The Best Hikes In Cusco, Peru For Every Fitness Level

The Best Hikes In Cusco, Peru For Every Fitness Level

Most people go to Cusco to visit Machu Picchu. It is the highlight of Peru, a true bucket list trip, and it does not disappoint. However, there is a lot of fun and excitement around Cusco and The Sacred Valley that can be added to your itinerary. I recommend a week in Cusco to take advantage of some memorable Machu Picchu treks and other day trips from Cusco.

The hardest part about hiking in and around Cusco is the elevation. We went with a group of people with different levels of physical fitness. All of these hikes are entirely manageable for the average traveler.

How To Prepare For The Elevation

The elevation is an absolute beast in Cusco and the surrounding area. Cusco sits at around 11,000ft, and Machu Picchu is at approximately 8,000ft.

Whether you’ve done high-elevation hiking before or not, it should not be taken lightly. One of our friends got elevation sickness our first night in Cusco and could not move from the hostel bed for about 12 hours.

Here are some tips and tricks that have helped us prepare for the elevation.

#1 – Coca Leaf

If you’ve started planning your trip to Peru, you’ve heard about coca leaf and coca leaf tea. This natural plant grows in the area infamous for calming altitude sickness by opening the blood vessels.

Don’t underestimate the powers of the coca leaf. You will find different coca leaf products all over Cusco, from coca tea to coca candy to coca gum. You can even chew on the leaves. Find what you like the most and try to keep it on hand while in Cusco.

Caffeine and garlic also open the blood vessels and can lessen the symptoms of altitude sickness.

#2 – Altitude Sickness Pills

I avoided altitude sickness pills, but almost everyone I met in Cusco had them. You can find them at all the pharmacies and local stores throughout Peru, so if you forget to pack yours, don’t worry.

Taking altitude sickness pills is recommended BEFORE you start to feel sick. They can lessen the symptoms.

#3 – Ibuprofen

One secret a friend shared with us was to take ibuprofen a couple of hours before landing in Cusco. Anytime we moved from a low elevation to a high elevation place in Peru, we did this, and the altitude headaches were minimal, if not non-existent.

This is definitely a good tip for anyone looking to escape syptoms with an over-the-counter option.

#4 – Take It Easy

Don’t schedule too much on your first day in Cusco, mainly if you are not accustomed to high elevation. Cusco itself can be a pain to walk around with all the hills. Make sure you give your body time to adjust before scheduling anything strenuous.

And remember that everyone’s body will react differently to the elevation. Don’t feel bad when dealing with some particularly brutal elevation sickness; this is perfectly normal. Give your body the rest and love it deserves during your trips!

Where To Stay In Cusco

We stayed in a mixed dorm at Intro Hostel in Cusco. It was perfect for what we wanted. The hostel is reasonably priced (around $8 a night), with breakfast included, unlimited coca tea, nightly activities, and baggage storage for your trip to Machu Picchu.

The hostel was about a 20-minute walk from the “plaza de Armas” (center of Cusco) and up a tough hill, but we figured this was almost unavoidable in Cusco.

A photo of a weekend food market near the hostel
A photo of a weekend food market near the hostel

There are many hostels all over Cusco, all filled with like-minded adventurous backpackers! We try to stay clear of large chains, like Selina, to support the local community. Not to mention those large, infamous hostel chains tend to be more expensive.

How To Book Your Treks And Hikes

Generally, we love to do things ourselves. While we did some solo hikes, we found everything so much easier when booking through a tour company in the area. Most tour companies offer similar prices and quality of service across Cusco. You can ask around your hostel or other travelers about who they are going with.

Regarding Machu Picchu, booking your tour or buying your tickets as far in advance as possible is always best. We recommend booking things at least three or four months before your trip. While you can find bookings last minute, it becomes much more complicated the closer to your journey you are.

You can easily book other hikes and trips the day before.

The Best Hikes In And Around Cusco

There’s so much to see and do in Cusco. It is perfect for food lovers, shoppers, and travelers alike. But we went to Cusco for the hiking, so let’s dive right into the best hikes we found.

Our “classic Machu Picchu” photo
Our “classic Machu Picchu” photo

Machu Picchu

There are so many different ways to visit Machu Picchu, and with the magic of the place, you really can’t go wrong. We only had 5 days in Cusco, so we chose to go straight to Machu Picchu, but we met many travelers who did the multi-day treks and were thrilled with them

#1 – The Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is perhaps the most popular trek in Peru. The Inca Trail takes you to the route that Inca messengers took to deliver between Machu Picchu and the nearby city. There is something extraordinary about being able to take such a historic and well-trafficked route

#2 – Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek is quickly becoming the favored route to Machu Picchu. It doesn’t have the same historical significance as the Inca Trail, but many people we met said the views and the route were far more stunning.

We also met many people who did the Salkantay Trek on their own. With enough preparation and knowledge, this could be a good route for the more independent hikers.

#3 – Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu is the mountain opposite Machu Picchu, easily visible from the ruins. Huayna Picchu overlooks the Machu Picchu ruins and gives you a unique perspective of the area. This is highly recommended for those that was a slightly more challenging hike around Machu Picchu (it is listed as a moderate day hike).

We chose to take the stairs up to Machu Picchu. This is a straight walk-up set of stairs that may be challenging for some but is totally worth it in the end. It took us about an hour and a half to reach the top.

Where To Stay Near Machu Picchu

Unless you do a multi-day trek to Machu Picchu, you’ll be staying in Aguascalientes. I don’t recommend doing Machu Picchu in one day, leaving from Cusco. It is a long journey and would make you rushed on time.

