Participating in Peruvian culture and history, Cusco is a city that resonates with the sounds of ancient empires and civilizations. Previously the Inca Empire’s capital, this lively Andean center is a living museum with spirits of the past echoing through its narrow streets.
The top 5 must-visit sites in Cusco, each representing a chapter in the city’s fascinating history, are revealed in this guide.
Here is an overview:
Cusco City: A Diverse Tapestry of History
Cusco, frequently referred to as the “navel of the world,” offers an amazing opportunity to see Peruvian history and immerse yourself in this unique culture. Perched high in the Andes, this ancient city was once the pulsating center of the Inca Empire, and its historical significance is still felt today.
Cusco’s history, which has roots extending over a thousand years, is evidence of the lasting influence of two major civilizations: the Spanish conquistadors and the Incas.
Related read: How to Visit Cusco & Machu Picchu on a Budget
Key Sites in Cusco
Here are the most popular sites in Cusco to visit.
Plaza de Armas
The Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s principal square, serves as the city’s center. It is surrounded by the magnificent Cusco Cathedral and impressive colonial structures. You can visit the surrounding stores and restaurants, take in the atmosphere, and observe people from here.
The colossal fortress of Sacsayhuamán, which is not far from Cusco, is a testimony to the creativity of the Inca people. Massive stone walls, some weighing as much as 200 tons, were expertly built to create a historically significant and architecturally spectacular site.
San Pedro Market
This colorful local market is a must-visit if you want to immerse yourself in Peruvian food and culture. An abundance of vibrant vendors selling fresh vegetables, handcrafted products, textiles, and regional food can be found here. It’s a wonderful opportunity to really experience the native way of life and a sensory feast.
Cusco City welcomes visitors to enter the Inca civilization, feel the effects of Spanish colonization, and enjoy the dynamic culture of modern Peru. It is a living history book where the past and present coexist together.
Related read: Things to do in Cusco, Peru
Sacred Valley: A Masterpiece of Nature and History
Nestled in the heart of the Andes, the Sacred Valley is a landmark of the expertise of nature. This lovely area, with its lush fields, majestic mountains, and flowing river, is a work of nature’s art. Doing the Sacred Valley tour is a dream come true for nature lovers and photographers because of the amazing views and history of the Incas that await you at every turn.
Pisac Ruins and Market
Pisac is a charming village well-known for its historic ruins and lively market. The market is a swirl of color as regional craftspeople display their jewelry, handwoven textiles, and other goods.
Meanwhile, with terraces, temples, and breathtaking panoramic vistas, the neighboring Pisac Ruins, positioned high on a hill, provide a window into Inca architectural skill.
A network of circular agricultural terraces that imitate a natural amphitheater, Moray is an archeological mystery. This Inca structure, a masterpiece of architecture and design, is thought to have been utilized for agricultural research.
In the Sacred Valley, the salt ponds of Maras offer an unusual spectacle. For decades, individuals have extracted salt from natural springs using thousands of salt pools. A fascinating sight is the striking contrast between the brown hills and the more than 5,000 salt ponds.
This Inca town and citadel offers a fascinating look into Inca urban design and military construction. A visit to the charming village with its cobblestone roads and well-preserved ruins is sure to fascinate.
Recommendation: Travel by Train to Machu Picchu and Spend the Night There
If you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, consider taking the train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu the day before your visit. By booking a room for the night, you can visit Machu Picchu in the early morning hours when there are fewer tourists and take in its magical atmosphere.
The Sacred Valley is a place where the beauty of the natural world and the history of Incas meet, providing an array of experiences that will enhance your trip around Peru.
Machu Picchu: The Highlight of Your Trip
The famous Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, which is hidden deep in Peru’s Andes, is a site rich in mystery and history. Constructed in the fifteenth century, during the peak of the Inca Empire, this remarkable architectural work served as either a ceremonial retreat or a royal estate. But a century later, probably due to the Spanish Conquest, it was abandoned.
Up until 1911, when American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham discovered it, the location was kept secret from the general public. The exact purpose of Machu Picchu is still up for question among historians, but because of its singular combination of magnificent natural beauty and amazing construction, it has been recognized as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Related read: The Complete Guide to Visiting Machu Picchu in Peru
How to Get to Machu Picchu: Train, Hiking, and Guided Tours
Here’s how to get to Machu Picchu by train, hiking or guided tours.
Taking the train from Cusco or Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu is one of the most well-liked routes. This relaxing and picturesque trip takes you through the Sacred Valley and into Aguas Calientes, the village at the foot of Machu Picchu, with breathtaking vistas along the way.
You can then take a 20-minute shuttle bus to the entrance or hike up to the location from there. For more information, check out this Machu Picchu tour with all tickets and an expert guide included.
The Inca Trail is the most popular hiking path that leads to Machu Picchu, especially to the adventurous hikers. You can choose between a two- or four-day hike passing through breathtaking scenery and historic sites while providing a wealth of cultural and historical experiences. The Salkantay Trek and the Lares Trek are two other trekking choices, each with its own special viewpoints and difficulties.
