If there is one place in Peru you must have seen it is Cusco. In my opinion, one of the most beautiful, fun and interesting cities in all of South America. But not only Cusco itself is an absolute must-see; the surrounding area is also not to be missed during your trip through Peru. There is so much to see and do, such a rich history, the Sacred Valley, impressive nature and beautiful views; you can spend weeks here. We were in Cusco for 1.5 weeks (of which we spent 5 days doing the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu) and saw a lot in the area. In this article I give a comprehensive overview of all the day trips from Cusco we took, my 4 favorites for when you don’t know what to choose or when time is short, practical tips and more. Cusco and surroundings: the highlight of your trip through Peru.
The Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley near Cusco has an enormous amount to do; you can easily spend weeks there. Although we visited many places, this is far from all. In addition, we were unable to properly explore the villages where the sights are located. Definitely reason to go back again!
Wow! That was the first reaction when we arrived at the ruins of Pisac. Spectacular and a real must-see. A 4-kilometer road leads you up from the village to the Inca citadel. You can walk it in two hours; we took the bus. Once at the top, you have a spectacular view of the surroundings and the ruins. The first thing you see are the agricultural terraces that run from one side of the mountain to the other. In the rocks near the ruins you can see many holes, which are Inca tombs that have been plundered. You can walk all the way up through the ruins. Not only very interesting, but spectacularly beautiful because of its location. Take the time to admire this place: it’s worth it! You get access with the tourist card (see practical).
Ollantaytambo, or Ollanta as the locals call it, is the transportation hub between Cusco and Machu Picchu and thus a busy tourist destination. But besides that, in Ollantaytambo you will also find an impressive Inca ruin. The Ollantaytambo ruins tower high above the village and that alone makes it worth a visit. This fort and temple consists of large and steep terraces that were meant to protect the village from invaders. Something that succeeded, as this is one of the few places where the Spanish conquerors lost a battle. You can walk all the way up and explore the other side of the ruin. Besides this ruin and access to the train to Machu Picchu, there is more to do in Ollantaytambo. For more information see the Lonely Planet Peru. The tourist card gives you access to the ruins in Ollanta.
The deep amphitheater-like terraces of Moray with the high mountains in the background are beautiful to behold. You can see different levels of terraces in the shape of a deep bowl. Of which there are three in Moray. What the Incas used this for is not entirely clear, but one theory is that the Incas used the terraces as a kind of laboratory to determine the optimal conditions to grow crops. Access to Moray is gained with the tourist card.
Before the Incas, Chinchero was known as the birthplace of the rainbow. In the village you will find a colonial church, beautiful views and a colorful market. As soon as you walk into the historic center you can enjoy it all. And believe me: this is worth a visit. The combination of history, colorful costumes and views makes this place impressively beautiful. You get access to the historic area with the tourist card. Please note that this village is located at an altitude of 3762 meters. So a day of acclimatization before doing this trip is recommended. For more altitude tips, see under “practical”.
The salt pans of Maras
One of the most special attractions in this region: the salt pans of Maras. Located at an altitude of 3,500 meters in the Urubamba Valley, salt is still extracted in Maras by locals. There are 3000 to 4000 salt pans that are about 35 to 40 m2 in size and no deeper than 30cm. The salt pans are up against the mountain with many elevation changes, so in each salt pan the water can come from the spring. In Maras, between 160 and 200 tons of salt are extracted annually.
The salt pans are owned by local families in the region and open to tourists. When we were there, you could still walk along the salt flats, but because so many tourists come and walk on stretches where they are not allowed and thus damage the salt flats, you can now only watch from a distance.
Access to the Maras salt flats is not included in the tourist pass. You pay 10 soles per person.
Day trip from Cusco | The Rainbow Mountain
In recent years (since 2015, before that there was snow on the mountain) one of the most popular day trips from Cusco: Rainbow Mountain. Also called the mountain with the 7 colors. Not everyone, however, is enthusiastic. I’ve heard several people who were disappointed by the colors and felt the tough climb was not worth it. In addition, this place is very touristy. I thought it was an absolutely beautiful place. Not only because of the colors, but especially because of the impressive peaks surrounding the rainbow mountain.
