9 of the best activities, trips and tours from Cusco, Peru
Updated: Jun 9
Set high in the Andes mountains, at an altitude of 3,400m, Cusco was once at the heart of the Inca Empire. It is now a wonderful mix of Inca and Spanish colonial architecture, an exhibition of traditional heritage & culture, yet modern and thriving. Unlike other towns and cities in Peru, Cusco is visited by a wide range of tourists, not just backpackers, desperate to tick off their bucket list ambition of visiting Machu Picchu.
Whilst most of draw for visiting Cusco lies outside the city, it is well worth spending a day or two exploring and enjoying the city itself. We particularly enjoyed the wider array of cuisine available here and the constant buzz of activity, there always seemed to be some kind of social, public event going on.
The best tours and activities in and around Cusco
(In no particular order)
Things to do in Cusco centre
The best tours and day trips to do from Cusco
Other information for your trip to Cusco
Things to do in Cusco centre
1. Free Walking tour
We have done lots of free walking tours all over the world, and whilst some have been better than others, we have very rarely had a bad one. Sadly, our tour guide in Cusco was awful. Firstly he was late, which we have never encountered before, & was quite rude to some other tourists who, English being a second language for them, were struggling to understand his heavily accented verse. He just didn’t muster up a lot of enthusiasm, seeming like he would rather be at home in bed! That being said, some of the information he relayed about the Inca’s was interesting and fellow travellers we chatted to had also done the tour on other days and raved about how great it was, so perhaps we were just unlucky with him. It’s only 2 hours long and the cost is a donation of your own choosing based on how much you enjoyed the tour, and what you feel it was worth. So I would say it’s definitely still worth doing and just hope you get a better guide than we did!
2. Explore & enjoy the town
As I have mentioned the town itself is really lovely and it’s nice to wander around, visit the gift shops and just generally absorb the hubbub of it. There are plenty of delicious restaurants here too with a varied cuisine to enjoy. See our recommendations below.
3. Visit Mercado Central de San Pedro
Only a small market on the outskirts of town but worth a visit. Plenty of souvenir & fruit juice stalls. There is an ‘eat now’ food section but I’m not sure I would recommend eating here, especially if you are about to embark on a multi-day hike. Food poisoning is the last thing you need!
4. Check out the festivities calendar
By this I mean have a google or chat to the hostel staff about what is going on in the town during your stay. Maybe we fell lucky but for the 5 nights we were in town there seemed to be a lot going on. We were there at the end of October and saw fireworks in the main square to honour a local Saint, Halloween & Day of the Dead celebrations & the end of an annual car rally, Caminos del Inca, that saw over 100 rally cars come screaming into the centre of the city whilst locals and tourists lined the street waving banners and throwing flowers on the car bonnets!
The best tours and day trips to do from Cusco
Cusco’s main attractions lie outside the city itself and you will find a tour agency on every street corner advertising lots of day and multi-day trips. Most of these trips can be booked as little as a day in advance, however, a little more planning is required for Machu Picchu and the multi-day treks you can opt to do to get there.
Obviously when comparing agencies to book your trips with you can use google and trip advisor to compare reviews, but from our experience most of the agencies itineraries for each trip are practically identical. In fact sometimes you book via one agent and find the tour is outsourced to another one anyway, so the main thing you need to compare is the price. We found this did vary considerably so shop around to ensure you get the most for your money.
We actually used Machu Picchu reservations for all of our trips from Cusco. Read our experiences of each trip for a more in-depth review but in general we found them to be reliable, extremely affordable (you get further discounts if you have done multiple trips with them, even if they are not all booked at the same time) & overall had a good experience with them.
5. Rainbow Mountain & Red Valley
Originally known as Vinicunca, but now more commonly known as Rainbow Mountain lies 3 hours from Cusco and sits at a whooping 5,100m altitude. As you can probably guess from the name, the mountain is awash with colours, 7 to be precise, all completely natural created by the minerals in the earth. Red Valley sits along the same mountain ridge and as the name would suggests is a startling red colour.
You can book a day trip to Rainbow Mountain & Red Valley with one of the tour operators in the city but we also heard of people taking a taxi there and self-guiding which is totally do-able.
