The impressive stone-built structures built by the Inca Empire are reason enough to visit Cusco. But there’s another layer, too. Amidst the glamour of the Inca’s ruins and history, it’s easy to forget that earlier cultures, namely the Wari and the Killke, also raised their empires here. Their legacy, even older and fainter than that of the Incas, can also be seen in and around Cusco. Browse our guide below for travel tips and top attractions on a tour to Cusco’s archeological sites.
At A Glance
Cusco was the former capital of the Inca Empire, the largest and most powerful civilization South America had ever seen. Like any imperial center, Qosqo was the place where Inca kings demonstrated their wealth and reaffirmed their power by building palaces and temples filled with unimaginable riches. The majesty of the stone city inspired awe and wonder among Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in the 1530s, but that did not stop them from reducing the Incan city to rubble and building their own city atop the ruins. Outside of Cusco, most Inca buildings met a similar fate.
The extant remnants of the Incas’ Cusco — Qorikancha, Sacsayhuaman, Tipon, and more — offer tantalizing glimpses of glorious past and are a definite highlight of the journey to Machu Picchu.
600—1000 AD, Wari civilization
From its political center near the modern-day city of Ayacucho, the Wari (or Huari) Empire extended its influence throughout the highlands and along the coast. In the Ancash province north of Lima, “El Castillo de Huarmey” is a recently discovered Wari tomb that somehow escaped the notice of grave robbers. The cache of artifacts inside the tomb is suggestive of significant material wealth and political power. Other major Wari ruins are located in Chiclayo and in Moquegua.
Near Cusco, 30 km from the historic center, the Wari built a ceremonial center called Pikillacta, or “place of fleas,” though its original name is unknown. Based on analysis of ceramic styles in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, archaeologists have found that the Wari did not have complete colonial control over local settlements outside of Pikillacta. Instead, relations were based on exchange and cooperation, and the establishment of Pikillacta may have been part of an effort to transition to greater direct control by sponsoring ritual activities.
The Wari culture collapsed rather suddenly in the 11th century, though scholars are still debating the reasons why. Very few artifacts have been found at Pikillacta; archaeologists assume the site was looted by grave robbers. See Attractions for more information.
1000—1400 AD, Killke civilization
Before the rise of the Inca Empire in 1438, many small settlements co-existed in the Cusco basin, among them the Killke culture. Recent archaeological studies have determined that the Killke were responsible for building some of the roads, aqueducts, and temples in and around Cusco.
Most significantly, carbon-14 testing at Sacsayhuaman reveals that the Killke constructed large sections of this iconic temple around 1100. Hundreds of years later, beginning with Pachacutec, the Inca Empire built over and adapted the Killke sites, including Sacsayhuaman, though standard historical narratives tend to gloss over this aspect. You can learn more about the Killke culture and their contributions by visiting one of Cusco’s pre-Columbian museums, including Museo Inka and Museo Historico Regional.
1438—1533 AD, Inca Empire
The Cusco kingdom existed as a small polity from around the 12th century. But imperial expansion did not begin until 1438, under the reign of Pachacutec-Cusi Yupanqui, whose name means “earth-shaker.” The Inca Empire was called Tawantinsuyu, consisting of four quarters (Chinchaysuyu, Antisuyu, Kuntisuyu, and Qullasuyu) with the imperial city of Cusco at its center.
Many archaeological sites in and around Cusco date from this period. Temples, palaces, irrigation systems, agricultural terraces, and the great road system called Qhapaq Ñan were built by workers recruited from around the empire in a system of tributary labor called mit’a. Notable constructions outside Cusco city include the royal estates of Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu.
Archaeologists who study Andean cultures have noted the influence of pre-Inca civilizations: the Incas’ large rectangular encloses resemble those of the Wari, while the use in the use of double jamb doorways and cut and polished stone blocks recall the Tiahuanaco (Lake Titicaca). Modern architects and engineers have marveled at the longevity of Inca stone constructions, which have endured despite their location in a geography prone to earthquakes and rainy season flooding.
