Nestled high in the Andes Mountains of Southern Peru, Cuzco is often referred to as the gateway to Machu Picchu. Logistically speaking Cuzco has the closest airport to the ruins, it’s where everyone spends a few days to acclimate to the high altitude and it’s the starting point for most trails that lead up to the ancient citadel.
However, Cuzco also happens to be the gateway into Peru’s intricate and complex history. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, the city later became the center of the Spanish colony. While wondering through the cobblestone streets, you’ll discover ornate colonial architecture sitting atop strong foundations of Inca stone. Nowhere else in Latin America is the colliding of the New and Old worlds so visible.
Cuzco is a destination that warrants more than just a day of your itinerary if you truly want to understand the complex history and culture of this popular South American destination. And to help us discover the best way to get the most out of our Peruvian experience I spoke to Sol, a native Cusqueña, professional tour guide and personal friend.
Meet Solay Conde Casafranca
Solay was born and raised in the ancient city of Cusco where she has also worked as a tour guide for the past 14 years. Her favorite part of her job is the opportunity to share her hometown’s culture and history with her clients while exposing them to everyday life, providing them with amazing experiences that they’ll never forget. Solay is fluent in Spanish, English and Quechua (the local indigenous language).
LMT: A quick google search will give you a list of the “must see sites” in Cuzco such as the Plaza das Armas, the Sun Temple and the Sacsayhuaman ruins on the outskirts of town. What’s something that you recommend doing in Cuzco that travelers wouldn’t find out about so easily?
SC: To truly get a feel for Cuzco beyond the popular tourist attractions you need to experience the local life. The best way to do this is to explore the local markets, visit the smaller towns just outside the city and explore off the beaten path archeological sites.
The San Pedro Market
This market is just a short walk from Plaza Das Armas at the corner of Calles Tupac Amaru and Cascaparo. Mornings are the best time to go as you’ll get to see Cusqenans going about their daily shopping. The market is filled with all sorts of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as Peruvian classics like Alpaca, queso de chancho (head cheese) and coca leaves.
If you’re only going to visit one small town outside of Cuzco, make sure it’s Chinchero which is just a 40 minute drive outside the city. Chinchero is what you would picture if National Geographic did a story on Andean villages – narrow cobblestone streets, a beautiful colonial church, and ancient Inca terraces set to the backdrop of snowcapped peaks.
But what Chinchero is really known for is it’s weaving demonstrations where the local women will show you how to take alpaca wool and wash it, dye it and spin it into the gorgeous colorful textiles that Peru is known for. And if possible, try to visit on a Sunday so that you can experience the Sunday market. Here you’ll see local women dressed in traditional clothing bartering over fresh produce while the men socialize and drink chicha (a local drink made of corn).
While the ruins on the outskirts of Cuzco (such as Sacsayhuaman) are a must, it’s also nice to visit some of the ruins that are more off the beaten path such as Tipon (which is just an hour outside of Cusco). You’ll still get all of the impressive Inca architecture minus the crowds! Having ancient ruins all to yourself really allows you to connect to the history of the place.
LMT: Cuzco is known as the gateway to Machu Picchu because it’s the starting point for the majority of treks leading to the ancient citadel. Are there any alternative treks that you recommend besides the famous Inca Trail?
SC: When most people think of Peru, they think of trekking. And when they think of trekking, they usually think of the famous Inca Trail.
The classic Inca Trail is a 4-5 day hike that has you arrive at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu at sunrise on the last day of the hike. Much of the trail is still made up of original Inca steps. It’s a wonderful experience but one that must be planned for in advance. To help preserve the trail, the Peruvian government has limited the number of people who can hike the trail to just 500 people per day (just 200 permits are for hikers while the rest are reserved for guides and porters). To have the best chances of reserving your spot, you should plan your trip at least one year in advance.
If you don’t have this kind of time to plan, Peru has many other hiking options that are just as good but not as well known (ones that you don’t need a permit for). There are wonderful day hikes as well as alternative multi-day hikes that will still lead you up to Machu Picchu.
This is a gentle half day hike in the Sacred Valley (an hour and a half outside of Cuzco) that will lead you up to the pre-Inca ruins of Pumamarka. Most of the hike is downhill and it will offer great views of the Valley and where the Patacancha and Yuracmayo rivers join.
This one day hike is a scenic trek from the Andean Village of Chinchero (the town I mentioned before) to the town of Urquillos. On this trail that was created by the Inca you’ll see well preserved ruins, gorgeous valleys and rural Andean life. This trek is relatively easy and is a great way to acclimate if you plan on doing a multi-day hike.
Also called Montana de site colores (the Mountain of 7 colors), this hike is a wonderful experience as the colors are amazing! The trail head is a 3 hour drive from Cusco and the drive itself is an experience, allowing you to see the real, deep Peru. It’s the journey that makes the experience unforgettable.
To get to the lookout, it’s a six mile hike and it’s pretty challenging so make sure that you’re in good physical shape and have had at least 3 days prior to adjust to the altitude.
Also, to get the most out of the colors go in the dry season (May -October, to avoid rainy and cloudy days) and utilize the lighting around sunrise and sunset for best photos.
