Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire and was also known as the bellybutton of the World. Evidence of Inca culture is everywhere, but tourism is big business here and can be overwhelming! I’ve put together this backpacking Cusco travel guide to help you to figure out what to do in Cusco to experience the culture, food and history, so read on for the top things to do in Cusco Peru, whether you’re backpacking in Cusco on a budget or here for the holiday of a lifetime!
Getting to Know Cusco
Cusco is, of course, the ‘base camp’ for everyone who goes to Machu Picchu, which has over a million visitors a year, despite the 2500 per day official limit. Most of the tourist activity in Cusco is centred around la Plaza de Armas, which is also where our group stayed on my first visit to Cusco. It is a good practical base as there are plenty of bars & restaurants to choose from, and tons of trekking equipment shops, tour companies and pharmacies to stock up on insect repellent and plasters for the trek. However, if you prefer to have a little more authentic experience, the quieter San Blas neighbourhood is much less in your face, and has a more artsy feel to it.
Altitude Sickness in Cusco
The altitude in Cusco can hit you hard. Cusco sits at an elevation of 3,399 m (11,152 ft) above sea-level, and backpackers who arrive straight to Cusco from lower altitudes often suffer from altitude sickness. For the first couple of days in Cusco take it easy and don’t over-exert yourself. Even climbing a flight of stairs can be a challenge when you first arrive! This is a good time to explore the city of Cusco, take a city tour or visit a couple of the archaeological sites which don’t require any hiking. If you have a headache, take paracetamol to ease it, keep hydrated and avoid alcohol and smoking. Chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea will also relieve symptoms. If you suffer from any more serious symptoms like vomiting and disorientation, seek medical attention immediately.
READ MORE: How to Cope with the Altitude in Cusco Peru
What to do in Cusco for Backpackers
When you first arrive in Cusco, plan to spend a couple of days taking it easy to acclimatise to the altitude. These are some relatively low impact things to do in Cusco, so you can adjust gradually before attempting anything more strenuous!
Things to do in Cusco: City Tours
Free Walking Tour in Cusco
A great way to explore without over-exerting yourself is with a Cusco city tour. If you are feeling up to it, a walking tour of Cusco will take around three hours, and you can expect to visit all the key sites in the city. San Pedro Market is a wonderful local market where you can try some Peruvian street food for next to nothing and see local people selling all kinds of fresh produce. The Quirkancha temple is a beautiful temple which used to be covered in gold until the Spanish arrived and quickly found other uses for it! You will also visit the San Blas neighbourhood, where there are fabulous art markets and, as well as the city’s Main Square and Cathedral.
Cusco Bus Tours
If you prefer not to walk around too much, then a bus tour may be better for you, which will include some walking around the narrow streets in the city but will also include trips to the nearby Inca sites of Sacsayhuaman, and usually Qenqo as well.
Check out these tours of Cusco:
San Pedro Market in Cusco
I usually make a bee-line for the markets in any city, and backpacking in Cusco is no different. San Pedro Market is a bustling local market where you can pick up super cheap local food, as well as llama jumpers, souvenirs and snacks for the treks you will probably be doing in the next few days. Alternatively, just wander around and absorb the sights and smells of the market, as the local people go about their business side by side with the tourists.
Cusco Cathedral & Plaza de Armas
The main square in Cusco is the huge Plaza de Armas. It is always busy with people selling all kinds of stuff, shoe-shiners, tourists and locals milling about. It also has a historical significance as the centre of the Inca Empire, and the place where the last Inca was executed. The Cathedral dominates the plaza, and you can take a look inside if it is open or even attend mass there. The other impressive looking building is the Natural History Museum, which is better appreciated from the outside.
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Things to do in Cusco: The 12 Angled Stone
Wow, a stone. I didn’t even bother to see this the first time I came to Cusco, but on my second trip, I walked along the street to where it is, behind the cathedral. There are plenty of locals asking for a couple of soles to show you where it is, but you’ll find it easily enough due to the crowd of people taking photographs. What makes this stone so special is that it demonstrates the skill of Inca masonry, who managed to fit together huge stones to build houses and temples and entire cities without the use of mortar. They found this stone with 12 angles to fit exactly into place in the wall. That is actually quite impressive!
