Planning to acclimatize in Cusco before hiking the Inca Trail? I arrived in Cusco 3 days before the hike for this exact reason – nobody’s got time for altitude sickness on the trail! After living most of my life at sea level, this time to adjust was so helpful. The problem I faced is what to do for 3 days in Cusco that won’t take a toll on my legs and lungs before the hike?

Here are my recommendations for a 3-day itinerary for acclimatizing in Cusco before hiking the Inca Trail.

Image of Calle Mantas, a street in Cusco that goes from Plaza de Armas to one of the markets.

RELATED: Six Lessons Learned While Hiking the Inca Trail

Day 1 Explore the City and Book a Tour

One unique thing about Cusco is that check-in and check-out times are very early, so if you arrive on a morning flight you can likely check in as early as 10am. So, drop your bag at your hostel/ hotel, grab a map and head out to explore. I recommend heading straight to Plaza de Armas.

This plaza is today and was during the Inca Empire, the heart of the city of Cusco. I actually mean this quite literally, It is said that the city was originally built to represent the shape of a puma, and Plaza de Armas (originally called Huacaypata) was at the heart of the puma. The puma is one of three sacred animals of the Inca’s and represents courage.

With this in mind, grab a cup of coffee and sit on the steps in front of La Catedral and just enjoy the activity. There are restaurants and coffee shops lining the plaza. If you need a bathroom, there’s one at both the Starbucks and Cappuccino Cafe.

When you’re ready to start moving, buy a ticket to La Catedral (S/ 25). Note that there is a Ticket Religious Circuit (CTR) that allows access to La Catedral, Church of San Blas, and the Archbishop’s Palace for (S/ 40). You can buy a ticket at any of these locations.  

Inside La Catedral, there are tour guides available. I opted to just wander this UNESCO World Heritage Site on my own. It’s one of the more ornate churches I have been in so it was nice to just sit and soak it in for a while.

Image of raw meat for sale at a food market in Cusco Peru.When you exit La Catedral back onto Plaza de Armas, head Southwest towards Calle Mantas. Follow this street by foot past Plaza San Francisco.

When you reach Calle Tupac Amaro you’ll see Mercado de Abastos, which is an indoor market filled with food and other trinkets. The first couple of rows in the market are quite touristy, so walk past those and you’ll reach the food vendors.

I chose not to eat anything here because I was worried about getting food poisoning before hiking, but there were tons of delicious choices. Instead I opted for a delicious meal at Morena on Calle Plateros.

Image of large bags of quinoa for sale at one of the markets in Cusco Peru.

In the afternoon, spend some time booking a tour for the following day. I stopped in three booking agencies along Calle Plateros (on the Northwest corner of Plaza de Armas). Each of the three booking agencies had similar but very different offerings.

We originally wanted to visit Rainbow Mountain, but decided against it due to the high elevation (after all we were trying to acclimatize) and the length of the hike (we were also trying to save our legs for the Inca Trail). In retrospect, this was absolutely the right decision for us. So, we booked a private tour guide through Aita Peru to the Sacred Valley with stops at Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Urubumba, Salineras de Maras, Moray, and Chinchero.

Here are the questions I recommend asking:

  • What time do you get picked up/ dropped off? Some tours leave as early as 5am and return after 7pm.
  • How big are the groups? They varied from 8-25. I personally don’t like being stuck on a tour bus with a large group.
  • What language does the guide speak?
  • Is lunch included?
  • Is the entry to each location included in the fee? Some did, some didn’t.
  • Do they offer a private or small group options?
  • Where does the tour stop? Some tour companies had cheaper options, but they only stopped in 2-3 places.

Image of me looking out onto Plaza de Armas from Templo de la Compania de Jesus en Cusco.For me, I like to go at my own pace in small groups. I also appreciated being able to ask our driver to stop along the way for photos or just to get out and enjoy the view. This cost S/280 for two of us + S/80 each for the entrance fees (about $68/each). There are obviously cheaper options if you don’t mind larger groups!

Templo de la Compania de Jesus is also on Plaza de Armas and has great views of the sun setting, just walk up into one of the two towers. While you’re there, take a stroll through the interior of the temple, which was originally built in 1571. From there, grab dinner at Papacho’s, overlooking the plaza.

Be sure to drink some coca tea at your hostel/ hotel before bed! Most offer this for free in the lobby area. At the end of the first day I had a pretty bad headache, but it went away about 10 minutes after drinking the coca tea.

