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A Guide To Cusco, Peru

Last Spring I visited Cusco, Peru with a goal to see one of the 7 Wonders Of The World, Machu Picchu! This trip ended up turning into so much more than that and became a trip of a lifetime that I will never forget. 

In this guide I will be breaking down everything you need to know before traveling to Cusco, Peru and the best things to do in Cusco PAST just seeing Machu Picchu. 

The Overview

Mini History: 

Cusco is a city in the Peruvian Andes and used to be the capital of the Inca Empire. The Plaza de Armas is the central square in the city that is surrounded by Incan buildings, ruins and balconies overlooking the square.


Please plan ahead for the elevation change in Cusco. I had read about it everywhere while planning the trip and the blogs I read were not wrong. The city of Cusco is located in the Andes mountains at an altitude of 11,152 feet above sea level. To put that in perspective, if you live in Wisconsin like me, our altitude on average is 1,951 at its highest point, and 581 at its lowest. So yeah, be fully prepared to experience altitude sickness once you reach Cusco. 

The elevation hits you immediately, from the moment you land in Cusco and get off the plane. The worst was realizing we were on the 4th floor of our hotel that only had stairs…truly the hardest 4 flights of stairs to walk due to the elevation change. So just be prepared. Plan ahead by checking out my blog for everything you should pack on a trip to Peru, including the medications! What To Pack For A Trip To Peru.

The biggest suggestion all the locals have to combat the elevation adjustment is by drinking or chewing Coca leaves. Yes, coca leaves as in “cocaine.” BUT, rest assured, it is not cocaine. The leaves are the basic ingredient for cocaine, but they are not in any way addictive or bad for you. Coca leaves have been used by the Incas as natural remedies for many illnesses and one of those being altitude sickness. 

You will see coca tea and candies everywhere in the main square in Cusco so no need to buy any beforehand. We were welcomed with coca tea right when we got to our hotel and we drank it about 3x a day to help with the altitude sickness.  After 1-2 days you will get acclimated to the elevation change and really shouldn’t have any issues with it the rest of your trip.

Where To Stay

Our hotel was located a block from Cusco’s main square, Plaza De Armas. We loved the location since we weren’t in the busy and touristy town square, but just a block away where it was a bit quieter yet walking distance to everything. You can’t go wrong being located in the main square or within a few blocks of it. Just make sure you are aware if your hotel entrance is on a main road or in a narrow alleyway where cars can’t park because that means you’ll have to carry your luggage up the stairs or cobblestone in the alley to get them inside.

The hotel we stayed at was the Suenos Del Inka Hotel, and it had an incredible staff that was beyond accommodating and hospitable. They packed us complimentary lunches to take with us at 4am before our Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain excursion and provided us with endless coca tea when we struggled to get acclimated to the altitude. The rooms at this hotel were simple and the bathrooms newly renovated which is always appreciated. There was also a complimentary breakfast every morning.

The only downfall to this hotel is that it has 5 floors and no elevator. So our room was positioned on the 4th floor and when struggling with the altitude and coming back from day long excursions, it was not easy heading up those stairs. When booking here give them a call and request to be on the 1st or 2nd floor.

Book your stay at Suenos Del Inka Hotel.

Things To Do In Cusco

Stroll Through The Plaza de Armas:

Known as the main square in Cusco that is always bustling with tourists and locals. The entire square is lined with shops and restaurants as well as large beautiful cathedral buildings. Most of the buildings that surround the Plaza de Armas have balconies that overlook the square.

Enjoy a stroll through the Plaza de Armas during the day or before dinner. The main square was always busy and there’s something new to discover every time we walked through.

Shop The Look

Discover the San Blas District:

The San Blas district is known as the bohemian district in Cusco. A quaint center square and small shops make up this area of Cusco. We loved this area for its cute shops to purchase handmade goods at, boutiques, as well as to enjoy the beautiful coffee shop/gallery, Xapiri Ground. This shop was amazing. Two stories high with coffee to sip and enjoy in their artistically designed space. Head upstairs to enjoy artwork or purchase handmade goods from local villages. 

This bracelet I bought was from a village named, Matses, which had a population of 3,000 people. The bracelets are all handmade. This space was amazing to be in and learn about the local art and culture. 

Machu Picchu:

Obviously a must do on your trip to Peru. This is the reason millions of people travel to Peru every year. Visiting the historical Inkan ruins was an incredible, full day experience. This felt like a once in a lifetime experience and a site I recommend everyone try to see.

