THE 12 BEST THINGS TO DO IN CUSCO AS A BACKPACKER
1. Get To Know The City On A Free Walking Tour
Our first port of call when visiting a new city is to join a walking tour. Not only will you learn the local history, but you’ll gain some local secrets and find out the best places to eat and drink.
We went with Inkan Milkway. The tour was in English and very informative with lots of interesting information about the Incas and their culture. The walking tour is free, but donations are typically made at the end based on your satisfaction.
There are 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.
The meeting point is in front of the Chica Restaurant on Calle Heladeros 225 at Plazoleta Regocijo (the smaller plaza). You can book on their website here.
2. Explore The Sacred Valley
Most people are ‘toured out’ after hitting Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain. However, if you’re feeling up to it, visiting the Sacred Valley is also a beautiful experience.
Located 12 miles (20kms) from Cusco in the Urubamba Valley, this area was ruled by the Incan empire until the Spanish conquest of 1533.
A full-day tour will take you to Pisac Market, Ollantaytambo and a small village called Chinchero – all located in the Sacred Valley. 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 £30 but does not include the 70 soles entrance to the valley (c.£15). The tour price is reasonable and includes lunch. The entrance fee is a bit punchy, but that’s not the tour company’s fault.
- Get Your Guide – Full day Sacred Valley Tour
Another idea if you have the time is to take a couple of days out from Cusco and stay in the Sacred Valley itself.
The hostels here have the perfect backdrop of the green mountains of the Urubamba valley, perfect for getting away from the city. You can then use your hostel as a base to explore. Luna Rumi has 4 bed dorms from £8
3. Trek Up To The Beautiful Humantay Lake
If you’re not embarking the epic multi-day Salkantay Trek, you may miss out on seeing Humantay Lake whilst in Cusco.
However, we think it’s definitely worth a visit and you can see it on a single day from Cusco. The picturesque turquoise lake fed by the glacial ice from the bordering snow-capped mountains is a sight to behold. Just try to pick a day with good weather as you won’t to be able to see much if it’s cloudy, like it was for us…
You’re in for an early start at 4 AM. After breakfast in Mollepeta, you’ll stop at Soraypampa where you’ll trek for 1-2 hours up to Humantay Lake located at 4,200m above sea level.
After taking pictures and, for those brave enough, a paddle in the chilly lake, you’ll return the way you came. You’ll have lunch in Mollepeta before returning to Cusco at around 6 PM.
Tours are available for around £30 and include breakfasts and lunch. While it includes two meals, it’s a bit on the expensive side as you’ll spend a large amount of the day in the car. That being said, the scenery is definitely worth the price tag.
Have a search around town with some of the smaller tour agencies to get a cheaper price rather than booking online!
Humantay Lake is one of our many reasons to visit Peru. For more great reasons, check out the post below:
4. Reach 5,200m Above Sea Level At Rainbow Mountain
Of course, the two hottest tourist destinations close to Cusco are; Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain.
If you’re in Cusco, Rainbow Mountain should naturally be on your to-do list. 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. We’ve covered the whole day and what to expect in our Rainbow Mountain guide.
We’ve also compared three different tour companies and their prices for you to help choose.
However, if you’re worried about the difficulty and want a slightly easier trek, but still see a Rainbow Mountain (yes, there’s more than one in the region) then Palccoyo could be for you.
5. Treat Yourself To Some Retail Therapy
Cusco is littered with shops and artisanal markets. It’s a fantastic place to buy souvenirs or saving a bit of cash on camping products from shops like NorthFace and Patagonia.
San Pedro Market is a must-visit. This enormous market located in the north-west part of the city has everything you can imagine from clothes to fruit.
These markets are always an eye-opening experience and a chance to try some unique foods! It’s also a brilliant place to pick up souvenirs such as toy llamas/alpacas or a woolly hat if you’re feeling cold.
Alpaca, Llama and Vicuna wool clothes are also available. However, we’d recommend purchasing such items from an established store to ensure they’re genuine.
6. Stuff Your Face On A Chocolate Tour
Whilst Peru isn’t as renowned for its chocolate like some of its other South American neighbours like Ecuador, it’s still far tastier than any of the stuff you can get back home. Cusco has several museums and experiences guiding you on the chocolate-making journey.