This moderate level day hike (about 8 miles) in the Sacred Valley will lead you to the amazing Huchuy Qosqo Inca site (known as little Cusco). Along the way you’ll see rural Andean life, wonderful vistas of snowcapped peaks of the Vilcamba range and views of the Sacred Valley. However, one thing you won’t see a lot of – other tourists!
One thing to keep in mind is that the highest pass goes up to 14,104 feet so be sure that you are acclimatized to the altitude before attempting this hike. You’ll also need to make sure that you’re in good physical shape.
This day hike is perfect if you want to get a feel for the Inca Trail without having to commit several days of your trip to hiking.
To do this one day hike you’ll take the train from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley towards Auguas Clients (the town nestled beneath Machu Picchu) and be dropped off with your guide at the kilometer 104 marker, which is where the trail head begins.
After a 3 hour uphill hike you’ll arrive at Winay Wayna, beautiful ruins with well preserved agricultural terraces that are carved into a steep cliff above the Urubamba River. Once you complete this section of the hike, it’s best to stay the night in Aquas Clients so that you can get up early the next morning and catch the sunrise over Machu Picchu.
Because this hike is still technically part of the Inca Trail, you’ll need to secure your permit for this day hike well in advance.
Alternative Multi-day hikes to Machu Picchu
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous and would like to do a multi-day trek but weren’t able to secure an Inca Trail permit, don’t worry! The Salkantay, Lares and Vilcbamba treks are awesome alternatives.
The Salkantay is one of the most scenic hikes in Peru and is typically done either with a 5 day/4 night itinerary or with a 4 day/3 night itinerary. On this trek you’ll take in incredible views of the snow covered Mount Salkantay before descending down into a jungle basin. In the course of one day, it’s possible to witness all four seasons. At the end of this trek you will hop onto a short train ride to the town of Auguas Calientes where you will stay the night, ready to hike into Machu Picchu the following morning. The highest point you’ll reach on this trek is 15,091 feet so being in good physical shape is recommended.
The Lares Trek
While the Salkantay is the scenic trail, the Lares is the cultural one. This trek is relatively easy compared to the other treks to Machu Picchu and passes through several local villages, giving you a glimpse into authentic Andean life while still providing wonderful views of the surrounding Andes Mountains. The Lares trek is usually done in 3 or 4 days.
The Vilacamba trek is the least attempted alternative trek to Machu Picchu and as a result, is very remote. There’s a good chance that over the 5 day journey you won’t come across any other hikers. This off the beaten path trail looks almost the same as when Hiram Bingham (the man credited for discovering Machu Picchu) first explored the area in the early 20th century. This trek is beautiful, passing through rivers, valleys and mountains.
However, this trek is very difficult and is only recommended for experienced hikers. This trek will also end with a short train ride to Machu Picchu.
Additional day hikes at Machu Picchu
Once you arrive to Machu Picchu archeological park there are two additional day hikes that you can do. However, to aid in preservation of the site, these trails are limited to just several hundred hikers per day so be sure to reserve your tickets in advance. (prices may fluctuate but between the hiking permit and the entry ticket into the park it should be less than $100 USD per person)
Think of every iconic photo of Machu Picchu that you’ve ever seen (above). That giant green mountain sitting behind the ruins is Huayna Picchu (pronounced Wayna Picchu) and you can actually climb to the top of it! The hike takes about an hour one way and is completely uphill on narrow steps. But it’s totally worth it once you make it to the top where you’ll take in incredible views of the ruins down below as well as a 360 degree view of the surrounding Andes Mountains. The hike is of moderate difficulty and is not recommended for those with a fear of heights.
*Huayna Picchu tickets sell out far in advance so make sure to snag them ahead of time. Also, pay attention to the time slot of your ticket (as you’ll receive a ticket that’s valid between either 7am – 8am or between 10am – 11am. If you do not begin your trek within the given time frame you may be denied entry.*
Machu Picchu Mountain
This hike is on another mountain across from the Machu Picchu ruins and Huayna Picchu – in which you will take in incredible views of both down below. Higher than Huayna Picchu, this hike typically takes about 2 hours up one way, again, mostly up narrow Inca steps. However, there are spots where you can stop to catch your breath and rest along the way. Machu Picchu Mountain tickets don’t sell out as quickly as Huayna Picchu tickets but I still recommend getting them in advance.
LMT: Speaking of alternatives, are there any alternatives to Machu Picchu which is at risk of over tourism?
SC: Everyone needs to experience Machu Picchu at least once, there are no words to describe such beauty. But because Machu Picchu is starting to see the repercussions of mass tourism make sure that when you do visit, you do so responsibly – pick up after yourself, stay on the designated trails, don’t climb on the ruins, etc.
However, if you prefer more off the beaten path destinations, are looking for a real adventure or are just trying to avoid the crowds I recommend Choquequirao.
Choquequirao is an Inca site in southern Peru that is similar to Machu Picchu but is not nearly as well known. The Choquequirao trek usually takes about a week and it’s very scenic and wild. However, it is also one of the most difficult hikes with longer days (hiking about 6-8 hours daily) so I would only recommend it for experienced hikers.
If interested in having Solay show you around her hometown, she can be contacted at:
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy my article on How to be a Responsible Hiker