In the years after the fall of Cusco in 1533, the buildings of colonial city atop the Inca ruins resulted in the simultaneous destruction and preservation of pre-Columbian structures. Many Inca palaces and temples were toppled completely and the stones were used as the building blocks of Spanish-style churches and casonas. But in some cases, the Inca walls were kept intact and incorporated into the new buildings. Santa Clara Monastery, the Archbishop’s Palace, and Palacio Nazarenas (formerly a convent, now a 5-star hotel) are examples of buildings with long sections of Inca walls.
Cusco has a history of severe earthquakes which resulted in the periodic destruction of Spanish architecture, while Inca-built walls remained intact. The Qorikancha is a remarkable example of this — when the huge 1950 earthquake tumbled Santo Domingo Church, exquisite sections of Inca architecture were revealed under the crumbled plaster. For the first time since the conquest, post-earthquake reconstruction efforts focused on preserving the Inca ruins, thus transforming the church into a must-see destination for travelers who want to know more about the history of South America’s oldest continuously inhabited city.
Outside of Cusco city, travelers can find stretches of Inca Trail branching out in the four directions of the Tawantinsuyo, leading to well-known ruins such as Machu Picchu and less-visited sites such as Choquequirao, Vilcabamba, and Espiritu Pampa.
The ruins of Cusco are remarkable for the way they appear to integrate seamlessly into the jagged geography. In fact, the Incas (and the pre-Columbian cultures that came before them) revered the natural landscape. Magnificent mountain peaks, caves, rivers, streams, rock outcrops and other geographical features were often the focus of worship rituals and imbued with special significances.
At ruins in Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu, you’ll see how temples, observatories, and even the footpaths were constructed in perfect alignment with surrounding mountains as well as the movement of celestial bodies. Cusco’s geography thus plays an essential role in Andean cultures past and present.
- Cusco city is situated in a mountain basin at 3,400 meters (11,120 ft), but you’ll experience higher and lower elevations as you move between different archaeological sites. The highest elevation sites are in the hills above Cusco, which rise to 4,000 meters. The lowest elevation sites are in the Sacred Valley and at Machu Picchu, which is almost 1,000 meters lower than Cusco. Be prepared to walk up and down hills and steep Inca steps when you go out for tours.
- The changing elevation also affects weather conditions at Cusco’s ruins. The higher elevation sites outside of Cusco are more exposed, meaning that the sun and winds are stronger and temperatures are colder at night. Some sites, such as Tipon and Moray, even have microclimates with noticeable temperature differences between the upper and lower sections. In and around Cusco, you can expect warm days and cold nights. In the wet season, rain can fall at any time of day, though usually in short bursts. Temperatures stay fairly constant throughout the year. See Seasonal info for details.
- If you’ve just arrived to high altitude, you might experience shortness of breath, fatigue or headaches as you venture out to explore Cusco’s ruins. This is normal and, for most travelers, these symptoms usually ease in 1-2 days. The best approach is stay hydrated and not attempt overly rigorous exercise immediately on arrival. Climbing stairs should be fine, you’ll just feel a little winded.
Cusco’s highland climate means temperatures are fairly constant throughout the year. The big caveat is the season, which may affect your experience of Cusco’s ruins. In the dry season, you can expect warm, sunny days. In the wet season, rain storms are unpredictable, though heavy rains are usually brief and episodic.
Rainy season or dry, you want to be prepared for all weather conditions when you go out to explore the ruins around Cusco. Generally, it’ll be cool when you go out in the morning, hot or rainy during at mid-day (both are possible in the rainy season), and cool again after sunset. Plan to dress in layers that you can add and remove as the temperature changes throughout the day.
*Note that nighttime temperature are warmer in the rainy season, colder in the dry season. Snowfall in Cusco city is extremely rare.
The gargantuan scale of Sacsayhuaman’s zigzagging terraced walls will make your jaw drop, even more when you realize they represent just a fraction of the original site.
