There is so much to see in the Cusco region and travelers may have their own preferences with regards to what to see. Whether it’s one’s budget, health condition, interests or the group’s plans; there are many factors that can influence a decision. Instead of trying to convince you to visit one site or another, I have decided to leave you with the facts, to help you decide what attracts you the most. Below is the list of the top 10 things to do in the Cusco region. I believe that it will help at least some of you make the best decision on what to see in this part of Peru.
Ten top things to see in the Cusco region
1. Machu Picchu Ruins
Many Peruvians argue that foreigners are more familiar with Machu Picchu than the country of Peru itself. The promising views and trails that symbolize the epoch of Incas, brings almost 2 million tourists a year. Most people who return from this site are extremely impressed as promised, but to be honest with you, it took me two times to fall in love with this site. Why? Mainly because I was much more prepared for my second visit. I acquired knowledge about the ruins and the Inca Empire, and also decided to hire a tour guide. All of these factors helped me view the citadel in a completely different and deeper perspective. I visited parts that I did not visit during my first adventure to Machu Picchu, took my time, and noticed things that I missed on my first visit as well.
In case you are a tourist who prefers to avoid organized tours, in order to dive deeper into the meaning and significance of Macchu Picchu, I highly recommend hiring a tour guide when you reach the main gate. Before reaching the ruins, I also recommend reading some history about the Inca Empire and about Machu Picchu in general. It will help you see much more as you wander through the parts of this amazing Inca archaeological site.
The next important thing would be to decide how you would like to get to Machu Picchu. There are some factors that should be considered before your departure: how much time you have, how active you are and what you like to do.
In general, you have to decide between two options: a trip organized on your own (which you can do in many ways: long or short; cheaper or more expensive; more or less adventurous, etc.) or buying a tour with a travel agency. In the second case, you can choose a train tour (usually 1-2 days) or a trekking tour (4-5 days). The most popular tours leading to Machu Picchu are the following: Inka Jungle Tour, Salkantay Trek and Inca Trail. To be able to make the right decision, read this article describing each tour to Machu Picchu. The article will also help clarify any doubt you have if you are considering buying a tour with a travel agency.
2. Moray and Salineras de Maras
My personal number one place worth visiting besides the Inca ruins in Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Choquequirao; is definitely Moray and Salineras de Maras.
In Moray you will encounter mysterious hollows of different sizes in the ground.
In Salineras de Maras you can find more than 5000 salt ponds, which you will find impressive from the moment you first set eyes on them.
If you have limited time in the Cusco region, consider buying a one day tour. Then, in addition to visiting the Inca archeological site in Moray and the salt ponds in Salineras de Maras, you will experience extra activities based on personal preference, which include: visiting the Inca ruins in Chinchero, taking a lesson in handicraft from local weavers, zip-lining, biking and/or trekking on the way to Moray and Salineras de Maras, and visiting a chicha production farm (where typical Andean corn beer is sold – chicha de jora).
One of the benefits of taking an organized tour instead of going on your own is the optimized time management. It enables you to see more places in a shorter period of time, even if it costs you a little more. Ultimately, however, the decision to take a tour depends on the kind of traveler you are and what is important to you – to see as much as possible in a shorter time period or spending as little money as possible. Regardless, the region of Moray and Maras are a great place to visit.
If you want to know what you can do in one day in Cusco, check our video here. You will find examples of full-day tours to Chinchero, Moray, Maras and Salineras de Maras.
3. The Inca ruins in Pisac
Pisac ruins can be visited through either full-day or half-day tours. For those who prefer to see more in a smaller amount of time, a half-day tour would be a perfect option. For those who need more time to enjoy the atmosphere – I recommend a full day tour. If you only want to visit the ruins, it won’t take you more than half a day. But if you wish to do other things: wander the town of Pisac, visit the zoo, visit an Amaru community, try some trekking or biking – you will require a full day.
If you would like to know more about my experiences in Pisac, read this post.
4. The Inca ruins in Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo is a lovely small town that usually only serves the purpose of a shortstop on the way to the famous Machu Picchu for the majority of the tourists. However, in my opinion, it would be a great loss to miss out on the beauty that this place has to offer.
I can assure you that there is an abundance to do and see in Ollantaytambo. Besides the ruins themselves, which I highly recommend, I would suggest doing a full-day trek to Inti Punku (Sun Gate). If you do not think you can walk around for 8-9 hours on both sites, you can easily combine this tour with horseback riding. You can find more details about this trip here.
5. Patacancha Valley
Patacancha Valley is situated very close to Ollantaytambo. If you are a designer or simply interested in learning about the process of traditional weaving and Peruvian textiles, you cannot miss the Patacancha Valley. If you are not a fan of long treks but wouldn’t mind doing a short and easy one, then is a perfect opportunity. Additionally, if you want to do one of the Lares trails, the Patacancha valley could be a great option for a closeby destination.
6. Ausangate trek
In my view, the Ausangate trek is one of the most beautiful trails in the Cusco region. Not only you will be surrounded by great landscapes, high mountain passes, llamas and alpacas; but you will get to visit the small villages hidden between the summits and pass the hot springs with gorgeous views of the fifth-largest summit in Peru. How can you skip this route?
If you want to hike Ausangate, you can do 4 or 5-day tour where you will circle around this stunning mountain. The shorter option would be a 1 or 2-day tour. If you adore animals and want to get closer to nature, a horseback riding trip would be a great solution to combine both with.
To learn more about this adventure, read here.
7. Choquequirao Trek
This is another beautiful Inca ruin. I can assure you that each of the listed archaeological spots and ruins is unique, as are the routes to get to them. The large number of trails also give you a chance to see and appreciate the multiple landscapes that Peru has to offer. Most travelers do this tour in 4 days, some of them in 5 days, but it is also possible to finish in 3 days. I cannot promise that it’s easy to do, but for the sake of beauty and memories, you can definitely overcome it.
For more about my 3-days tour to Choquequirao, please read here.
8. Lares Trek with hot springs
If you are into thermal waters and hot springs, you should choose one of the trails leading to Lares, where you can enjoy beautiful and very warm hot springs. The shortest trek takes 2 days, while others you can do in 3-4 days. You should reward yourself for all the kilometres conquered by relaxing in these baths to regain some energy! On your way to Lares you will also find very nice landscapes, with some snowy peaks, real Incas paths, and herds of llamas and alpacas. You will also come across some local communities.
9. Amaru community
On the topic of communities, there are a lot of small ones in the mountains of Cusco who specialise in handicraft. They have long-established traditions and live in almost the same way as their ancestors did. One of these communities is situated near Pisac and is called Amaru. If you interested in the textiles of the Cusco region, this place is definitely worth a visit. You can spend some time with the Amaru community and get to know more about their lifestyle. They have simple but comfortable accommodation, where you can stay overnight and learn more about the weaving process and traditions.
10. Cusco city
Assuming that you would stay in the city of Cusco while doing all these treks, you cannot miss the so-called city tour. Cusco is known for its wide range of activities and places it has to offer. So, I recommend a day for wandering through the beautiful streets of this city and visiting the following: the ruins of Saqsaywaman, the museum of Koricancha, ChocoMuseo, San Blas district, San Pedro market and city centre (Plaza de Armas).