The most well-known is the Choco Museum, where you can make chocolate from ‘bean to bar’ as the tour is called. This is a great way to learn about where your favourite treats come from. If you’re a chocolate addict like me, you’ll be absolutely engrossed. The tour costs around £15-20.
7. See Some Ancient Incan History At The Temple Of The Sun
The Temple of the Sun was once the most important temple for the Incan empire.
The temple was largely destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors and replaced by the Santo Domingo Church which stands in its place. For the Incas, it was a holy place thought to be where people worshipped the Sun God.
You can walk around the church and temple observing what remains. It is open from 8.30 AM – 5.30 PM Monday to Saturday and 2 – 5 PM on Sunday.
8. Enjoy A Coffee On Plaza De Armas
The main plaza has several surrounding cafes and bars. If you’ve been on the walking tour or shopping, it’s a lovely place to stop and have a break.
There always seems to be something going on around the square, and it’s fun to relax, and people watch for the afternoon. Cappuccino Cusco Café serves great coffee and has a terrace overlooking the square.
9. Soothe Your Aching Muscles With A Massage
After all the hiking you’ve likely done, having a massage is the perfect way to relieve the tension and stress in your body.
Massage parlours are plentiful in Cusco, you’ll realise this by the number of times you’re asked if you want one when walking around the square.
The excess of supply means that massages are cheap and start at around £10. There are lots of options with deep-tissue, Swedish and the local Incan techniques (whatever that is), on offer. Expect to pay between £20-30 for their full treatments.
We went with Vitality Day Cusco located just off the main plaza at 2nd Floor, 204, Calle Espinar 190
Some other excellent options are:
10. Party The Night Away And Eat At Some Of The Best Restaurants In All Of Peru
Not necessarily in that order but you’ll want to visit one of the famous restaurants in Cusco to try some Andean recipes as well as finding a good bar for a Pisco Sour and having at least one wild night out. It would be rude not to.
Try Limbus Resto Bar for the best view in Cusco along with great food and cocktails, Nuevo Mundo for craft beers in an edgy, hipster-style bar with live music, and Wild Rover Hostel/Changos club for a great night on the town.
We’ve recommended some more of our favourite places to eat and drink below or you can head straight to our detailed guides on both these topics now.
11. Get Yourself Ready For The Salkantay Trek
We think the Salkantay Trek (rated one of the best treks in the world) is a must for hiking lovers and adventure enthusiasts coming to Cusco.
The five day trek takes you through the Andean mountains, from Humantay Lake on the first day, to Machu Picchu on the last.
One of the best things about this trek is that it avoids the admin of having to plan and book Machu Picchu as your ticket is included in the price and you end up reaching the ancient Incan site on the 5th day of the trek for sunrise, avoiding most of the crowds.
We’ve covered our entire experience here if you are thinking of doing it or if you can’t spare 5 five days, companies have shorter trips too.
12. Climb 1600 Stairs To Machu Picchu
Of course, no trip to Cusco would be complete without visiting Peru’s most famous landmark.
The planning and execution of the trip can be a bit of a nightmare, so we’ve broken it down for you in a simple guide here.
HOW MANY DAYS DO YOU NEED IN CUSCO?
As you can tell, there’s a lot to do in this city. Moreover, Cusco is a clean and pleasant place to spend time in.
We’d recommend anywhere between 3-5 days with 7 being perfect to fit in the all the highlights. This will likely be split over two occasions with a trip to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu in the middle.
Cusco 7 Day Itinerary
- Day 1 – Walking Tour, Chocolate Musuem and Dinner at Limbus Resto Bar
- Day 2 – Sacred Valley Tour
- Day 3 – Rainbow Mountain
- Day 4 – Massage and Recovery Day
- Day 5 – Travel to Aguas Calientes
- Day 6 – Machu Pichu
- Day 7 – Return To Cusco
Travelling other countries in South America apart from Peru? See how you can cross the border into Bolivia to turn this month into an extended South America backpacking trip:
WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE TO STAY IN CUSCO?
Best Area To Stay In Cusco?
There are two main areas to stay when in Cusco. Either close to the main square or in the Urb San Cristobal region.
