Headed to Peru and looking for the best day trips from Cusco? You’ve got a whole slew of the best Cusco tours below!
Nestled in the Peruvian Andes, Cusco was the capital of the mighty Inca Empire and presently the cultural capital of Peru. Due to it being a gateway to Machu Picchu, it is one of the most touristy cities in South America, and with good reason. One could easily spend weeks immersing in its rich and complex history, wander and discover new spots in the cobblestone streets and hike to the many mountains and lakes in the regions. The day trips from Cusco are top notch, with as much natural beauty and culture as possible!
Because of its strong foundations, beautiful surroundings and developed infrastructures, it is the perfect base from which to explore the region!
Since I haven’t yet made it to Machu Picchu (or South America in general… yea.. need to fix that ASAP), I’ve enlisted Owen from My Turn to Travel to share with us his most recommended day trips from Cusco! Enjoy!
But first, some necessary information about the city in general:
Pre-Travel Guide to Cusco, Peru
How to get around Cusco
You’ll most probably stay near the city center of Cusco. Most accommodations, restaurants, cafes and museums are in the center and you can easily get around by foot. Taxis are available and they cost 5 soles to get anywhere near the city center. There are also public buses that serve the outskirts of the city.
Important things to pack
At 3400m above sea level, Cusco can be very hot in the day and very cold at night. If you get cold easily, pack a hat/beanie, gloves and several layers to use at night. Fret not if you under-packed, because there are many artisan shops in the city selling alpaca wool sweaters.
Altitude sickness is also a big problem for many travelers. Remember to take it slow on your first day and avoid alcohol. Pack some Diamox/Acetazolamide to help deal with the adjustment period. Or try the local remedy – Coca leaves/tea!
Where to base yourself for Cusco day trips
There are a ton of things to do in Cusco and the buzz of the city is centered around the Plaza de Armas. There are hundreds of hotels in Cusco surrounding the main Plaza, ranging from luxurious 5-star hotels to backpacker party hostels.
The JW Marriott El Convento Cusco is a luxurious property that was once a 16th century convent called San Augustin and reflected the traditional Spanish Baroque style in its cloisters and courtyards. Even now, it is packed full of pre-Inca, Inca and colonial artefacts.
If you’re a backpacker seeking a party atmosphere, head to Loki Cusco or Wild Rover Cusco. These two well-known party hostels have a themed-party every single night and are great places to meet other travelers. Wild Rover even has a giant inflatable slide on Sunday afternoons.
The San Blas neighborhood is a trendy artisan area 10-15 minutes walk from the main Plaza and offers alternative accommodation for those that want to be away from the crowd. Be warned though, this neighborhood is up a hill and requires some effort to reach, especially at this altitude!
When to go to Cusco
Cusco has 2 main seasons: dry and wet.
The dry season is best for those that plan to do the multi-day treks to Machu Picchu. The dry season runs from May to October and is also the winter period. The average daytime temperature is 16C/61F. At night, it can get as low as 0C/32F.
The wet season runs from November to April, with the heaviest rainfall statistically in January. Night time temperature is around 9C/48F.
Although Quechua is the native language in Peru, Spanish is widely-spoken and the official language of the country. Cusco, being a touristic city, has many English speakers in the tourism industry; hotels, restaurants, tour guides, cafes etc.
Nevertheless, if you step out of the city center and wander into the local markets, here are some phrases that are good to know:
- Hello: Hola
- Good morning/day: Buenos dias
- I want… : Yo quiero…
- I need… : Yo necesito…
- I have…: Yo tengo…
- I don’t know: Yo no se
- Do you have…: Tienes…?
- Do you speak English? Hablas Ingles?
- I don’t speak Spanish: No Hablo Español
- Where is the…: Donde esta…
- Toilet: Baño
- How much does it cost: Cuanto cuesta?
- Food: Comida
- Thank you: Gracias
And finally, without further ado, here are a few favorite Cusco day trips!
Best Day Trips From Cusco, Peru
1. Rainbow mountain
The one place in Peru that appears the most on Instagram feeds besides Machu Picchu has got to be Vinicunca, the Rainbow Mountain.
This unbelievable seven-colored mountain in the Cusco region was only discovered less than a decade ago; due to global warming and the melting of snow. In fact, the first guided tour was only in 2016. Since then, throngs of tourists have made their way up to get their Instagram-worthy shot.
Tours usually leave Cusco at 3am, stop at a village on the way for breakfast, and start the hike up around 8am. The roughly 2 hr trek is extremely tough due to the altitude. The trailhead starts at 4600m and rises up till 5200m – the spot where everyone gets their photo.
The view up the mountain is breathtaking – both metaphorically and literally. The stripes of the seven colors and its surrounding red and green valley will make you think you are on another world. Yet, the altitude makes you lose your breath and freeze.
Fret not if you’re not fit, because you can hire horses along the way to ride up to the base of the Rainbow Mountain. From there it is just a short climb up.
The weather high up at 5200m is also unpredictable. It could be sunny one moment, and snowing the next. Be sure to layer up!
Of all the day trips from Cusco on this list, the Rainbow Mountain is the one to go for if you’re a nature and adventure lover!
Recommended day trips to Rainbow Mountain from Cusco:
- From Cusco: Full Day Rainbow Mountain Hike with Meals
- Rainbow Mountain: Private Full Day Tour from Cusco
- From Cusco: 1-Day Rainbow Mountain Trek
2. Humantay Lake
If there is a natural landscape that blew me away the first time I saw it, it would be the Humantay Lake.
