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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
Day 3 Final Prep for the Inca Trail
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.
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.
Last, but not least, head to bed early and drink lots of water. You’ll be trail ready in the morning.