The latter is more of the party hostel district with hostels such as Loki and Wild Rover all located up the steep hill. However, it’s only a ten minute walk to the centre.
Everything in Cusco is centrally located so as long as your hotel or hostel is around the main square you’ll be fine.
Best Hostels In Cusco
We recommend staying at Kokopelli Hostel in Cusco. The delicate balance between a good social scene and being able to relax in peace and quiet has been well-curated here.
We always recommend staying somewhere a bit calmer and venturing out for the madness that establishments like Wild Rover offers.
For a full list of our favourite hostels with something for everyone check out our ‘ 7 Best Hostels in Cusco’
BEST RESTAURANTS IN CUSCO
Cusco has a variety of dining options, cafes and bars. People come from all over the world to visit Machu Picchu, which leads to every taste being catered for.
Another of our top restaurant recommendations is Green Point. This vegan restaurant is well renowned as one of the best restaurants in Peru, let alone Cusco. It’s a big claim, but once you eat here, you’ll know what we mean. Even if you aren’t vegan you shouldn’t miss eating here, it’s a fantastic dining experience all-round.
For an extensive list of eating options in Cusco check out our full guide to the cities best eats.
NIGHTLIFE IN CUSCO
What do you think happens when you have a high concentration of backpackers in a city?
That’s right – the nightlife is popping. Cusco has a great vibe about it because people are either so excited about visiting Machu Picchu or so elated having completed it, which mixes into the atmosphere on nights out.
Wild Rover Hostel is renowned for wild nights, the clue’s in the name of course. And, it delivers.
It’s the perfect spot to have a full night out or just to whet your appetite before moving on to Chango Club as an example. Either way, there’s a lot of options in Cusco, and we’ve covered it all in more detail here.
HOW TO GET TO CUSCO
Cusco is located in the South East of the country near the Urubamba Valley in the Andes. It isn’t located within the Amazon, but tours to the Amazon are available from the city.
There are two main ways to get to Cusco:
Flying To Cusco
The city has its own airport in the south-eastern part of the town. Internal direct flights from Lima cost under £30 ($40) and take just over an hour.
Most flights are operated by Sky Airlines Peru or LATAM.
Where to next after spending time in Peru? If you are looking to do an extended South America tour and include more countries then be sure to check out our expertly crafted itineraries below:
Buses To Cusco
Most people will be arriving from Arequipa, Puno or La Paz (Bolivia).
- The overnight bus from Arequipa takes roughly 11 hours and costs £10-20 ($15-25).
- The bus from Puno takes roughly 10 hours and costs £10-20 ($15-25).
- The bus from La Paz takes roughly 14 hours and costs £30-50 ($40-65)
The main terminal is called Terminal Terrestre de Cusco and is in the south of the city. You’ll need to take a taxi or uber into the city costing around £5 ($8).
The bus companies in Peru are numerous and easy to navigate. You can book your bus online or turn up on the day.
CUSCO ALTITUDE, WEATHER AND CLIMATE
Weather In Cusco
Cusco has two distinct seasons, a rainy and dry season.
The rainy season is from November to April and the dry season is May to October.
November and December remain great times to visit as the weather is still pleasant and there are fewer tourists.
We were in Cusco during November, December and January, and the weather was mostly dry. You probably want to avoid visiting between January and March as that’s when the rainfall is highest.
The high rainfall can also have an impact on trekking activities such as the Salkantay Trek and Rainbow Mountain, making trails muddier and more slippery.
For many people, they’ll visit during the summer holidays in June, July, and August. This is a great time to visit with clear skies and very little rain but it will be busier and prices will be higher. You’ll want to pack sunscreen!
Cusco is at an elevation of 3,400m above sea level.
That means it gets cold at night regardless of what the weather was like in the day. You’ll need warm clothes in the evening whichever month you visit.
This altitude makes it the ideal place to acclimatise before visiting Rainbow Mountain or embarking on the Salkantay Trek.
However, you may suffer altitude sickness in Cusco as 3,400m is still very high and walking around the city can be difficult. Take things slowly, drink lots of water and coca tea if you start suffering from sickness.
For more on backpacking in Peru and South America, check out our itineraries and travel routes: