Cusco, Peru is a great base for exploring the Sacred Valley. Whether you want to experience traditional Andean culture by visiting indigenous villages or watching weaving demonstrations, or exploring one of the many Inca sites nearby, Cusco is in the middle of it all. Here’s a list of the best day trips from Cusco to make the most of your adventure exploring Peru.
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Where is Cusco, Peru?
Cusco is in the southeastern part of Peru, high in the Andes mountains. A one-hour flight from Lima, it is easy to get to, and yet with ancient origins, it feels worlds away, steeped in indigenous culture.
Why Cusco Makes a Good Base in the Sacred Valley
Situated next to the Sacred Valley, with its own airport, Cusco is the perfect base for exploring the surrounding area. With a wealth of Inca ruins, stunning mountain scenery, and traditional Andean villages, the Sacred Valley has there are tons of things to do in Cusco.
Cusco is a large enough base to offer a wide range of hotels, hostels, and restaurants, sure to fit any budget. You’ll find traditional Peruvian food, but also Thai, sushi, Indian, and other international dishes as well.
In just a short drive from the city, you can find some of the most famous Inca sites, such as Ollantaytambo, Morey, and Pisac. And Cusco itself has multiple sites in and around it like Qoricancha, Saqsaywaman, and the Q’enco Archaeological Complex.
In addition, Cusco is home to a vibrant indigenous culture, and there are plenty of opportunities to try traditional foods and experience local life.
We found Cusco to be a safe and friendly city, though we did experience a bus strike while we were there. Strikes are common in South America and are something to be aware of when you travel. We have some travel tips for South America to help you make the most of your family vacation in Peru.
The Best Day Trips from Cusco, Peru
There are many sites in the Sacred Valley you can visit from Cusco that are just an hour or two drive each way. There are so many options, you’ll need to choose a few, as it’s nearly impossible to fit them all into your Peruvian holiday!
Many of these sites can be explored on your own with a car and driver, or via a group tour. If you’d like to arrange transportation around the Sacred Valley but would rather not join an organized tour, we recommend using Taxidatum. You can schedule a driver for a full or half-day, with whichever stops you prefer. They do not provide guide services, only transportation.
Don’t forget to bring your Boleto Turistico to enter many of these sites! We wrote an entire post with everything you need to know about using this crucial tourist pass.
There are two elements to a trip to Pisac- a trip to the Inca Ruins, and a visit to the town and markets of Pisac. Pisac is about a one-hour drive from Cusco.
Ruins of Pisac
The ruins at Pisac are a little different than others we’ve visited in Peru in that there are not truly prescribed paths. From the entrance, head up across the terraced fields then up and to the right. You’ll climb the hill, with the option to head to the right for a mirador, or continue to the top.
The mirador is a bit of a diversion- the path goes up and down a few times before ending at a shaded palapa that overlooks the valley below.
After viewing it, backtrack to where the paths intersect and head up the hill to the top point. From this small top area, you can head down into the residential houses. It’s from here that you can really wander through the ruins on your way down the hill, and back to the car park.
You can also walk from the ruins all the way to the town of Pisac, we didn’t do this, it’s an easy drive and a steep 4 km walk.
To enter the Ruins of Pisac, you’ll need your Boleto Turistico
Town of Pisac
Once in town, check out Ulrike’s Café for lunch- we were drooling over their banana pancakes with real maple syrup but were too late in the day for them. Instead, the kids had oatmeal and yogurt with granola, while the adults chose lentil curry with rice and a Thai noodle salad.
Pisac is known for its market, which is largest on Sunday. From Ulrike’s, head uphill to Plaza Constitution, the main square. At the northeast corner of the square, on Mariscal Castilla, the handicraft market begins. There are tons of stalls with all sorts of garments, souvenirs, jewelry, and artwork.
You’ll also find kids and adults in traditional outfits strolling around with baby alpacas looking to take photos with your family. Pay what you wish, the expectation seems to be around 1 sol per person in the photo with you.
Check Details: Full-Day Tour to Pisac and Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo is a small town located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, about an hour and a half from Cusco. The town is perhaps best known as the gateway to Machu Picchu but also has some of the most well-preserved Inca ruins, which sit atop the hills around it.
Visitors can explore the ruins, including an ancient temple and a massive stone staircase, or wander the streets of the town itself, which are lined with traditional stone houses and ancient water systems. The experience of visiting Ollantaytambo is very authentic, as there are fewer tourists in the town itself.
Ollantaytambo is also the launching point for visits to Macchu Picchu, whether by train or hiking the Inca Trail. The train runs from here to the base town of Aguas Calientes.
The ruins in the town itself are worth a visit, whether it’s for a single day or longer. We recommend spending more time here if you can, and wrote a guide to Ollantaytambo.
Day trips to Ollantaytambo are often combined with visits to Pisac, Chinchero, or Urubamba.
Check Details: Day Trip to Ollantaytambo and Pisac Market
Chinchero is a small village high in the Andes between Ollantaytambo and Cusco. From the main square, you’ll see snow-capped mountains in the distance. The Inca believed this area was the birthplace of the rainbow. This town may have served as a country resort for the Inca leader Yupanqui.
On the main square is a colonial church that is covered in hand-painted designs. The church is built over the remains of an Inca structure. You can also continue across a field to the archaeological site of Chinchero.
Try to visit on a Sunday, when the main market stalls are full, and the church is open. You’ll need your Boleto General to enter the main square and see the church, as well as the ruins.
