It’s hard to find a backpacker out there who hasn’t fallen head over heels in love with the Andean city of Cusco, Peru. Snuggled in lush green mountains lies the red-roofed city centre, where a perfect mix of gastronomical bites, nightlife, and never-ending adventures awaits…
You’ve seen the pictures of the iconic Machu Picchu and incredible hikes from Cusco will take you out to the lands that the Inca built. Stay right in the city centre and you will find plenty on the doorstep to keep your backpacking spirits mighty high too (Cusco’s altitude of 3,300 meters will definitely help with this as well)!
Party ‘til sunrise – there are plenty of places offering live music and enough dancing to burn a hole right through your trekking boots (this is Cusco after all, there’s no need to dress up)!
The epic combo of nightlife, food and history makes Cusco one amazing place to backpack around!
Cusco, Peru – Travel Guide
Cusco Map & Resources
Best Time to Visit Cusco
The best time to visit Cusco is during the shoulder seasons (April-May, October-November). During these months, the climate is pleasant but there is also less rain. Shoulder season brings fewer crowds too, meaning it is not necessary to book accommodation or tours in advance (except the Inca Trail which always requires advance reservation).
If you’re looking to get a taste of Peruvian culture when you visit, why not try and time your visit with the famous Peruvian festival of Inti Raymi? It takes place in Cusco during the month of June.
Where to Stay in Cusco
There are a couple of popular areas to stay in Cusco. The most touristy is the historic centre, close to the Plaza de Armas. A lot of the best hostels are located here and you’re centrally located – making it easy to get from A to B.
Travellers looking for a more Bohemian vibe should head to the artsy neighbourhood of San Blas. There is some accommodation by the airport if you are passing through but it is far better to be central if you want to explore the city.
Best Hostels in Cusco, Peru
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One of Kokopelli’s four locations, the Cusco one is extra charming! With a range of dorm rooms and private options, a great bar (that is well removed from your sleeping accommodations), and a location right in the heart of the city, this hostel is a big hit with backpackers.
Travellers rave about the breakfast buffet with decent coffee and warm bread. With an inner courtyard and sunny common areas, Kokopelli is a great place to meet travellers and chill out after a long trek!
Another offering from the Latin American chain Selina, their Plaza de Armas hostel benefits from being both chic and centrally located. Although dorm rooms are expensive here, couples will enjoy the unique private rooms.
As you’d expect from any Selina, the internet is top-notch and there is also a dedicated coworking space. The hostel often hosts events in their on-site bar and restaurant and yoga classes happen daily.
Calling all party animals, Loki is the place for you! You’ll have to climb a pretty big hill to get up there but the plus side is that the hostel benefits from some pretty impressive views!
Priding themselves on their raucous reputation, they really know how to have a good time at Loki. Aside from their pumping bar, the dorms are also very good value for money. Female-only options are available too.
A great budget offering for travellers trying to save some coin, Pariwana Hostel is known for its variety of events which include salsa nights! Showers are hot 24/7 and there is an on-site bar and restaurant to meet other travellers.
Once you’ve made a few friends, make sure you battle it out on the ping-pong table! Reception is open 24 hours a day, making it ideal for those early morning arrivals off the night bus.
Want more? Read our article – The best hostels in Cusco here.
Top Things to Do in Cusco, Peru
1. Grab a Boleto Turistico (Cusco Tourist Ticket)
Most of Cusco’s tourist sites are accessible with the purchase of the Boleto Turistico. The ticket will cost you approx. 130 soles (around $40USD) and grants you access to the chosen locations for a total of 10 days.
Sites include museums which explain the history of the Incas, a dance show of traditional Andean dances, and the many Incan ruins around the area (where you really get the bang for your buck). Also included is perhaps the most impressive site in the city, Sacsayhuamán, where huge ceremonial walls loom over splendid views of the city.
2. Hike… Everywhere
The surrounding area gives you plenty of reasons to lace up your hiking boots! There are day-long treks into the Sacred Valley or longer adventures for the more hardcore backpacker. Most of the longer hikes end at Machu Picchu – a pretty epic finish point!
3. Visit Machu Picchu
If you’ve come to Cusco it would be silly to miss one of the Seven Wonders of the World, located just three hours away! There are plenty of ways to get to Machu Picchu, which make for an epic finale on a backpacker trip or even an incredible South American honeymoon destination!
If you aren’t keen on hiking to the site you still won’t miss out. Machu Picchu is also accessible by combi to Ollantaytambo, a train to Aguas Calientes, and then a bus to the top. Almost every agency in town can help you out with organizing your transport here. If you’re in the process of deciding how you’ll get to Latin America’s most iconic site, check out our article on the ways to reach Machu Picchu here.
4. Tour the ChocoMuseo
Located on the Plaza Regocijo is Cusco’s cosy little chocolate museum and store. The place offers a free but brief guided tour where you will get to sample a range of chocolate treats! We were huge fans of the chocolate-flavoured tea!
Available for an extra cost are chocolate-making classes, workshops and cooking classes where you can learn more about how chocolate is made, starting with the cocoa beans. Also, learn how to prepare your own chocolate candies – delicious!
5. Treat Yourself to a Massage
“Massage… lady, massage?” On every corner os Cusco, you will hear the sweet promise of an end to your aching muscles. One of the cheapest places in South America to indulge, the facilities are not all that impressive but don’t be deterred, these women are good with their hands! Why not try a hot stone Inca massage for ultimate bliss!
6. Visit the Sacred Valley
Just a stone’s throw away from the city where the Urubamba River starts are the charming villages of the Sacred Valley. From the city, you can hop in a combi (collective taxi) that will take you to any of the towns for a ridiculously cheap price.
