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A Customizable 3–5 Day Cusco Itinerary

3-5 day itinerary of Cusco, Peru

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that if you only have 3 days for the entire Sacred Valley and Cusco, you’ll be missing out on some seriously amazing places. But, I’ll try to be a silver-lining kind of guy this time and smash as much as possible into those measly 3 days in Cusco.  

For you luckier bastards, 5 days in Cusco is the perfect amount to see Cusco’s highlights, Sacred Valley, and even a bigger day trip or two.  

My Machu Picchu itinerary is a whole other beast and the Inca city is not part of this Cusco itinerary. You ideally need an extra 2 days for that. It can be done in one, but it is the no. 1 place to see in Peru (even by my very high standards!), so don’t rush through it.  

Tip: See my 2-week itinerary for Peru, or, again for the chosen ones, a 1-month Peru itinerary.

A tourist and the Sacred Valley view, Peru 
Me adorning Sacred Valley

How to customize this itinerary  

I’m assuming when you are looking for a Cusco itinerary, you want to see not only Cusco, but also Sacred Valley.   

Everyone should follow the first two days of this itinerary—they’ll take you through Cusco city. As for the other three days that I’ve detailed, you can pick and choose which ones you add to your itinerary based on your interests, time, and fitness level.  

This is the offering: 

  • One day through Sacred Valley 
  • One day around the smaller Inca sites right outside of Cusco 
  • One day trip to Rainbow Mountain or Humantay Lake 

I highly recommend leaving Rainbow Mountain until the very end of your stay in the area, so even after Machu Picchu. It’s at such a high altitude that you should give yourself as much time as possible to acclimatize before taking it on. Read about how sick I got there and use it as a cautionary tale.  

A little bit of geography: 

Cusco is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas, and, from the 13th to 16th century, it was the capital of the Inca Empire

The entire incredibly scenic area to the north of Cusco is called Sacred Valley. It’s the roughly 60 km (37 mile) section between Pisac and Ollantaytambo towns that Urubamba River cuts into the Andes Mountains.  

Machu Picchu is to the west of Sacred Valley and it takes a train and a bus (and lots of planning) to get there. I have a separate Machu Picchu itinerary planner for you to help our with that.  

One of the best day trips from Cusco, Rainbow Mountain, is to the southeast. Humantay Lake is to the west. They are both a 3-hour drive one way, so it’s going to be a long day!  

Where to stay in Cusco 

Best place to stay in Cusco, Hilton Garden Inn 
I loved staying and eating @ Hilton Garden Inn

I’m recommending only staying in international hotel chains in Peru, because everything else is hit and miss. This isn’t my usual tip, on the contrary. But in Peru, I felt like a Hilton Hotel representative.  

One of the best places to stay in Cusco is the Hilton Garden Inn. I did and loved it, so why wouldn’t you. I mean what is there not to love: super comfortable beds, wonderful staff that went out of their way to make anything happen for us, and since it’s a bit above the town center, views to die for and peace and quiet.  

Just know that high altitudes and meat don’t tend to mix well. Our first night in Cusco I ordered a massive plate of pork something and almost fell under the table. Silly Honza!  

Another cool thing the Hilton Garden Inn offers is the special acclimatization massage. We’ll be mentioning Cusco’s altitude at the end of this article, so you’ll know what I mean when I say this massage is a godsend.  

Add one of our favorite restaurants in all of Peru, the Garden Grille, and you have one of the best hotels in Cusco.   

Prices start at USD 150 per night.  

Day 1 of Cusco itinerary: Cusco city center 

Map of day 1 of Cusco itinerary including Cusco city center 
See this route with all the stops in Google Maps

Main sites visited on day 1: Inca Museum, Plaza de Armas, Cusco Cathedral, Inca Rock Street, San Cristobal Viewpoint, Sacsayhuaman
Restaurant tips: Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse | Garden Grille in the Hilton Garden Inn Cusco | Organika
Hotel recommendations: Hilton Garden Inn Cusco | Palacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel by MarriottFurther reading: Best places in Cusco | About Peru | Top places in Peru 

Cusco is one of the very few cities in the Americas that I think warrant a two-day stay, and is one of the top spots you can visit in Peru.  

In this case the extra time in the city is also great because you might be feeling a little blah because of the altitude, so getting two days of sightseeing only around this small town will be just what your body needs to get back up to speed again.

