were!
We definitely left the best until last! Maras Salt Mines are absolutely gorgeous. We spent ages taking photos as the area is just so photogenic.
As with Moray, we just weren’t expecting to love this stop so much. Considering this was our last afternoon and we booked the quad-bike ride as something “different” to finish our time in Cusco, it ended up being one of our favourite excursions!
Also, be sure to buy the salted chocolate in the gift shop – you won’t regret it!
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