Best things to do in Cusco
There are so many great things to do in Cusco. Though it's known as the gateway city to Machu Picchu, this city has so much more to offer. Stand in the Plaza de Armas to see the mighty Cristo Blanco statue as it stoically keeps watch over the city.
Wander the streets and alleyways into San Pedro market to find a farmers market and food stalls with local cuisine. Travel a few hours into the highlands of Peru to discover glaciers at Rainbow Mountain. If you're looking for adventure, history, and culture then the Cusco region is the spot for you.
Cusco sits at about 11,150 ft (3,400 m) so you will need to acclimate to the altitude upon arrival. Luckily, there are coca leaves at almost every shop, including the airport, that help with this process. Interestingly enough, Machu Picchu sits at a lower elevation of around 8000 ft (2430 m).
The hike to Cristo Blanco on our first day seemed much more difficult than the trek through the Incan ruins. Additionally, we did the famous Rainbow Mountain hike during our time in Cusco which finished at a staggering 16,252 ft (4,953m). This hike holds the record for our highest altitude hike we have completed. Nonetheless, Cusco is one of the highlights of Peru so read more below to find out what what not to miss.
1. Plaza De Armas
Plaza de Armas is the main square in Cusco. In fact, if you travel to virtually any other city in Peru you will also find other Plaza de Armas. It is the main square of the town and the literal translation is 'Parade Ground.' This made sense to us very quickly since there was a parade in the square every other day.
Cusco is a pretty touristy city, and if you're a tourist, expect to be approached a lot by locals trying to sell you things. Interestingly enough, there are tons of massage parlors around Cusco. It feels like everybody and their mother is trying to sell you a massage. We didn't take any of the ladies up on their offer, but 20 Soles (~$6 USD) seemed to be the going rate for most places. Be aware that some will try charging 30-40 Soles which is a bit high, so don't be afraid to negotiate. To be real, even with those higher prices you will never find a massage for under $15 in the US. If you don't want to be bothered by any of the local merchants, just say 'No gracias' - No Thanks, or 'Quizas mas tarde' - Maybe later.
Artwork of Cusco
Cusco near is an Art University, so there are many artists that you will see around Plaza de Armas looking to sell you their paintings. Some of the artists are pretty good salesmen as well. We met a cool local artist, Eric, that we ended up chatting with. He told us some cool things to do in Cusco and even gave us some great restaurant recommendations. Our friend who was traveling with us, Isara, actually bought a few paintings from Eric as his work was really good (pictured above). Eric also explained the significance of the Pachamama, or mother earth. If you look at the mountain behind Machu Picchu it looks a face when you turn the painting on its side. Pretty neat, right?
2. Cristo Blanco
Cristo Blanco, or 'White Christ', is visible from the Plaza de Armas. This statue of Jesus looks over the city and is even lit up at night. It's a fairly short walk to the top from the city center, however, we underestimated the affect the altitude would have on us. We were pretty out of breath trying to walk up the all the stairs to get to the statue. But, if you plan on doing any hikes like Machu Picchu or Rainbow Mountain then we would highly recommend doing this as a good way to acclimate yourself to the altitude.
3. Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu. Most likely the reason you're coming to Cusco is to see the ancient ruins that are one of the seven wonders of the world. Although Cusco is known for being the gateway city to Machu Picchu, this is not entirely true. Agua Calientes - the city that lies walking distance from the ruins - is actually the true gateway.
Though it's possible to make a day trip to Machu Picchu, be prepared for a long (and pretty expensive) day. Entrance tickets are $45 USD if you book online yourself, but getting there is a whole other story. However, we thought it was worth the price for seeing one of the seven wonders. We still highly recommend the trip out because it was surreal experiencing all the history it had to offer. Read more about our day trip to Machu Picchu right here!
4. Rainbow Mountain
Starting Altitude: 14,829 ft.
Ending Altitude: 16,252 ft.
Trail Length 5.7 miles
Before going to Rainbow Mountain we read varying opinions on the internet about whether or not it's worth the difficult hike. Not to mention the three hour long drive from Cusco. Even though we did the hike in their Spring, it was raining and snowing. Nonetheless, we still thought it was absolutely worth the trek. Please note: we love hiking. We’d only recommend attempting Rainbow Mountain if you're okay with possibly hiking in the rain, sleet, and snow.
If you are planning the hike with hopes of seeing an overly saturated mountain from instagram, this isn't the place for you. If you want to see some amazing views of the Andes mountains, glaciers, and conquering a 16,000+ ft mountain, then this definitely is for you. You should plan on being well equipped with proper hiking boots, hiking poles, and a well insulated raincoat. If you didn’t bring poles or other hiking equipment, they can be rented at almost any outdoor store in Cusco. Also, be sure to bring your coca leaves for the altitude!
