Exploring Cusco Beyond Machu Picchu

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Machu Picchu is the most-visited tourist attraction in Peru, and one of the top spots for travelers in all of South America. This fact will surprise no one.

What does surprise many travelers, however, is that the nearest large city to the world wonder, Cusco, is totally incredible all on its own. This is not something you can say about every such place in the world (looking at you, Agra).

Rather than convincing you that you should stay there for at least a few nights, my goal in writing this post is to help you determine how many days in Cusco to spend. Because there’s no question that you’ll be spending some time in the city—or at least there shouldn’t be.

Things to Do in Cusco

Food of Course

There’s great foot but also great coffee. I’d suggest having a coffee on Plaza de Armas. Whether in the Old World or the new one, my favorite thing about traveling in Latin countries is the huge public squares they all have. In addition to the fact that Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is architecturally marvelous, it’s also a great place for people watching. I love ordering a coffee (or, if I’m feeling spicy, a pisco cocktail), having a seat and allowing life to happen around me.

Say a prayer at Cusco Cathedral

Dating back to the mid-17th century, Cusco Cathedral as one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Peru, and maybe in South America more broadly. Whether or not you’re Catholic (or religious at all) and no matter how many days in Cusco you end up spending in the end, you owe it to yourself to walk inside here, at least, and to appreciate the energy for a moment.

Eat ceviche at Centro Artesanal

Peru, regardless of Chile’s protestations, is the country where ceviche originated. And while there’s an argument to be made for savoring the citrus-“cooked” fish closer to the coast, the ones on offer in Centro Artesanal (Cusco’s central food market) are nothing to sneeze at. They’re certainly cheaper than the ones you find in swanky Lima eateries, although I will warn you that they may…activate something within you.

Explore the Sacred Valley

The question of how long in Cusco depends not only upon staying in the city center, but on excursions from it—and I’m not just talking about ones to Machu Picchu (which I’ll get to in a minute). The main day trip from Cusco, to be sure, is to the aptly-named Sacred Valley of the Incas, whether if the unique archaeological sites don’t leave an impression on you, the beauty of the Andean foothills certainly will.

Make your way to Machu Picchu

No trip to Cusco is complete without a visit to Machu Picchu, although there are options for how to get there. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t “need” to do the days-long Inca Trail, although this is certainly the bucket list option. A warmer, lower-altitude choice is the muggy Jungle Trail; you can alternatively take a bus or train to Aguascalientes, and then ascend to the ruins either via bus or even hiking on your own two feet.

How Long Should You Stay in Cusco?

Finally, we get to the most important discussion of this post: How many days you need to spend in Cusco. There are two prongs to this discussion. First, we need to talk about when you spend your time here. While some travelers explore Cusco exclusively before or after Machu Picchu, I’m more a fan of the “split” strategy. Allow me to explain what I mean.

Whether you come from Lima, Arequipa or Puno and Lake Titicaca, I suggest staying at least a night or two after you arrive—one to acclimate to Cusco’s altitude, and another to acclimate to its charm. You could add a third if you want to day trip into the Sacred Valley. Or do that after Machu Picchu, when you’ll need at least a night in Cusco to recover. How long to spend in Cusco is different for every traveler, but your structure should be basically the same.

Other FAQ About Your Trip to Cusco

How many days do I need for Machu Picchu?

You can do Machu Picchu in as little as two days, one night, with the night spent in Aguascalientes, the first day spend en route to there and the second day divided between a hike up to the monument and your journey back to Cusco. Obviously, if you do the Inca Trail, you’ll spend as many days as whatever tour you book ends up lasting.

How many days do I need to acclimate in Cusco?

How many days you need to acclimate in Cusco depends a lot upon you. If you find yourself very susceptible to the altitude, you may need 2-3 days or even longer to adjust and stop feeling sick. For other people, one day taking it easy ends up being sufficient. The most important thing is to listen to what your body is telling you—don’t push it too hard.

Is it better to stay in Lima or Cusco?

Lima is a modern, increasingly cosmopolitan city whose restaurant scene seems to get more and more amazing with every year that passes. Cusco, on the other hand, is a timeless historical treasure, a living museum I almost consider to be Peru’s answer to Italy’s Venice or Thailand’s Chiang Mai. I personally enjoy Cusco more, as someone who’s less into what is cool and more into what is evergreen, but your mileage may vary.

The Bottom Line

It’s important not only to decide how many days in Cusco you should spend, but also how to arrange them. Personally, I like staying a night or two on the front end (to acclimate both to the altitude, as well as to the different vibe of Cusco compared to Lima and Arequipa) and a night or two after Machu Picchu to reminisce, whether or not you do the famous Inca Trail.

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