Heading to Machu Picchu? Why You Should Explore the Ruins Around Cusco First

categories: south america travel

machu-picchu-explore-cuscoTravelers heading to Cusco, Peru are usually there for one main reason – to see the wonder that is Machu Picchu.  All travelers have their own way of seeing Machu Picchu.  Some take the train and stay in the small town of Aguas Calientes, taking a day or two to explore the famous ruins.  Some go hardcore, hiking the classic Inca Trail, taking the same route the Incas did hundreds of years ago. Still, others take alternative treks, reveling in the solitude of the Andes on their way to one of the world’s most famous sites.

Machu Picchu, Cusco, Perú - Dic-2004

But before you jet off from Cusco for Machu Picchu, you may want to consider doing a little exploring in the areas surrounding Cusco first. There are plenty of Incan ruins around the city, and they are a fabulous precursor for the grand-daddy of them all.  You can make a nice day trip out of exploring these ruins by heading out of Cusco (you can do it on foot if you’d like) toward Sacsayhuaman, which overlooks the city and provides spectacular views.

Why Visit the Ruins Around Cusco

Part of a visit to Machu Picchu is understanding the history of the Incas. The entire Sacred Valley is littered with Incan ruins, all telling their own unique story about this fascinating society that was well ahead of its time. There are plenty of nice museums in and around Cusco that can educate travelers about the Incas and the architectural style that makes them so famous. But seeing some of these ruins in person, preferably with a guide, can give travelers even more information before making the trek to Machu Picchu.

It’s fascinating learning about the history of the ruins and the people who built them. One of the most impressive parts of Incan architecture is the fact that everything is so well thought out. What the Incas did from an architectural standpoint is pretty extraordinary considering that these massive walls are still standing after 500+ years (with absolutely no mortar). Everything also has some type of symbolic meaning. Many of the altars and rock carvings within the ruins are done in threes – symbolic of the three worlds the Incans believed in. These three worlds were represented by three important animals – the snake, puma, and condor. Learning facts like these will open up a whole new world when visiting Machu Picchu, and travelers will see many similarities between the ruins around Cusco and the most famous of Incan sites.

The Route

It’s about a one-mile hike from the center of town (Plaza de Armas) to the first set of ruins at Sacsayhuaman, but be aware that one mile is straight up.  You can certainly take a cab if necessary.  From there it’s about 5 miles (8 kilometers) to the town of Pisac.  In between are three more sets of ruins – Qenqo, Puka Pukara, and Tambo Machay – and if you choose to hike it, keep in mind that the hike to the ruins is pretty much all uphill, which does make for a nice, relaxing hike back into town.

Options for Visiting the Ruins

You already know that hiking is an option when visiting these ruins, and if you plan on hiking to Machu Picchu itself, then this is a great opportunity to get acclimated to the altitude.  There is no actual trail, only a road, but travelers hike this route daily so you won’t be alone, and everything is clearly marked and easy to find.

If you don’t want to spend the entire day hiking, then you can take the bus to Pisac and see the ruins in reverse order, walking downhill most of the way. The cost for the bus is only a few dollars.

If you don’t feel like messing with a bus, then grab a taxi from somewhere in town and take it up to the first set of ruins at Sacsayhuaman or the last ones at Tambo Machay and explore from there. Remember that taxis in Cusco don’t use meters, so agree on a price before departing. A cab all the way to Tambo Machay should cost anywhere from $6-$10US.

If you can get yourself to Sacsayhuaman, either by foot or cab, you can then hire a horse and horseman to take you to the rest of the ruins. Cost shouldn’t be more than about $7US per person.

There are plenty of tour operators in Cusco offering any type of tour imaginable, so keep your eye out around town for operators offering tours of the ruins around town. You can inquire in your hostel or hotel for more information or just start searching what the different tour operators have to offer.

The price to get into the four ruins is about $15US/person. Make sure you hold onto your ticket as there is not a gate, but you could get asked for it at any time during your journey. If you begin at Sacsayhuaman, then you will no doubt be approached by locals offering their services as a guide. Some speak only Spanish, and some speak English as well. This is a great opportunity to learn even more about the ruins, and the guides will give you all types of useful information that will be helpful for your time at Machu Picchu.

Visiting these ruins, particularly with a guide, is a great way to learn more about the Incas, their culture, religion, and society before seeing the most important Incan site of all, Machu Picchu. Most travelers stay in Cusco for a few days preparing for their journey, so you might as well make it worth your while. Exploring the ruins around Cusco, along with visiting the various museums in town, will have you pumped up and ready to see one of the most famous sites the world has to offer – Machu Picchu!

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Adam Seper

by Adam Seper

Ever since his year-long, RTW trip with his wife, Adam Seper is eager to share his experiences with other travel lovers. He writes full time for BootsnAll, focusing on long-term, RTW travel. Because of the six months he spent in South America, he's always willing to talk travel in that region, from finding a cheap hostel in Peru to exploring five unexpected treasures of South America. You can contact him through Twitter at @aseper.

3 Responses to “Heading to Machu Picchu? Why You Should Explore the Ruins Around Cusco First”

David Elwood


Great post. I also spent a day exploring Cusco with a guide. We visited the same sites and I took probably my best photos there. The culture, the people and the ruins were incredible. Thanks for reminding me.



I am fascinated by Inca and Maya lost civilizations; I hope to get there one day..it’s amazing how they built the town at that time; it is thought to have been a ceremonial place.

Zoraida Quintero-Hardie


I think you have done a great job with all these tips. My husband and I are starting our 6 day own way to explore Cuzco on the 18-12-11. For certain we will take a lot of your tips. I will write back to you after our own experience.

Thank for all.


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