Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in Peru. Thanks to its legacy of Inca occupation, which was followed by the brutal arrival of the Spanish who tried their best to wipe out the former inhabitants, the area surrounding Cusco is rammed full of fascinating archaeological sites.
Tours from Cusco span the full gamut of hiking adventures to the former Inca citadel of Machu Picchu to trips to explore historic ruins in the Sacred Valley and ancient, one-of-a-kind bridges. These are our ten favorites.
Trekking tours from Cusco
1. The Classic Inca Trail
If it’s not already on your bucket list, then get redrafting your plans: the classic Inca Trail is the most famous way of reaching Machu Picchu, with spellbinding high-altitude scenery, a fine array of archaeological sites and plenty of llamas thrown in for good measure.
Taking four days and three nights and covering 43 kilometers (26 miles), with the highest mountain pass reaching 4,197 meters (13,770 feet) above sea level, it’s no walk in the park.
However, it is an exceptionally rewarding challenge and the experience of watching the sunrise over Machu Picchu after three days of excursion only serves to make it all feel even more worthwhile.
Find out more with our comprehensive guide to hiking the Inca Trail or read more about our Classic Inca Trail tour.
2. Alternative hikes to Machu Picchu
If you’re last-minute in organizing your hike to Machu Picchu or instead fancy an option that just a little bit more off-the-beaten-path, the five-day Salkantay Trek or four-day Lares might well be up your alley.
Both grant a closer interaction with the local communities that still live in the Andes Mountains and receive a lot less footfall than the conventional Inca Trail – where up to 500 hikers can be on the route each day. They’re certainly more challenging due to their high-altitude nature, but the rewards more than make up for it.
3. The truly unique Choquequirao trek
If you’re both an experienced hiker and raring to sink your teeth into Peru’s wild backcountry, look no further than a tour from Cusco to Choquequirao. This four- or five-day hike takes you out into the truly remote Andes Mountains, and onto a trail that reaches, enormous Inca ruins covering around six kilometers – although only a third of them have been as yet uncovered from the encroaching jungle.
Both the warm climate and steep gradient of the path makes this a challenge. However, given that the Peruvian government has long been planning a cable car to cut the journey down from two days hiking to around half an hour, it’s one that you want to do soon before the place becomes overrun with tourists.
Find out more with our guide to Choquequirao or book a trekking tour to Choquequirao.
Lesser known and barely hiked compared with the other trails we’ve mentioned, Ausangate is considered of Peru’s most difficult treks – and a truly unique tour to take from Cusco.
The trail, which normally takes six days, climbs into the Cordillera Vilcanota, a range of mountains that stand above Cusco, and where 5,000 meter passes challenge even the fittest of hikers.
Although you don’t end up climbing the sacred, 6372-meter Ausangate peak (the highest in the region), you can expect views of glimmering, crystalline lagoons, herds of curious llama and snow-capped peaks.
The route also includes on the second day hiking to reach Rainbow Mountain, Cusco’s second most famous peak beyond Machu Picchu.
5. Rainbow Mountain
The pastel hues of Rainbow Mountain must be seen to be believed: this mountain is known as Vinicunca in Quechua, which means “rainbow,” looks just like that, thanks to lines of vivid colors that seem to bleed from the mountain.
A product of the high mineral content, these colors look particularly startling beneath a clear blue sky, and it should come as no surprise that Rainbow Mountain is now one of the most popular day tours from Cusco.
However, as a result, visitor numbers are steadily growing, and it can be difficult to get a shot of the mountain without people. That’s why the lesser-known Palccoyo tour is a far better option: you see the same beautiful colors but far fewer tourists!
Sacred Valley Tours
The Sacred Valley is a located around an hour’s drive from Cusco in the high-altitude Andean Mountains of the southeast of Peru. It’s easy enough to get here using local transport, although many visitors prefer to organize a full- or half-day from Cusco, thus allowing them to explore the main Sacred Valley attractions and be back in the city for the night.
Some of the most striking archeological sites and ruins near Cusco are located in the Sacred Valley.
One of the most dramatic sites in the Sacred Valley is the Moray terraces. These circular levels cut into the ground were used for growing crops by the Inca and acted as a sort of laboratory for cultivating new crop species because of a 15˚C difference between the top and the bottom terraces.
The dramatic surroundings of the Andes Mountains and the Sacred Valley make Moray feel even more dramatic. Find out about how you can organise a full day tour of the Sacred Valley and Moray.
7. Salinas de Maras
Located just above the Sacred Valley in a ravine, the Salinas de Maras are salt pans that have been used since pre-Hispanic times and are still worked by local communities.
A short path takes you down to the edges of the gleaming, white pools of water where the salt is collected, and you can even buy the pink-hued salt it from the on-site shop.
8. Ollantaytambo ruins
On the western edge of the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo is a former administrative center for the Inca and is home to the preserved ruins of a once well-defended Inca fortress.
The architecture includes a series of agricultural terraces and the Temple of the Sun, a type of calendar used by the Inca to track the changing of the seasons.
You can reach the fortress from the town (which is the starting point of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu) or as part of a Sacred Valley tour from Cusco to Ollantaytambo.
9. Pisac ruins
Lesser-visited than those in nearby Ollantaytambo are the ruins above Pisac, a market town also in the Sacred Valley.
They’re perched high above the town and demonstrate the Incas’ expertise when it comes to building work. You also gain a sense of how well-positioned the citadel once would have been for defending the Sacred Valley by appreciating the site’s exceptional views.
Again, you can get here via taxi from Pisac and walk back down into the town below, or visit as part of a tour to the Sacred Valley from Cusco. For those wanting to see Inca architecture in all its glory, but with far fewer crowds than at Machu Picchu or Ollantaytambo, a tour to the Pisac ruins ranks as one of the best Sacred Valley tours.
Other tours from Cusco
10. Q’eswachaka Bridge
One hundred sixty kilometers south of Cusco, another gem of Inca engineering is accessible by day tour. Q’eswachaka Bridge is a suspension bridge built using the original construction techniques of the Inca: grass braided into ropes known as q’oya, using techniques passed down through the centuries from when the first bridge was built here in the 15th century.
The bridge has been rebuilt annually throughout the ages as the construction materials decayed, and is now the only remaining bridge of its kind in the world.
Visit this remarkable structure with a day tour from Cusco.