How Many Days Do You Need In Cusco? 4 Great Itineraries For Every Backpacker

Cusco and the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu are the highlight of backpackers trips to Peru. You want to make sure your time in the city and visit to the site are effortless and there are several different ways you can approach it. If you are struggling to work out how many days you need in Cusco then here are 4 expertly planned itineraries to suit every backpacker.

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Itinerary #1 - 3 Days In Cusco Without Machu Picchu

Here’s a quick breakdown of this 3-day Cusco itinerary that doesn’t include Machu Picchu:

Day Where? Highlights
1
Cusco
Walking Tour, Chocolate Tour, Museums
2
Cusco
Rainbow Mountain Tour
3
Cusco
Sacred Valley Tour

Day 1 - Cuco Walking Tour & City Day

Begin your first day in Cusco with a walking tour around the city. Not only will you learn the local history, but you’ll learn some local secrets and find out the best places to eat and drink.

 

Inkan Milkyway run tours three tours each day at; 10 AM, 1 PM and 3:30 PM, except on Sunday when there is only one tour at 10 AM.

 

In this fascinating historical centre walking tour of Cusco, they will take you to many of the named attractions in Cusco such as Plaza de Armas, Mercado San Pedro, and the Palace of Pachaquteq.

 

 

After this, you have lots of options to fill the rest of the day. You could head to the Choco museum. You can either buy some from the shop or go on their ‘From Bean To Bar’ tour to learn how to make chocolate yourself.

 

Or if you want to take it easy, go and get a massage. Massages are cheap in Cusco, and you’ll find someone on every street offering you one. The excess of supply means that massages are cheap and start at around $15.

 

There are lots of options with deep-tissue, Swedish and the local Incan techniques (whatever that is), on offer. Expect to pay between $30-40 for their full treatments.

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Day 2 - Rainbow Mountain

You should use your second day in Cusco for a trip outside of the city.

 

Cusco is surrounded by beautiful nature and scenery and one popular option for a day tour is Rainbow Mountain. The short but challenging trek up to 5,200m to see this colourful sight is a fantastic day trip if you think you can stomach the altitude.

 

The panoramic views and the intense colours of the mountains in the region are breath-taking and unlike other treks you will come across in South America. On top of this, the challenge of reaching 5,200m and conquering a high-altitude mountain can only make you feel good.

 

This is a full day activity leaving at 5:00 AM in the morning and returning to Cusco at around 5:00 PM in the afternoon.

Read the full guide here for everything you need to know about how to pack, what to expect and the best companies to book with:

 

 

Best Rainbow Mountain Tour 1

Day 3 - Visit The Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley is a region in Peru’s Andean highlands just outside of Cusco.

 

This beautiful valley, stretching roughly 60 kilometers, formed the heart of the Inca Empire. It’s an area of fertile farmland and Spanish colonial villages and day tours will take you to several places within the valley.

 

A full-day tour will take you to Pisac market, Ollantaytambo and a small village called Chinchero. The tour will lead you on a trip through time visiting archaeological sites and the spectacular agricultural terraces which the Incas are famous for.

 

The cost of the tour is $39 but does not include the 70 soles entrance to the valley (PEN70).

 

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Itinerary #2 - 3 Days In Cusco With Machu Picchu

Here’s a quick breakdown of this 3-day Cusco itinerary that includes Machu Picchu:

Day Where? Highlights
1
Cusco
Walking Tour, Chocolate Tour, Museums
2
Aguas Calientes
Travel By Train Through The Sacred Valley
3
Machu Picchu
6:00 AM Entrance To Machu Picchu For Sunrise

Day 1 - Walking Tour & City Day

Once you arrive in Cusco, follow the same day 1 suggestion as the 3-day itinerary above and spend the day on a walking tour exploring the city, visit the Choco Museum and trying some Andean food at one of the many great restaurants in town.

 

You will also want to use this time to organise your transport to Aguas Calientes. If you are on a 3-day itinerary, then I would suggest either the bus or the train.

