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Planning to acclimate to the altitude in Cusco before hiking the Inca Trail? I arrived three days before the hike for this exact reason. Nobody’s got time for altitude sickness on the trail!
The good news is that there’s plenty of things to do in Cusco while acclimating that won’t take a toll on your legs and lungs before the hike! Here’s a rundown of a three day itinerary for acclimatization in Cusco.
How many days to acclimate in Cusco?
The short answer is at least two to three days.
But, this will vary greatly depending on your fitness level, typical altitude, and many other factors. Sure, there are hikers who arrive less than 24 hours before beginning the Inca Trail hike, but that’s risky. And it’s not how I roll.
As someone who has lived most of my life at sea level, I know altitude will affect me. By the first evening in Cusco, I had a full on banging headache (despite drinking water nonstop all day) and my chest felt heavy. But by the third day, my body was finally feeling strong and ready to hike the Inca Trail.
Pro Tip: Allow 2-3 days to acclimate in Cusco before hiking the Inca Trail. Drink loads of water and coca tea while you’re there.
Things to Do in Cusco While Acclimating: A 3-Day Itinerary
Don’t worry, three days of acclimatization in Cusco won’t feel like a waste of time. There’s so much to do and see! Here’s a breakdown of things to do in Cusco while acclimating by day.
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. Drop your bag at your hostel/ hotel, grab a map and head straight to Plaza de Armas.
Pro Tip: Verify the check-in time where you’re staying. It’s likely that check-in as early as 10am is available!
Plaza de Armas
This plaza is today, and was during the Inca Empire, the heart of the city of Cusco. I 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.
While you contemplate how clever the Incas were, grab a cup of coffee, 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). 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. Along this street, you can also stop at the gorgeous Basilica de la Merced.
Mercado de Abastos
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 to 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.
Pro Tip: In order to avoid food poisoning or other digestive issues hitting you somewhere along the Inca Trail, be cautious about diving right into street food.
Book a Tour
A tour to the Sacred Valley is one of the most popular things to do in Cusco and perfect while acclimating. So, 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 in Cusco) and the length of the hike (we were also trying to save our legs for the Inca Trail). I’m so thankful we made this decision.
Pro Tip: The elevation of Rainbow Mountain is 6000 feet higher than the city of Cusco and 3000 feet higher than the peak elevation on the Inca Trail. Skip Rainbow Mountain until after the Inca Trail!
We ended up booking 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.
I prefer to go at my own pace in small groups. With a private driver, I was able to ask him to stop along the way for photos or just 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!
Enjoy Sunset from Templo de la Compania de Jesus
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.
Day 1 Cusco Acclimatization Tips
Be sure to drink 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
Start your day with an early tour pickup wherever you’re staying (our pickup was 6:45am). The guide will likely stop on the way so that you can buy an entry ticket.
Pro Tip: I recommend the boleto turistico del cusco ticket (S/ 70). This gives you entry to Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Moray, and Chinchero and is good for 2 consecutive days. Separate entry can be purchased onsite at Salineras de Maras for (S/ 10).
Just an hour away from Cusco, Pisaq is a popular stop on any tour to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. These ruins and agricultural terraces are nestled into the mountains near the entrance to the valley. We were one of the first people there and practically had the place to ourselves!
Pro Tip: Visit on Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday to experience Pisaq’s market with local products and foods!
Ollantaytambo is a popular stop on any tour of the Sacred Valley but it’s also a common starting point for hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The terraces shown above are called the Fortress, each taller than most humans to give you a sense of scale.
Pro Tip: If you decide not to hike the Inca Trail, you can do a day trip by train instead from either Ollantaytambo or Cusco. Here is a great resource to plan your budget for visiting Machu Picchu.
At the top of the Fortress you’ll find the Temple of the Sun, perfectly crafted from six monoliths each weighing more than 50 tons. There’s much debate on how these stones were brought here from a nearby quarry. This temple is believed to be a sort of calendar for the Incas.
When you’re done exploring the top of the Fortress, follow the trail around the ledge to discover more terraces and ruins. Be sure to look out at the mountains surrounding the area for other ruins!
The neary town of Urubumba is a great place to stop for lunch. We enjoyed the buffet lunch at Inca House Restaurant. The food was pretty good, but it is a popular place for tour companies to stop so it can be quite busy and a bit overpriced. 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 here are owned by different families. You can watch family members “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 salt on the way out for just 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. We saw a bus struggling to make a turn and get within inches of the edge of the cliff.
These ruins are located close to Salineras de Maras. The unique circular terraces are unlike other ruins in the Sacred Valley. It’s unclear what their purpose was, but while you ponder that you can enjoy the gorgeous views of the mountains surrounding the ruins.
This area is known for its handwoven goods. Some tour companies will stop so you can learn a bit about how they dye the yarn and weave the unique patterns native to Chinchero. 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 2 Cusco Acclimatization Tips
Continue drinking lots of water throughout the day, like double your normal intake. Minimize or avoid alcohol and try to get to bed at a reasonable time. Drink coca tea before bedtime if you have a headache.
Day 3 Wander Cusco and 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.
Final Prep for the Inca Trail Hike
Probably the most important things to do while acclimating in Cusco is to do your final preparation for the Inca Trail hike (read all about my lessons learned on the Inca Trail). Expect to have a briefing held by your tour company. At the briefing, you get to meet your guide and learn the final details on the hike.
I had to make some last minute purchases such as bottled water for the first day 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 one and a half hours away. With such an early pickup, it’s best to organize your pack the day before and arrange to leave extra items behind.
Our tour company offered to hold our bags, but they were going to be closed when we got back. Instead, we opted to leave ours at the hotel.
Pro Tip: Pack any extra stuff like clean clothes, toiletries, etc. in your suitcase and leave it at your hotel, hostel or tour company office. Be sure to check opening times of each to be sure you’ll have access to your items when you return.
Enjoy the Culture
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.
Day 3 Cusco Acclimatization Tips
Last, but not least, head to bed early and drink lots of water. You’ll be trail ready in the morning!