Checkout my blog coming soon, How To Visit Machu Picchu, to learn how to prepare for the long journey to see one of the 7 Wonders Of The World. 

Shop The Look

Rainbow Mountain:

An absolutely incredible experience. But hiking Rainbow Mountain, also known as Vinicunca, is not for the light-hearted. Expect a full day trip with a very challenging altitude of over 17,000 feet above sea level! I definitely recommend booking a tour guide to see Rainbow Mountain so your transportation and meals are planned for you but also so you have an experienced guide to make sure you are safe throughout the hike. 

What To Expect: Expect a long day of travel to get to Rainbow Mountain. We had a 3:45am pickup in our bus and about a 3 hour drive till we arrived at our breakfast spot in a very rural area. The travel experience was extremely humbling and eye opening so I suggest sleeping the first hour or two in the van if you have to and then staying up for the rest of the drive after you eat breakfast to look out the window and see the area. After breakfast you will have another 2 hour drive to the start of the mountain trail. Note that this portion of the drive is mainly on bumpy, dirt roads. If you’re like me and get car sick make sure to take something before or keep your eyes looking out the window the whole time or a headache/nausea is going to creep up. 

Most of the hike is relatively flat but at the end there is a very steep incline to reach the top. The hike does have horses that you can rent that will take you most of the way but they stop at the base of the final incline. I highly recommend taking a horse, we took them about half way before getting off and it was very helpful. The horses will be waiting at the start of the trail and are paid with cash only, about 20-30 soles each way. Get to them quickly because many people are looking for one. Thankfully they run the horses back down to the entrance once they reach the end so you may get lucky and be able to catch one on your hike midway through. 

Pack coca leaves to chew on during the drive and throughout the hike to help with the altitude and make sure to take your time throughout the hike. Walk slow, take breaks, and enjoy the experience. 

Book a Tour Guide: We booked our Cusco: Full-Day Tour to Rainbow Mountain tour guide through Get Your Guide and had a great experience with them. They provided us with a light breakfast and a large, well deserved lunch. All our transportation was included in the tour ticket. We chose the tour for summiting just the Vinicunca mountain. 

Accomplishing this hike was one of the greatest feelings ever. Tim and I were so proud of ourselves for pushing through the altitude sickness, the headaches, nausea, fatigue, and making it to the top. It really was an incredible experience. At the top enjoy breathtaking views of Rainbow Mountains colors and the other mountains surrounding. The terrain was beautiful.

If you want a photo with an alpaca at the top of the mountain just bring a few coins with you since they do charge for a photo. You can also get your passport stamped at the top of the mountain which I highly recommend so you can carry all your experiences with you in your passport. 

Book Your Guide To Rainbow Mountain!
Sacred Valley Tour:

The Sacred Valley is a region near Cusco and Machu Picchu. The three of them create the heart of the Inca Empire. The Sacred Valley is a wide farmland with a few Spanish colonial villages within it such as Ollantaytambo. If you book a tour guide like we did, you will be able to see all the main sites in The Sacred Valley.

Maras Salt Mines:  When you book a tour to the Sacred Valley you are normally going to visit the Maras Salt Mines. The Maras Salt Mines was one of the places I was so excited to see during our trip. The salt mines are built into the base of a cluster of mountains. The salt pools are absolutely beautiful and in all shades of pinks, tans and whites. We learned that the locals own their own salt pools and hand mine it themselves. Our tour guide also shared that the first layer of the salt in the pool is used for cooking, the 2nd is used for medicinal purposes such as bath salts, and the 3rd layer, the bottom layer that is a thicker, clay consistency is used for feeding the animals. I strongly suggest visiting the Maras Salt Mines for a humble and surreal experience seeing these beautiful salt pools and watching locals hand mine the pools. You will also be able to buy bags of the salt from the Maras Salt Mines at shops near the mine.

The Moray: These sacred grounds were just as beautiful as they were interesting to see, especially since to this day they still aren’t 100% certain what the area of land was used for. Learning about the history was amazing during this tour as experts guessed the area was used for agricultural purposes, but they don’t really know. Our tour guide even walked us around the circular formations and showed us different plants that grew in the area that locals use for ink or medicinal purposes. 