 

The bus is much cheaper but takes around 8 hours so you will need to leave first thing in the morning on day 2. Also, it only takes you to Hidroelectrica which is as far as the road goes. From here, you need to walk 2-3 hours to Aguas Calientes. This option is best for budget backpackers.

 

If you aren’t on as tight a budget, then get the train. It takes 3 hours, it’s a beautiful journey through the Sacred Valley and it takes you all the way to Aguas Calientes.

For more on booking bus or train transport to Aguas Calientes and visiting Machu Picchu, check out the post below which has all the information you need:

 

 

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Day 2 - Aguas Calientes

The next morning, you can either take the train or bus to Aguas Calientes and stay for the night.

 

When you arrive in the town of Aguas Calientes, find your hostel and check in. I recommend Super Tramp Hostel as one of the best backpacker hostels here. However, you will also find lots of small hotels and BnBs that are affordable too.

 

 

If you have some time, explore the small town but make sure you get an early night as you’ll be up early to start the climb to Machu Picchu.

 

A couple of fun things to do include a visit to the Manuel Chavez Ballon Site Museum and the Butterfly House. The museum is named after the archaeologist Manuel Chavez Ballon and pays homage to the Peruvian archaeologist who spent much of his life researching Machu Picchu.

 

The Butterfly House is a local conservation project dedicated to studying local butterfly species as well as increasing the butterfly population through a reproduction-and-release program. Guided tours cost 10 soles and lasts about 15 to 20 minutes.

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Day 3 - Machu Picchu

Early on the morning of day 3, it’s finally time to climb the 1,600+ stairs up to Peru’s most popular tourist attraction.

 

When you need to leave depends on what time ticket you purchased. However, I would recommend trying to get a 6:00 AM ticket which is the earliest entry possible.

Most people wake up around 4.30AM and wait outside the gates from 5:00 AM. When the gates open you can start the hike up. The alternative is to wait and take the bus which will get you to the top quicker. Either way, you’ll be one of the first people into Machu Picchu, catching the sunrise and largely having the place to yourself (at least for half an hour, until it eventually becomes packed as more and more tour buses turn up).

 

Once you’ve had your fill of this incredible natural wonder, all that’s left to do is head back down. Again, you can either walk or take the bus – it’s up to you.

 

You can buy tickets from the official website here:

 

 

Tip: After you have made your way back down you can either stay the night again in Aguas Calientes or return to Cusco via train or bus.

 

If you are travelling back by bus, then the last bus from Hiroelectrica leaves at 3:00 PM. So, you need to be down and walking back along the train tracks by 11 at the latest just to be safe as it takes 2-3 hours walking. 

 

Once you get back to Cusco, stay the night in a comfy hostel so you can rest and recuperate before heading on to your next destination.

For some of my favourite hostel recommendations in Cusco, check out the post below:

 

 

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Itinerary #3 - 5 Days In Cusco With Machu Picchu

Here’s a quick breakdown of this 5-day Cusco itinerary that includes Machu Picchu:

Day Where? Highlights
1
Cusco
Walking Tour, Chocolate Tour, Museums
2
Cusco
Rainbow Mountain Tour
3
Cusco
Rest Day, Massage & Prep For Machu Picchu
4
Aguas Calientes
Travel By Train Through The Sacred Valley
5
Machu Picchu
6:00 AM Entrance To Machu Picchu For Sunrise

Day 1 - Cusco City Day

As already mentioned, use the Cusco city day recommendations from the first itinerary to fill out your day – whether it be massages, walking tours or museums.

 

In the evening, you should make a reservation at Limbus Resto-bar which has one of the best views in the city. Try to get a booking around sunset and out on the terrace for incredible golden hour views of Cusco.

 

Happy hour last from 3.00PM to 6.00PM every Monday to Wednesday. You can get two Pisco Sours for 30 soles (which is just under $8).

 

Limbus is also a great restaurant, and this is a great place to try some Peruvian dishes such as mouth-watering lomo saltado, ceviche or trout. Ceviche is 37 soles (just under $10) which is reasonable for a place with such a great view.