Cusco itself is at a pretty high altitude (3,400m) so obviously the surrounding area is too but it is worth pointing out that Rainbow Mountain is a lot higher (5,100m) and you are required to hike about 8km at this altitude to get to and from the mountain itself. The hike is not overly challenging but at this altitude everything is harder.
6. Sacred Valley
Sacred Valley stretches roughly 60 km; an area of farmland, Inca ruins and Spanish colonial villages such as Pisac and Ollantaytambo. There are several options for visiting depending on how much time you have. We were short of time and so ended up doing a day trip from Cusco, visiting the highlights on a pretty whistle-stop tour. However, if you have more time you can actually go and stay in the towns and explore the area at a much slower pace. Friends of ours stayed two nights in Ollantaytambo and reported it to be a lovely town, great for relaxing and the perfect base to explore the Inca ruins that are literally on the doorstep. There are also glamping options where you can stay in small wooden huts or pods in the valley to enjoy the remoteness with a picnic and marvel at the stars at night. Another friend of ours did this and said it was fabulous.
7. Humantay lake
If you opt to do the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu you will visit Humantay lake, otherwise it can be done as a stand-alone day trip. I would love to describe the lake to you whilst picturing it in my mind, as having completed the Salkantay trek we should have visited. Sadly, for reasons you will find out if you continue reading about our Salkantay experience, we didn’t get to the lake and so I will have to rely on the descriptions of others when they say Humantay is 'Cusco’s beautiful blue lagoon, tantalizing and magnificent'. Had we had more time we would have booked a day trip to the lake after missing it on the Salkantay, as reports from fellow travellers and the pictures we have seen sound and look amazing.
8. Machu Picchu
The majestic Machu Picchu is on many people’s bucket list and certainly is an impressive sight. The Inca site is accessed from the town of Aguas Calientes, 73km north of Cusco. There are multi-day trekking options from Cusco, the classic Inca trail and the Salkantay trek being the most well known, but if you don’t fancy hiking you can get the train to Aguas Calientes instead.
Getting tickets to Machu Picchu can be slightly tricky and it is not helped by the fact that they have changed the ticketing system in recent years and quite frankly it’s bloody confusing! This is what we gathered…
The sight is now split into different sections, or ‘circuits’, as the official ticket website refers to them as, and your ticket may not give you access to all sections.
Within the site there are 3 mountains, Wayna Picchu mountain, Machupicchu mountain and Huchuypicchu mountain.
Depending on which ticket you have you do not necessarily have access to any of the mountains, and if you want to incorporate a climb up one or more of these during your visit they may need to be added on separately at an additional cost.
Tickets can be booked via this official website https://reservas.machupicchu.gob.pe/inicio, but if you are booking through a tour operator they will arrange the tickets for you. It’s still good to look at the website so you can see availability though.
The different tickets to Machu Picchu explained
The main and most sought-after ticket is entitled “Llaqta de Machupicchu (Circuit 1,2, 3 or 4)”. This is the classic ticket that gives you access to the whole site but does not include access to any of the mountains. As I have said though, these can be added on for an additional cost.
There are three other ticket options:
Circuit 4 + Wayna Picchu Mountain – this ticket only gives you access to the lower part of the ruins and allows you to climb Wayna Picchu.
Machupicchu mountain + circuit 3 – this tickets allows you to explore the ruins in circuit 3, which is also in the lower part, but also to climb Machupicchu mountain. To be able to access the Machupicchu mountain you have to head up to the higher part of the ruins near circuit 1 and we heard that once you have climbed the mountain it is possible to exit into circuit one and also explore there. I wouldn’t guarantee this but other travellers told us they had done so.
Circuit 4 + Huchuypicchu mountain. This is the ticket we had which enables you to explore the lower part of the ruins and climb the small mountain/look out Huchuypicchu.
I bet you are wondering where circuit 2 is! From what I can gather you cannot gain access to this circuit in isolation and so it is only included in the first, access all areas ticket.
