The Historical Capital of Peru might just be Peru’s most beloved city. Whether it’s because it has kept its Inca traditions more than any other city, or because you just can’t beat the setting, people are visiting for a day and staying for a week in the former Inca capital.
Most people arrive in Cusco with one thing on their mind: Machu Picchu. But soon they discover not only that Cusco is a fantastic destination on its own, but it also has irresistible day trip possibilities. From turquoise lakes and colorful mountains to incredible Inca sites, there are more day trips from Cusco than most itineraries can fit.
Let’s take a look at the best of them.
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You can’t call Lake Titicaca a day trip from Cusco by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re putting it on the list since it comes up repeatedly in searches. The drive to Lake Titicaca is 6 hours long, so unless you want to spend literally all day and part of the night in a car, you need to treat Lake Titicaca as an overnight destination.
Book a hotel in Puno and start your adventure there. Don’t try to see Lake Titicaca and go back to Cusco in one a day. You can stay on an island made out of reed for goodness sake! Do that! (Just fyi—if you end up booking a hotel—any hotel at all, anywhere in the world—through any of the hotel links in our articles, we make a small commission on that booking with no extra charge to you.)
Lake Titicaca is the highest-altitude large lake in the world at 3,800 m (12,500 ft). It is 190 km (120 miles) long and 80 km (50 miles) wide and up to 280 m (920 ft) deep. It is located on the border of Peru and Bolivia, with the border line running right through the middle of the lake.
By legend, the supreme Inca god, Viracocha, emerged from the lake and created the sun, the moon, the stars, and the first Inca king, Manco Capac, and Mama Ocllo, who then went on to create the Inca Empire. As such, there is a huge amount of Inca ruins around (and in!) Lake Titicaca and it is considered the birthplace of the Inca culture.
Today, Puno is the central port of the lake and is called the folklore capital of Peru, renowned for its music and dance. The Festival of the Virgin of Candelaria is held every February and is one of the largest festivals in all of South America. 18 days of shows and parades showcase the best dancers and musicians in elaborate, colorful costumes.
Lake Titicaca isn’t just a pretty big lake that you can come look at. You can also go and stare at the indigenous tribes that live on the lake. There are natural islands on Lake Titicaca, but the most fascinating are the manmade islands of the Uros people.
Historically, the Uros, who pre-date the Incas, weren’t able to secure land by the lake when they moved there from the mainland, so they thought “whatever, we’ll just build our own land”. The Uros Islands are built out of the reed that grows around Lake Titicaca. Seventeen reed islands, complete with reed houses and reed boats, are located on the lake.
The Uros welcome visitors on tours of the islands and sell handicrafts and reed boat trips as well. Remember that the Uros only keep a small portion of whichever tour you buy in Puno, so buying things from them on the islands can help them a lot.
Short trips to the islands on Lake Titicaca start from USD 20, overnights and full-day trips cost round USD 60. If you buy an overnight tour, you will most likely be staying over on one of the natural islands with the Aymara people.
If you want to stay with the Uros, they will be happy to have you. You’ll need to book a stay with the Uros separately. There are some very basic options on their little islands, a few pretty nice little places and then there’s this one: your very own bit of reed luxury, the QHAPAQ Lago Titicaca. The room is so nice, with hot water, huge windows with infinite views of Lake Titicaca, and the friendliest family taking care of you. The food here is excellent!
[If you click through our booking.com link to make a reservation at any hotel in world, whether we mention it here or not, we get a small commission. You don’t pay anything extra for that, it’s just between us and booking.com. Thank you if you do!]
Now this is an actual day trip, or really more of a few-hours trip from Cusco. Both of these Inca sites are close to Cuzco, easy to get to and can be combined with other destinations to make a full day out of it. You can, for example, use the Cuzco Tourist Ticket circuit 4 as your guide to where else to go.
Read our article about all the top things to see in Sacred Valley to get an overview of the Cusco Tourist Ticket circuits and prices.
The two sites or Moray and Maras are right next to each other, though it takes about 20 minutes to drive between them because of the road conditions (dirt roads). The drive from Cusco to Moray and Maras takes 1 hour.
Tickets to Maras can be bought at the entrance for s/10. Moray is part of circuits 1 (s/130) and 4 (s/70) of the Cusco Tourist Ticket.
We have a full article about visiting Moray and Maras here.
Moray used to be the Incas’ experimental agricultural laboratory. The Incas were researching which plants grow best in which microclimate by creating a round, terraced depression, taking into account the direction of the sun and wind, and growing different crops on the individual terraces.