What to do in Cusco: Quirkancha Temple
The Quirkancha or Qorikancha Temple was the most important temple in the Incan Empire. It was covered in gold until the Spanish conquistadores destroyed it, taking the gold and using the stones to build the Santo Domingo Church on the foundations of the temple. The temple is worth going in, even though it isn’t included in the tourist ticket, and the gardens are beautiful. There is a small museum close by which houses some of the original artefacts, but it was disappointing.
Backpacking Cusco: The Choco Museo
The chocolate museum is the same brand as others you’ll find in Ollantaytambo and Lima, as well as Antigua Guatemala, among other places. There is a free museum area where you can learn about the chocolate-making process, a shop filled with tasty chocolate products, and the chance to take chocolate making classes. I mean, it’s chocolate – what more could you ask for?!
Cooking Classes in Cusco
As you probably know by now, I LOVE cooking classes! You can take a cooking class in Cusco to learn more about the local cuisine, markets and eat delicious Peruvian food. Yum! It might not be a typical backpacking activity, but if you’re a foodie backpacker like me then a cooking class is a must.
A Cusco Food Tour
Food tours are another great way to taste local cuisine, safe in the knowledge that you are trying the best, tastiest food on offer. Marcelo Batata’s Culinary tour gets great reviews, and you can try street food like anticuchos and Peruvian donuts.
Things to do in Cusco: Explore San Blas
San Blas is a quieter neighbourhood up the hill from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. It has a more artsy feel and has art galleries and local artisans who produce beautiful crafts. San Blas Market is smaller, and cleaner than San Pedro Market, and is a much more local affair where you can grab a bite to eat. Simply walking around San Blas is a joy, where the narrow cobbled streets and pretty church square feel much more like the ‘real’ Peru than the rest of Cusco.
Buy the Boleto Turistico Tourist Ticket
The Boleto Turistico or Cusco tourist ticket allows access to 16 different Inca ruins and museums in & around Cusco and is valid for 10 days. The city centre inclusions on the ticket I have to say weren’t the most impressive attractions I’ve ever visited. But they are free with the ticket, so some are worth visiting. You will need to ticket to visit other sites in the Sacred Valley like Sacsayhuaman, Pisac, Moray and Ollantaytambo, among others.
Things to do in Cusco: Sacsayhuaman
Nearby, Sacsayhuaman (we pronounced it Sexy Woman, as I’m sure all English speakers do) is an impressive Inca site, a short taxi journey or 30-minute walk uphill from the Plaza de Armas. The huge fortress was constructed at the head of the puma shape that Cusco is designed around. Its Quechua name means ‘satisfied falcon’, and it proudly overlooked the city below.
The huge walls surrounding the fortress are constructed from immense blocks of stone, fitted together with absolute precision. The Spanish used the smaller stones to build their colonial town, so only the larger rocks remain in place today, and have been strong enough to withstand several earthquakes which rocked Cusco over the years. In the centre of the site lies a huge plaza, still used today for performances and celebrations such as the Inti Raymi Festival of the Sun, a theatrical reconstruction of the religious ceremony the Inca performed on the winter solstice, which takes place on 24th June.
Explore the Sacred Valley
Cusco is a wonderful base to explore the rest of the Sacred Valley, either on day trips from Cusco or to travel around and spend a couple of nights in each place. Sacred Valley day tours from Cusco typically include Chinchero, Maras and Moray which can be visited easily in a day, Pisac which can be done as a day tour or overnight stop, and Ollantaytambo which I highly recommend you visit for more than just a day and stop here on your way to Machu Picchu.
I couldn’t have an article about Cusco and not mention Machu Picchu! Cusco is the usual stop off point for people beginning the Inca Trail or one of the other treks to Machu Picchu. However, trekking isn’t the only way to get to Machu Picchu, it is also possible to take the train from Cusco or Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu mountain. You could visit Machu Picchu on a day tour from Cusco, but I recommend spending the night in Aguas Calientes so you can be up early to visit Machu Picchu for sunrise.
