Cusco, at 3.400 meters is totally a tourist trap, full of both cheap and expensive restaurants, hotels, spas and everything to get foreigners and locals alike to part with their Peruvian Soles. We loved it! Our accommodation in the touristy San Blas part of town, Hotel Casona Les Pleiades was perfectly located, only five minutes walk from Plaza de Armas and a host of shops selling alpaca clothing, jewelry, and all things Peru. We arrived from Puno after a six hour bus ride, and as we have found with most cities the outskirts of town and where transportation facilities exist are not the prettiest – it got far better when we passed through the main plaza and arrived at the San Blas neighborhood, with its steep and narrow Spanish built streets.
Puno and all of Bolivia were far cheaper than Cusco, although with the additional expense came an amazingly clean, prosperous, and colonial city, one that I found exhilarating. We had two days in Cusco prior to the start of the Inca trail trek and another five days on our return. Judging by the Inca ruins and attractions in the vicinity I was not going to get bored! On our arrival we had no choice but to familiarize ourselves with the city, at least with the decent parts, and find Peru Rail, Peru Treks, Wayka Treks and the Machu Picchu offices – Inca trail, Machu Picchu tickets and briefings were awaiting us.
Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire until the Spanish arrived in the year 1534 and threw a spanner in the works! The Spanish influence is definitely obvious nowadays with amazing churches, a cathedral and narrow colonial streets, with far less Inca infrastructure showing in the city itself. Outside of the city ruins abound in all directions, with the mac daddy of them all, Machu Picchu being only a hundred and twenty kilometers away by train. I was excited and eager to explore.
We were on a high, albeit shattered after getting back on the train from Machu Picchu – the hotel we stayed at prior to leaving had moved us to another room as suite five was already reserved. We had no windows, and although the room was still nice we wanted our old room back. I told Andrea we only had to put up with this for two nights as we had no choice!
I only had 4 days to explore and like I said, Cusco is a tourist trap so gaining entry to the cities museums, cathedral and the surrounding area ruins was not going to come cheap. I could either pay seventy Soles a day to enter many of the different sights or buy a ten day pass for one hundred and thirty Soles, or around fifty Dollars. This allowed access to pretty much all the ruins in the towns along the Sacred Valley, a a couple of the museums and churches in the city, although strangely enough not the Cathedral, which was another twenty five Soles each, and a few of the other historical sights. I bit the bullet and bought the pass and first thing Tuesday I headed out on the first of my three daily outings…
Saqsayhuaman, Qénqo, Pukapukara & Tambomachay
These four sets of ruins are within walking distance of the city and after covering eighteen kilometers I had seen them all, and as a bonus I found some very neat tourist shops on my travels. Couldn’t wait to drag Andrea back to them after work this same night, which as I thought totally paid off with us buying gifts for ourselves and friends and family back home. The ruins themselves were pretty small and low key, with the exception of Saqsayhuaman, perfectly pronounced as “Sexy Woman”, which was pretty amazing with the largest and most perfectly placed stones I had seen so far.
The Qénqo ruins were a further kilometer along the road but with very little to explore I quickly moved on, passing by many local artisan stores selling the most amazingly colorful weavings, paintings, clothing and ornaments. It would be very easy to spend many hundreds, if not thousands of Dollars here on the silverwork and intricate weavings! The final ruins at Tambomachay were more interesting with a water feature and many niches built into the stonework.
Chinchero & Moray
Fortunately nothing in this area is too far away by bus so I went for two locations today, beginning in Chinchero at around twenty eight kilometers from Cusco. As well as the towns ruins there is a thriving farmers market (except on the day that I visited!) and the ancient Inca trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu passes through. I chose not to hike the ancient trail and go spend a couple hours exploring the ruins instead. Once again the Inca folk amaze me, this time with the accuracy and amount of terraces at this site. Used for agriculture, where the different levels give micro-climates, with every terrace or two bringing a change in temperature, allowing for a wide range of planting options.