 

You can see their full menu here:

 

 

For more information on the best restaurants, cheap eats, cafes, and breakfast spots in Cusco:

 

 

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Day 2 - Rainbow Mountain

The best way to get to Rainbow Mountain is to book through a tour company in Cusco. Tour companies set off from Cusco, but the actual mountain is located 100 km (62 mi) south-east of Cusco.

 

The journey takes around 3-4 hours from Cusco to the starting point of the trek. Then it takes 1-2 hours to reach the summit depending on your level of fitness.

 

Rainbow Mountain Travels is the best tour company to go with. They have a mid-range price with the best service. For a single day trek, that costs $49 to see such an incredible natural wonder – it’s well worth it in my opinion.

 

However, I’ve compared three different tour companies for you in the post below if you wish to find something cheaper or splash out:

 

 

If you want a slightly easier trek but still want to see a Rainbow Mountain (yes, there’s more than one in the region) then Palccoyo could be for you.

 

It’s an easier trek as you less elevation to climb but you still get incredible views of the Andes:

 

 

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Day 3 - Cusco City Day

It’s likely that the day after Rainbow Mountain you’ll be feeling a little tired. Take this day to sleep in, rest up and recover before another two big days filled with activities.

 

You may want to go and get a massage or do some last-minute shopping before your trip to Machu Picchu.

 

You can also do this day to get any final admin done such as booking your bus or train tickets to Aguas Calientes

For more information on things to do in Cusco:

 

 

Day 4 - Aguas Calientes

Today is an easy day of travel and once you are in Aguas Calientes you can relax and have an early night.

 

The train takes 3 hours from Cusco to Aguas Calientes so there really isn’t much of a rush. You can take the morning in Cusco to get in another activity in if you want, or just go for a nice breakfast. I’d recommend the Bagel Café or Qura Bowl Bar.

 

If you are getting the bus, then best to leave as early as possible as it takes around 8 hours, and you then have to trek along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes which takes another 3 hours on top of the 8-hour bus journey.

 

It’s a bit of a slog but the cheapest option.

For more information on booking the train, head to the post below for everything you need to know:

 

 

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Day 5 - Machu Picchu

Try to get the earliest entry ticket for Machu Picchu available (6:00 AM) if you can.

 

Getting to the top for sunrise an amazing experience and you will miss most of the big tourist crowds. This does mean however, that you will have to be awake and queuing at the gates for between 5:00-5:30 AM.

 

If you can’t, then going later in the day is fine. You only get two hours at the site anyway. After you are done at Machu Picchu, you have the choice to return to Cusco, or you can always stay for one more night in Aguas Calientes if you prefer to take it slow.

 

Again, returning by train is quicker but more expensive. Returning by bus takes longer and you will have to walk back to Hidroelectrica, so make sure you are back there before 3:00 PM to catch the last bus. This means you won’t return to Cusco until 10:00 PM.

To see how a visit to Machu Picchu can be combined with the Galapagos Islands, check out the post below:

 

 

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Itinerary #4 - 8 Days In Cusco With The Salkantay Trek & Machu Picchu

Here’s a quick breakdown of this 8-day Cusco itinerary that includes Machu Picchu and the Salkantay Trek:

Day Where? Highlights
1
Cusco
Walking Tour, Chocolate Tour, Museums
2
Cusco
Rest Day, Massage & Prep For Salkantay
3-7
Salkantay Trek
Humantay Lake, Salkantay Mountain, Thermal Baths & Machu Picchu
8
Cusco
Recovery Day

Day 1-2 - Cusco City Days

I’ve listed a few activities to do in Cusco from walking tours and museums to massages and chocolate tasting tours in the above itineraries.

 

Another great thing to do in Cusco is go on a night out. There are several great bars and clubs surrounding Plaza de Armas along with fun backpacker hostels where you can have a fantastic night.

 

Head to the Wild Rover backpacker hostel to meet people and play drinking games before heading out to some bars. I would recommend Paddy’s Irish bar for drinks and then Chango’s for clubbing!