The difference in temperature between the top and bottom levels was 5°C (9°F), and soil from different parts of Peru was brought in to mimic different conditions on different levels, allowing them to suss out which microclimate works best for whichever crop. Super cool, right?
There are 3 different terraced, circular, erm, holes, at Moray. The diameter of the largest inner circle is 180 m (600 ft). You can walk around, climb up and down, and take in the Incas’ ingenuity and the scenery all at once.
Allow 30 minutes to an hour for your visit.
Maras is a whole side of a mountain filled with thousands of salt evaporation pools. The Incas are to thank for the construction of the site, though it is actively being used to mine salt by local families to this day.
There’s a salty underground stream that runs through the area, and the Incas learned to gather the water and evaporate it on the sunny slopes of the mountain, leaving them with layers of yummy, salty goodness. They look like white rice terraces, and when you visit, you might even get a glimpse of locals working away on their plot.
You aren’t allowed to walk through the salt fields, but there are viewing platforms and walkways that take you to several different levels, so you still get a good look.
Set aside 30 minutes for a visit to Maras.
Our top tips for day trips from Cusco:
Pisac is a former Inca fortification that sits at about 3,000 m (9,800 ft), so it’s like you’re getting views of the views of Sacred Valley, and they’re phenomenal. Honestly, it’s the ruins that you’re supposed to come to Pisac for, but it’s the views that you’ll remember. They’re second only to Machu Picchu itself.
Pisac probably served as protection for the Sacred Valley from the east, just as Ollantaytambo guarded it from the west.
The ruins are not in Pisac town directly. The Pisac archeological site is about 3.5 km (2.2 miles) north of town, so it’s best to have your own car or at least a driver for the day to take you. Otherwise, you can take the 2-hour trek out of Pisac town on your own two feet.
The drive from Cusco to Pisac is about an hour long. Pisac is included in the Cusco Tourist Ticket in circuits 1 and 4.
Besides the Inca ruins, you also have the chance to visit Pisac town itself and get a glimpse at rural life in Peru. Pisac is very popular with tourists, so it’s not like you’ll be getting a candid view, but it’s pleasant nonetheless.
If you want to see the Sunday market, go with adequate expectations—it has become very much geared towards tourists, with many stalls selling souvenirs. Of course, you will also see the ladies from nearby villages selling their handicrafts, it’s just that you and other fellow travelers will make up the majority of visitors.
For a more traditional market experience, stop by Chinchero instead.
You’ll need 2 hours at the ruins at Pisac. Add on time for the town if you want to have a little extra wander.
Ollanntaytambo is mainly known as the place where you get on the train to go to Machu Picchu (you have to take the train since there are no roads leading into Machu Picchu Pueblo), but there’s more to it than that!
Ollantaytambo is about 1 hour and 20 minutes away from Cusco by car. We always rent our own set of wheels to allow for maximum comfort and flexibility.
The Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo are some of the best preserved in all of Peru. They’re huge, probably more expansive than the ones at Machu Picchu. The ruins at Ollantaytambo copy the mountain terrain, so you’ll be doing quite a bit of climbing up and down. But you know what climbing up gets you? Views!
Just like the terraces at Moray, the sunken terraces at Ollantaytambo were used for growing crops that would’ve otherwise not grown at this altitude.
Since Ollantaytambo was a full-on Inca city, you can also find storehouses, quarries and defense walls, letting you wonder how the Incas worked with such huge slabs of stone. The stones for the Wall of the Six Monoliths had to be moved 6 km (3.7 miles) from a quarry on a mountain on the opposite side of the river. Say what?! They didn’t use the wheel, so how did they do it?!
You can get a guide or just wander around on your own. A visit will take you 1–2 hours. Ollanaytambo is part of Cusco Tourist Ticket circuits 1 and 4.
If you’ve come to Cusco in order to visit Machu Picchu, you’ll be driving (or catching a train) through Sacred Valley on your way to Ollantaytambo. And you might feel deep regret while doing so if you don’t make any time to stop and see what Sacred Valley has to offer.
It offers so much, in fact, that we have an entire article on the top spots to see in the Sacred Valley. Check that out once you realize you can’t miss it.
Sacred Valley, the heart of the Inca Empire, is the roughly 60 km (37 mile) section around the Urubamba River between Pisac and Ollantaytambo towns, cut deep into the majestic Andes Mountains. Conveniently on Cusco’s doorstep, you come here for the Inca ruins and some majorly stunning scenery.