The Inca Museum, museums in Cusco, Peru 
A very un-authentic statue in front of the museum and some very authentic receptacles from inside the Inca Museum

First up, learn about everything you’re going to be seeing in the next few days at the Inca Museum. The Incas were a fascinating people and getting to know as much as you can about them will elevate your experiences from the ruins you’ll be visiting.   

Definitely opt for a guide since the museum isn’t really that great when it comes to signs in English. Our guide was fantastic and really made our visit worthwhile. Expect to pay s80–200 for a guide.  

Expect to spend at least 1.5 hours at the Inca Museum.  


Cusco Cathedral in Peru
Cusco Cathedral

Next, walk over to the Plaza de Armas, one of the nicest central squares I’ve seen in South America. It’s only about half the size of the original Inca square that the Spaniards took over, but it remains a central social hub, and, nowadays, a tourist hub as well.   

Head into the massive Cusco Cathedral. It has three parts and includes a museum with hundreds of artifacts, sculptures and paintings, the most famous of which is Marcos Zapata’s Last Supper where guinea pig is served as the main course.   

Get a guide in the cathedral. Try to choose one whose English you actually understand if you go for this option. A simple question or two before you book them should help you select your person. The fee is “voluntary” at s/50–100.  

You’ll need an hour to look around the cathedral.  

  • Cusco Cathedral 
  • Google Maps link 
  • Open daily 10 am–6 pm  
  • Tickets cost s/30 and include entrance to Cusco Cathedral, San Blas Temple, the Archbishop’s Museum and San Cristobal Church. Buy in cash at any entrance, take your passport.   

By this point you’ll have worked up an appetite. Luckily, Cusco has some fantastic restaurants. We stumbled into Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse by accident and had the best chicken of our lives.  

See more restaurant tips in our dedicated Cusco article, or in our Best Restaurants in Peru article. 

The views of the city and mountains from San Cristobal in Cusco
The best views over the city: San Cristobal Viewpoint

You’ll also want to walk through the side streets of Cusco’s Old Town. Don’t forget about Calle Hatunrumiyoc and Calle Inca Roca to check out the walls made of the Incas’ precisely cut stones

You really don’t need to do much, just walk and enjoy.   

Thenclimb up to the viewpoint at San Cristobal Church and ooh and aah over what’s in front of you: the Plaza de Armas surrounded by the red rooftops of Cusco, bordered by the magnificent Andes in the background. Priceless.   

It’s a short (15 minutes max) but steep walk from Plaza de Armas. Your ticket from Cusco Cathedral automatically gets you into the San Cristobal Church if you’re interested. It’s nothing that special, the views of Cusco are the real attraction here. 

Sacsayhuaman Inca ruins in Cusco Peru
Sacsayhuaman Inca complex

Getting tired? Cusco sits at a high altitude (see details at the end of this article), so by the time you get to San Cristobal viewpoint, you might be so tired you’ll want to just slowly wander back to the comfort of your hotel. Perhaps take that acclimatization massage at the Hilton Garden Inn and then stare out at the Cusco views from the restaurant windows.  

If you can keep going, head to the next site, otherwise fit it into another day. 

The last site you’ll be visiting today is Sacsayhuaman (also spelled Saqsaywaman). It used to be an important fortified Inca complex, so it sits atop a steep hill, conveniently right above the San Cristobal viewpoint. 

It’s a massive site with not only Inca ruins but also great views of Sacred Valley and even Ausangate, the sacred mountain of the Incas.   

The most fabulous of the site is the central plaza, which is where ceremonies were likely held. It could fit thousands of people at once. The massive stones used in the walls surrounding the plaza are some of the largest used in any site in the Americas. The logistics of getting the stones to Sacsayhuaman from 20 km (12.5 miles) away is still a mystery to this day.  

You’ll need an hour at the site.  

  • Open daily 7 am–5:30 pm 
  • Tickets are not sold separately. You need the Cusco Tourist Ticket circuit 1 or 2. More about how and where to buy tickets at the end of this article.    

Day 2 of Cusco itinerary: More Cusco city center 

Map of highlights of day 2 of Cusco itinerary 
You can see the route with all the stops of the day on Google Maps

Main sites visited on day 2: Museum of Pre-Columbian Art of Peru, Coca Museum, Qoricancha
Restaurant tips: Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse | Garden Grille in the Hilton Garden Inn Cusco | MAP Café and Restaurant
Hotel recommendations: Hilton Garden Inn Cusco | Palacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel by Marriott
Further reading: Peru’s best ruins | Best places in Cusco | Food and drinks of Peru 

First up on the Cusco itinerary today: a little Inca education. You can’t continue exploring any more of Cusco or the Sacred Valley without learning about the culture that made you even consider Peru as your vacation destination.  