Chinchero is also known as a weaving center. Stop by Textil Quechua to see a free demonstration (please tip), of how alpaca wool is processed, spun, dyed, and woven. They also have several alpacas and guinea pigs on-site for the kids to visit. They have a lot of incredible handicrafts you can buy after the presentation.
We recommend having lunch at Merienda Restaurant, just outside the entrance to the main square. They have a small, simple menu of sandwiches, empanadas, and coffees- the food is fresh and good.
We found Chinchero to be a great town to stop in when moving between Ollantaytambo and Cusco. You can arrange this transfer vis Taxidatum, or take a full-day tour that combines a trip to both towns.
Check Details: Day Trip to Chinchero and Ollantaytambo
Moray is a fascinating archaeological site in Peru that is definitely worth a visit, and is often combined with a visit to the town center of Maras and the salt pools of Maras.
The site consists of a series of concentric terraces built by the Inca, within a natural bowl. The terraces are believed to have been used for agricultural experimental stations, as the Inca were able to create microclimates on each level. The Inca also brought in different soils to use at each terrace, so that they could study which crops thrived in the given conditions.
The nature of the rock below the soil also proved ideal for irrigation, as the water drains through, without collecting on the surface and flooding. The terraces are also notable for their circular shape, which is unusual for Inca architecture.
A visit to Moray is a great way to learn more about the Inca and their innovative engineering. You may also visit on a guided tour to help explain the significance of Moray.
5. Salt Pools of Maras
The Maras salt pools are beautiful man-made pools designed to take advantage of the natural minerals in the water. The pools are located in a picturesque spot near the town of Maras, where they continue to be an important part of the local culture.
The pools were first created thousands of years ago, when ancient people realized that the water in the area was rich in minerals. They began to harvest the salt from the water and used it for many different purposes, including cooking, preserving, healing, and later trade. Much of the salt is pink, due to its high concentration of Potassium.
Today, the pools continue to produce salt that is shipped to restaurants and stores all over the world. You may notice the white bags strewn about the site or stacked by the exit, that are used for storing the salt.
Check Details: Day Trip to Maras and Moray
Just up the hill from the Plaza de Armas, you can walk to this site, and visit it on your own, or view it as part of a larger guided tour. The walk is a short distance, but (like much in Cusco), uphill. We recommend visiting in the early morning to avoid the crowds.
You’ll need a Boleto Turistico to visit this site. If you come early and enter from below, you will need to already have a ticket as the gates will be open, but the kiosks will likely still be closed. My ticket was not checked until I got up to the main area. There are often alpacas grazing around the site, wandering among the stones and unphased by the visitors.
Originally built as a military stronghold to protect Cusco from attack, Saqsaywaman was the most important military base of the Inca Empire and was also used for religious ceremonies. It was once the largest Inca structure in the area.
After the Spanish invasion and conquest, many of the stones were removed from the site and used to construct buildings in Cusco. The stones that remain are still stunning and give you a sense of their massive scale and function.
Choose between a half-day tour of just Saqsaywaman or a full-day tour that dives deep into the smaller ruins in the area, combining Saqsaywaman, Q’enqo, Puka Pukara, and Tambomachay.
Check Details: Four Ruins Tour from Cusco
7. Humantay Lake
This stunning turquoise lake is named after the nearby snow-capped mountains. To visit the lake, you’ll leave early in the morning, drive two hours to the starting point of your hike, then hike to this sacred Inca lake sitting at 13,700 feet in altitude.
The lake is the site of sacred ceremonies to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) that have been held here for over 1,000 years.
Due to the altitude, the minimum age for this tour is 8 years old.
Check Details: Day Trip to Humantay Lake
8. Rainbow Mountain
Rainbow Mountain was virtually unknown a few years ago, and now is one of the most popular Cusco day trips. You’ll spend two hours hiking to reach the peak of the mountain to witness this Instagramable marvel.
This trip is not recommended for children or those over 55, due to the altitude, which makes the hike quite strenuous, as well as the long drive to get there. You can easily spend five hours each way driving to and from the base of the hike.
Check Details: Rainbow Mountain Day Trip
9. Machu Picchu
Many travelers come to Peru solely with the goal of visiting the ruins of Machu Picchu. While it makes for a long day trip, it is possible to visit Machu Picchu on a day trip from Cusco. Cusco is also where many treks to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail depart.
Visitors to Machu Picchu are limited to approximately three hours at the site, so while you’ll spend more time traveling from Cusco than from nearer towns, you won’t miss anything at the actual Inca site.
Whichever way you choose to visit, don’t miss walking around this magnificent site, one of the 7 New Wonders of the World, it should definitely be on your family bucket list!
Check Prices: Machu Picchu Day Trip from Cusco
Many people dream of taking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and arriving at the Sun Gate after a long 4- day trek over the mountains. However, the high altitude and length of this trek make it best for kids 10 and older.
If you have younger kids, or kids who may not be ready for the intensity of a four-day hike, consider the 1-day option! You can do a one-day Inca Trail hike that enters at the Sun Gate and then follows with a tour of the Machu Picchu site. This may be a great family alternative to the more intense, traditional Inca Trail Hike.
Book Now: 1 Day Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu
There You Have It: The Best Cusco Day Trips
You have so many options for wonderful day trips from Cusco, that you’ll have to choose how to best spend your days in the Sacred Valley. Cusco is such a family-friendly city, it’s a wonderful base for exploring this area of Peru.