If you're looking for the best things to do in Cusco Peru then keep reading because in this post I'll cover all of my favorite locations and points of interest from my trip through this amazing South American city.
My younger brother is always pitching me outlandish vacation ideas and up until recently they never worked out for one reason or another.
When he called to pitch a trip to Peru, I was definitely intrigued. Yet, in the back of my mind figured we'd never actually get it put together.
But this time was different. Work schedules, flights, even the stars were aligning.
We were certain of two things early on, that we'd spend a lot of time in Cusco and that we needed to see Machu Picchu. Filling in the rest would involve doing some additional research.
We spent countless hours researching, planning and then eventually experiencing the best things to do in Cusco and this guide is the culmination of those efforts. I hope it serves you well in planning the ultimate trip to Peru!
Also, once you're done reading this post be sure to check out my Peru Video Travel Guide that will highlight some of my favorite activities to do around the Cusco area.
You'll notice some links and advertisements from partner or affiliate sites throughout this post. I typically earn a small commission on any purchases made through those links at no additional cost to you. If you check those out, great. If not, I'm still happy you're here!
Visit Machu Picchu
No visit to Cusco Peru is complete without exploring the ancient Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.
This is considered one of the Modern Wonders of the World and I can see why after spending an afternoon taking in the stunning views and rich cultural history stored on this mountain peak.
Machu Picchu is Peru's most recognizable site and it serves as a big driver of tourism for the country and this region. It was our primary draw to Peru as it is for many others.
Even though Machu Picchu gets a lot of the glory, we thoroughly enjoyed our entire trip through the country.
How do I get to Machu Picchu from Cusco?
Most travelers will start their adventure to Machu Picchu from Cusco. Popular hikes such as the Salkantay Trek or Inca Trail will originate from Cusco as well, your tour company will provide transit to the starting point of those hikes.
If you have the time I highly recommend one of these options. During my trip we did the Salkantay Trek which involved four days of hiking through the mountains and the fifth day was spent touring Machu Picchu and taking a train back to Cusco.
If you don't have the endurance or time to reach Machu Picchu by foot, don't fear. You can take a scenic and relaxing train ride to Aguas Calientes instead.
The Poroy Station services Cusco but you'll likely need to catch a 45 minute taxi ride to the station.
Another option is to depart from the nearby city of Ollantaytambo. Our return train connected through Ollantaytambo which was a cool little town with a bustling market near the train station.
I could drone on and on about Machu Picchu - and I did. If you're interested in learning more about what to expect when visiting Machu Picchu check out my full post on the experience.
Test your endurance on the Salkantay Trek
If you're looking for a really unique experience on your trip to Peru you should consider the Salkantay Trek. The Salkantay Trek (as done by Alpaca Expeditions) is an immersive 5-day experience starting near the village of Soraypampa.
The four day hiking portion concludes at the town of Aguas Calientes. The following morning (on your fifth day) you'll explore the ruins of Machu Picchu before catching a train and car back to Cusco.
Be mindful that the Salkantay Trek is considered rigorous due to the length, elevation gain and altitude.
Much of your hiking will be done over at 10,000 feet or 3,000 meters which means you'll need to acclimate in Cusco or another city for at least a couple days before attempting.
Each day involves close to 10 miles or 16 kilometers of hiking, with long stretches of ascents on some days.
The highest point of the trek comes at Salkantay Pass where you'll reach altitudes over 15,000 feet or 4,600 meters.
While this is one of the more involved activities you'll find in Peru, it's well worth it. If the trek sounds too rigorous or you don't have enough time, I encourage you to research shorter options like the popular Inca Trail.
I can't personally speak to the Inca Trail since we chose the Salkantay Trek instead, but I can recommend Alpaca Expeditions which offers both options. They took great care of us and I would book them for another expedition into the Andes on a future visit to Peru!
What to expect on the Salkantay Trek?
For anyone interested in the Salkantay Trek I highly recommend you check out my dedicated post. It includes a day by day break down of what to expect along the way.
If you're further along in the process and need help figuring out what to pack for a 5-day adventure into the mountains, don't worry, I've got you covered! I put together a comprehensive Salkantay Trek packing list that will help take some of the pain out of planning.