Head over to the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art of Peru right by the Plaza de Armas. It’s part of the Museo Larco group (theMuseo Larco that knocked our socks off in Lima), meaning it’s very modern and up to European museum standards and it blew us away when we visited.

A tourist in the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art of Peru courtyard
A handsome and educated tourist @ Museum of Pre-Columbian Art of Peru

The museum collection is divided into 10 rooms by civilization and by material used (like wood, silver, and shell). You can walk around online, too, they have a virtual tour that’ll give you a better idea of what it looks like inside.   

Tip: If all the cultures that make up Peru’s history fascinate you, you might want to take a look at my article about Peru’s most amazing ruins to visit. You know, to add on to your full Peru itinerary.  

If you get hungry, you can dine at the MAP Café and Restaurant, which is basically a glass box in the museum’s courtyard. It which serves (pricey) contemporary Peruvian dishes in a cool setting. Not your typical museum bistro, that’s for sure, but a good option if you don’t care to walk to any of our other favorites.   

  • Tickets cost s/20 


Coca tea in the Coca Museum, Peru
A cup of coca tea, anyone? It helps with altitude sickness!

A 10-minute walk to the west takes you to another museum where you can learn about another staple of the region: coca.  

The Coca Museum does a good job explaining the history and evolution of the coca leaf, including how the Incas used it, its properties and health benefits, like that it’s why the indigenous tribes had nice, white teeth. Of course, you’ll also learn about cocaine, including how to make it, which was a bit strange.   

Just remember not to buy everyone at home souvenirs from the Coca Museum, it’s illegal to take that stuff out of the country! Guess how I know. We stripped the souvenir shop of all they had… only to have to throw it all away at the airport. They should have special coca garbage cans there and just recycle them back to the souvenir stores after. Such a waste!  

Also, know that if you taste anything coca-related, you will test positive for cocaine on drug tests.   

For lunch, how about something healthy? We lovedOrganika because we got a great pizza with flowers on top, which doesn’t happen too often. Like never.

Qorikancha temple and museum in Cusco Peru 
Qorikancha

After lunch, head to Qorikancha. It was the most important temple in Cusco during the Inca Empire.  

When the Spaniards took over in Peru (which in all honestly really helped Peru in the long run), they took Qorikancha’s Temple of the Sun apart and used the stones for their own little building projects (ok this was pretty shitty of them). Most of the stones were used to build the Convent of Santo Domingo, which is the church that now sits right on top of Qorikancha’s base. So when you get to Qorikancha, know that the church is the new building and the stone walls on the bottom are the Inca leftovers.    

The walls of Qorikancha were once covered in gold, with golden statues all around. The Spanish were fascinated by all the bling, and when they captured the last Inca leader, Atahualpa, in 1533, the Incas paid the ransom for him in gold from Qorikancha.    

You’ll need at least an hour on the site and in the museum.  

  • Qorikancha tickets are not sold separately. It‘s part of Cusco Tourist Ticket circuits 2 and 3 (both cost s/70). Read more about the Cusco Tourist Ticket at the end of this itinerary.    


The Qorikancha base, Peru
The base is made out of Inca stones from the original Qorikancha

Qorikancha is right in the center of Cusco, so you’re still walking distance for everywhere and you can spend the rest of the afternoon around Plaza de Armas.  We were very surprised by just how incredible the Inca stone work was. It’s not often I stand and stare at rocks up close, but in Cusco, you’ll always see people studying the walls up close. It’s kind of funny really.  

In the evening, have a pisco sour or three at Hilton’s Garden Grille Restaurant or another one of the many bars and restaurants in town. Remember the Garden Grille has the most fantastic views over Cusco! You know that already though, because you’re staying at the Hilton Garden Inn Cusco, right? 

Tip: If you don’t know what a pisco sour is, read up about the best food and drinks in Peru.

Palacio del Inka A Luxury Collection Hotel by Marriott
Stay at an actual Inca palace: Palacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel by Marriott

Alternate hotel tip: If you’d prefer your hotel to be located right in Cusco’s city center, a great choice is located right beside Qoricancha:The Palacio del Inka is a Luxury Collection Hotel by Marriott.   
 

The Palacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel by Marriott is a former Inca palace, which is pretty much all you need to convince you that this hotel is amazing.  