Spanish Classes in Cusco
If you are backpacking Peru for a long time, Cusco is a popular choice for backpackers to stay for a while and explore the region. Taking Spanish classes in Cusco is a great way to learn the language and really get to know the area that most people just pass through.
Volunteering in Cusco
On my second visit to Cusco, I did some volunteering for a month so I feel like I properly got to know the city then. There are a lot of volunteering opportunities in and around Cusco which you can find on work exchange websites like Workaway, HelpX and WorldPackers, where you pay a small fee to register on the site which allows you to browse available opportunities and contact the hosts. Volunteering work varies from working on reception at a hostel to teaching in schools, helping to build eco-projects or helping a family to care for their kids. Volunteering in Cusco like this is a great way to meet local people and become part of the community, and to save money. In exchange for part-time work, volunteers usually get lodging and some food included. Spanish is useful but not always essential for volunteering in Cusco, check each volunteer placement for full details of what is required.
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The Downside of Cusco
Cusco isn’t afraid to cash in on its famous history.
That is what irritated me about Cusco; although beautiful and interesting to explore, at every turn someone was trying to sell me something. Massages, restaurant menus, llama keyrings, photos with a Peruvian Cholita, photos with a llama, photos with a Peruvian Cholita and a llama, scarves, jumpers, fruit, chewing gum, tours of every colour, shape and size. Granted, some of these may be items you want to buy, but not all of them all of the time! This took the joy out of Cusco for me the first time I visited; I saw too much theme park and not enough reality. When I went back to Cusco a second time, I took the time to explore different areas of the city, and thankfully wasn’t as overwhelmed by the tourist circus of it all. I stayed away from the Plaza de Armas as much as I could, so I would also suggest taking time to venture away from the central plaza to see more of the city too.
Is Cusco Safe?
Yes. One of the most popular destinations in South America for tourists, Cusco is one of the safest places I visited in my 10-month South America backpacking trip. However, be wary at night and avoid walking around alone on your own. Pickpocketing is common in busy areas like the Plaza de Armas and San Pedro Market, but wherever you are in the city keep a close eye on your belongings. Make sure you take official taxis, which are safer than flagging down one in the street. Be especially careful in and around the bus station, where thieves target tired & disorientated tourists who have just arrived.
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Where to Eat in Cusco
San Pedro Market
I love poking around local markets for tasty treats, and the street food stalls outside the market are great places to get some cheap food. However, if you have just arrived in Peru, your stomach might not be ready for street food, so it may be best to opt for a ‘safer’ choice, especially if you are planning to do the Inca Trail or other hikes in the next few days. I had food poisoning in Huaraz which screwed up my plans for hiking Laguna 69 in Huaraz!
If you’re backpacking Cusco on a budget, pick up some fresh food to cook up back at your hostel.
Restaurants in Cusco
If you are feeling the effects of the altitude, eating light meals will help your stomach to digest the food more easily. Good restaurants to try in Cusco include Mr Soup, which has a range of delicious soups (including a couple of veggie options), and vegetarian-friendly restaurants like Green Point and Organika.
Restaurants around the Plaza de Armas tend to be more expensive as they are tourist hotspots. I treated myself to a meal at the Inka Grill, which was pricey, but delicious, and a luxurious treat after the trek. Trout ceviche and alpaca steak with a pisco sour all went down really well!
I loved the lomo saltado at Morena Peruvian Kitchen, which serves Peruvian food with a modern twist at mid-range prices.
If you’re craving some food from home, Jack’s Café serves up a killer breakfast/brunch menu and old favourites like burgers and nachos.
Where to Stay in Cusco
The central area around the Plaza de Armas is the most convenient and close to all the major attractions but it tends to be busier and noisy at times. The San Blas neighbourhood is pretty and quieter, but anywhere away from the central plaza tends to be a good walk up a hill which can be a challenge with heavy bags!
The Best Hostels in Cusco
There a dizzying number of hostels in Cusco to choose from, these are some of the best Cusco hostels for backpackers and budget travellers.