In Aguascalientes, we stayed in a small guesthouse called Usgar Machupicchu Inn. We actually bumped into a few people we met back in Cusco, so it seems a popular place to stay.

Walking to our guesthouse in Aguascalientes
Walking to our guesthouse in Aguascalientes

The guesthouse is relatively simple but centrally located, with excellent service. Someone from the guesthouse met us at the train station and gave us a mini tour of Aguascalientes on the walk to the guesthouse. Breakfast is also included. Because we were going to Machu Picchu at 5 am, they packed a wonderful meal and snacks for us the night before.

Getting From Cusco To Aguascalientes

There are two main routes for those that stay in Aguascalientes; the Machu Picchu train and local buses. The buses are significantly cheaper, but better and more reliable options exist. We had friends who went to Aguascalientes by bus and were so horrified by the winding road and crazy bus driver that they booked a train ticket for the return trip.

On the other hand, the train is one of the most luxurious experiences I had in Peru. The train has glass windows that provide a clear view of the Sacred Valley and a beautiful environment.

One of the many stunning views from the train to Aguascalientes
One of the many stunning views from the train to Aguascalientes

We paid about $120 round-trip for our train tickets, which was worth every penny. We are typically budget travelers, but a splurge on this definitely felt justified by the end of the adventure.

Rainbow Mountain

I was just as excited for Rainbow Mountain as for Machu Picchu. I heard about this hike 10 years ago and knew I had to do it one day.

This is a challenging day trip. The hike is straightforward and shouldn’t take more than two hours. The problem comes with the elevation. Rainbow mountain sits above 17,000ft, making breathing and mundane movements more rigorous.

They do have the option to rent horses or four-wheelers that will take you most of the way to the top if you are worried about not being able to make it.

However, the views and the whole experience are, without a doubt, worth the struggle.

Escape The Crowds At Rainbow Mountain

We went to Rainbow Mountain on a tour, but many people chose to rent private transportation and go at different times. Most tours leave Cusco at 5 am and leave Rainbow Mountain by 3 pm. If you have your own transport, you can plan around the expeditions and avoid all the crowds.

But there are other ways to avoid crowds, even on a tour.

The crowds are out in full force on Rainbow Mountain.
The crowds are out in full force on Rainbow Mountain.

Once we reached the top of Rainbow Mountain, we went straight through the gathering crowd and off to the side (you will pass a little portapotty and see a trail that leads you behind the central mountains people climb too).

You can follow the trail through different mountains for as long as you have time for a completely isolated experience of Rainbow Mountain and the surrounding area.

The view from our “secret” hiking spot behind Rainbow Mountain
The view from our “secret” hiking spot behind Rainbow Mountain

Laguna Humantay

As much as I love hiking, laguna hikes were relatively new until I visited Peru. Huaraz, Peru, is full of all the infamous laguna hikes with crystal clear water surrounded by the stunning Andes Mountain peaks. Laguna Humantay is another taste of these unforgettable Laguna views.

Our guide told us this would be a relatively easy hike that takes 3-4 hours but be prepared for much more. This was a whole 8-hour-long adventure that was well worth the struggle.

A photo of Humantay Lake taken by a hiking friend
A photo of Humantay Lake taken by a hiking friend

Pisac City

Pisac City is a 12km ruins loop that takes you up the Pisac ruins and down the back. This is a rather challenging hike that takes about four hours to complete. Despite the difficulty, it is worth it for the active adventurers that want to see more of the Inca culture and experience these incredible views!

The Pisac City Ruins Loop is another popular choice for tourists, so you will likely encounter many other groups along the way. The crowd does not take away from the once-in-a-lifetime experience, however.

Final Notes Of Preparation for Hikes in Cusco, Peru

You can’t always be 100% prepared for a trip to Peru, regardless of how long you spend in this beautiful country. Here are some final notes and reminders for your future trip here!

  1. Things May Not Go According To Plan

You can’t plan every single detail of any trip to Peru. I am a planner, but so many things happened on this trip that we couldn’t prepare for.

Plan ABCDE

For example, we got stuck in Aguascalientes for an extra day due to local strikes. The trains shut down, most restaurants shut down, and the buses shut down. At first, we were annoyed and scared, but we ended up exploring the quiet streets of Aguascalientes and rebooking our train ticket.

This wasn’t the first strike we encountered in Peru, either. Peru is very much figuring things out, and sometimes not-so-ideal instances may interfere with some of your plans. But the best thing to do is keep an open mind and roll with the punches.

  1. Don’t Rush

At first, we tried to cram in as many hikes and trips as possible while in Peru. After all, there is so much to see and do. It is a bit overwhelming. But make sure to plan for rest days (or strikes that cause delay), especially if you are an avid hiker. Give your body a break so that you can thoroughly enjoy the next hike on your docket!

Sloth dont rush

The truth is, a place like Cusco has just so much to offer, and you may be unable to accommodate everything. Be prepared to add a hike you may not have heard of or cancel a scheduled hike. There’s nothing wrong with that.

On a similar note, never feel rushed to finish a hike within a certain time frame. Due to the elevation, the hike may seem much more difficult than you anticipated. Take it slow if you find you are struggling.

  1. Take Lots Of Photos

Hiking around Cusco and Peru was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Bring a fully charged camera ready to go because you will never want to forget these memories.

Take lots of photos

The most important thing is to enjoy yourself and have fun! The Andes mountains, the Incan culture, the incredible Peruvians, and the like-minded adventures make for an absolutely unforgettable experience.

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