Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire, is the epicenter of Peruvian history and culture and the most popular tourist destination in the country. With countless archaeological treasures, colonial masterpieces, and breathtaking surroundings, Cusco probably has more to see and do than you have time for. Below are the 12 most important things that anyone visiting Cusco should prioritize during their trip to the splendid city.
1. Get yourself oriented at La Plaza Mayor.
La Plaza Mayor is the center of the Cusco, and the most beautiful plaza in all of Peru. This is the perfect starting point for exploring the neighborhoods of old Cusco or even just people-watch.
2. Walk the walls of Sacsayhuamán.
Sacsayhuamán is a large complex of Inca ruins on a hill overlooking Cusco. The site was once a citadel built to protect Cusco from invaders and is surrounded by impressively large stone walls the were somehow fit together without the use of mortar.
3. Take in the view from Cristo Blanco.
The look-out at Cristo Blanco is marked by a giant white statue of christ and allows a sweeping panoramic view of Cusco. The path to Cristo Blanco is right by the exit of Sacsayhuamán, so you might as well do both on the same visit.
4. Browse the Market of San Pedro.
Mercado de San Pedro is a huge historic market in downtown Cusco sporting everything from traditional garments and fresh produce to baked goods and tourist trinkets. If you plan to bring back a souvenir from Peru, this is the place to find it.
5. Bask in the waters of Tambomachay.
Tambomachay is an Inca archaeological site just outside Cusco that boasts waterfalls, aqueducts, and canals running through rock terraces. Archaeologists believe the sites was devoted to the worship of water.
6. Play with baby animals.
Throughout the old city, you may find indigenous women in traditional dress carrying adorable animals, such as lambs or llamas. For as little as 1 sol, you take a picture holding one.
7. Ride across the Sacred Valley.
The Sacred Valley which surrounds Cusco is a place of overwhelming beautiful. With snow-capped mountains, rolling fields, and ancient villages, the Sacred Valley is well worth exploring by car, bike, or even ATV. Dozens of different day trips are on offer at tour offices across Cusco.
8. Savor the small joys of Ollantaytambo.
Ollantaytambo is a charming little village an hour and a half outside Cusco with intimate cobblestone lanes and some impressive Inca ruins. Ollantaytambo is the gateway to most sites in the Sacred Valley, so you might as well stop by and take it in.
9. Visit the Moray Circles.
The Sacred Valley’s Moray Circles are a series of ancient crop terraces in the shape of concentric rings that the Incas used to experiment with different crow-growing techniques.
10. Get salty at Salinas de Maras.
The salt fields of Maras have been in use since Pre-Incan times, and today with just 10 sol and a short day trip from Cusco, you can witness the salt harvest for yourself. Most visitors combine las Salinas de Maras with the nearby Moray Circles.
11. Hazard a trip to the Rainbow Mountains
You’ll see day trips to the rainbow mountains advertised all over Cusco, but be warned the rainbow mountains are not actually rainbow. Most of the photos you’ll see are edited to make the mountains look much more colorful than they really are. This is what they really look like, which is still pretty unique.
12. Wander off the beaten path at Amaru Marka Wasi.
Tired of visiting expensive and over-touristed ruins? The hills and valleys surrounding Cusco are replete with neglected, underrated ruins that you can have all to yourself. Enjoy the little-known ruins of Amaru Marka Wasi and the caves and altars surrounding it. Then follow the trail behind it for a scenic hike past countless other ruins and vast pre-Incan terraces.
13. Trek to Machu Picchu.
Ah, the most iconic landmark in all of Latin America. Named one of the seven new wonders of the world in 2001, Machu Picchu is Peru’s biggest draw. Getting to Machu Picchu from Cusco is a bit tricky if you are on a budget, but you can reach the lost city without breaking the bank following this alternative route.