Ollantaytambo: Lastly, the tour guide took us to Ollantaytambo. This small village is located in the Sacred Valley on the Urubamba River, surrounded by massive snow-capped mountains. The village is popular due to the Ollantaytambo ruins, a massive Inca fortress with large stone terraces on a hillside. I suggest making the climb to the top of the ruins to get a beautiful view of Ollantaytambo village. You can also walk around a bit afterwards and enjoy old cobblestoned streets and a market to shop at.

The tour guide we booked for the Sacred Valley Tour was called, The Ultimate Sacred Valley Tour that we booked through Exploor. The Salt Mines and Moray could be seen on your own but I do recommend a tour guide so you can really learn the history behind each location you are visiting and get easy access into everything. 

Maras Salt Mines
Visit A Real Alpaca Textile Store:

Our Sacred Valley tour guide took us to an original alpaca textile shop, Sara Textiles Chinchero, where we were welcomed in to watch a demonstration of the full process of dyeing real alpaca wool and creating beautiful textiles. It was incredible to see the hard work that goes into this process. We were able to walk around and shop as well as feed alpacas and llamas. We also learned how many sellers in Cusco say their alpaca sweaters and textiles are real alpaca wool but they are not. The price is what will really give you the answer to this, real alpaca wool takes weeks to make one textile so anything made out of real alpaca wool is extremely expensive. Don’t fall for any of the cheap “alpaca” sweaters in the main square in Cusco.

Where To Eat

Green Point:

This was hands down our favorite meal in Cusco. It was our favorite because it had the most beautiful atmosphere as well as delicious food. Green Point is a vegan restaurant and the best one I’ve ever tried. From the crispy chips and guac to the fruity cocktails, it was perfection. I ordered the ravioli and it was packed with flavor and filling. Tim ordered a yummy asian noodle bowl that had us fighting over who was getting the next bite. So much flavor and the whole time we couldn’t believe it was all vegan.


The space was even better. You’ll start by turning into a narrow pebble alleyway up to the front door. Through the front door you’ll wind through multiple seating areas in the restaurant and like a maze, weave your way through to the back that opens up into a jaw dropping covered patio. Plants hung from the ceiling and filled the floor around the tables. Sun beamed through the large windows giving us natural warmth but the strung up tarps overhead thankfully masked the majority of the sun’s rays. The space was beautiful and one I highly recommend checking out.


This was a yummy Italian restaurant we popped into on our search for a restaurant one evening. The atmosphere looked beautiful and welcoming so we grabbed a seat and enjoyed a mushroom pasta dish as well as a classic carbonara. 

Mistura Grill:

I suggest Mistura for the view! We stopped by just for dessert and a glass of wine but the rest of the menu looked delicious too. Not only is there balcony seating that overlooks the Plaza de Armas but also a small rooftop as well that gives gorgeous views of the entire square. 


I can not rave about this place enough but before I get into that I just have to state one thing right away. Do NOT order the seafood. I should have known being in Cusco hours away from the ocean that the seafood was not fresh but not thinking, we ordered the TarTare and unfortunately it pretty much destroyed our entire next day. We both had food poisoning and were absolutely dying in our hotel the next day. So please just keep a note to only eat seafood in Lima where all their seafood is fresh from the ocean and they perfect seafood dishes such as ceviche. 

Now, with that out of the way I can start raving. We were obsessed with every dish we ordered here. The flavors were incredible and like none we’d ever had before. If you look up food places in Cusco many will suggest Local. The atmosphere is beautiful and quaint, and the food is delicious. With the appetizer bread they brought over 3 dippings of all different flavors and every one was amazing. We also ordered the Skilled Mushrooms & Potatoes which were mixed in a yellow pepper sauce and were so tasty on toast. We also enjoyed the Empanaditas With Corn & Cheese which were large pieces of corn covered in a yellow chili sauce, truly amazing! Now again, not to destroy the Causa & TarTare dish because it was incredible, one of the best tartares I’ve personally ever had. It was so delicious but we absolutely regretted every bite of that dish the next day. Take my word for it!

Cusco felt like a whole other world to me and I couldn’t have asked for a better place to check off so many bucket list experiences. I can’t recommend a trip here enough if you’re looking for a challenge, a small culture shock, a humble experience and incredible views and memories you will never forget.


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You can call me Kat! I'm a Milwaukee native, always looking for something new to check out, whether that be in MKE or across the world. Follow my blog and social for all things travel, inspiration, lifestyle and living mindfully.

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