The first town is Pisac, a bustling market town that gets busy on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Make sure to climb the Pisac ruins which offer stunning views of the valley, sip a tea at one of the many artsy cafés in town, and pick up a couple more Peru sweaters from the market!
7. Check Out the Markets
Cusco has an exorbitant amount of markets, from artisanal craft stops that will make your head spin, to knock-off shops stocked full of fake goods.
Stroll through the San Pedro Market for local delicacies, enormous avocados, and freeze-dried potatoes. Stop in a shaman shop to purchase incense (palo santo) and dead llama foetuses, all in preparation for a blessing to Pachamama (Mother Earth).
We also love the artisanal market on Plateros Street and the Molino Market for bootleg copies of your favourite television shows and North Face jackets for your treks (even if the labels are sewn on backwards).
8. Do a Yoga Class
Exhala Yoga is our favourite studio located in the artisanal neighbourhood of San Blas. People say that Cusco has a spiritual heart and what better way to tap into it than with a little yoga at altitude?
9. Play With the Kitties at Catfetín
Head down to Cusco’s first cat café for the opportunity to make some furry friends. Entrance into the cat lounge is around five soles per person and all of the money goes towards taking care of the kitties. The cafe also doubles up as an adoption centre which helps to find these cats forever homes. You may leave with more than you bargained for!
10. Take a Cooking Class
Whilst in the food capital of South America, why not take a cooking class with the awesome folks at Cusco Culinary. During a full day’s cooking class, you’ll explore a local market and learn more about the ingredients that go into Peruvian cuisine.
You’ll be taught to make ceviche and causas, how to cook quinoa and other Peruvian delights. You’ll even learn how to make the perfect Pisco Sour. Oh, and of course, you’ll get to taste all the food that you’ve cooked! You can read more about our cooking class in Cusco and book a place here.
11. Party ’til the Sun Comes Up
If you’ve come to Cusco, prepare to get your party on. With so many backpackers pouring in and out all the time, you will find something going on every single night of the week! Some of the best places in town include Wild Rover, Loki, Mythology, The Muse, and Siete Angelitos.
12. Go Rafting
Whitewater rafting trips are available in the nearby Sacred Valley. Group trips are a fun way to meet others in the city and most groups will end the day with a slideshow of the best photos from the trip at one of Cusco’s many bars!
13. Take a Day Trip to Peru’s Rainbow Mountains
Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain is a hugely famous tourist attraction outside of Cusco. However, with increased visitor numbers, the colourful mountain is now simply too popular for a lot of backpackers wanting to get off the beaten track.
To make sure you don’t miss out on this natural marvel and also to get a chance to experience this landscape without crowds of people, head to the ‘Alternative’ Rainbow Mountain. Palccoyo (or Palcoyo) is a much less visited mountain in the Rainbow Mountain range and offers a less hectic experience for visitors. Read more about Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain and book your trip here.
Also read: Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain vs. Palcoyo
Food and Drink in Cusco
You can eat like an absolute king in Cusco – we’re talking vegetarian buffets of quinoa meatballs, sea bass sushi dipped in yakitori sauce, huevos rancheros, and avocados stuffed with chicken and beet salad. Meat lovers need not miss out either, the lomo saltado and other fusion cuisine are to die for! Here are some must-try restaurants and cafes in Cusco…
Jack’s Café: There will most likely be a line out the door, indicating that you have made it to one of Cusco’s most talked-about restaurants. A welcoming environment serves up some tasty comforts including huevos rancheros, incredible breakfasts, and hummus and eggplant sandwiches. Backpackers, you’re in luck!
KM O: Located in the artsy neighbourhood of San Blas, this bar/restaurant is a great place to kick off a night out. It serves up heaping plates of flavourful Thai curries and wicked mojitos! Most weekend nights the venue offers live music downstairs, while the second floor remains a place perfect for cosy conversations.
Los Perros: This couch bar is a long-time favourite in the city. Owned by Australians, the menu includes a range of dishes which all promise a mighty punch of flavour. We can’t get enough of the wonton appetizer which comes with three decadent dipping sauces. Feeling ravenous? They also serve one of the most massive burgers we’ve ever seen!
El Encuentro: Located right around the corner from Los Perros this vegetarian hole-in-the-wall offers a killer buffet. For less than 10 soles you get a main course, soup, and access to the unlimited salad bar. This place is for more than just the veggie lovers out there!
Limo: Dig out your least wrinkled shirt and head over to this swanky eating option. Most likely a wee bit out of your backpacker budget, but worth every penny. With a dining room overlooking the Plaza de Armas and a full sushi and pisco menu, you won’t be disappointed!
Getting to Cusco
You can fly straight into Cusco from Lima, a short one-hour flight will deposit you straight into the city. Buses are also available, though the journeys are long and the mountains make for pretty hairy travelling conditions. The journey takes 22 hours from Lima and about 15 from Nasca. We recommend jumping on an overnight bus with Cruz del Sur. You can book using Busbud in advance.
Where to Go Next:
- Nasca: Always wanted to lay your eyes on the famous Nasca Lines? These ancient geoglyphs in the Peruvian desert have been puzzling archaeologists for years. In Nasca, you can take a short flight to see the 10,000 lines in all their glory.
- Manu National Park: Ready for a change of scene (and temperature)? Tour operators set up all over town offer excursions into the nearby Amazonian jungle. Most tours are all-inclusive and will take you animal spotting into the nearby reaches of the park. However, you can also jump on a bus and tackle the jungle on your own – if you’re brave enough!
- Arequipa: Peru’s southern city of sophistication. Only eight hours away by bus, head here for incredible food and access to some of the world’s most dramatic scenery – volcano treks and canyon hikes.
- Lima: The capital of Peru is not necessarily close by, but many travellers head here after their stop in the city of Cusco for onward travel to other locations in South America.