Choosing a guided tour is a great approach to experience Machu Picchu. Fascinating stories, historical background, and assurance that no hidden jewels will be overlooked are all provided by knowledgeable guides.
They may also assist you with logistics, transportation, and ticketing, ensuring a smooth and pleasurable vacation.
Trekking Options to Reach Machu Picchu
You can choose between a two-day or four-day Inca Trail. Before arriving in Machu Picchu, you’ll see breathtaking scenery, historic ruins, and the magnificent Sun Gate.
This alternative route offers a five-day walk through various scenery, including lush forests, snowy peaks, and hot springs, but it is more physically demanding.
For those who want to experience the Andean culture fully, the Lares Trek is an excellent choice. You will pass through isolated communities and high mountain passes on your three- to four-day hike.
Machu Picchu Day-Tour
Even if you’re limited by time, you can still visit Machu Picchu in a single day and feel its magic.
This is the schedule for our typical day trip:
- Early in the morning: A driver will pick you up from your accommodation in Cusco and bring you to the Ollantaytambo train station, from where you’ll take the train to Aguas Calientes.
- Mid-morning: From Aguas Calientes, you will take a 20-minute shuttle bus to the entrance of Machu Picchu.
- Late Morning: Enjoy a 2.5 h private tour with our local expert guide. Remember to have your phone fully charged!
- In the afternoon: Get some food in Aguas Calientes.
- Later afternoon: Take the train back to Ollantaytambo.
- Early evening: Our driver will pick you up from the Ollantaytambo train station and return to your accommodation in Cusco.
For more than a century, Machu Picchu has enchanted the imaginations and hearts of travelers worldwide. Whether you take the train, go on a multi-day hike, or go on a day tour, your trip to this ancient wonder is sure to be an amazing experience full of mystery, history, and breathtaking beauty.
Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain: A Colorful Adventure
Located in the Peruvian Andes, Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain is well-known for its spectacularly colorful look. This geological wonder creates a fascinating natural spectacle with its vibrant red, yellow, and blue stripes.
Hiking up Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain is a demanding but worthwhile experience. Hikers should expect a round-trip journey across high-altitude terrain lasting approximately 6 to 7 hours. For those who love the outdoors, the trip offers unforgettable outdoor experiences because of its rocky routes and breathtaking views.
You’ll also have the chance during the Vinicunca day tour to hike back through the Red Valley. This is one of the most unique experiences as you will be far away from other travelers, and the entire surroundings are red.
Tips for Altitude
Hiking to Vinicunca requires a degree of altitude adjustment that is necessary for success in the Andes. Before beginning the hike, you should acclimate in Cusco or the Sacred Valley, drink enough water/coca tea, and think about taking altitude sickness medication. Slow, steady pacing and appropriate attire are also essential to guarantee a pleasant and secure travel.
Related read: How to Avoid Altitude Sickness in Peru
Humantay Lake: The Hidden Gem in the Andes
The stunning turquoise jewel Humantay Lake is a hidden gem deep within the Peruvian Andes. Experience an unforgettably beautiful alpine lake nestled deep in a breathtaking natural setting for adventurous travelers.
The Humantay Lake tour includes a 90 – 120 min hike to the lake, going through high-altitude regions with rocky roads and steep ascents. The surrounding landscapes gradually get more breathtaking as you rise, increasing your feeling of excitement for the hidden gem that lies ahead.
A picture-perfect background of snow-capped mountains covers the lake. Beyond its obvious beauty, the Quechua people around Humantay Lake have significant spiritual significance because they think the Apu Humantay, a mountain spirit, resides there.
It’s a location that combines natural beauty and cultural value to capture the essence of Peru’s high-altitude landscapes.
Note: In the 4-Day Best of Cusco tour, you’ll visit all of the sites mentioned in a small group or a private tour. Depending on your time available, this tour can also be 100% customized.
Visiting in the Right Order
When organizing a trip across Peru, the order in which you visit the sites can greatly improve your experience. Your body can gradually adjust to the higher elevations by starting with lower-altitude locations like the Sacred Valley. This strategic decision reduces your risk of altitude sickness when traveling to locations such as Cusco and Machu Picchu.
Moreover, beginning with cities at lower altitudes offers you crucial background information for understanding the Inca history. A deeper comprehension of the Inca civilization, its accomplishments, and the environment in which they flourished is ensured by visiting the historical and cultural monuments in the Sacred Valley before arriving at Machu Picchu.
Exploring Cusco’s Must-Visit Sites
A treasure trove of diverse adventures will await you during your time in Cusco. A mix of history, culture, and natural wonder can be found in the top 5 must-visit sites, which include the breathtaking Machu Picchu, the beautiful Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain, the incredible sites of the Sacred Valley, the picturesque Humantay Lake and the ancient city of Cusco.
A tour including all of these sites offers a quick and easy approach to experience the richness of this fascinating city for those of you who are short on time and that want to make the most of your trip in Cusco. Enjoy your time in the ancient capital of the Incas!