As you can imagine Llaqta de Machupicchu (Circuit 1,2, 3 or 4) books up first and in high season sometimes months in advance, so if you are dead set on this ticket you will need to plan ahead. The other tickets can get booked up in high season, weeks in advance too, but there is a work around. The Peruvian government releases 1000 extra tickets each day from the office in the town of Aguas Calientes, and so it is possible to go there and put your name down for a ticket. Some lucky people get a ticket for the very next day, others have to wait maybe 1 or 2 days but we never heard any horror stories of people being stuck there for weeks waiting for a ticket! Obviously you can’t be choosey about the route when obtaining a ticket this way and you are not going to get the Llaqta de Machupicchu (Circuit 1,2, 3 or 4) entrance, it will be one of the other circuits.
The mountains of Machu Picchu explained
Wayna Picchu Mountain 2,720m – This is the second hardest mountain, taking 1.5 – 2 hours return to climb, but has some immense drop offs and a seriously narrow path up. It is not recommended for children or the elderly to attempt this climb.
Machupicchu Mountain 3,082m – This is the hardest of the three, taking up to 3 hours to reach the top and descend again, but the path is much wider than Wayna Picchu and won’t cause panic for anyone with verigo.
Huchuypicchu Mountain 2,497m – This is the mountain we climbed, if it can really be described as a mountain, it is more like a tall hill standing only 50m above the ruins! The climb is steep but short, taking only 20 mins to reach the top. However, if you are unsteady on your feet or scared of heights it may not be the one for you as there are few pretty serious drop offs! From the top you have epic views across the whole site and Machupicchu mountain. We sat for ages just taking in the view and watching the cloud slowly recede to reveal the peak of Machupicchu mountain.
9. Multi-day treks to Machu Picchu
This is the most famous trek and gets fully-booked up to 6 months in advance as to preserve the trail only a limited number of permits are issued for each day. It is also the most expensive. So you will need to commit and book ahead. It is a 43km trek over 4D3N that most people are keen to do as they want to follow in the footsteps of the Inca’s, walk down the routes they forged and enter Machu Picchu through the iconic sun gate. Whilst I have never heard anything bad said about the trek and everyone we have met that has done it has thoroughly enjoyed it, there are 40,000km worth of ‘Inca trails’ spanning from Ecuador all the way down the Chile, so you can walk in their footsteps in many places!
This is the trek we opted for. A much cheaper option than the Inca Trail. A 76km trek over 5D4N that takes you to Humantay Lake, up Salkantay Mountain and onto Aquas Calientes. There is always far more availability for this trek as unlike the Inca trail there are no restrictions in the number of people allowed to walk it each day. It therefore requires less forward planning and can often be booked literally the day before (although you will probably not get a Machu Picchu ticket this short notice, so will need to get your name down in Aguas Calientes and wait for a ticket there). This is not the main reason we chose this option though. The trek itself, whilst more challenging, is supposedly more beautiful. We haven’t done the Inca trail so cannot compare but it would be hard to beat some of the scenery we came across on the trek, particularly the Salkantay mountain pass, it was epic! There is also the option to add on a zip-lining experience and visit to the hot springs for an additional cost.
Coming soon, our experience on the Salkantay trek. If you have any specific questions feel free to contact us.
Inca Jungle Trail
An adventure seekers trek, 3D2N, encompassing 65km downhill mountain biking, normally 21km trekking (although the routes and distances vary depending on which company you go with) and low-grade, white-water rafting. As with the Salkantay trek there is the option to pay extra for zip-lining and a trip to the hot springs.
Where to stay in Cusco
We stayed in two hostels in Cusco and would recommend them both but Intro was probably better.
Clean, friendly staff and nice private rooms. There is a central courtyard and small kitchen. There wasn’t a lot of atmosphere when we stayed.
Literally over the road from Tucan. Impressive building, again all built around a central courtyard that houses a small bar/restaurant. The food and drinks were really reasonably priced, and breakfast was included here and was delicious, fresh cooked eggs with either avocado or sausage on toast, juice and tea or coffee. Bathrooms were clean and our private room was lovely – it even had a small balcony that looked out right over the city! Intro also has a tour desk, but we found it to be more expensive than other agents in town.
Where to eat/drink in Cusco
The food scene in Cusco is great and very multi-cultural. Vegetarians will find better options here and those missing western cuisine will be happy to find more than local fare here.