It’s also a great place to spend a few days if you need to acclimatize before going on any of the treks in the area. Altitude sickness is a big deal and you don’t want to underestimate it. You can either do day trips into Sacred Valley from Cusco or stay in one of the fabulous resorts within Sacred Valley itself.
This “day trips from Cusco” list already includes some of the places that are worth a visit in Sacred Valley: Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo and Pisac and the Inca sites of Moray and Maras.
Besides those, you can visit cute little Chinchero town to experience the traditional vibe—people here still where traditional dress as they go about their business. Visit on a Sunday and visit the vibrant Sunday market. The Quechuas are known for their weaving techniques, so go ahead and buy some souvenirs! You can also take weaving classes.
Or, check out the colonial church in Chinchero. It was built on the foundations of an Inca temple. You’ll notice that many buildings throughout Sacred Valley an in Cusco have a bottom layer made of stones—that’s the Incas heritage that was built on by the Spaniards.
The terraced Inca ruins at Chinchero are way less popular than others in the Sacred Valley, so you just might have them all to yourself, which can feel very mystical.
Do you like horseback riding? There are many companies that offer single- or multi-day trips on the back of a horse. Isn’t there a saying about the world seeming more beautiful from the back of a horse? I don’t know, I’m allergic to them, but I wanted to put this option out there for the majority of you that don’t puff up when within a 3-meter radius of a one.
You’ll want to get a Cusco Tourist Ticket when visiting Sacred Valley. The ticket can be bought in person in Cusco and is not sold online. There are 4 different circuits you can choose from, with circuit 1 covering all the main sights in Cusco and Sacred Valley, and the others being a shorter, more limited selection. We explain all the routes and tell you where to buy your ticket and for how much in our comprehensive Sacred Valley article.
The Salkantay trek is often seen as an alternative to the Inca Trail, but it’s good to know that it is quite a bit more demanding. It is a 4–6-day adventure that’ll take you 75 km (45 miles) from Mollepata village to Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes), which is the town beneath Machu Picchu itself.
Its highest point is the Salkantay Pass at 4,600 m (15,000 ft), and the average altitude is 3,000 m (9,800). Read up on altitude sickness, this is not a trek that you go on in a whim. Be sure to acclimatize in Cusco or Sacred Valley (or another higher-altitude area, like Colca Canyon) for at least 4 days before setting out on the Salkantay Trail. People actually train for this route, so take it seriously.
You usually get to the Salkantay Pass on the second day of the trek and it’s almost all downhill from there. So start strong, get to the highest heights and then it’s smooth sailing from there. You will be clambering down on loose rocks a big chunk of the way, so not that smooth.
Thanks to the variations in altitude on the trek, you’ll see your surroundings change, too. Sometimes find yourself in a lush jungle, and sometimes you’ll be walking through a cloud forest surrounded by sharp rocks.
Weatherise, it all depends on what altitude you are at, but the only spot that is any real concern is the actual Salkantay Pass, where freezing temperatures are the norm. In other parts of the trail the days are usually a mild 20°C (70°F), with cooler nights.
That said, only set out on this hike with proper hiking and camping gear and clothing and be ready for the weather to change. One minute there could be blistering sun and the next minute there’s a snow storm.
There are several ways to undertake the Salktantay trek, from budget staying in just tents to comfy where you stay in sky domes and snazzy huts where you can lie in bed checking out the stars in the sky above you. So if you’re like us and prefer not to sleep on the ground, the lodge-to-lodge-type tour might be for you.
The different accommodation and transportation options, as well as trek length and what food is or isn’t included will have a big impact on the price of your trek. Shop around online, read reviews, and make decisions that’ll work for you personally. Prices range from USD 300 for a bare-bones tour to USD 1,500 for the most comfortable variety.
Buy your tour as soon as you know your travel dates, ideally a couple of months in advance. But unlike the Inca Trail where you need to book 6 months in advance if you want to go on the trek, Salkantay is more forgiving. Even a few weeks beforehand you’ll still be able to find someone to take you.
No permit is needed on the Salkantay Trail and you can even set out on your own if you dare.
The Salkantay trek is more difficult than the Inca Trail, making it also less popular, which can be a positive aspect for some. No crowded paths to Salkantay!
You’ll get to see Humantay Lake as well as some hot springs. For those, you can not only look but also touch, by which I mean jump in! It’s great on tired legs. You could theoretically jump into Humantay too, but you’d be darn cold if you did.