If you want to read more about the details of Rainbow Mountain like how to get there and what else to pack, check out our Peru Hiking Guide for more info.
5. San Pedro Market
San Pedro Market is a really cool place to spend the morning or afternoon walking around. It’s like a large farmer’s market plus more! There are stands selling fresh fruits, vegetables, and even clothing/souvenirs. It’s definitely the best, and arguably the cheapest place to do your grocery shopping.
There are also tons of local vendors with food stalls. Stop in for lunch, dinner or just to grab some handmade Peruvian goods. The market has everything from clothing, art, bags, keychains, and dolls to marble sculptures - San Pedro Market has it all. Also be sure to haggle for prices as almost everything in Cusco is negotiable, but be sure to bring cash!
6. Wandering the Streets of Cusco
While wandering the streets of Cusco you are bound to find some beautiful alleyways lined with cobblestone streets. You may even see some cool artwork blended into the beautiful buildings. However, be wary of stray dogs because there are lots of them. Some are rather friendly, but some will bark and may intimidate you. Some may even look really cute and friendly, although, you should never feed them. Just be mindful of them and walk away if you see a pack of dogs that don't look too friendly. The last thing you need to do is get bit and potentially contract rabies.
It might not be a bad idea to look around for some rocks/rubble to protect yourself if you feel the need. With that being said, we didn't have any issues and enjoyed the walking streets of Cusco. As always, keep your wits about you and be aware of your surroundings to minimize the chance of finding yourself in trouble. If you see the cute dog pictured above, be sure to give him some love for Molly because he was so friendly and followed us around for most of the day.
Where to stay in Cusco
If you're wondering where to stay in Cusco, look no further than Plaza de Armas. There are tons of lodging options to this central location of Cusco. Read below to find out where to stay in Cusco including where we stayed along with several other options.
From our experience, we like to use Hostel World to check out potential hostels, then check other booking websites like Booking.com to make our reservations. Sometimes we also message hostels directly to get a better price. We also like to use Airbnb to book accommodations if its a better deal than hostels. Clicking on either of the icons will give you a deal with either of the sites, but are affiliate links so we earn a small commission.
Private Rooms: $45+ USD
Amenities: Free Wifi, Free Breakfast, Luggage Storage, Laundry Service, Fridge, Travel/Tours desk, 24 Hr Security/Reception
Hostal Inti Wasi is located less than a block from the centrally located Plaza de Armas. Normally we try to book more budget hostels, but this one was too good to pass up. They offer a free buffet style breakfast every morning, and a private room with private bath for roughly $27 USD/night per person. We were traveling with our friend, Isara, so the $80 USD split three ways was still within our budget.
Dorms: $4.54+ USD
Private Rooms: $15.13+ USD
Amenities: Free Breakfast, Free Wifi, 24 Hr Security/Reception, Coffee/Tea, Restaurant
Dorms: $6.05+ USD
Private Rooms: $18.15+ USD
Amenities: Free Wifi, Free Breakfast, Coffee/Tea, Tours/Travel Desk, Restaurant/Bar
Dorms: $6.66+ USD
Private Rooms: $18.76+ USD
Amenities: Free Wifi, Free Breakfast, Luggage Storage, Airport Transfers, Tours/Travel Desk, Laundry Facilities, Coffee/Tea, Outdoor Terrace
Curing Altitude Sickness
As we mentioned above, Cusco sits at a much higher altitude than most people are used to. It's likely that you're going to encounter a spurt of altitude sickness upon arrival, but don't worry, it will pass. However, it should not be ignored. Symptoms vary from dizziness, nausea, fatigue, headache, lessened appetite, and shortness of breath during exercise.
The symptoms will typically lessen within 12-24 hours and should pass after a few days. What helps: coca leaves. Most hostels, like Hostal Inti Wasi, offer coca leaves and hot water to make coca tea. If not, you can buy coca leaves at almost any store in Cusco. Our favorite method to consume was by chewing the leaves. Pretend like you are packing a lip of chewing tobacco, but swallow your saliva and not the leaves.
However, if you find the symptoms worsening or you develop confusion, coordination loss, inability to walk - seek medical attention. Additionally, a cough that produces a white/pink frothy substance is another sign of a more serious matter. These symptoms, particularly the white/pink frothy substance, are symptomatic of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). HAPE is a buildup of fluid in the lungs and can be life threatening. Don't fret too much, this is rare and we did not experience any of these symptoms nor did anybody we ran into. Nonetheless, it's always important to listen to your body and stay in tune with it. You know it better than anybody else does.