For 75 soles per person, we arranged a day trip from our hotel. Which was rather disappointing in terms of organization. In an old bus, we drove to Rainbow Mountain. And should you have already done so, you know that the way there is not the safest. A very deep abyss on the very narrow dirt road makes me not really relaxed in the bus. Once we arrived, we start walking. It’s a tough climb to 5,200 meters altitude, and oxygen bottles go with the guides for a reason. So prepare for the altitude (see “practical”).
The hike to the top is incredibly beautiful. The peaks around Rainbow Mountain impressive. Once at the top, I am glad to be at the top. Despite living at altitude myself, it was pretty tough. Therefore, this hike is not for everyone. Poor mobility or very poor condition? Don’t start. By the way, don’t forget to get that famous stamp in your passport when you come here.
Although you will spend a whole day on this trip, the hike to the top will take you “only” 1.5 to 2 hours. Then you spend about 20 minutes at the top enjoying the view before walking back down in about an hour.
What you need to know about visiting Rainbow Mountain
The colors are beautiful, the hike a nice challenge and the views impressive. However, there is a but. Ever since travelers on social media got wind of this Instagram-worthy spot, mass tourism has been a reality. Thousands of people go up the mountain every day. We literally had to squeeze through the mass of people. And that on that small stretch with a rather steep precipice beside you.
So you are most likely not alone. Here are some pictures of what it looks like when you photograph the other travelers along. Not only is it not nice for your Instagram post, but it also makes the environment less happy. In addition, it is useful to know simply to avoid disappointment. The only positive thing about mass tourism is that it benefits the locals. Still, it might be an idea to visit the alternative Rainbow Mountain, or Palcoyo Mountain, instead of this one.
To keep in mind when climbing the rainbow mountain near Cusco
- Rainbow Mountain will keep you busy all day. Tours leave Cusco at 4:30AM and you won’t be back until around 6PM.
- Again: 5200 meters of altitude is not nothing. Take proper precautions to avoid getting altitude sickness and turn back if you develop symptoms of altitude sickness.
- That said: you can also do a part of Rainbow Mountain on horseback. Now I’m not a fan of activities with animals in very touristy places, but if you do want to do this check very carefully that the horse looks healthy and well. By the way, the horse does not take you to the top, so you still have to walk quite a bit. If your health really doesn’t allow you to walk the entire stretch then a horse might be a good idea.
- Check the weather forecast in advance as far as possible in the mountains. Or ask at your hotel if they know anything about the weather at that time on Rainbow Mountain. It would be a shame to spend a whole day on something where you see nothing and where you roll off the mountain due to the slipperiness of the rain.
- You can do the hike by yourself just fine. The trail is easy to follow and basically a straight uphill.
- Bring appropriate clothing and shoes. Especially if it’s a little muddy you don’t want to roll down the mountain because you’re on sneakers. Good walking shoes are really a must here. Bring clothing designed for all weather. So something warm for the cold, layers, and a raincoat or poncho. Also, don’t forget to bring a hat and sunscreen. At this altitude, you burn very quickly.
Is Rainbow Mountain worth it or not?
We absolutely thought so, but neither of us knew about the alternative Rainbow Mountain. I also had no idea it would be so crowded. We are super glad we saw this, but perhaps I would climb the alternative rainbow mountain if I could do it over. Especially because of mass tourism.
The surroundings of Cusco | Visit these ruins in 1 day
The immediate surroundings of Cusco can easily be explored in 1 day by cab. In about 4 hours, the cab will take you to the ruins below. Most places are small and fairly quick to visit. Except for the first one. So for Sacsaywamán, we took a little longer. We did this not by cab but walking from Cusco. A great workout to get used to the altitude.
Two kilometers from Cusco you will find the immense ruin Sacsaywamán. Although this ruin is huge, only 20% of the original structure remains. There are 3 areas in the ruin that you can visit. Of which the fortress is the most impressive. The stones you find there weigh about 300 tons each. Take your time to explore the entire ruins and enjoy the impresive views of Cusco. You get there by walking up the mountain from Plaza de Armas. In about 50 minutes you will be there. If you are not yet used to the altitude, you can also easily take a cab. You enter with the tourist card.
