So, you want to walk the Inca Trail? With a running time of four to five days and a wealth of information to digest covering centuries of Andean culture, this ancient hiking trail is certainly not for the faint hearted. It can seem daunting to take on, preparing your brain for the culture you’ll absorb and your body for the physical exertion. Cusco is often seen as just the entry point for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, but honestly it’s so much more than that. There are many other unmissable things to do in Cusco and sights to see in and around the city which will help you to prepare for, or recover from, your trek!
How to prepare for the Inca Trail in Cusco:
1. Visit Sacsayhuaman
This ancient site is probably the one you will hear the most about in Cusco, not least because its name is pronounced almost exactly like “sexy woman” (trust me, after a few beers this never gets old). Jokes aside, these fortress ruins are a short bus ride or a long walk away from the main city and boast some of the best views of Cusco – the best way to orient yourself as a newbie to the city, while prepping your legs and lungs for the big trek at the same time. Go in the evening to watch the sunset over the rocks and avoid the worst of the crowds.
2. Climb to the Temple of the Moon
Slightly closer to home and a more manageable walk if you can’t face the uphill battle to Sacsayhuaman in altitude, The Temple of the Moon is a gorgeous place to have a wander, a picnic, or to just sit on the grass and read. The ceremonial temple ruins provide shelter from the elements in the shallow open-faced cave which juts out from the rock. Keep a look out for women’s circles who walk here from the historical centre of Cusco to soak up the feminine energy and meditate.
3. Catch a San Blas sunset
The little square of San Blas is home to the artisan jewellers of Cusco, who line the streets selling their wares and performing music throughout the day. It’s a great place to buy some souvenirs, but don’t hurry home when it gets late. San Blas is the perfect spot to sit and watch the sun go down on Cusco, as the last of the sunlight hits the water in the fountain and the lights turn on in the houses on the opposite mountain. Pure chill before your big climb!
4. Hike Lake Humantay
An absolute highlight from my five-month trip around South America, Lake Humantay is a trial-by-fire test of your altitude acclimatisation. This hike requires a pre-booked coach tour which leaves Cusco at 4 in the morning to drive you to the site. The hike is very much a literal uphill battle, but the views at the top are so picturesque that the experience is unmissable. After all, it may make the Inca trial seem (almost) easy by comparison!
5. Take a Maras and Moray tour
These two sights on the outskirts of Cusco will further immerse you into the culture which surrounds the legend of the Inca Trail. Moray’s ancient circular terraces are the same style which you will see time and again throughout the Sacred Valley, while Maras’ salt mines have been harvested since the time of the Incas. Book a bike tour or rent quadbikes to see them both in one day, as well as the beautiful Andean scenery which connects the two.
6. Lake Titicaca day trip
A little further afield lies one of the highest altitude attractions in Peru, nestled in the birthplace of the Incas themselves. Lake Titicaca is a 7.5-hour coach ride away from Cusco, but if you book two night-buses either side, you have yourself the perfect day trip to the mystical land of floating islands and the centrepiece of South American spirituality. It’s a wonderful place to buy souvenirs and take beautiful photographs of the lake, plus you’ll meet the colourful communities who call the lake home.
7. Have a drink at Limbus Resto-Bar
Time for one last drink before you head off onto the trail! When it comes to places to drink in Cusco, no place can really beat the Limbus Resto-Bar. Get there early to claim one of the window-side tables with unparalleled views of the city beneath you. Just be careful getting back down the steps into the city after a few cocktails!
Hopefully with all these experiences under your belt, you’ll be feeling well prepared to take on the Inca Trail! Your trek will be five days filled with sights, sun (with any luck) and probably quite a bit of sweat. But when you get back to Cusco, don’t retreat into your hostel bed for too long – there are plenty more things to do in Cusco which will help you recover while you look back on your once in a lifetime experience.
