48 Hours In Cusco—The Ancient Gateway To Machu Picchu

Peru’s ancient citadel of Machu Picchu is one of the true wonders of the world, a high-altitude city that has to be seen to be believed.

Close to a million visitors make the pilgrimage each year, despite the arduous ascent. Most travelers break up their journey by basing themselves in the Inca capital of Cusco, a few hours southeast. To avoid the worst of the rainy season and escape the heaviest crowds, aim for November or April. 

We suggest staying in Cusco for at least 48 hours to shake off the altitude sickness. Here's what we'd recommend:

Day 1. Stay close to the square

On day 1, aim to stay close to the center of Cusco. To calm altitude sickness, take things easy—try sleeping more and avoiding alcohol. 

Everything revolves around the Plaza de Armas, the large square that dominates the city and was considered to be the literal center of the Inca empire. It still functions as the location for festivals and street parties, and is the best place to eat and drink. Order a cup of coca tea, available in bars—it's said to help chase away altitude sickness. 

The T'ikariy tour desk at the Palacio Del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel, caters to all adventure types and is a huge help for anyone looking to explore Cusco. The hotel is conveniently located (a seven-minute walk to the Plaza de Armas) and was also built in 1438 — it was previously part of the Inka Temple of the Sun. 

From the square, many of Cusco’s best attractions are within easy reach. La Catedral is one of the city’s great architectural creations—hire a guide for the full experience. The Museo de Historia Natural offers an alternative experience and is home to all manner of stuffed animals, birds and reptiles.

Lunch back at one of the many establishments in or around Plaza de Armas makes sense: Inka Grill, Pucara, Plus Restaurant and Chicha all offer authentic Peruvian staples, including cuy, or roasted guinea pig.

In the afternoon, Museo Inka is just a short stroll away and offers a fascinating insight into Incan culture and history. Or head to San Pedro Market or the San Blas district, where you'll find a bohemian array of boutique shops, galleries, bars and restaurants that can take you from afternoon to night. 

Day 2. Cusco's archaeological treasures 

On the second day, it pays to venture out of Cusco and to the nearby ruins.

Northwest of the city center, you’ll find the unmissable Inca Ruins of Sacsayhuaman, a fortress that is unmissable in every sense. Your visit here could and should take up a full morning of your day, but wear comfortable shoes or pay the price—and pack lunch.

From Sacsayhuaman, either head back towards the buzz of Cusco, or on to more archaeological treasures that lie close by. If you choose the latter, Qenqo, Puca Pucara and Tambomachay are all within an easy drive of Sacsayhuaman, each offering a quieter taste of the Inca empire. 

If you return to Cusco, head for the 15th century Qurikancha, once the richest temple in the Inca empire. Choco Museo is also close by if a chocolate-making workshop calls your name. 

As the day wears on, all roads will lead you back to the Plaza de Armas, where you’ll have your pick of the bars and restaurants. Incanto, Cicciolina and Limo are three impressive options. 

Here you can rest your legs and refuel. After 48 hours in Cusco, Machu Picchu awaits you. If you plan to travel along the Inca Trail, don't forget that only authorized companies can sell trekking permits to tourists, and these are limited to 200 per day. Book far in advance. 

No matter how you explore Cucso, save up to 15% on weekend stays with SPG Member Exclusive Rates

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