Located at 3,701 m (12,000 ft) above sea level, on a high hill overlooking Cusco, the Sacsayhuaman ruins rise in front of a large esplanade the length and width of four football fields. The original walls were 3 meters (10 feet) taller. On the topmost platform were three circular towers. The tallest of these, called Muyucmarca, measured 20 meters tall (65 feet). According to histories written after the conquest, construction for the site took more than 70 years, required 30,000 workers recruited from across the empire, and was completed in 1508.
All of this was destroyed by the Spaniards. Stones were tumbled and used to construct the city’s cathedral, churches, and houses. As late as the 1930s, locals were using dynamite to break the large stones into smaller pieces.
What remains of Sacsayhuaman are the three stone walls and a faint outline of the circular towers. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the Killke culture began constructing the site began as early as the 11th century, before the rise of the Inca Empire. Recent excavations have also revealed Killke irrigation channels, temples, and ceramics in and around Sacsayhuaman.
Modern Cusquenos use Sacsayhuaman’s esplanade for the annual Inti Raymi festival in June. Across the esplanade, there’s a large rock outcrop carved with stone steps and a seat called the Inca’s Throne. On the opposite side of this rock outcrop, a smooth, curved section called the Rodadero is used as a slide by children (and the young-at-heart). In the dry season, usually on weekends, locals head to the fields outside the archaeological site to picnic, play soccer, fly kites, and cook huatias (underground ovens to bake different types of potatoes).
- Location: 1 km walking or 3km by road from Cusco Plaza de Armas
Also spelled Qenqo or Kenko, this ruin is an example of a hauca or w’aka, a naturally occurring rock formation modified into a temple. These holy places can be found everywhere in the Andes, and many of them have been used for millennia. Q’enko is remarkable for its size and the intricacy and quantity of its carved features.
Smooth stone steps lead to the top surface of the rock, which is completely covered with narrow, zigzagging channels and flat surfaces that resemble seats. The exact function of the channels is unknown, but many guides speculate that they carried chicha (maize beer) or the blood of llamas sacrificed in rituals.
On the ground level, a tunnel leads into a natural chamber. The cave’s sides and surfaces were polished into walls, niches, and a table. A shaft of light enters through a crack in the rock wall and is said to illuminate the table on full moon nights. Much of Q’enko remains a mystery, highlighting just how little we know about Inca ritual practices.
- Location: 1.2 km from Sacsayhuaman; 2 km on foot from Cusco Plaza de Armas
Meaning “red fortress,” Puka Pukara sits on the old Inca road that connected Cusco to the Sacred Valley. Due to its strategic location, the structure is often described as a fortress to guard the entrance way to Tambomachay or as a checkpoint to regulate foot traffic into and out of the imperial city. The site’s architecture, which includes fountains, aqueducts, walled rooms, and a wide plaza, indicate it may have had ceremonial functions as well. The walls of Puka Pukara are constructed of irregularly shaped walls that lack the beautiful craftsmanship characteristic of other Inca sites around Cusco. The red color of the stone comes from iron in the limestone rock. Situated just 1 km from Tambomachay, Puka Pukara is worth a quick stop for its views over the Cusco Valley.
- Location: 5.3 km from Sacsayhuaman
Also known as “The Bath of the Ñusta (Inca Maiden)” or just the “Inca Baths,” Tambomachay is an exquisite example of Inca hydraulic engineering. Built around 1500, the site consists of 4 levels of terraces built into the side of a hill. From the top platform, an underground spring emerges from a hole and cascades down the terraces through finely carved channels. On the last level, the channel splits into two streams that then pour into a stone basin. This is a prelude to the 16 fountains you’ll see at Machu Picchu. Beyond the site, a section of the Qhapaq Ñan (Inca Trail) continues into the mountains and down to Pisac.
- Location: 5.7 km from Sacsayhuaman
Temple of The Moon
Not included on a standard tour of Cusco, Templo de la Luna is a temple to the Incan moon deity located in the so-called “Zona X” which is dotted with other Inca huacas. Remnants of Inca walls mark the entrance to a cave. Faded carvings of serpents, a condor, and a puma can be seen on rocks around the temple, although the decorations were mostly destroyed after the conquest.