 

If you need any more information on Cusco, then make sure you head to the backpacker guides below:

 

 

Also, make sure you use one of these two days in Cusco to book yourself onto the Salkantay Trek.

 

I went with Machu Picchu Reservations, and they were fantastic – I highly recommend them.

 

They will hold a briefing session the night before you leave you will need to use the second day to attend this and prepare. If you need to buy any final kit, then Cusco has North Face and Patagonia stores if you need to pick up some decent gear. If you need a hat or a cheap poncho, then you can find one for cheap in some of the smaller stores too.

 

To prepare for the Salkantay Trek, make sure you’ve read the full packing list, so you don’t miss anything:

 

 

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Day 3-7 - The Salkantay Trek

Hopefully, you’ve spent some time in Arequipa or at Lake Titicaca so you will need less time to acclimatise in Cusco before starting the Salkantay Trek.

 

You’ll be heading to heights of 4200m and above so make sure you’ve spent at least 2 days in Cusco before starting.

 

On the first day you have a 5:00 AM start in Cusco, a long drive and then a short but intense trek up to 4,200m at Humantay Lake.

 

I won’t go into the details of each day of the Salkantay Trek here, but you will start at Humantay Lake, cross the Salkantay Pass, stay at hot baths on the third day, before finally making your way to Machu Picchu.

 

One of the great things about signing up for the Salkantay Trek is your Machu Picchu ticket is included. You will be up at 4:00 AM on the 5th and final day of the trek to reach the top for sunrise.

 

And if you can’t spare 5 days, then consider a 3-day or 4-day trek instead.

Everything you need to know about the other days is covered here in the Salkantay Trek Guide below for more information:

 

 

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Day 8 - Cusco

You will want an extra day planned in after the Salkantay Trek for several reasons: general rest and recovery, a massage, and travel admin such as washing your clothes and repacking before heading on to your next destination.

 

 The 5 days are intense, and you will come back feeling fantastic but also in need of a bit of rest and relaxation.

 

All my clothes needed washing, and I hadn’t had a lie in for 4 days. Getting on a plane or bus the next day to a new town is not what you want to be doing – trust me. I booked into a nice hotel, had a lie in, washed all my clothes and went out and treated myself to a nice meal.

 

Where to next after Cusco and completing the Salkantay Trek? Most people tend to head across the border to Bolivia and stop off at Copacabana.

If you need some ideas for backpacking routes and itineraries across South America , then the posts below have everything you need:

 

 

How Many Days Do You Need In Cusco 6

Cusco & Machu Picchu Itinerary FAQs

How Many Days Do You Need In Cusco?

You need a minimum of 3-days in Cusco to enjoy everything it has to offer. Due to the altitude change, you will need a day to adapt and take it easy exploring the city. The other two days can be spent on treks or tours, visiting all the incredible scenery outside of Cusco.

 

If you would like to see Cusco as well as visit Machu Picchu, I recommend taking a minimum of 5 days in total. 

How Many Days Do You Need For Cusco and Machu Picchu?

You will need 3 days minimum to visit Cusco and Machu Picchu. Your first day can be spent in Cusco acclimatising and organising your transport.

 

The second day will be for travelling to Aguas Calientes – the nearest town to Machu Picchu. The third day is spend climbing up to Machu Picchu.

 

However, 5 days is the perfect amount of time for Cusco and Machu Picchu as it means you can spend a bit longer in the city and do some of the other great activities around Cusco such as Rainbow Mountain without having to be in a mad rush all the time.

 

This will also give you an extra day in Cusco after you return from Machu Picchu to rest and recuperate.

For more on backpacking in Peru , check out these expertly planned backpacking itineraries and travel routes:

 

 

Where’s your next stop in Peru?

 

If your heading north then check out our Lima guide or you could stop off at the desert oasis of Huacachina or Parcas National Reserve. 

For more on backpacking in Peru and South America, check out our itineraries and travel routes:

 

 

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