Cusco and Machu Picchu are two of the main destinations that attract so many tourists to Peru. Cusco is essentially the gateway to Machu Picchu, but they are, in fact, separate destinations. Cusco was a very important capital city for the Incans, and was built in the shape of a puma, incredibly enough. The Incans had three different sacred animals representing the three levels of life: the serpent, the puma, and the condor. These animals show up all over – from the layout of cities, to the design of buildings, to artwork. It’s really pretty incredible how much thought and attention to detail the Incans put into everything, and how they were ingenious enough to actually pull off such impressive design feats!
There is no shortage of hostels and hotels to choose from in Cusco. We ended up staying at VIP House The Garden, which was a lovely little hostel that had some great views overlooking the Plaza de Armas. The hostel states that they are only 3 blocks from the plaza – it’s actually more like 5, with the last couple being up a fairly steep hill. It’s absolutely walkable, but if you go in expecting just a couple short blocks, you may be disappointed. We were very happy and comfortable there – our own little private room with private bathroom, good views, and breakfast included. I’m sure that that there are some very nice and even luxury hotels in Cusco, but it just feels right to be in a hostel in as true travelers/backpackers to explore the city.
Speaking of the Plaza de Armas, this is where most of the tourist activity is – restaurants, bars, historic sights, and tour booking and departure points (a good thing to consider when booking a hostel – make sure it is within easy walking distance). Again, when thinking about and looking into different tours/excursions, check with your hotel/hostel and pop into a few places that are on (or just off) the Plaza de Armas to compare and bargain for pricing before buying – the prices and what’s included (pick-up from hostel, food, etc.) are not fixed. There are so many different options of things to do and so many different companies to book through, that it can be a lot to take in.
Our first afternoon, we checked into the hostel and decided to make it a nice easy day to check out the Plaza de Armas and plan our next moves. We enjoyed a nice cafecito from a balcony restaurant overlooking the Plaza de Armas – beautiful views and perfect weather to be sitting outside enjoying an afternoon coffee. We also decided that this was the perfect time to redeem our online reservations/tickets that we had purchased in advance for the train to Machu Picchu, and also check out a few different tourist offices for pricing on different tours and things to do.
Our first full day, we decided to do one of the free walking tours of Cusco in the early afternoon. This gave us the morning to do some more walking around the Plaza, the Calle del Sol, and San Blas where we had a nice little lunch. The free walking tour ended up being really fun and interesting. Our guide, Elvis, was very knowledgeable and very entertaining. It was a great way to get to know the city and it’s history a little bit more while getting in a good walk and seeing things first-hand. It’s also a great way to see and learn many of the landmarks that are directly in town, as many of the bus tours will take you just beyond the city to several of the nearby ruins. On our way back through the Plaza de Armas after the tour, we came across an incredibly large street festival absolutely packed with spectators and people participating in traditional dancing with big marching band accompaniment. It was truly a spectacle and something that we both found riveting and amazing! [You can see a clip of it here around the 3:40 mark.] Bizarre Note: During this neat festival with all of these adults dressed up and dancing and playing instruments, there were also little 5-7ish year old kids running around in full gorilla suits…as a part of the festival! I have no idea what the significance of these little gorilla children were…
Side Note: Cusco is truly a tourist city, and one of the interesting things when going on some of the different tours is learning about and talking to some of the other tourists. For example, the two Russians had been living in the US for the past few years working in IT but had managed to take off for a couple of weeks to travel through Columbia and Peru. The Norwegian had been travelling the world for over nine months! Literally the entire world – from Asia to the US to South America, the list of places he had been was impressive and he still had a couple more months to go he said.
The following day we got up early to go to on a bus tour of the Valle Sagrado, “Sacred Valley” which is just outside the city of Cusco. This was a long day of touring that started around 8:30am and didn’t end until around 7:30pm with several stops along the way. [Important Note: In order to go to the ruins, you need to purchase a boleto turistico “tourist ticket,” which will allow you entry to each stop. There is a one day ticket that will get you into five places for about 70 soles which coincides with the Sacred Valley bus tour. You can purchase this at your first stop in Pisac or before you go on the tour. This is what we purchased because we knew we were just doing the Sacred Valley tour one day. They have a full tourist pass that will get you into about fifteen sites and is good for ten days – if you are sticking around for a longer period and are planning on those extra visits and destinations, this is your better bet.] We started in Pisac, which was really just a quick stop with some neat shopping trinkets to bargain for. Then we went a little further into Pisac to see a neat little jewelry shop where silver was coming in from nearby mines and being fashioned into neat jewelry of (allegedly) very high quality silver! Pisac also has some incredible ruins that we were able to visit, with absolutely amazing views up in the mountains.
These Incan ruins are really impressive. And the Incans themselves were so impressive and so ingenious in so many ways – they actually used the terraces at this site as an agricultural testing ground for the best growing methods for the many varieties of corn and potatoes they harvested. They played with the different layers of clay, sand, dirt, and fertilizer to find which combination of layering was most effective and most water efficient – truly brilliant by them! The ruins – and many of the historic buildings in Cusco – are still at least in part, in tact because the Incans were able figure out how to create structures that could withstand earthquakes. Again, a sign of how advanced they were in many different respects.
We moved on from Pisac to Urubamba for a lunch buffet. The lunch buffet was the only stop we made there. Then, it was onto Ollantaytambo to see more ruins and do some serious stair climbing – over 200! Ollantaytambo is the official start of the Incan Trail for those who decide to hike it. It is also one of two departure/arrival points for the PeruRail train that goes into Aguas Calientes to arrive at Machu Picchu (the other station is located in Poroy). [Note: If we had realized this ahead of time, we might have taken the tour to this point and just stayed in Ollantaytambo for the night and taken the PeruRail train from there up into Aguas Calientes. But we didn’t know that using the Sacred Valley tour to get to Ollantaytambo and then heading directly into Machu Picchu was an option.]
Ollantaytambo is another place to appreciate how the Incans were able to construct and plan their architecture with such precision and detail that it’s truly amazing. They constructed Ollantaytambo in the shape of a llama, and at certain times of the year, the sunlight would beam through the mountains directly onto the eye of the llama. Also, as you look across to the mountain next door, you can see that the Incans were somehow able to carve a face into the mountain along with some grain storage units. Truly incredible.
After all of the walking through Ollantaytambo, we were exhausted but the tour was not through. (By the way, it wasn’t just us; our tour guide was also exhausted at this point – he was breathing pretty heavy and took a little catnap on our way to our last stop.) Our last stop was Chincheros, and as we arrived the sun had already set and it was quite dark. In Chincheros, we saw more terrezas for farming an a historic church. Even cooler than that was the celebration that was still going on here to celebrate the birth of the Virgin Mary – the same reason for the celebration the previous day in Cusco. There were posters and signs that were 15 feet and higher along with a packed plaza full of dancing and drinking.
Afterwards, we stopped by a textile shop. We saw some really neat demonstrations showing the entire process of how clothing is made – from combing out alpaca/lamb wool, spinning it into thread, dying it various colors from natural roots and berries, and then weaving it on a loom. It was definitely a neat process worth seeing how the entire process can be done by hand, and also how they are able to use and infuse color with natural resources (one in particular was a cactus worm that was used for red coloring; add some lime to it and you end up with a bright red!).
By the time we arrived back in Cusco it was 7:30pm, and we were tired! We also knew that we had an early start the following morning because that was when we were up at the crack to dawn to take the thirty minute taxi ride to Poroy to catch the PeruRail train into Aguas Calientes on our way to Machu Picchu.