There’s a spa with a swimming pool, too. If you still aren’t sure, let me tell you that while you eat breakfast in the gorgeous courtyard, a harpist will be playing, and there’s a pisco sour happy hour every evening.  

In case Cusco’s altitude makes you dizzy, there’s oxygen and coca available for all guests.  

Prices start at USD 380 per night with breakfast.  

Day 3 of Cusco itinerary: Sacred Valley day trips 

Map of day 3 of Cusco itinerary, drive through Sacred Valley
You can see the route with all the stops of the day on Google Maps

Main sites visited on day 3: Pisac, Chinchero, Maras, Moray, Ollantaytambo
Restaurant tips: El Maqt’a (local restaurant) |  MIL Food Lab and Interpretation Center
Hotel recommendations: Vertical Sky Luxury Suites near Urubamba|  Hilton Garden Inn Cusco
Further reading: Best places in Sacred Valley | Visiting Ollantaytambo | Visiting Moray & Maras  

No more of this resting business—you better hope you’ve had enough time to get your body up to speed with the altitude of the area, because today, you’ll be covering a lot of ground!  

Note: If you’re on a 4- of 5-day Cusco itinerary, you’ll want to leave this day as day 4, and head around the Inca sites closes to Cusco first (see next day). That way, you’ll be able to overnight in Ollantaytambo and head out to Machu Picchu in the morning. It’ll save you a backtrack to Cusco.  

For help on how and where to add Machu Picchu to your itinerary, see my Peru itinerary for 2-weeks (or this one for a month).

Sacred Valley views, road through Sacred Valley, Cusco, Peru
Just in case you were thinking about leaving Sacred Valley out because you’re short on time… don’t.

You’ll be driving through the heart of the Inca Empire today—Sacred Valley. It’ll be a whole lot of Inca ruins, but maybe even more exciting is the scenery. Peru’s Andes Mountains are awe-inspiring, and you’ll be awe-ing at every stop you make.   

Start early, because you have a lot of driving and exploring ahead of you.  

I have a whole article about the Top 9 Places to See in Sacred Valley, so you can get all the details about each stop there.

The Inca ruins of Pisac, Peru
The Inca ruins of Pisac

First, drive 40 km (25 miles) to Pisac. It’s not far, but you’ll need an hour for the trip, this isn’t a highway! You’ll have extra fun trying to dodge crazy Peruvians coming straight at you at light speed. Extra points if they’re in a big truck. Driving in Peru is ok once you get used to it, but you will still spend half your time with eyes wide open (and sometimes shut).  

Once there, you might overlook the Inca ruins and just stare at the views. They might be best in all of Sacred Valley. 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, they’re just phenomenal.   

Pisac probably served as protection for the Sacred Valley from the east, just as Ollantaytambo guarded it from the west.   

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 there and back. Otherwise, you can take the 2-hour trek out of Pisac town on your own two feet. It’s steep!   

Count on spending 2 hours exploring Pisac. See Pisac on Google Maps.

A tourist in Chinchero, Peru 
Visit the historical center of Chinchero

Chinchero is a picturesque town at a respectable altitude of 3765 m (12,350 ft), about 30 km (18.6 miles) from Cusco. Come here for the views of the surrounding scenery and the vibe—people here still wear traditional dress as they go about their business.  

The drive between Pisac and Chinchero is 1.5 hours and about 75 km (45 miles).   

Visit on a Sunday and experience the vibrant Sunday market. The Quechuas areknown for their weaving techniques, so go ahead and buy some souvenirs! You can also take weaving classes. You can also buy some tasty treats, but again, the altitude brought down the score of this taste test! 

There are also terraced Inca ruins at Chinchero that’ll feel completely abandoned compared to other Inca ruins you’ll be visiting in Peru. They’re located on the north side of the town, but you probably won’t have enough hours in the day to see them.   

You need a ticket to enter the main plaza with the church and the Inca ruins. Chinchero is included in the Cusco Tourist Ticket circuits 1 and 4 (see above).   

See Chinchero on Google Maps.

El Maqt’a Restaurant—interior and drinks, Peru
El Maqt’a Restaurant : a super local restaurant on the road between Chinchero and Urubamba

Time for lunch!  

Here’s my secret tip: Make sure to stop by the very local and very cute restaurant called El Maqt’a. It’s a gem we found on the road between Chinchero and Urubamba.  See here for the location of El Maqt’a and don’t expect them to have a website, but do expect the pink corn beer, chicha. More details about El Maqt’a in our Best Restaurants in Peru article.

