Many visitors “do” Machu Picchu in a single day, taking a morning train out and a late-afternoon train back to Cusco. For possibly the most impressive creation of humanity you might ever see, that’s just not enough time there, in my opinion. Still, that’s all many people have time for. The Sacred Valley villages and famed markets (especially Pisac and Chinchero) also constitute day trips for loads of travelers. Again, though, the area is so rich and offers so much for travelers with time to do more than whiz through it, that the area—including Pisac, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, and Moray—is treated separately here, as is the great Inca ruins of Machu Picchu here.
A Cusco-area ruins hike, either on foot or on horseback, of the Inca sites within walking distance of the capital—Sacsayhuamán, Q’enko, Puca Pucara, and Tambomachay—makes for a splendid day-long excursion (or half-day, if you make at least some use of public transportation or a taxi). For more information on the individual sites, see “Inca Ruins near Cusco”.
Adventure travelers might want to concentrate on other outdoor sports that can be done around Cusco, including treks, biking excursions, and white-water rafting.
110km (68 miles) NE of Cusco
Most visitors who venture to very remote Paucartambo (and there aren’t many of them) do so for the annual mid-July Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen ★★★, one of Peru’s most outrageously celebrated festivals (it lasts several days, and most attendees, be they villagers or foreigners, camp out because there is nowhere else to stay); see the “Cusco’s Spectacular Celebrations” for more details. Yet the beautiful, small, and otherwise quiet mountain village might certainly be visited during the dry season (May–Oct) if you’ve got the patience to venture way off the beaten track. A few travelers stop en route to jungle destinations like Puerto Maldonado and the Manu Biosphere Reserve.
The peaceful colonial town, once a mining colony, has cobblestone streets and a lovely Plaza de Armas with white structures and blue balconies, but not a whole lot else—that is, until it is inundated by revelers donning wildly elaborate and frequently frightening masks, and drinking as if Paucartambo were the last surviving town on the planet. The colorful processions and traditional dances are spectacular, and a general sense of abandonment of inhibitions (senses?) reigns. Mamacha Carmen, as she’s known locally, is the patron saint of the mestizo population. During the festival, there’s a small office of tourist information on the south side of the plaza. More information on the celebrations is available from the main tourist office in Cusco.
Depending on when you visit, you might be able to get a simple bed at one of several small and very basic inexpensive inns in town, like the Hostal Quinta Rosa Marina and the Albergue Municipal, neither of which has a phone.
Another 45km (28 miles) beyond Paucartambo is Tres Cruces (Three Crosses) ★, sacred to the nature-worshiping Incas and still legendary for its mystical sunrises in the winter months (May–July are the best). Tres Cruces occupies a mountain ridge at the edge of the Andes, before the drop-off to the jungle. From a rocky outcropping at nearly 4,000m (13,100 ft.) above sea level, hardy travelers congratulate themselves for having gotten there, as much as for the sight they’ve come to witness, as they gaze into the distance out over the dense, green Amazon cloud forest. The sunrise is full of intense colors and trippy optical effects (including multiple suns). Even for those lucky enough to have experienced the sunrise at another sacred Inca spot, Machu Picchu, it is truly a hypnotic sight.
Getting There -- Gallinas de Rocas minibuses leave daily for Paucartambo from Cusco’s Avenida Huáscar, near Garcilaso (departure times vary; the journey takes 4–6 hr.). For the Virgen del Carmen festival (July 15–17), some small agencies organize 2- and 3-day visits, with transportation, food, and camping gear (or arrangements for use of a villager’s bed or floor) included. Look for posters in the days preceding the festival. To get to Tres Cruces, see whether any Cusco travel agencies are arranging trips; otherwise, you’ll either have to hire a taxi from Cusco or hitchhike from Paucartambo. (Ask around; some villagers will be able to hook you up with a ride.) Make sure you leave in the middle of the night to arrive in time for the sunrise.