Tip: Walking sticks are a great help for downhill routes such as this one. Also, insect repellent! There are sandflies that’ll try to eat you alive.
Remember that this route doesn’t end with you walking into Machu Picchu like a king. You get to Machu Picchu Pueblo, which is where you have to take the 20-minute bus up the mountain to the actual Inca city. You can also walk up there, but you’ll be walking on the narrow road with all the buses, which isn’t exactly wonderful. Read our comprehensive guide to visiting Machu Picchu for all the details.
Tip: If you are visiting Machu Picchu (and it would be a big mistake not to!), check out accommodation options in Machu Picchu Pueblo. Book months in advance if you’re visiting in the most popular months of the year, June to August. More on the best time to visit Machu Picchu in our full article.
Ausangate is the highest mountain in the Cusco region with over 6,300 m (21,000 ft). It has been a place of worship since pre-Inca times, and to this day it is considered a sacred mountain. Every year in May, thousands of pilgrims come to celebrate the mountain spirit during the Qoyllur Rit’I Festival.
The Ausangate trek is a fairly difficult loop trek with several passes over 5,000 m (16,400 ft) and many steep sections. The highest points are the Arapa Pass and the Palomani Pass. You’ll be walking for 66 km (40 miles) over 4–6 days, so not exactly for beginners.
The weather can be rough—a blizzard coming in shouldn’t surprise you. Bring layers of good clothing.
You’ll start and end the trek in Tinki, a small town about 3 hours from Cusco. Over the next few days, you’ll see blue and green lakes, silly lamas, and small communities. The friendly locals in their colorful clothing still live the way they did years ago, in huts with no electricity, caring for their animals. It’s truly memorable to cross paths with them. And the surrounding mountain views will stop you in your tracks.
You know what else can stop you in your tracks? Altitude sickness. Don’t go to Ausangate without acclimatizing in Cusco and Sacred Valley first. We recommend 4 days at the very least. We did just 2 before heading up to Rainbow Mountain and it certainly wasn’t enough. That was a New Year’s to remember, that’s for sure.
On the Ausangate Trail, you’ll also see Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca, which is one of the most sought-after tourist attractions in Peru. Other than this high-traffic section though, you’ll be mostly on your own, barely ever seeing other hikers.
Bring trekking poles and SPF, and beware of the dogs protecting their alpaca herds (another reason to bring said trekking poles!). Some tour companies also provide horses to help you carry your stuff and your butt on the flatter sections.
The Ausangate trek can be done on your own, but we always prefer to take a guide on longer trips like this. Read online reviews before you choose your company or guide. A 5-day, 4-night organized trip will set you back USD 500.
You won’t be able to stay in Cusco without seeing offers to visit the stunningly green-blue Lake Humantay. It’s a gorgeous lagoon located under snow-capped Salcantay Mountain, bordered by luscious green hills.
The hike is medium difficulty, mainly because of how steep it is and the chance of mountain sickness. The starting altitude is 3,800 m (12,460 ft) at the trailhead in Soraypampa and the lake itself is at 4,200 m (13,780 ft), so the elevation gain is quite substantial over the short trek. You really want to spend a few days in Sacred Valley and Cusco before heading up any higher to allow for your body to get used to the thinner air.
The 2.6 mile loop hike will take you about 2 hours to complete, so it isn’t terribly long. You do need to remember that this is doable as a day trip from Cusco, but it’s still a 3-hour drive one way.
Some people opt to hike all the way up to Salcantay, and Humantay Lake is one of the stops on that hike. For going just to Humantay, you really don’t need a guide, since the trail is clearly visible, and you’ll get to the lake in about an hour.
In case you do encounter shortness of breath, there are mules waiting along the way, ready to take you to the lake for a small fee.
There are tour groups going up to Humantay Lake daily from Cusco. Most of them start picking people up at their Cusco hotels at 3 am, making it to the trailhead after the 3-hour drive in the early morning. Take that into consideration if you’re going on your own and plan on arriving later than everyone else so you aren’t stuck in foot traffic on your way up the mountain.
The entrance fee to Humantay Lake is s/10, payable in cash at the checkpoint in Mollepata.
Another day trip that we recommend embarking on only after proper acclimatization in Cusco and Sacred Valley, is Rainbow Mountain. The mountains have colorful stripes based on the mineral that prevails in whichever stripe, though they aren’t as bright as Instagram wants you to believe. Is #nofilter still a thing? It should be, at least for natural sites.