Explore the Inca ruins of Pisac
Ahh yes, the Inca Ruins of Pisac. Consider a visit to these ruins a warmup compared to what you'll experience visiting Machu Picchu. Pisac is easily accessible from Cusco via car or bus and takes about one hour to reach. When we visited we booked a day tour through Alpaca Expeditions that took us to Pisac, Moray and The Maras Salt Mines.
We'll discuss the other two destinations later in this guide. Combining all three stops makes for a perfect day trip itinerary from Cusco and is a package you can request from Alpaca Expeditions.
If you're acclimating for one of the longer hikes, this is a great way to spend a day on the front end of your trip.
The ruins consist of numerous Inca buildings, stone ruins, farming terraces and a large burial wall that the Spaniards mostly pillaged on their conquests through the regions.
Is it worth visiting Pisac?
Pisac isn't just a check the box destination. You'll get to see what life in the mountain regions of Peru is all about on your way to Pisac.
Once you reach the ruins you'll want to budget about 90 minutes to explore the area.
I'd also suggest hiring a guide for your visit. If you booked through a tour operator like Alpaca, that will already be taken care of. If not, you can usually find locals for hire at the entrances of Peru's cultural sites.
If Pisac is somewhere you'd like to learn more about, be sure to check out my in depth Pisac guide!
Enjoy views of Humantay Lake
Humantay Lake is one of the single most picturesque places I've ever visited. It's isolation adds to it's mystique, but also means this is not an easy destination to reach.
If you're undertaking the Salkantay Trek then you're in luck. Your first day of hiking includes a detour to this beautiful laguna before venturing on to the Salkantay Pass.
Otherwise you're likely going to attempt Humantay Lake by chartering a day tour from Cusco to Soraypampa.
From there you'll hike up to the lake. Most excursions to Humantay Lake from Cusco will leave in the very early morning hours (we're talking 3am-4am) since the drive is about 3 hours in each direction.
The mountain drive up to Soraypampa is not for the feint of heart. You'll spend lots of time on one lane dirt roads with views of the sheer drops along the way.
For your troubles you'll be rewarded with stunning views of this glacial lake and Humantay Mountain which sets the backdrop.
What to expect when visiting Humantay Lake?
Bring plenty of snacks, water, hiking boots, trekking poles and either a raincoat or poncho in case the weather turns for the worst. We endured a full day of wind, rain and ice in the area so come prepared. Mountain weather can be unpredictable. I outlined our entire Humantay Lake experience here.
The average tourist should expect to spend 6 hours or so in a van or bus journeying to Soraypampa and back. Check with your individual tour operator, but don't be surprised if you're spending at least 3 hours of hiking time round trip to reach the lake.
The hike up to the lake is extremely steep and will take most people at least 90 minutes. Altitude will be the main factor slowing you down as the lake sits at just over 13,700 feet or about 4,200 meters.
Take in city views at Sacsayhuaman
The locals of Cusco love telling you how to pronounce this one. The Inca Ruins of Sacsayhuaman (loosely pronounced 'sexy-woman') are located along one of the hilltops that surround Cusco.
If you're staying in Cusco the ruins are easily accessible by foot. Finding the footpath isn't easy and there aren't many great guides on getting there. No worries - I put together a full guide on visiting Sacsayhuaman, which includes screen shots of maps that will guide you up the hill.
Where are the best views of Cusco?
The ruins themselves are interesting, but what really sets this area apart is the fact that it overlooks the city of Cusco.
After spending some time appreciating the Inca history and stonework the ruins dump you off at an overlook that offers sweeping views of the city. If you want a sneak peek then either check out the full Sacsayhuaman guide or jump ahead to activity number 14!
Ruins of Moray
One of Peru's more peculiar ruins are those of Moray. This site is thought to be half science experiment and half agricultural site.
The different terraces resulted in different micro climates within the large bowl and thus the Incas were able to test the affects of different growing conditions on crops.
As I alluded to before we visited Moray as part of a day trip that we booked with Alpaca Expeditions. You can read about my full Moray experience here.
Is visiting Moray worth it?
I'll keep this one short and sweet. Did I enjoy visiting and learning about Moray in person? Yes. Is Moray a must see? Probably not. If you have time or are already planning to be in the area, definitely stop by Moray.
If you're pressed for time this is one I'd skip, especially if you're already visiting Pisac, Machu Picchu and other Inca Ruins.