Just down the road you will find Q’enqo. A large rock with paintings and an above-ground cave. By cab, you can visit this and the 2 ruins below in a few hours. You need the tourist card for this too.
Pukapukara I personally thought was the most beautiful on this list. Especially because of its beautiful location. The fort is perched high with stunning views of the valley. This one should definitely not be missing from your list of ruins to visit. Also in Pukapukara you pay with the tourist card.
From the main road, you walk about 300 meters under beautiful trees when you arrive at this ruin. You’ll find a ceremonial stone-bath with fountains that still work. It is therefore also called “The Bath of the Inca”. Don’t forget to walk up the hill for stunning views.
The surroundings of Cusco | My 4 favorites
Do you only have time for some of these sights around Cusco? These are my favorites:
- Pisac is so amazingly beautiful. Perhaps almost as impressive as Machu Picchu and far fewer tourists. Truly a must-see!
- The salt flats of Maras are simply too special to skip. Not only because of its history and the fact that it is still in active use, but also because of its beautiful location.
- I also found the village of Chinchero very impressive and simply very nice to walk through. I would have liked more time there and would definitely go back.
- Sacsaywamán is easily accessible and, due to its size, quite an impressive site. In addition, you have beautiful views of Cusco from here.
Practical | Visit the Sacred Valley and ruins near Cusco
How much time do you need for the Cusco area?
It is worth spending at least 1 week in Cusco anyway. Read all about the sights in Cusco here. You can visit the Sacred Valley in several ways. As day trips from Cusco, multiple places in 1 day like we did, or staying overnight in the villages in the Sacred Valley. What suits you depends on how much time you have. If I go to Cusco again I would choose to take more time for the Sacred Valley and to stay overnight in one of the villages. So depending on your needs, you can easily spend 2 weeks in Cusco and its surroundings to explore everything at leisure. With little time, you can also see a lot in 1 day.
Where do you arrange day trips?
Cusco is hugely touristy and more or less on every street corner you can arrange a day trip around Cusco. Cab drivers are also only too happy to take you outside of Cusco, and most hotels will have a service to explore the area with.
Due to time constraints, we arranged all trips at our hotel. It was definitely not my way of traveling, but it was this or skip a lot. I would like to go back again to experience more of the villages. With a large bus full of tourists, we discovered the Sacred Valley. Not my thing, but fortunately it was well arranged, the guide very knowledgeable and everything went very on time. At each site there was ample time to look around on your own and learn about the history. Although not my preference, it ended up being a lot of fun and, for us at the time, the perfect way to explore the Cusco area.
We also arranged for Rainbow Mountain at our hotel, but I would not recommend this. It was not well arranged and the route there is so scary: I’d rather not do that again with an old bus whose brakes could fail in an instant.
We did the immediate area of Cusco by cab and that was the perfect way. Except Sacsaywamán, to this ruin we went walking from Cusco.
How do you pay at the sights?
At most attractions you pay with the tourist card (boleto turístico). Which sights are included you see here. You buy the card at one of the attractions and in many hotels you can also buy the card.
Hotel in Cusco
In Cusco, we stayed in Hatun Quilla, a fantastically nice and quiet hotel with great views of the city. Here you can arrange just about anything, from Machu Picchu to the Salkantay Trek to the Sacred Valley. And more. Don’t forget to bring your hat when you go to breakfast: the breakfast room is cold.
Health: keep in mind the altitude
Now Cusco itself is already high up, but it can go even higher. For example, if you want to walk to Sacsaywamán. Or want to see the Rainbow Mountain. There’s a reason oxygen tanks go with you on that route: tourists regularly get into trouble for walking to 5,000 meters without getting used to the altitude. Be aware of the dangers, make sure you arrive in Cusco several days in advance to get somewhat accustomed to the altitude, bring enough water, possibly pills against altitude sickness (you can buy those in Cusco) and enough calories such as chocolate bars.
Travel itinerary Peru | How to fit Cusco in?
We traveled directly to Cusco from Arequipa. However, many travelers visit Puno first and then travel further north. From Lima your best option is to fly to Cusco. Or vice versa, if Cusco is your last stop and you need to return to Lima for your intercontinental flight. From Cusco, you can also travel further north.
Cusco and surroundings: the must-see of Peru! Read all about our Peru round trip here.
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