Image of the sun setting over Plaza de Armas in the heart of Cusco, Peru.

Image of Plaza de Armas in the evening as seen from Papacho's restaurant.

 

Day 2 Sacred Valley

Our day started with a 645am pickup at our hotel. It’s a little over an hour drive to the first stop at Pisaq. On the way, the driver stopped so we could buy our tickets. I recommend the boleto turistico del cusco ticket (S/ 70), which gives you entry to Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Moray, and Chinchero and is good for 2 consecutive days. We also stopped at Salineras de Maras, which required a separate ticket that you can purchase as you enter (S/ 10).  

Here are some of my favorite photos from each stop.

Pisaq

Image of the ruins in Pisac in the Sacred Valley near Cusco.

Image of walking through the ruins at Pisac near Cusco.

Image of the valley below the Pisac ruins in the Sacred Valley near Cusco.

Ollantaytambo

Image looking back at the Temple of the Sun at Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley near Cusco Peru.

Image of a doorway in the ruins at Ollantaytambo near Cusco.

After Ollantaytambo, our guide drove us back to the town of Urubumba for lunch. We enjoyed a buffet lunch at Inca House Restaurant. The food was delicious, but it is a popular place for tour companies to stop so it can be quite busy. The ceviche was probably my favorite dish (my guide ate 4 platefuls of it!), but I also enjoyed the rocoto relleno which is like a stuffed and fried rocoto pepper.

Salineras de Maras

Image of salt plots at Salineras de Maras in the Sacred Valley near Cusco Peru.

Each of the 4000 plots of salt are owned by different families. You can see some of them “harvesting” the salt by shoveling it out of the water into piles and then transferring it into large bags as it dries. You can buy small bags of the salt on the way out for S/ 1.

For this stop, I was particularly thankful to not be in a big tour bus because the road to get here is a bit dangerous. The road wraps along the outer edge of a cliff and has a few tight spots. At one point we saw a bus struggling to make a turn and get within inches of the edge of the cliff (there were no barriers).

Image of a brightly dressed Peruvian woman walking through the white salt plots of Salineras de Maras in the Sacred Valley near Cusco Peru.

Image of two men harvesting salt from a plot at Salineras de Maras in the Sacred Valley near Cusco Peru.

Moray

Panoramic image of ruins at Moray in the Sacred Valley near Cusco, Peru.

Image of Inca ruins at Moray with mountains in the background in the Sacred Valley near Cusco Peru.

Image of Inca ruins at Moray in the Sacred Valley near Cusco Peru.

Chinchero

This area is also known for making handwoven goods. Some tour companies will stop so you can learn a bit about how they dye the yarn and weave the unique patterns. This was cool to see, but be prepared for them to hustle you to buy something afterwards – the prices here were outrageous compared to Cusco.

Image of the mountains through a doorway as seen from the church at Chinchero in the Sacred Valley near Cusco Peru.

Image of a Peruvian couple walking along the stone path in front of the church at Chinchero in the Sacred Valley near Cusco Peru.

RELATED: How Not To Die While Hiking the Kalalau Trail

Day 3 Final Prep for the Inca Trail

Image of souvenir shop down an alley near Plaza de Armas in Cusco Peru.By now, your lungs should be pretty well adjusted to the altitude and the headaches should be subsiding. That’s good because tomorrow you’ll be at higher altitude! Use this last day to explore more of the city – wandering the streets and picking up souvenirs.

Whatever you do, save some time to do some final preparation for the hike. Expect to have a briefing held by your tour company. You can meet your guide and get some final details on the hike. I had to make some last minute purchases such as bottled water for Day 1 of the hike, coca leaves, coca candy, and a poncho. Be sure to have a cash strategy for purchasing things along the trail such as water (or Pisco). Our guide also recommended that we keep extra cash in case of a medical emergency or injury.

The tour companies pick you up as early as 5am to drive to the trailhead which is 1.5 hours away. Organize your pack the day before. Pack any extra stuff like clean clothes, toiletries, etc. in your suitcase and leave it at your hotel. Our tour company also offered to hold our bags, but they were going to be closed when we got back. This is why we opted to leave ours at the hotel. You can also try on your pack and make any last minute decisions to leave items behind.