23km (14 miles) SE of Cusco
Rarely visited by tourists, who are in more of a hurry to see the villages and Inca ruins of the Sacred Valley north of Cusco, the extensive complex of Tipón is nearly the equal of the more celebrated ruins found in Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero. For fans of Inca stonemasonry and building technique, Tipón’s well-preserved agricultural terracing is among the best created by the Incas and makes for a rewarding, if not easily accessible, visit. Peter Frost writes in Exploring Cusco (Nuevas Imágenes, 1999) that the terracing is so elaborately constructed that it might have been instrumental in testing complex crops rather than used for routine farming. Others have theorized that it may have been used as a park for Inca nobility. There are also baths, a temple complex, and irrigation canals and aqueducts that further reveal the engineering prowess of the Incas. The ruins are a healthy hour’s climb (or more, depending on your physical condition) up a steep, beautiful path, or by car up a dirt road. The uncluttered distant views are tremendous. The truly adventurous and fit can continue above the first set of ruins to others perched even higher (probably another 2 hr. of climbing). During the rainy season (Nov–Mar), it’s virtually impossible to visit Tipón.
Getting There -- Combis for “Urcos” leave from Avenida Huáscar in Cusco; request that the driver drop you off near Tipón, which is between the villages of Saylla and Oropesa. The site is 4km (2 1/2 miles) from the highway; it’s open daily from 7am to 5:30pm. Admission is by Cusco’s boleto turístico.
Pikillacta & Rumicolca
38km (24 miles) SE of Cusco
These pre-Inca and Inca ruins might go unnoticed by most, were it not for their inclusion on the Cusco tourist ticket. Although the Cusco region is synonymous with the Incas, the Huari, and other cultures preceded them. Pikillacta is the only pre-Inca site of importance near Cusco. The Huari culture occupied the complex, a huge ceremonial center, from about A.D. 700 to 1100 before suddenly abandoning it. The two-story adobe buildings, of rather rudimentary masonry, aren’t in particularly good shape, although they are surrounded by a defensive wall. Many small turquoise idols, today exhibited in the Museo Inka in Cusco, were discovered at Pikillacta.
Less than a kilometer from Pikillacta, across the main road, is Rumicolca, an Inca portal—a gateway to the Valle Sagrado—constructed atop the foundations of an ancient aqueduct that dates to the Huari. The difference in construction techniques is readily apparent. The site was a travel checkpoint controlling entry to the Cusco Valley under the Incas.
Getting There -- Combis for “Urcos” leave from Avenida Huáscar in Cusco and drop passengers for Pikillacta near the entrance. Both sites are open daily from 7am to 5:30pm. Admission is by Cusco’s boleto turístico.
Rainbow Mountain ★★
139km (86 miles) SE of Cusco
Seemingly made from Instagram, Vinicunca, also called the Montaña de Siete Colores, or simply Rainbow Mountain, has only recently appeared on the tourist radar. Located at an altitude of 5,200 meters (17,060 ft.) above sea level, about 3 hr. from Cusco, the sudden appearance of the multi-hued mountain can be attributed to changing climatic conditions. Once covered by glaciers, the ice melted and the minerals within mixed into the soil, leaving beautiful stripes of yellow, red, purple, and green (which are often greatly enhanced by Photoshop or social media filters).
About 1,000 hikers a day appear at the site on day trips from Cusco, helping transform the local economy but also endangering the site so many are coming to see (the 4km (2.5-mile) trail from the parking lot is already causing mass erosion). Most visitors are completely unprepared for how challenging this hike is. This is a steep trail at very high altitude and if the hiker is not in good shape or acclimatized, they can expect a miserable experience. Plus, the weather can become intense, with sleet and snow often appearing the higher one climbs, turning the trail into a river of mud. Still, it’s a beautiful site and there is little to compare it to elsewhere in the world.
Nearly every travel agency in Cusco now offers day trips to Vinicunca, for around $50 per person, which includes transportation, two meals, and a guided hike. Vans pick up hikers at their hotel in Cusco around 4am. Visitors spend around 4 hr. hiking at the site and vans return to Cusco around 7–8pm. For those who don’t want to walk, it’s possible to hire a horse at the site for about $15 per person.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.