The cave interior has trapezoidal niches and polished surfaces. Daylight streaks in through a crack in the ceiling, and on the night of the full moon closest to the winter solstice (June), the moonlight illuminates the interior. The Incas worshipped the moon as a female deity and a symbol of fertility and in the modern-day people who want to have children pay a visit the temple.
- Location: 1.3 km (15 min walk) from Qenko
If you’re intrigued by the fountains of Tambomachay, you’ll definitely want to make time to visit the Tipon archaeological site south of Cusco. Wide terraces with finely sculpted retaining walls adorn a narrow valley. Ornamental waterfalls fed by an underwater spring emerge from the top of the mountain and flow from one level to the next through sculpted channels. Another interesting detail are the “flying stairs,” stones that emerge from the terrace walls, allowing access from one level to another.
Tipon is thought to have been a royal retreat due to the beauty of its construction. Another theory is that it was an agricultural experimentation center because the difference in elevation between the upper and lower terraces results in diverse microclimates. Tipon is connected to Cusco by a stretch of Inca Trail. Behind the site, the hill rises to Ranraq’asa pass at 3,800 m.
- Location: 30 km from Cusco
Located 30 km from the historic center on the road to Puno, Pikillaqta is a rare and impressive non-Inca ruin in the Cusco region. Also spelled Pikillaqta or Piquillaqta, this site was an outpost and ceremonial site of the Wari Empire, which dominated the southern Andes of Peru between 550-1000 AD from its political center near the modern city of Ayacucho (northeast of Cusco).
Remnants of canals, reservoirs, aqueducts, and terraces indicate extensive agriculture. Inside a large enclosure, a plaza, niched halls, and evidence of buildings 2-3 floors tall lead scholars to believe this was a ritual feasting site. Very few artifacts have been found during excavations, indicating that grave robbers may have looted the site over the centuries. Pikillacta was still incomplete when it was abandoned, probably following the sudden collapse of the empire.
- Location: 30 km from Cusco
Honoring The Indigenous Past
For most residents of Cusco, the region’s ruins are an embodiment of their ancestor’s legacy and achievements. Archaeological sites big and small, from the cyclopean boulders of Sacsayhuaman to humble huacas with barely visible carvings, are regarded as sacred and travelers are expected to show consideration when visiting these sacred places. Using common sense goes a long way — don’t litter, don’t disrobe, don’t mark or otherwise deface the ruins.
Festivals & Rituals
Cusco’s ruins are the setting for celebrations and rituals big and small by residents and visitors. For example, Inti Raymi takes places at Qorikancha in the historic center, eventually moving up to the wide esplanade of Sacsayhuaman in a day-long reenactment of the Inca’s winter solstice festival. Here, the residents of Cusco symbolically reaffirm their connection to the Inca past with the city’s most important ruins as an monumental backdrop.
Templo de la Luna and smaller huacas around Cusco are frequently used as a site for San Pedro ceremonies. The moon temple in particular is associated with female fertility and visited by couple seeking to have children.
Things To Do
Cusco City Tour
With a Cusco Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turistico del Cusco), it’s possible to visit the ruins in and around Cusco either on your own or with an organized tour. An organized tour is the best option for travelers on a tight schedule and who seek to learn about the ruins they’re visiting from a trained professional. Tours usually start in the historic center with a visit to the Cathedral and the Qorikancha before continuing to Sacsayhuaman, Q’enko, Tambomachay and Pukapukara.
For independent travelers with time and an exploratory spirit, it’s possible to take a combi (shared van) from the city to the last ruin, Tambomachay, and then hike to Q’enko via the Templo de la Luna, ending at Sacsayhuaman. From here, you can hike the last kilometer to the Plaza de Armas or pick up a combi from Cristo Blanco.
South Sacred Valley
If awesome ruins are your thing, you won’t want to miss a tour of the South Sacred Valley. The archeological sites of Tipon and Pikillacta are 45 minutes south of the historic center of Cusco, but can also be accessed via the southbound road from Pisac. These sites are less-visited, but quite impressive, and a must see if you have enough time on your Cusco itinerary. Often bundled with a tour that also includes Andahuaylillas, a 16th century Spanish church called the Sistine Chapel of the Andes.