Image of women dressed in colorful outfits dancing in the streets of Cusco for the Corpus of San Cristobal festival in Cusco Peru.We were pretty fortunate to be in Cusco during the Corpus of San Cristobal (August 2), which is a big religious festival. One of the places we stayed, Don Bosco Hotel, happened to be right along the path of the parade. While we were finishing up packing, we heard music outside our window. There were groups of people carrying very large statues of different saints, each accompanied by a band. 

Image of parade carrying statues of saints through the streets of Cusco for the Corpus San Cristobal festival in Cusco Peru.

Image of men dressed in colorful costumes dancing for the Corpus of San Cristobal festival in Cusco Peru.

Last, but not least, head to bed early and drink lots of water. You’ll be trail ready in the morning. 

Wanna save this for later? Pin it!

Pin image of Chinchero in the Sacred Valley near Cusco Peru.

21 Comments

  1. Those salt plots look really interesting. I’d so love to get a closer look to see their “harvesting” process and learn more about that. & how cool that you got to experience a festival of theirs! What good luck! Those costumes are super interesting

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Yes!! We were so fortunate to experience the festival! I’d never seen anything quite like the salt plots. It definitely looked like hard work!

  2. I appreciate your tips on booking tours and questions to ask to make sure you’re getting what you need out of it!
    I also loved your photos of the culture and the people!!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Glad the questions list was helpful! It was a bit confusing to work through all of the options (especially since my Spanish is not great). Thanks so much for the kind words on my photos! I love trying to capture the moments 🙂

  3. So nice that you were there for the parade! I love pleasant surprises like that. I hope to visit the Inca Trail in the near future so will definitely try to plan a few days in Cusco to get acclimated.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Have a great time on the trail! I’ll be posting a packing list soon – there’s definitely things I’d do differently if I did it again.

  4. orangewayfarer Reply

    fantastic blog post. Fantastic photos. Inca civilization has caught my fancy for long and it sure features in my bucket list. Someday i shall travel there and pose in those beautiful dresses!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Thank you! I do hope you get the experience someday – it’s truly magical. I loved the beautiful colored dresses too!

  5. These are great recommendations for before the hike. It’s one of my dreams to go there, and I have bookmarked this blog post! I didn’t know there was so much to do right before setting off on the Inca Trail.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Glad you found it helpful! I hope your dream comes true! Cusco is a great homebase to explore from. There’s so much more to do, so I just may have to go back 🙂

  6. Look like lots of history to explore in Cusco! I am on the team for a luxury publication from there, so now I want to visit!!

    Thanks for sharing..Valerie

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      You’re welcome! 🙂 I hope you’re able to visit – there’s loads of luxury experiences in the area as well. Something for everyone for sure.

  7. Wow, there is so much to see and do near Cusco! Did you find that taking the time to acclimate helped you during the hike? I’ve never been to the Inca trail (or even anywhere in S. America!) but your photos are really making me want to go!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Thanks so much, Jessica! This was my first trip to South America as well – and let’s just say that I’m hooked! The 3 days definitely helped me acclimatize. The first day, I was huffing and puffing just walking up the steps in Cusco. On day 2 I had a really bad headache all day. But by day 3, with lots of water and coca tea, I was ready to go!

  8. I think this is a great way to prepare for a hike! You had the opportunity to see so much! Cuzco looks so awesome but I really enjoyed day number two in the Sacred Valley. I will like to stop by all those sites. I hope to make it to Peru one day.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Yess! The Sacred Valley is so beautiful. It’s definitely worth a stop, whether or not you’re acclimatizing. I hope you’re able to go and see this amazing place in person one day!

  9. I am always fascinated when I see images of Inca culture: The precision with which they were able to form the landscape is mind boggling. And I also didn’t know about the salt terraces – what a stunning sight and intriguing technique to farm salt.

    Thank you & happy continued travels!
    C

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      I’m the same way! It’s just amazing how precise they were… and without the advanced tools we have today. Happy travels to you as well!

  10. I am yet to visit Peru but it’s on my list! You photos are wonderful. I, like you, am a big fan of the small group tours so would probably do the same. I hope I get there one day soon!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Thanks so much! Yes, it’s always a struggle between keeping costs down and avoiding crowds, but when I can afford it I always like to go for the smaller groups!

  11. Nina Danielle Reply

    These are great tips! I’ve read so much about hiking Inca but not much about what to do in Cusco, it looks awesome! I would love to visit the plaza.

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