The Maras Salt Mines
The Maras Salt Mines were one of my favorite activities from this trip that I had no idea existed prior to visiting Peru.
It wasn't until after we decided to pull the trigger on Peru, Machu Picchu and the Salkantay Trek that I would eventually discover this salty gem.
What are the Maras Salt Mines?
The beauty that is The Maras Salt Mines largely distracts from how genius its ancient design actually is. Residing somewhere inside the mountain above Maras is a very salty spring.
The water that flows down the mountain from this spring crosses through the salt pans that the locals and their ancestors have tended to for over 500 years.
As the water collects it will eventually be swept away by the high mountain sun. Left behind will be the deliciously famous Pink Salt of Peru! This is another Peru activity I dedicated a full post to which you need to check out.
Visit Aguas Calientes
If you're going to Machu Picchu you will pass through Aguas Calientes. The buses that take you up to the ruins depart from this little mountain town.
On one hand Aguas Calientes can feel a bit touristy, since.. it caters mostly to tourists passing through to Machu Picchu. On the other hand Aguas Calientes does offer its own unique charm. The town is primarily serviced by train and there are almost no roads passing through which means everyone gets around the village on foot.
What is there to do in Aguas Calientes?
There aren't actually many activities to do in Aguas Calientes. However, the city has a massive supply of restaurants and vendors to pick from. Cutting down the side of town you will find the beautiful Urubamba river. Many of the restaurants located along this side of town offer seating with scenic views of the river.
Like most people you've probably only stumbled upon Aguas Calientes as a necessary step towards reaching Machu Picchu. During our trip we spent one evening in Aguas Calientes at the end of our Salkantay Trek.
Spending the night in Aguas Calientes the evening before exploring Machu Picchu is something I would recommend. The biggest perk is it ensures you can catch the earliest shuttle buses up to Machu Picchu before the massive crowds arrive.
I don't think you need to spend more than a day in Aguas Calientes, but I do think it would be nice to get a full day out of this town. We arrived in the evening so we didn't have a chance to do anything but eat dinner in our hotel on this night.
We were also pretty beat from being out in the mountains for four days! The next day after exploring Machu Picchu we had lunch and a beer at the Mapacho Craft Beer Restaurant. The food and beer here were both excellent and the views were amazing.
Arriving earlier on the first day will give you additional time to check out some other restaurants. There was a huge shopping area filled with local vendors near the train station, so this is a great spot to do some souvenir shopping as well!
Take a stroll through Plaza de Armas
Cusco's cultural city center Plaza de Armas is a must see and boasts a beautiful fountain in the main square.
The square is surrounded by restaurants, cafes, bars and shopping. As a tourist strolling through the square chances are some of the vendors and artists will pepper you with requests to book their tours and purchase their goods.
Even if you do end up purchasing souvenirs this way, it won't stop the requests for long so hunker down and develop a tolerance for it. Once you get a block or two away from the actual square, it's less of an issue!
Since there's so much to do and see near Plaza de Armas this should be the part of Cusco you seek accommodations. You'll be happy you chose to stay a short walk from where all of the action is!
Try an authentic Pisco Sour
Pisco Sours are probably the most delicious way to experience Peruvian culture. The base alcohol in this drink is, not surprisingly, Pisco. Other ingredients include key lime juice, egg white, simple syrup and a garnishing of bitters. The egg white gives the drink a thick and creamy texture that sets it apart from the Chilean version.
PER.UK makes a great Pisco Sour and their Trout Tiradito was unreal. This was the first Pisco Sour we had after making it to Cusco and I measured every other subsequent Pisco against it. They're located a block or so to the Southeast of the Plaza De Armas.
Since returning to the USA I've tried Pisco Sours at several restaurants and they rarely live up to those concocted back in Peru. Enjoy them while you're here!
Visit Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus
Cusco has many iconic buildings, but there are perhaps none with more curb appeal than Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus.
Construction on the church began in 1576, and the version we know today is the result of some reconstruction following an earthquake that damaged the building in 1650.
The church sits along Cusco’s main square the Plaza de Armas. If you have time be sure to stop inside to take in the historical architecture!
Is it a bird? A plane? No! It's Cristo Blanco! If you're ever in the streets of Cusco look up towards the northern mountains and you'll spot Cristo Blanco overlooking the city.
