Updated: 25-Jun-2019

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.

Calle Mantas is one of the main roads through Cusco connecting Plaza de Armas with many shops and markets.
Calle Mantas in Cusco is lined with shops, markets and restaurants.

*Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. That means that if you purchase through a link, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. This helps keep This Big Wild World up and running!

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.

This Cusco itinerary is ideal for those hiking to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. It includes the best things to do in Cusco Peru plus tips for acclimating for the Inca Trail. #incatrailhike #thingstodoCusco #Cuscoperu

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

Plaza de Armas is a must-see when visiting Cusco in Peru. After a day of exploring, grab a bite and enjoy the sunset!
Sunset view from Papacho’s restaurant on Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru

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.

La Catedral

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

Quinoa is a staple food in Peru. Large bags of all types of quinoa were available in the Mercado de Abastos in Cusco.
Large bags of quinoa for sale at Mercado de Abastos in Cusco, Peru

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

Enjoy the golden light during sunset over Plaza de Armas in Cusco Peru
Sunset over Plaza de Armas from Templo de la Compania de Jesus in Cusco

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).


Pisaq has ruins and agricultural terraces at the entrance to the Sacred Valley of the Incas near Cusco.
View of the agricultural terraces from the ruins in Pisaq

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!


Don't miss seeing the Sun Temple and other ruins in Ollantaytambo along the Urubumba River near Cusco.
View of the Sun Temple and ruins in Ollantaytambo

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

There are nearly 4000 plots of salt in Salineras de Maras in the Sacred Valley near Cusco.
A woman walks through the salt plots at 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.

While in the Sacred Valley be sure to see the unique circular terraces in Moray.
Circular terraced depressions in Moray near Cusco


Chinchero is known for its handwoven goods, but the ruins are spectacular to explore especially close to sunset.
Sunset at the ruins in Chinchero

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

Be sure to buy some souvenirs at the local markets in Cusco.
Small market down an alley near Plaza de Armas in Cusco

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

The Corpus of San Cristobal is a festival in August that features a parade through Cusco.
The Corpus of San Cristobal parade passing by the hotel

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!

Love this post? Pin it for later!

This Cusco itinerary is ideal for those hiking to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. It includes the best things to do in Cusco Peru plus tips for acclimating for the Inca Trail. #incatrailhike #thingstodoCusco #Cuscoperu
If you are preparing for a inca trail hike you NEED this 3 day Cusco itinerary. It includes the best things to do in Cusco, Peru plus tips for acclimating before the hike to Machu Picchu #cuscoperu #thingstodocuscoperu #preparingforincatrail
Trying to figure out how to acclimate to the altitude before hiking the Inca Trail? This 3-day Cusco itinerary includes tips on acclimating, things to do in Cusco, tips on visiting the Sacred Valley and more! You'll be trail ready in no time! #peru #cusco #incatrail #travel


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

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Glad to hear you found it helpful! I’d love to hike Rainbow Mountain next time I’m there 🙂

  2. I did almost this same itinerary for the Sacred Valley. Loved it! I’m lucky i didn’t get sick when i landed in Cusco but it’s DEFINITELY smart to get there early to acclimate properly. And there is SO much to see around Cusco and the Sacred Valley that it works out well!!! 🙂

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Yes!! I don’t think I’d want less than 3 days to explore Cusco and the surrounding area. There’s just so much to see and do!

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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!

    • 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!

  6. Ruth | Tanama Tales Reply

    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!

  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. Valerie Hansen Reply

    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.

  9. 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 🙂

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. Linenandlatitudes Reply

    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 🙂

  13. 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!

Write A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.