Next stop, Moray, which turned out to be more of an adventure due to my map making it look like it was easy to get to. I found out that I would have to get a bus all the way to Urubamba or get off half way and try to find a cab to either take me the four kilometers to Maras or the entire thirteen kilometers to Moray – the latter worked out well and I jumped in a taxi with two local ladies to Maras where the taxi continued with me to the unique Moray ruins. I still had no idea how I was going to get back to Cusco as Moray is well off the beaten track! It was worth the trip as these circular terraces were very unusual, consisting of several enormous terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is about thirty meters (ninety eight feet) deep. The purpose of these depressions is uncertain, but their depth and orientation with respect to wind and sun creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C (27 °F) between the top and bottom. This large temperature difference was possibly used by the Inca to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops.
Due to dwindling fitness my decision was to walk at least the nine kilometers to Maras, if not all the way to the road where I could catch a bus back to Cusco. I had only gone a couple of kilometers when a bunch of brick makers yelled me over, probably feeling sorry for me walking in the rain! It was a family affair with a couple of kids, a few guys who were obviously the workers, women for the cooking and the grandparents just to keep them company. I could tell that the guys make the clay bricks as their bare feet gave it away, coated with dried dirt from all the stomping in thick red clay. I was offered the biggest plastic cup full of Chicha, a dirty looking corn beer made from maize and very popular throughout the Andes region, which I gladly accepted along with handfuls of maize that had been prepared for the workers lunch. A couple of photos later and I bade them farewell, thankful that they had told me to follow the powerlines straight through their crops getting me to Maras far quicker! I had seen many buses and taxis full of tourists pass me by on the road but none had experienced the friendliness with the locals that had just made my day. This is what travelling is all about.
Pisac & Tipón
Today for me was all about getting my second serving of Cuy, or guinea pig for all you pet lovers. Tipón is supposedly the place to go for getting a tender young specimen that has been stuffed with a special local herb called huaycatay. First off I headed to Pisac for yet more Inca ruins, where I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived in the midst of the Thursday market, sadly aimed mostly at tourists. The place was packed with tour buses full of all nationalities trying to find that special Peruvian sweater or silver Inca warrior – I had to get out fast and hit the trails. After seeing signs displaying almost ten kilometers to the ruins I was concerned that I would be paying for private transportation, something that changed as soon as I came across the local tourist information office. All I had to do was walk straight up the steep hill behind the market and follow the trails, perfect.
With no one else on the lower trails I though I’d lucked out and would have the ruins to myself, but how wrong was I. It was great passing more of the terraces where crops were grown, with sporadic buildings perched on the hillsides, until I arrived at Intihuatana, the highlight of the ruins. The tour groups must have left early, with crowds now heading back down the hill towards Pisac! I continued heading further along the trails, through a tunnel cut into the hillside, before spotting two further sets of ruins that must have been reachable by vehicle – far too many people being guided through the ruins so I decided to turn back. I’d had my share of Inca ruins over the past ten days so didn’t feel that I was missing out on anything.
How was I now going to get to Tipón was my immediate thought, and with my map making it look easy I highly doubted it. Hunger had set in and I hoped that the cuyerias were still serving! After finding the micro-buses I jumped in the one heading to San Salvador where I was told there would be a bus to Cusco, via Tipón. The schedule worked like a treat and I was soon following the instructions provided to me by a Cusco restaurant worker for supposedly one of the best cuyerias in Tipón. No sooner had I stepped foot through the gate than the owner was inviting me to sit down for Cuy al Horno, or clay oven roasted. My only disappointment was not being able to see my lunch running around prior to meeting its maker! Served upside down, claws and teeth still showing, with a plate of potatoes, noodles and stuffed peppers, I couldn’t wait to dive in – its pointless trying to use a knife and fork, besides they only give you a fork, so I ate like the locals and picked the entire thing up whole. A little gamey, greasy with not much meat but still worth it.
Being pushed for time I wasn’t sure I could make the agricultural ruins high up on the hillside. I had already arrived back in Cusco the previous day after Andrea had finished work, and it certainly wouldn’t be a good idea to have a repeat of that – going against my good judgment I still had a couple of hours so after asking how far I had to go I decided to make a rush for them. I went up, up and up, and kept being told the site was close by – umm, close by whose estimations? With wide terraces and water still rushing through numerous irrigation channels, most of which I only managed a fast walk through, snapping a few photos as I went before running back to the main road in town, hopefully in time for a bus or micro back to Cusco. Yep, this time I was an hour late and had to promise that when I went out discovering I’d be back well before Andrea finished work for the day. Sorry honey!
September 2nd – September 13th 2013