If you're planning to visit Sacsayhuaman you can just as easily visit this large monument that overlooks the town.
Follow the directions in my Sacsayhuaman guide and near the top of the hillside there will be a fork in the path with signs pointing you on towards Sacsayhuaman or Cristo Blanco.
Befriend a neighborhood dog
One thing to know about Peru is that you will encounter stray dogs everywhere you go. Perhaps stray isn't a fair term to use, many of these dogs are well looked after by locals in their communities.
After spending over a week in Peru this isn't surprising to me - the people there are kind and caring. Their treatment of strays is just another extension of those traits!
On our way to Pisac we pulled off to use the restroom. After using the facilities we walked over to a nearby overlook where we found this beautiful canine bathing in the morning mountain sun.
Can I drink the water in Peru?
Generally speaking I would not recommend drinking the water in Peru. Stick to bottled water. I'd also be wary of consuming too many drinks with ice as well.
What language do they speak in Peru?
The official language of Peru is Spanish. However, in many parts of the country the native language of Quechua is primarily spoken. If you end up undertaking the Salkantay Trek or Inca Trail chances are you'll encounter a larger proportion of Quechua speakers.
Of the team we hired for the Salkantay Trek, two of our porters spoke Quechua only. In the mountainous regions you may find that your Spanish speaking skills don't get you so far!
In cities like Cusco which have a large tourism industry, English is common enough that you can get by without much issue. Local guides and tour companies are very common in Peru, so if you don't speak the language I'd recommend hiring a guide.
We went with Alpaca Expeditions for the Salkantay Trek and a day tour that centered around visiting Pisac, Moray and The Salt Mines of Maras. I'd highly recommend checking them out if you're in the market for a guide.
Does Peru Have Good Cell Phone Service?
I was actually pretty happy with the cellular coverage I was getting in the areas surrounding Cusco.
This is really going to depend on where you're staying. Around the major cities you should expect good cellular coverage, although data intensive apps might struggle. Text and talk do pretty well.
But if you're out trekking in the wilderness, don't expect to get service! Be sure to contact your cellular provider in advance to activate your international plan.
Are credit cards accepted in Peru?
Like many lesser developed parts of the world, cash is king in Peru. You should go into every transaction with the expectation you'll need to pay with cash.
The closer you are to larger city centers such as Cusco or Lima the more you'll find credit card as an acceptable form of payment.
If you're spending time in Cusco many of the bars and restaurants do accept credit card. Past that, it can be pretty hit or miss. Peru's currency is the Sol.
What is the best time of year to visit
If you're coming from the northern hemisphere recall that your seasons will be flipped. People typically suggest the 'dry season' for visiting Cusco which runs from May to October.
This is especially important to remember if you're planning to visit mountainous regions for treks or to see Machu Picchu.
What are the bathrooms like in Peru?
The bathroom situation in Peru isn't the worst.. but it does leave a bit to be desired. For starters you should expect to dispose of all paper waste or personal items in a receptacle near the toilet.
The sewage systems in Peru (and really, many other parts of the world) aren't up to snuff for handling paper waste.
If you're dining in a restaurant you'll typically have access to a bathroom. Aside from that, it's not uncommon that restrooms charge a small fee to use their facilities so be sure to have some local currency (soles) on you for emergencies.
Here's another thing to keep an eye out for when using a Peruvian bathroom.. some toilets are missing their seats! Yes. This is the worst. Mentally prepare yourself.
It's less common in the more developed cities like Cusco, but if you're venturing out into the mountainous regions you're certain to encounter many toilets that don't have toilet seats. You've been warned.
Read about my Peruvian Coffee Farm Experience
On the 3rd day of our 5-day Salkantay Trek we traveled along part of the Inca Trail to our campsite near Llactapata that overlooks Machu Picchu. Near the beginning of the ascent, just off the trail, lives a local family that runs a small coffee farm. Our guide Alpaca Expeditions had arranged us a visit with the Matriarch of this small operation, Paolina.
During our stay we had an opportunity to pick ripe coffee cherries, separate the coffee beans from the exterior fruit, roast, grind and finally drink our finished product!
This was one of my all time favorite trips and I hope this post covering the best things to do in Cusco Peru helps you out when planning your trip to South America.