That’s ok, because yes, it is wonderful seeing a colorful mountain, but the challenge of even getting there and the incredible scenery is what it’s all about. One look at snow-capped, 6,300 m (21,000 ft) sacred mountain Ausangate in the distance and you’ll be happy you took the trip.
It may look all cute and stripey, but the main hike starts at an altitude of 4,600 m (15,000 ft) and continues for 3 km (1.8 miles) with a total elevation gain of about 400 m (1,300 ft). Read up on mountain sickness (AMS) beforehand and don’t underestimate it! We had a hard time with the altitude and ate and drank enough coca for a whole Inca village and still had terrible headaches and nausea.
The Rainbow Mountain, Vinicunca, is not the only rainbow-colored mountain around. In fact, there are many of them in the area, like Palccoyo, which is much easier to hike. There are two basic routes to Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca), and the Palccoyo alternative.
The drive from Cusco to all of the starting points takes 3–4 hours.
The most popular Cusipata trek to Rainbow Mountain will have you sharing the trail with dozens of other tourists, most fighting their own personal fight with altitude sickness, chewing coca leaves, drinking coca tea, and smiling through the pain while taking millions of photos. It’ll take about 2 hours one way. You will suffer if you get altitude sickness, but it’s still worth it. We did, too, and Rainbow Mountain topped Karin’s list of her favorite places in Peru!
The hike itself would be an easy to medium-level hike, but that factor of not enough oxygen turns it into a hard one.
For a much easier way to see some rainbow-colored mountains, check out the Palcoyyo alternative route. It doesn’t take you to the Rainbow Mountain, but you still see not one but three similarly striped mountains just a little ways away. And the hike only takes 40 minutes.
We have a whole article with details on all of the options to see Rainbow Mountain, along with route information, prices and tips on extra add-ons to each hike.
The Inca city of Machu Picchu doesn’t need much introduction, you’ve all seen the photos. Machu Picchu are the ruins of a massive Inca city that was built atop a mountain with phenomenal views. And it’s not easy to get to, either, adding suspense, adventure, and a whole lot of spending on transportation to actually be able to witness Machu Picchu with your own eyes.
Is it a day trip from Cusco? No. There’s just too much logistics involved to get to Machu Picchu for you to be able to go there and back in one day comfortably. If you’re hoping to see the sunrise at Machu Picchu, then it’s a double no. There’s just no way.
You will want to overnight in either Ollantaytambo or in Machu Picchu Pueblo, the town under the mountain with the Inca city on top. If you read our article on when to visit Machu Picchu, you can take a look at our recommendations for the best places to stay at Machu Picchu, too.
In a nutshell, to get to Machu Picchu, you’ll be driving for about an hour from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (or taking another, slower mode of transportation), getting on a 1,5-hour train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu Pueblo, and a 20-minute bus from Machu Picchu Pueblo to Machu Picchu Inca city. Plus, you have to account for time to buy bus tickets, getting to and from train and bus stations and waiting for an empty bus, too. All that will take half a day and you haven’t even entered Machu Picchu yet.
Tip: Not sure when the best time to visit Machu Picchu is? We have an article just about that, too. See if you should avoid wet season and why we think trying to get to Machu Picchu for sunrise is a waste of beauty sleep. This article also includes a bonus section with the best accommodation options in Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu Pueblo.
You’ll also need to purchase your tickets to Machu Picchu up to 6 months in advance—that is if you’re visiting in high season—June to August—, and you can choose from several ticket combinations of the Inca city visit + one of three hikes to surrounding mountains.
The hike we took, Huayna Picchu, was certainly steep, narrow, and a little hair-raising, but how else do you want to get those views of Machu Picchu?! Again, see our full Machu Picchu guide for details on the individual hike options.
It’s important to know that if you do choose one of the hike combinations, you can’t choose the best, most comprehensive trail within the city. You automatically get entry only to one of the lesser circuits. That alone could be a reason to consider visiting on two separate tickets, possibly extending your Machu Picchu trip another day.
That wraps it up for the best day trips from Cusco. As you can see, there is tons to see, so don’t just fly through. If you have the stamina, go on at least one of the treks, they make for life-long memories.
If you only have 3 days for Sacred Valley and Cusco, you’ll be missing out on some good places. But, I’ll try to be a silver-lining kind of guy this time and smash as much as possible into those 3 days in Cusco.
Peruvians are some of the kindest, most helpful and courteous people I’ve met during my travels. Until you put them in the driver’s seat. Then they turn into aggressive, angry, idiotic monsters. Especially in Lima.