Here are a few places we ate at during our stay:
A small café open all day serving all day breakfast, huge sandwiches and other comfort food like lasagne. Massive portions, reasonably prices but obviously more expensive than local food.
Nick’s Food Co.
Run by an English guy who has lived out here for 24 years. A very small restaurant that serves a small menu of Indian and Mexican food. We are big curry lovers and found the lentil curry and lamb Rogan Josh to be absolutely delicious! If we had been in Cusco longer we would also have tried the Mexican as the tacos looked awesome. It’s a little more on the pricey side but well worth it. Curries are s/26,000 – s/32,000 and are served with rice of the day. They don’t take cards so remember to bring cash.
Café Pasteleria Tortini
Small bakery that served juices, cakes & sandwiches. We just had a juice and a cake which were very nice (Dave’s juice wasn’t but he decided to try a local fruit called lúcuma that tasted like sweet potato – an interesting choice for juicing!) but the sandwiches here looked good too.
Los Toldos Chicken
A grill restaurant focusing mainly on chicken (as the name suggests!). Good prices and portion sizes. We chose our chicken and a side of fries, but you also get a complimentary salad which was very nice. We also tried Alpaca here, as was okay but a bit chewy and more gamey than beef. As it was the first time I have no idea whether the meat just isn't really to our taste or they had a poor cut or hadn't cooked it well.
A vegetarian restaurant serving wraps and Buddha bowls. Service was very slow and strange as all done by a child, aged about 8! However, the food was very tasty.
Allin Trattoria Restaurant
We shared a pizza here and it was pretty good. I also saw the lasagne, which looked very cheesy but pretty tasty!
El Mordisco Restaurant
A local restaurant, very cheap prices, especially if you go for the Menu del Dia (set menu of the day) as we did. There were a couple of options for each course, but we had soup to start and then trout for main which was perfectly pleasant. We were also given a juice.
Best bars in Cusco
We didn’t have any big nights out whilst in Cusco but I’ve heard it has a pretty good party scene. There is a lively Irish bar called Paddy’s Irish Pub in the main square and a nightclub called Chango Club that some of our fellow Salkantay trekkers had enjoyed a messy night at!
If you just fancy a couple of beers, we found the streets of Procuradores & Tecsecocha, near the main square, to have lots of bar options and a good vibe.
Where to get good coffee in Cusco
Orgánika bakery and coffee
We had takeaway coffee from here a couple of times and it was really good and pretty cheap for good coffee at s/9. It calls itself a bakery, but it is also a restaurant with a pretty fancy looking menu. We can’t comment on the food other than to say the chocolate croissants were good, but the restaurant certainly looked nice inside.
Getting there & away
We came from La Paz Bolivia and used the company Peru Hop/Bolivia Hop. They are generally a little more expensive than the local bus companies, but we were surprised to see on this journey that the price was very similar and so thought we’d give them a go. They are a tourist bus that advertises itself to be the safest company out there (how they know this I don’t know!), they promote ease of travel and say they handle everything at the border crossing for you, so you don’t need to worry about any problems.
It's all personal choice but this is what we think are the things to consider when choosing whether to use Peru/Bolivia Hop over the local bus companies:
If you are a solo traveller or overly anxious about the journey, Peru/Bolivia hop may make you feel more ‘looked after’ as they have an English-speaking guide in addition to the driver.
In reality, whilst they advertise themselves as assisting with the border crossing, you really couldn’t go wrong and if you are travelling from a country that has a straight forward visa process with Bolivia or Peru, like we do in the UK, no assistance will be needed.
The Bolivia/Peru hop buses are less comfortable than the other companies. The one we travelled on had cama seats downstairs but there was only about 12 of them and all the seats upstairs were just normal coach seats. We were told where to sit so it wasn’t even a first come first served for the comfy seats (for more info on bus seats see South America bus classes explained)
The journey with Bolivia/Peru hop allowed a stop at Copacabana which was good for us as we were short of time and couldn’t afford to stay overnight there but meant we didn’t miss it out altogether.
Generally Bolivia/Peru hop are more expensive so if you are on a budget this can be a big factor in your decision making.