La Wak’a Perdida Hostel
La Wak’a Perdida is a small new hostel which only has one 8 bed dorm and a double room, so is cosy and quiet. The owner is friendly, and breakfast is included in the rate or there is a kitchen to cook your own food. It’s about 15 minutes’ walk from the Plaza de Armas, close to San Blas. BOOK NOW>>>
Pariwana Hostel Cusco
Pariwana Hostel is a very popular Cusco Hostel, and is a sociable place with a bar and large terrace area for ping pong and socialising. It is a borderline party place, but at the same time not crazy so you can still sleep. Breakfast is included, there is no kitchen but you can order food at the bar if you don’t fancy going out to eat. Private rooms and dorms are available. Very central, a couple of blocks from Plaza de Armas. BOOK NOW>>>
Gaia House Hostel
Gaia House is in a beautiful colonial building, close to the main plaza. There are dorm rooms and private rooms available, with breakfast included. The central terrace is great for chilling out and meeting other travellers, and they have some of the best showers in Peru! BOOK NOW>>>
There is no shortage of hotels in Cusco either, from luxury properties to family-run guesthouses. Check out the ratings for all Cusco Hotels on HotelsCombined.
Airbnb in Cusco
There are also plenty of options on Airbnb, like this charming apartment in the city centre. If you have never used Airbnb before, use this link to sign up & get up to $40 credit to use on your first trip! Read more about the Airbnb first time discount code or click below for your Airbnb coupon.
How to Get to Cusco
Flights to Cusco Peru
You can fly into Cusco airport from Lima, and a couple of international destinations, namely La Paz in Bolivia and Bogota in Colombia. Most international flights will involve a change in Lima. Check Skyscanner for the best flight deals to Cusco.
Bear in mind that flying into Cusco from a lower elevation is more likely to cause problems with altitude sickness than slowly increasing the altitude and arriving by land. Once you’ve collected your baggage, I’d suggest taking an official taxi from the airport to wherever you’re staying or arranging an airport transfer.
Trains to Cusco
Many people would love to take the train from Lima to Cusco, but unfortunately trains in Peru are not very common! The train line to Machu Picchu starts at Cusco, and there are no trains from Cusco to Lima.
Buses to Cusco
Most backpackers arrive in Cusco by bus. There are regular buses from Lima, Arequipa, Puno and La Paz, and although the journeys are very long, if you choose a decent bus service, they are good value and safe. For the bus from Lima to Cusco, I recommend travelling with Peru Hop, as you can hop on and hop off the bus service at several different destinations along the way – including Huacachina, Paracas, Nazca and Arequipa, as well as Lake Titicaca if you choose that particular route.
If you are short on time or prefer to travel independently, then Cruz del Sur are the most reliable long-distance bus company in Peru, although there are plenty of others. They have their own Cruz del Sur terminal which is about 10 minutes’ walk to the bus station which most other companies use. You can take a taxi from the terminal to your accommodation, check with them for an estimate of prices so you don’t get ripped off.
If you are travelling on a different bus line such as Oltursa, Civa or Tepsa, you will arrive into the main Cusco Bus Terminal. Cusco bus station (called the Terminal Terrestre) is about 30 minutes’ walk from the main square in Cusco, so you will probably need to take a taxi to where you are staying. Make sure you take an official taxi, and agree on the price before you get in. A ride to the centre should take about 10 minutes, make sure you check with your hostel or hotel for an estimate of prices. There are also mini-buses called combis which run into town, but they are notoriously difficult to take with a big bag and figuring out the right route is a nightmare!
If you are travelling from La Paz in Bolivia, Bolivia Hop run a similar service to Peru Hop, or you can just go to the bus station in La Paz and buy a ticket on any bus service to Cusco. Some of the bus routes go via Copacabana and Puno so you can visit Lake Titicaca along the way, however, some routes go a different way so double check before you buy. If you’d like to spend some time at Lake Titicaca, you could also consider a more comfortable bus ride to Puno.
Have you been backpacking in Cusco? What were your favourite things to do in Cusco? I’d love to hear your thoughts, please leave your comments below. I hope that my backpacking Cusco guide has inspired you to visit this incredible city and country.
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