How to recover from the Inca Trail in Cusco:
1. Check in to Wild Rover Hostel
So, you’ve just completed the biggest challenge of your life and you want to let your hair down and celebrate. Well there’s no hostel in Cusco that parties as hard as Wild Rover. They’ve got South America’s biggest Irish bar that’s buzzing every night, with crazy happy hours, wild drinking games, live music and top DJs, plus a terrace with famously incredible views over the city.
2. Visit the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco
Taking a look around and seeing the result of traditional weaving techniques handed down through generations of women is a wonderfully calming experience once you’ve finished the Inca Trail. While most of the products themselves may be a bit out of a backpacker’s budget (☹), the products are stunning and the centre includes a small exhibition about the history of weaving as well. The company is a not-for-profit organisation which aims to promote the empowerment of weavers by helping them run their business and sell their stock for fair prices. It’s also possible to join weaving classes, which are led by instructors who speak only Quechua and Spanish, which gives you a chance to learn this traditional skill visually!
3. Stuff your face at Green Point
There are so many wonderful places to eat in Cusco (and I had a lot of fun sampling all of them), but Green Point should win some sort of award for how delicious the food is. The entire menu is vegan, so it may not be the most traditional Peruvian option, but the lunchtime menu includes salad, a drink and a three-course meal for 18 soles (£4.50!). If you’re solo travelling, the staff can seat you in a section with shared tables, which means making friends is super easy.
4. Stuff your face some more
Not vegan? No problem. PER.UK is a fantastic alternative for the hungry carnivores who want to try an alpaca burger, ceviche, or other traditional meat-filled meals. The staff are all friendly and accommodating, and even if the food is slightly pricey, it’s definitely the right place to treat yourself at the end of hiking the trail! It’s one of the best places to eat traditional Andean food in Cusco for sure.
5. Healing House Sunday Yoga and Brunch
This is such a gem of a place. The Healing House is a yoga studio with a beautiful rooftop garden that offers mind blowing views of the city. If you turn up at 9:45am on a Sunday and pay 20 soles (£5), you can get an hour and a half yoga class followed by a brunch in the company of other like-minded travellers who come to stretch their weary limbs.
6. Chill out at Qura
Just down the road from the Healing House is the quirky little cafe Qura, with amazing coffee and hypnotisingly beautiful artwork and photography on the walls. This is the place to go to write up your holiday blog about the Inca Trail or to continue your conversation with that mate you made at yoga over a cuppa.
7. Take a trip to Pongobamba
About an hour’s drive from the centre of Cusco is the mountain village of Pongobamba. In November 2018 this little community won an award for its efforts in improving tourism. The community is about to start to offer homestays for travellers who want a traditional experience of Andean life outside the city. The paths surrounding lake Piuray make for a picturesque and relatively easy hike, and the community is in the middle of a reforestation project which would be a lovely way to do some volunteering during your time away!
8. Party at Mama Africa
It’s a few days since you got back from the trail and you’re ready for one last hurrah before continuing on your travels elsewhere. Of all the places to party and evening things to do in Cusco, Mama Africa is the one club in which travellers from all over the world go completely wild. The music ranges from worldwide classic pop hits to traditional salsa dancing and they also host workshops during the week if you fancy learning a new dance style. There really is no better place in Cusco for a boogie.
I hope you’re feeling prepped to hike the Inca Trail and ready for all the amazing experiences you can have in Cusco before and afterwards. Rest assured that with this list, you will have covered some of the most interesting, beautiful and unmissable experiences you can have in the capital of the Incan Empire. Just don’t forget your hiking boots!
About the author:
Rosie Esther Solomon is an English Literature graduate from the University of Birmingham who spent five months travelling around South America – and feels as though she barely scratched the surface! Other than travelling, she enjoys spoken word poetry, pole dancing and being a feminist killjoy. Find her @rosiees7 on Twitter and Instagram for bad jokes and pole photos, and at thebechdelbitch.com for travel blogs and feminist film reviews.