I’m Ashley Toscano from the Instagram profile @thevirtualpassport. Thanks for stopping by my guide on the best things to do in Cusco. Before I tell you all about this fascinating destination, allow me to introduce myself.
I was born and raised in Austin, Texas. I’m the eldest of three siblings and the daughter of Mexican immigrant parents. I owe a lot of my curiosity to the encouragement of my parents, which to be honest, is not always common in the Latino community – to have parents push you to go explore the world and not worry about coming back to “take care of the family.”
I remember our family watching one of my parents’ favorite films called Cinema Paradiso. The protagonist, Salvatore, is urged by his father-figure to leave their town permanently – saying the town’s too small for Salvatore to ever find his dreams. The old man tells him he must pursue his destiny wholeheartedly, never looking back and never returning (even to visit).
At the time, I found it to be harsh and I didn’t understand why my parents would want us to leave and never return home. But what I soon realized with age was that they were trying to free me from certain social obligations and fostering a sense of curiosity in myself and in my siblings.
We didn’t have the opportunity to travel a lot when we were younger, but I thank them for igniting the spark that has driven me towards so many adventures around the world. To this day, I have traveled to around 70 countries – one of which was the extraordinary country of Peru.
Eight Incredible Days in Peru
My family and I had always dreamed of visiting Machu Picchu. So we planned a trip to Peru for eight days. We started with a few days in Lima, followed by several days in Cusco, and the remaining time was spent on day trips to surrounding sights, including Aguas Calientes to visit Machu Picchu. Our trip to Peru was jam-packed with adventure, food and culture.
Cusco was one of the highlights of our trip. This city is super charming and historical. Cusco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site defined by the mix of Incan and Spanish influences. The city center is vibrant and picturesque, easily identified by its wooden balconies and Incan wall ruins.
Not only was Cusco amazing but the surrounding sights were just as impressive. Our hike to Humantay Lake, for example, was one of the most epic places I have ever visited. The hike up is relatively short but challenging due to the altitude. Once you reach the top, you are rewarded with the most spectacular view of the mountains and crystal blue lake.
10 Wonderful Things To Do in Cusco
Cusco is the oldest continuously inhabited city in South America. The city has served as the gateway to Machu Picchu for decades – yet there is so much more to Cusco and its surroundings than meets the eye. From awesome alpine lake hikes, to bustling markets and historic archeological sites – Cusco has something for everyone. Below are my top 10 things to do:
1. Have Breakfast at the Mercado San Pedro
Walking less than 10 minutes from Plaza de Armas lands you in the bustling Mercado San Pedro. This is the go-to place to find that alpaca jumper, enjoy fresh fruit and haggle with vendors. I recommend coming for breakfast and starting the day right with some local Peruvian food.
2. Take the Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes
3. See the Sunrise over Machu Picchu
Sunrise at Machu Picchu is unlike anywhere else on earth. While you don’t see a horizon with a sun rising above it (due to the mountains), you will see the Inca ruins light up as the sun moves up in the sky and covers the ruins in a lovely light. Waking up early and hiking up is absolutely worth it!
4. Enjoy a Day Trip to the Rainbow Mountains
The Rainbow Mountains have become a popular tourist attraction in recent years and it’s easy to see why! The unmistakable stripes of red, yellow and orange are incredible to witness, so too are the surrounding mountains. This tour leaves from Cusco and is a three hour drive to the entrance.
5. Sandboard down the Dunes of Huacachina
Huacachina is a playground for backpackers who come here to party and enjoy the desert landscape. All the bus companies and hostels offer their own sandboarding experiences so you will have no trouble finding the right company. Hooning down the dunes is so much fun! Bus rides from Cusco can take close to 20 hours so flying might be your best bet.
6. Visit the Incredible Sacred Valley of Peru
15km north of Cusco lies the Sacred Valley which is home to colonial towns, beautiful landscapes, historic sites and the famous condor. Every travel agency under the sun in Cusco offers tours here but we managed to get a driver who became our guide. He offered us a half-day tour taking us to Chinchero, Salineras de Maras and Moray. It was a wonderful time!
7. Hike to the Breathtaking Humantay Lake
Humantay Lake is one of the best day trip adventures you can take from Cusco. This short but steep hike leads you up to a height of 4000 meters where an incredibly blue lake sits at the bottom of a massive glacier. Make sure you walk onto the ridges when you arrive at the lake for the best views.
8. Wander through the Streets of Barrio San Blas
The streets of San Blas are tucked away northeast of Plaza de Armas. This charming neighborhood offers cobblestone streets to explore, amazing artwork from famous artists and even an observatory to see the entire city of Cusco. The history of this neighborhood dates back to the Inca.
9. Discover the Mysterious Ruins of Saqsayhuaman
The ruins of Saqsayhuaman sit on a hill overlooking Cusco. This is a wonderful place to visit for the afternoon. The ruins were built by the Killke culture at around 1100 AD and then the Incas continued working on the ruins. It’s a place shrouded in mystery and historical significance.
10. Have a Coffee and People-Watch at Plaza de las Armas
Cusco was once the heart of the Inca Empire and the Plaza de Armas served as one of the empire’s most important centres. Here you can discover amazing architecture like the Church La Compania de Jesus and many restaurants. Pop by, order a coffee and people-watch for a while.
Wonderful Local People of Cusco
The people we met in Cusco were extremely friendly and hospitable. One day when we were heading towards Ollantaytambo where we were taking the train to Aguas Calientes, we went to the local bus area in Cusco and hired a driver. He offered us a half-day tour of the Sacred Valley, taking us to Chinchero, Salineras de Maras, Moray and ending in Ollantaytambo.
Our driver became more than just a guide. He shared with us stories about his village, his family, how he has to commute to provide for them and what it’s like living in Peru. We bonded so quickly that during our tour he invited us to his village and took us to his favorite restaurant. Sharing this meal at a place so meaningful to him was such a special part of our trip.
What to Eat in Cusco, Peru
You definitely can’t leave Cusco without trying some ceviche and Pisco Sour! Peruvian ceviche is different to the Mexican ceviche I grew up with but it’s just as delicious. The fish is diced in larger pieces and comes topped with corn nuts which gives it a unique twist and great mix of textures. Other than those staples, I recommend the jugos emolientes and churros.
Favorite Memory from Cusco
I have so many incredible memories from our trip to Cusco but I would say the train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes was one of my favorites. We traveled with Inca Rail and it was such an epic experience.
The excitement of traveling to one of my parent’s longtime dream destinations, seeing my parents so giddy, mixed with wonderful conversations with a European family seated next to us, and topped with the most delicious coffee and bastoncitos, was a memory I will never forget.
Tips for your Visit to Cusco
I would highly recommend staying in the neighborhood of San Blas near the historic center. The cobblestone streets and historic houses in this neighborhood make this a charming home base that is super accessible.
Make sure you acclimatize to the altitude in Peru. If you have a history of headaches and migraines, I recommend speaking with your doctor prior to your trip and requesting medication for the altitude, in the event that you need it. There will be plenty of coca tea and remedies once you are there, but it doesn’t hurt to come prepared. Thanks for reading and enjoy Cusco!