Round terraces at Moray, Sacred Valley, Cusco
Moray experimental lab

Continue driving 15 minutes from El Maqt’a to Moray, wherethe Incas experimented with growing different crops, and the circular sunken terraces are a very cool leftover of that agricultural laboratory.   

It’s these high (higher than you’d think) steps where the difference in temperature between the top and bottom levels was 5°C (9°F). They would bring in soil from different parts of Peru to mimic different conditions on different levels, allowing them to work out which microclimate works best for whichever crop. So something along the lines of: hey look, this red potato grows best on level 2, but this large variety died on level 4. Super cool, right?   

You can read all about Moray and Maras (your next stop) in a dedicated article.  

You will spend up to an hour at Moray.  

  • Open daily 7 am–6 pm  
  • Part of the Cusco Tourist Ticket. 


Visiting Maras salt pools in Cusco
Lookin’ good at the Maras salt pools

Twenty minutes further down the road from Moray and you’ll be stopping at Maras, whichis a whole side of a mountain filled with thousands of salt evaporation pools.  

The Maras salt pools are kept by the local families, and there is one pool per family based on family size. If a new family comes to Maras, they are given a salt pond to take care of for their personal use. At any given time, there are many empty salt pools just waiting for someone new to claim them. So if you ever considered moving to Peru… 

We thought the most interesting bit was the tiny, salty stream that you can see coming out from the inside of the mountain that feeds all of these pools. There’s this buildup of salt around it. Incredible that this little thing has been keeping the pools alive for so long.  

In my article about Moray and Maras, I explain what the individual layers of salt are used for and how the color changes.  

It used to be allowed to walk through the salt pools, but nowadays there are just viewing platforms and walkways that take you to several different levels, so you still get a good look. It’ll only take you a maximum of 30 minutes.  

As you might expect, there are souvenir shops selling everything salt-related. Try the salted chocolate, it was fantastic! Apologies to Aunt Joan, but it was too good to bring back as a souvenir.   

This is the only spot where you’ll be buying a separate ticket at the entrance (bring cash) since it isn’t part of any of the Cusco Tourist Ticket circuits.  

  • Salineras de Maras map link  
  • Open daily 6 am–6 pm  
  • Tickets cost s/10, Maras is not included in Tourist Ticket Cusco  


The Wall of the Six Monoliths at Ollantaytambo Inca ruins 
The Wall of the Six Monoliths at Ollantaytambo Inca ruins

Last but not least, drive 30 minutes to Ollantaytambo. Thisis the place where you’ll alight your train when you head to Machu Picchu, so it makes sense to stay the night there if that’s your plan for tomorrow.  

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 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!    

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.    

For more details about visiting the ruins and Ollantaytambo town, read my Ollantaytambo article.  

If you’re heading back to Cusco, the drive from Ollantaytambo is about 1 h 20 mins long.  

Ollantaytambo hotel tips 

If you just want to crash somewhere in Ollantaytambo before your morning train to Machu Picchu, try El Albergue Ollantaytambo.  

It‘s a 3-star hotel right next to where the trains to Machu Picchu Pueblo leave from. The rooms are basic but spaciousand very clean, with high ceilings and wooden beams. It ain’t a Hilton but it does the job if you’re just staying the night and want to be close to the trains.    

But if you have the money, make use of one of the exquisite resorts around Ollantaytambo and especially around nearby Urubamba.  

If you want to turn your Sacred Valley experience into a phenomenal one, take a look at this… be careful though! Don’t let your eyeballs fall out of your head:

The Vertical Sky Luxury Suites in Peru
Sleep on the side of a mountain @ Vertical Sky Luxury Suites: You know you want to!

At the Vertical Sky Luxury Suites, you can choose to sleep in a glass pod hanging above the valley floor that you get to by walking, strapped in, mountain climbing-style, to the ledge of the mountain, before getting into your “room”.  

You get your own jacuzzi up there, too.  

Or, you can choose the more spacious and less hanging glass dome. You still get views for days, but it provides more comfort, like an actual floor you can walk on.    

Prices start at USD 660 per night including breakfast and dinner. 

Day 4 of Cusco itinerary: Inca ruins near Cusco 

Map of day 4 of Cusco itinerary, Tambomachay, Qenco and Puka Pukara
You can see the location of all of these stops on Google Maps

Main sites visited on day 4: Qenco, Puka Pukara, Tambomachay
Restaurant tips: Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse | Garden Grille in the Hilton Garden Inn Cusco | MAP Café and Restaurant
Hotel recommendations: Hilton Garden Inn Cusco | Palacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel by Marriott
Further reading: Best places in Sacred Valley | Best ruins in Peru | Peru itinerary 2 weeks  

If you have 4 days in Cusco, you’ll be able to add 1 day on top of the 3-day itinerary for Cusco in order to see the best Inca sites closest to the city.  