The Inca past tends to dominate the Cusco tour circuit, which is fair considering these are the most visible ruins. But if you’re curious about pre-Inca culture, the best place to go is one of Cusco’s many pre-Columbian museums, such as MAP, Museo Inka, or Museo de Sitio Qorikancha, where you can see painted ceramics, ceremonial vessels with ornate designs, textiles, weapons, mummy bundles, skulls and other material artifacts that provide a glimpse into earlier times.
Horseback Riding and Mountain Biking Tours
Instead of taking a tour bus between Cusco’s ruins, why not explore by horseback or mountain bike? A few companies in Cusco operate these tours, providing an exciting options for travelers who like a little adventure in between ruins.
Where To Eat
- Restaurants and other eateries are limited in the vicinity of Sacsayhuaman and surrounding ruins. On the main road between Sacsayhuaman and Q’enko, alongside an alpaca wool factory and an art/jewelry shop, there are a few family restaurants specializing in fried trout and other Andean dishes.
- You’ll also see roadside vendors selling packaged snacks, bottled water and soft drinks, and boiled choclo (corn on the cob with giant kernels), with or without a chunk of slighty salty queso andino (Andean cheese).
- The best option, however, is to wait until you get back to Cusco city center, where a fantastic choice of restaurants await. After a long day spent exploring Cusco’s ruins, your appetite is sure to be roaring. See our Cusco city page for restaurant suggestions.
- South Sacred Valley Restaurants: Lucky travelers to the ruins south of Cusco have the option to indulge in delicious Andean specialties. The towns of the South Sacred Valley are where Cusquenos go to feast. If you follow the creed, “when in… do as…” you won’t want to miss stopping by Tipon for cuy, Oropesa for fresh baked bread, and Saylla for melt-in-your mouth chicharrones (deep fried pork) served with a side of choclo, potatoes, and mint leaves. Wash it all down with a cold Cusquena beer. If you’re with a guide, she or he will know where to go for these delicacies. Otherwise, ask the locals.
Visitors traveling from sea level to Cusco at 3,400 meters or 11,150 feet above sea level, should be aware of the possibility of altitude sickness. Most visitors to Cusco experience only minor symptoms (headache, lethargy, nausea) which usually ease within 1-2 days.
It’s easy to get dehydrated at altitude under the sun. Drinks lots of water and don’t attempt overly strenuous activities until your body adjusts to the altitude. Drink bottled water only and avoid water from questionable sources. Agua sin gas is mineral water; agua con gas is carbonated water — both are available for sell by vendors outside of ruins, but you should plan to carry your own when you start the day.
Cusco is considered one of the safest cities in Peru and the same applies to visiting the ruins. For a day tour, you don’t need to carry much besides water, a daypack for camera supplies and a jacket for when the sun goes down. Everything else can stay at your hotel. Don’t leave your belongings unattended on a big tour bus. Smaller tours are usually safer, but again, you don’t necessarily need to carry a lot of stuff with you for a day tour.
How To Get Around
Guided tours of Cusco city and nearby ruins include transportation. If you’re sightseeing independently, you can easily hire a taxi to take you to Sacsayhuaman and Tambomachay. Just make sure to negotiate a fare beforehand.
You don’t need to carry large sums of money on a tour of Cusco. You’ll need enough to cover tips, water, and incidental purchases. Be sure to have local currency in small bills, as making changes for large bills can be a challenge. There are no ATMs outside of Cusco city.
What To Wear
The weather in the hills around Cusco can change drastically from day to night. For the dry season, the sun can be quite intense during the day, but it gets cold as soon as the sun sets. Plan to wear light clothes (long-sleeve shirts are a good idea for extra protection), and also bring a warm fleece or a jacket in case your tour ends late.