And that was only from photos… on the internet.
Imagine my joy when I found out that the Humantay Lake is a part (optional) of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu that I signed up for! From the Soraypampa campsite at 3900m, it was a 1-2 hour hike up to the lake at 4600m. Like the Rainbow Mountain, the challenge here wasn’t really the terrain, but the altitude.
After huffing and puffing up the mountain, you’ll be rewarded with the sight of the spectacular Humantay Lake. This glacier lake lies at the feet of the majestic snow-capped Humantay mountain; with unbelievable hues of blue and green that sparkle when the sun shines on the water body.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can climb up to the narrow ridge surrounding the lake to have a bird’s eye view of the lake and its surrounding. Be warned – the wind can get strong and extremely chilly up there!
Like many attractions in Peru, the Humantay Lake can be done as a day trip from Cusco too.
Recommended day trips to Humantay Lake from Cusco:
- Full Day Tour to Humantay Lake
- From Cusco: Humantay Lake 1-Day Trek
- From Cusco: Humantay Lagoon Full-Day Hike
3. Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley of the Incas is a range of towns, lakes and historical sites in the Andes mountain range of Peru. Carved by the snaking Urubamaba river, this ridiculously photogenic valley is only 20km from the Inca capital, making it an ideal day trip from Cusco.
The classic and most popular circuit to explore the Sacred Valley is a visit to Pisac and its mountain-top fortress, lunch at Urubamba, the terraces of Ollantaytambo, and a visit to the weaving village of Chinchero.
Pisac is known for its famous Sunday market and one of the cheapest place to buy hand-made handicrafts in the region. It has all sorts of colorfully-weaved alpaca scarves, sweaters and clothing, shiny trinkets, country magnets and more.
There is also a modern jewelry store in the town where you can see jewelry craftsmen in action. Pisac is the place to fill up your luggage with souvenirs for family and friends.
However, Pisac’s claim to fame is the Inca fortress and rice terraces towering over the village. The Inca planted different types of crops over the 276 rice terrace levels that are connected by an irrigation system and carefully-carved steps. These steps lead up to a little hill with an ancient fortress built on top, which belonged to the high society and provided a vantage view of the surrounding valley.
Ollantaytambo is the town visitors go to catch the train to Machu Picchu. However, the primary attraction is the Ollantaytambo Fortress on the outskirts of the town.
Like in Pisac, the fortress here lies atop huge terraces built for farming, irrigation and religious purposes. Climbing up the terraces gives a sense of just how large this complex really is. Ollantaytambo also has historical significance, as this was the place where the Inca defeated the conquistadors in a major battle – one of the few times they won.
I’d suggest going on a day tour, because your guide will explain to you the exciting history of these places, and also bring you to the town of Urubamba and even stop by Chinchero village.
Recommended Sacred Valley day trips from Cusco:
4. Maras & Moray
Did you know that Peru has over 4000 types of potatoes? This is partly due to the agricultural experiments done during the Inca civilization, in what is known as ‘agricultural laboratories’.
Moray is the most famous of these ‘laboratories’: perfect concentric circle terraces carved into a natural depression in the earth. Each of these terrace levels simulate a different altitude in the region, with a different temperature in every level.
The different microclimate in every altitude produced different varieties of potatoes and corn and allowed the Inca to expand their crop empire. The Moray rice terrace is a true display of Inca engineering genius.
A visit to Moray is usually accompanied by a visit to the Maras Salt Mine. The Maras Salt Mine is a series of cascading salt pools strategically tucked into the hills. These salt pools form a network of ancient salt deposits, with salt water that comes from a subterranean natural spring in the Andes mountains.
Locals from the nearby town of Maras were smart enough to make a living from the salt, that supposedly has different mineral components from other sources. As tourists, what interests us the most is probably how pretty the salt mine look: postcard perfect, and extremely Instagrammable.
Recommended Maras & Moray day trips from Cusco:
- Biking Tour of Inca Terraces Maras Moray from Cusco
- From Cusco: Maras, Moray, and Salt Mines Tour with Picnic
- From Cusco: Moray and Salt Mines Quad Bike Tour
5. Machu Picchu
How can we forget the grand-daddy of them all? The icon of South America… The New World Wonder… The Lost City of the Inca…
Machu Picchu. The ultimate of the day trips from Cusco of them all!
You might have heard of the 5D4N Inca Trail that many travelers do as a ‘rite of passage’ to Machu Picchu. Or the scenic alternative 5D4N Salkantay trek.
It’s no wonder many people think the only way to reach the wondrous ruins is to do a hike. But it is entirely possible to reach Machu Picchu as a day trip from Cusco. In fact, this way of seeing the ruins is offered by many tour agencies.
A typical day trip to Machu Picchu involves an early morning pick-up at your hotel, followed by a scenic train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes and a comfortable bus ride up the mountain.
You will take your sweet time wandering around the UNESCO site while a guide will share the history and significance of this site. Then you’ll make your way back to Cusco by bus, train and private transfer, totally skipping the multi-day hike and hassle of logistics.
It is a long day but you’ll have sufficient time to explore the ruins. A day trip to Machu Picchu is ideal for the time-crunched travelers!
Recommended Machu Picchu day trips from Cusco:
- Cusco: Full Day tour of Machu Picchu
- Full Day Tour of Machu Picchu with a Local
- Day Trip to Machu Picchu by Train from Cusco
Which of these day trips from Cusco will you be adding to your itinerary?!
Thanks again to Owen from My Turn to Travel for sharing with us his top Cusco day trip recommendations!