I’d recommend adding this day to your itinerary right after you explore Cusco’s city center, meaning you’d be exploring Sacred Valley tomorrow. That way, if you’re heading to Machu Picchu next, you can just overnight in Ollantaytambo without coming back to Cusco. Since the train station is in Ollantaytambo, it makes no sense to go back and forth from Cusco again the next day again.

Tambomachay—a water worship center, Cusco
The water worship center of Tambomachay

Tambomachay, Qenco and Puka Pukara are next on your Inca itinerary for the day. They are all to the north of town. Qenco is right in the outskirts of Cusco while Tambomachay and Puka Pukara are a few kilometers outside of town, about 10 minutes by car.     

A water worship center, a mummification area and an entry checkpoint into Cusco are what you’ll be seeing. You’ll probably be content with 30 minutes at each site.   

They’re all conveniently on Cusco Tourist Ticket circuit 2 which is only valid for one day, so you have no choice but to group them together during one outing.  More about how and where to buy tickets in our Sacred Valley article.    

For more information about all of these Inca sites, see our article titled The 10 Things to Do In Cusco That Are Actually Worth It.

Tambomachay, Quenco and Puka Pukara marked on a map 
Tambomachay, Qenco and Puka Pukara on a map

These three Inca sites are all close to each other just north of Cusco. They aren’t walking distance though, so bring your car or be ready to take taxis (more about getting around Cusco at the end of this article).   

Qenco is right in the outskirts of Cusco while Tambomachay and Puka Pukara are a few kilometers outside of town, about 10 minutes by car.   

They’re all conveniently on Cusco Tourist Ticket circuit 2 which is only valid for one day, so you have no choice but to group them together during one outing.   

More information about the Cusco Tourist Ticket is at the end of this article.

Qenco Inca ruins near Cusco Peru, Cusco itinerary
Qenco: entrance to the rooms cut into the rocks

In Qenco, you’ll see great examples of megalithic stone cutting and shaping, one of the Incas’ specialties. Unlike most other Inca ruins though, they used the rocks that were already there are cut tunnels and passages right into the rock. So on first glance, it really looks just like a pile of rocks. But then you go inside…  

It is likely where sacrifices and mummifications took place, and you’ll be able to walk between the high walls and into “caves” to see some alters.   

The ruins are crowded and not very big, so you’ll be ready to move on in half an hour.  

There isn’t much written on the signs, so read up before you go or take a guide.  

There are great views of Cusco from Qenco, so that’s a bonus.   


Tambomachay, Cusco
Tambomachay

Drive 11 km (7 miles) north to Tambomachay. The archeological site is a short walk from the parking lot.  

Tambomachay is a water worship center, or perhaps an Inca spa, who knows. You’ll learn, if you didn’t know this already, that the Incas were great at irrigation and controlling the flow of water sometimes over huge distances.     

There are three stone terraces at Tambomachay that are built over natural springs. The water from the springs would feed the canals, aqueducts and waterfalls that were built into the terraces. They still flow today.     

We especially liked the tree-lined avenue. The number of sellers that were lining it was also incredible, but not in a good way. 

Again, it’s not a large site, so you won’t spend much time here. You can, however, extend your outing by taking a little hike around the surrounding mountains.  


Puka Pukara Inca ruins near Cusco Peru 
Puka Pukara

One kilometer (0.6 miles) back towards Cusco from Tambomachay is Puka Pukara, the Inca fortress that served as an entry checkpoint into Cusco. There’s a small parking area near the entrance.   
 

At sunset, the walls look red, which is where the name Puka Pukara, which means “Red Fortress” in Quechua, comes from.   

There isn’t much except the walls left at Puka Pukara, so you won’t need too much time there, either, but the views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are something to be appreciated.   

You won’t find any information at Puka Pukara besides some basics, so again, read up before you go or get a guide.  

There are horseback tours available to the Inca ruins close to Cusco. That could be an interesting twist on it for those of you not allergic to horses like me.   

