Travel Inspiration: A Visit to Cusco

Cusco, Peru, Plaza de Armas
Hughes Herve/Getty Images

Travel to South America is booming – especially in Peru. And it’s easy to see why. There is such a diverse range of attractions for travelers. Trekking on the Inca trail, handicraft shopping, cultural immersion -- it’s all there. Manuel Vigo, marketing manager at Peru For Less, and his team of travel advisors in travel to Peru have concocted an ideal itinerary in one of their favorite Peruvian destinations – Cusco.

Exploring Cusco

Why Cusco? Vigo highlights the many layers of the destination.

“The charm of Cusco and its numerous city highlights definitely warrant more than an overnight en route to Machu Picchu,” he says. “There are layers of history to explore throughout the city. While in Cusco, you'll wander down narrow cobblestone streets hugged by old colonial buildings and past ancient stone walls pieced together by the hands of Inca stonemasons,”

Vigo says that life in Cusco centers around its bustling Plaza de Armas bordered by the Cusco Cathedral, restaurants that dish up regional favorites, and cafes. Among many great things about the city, many of Cusco's must-see attractions you'll see while touring the city, such as Qoricancha (the Sun Temple) and the Sacsayhuaman Inca fortress, are within short walking distance or a short taxi ride away from your hotel. 

Below is a sample five-day itinerary that will allow you to experience the best Cusco has to offer as you make your way to Machu Picchu.

Ideal Itinerary: Cusco

“There’s no doubt about it. Cusco is our favorite destination in Peru. Talk to any traveler who’s been to Cusco and you’re likely to hear something like this: ‘I loved Cusco. Can’t wait to go back,’” says Vigo.

So what’s all the fuss about? From stunning Inca temples and ornate colonial cathedrals to cozy cafes, luxurious hotels, a lively bar scene and some of the best restaurants in all of Peru, Cusco has everything a traveler’s heart could desire.

Day 1: Acclimate & Explore

  • Mind the Elevation - You’re no doubt anxious to start exploring the city, but Cusco’s 11,150 feet (3,400 meters) of altitude will quickly remind you to scale back an ambitious itinerary. Your first morning in town is a great time to stake out a balcony in a cafe overlooking the Plaza de Armas or Plaza Regocijo, sit back with a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy some of the best people-watching in the Andes.
  • Cusco City & Ruins - After lunch, hit the main attractions. Start in the Cusco Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas and then walk down narrow streets laid out by the Incas to Qorikancha temple. Finish out the day with a visit to Sacsayhuaman with its monumental zigzagging stone walls. It’s a lot to squeeze into one afternoon, but booking a tour will save you time and a good guide will fill you in on Cusco’s history and legends from a local’s perspective.
  • Dine Like Incan Royalty - If you haven’t tried Peruvian food yet, the restaurants in Cusco provide an easy introduction. For classic Peruvian dishes, try Pachapapa or Nuna Raymi. For gourmet and fusion cuisine, head to Chicha by Gaston Acurio, Marcelo Batata or Limo (order the ceviche).

Day 2: Museums & Markets

If you travel for culture, you’ll probably agree that Cusco is a wonderland. Explore the city on foot and you’ll find museums that delve into any aspect of the Andean world: art, archaeology, plants, chocolate, astronomy and more.

  • Must-See Museums - With so many great museums, the only problem is choosing which one to visit. Here are a few suggestions:
    • During the day:
      • Machu Picchu Museum (Casa Concha), Calle Santa Catalina 320 - An excellent prelude to the ruins.
      • Museum of Pre-Columbian Art (MAP), Plaza de las Nazarenas 231 - The Cusco branch of the Larco Museum in Lima.
      • Center for Traditional Textiles, Av. El Sol 603 - Beautiful display of textiles with items for sale.
      • ChocoMuseo, Calle Garcilaso 210, 2nd floor - Learn about Peruvian-made chocolate and then make your own.
      • Archbishop’s Palace, Calle Hatunrumiyoc - Built on the site of an Inca palace, the house is a treasure trove of colonial art and architecture.
      • Monumento Pachacuteq, Ovalo del Pachacutec - On the way to/from the airport, you’ll pass this 20-meter tower topped by a bronze sculpture of the great Inca king Pachacutec. It’s actually a museum and you can climb to the very top for excellent views over Cusco.
    • After dark:
      • Planetarium Cusco - A family-run planetarium and cultural center located a short drive from the city where you can learn about Inca astrology.
      • Museo del Pisco, Calle Santa Catalina 398 - It’s actually a bar, not a museum. But if you’re uninitiated in the wonders of pisco, this is the place to learn. Note that the bar hosts live salsa music on some evenings. Go early if you’d prefer a quieter scene.
  • Markets - Not all culture in Cusco is confined to museums. Plan to visit a local market to see living traditions in action. And tick some items off your souvenir shopping list while you’re at it.
    • San Pedro Market - Mercado San Pedro is the largest traditional market in the historic center. Go to see local fruits and vegetables, herbs, flowers, dry goods, souvenirs, a butcher section, and if you’re curious about local food, head to the stalls in the back.
    • San Blas Market - A scaled down version of Mercado San Pedro, but still worth the visit if you’re in the neighborhood. A popular vegetarian restaurant tucked into a corner serves a set menu for lunch to a loyal clientele. 
    • Centro Artesanal Cusco - In a slightly different category than those above, this huge indoor market is packed floor-to-ceiling with artisan goods, trinkets, ponchos, textiles, and alpaca wool hats called chullos. Wander the stalls to get a solid overview of what’s available and a ballpark range of prices. Keep in mind that vendors are more likely to lower prices if you buy more than one item.

Day 3: Get Out of Town

With some days at altitude behind you, you can now undertake a more vigorous activity. Book a mountain biking or horseback riding tour to explore the countryside around Chinchero (30 minutes from Cusco). This is an active way to see sites like the Moray circular terraces and the Maras salt pans.

Adrenaline seekers in the Sacred Valley also have options for zip lining, mountain climbing, and whitewater rafting. But if you’d prefer to go easy, you can always book a tour by car.

At the end of the day, you can return to Cusco or stay the night in the Sacred Valley.

Day 4: Sacred Valley of the Incas

The Sacred Valley is littered with fascinating archeological sites that together provide a glimpse of the Inca Empire’s one-time grandeur. A typical tour includes stops at:

  • Pisac ruins: These hilltop ruins sprawl across a mountain ridge overlooking Pisac village and the surrounding valleys below. Its strategic positioning and mixed residential and ceremonial buildings suggest the site served multiple functions.  
  • Ollantaytambo fortress: Highlights are the fine terraces and the main temple, made of huge polished stones fit together with impressive precision. Below the ruins, the thriving town of Ollantaytambo is an intact example of Inca urban planning and a great place to spend the night.
  • Urubamba: Central hub of the Sacred Valley, this town boasts a growing restaurant scene worth checking out, including Tres Keros, Q’anela, and El Huacatay. Large groups may prefer to visit one of the excellent buffet restaurants such as Tunupa or Muna.

Day 5: Machu Picchu

After exploring Cusco and the Sacred Valley, you’ll have a better context to appreciate world wonder Machu Picchu. Travel by train from Ollantaytambo, enjoy a guided tour of the ruins and then spend the rest of your time exploring these majestic ruins on your own.