Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire – the mighty civilization that conquered almost half of South America. Presently, it is the cultural capital of Peru and also the gateway to the New Wonder of the World: Machu Picchu.
As a capital of a mighty empire and one of the most touristy cities in South America, the location and development of the city naturally mean there are tons to do and see in the region. Here, we’ll share with you 5 of the best day trips from Cusco that will surely blow you away with their beauty!
A Guest Post by Owen Ter of My Turn To Travel
Vinicunca, the Rainbow Mountain, is a popular day trip from Cusco that only started receiving visitors in 2016. Since then, thousands of tourists have made their way up this mountain. It’s easy to see why. With only barren red and green valleys surrounding it, this unbelievable seven-colored mountain makes you feel like you’re in another world. Plus, it is an extremely Instagrammable place.
Day trips usually start with a pick-up at your hotel at 3 AM, followed by a 3-hour ride up winding mountain roads and a shortstop for breakfast before starting your hike. The hike is extremely challenging due to the altitude: The trailhead starts at 4600m and rises till 5200m. The hike takes 2-3 hours depending on your fitness, but you can also rent a horse along the way.
Humantay Lake is a picturesque glacier lake at the feet of the majestic Humantay mountain. Of all the glacier lakes I’ve seen throughout my one year in South America, Humantay takes the number one spot.
Imagine after 2 hours of hiking at 4000m, you get rewarded with the sight of a sparkling lake under the sun, with unbelievable hues of green and blue and a white-and-grey snow-capped mountain in the background.
Humantay Lake is an optional part of the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, but also available as a day trip from Cusco. Similar to the Rainbow Mountain trek, this whole-day activity starts early in the morning and includes a challenging hike – not because of the terrain, but the altitude.
The Sacred Valley of the Incas is a region close to Cusco consisting of a few towns, ruins, rivers and valleys. The main destinations on a day trip from Cusco are Pisac, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero. The first stop is a visit the town of Pisac; famous for its agricultural terraces and hilltop fortress.
The 276 levels of rice terraces are connected together by an ancient irrigation system and are carved so perfectly you’d wonder how the Incas did it without modern technology. At the top of these steps, you’ll find the hilltop fortress (now in ruins) that once belonged to the high society and provided a vantage point of the surrounding valleys.
Pisac is also known for its Sunday market where you can find the cheapest and most vibrant souvenirs. Think colorful alpaca sweaters, shiny trinkets, and hand-weaved clothes. Ollantaytambo is a colorful touristy town in the western end of the Sacred Valley. It is the place where most people go to board the train for Machu Picchu. However, it also houses a huge terrace with temple ruins and a panoramic view of the valley.
The rocks used to build these terraces and temples were transported from mountains miles away, without any of the modern technology. Climbing up the huge terraces gives a sense of how small we really are, and how advanced the Incas were during their time. Ollantaytambo also scores a point for being the town that the Incas defeated the Spanish conquerors during a major battle, giving it the name “the last stronghold of the Incas”. A day tour to the Sacred Valley also includes a buffet lunch at Urubamba and a visit to the weaving village of Chinchero, among multiple stops for postcard-perfect photograph opportunities.
Maras and Moray
Maras and Moray are two towns that deserve a day trip from Cusco if you have the time. Well, not the town themselves, but the salt mines and agricultural terraces named after them.
The Maras salt mine is a network of cascading salt pools tucked in the Andes mountains, with salt water that comes from a natural spring in the hills. This network of salt deposit is so ancient they were there before the Inca period and provided generations of civilizations a healthy salt harvest year after year. The different shades of white from the salt mine provide a stark contrast to the dull brown of the hill, making it a scenic photo-op.
A short ride away from Maras is the Moray terraces; the agricultural laboratory the Incas built into a natural giant sinkhole. Some say this area looks like an alien creation from afar.
It is believed that the Incas performed experiments involving crops and microclimates in these amphitheater-like terraces that resulted in more than 3000 varieties of potatoes in Peru today.
Depending on the season, the Moray terraces may be all green or all brown (like above).
To the uninformed, the Moray terraces may have been just another ‘nice sight’. However, the Moray terraces stand out from a country filled with ancient ruins and incredible sceneries; for its engineering genius and understanding of the Earth’s delicate equilibrium and how it provides for her inhabitants. Going with a tour guide that will explain the history and the significance of the place will be a much more enriching experience.
Almost everyone who goes to Peru goes to Machu Picchu. In fact, the most popular trek in South America is the 5D4N Inca Trail to Machu Picchu that gets booked up to 6 months in advance. The popular alternative is the 5D4N Salkantay trek. Many people consider these multiday treks a ‘rite of passage’ and some think it is the only way to reach Machu Picchu. But it is entirely possible to visit the wondrous ruins as a day trip from Cusco.
A typical day trip to Machu Picchu from Cusco involves an early morning pick-up at the hotel, a transfer to the train ride at Ollantaytambo, followed by a bus ride up to the entrance of Machu Picchu.
There will be enough time to fully explore the ancient ruins with a local guide who will share the history and significance of the site. After exploring the UNESCO site, you’ll be taken back to Cusco by bus, train, and a private transfer. It is a long day trip but without the hassle of arranging for individual logistics or do a demanding 5-day hike. Most tour agencies in Cusco offer a day trip option and this is ideal for the travelers with limited time!