  • Part of Cusco Tourist Ticket 

Day 5 of Cusco itinerary: Rainbow Mountain or Humantay Lake 

Map of day 5 of Cusco itinerary
You can see the location of all of the stops on this itinerary on Google Maps

Main sites visited on day 5: Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca or Palccoyo) OR Humantay Lake hike
Restaurant tips: Lupita Lodge (under Rainbow Mountain) | Sarawasi Restaurant (close to Humantay hike)
Hotel recommendations: Hilton Garden Inn Cusco | Palacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel by Marriott
Further reading: Rainbow Mountain | Day trips from Cusco | Best places in Peru 

Today you’ll get an answer to the burning question: Have I acclimatized enough?!  

I recommend leaving Rainbow Mountain until you’ve spent a few days in the Cusco area, ideally even after you’ve gone to Macchu Picchu, just to allow for as much time as possible before going up to 5,200 m (17,000 ft).  

Humantay is no pubble at sea level, either: it sits at 4,200 m (13,800 ft). Both Rainbow Mountain and Humantay Lake are high-altitude destinations that’ll give you mountain sickness if you aren’t careful. More details about the thin air at the end of this article.  

Option 1: Rainbow Mountain 

Tourist on Rainbow Mountain, Peru
Rainbow Mountain: Not as colorful as on Instagram, but still beautiful

Rainbow Mountain came in as no. 3 on my list of top places to visit in Peru, so it was really a spectacle and you shouldn’t let a vertical kilometer or five deter you from seeing it. But, it’ll be a miracle if you aren’t grabbing for several cups of coca tea in hopes to trick your nausea to go away.   

Right at the start I want to mention that there isn’t just one rainbow-colored mountain. There are many. If you want to see a less crowded mountain that is just as beautiful as the Rainbow Mountain (aka Vinicunca), plus it’s much easier to get to, head for Palccoyo.  

There are a few different routes you can take to see Vinicunca (or the alternative, Palccoyo).  I’ve described 3 routes in detail in a separate Rainbow Mountain article.  

The standard route to Rainbow Mountain is called the Cusipata Trail. You start hiking at 4,600 m (15,000 ft) and continue for 3 km (1.8 miles) with a total elevation gain of about 400 m (1,300 ft), and then back the same way.  

So it’s not that long, but it’ll take you 2 hours to get up there and another 1.5 hours back down because you will be taking breathing breaks every 20 m (65 ft). The cost is s/40. 

View of Ausandate Mountain on Rainbow Mountain hike, Peru
The views of magestic Ausangate Mountain on the hike to Rainbow Mountain

The shorter Palccoyo Route is only 2 km (1.2 miles) long and takes you to a different rainbow mountain (several, actually). It’s an easy hike of about 40 minutes. The cost is s/10.   

No matter which starting point you decide on, you’re looking at a 3–4-hour drive from Cusco one way, so get up bright and early. It’s 100 km (62 miles), and at least half of that will be spent on mountain dirt roads.   

There are a couple of places worth a stop in the towns at the foot of the mountain, check out the whole Rainbow Mountain article to see if you’d like any of those. The article includes all the directions, maps, parking instructions and tips.  

Option 2: Humantay Lake hike 

Humantay Lake, Cusco
You can visit Humantay Lake without a guide

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.   

LOTS of people visit Humantay as part of a group tour, but you can easily do it on your own (but beware it’s a 3-hour drive each way!), which is always what I prefer. Just don’t be surprised when you meet all of those group tour people on the mountain.  

Tip: The tour groups 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.

Map of Humantay Lake hike from Soraypampa, Peru, Day trips from Cusco
More details about this hike on Alltrails

The hike ismoderate to hard 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. 

The 4.2 km (2.6 mile) loop hike will take you 2 hours to complete, so it isn’t terribly long. The trail is clearly visible and easy to follow.  

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 (you still need to walk down on your own).  

The entrance fee to Humantay Lake is s/10, payable in cash at the checkpoint in Mollepata.  

For a complete list of options on how to spend extra days around Cusco, see my article about the best day trips from Cusco.  

Is the Cusco Tourist Ticket worth it? 

The Cusco Tourist Ticket
Our Cusco Tourist Ticket

The CuscoTourist Ticket (Boleto Turistico del Cusco) is necessary to get into everything you could ever want to see in Cusco and Sacred Valley and has 4 variants. You can’t buy tickets to the places individually, so not only is the Cusco Tourist Ticket worth it, you have no choice.   

The general ticket (circuit 1) includes almost everything in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, is valid for 10 days and costs s/130. The other more limited circuits that are valid just for 1–2 days and cost s/70.    

