Whether you hike the Inca Trail for 88km to Inti Punku (the entry point to Machu Picchu), or travel by bus or car to Ollantaytambo, then arrive by train to Aguas Calientes, Cusco is the starting point for visiting Machu Picchu. In the old capital of the largest empire that has ever existed in Latin America, you’ll discover dozens of impressive archaeological sites dating back to the early 12th century and catholic churches with amazing architecture.
Our 12-day itinerary in Peru included lots of day trips and activities to discover highlights and hidden gems as the fascinating Historic Centre of Lima, impressive Incan ruins in Cusco, local communities in Sacred Valley of the Incas, breathtaking views of Machu Picchu, and the amazing wildlife that live in the Amazon Rainforest.
Although we planned the itinerary ourselves rather then book a pre-made travel tour, we chose a local agency to handle our reservations, including local guides to accompany us throughout our trip. We spent one night in Cusco at Tierra Viva Cusco Saphi Hotel, a colonial complex built in the 17th century and later restored according to its original architecture. We loved wandering around the old part of the city, discovering old buildings and narrow streets, flanked by traditional shops selling colorful clothing or jewelries and perfect restaurants to try the amazing Peruvian “superfood”.
What to do in the first hours after landing
Surrounded by the breathtaking Andes, Cusco is located at an altitude of 3400m, so it’s common for travelers to experience symptoms of altitude sickness, commonly known as “soroche”. Starting with 1500m, our body reacts differently to changes in oxygen level and regardless of physical condition or age, each person adapts to its own rhythm. Symptoms can usually last up to two or three days and include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, or insomnia. As a side effect, climbing a few stairs or even walking may feels like running a marathon.
Thus, plan your itinerary accordingly, take at least two days once you arrive in the city to acclimatize and trust the local remedies. Enjoy the effect of coca leaves, the miraculous plant that allows a better oxygenation of the body. You can find coca tea, candies or cookies at almost every store or supermarket across the city, many hotels and restaurants even offering them for free to their guests.
Tips&Tricks: No matter how the altitude is affecting you, try to avoid eating fatty or fried foods. Drink plenty of water and take advantage of the fact that Peru is home to a long list of native “superfoods”. Try a quinoa soup and no matter how eager you are to taste the traditional Pisco Sour cocktail, you better think twice about consuming alcohol, at least until the next day.
Top Guided Tours and Activities (our favorite choices)
5 Best Things to Do in Cusco
For almost 200 years, Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire. By 1500, under the rule of Pachacuti the empire was the largest in the world at that time. It stretched from northern Ecuador all the way south to central Chile and was organized around a centralized language, economy, and religion. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived at its borders in the 16th-century, the Inca civilization flourished. They had advanced architecture and engineering techniques as well as sophisticated agricultural practices and a remarkable system of roads.
The Inca capital fell in 1532 to the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. During the following years, Cusco was transformed into a unique combination of architectural styles, influences and cultures. Many of the existing Inca monuments and temples were destroyed and replaced, with the existing structures used as foundations for new buildings and catholic churches. Thus, despite the powerful earthquakes that stroke the city, even today a short walk on its narrow streets can be a great history lesson.
1. Visit Cusco Cathedral, one of the most impressive constructions in the heart of the city's Plaza de Armas
Cusco Cathedral is considered a symbol of the city, with important architectural elements, statues, and hundreds of paintings from the colonial time. Its construction began in 1559, on the foundation of the Inca temple Kiswarkancha. However, the building was completed after nearly 100 years due to the frequent earthquakes and tremors that stroke the city. Underneath the cathedral, you can descend into a crypt that contains the ashes of several deceased archbishops.
2. Admire the stunning panorama together with the llamas that roam the trails at Sacsayhuaman
Sacsayhuaman fortress was originally built in the 1100th by the Killke culture, but in the early 13th century, the Incas made additional improvements to its original structures. Huge stone blocks extracted from the surrounding quarries were transported for almost 20km, then cut, polished, and combined using the (earthquake-resistant) technique of fitting stone blocks perfectly together without the use of mortar, known as Ashlar. Presumably over 20.000 people worked at the assembly, but it still remains a mystery how the rocks weighing up to 125to were transported from that distance by a civilization that never discovered the wheel.
3. Wander the grounds of Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun) and Santo Domingo Convent
Built in the 13th century, right in the heart of Cusco, Qorikancha was the most sacred temple of the Inca Empire. Dedicated to the sun, its inner walls were completely covered in gold and decorated with precious stones and decorations. Along with the Spanish conquest, the sanctuary was stripped of its gold and many valuable sculptures were taken back to Spain. As happened with all the Inca temples, the complex was destroyed and a catholic church was built over the existing foundation. Currently, Convent of Santo Domingo houses a great collection of paintings exposed on its corridors.
4. Take a short hike to Tambomachay
Known as El Bano del Inca, Tambomachay was used for ceremonial purposes or as a relaxation area for the ruler of the empire. The complex consists of an area of 3 terraces (made of perfectly combined trapezoidal stones), carved around a natural spring, which creates a series of beautiful aqueducts, canals and small waterfalls.
5. Discover the mysterious Quenqo, the temple used for death rituals
Located on top of a hill (just 15 minutes by car from Cusco), Quenqo is a unique Inca temple, entirely carved inside a monolith. The religious site is famous for its underground tunnels and chambers connecting a few altars, were ceremonies of various kinds were held for their gods such as the sun, the moon, mountains or the stars. Surrounding by a semi-circular amphitheater, the temple was considered to be an extremely holy place, where animal sacrifices with religious motives were possibly carried out.