For the rainy season, packing the right clothes to stay (relatively) dry can make the difference between an enjoyable experience and a wet, miserable one. Pack long pants made of synthetic, quick drying fabric (not jeans), a rain poncho to go over your head/daypack, and an umbrella to use during day tours.
Peak Travel Season
Cusco’s ruins are a must see and receive high numbers of visitors year round. However, the ruins are slightly busier in the dry season months of June, July, and August, while the rain puts a damper on tourism from December to March.
Greater flexibility is required for travel during the wet season (December to March). Heavy rainstorms may affect how many ruins you visit and for how long. Road closures due to landslides are also possible.
Best Time to Visit Cusco Ruins
For good weather and fewer crowds, visit Cusco in the shoulder months of April, May, September or October. But Cusco’s ruins are photogenic throughout the year, be it on a clear day in the dry season, or under dramatic clouds in the rainy season.
Is there a fee to visit the ruins in Cusco?
Yes (with some exceptions). All major archeological sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley charge an entrance fee. The Cusco Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turistico del Cusco) covers admission to a number of attractions in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The full ticket grants access to 16 sites in and around Cusco, while the partial tickets focus on either ruins or museums in Cusco or the Sacred Valley. The ticket is valid for 10 days after purchase and you must present it at official checkpoint outside the ruins anytime you visit a site. Your ticket will be marked to indicate you’ve visited the site. Re-entry is not permitted.
What is a tourist ticket? What sites in the Sacred Valley can I use it for?
A tourist ticket (or boleto turistico as it’s called in Spanish) is an official paper document which gives you access to a variety of museums Inca ruins with Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley. The popular Full Ticket is valid for 10 days and includes entry to 16 attractions, including the archaeological ruins in Sacsayhuaman, Qenko, Pukapukara, Tambomachay and other sites in the Sacred Valley. Note that a tourist ticket does not include entry to the Maras Salt Mines or Machu Picchu.
What’s the best way to visit the ruins?
- In the city: Within the historic center of Cusco, you can see fragments of Inca palaces and temples just by walking around the streets. Around the Plaza de Armas, you’ll see houses with beautiful Inca walls on the ground floor and whitewashed adobe walls and wooden balconies on the second floor. A definite must-see, the Qorikancha represents the most remarkable example of an Inca temple. On Hatunrumiyoc street, forming one side of the Archbishop’s Palace (behind the Cusco Cathedral), is where you’ll find the famous 12-Angle Stone.
- Cusco area: In the hills above Cusco, you’ll find a cluster of ruins including Sacsayhuaman, Q’enko, Pukapukara, and Tambomachay all within a few kilometers of each other. However, there’s no official or marked trail that links the sites together, and walking on the roadside is not especially scenic or comfortable. The most convenient way to visit the ruins is by car, either with on a guided tour or by hiring a taxi. There are also horseback riding tours that visit the Cusco ruins.
- South Sacred Valley ruins: To visit Tipon or Pikillacta, you can catch a shared bus (combi) from outside the historic center, hire a taxi, or go with a tour group.
Can I hire a taxi to visit the ruins outside Cusco?
If you speak Spanish, you can easily talk to a taxi driver around the Plaza de Armas or Plaza San Francisco and negotiate a fare for a trip to the ruins and back. For extra safety (and probably a higher cost), you can ask your hotel concierge to arrange a private driver. This is an option for travelers who’d rather visit the ruins on their own.
How much should I tip my guide?
Tips are a great way to show your appreciation to your guide.Of course, the amount of tip you leave is at your own discretion. A recommended tipping range is 10-30 soles per person for a half day tour and 20-60 soles per person for a full day tour. The tip ranges represent a total amount that varies on the number of people in your tour and can be divided amongst everyone.
What should I pack to visit the Cusco ruins?
In the dry season, T-shirts may be most comfortable, but you may want to wear a light long-sleeve shirt, a hat, sunglasses, and sunblock to protect against UV rays. In the rainy season, you might want to upgrade from jeans or cotton pants to pants made from synthetic, quick-drying material. Also indispensable: a light rain jacket and an umbrella or poncho.