Circuit 1: Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, Puca Pucara, Tambomachay, Museum of Contemporary Art, Regional Historical Museum, Museum of Popular Art, Qoricancha Site Museum, Qosqo Center for Native Art, Monument to the Inca Pachacuteq, Pikillaqta, Tipón, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Moray  

Circuit 2: Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, Puca Pucara, Tambomachay  

Circuit 3: Museum of Contemporary Art, Regional Historical Museum, Popular Art Museum, Qoricancha Site Museum, Qosqo Center for Native Art, Monument to the Inca Pachacuteq, Pikillaqta,  Tipón  

Circuit 4: Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Moray

Cusco town center, Peru 
Cusco

How and where to buy the Cusco Tourist Ticket 

Tickets can only be bought in person either at any of the sites that accept the ticket or at the Cusco ticket office at 103 Avenida del Sol in central Cusco or at the Directur Tourist office on Calle Mantas in Cusco.   

You need your passport to buy a ticket and to use the ticket. They are non-transferrable and your name will be written on your ticket.  

A lot of times only cash is accepted at the tickets desds, so don’t rely on your credit card.   

Also good to know is that if a site is part of any of the tickets, you can’t just buy entry into that one site. You will need to buy a circuit ticket even if you have no interest in seeing anything else on that circuit.   

There is one exception: the Maras salt pools aren’t part of the Cusco Tourist ticket and just sell regular tickets at the entrance to the site.  

Cusco altitude—something to consider 

Aerial shot of Cusco with the Andes Mountains in the background 
You’d think Cusco can’t be that high up since it sit at the foot of the mountains… but you’d be wrong. It’s 1 km higher up than Machu Picchu!

Cusco is a high altitude destination and causes many travelers trouble with altitude sickness. It’s not fun and can ruin your holiday, so just be mindful of the situation.  

It might come as a surprise to some, but Machu Picchu is 1 km lower than Cusco! That’s 0.6 miles of beautiful, extra oxygen.  

You know what the worst idea is? Flying from Lima, which is at sea level, to Cusco directly. Ouch!

Arequipa city center, Peru itinerary
Arequipa isn’t too shabby itself! Consider staying there before you head to Cusco.

My 2-week and 4-week Peru itineraries take this into account by adding Arequipa and Colca Canyon in before taking you to Cusco. This will allow your body to start the acclimatization process gently (even if Colca Canyon can be a bit of a killer!).  

If you’re going to Rainbow Mountain (one of the day trips in the 5-day Cusco itinerary), I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to let your body get used to being oxygen-deprived. You’ll suffer either way, but the longer you wait, the better.  

  • Cusco’s altitude: 3,400 m (11,000 ft) 
  • Machu Picchu altitude: 2,430 m (7.900 ft) 
  • Arequipa’s altitude: 2,300 m (7,600 ft) 
  • Colca Canyon altitude: 3,700 m (12,000 ft) 
  • Humantay Lake altitude: 4,200 m (13,800 ft) 
  • Rainbow Mountain altitude: 5,200 m (17,000 ft) !! 

Altitude sickness is a big deal and you don’t want to underestimate it.  

Cusco’s altitude is why you should be ready to take the first 2 days easy and not plan anything too crazy. You just won’t be able to with the lower oxygen levels. Coffee and coca, anyone?  

Renting a car in Cusco 

The different road conditions in Peru
Roads are used not only by drivers

My tip is to rent a car in Cusco, at least for the Sacred Valley portion of your trip. Do so at Alkila Rent a Car, the only rental company in Peru that didn’t try to scam us. It’s local, so that can warm your heart as well. The international companies in Peru are a joke, we had multiple bad experiences with them. 

Alternatively, a taxi from Cusco airport to the city center costs USD 25. You can use the Cabify app in Cusco as well to get around town.  

If you don’t want to drive at all in Peru (though driving in Peru was mostly a positive experience for me), get a driver to take you on the trip through Sacred Valley. Ask your hotel reception to help you set the deal up. 

What you don’t want to do is just take a taxi to an Inca site and then let it leave—there won’t be any taxis waiting there when you are ready to move on. You could end up paying ridiculous money for someone to come save you. Always pay for your own taxi for the entire day.  

Curious what it’s like driving in Peru? It’s not really as bad as you’d think… most of the time. And the gas prices?! Read details here:  All you need to know about driving in Peru. 

This post contains affiliate links. I earn a small commission if you make bookings through my links, at no additional cost to you. This helps keep this blog free, thank you!  

 

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