Cusco didn’t do a great job of welcoming us, as we arrived to the cold and constant rain. However as it was the 6 January (Epiphany or Adoración de Reyes Magos). Celebrations were taking place throughout the Squares and streets and parades continued for several days after.
Despite the mass of tourists and tour agencies and restaurants touting for business, Cusco manages to hold it’s colonial charm. Amongst beauty of the Spanish architecture, I couldn’t help but feel saddened by the fact that this was once the capital 0f the Incan empire, now completely destroyed. Inca stones were even used to build the Spanish churches. Even the great Macchu Picchu is only a small royal estate compared with what Cusco once was. There is plenty to do in Cusco, from it’s many museums to the old inca city of Saysuayhuaman a 45 minute walk uphill. Just wandering around it’s picturesque streets and squares is delight.
The Sacred Valley
There are various Inca Ruins throughout the Sacred Valley. If you’re going to be visiting more than a few ruins your best off purchasing a 10 day Cusco Tourist full ticket (130.S) rather than individual or partial tickets, for more info see here. We made the mistake of buying only the (70.S) half-ticket that covers Chinchero, Ollantaytambo, Moray and Pisac. Saywauyhuaman for example is 70.S alone! The full ticket also includes a number of museums in Cusco. I would recommend starting with the sights in Cusco before moving on to the sacred valley and finally Macchu Picchu. There are one-day sacred valley tours which cover the places mentioned in this blog. You can expect to pay around 70 Soles including lunch. Otherwise you can use collectivos to get around and stay in the valley (we found it seems to rain a lot less in the sacred valley too).
On our way towards the sacred valley we stopped at Chinchero, which has Inca ruins, a small town centre and is also known for traditional dying and weaving of alpaca wool. It takes 40 minutes by collectivo from Cusco. Some of the fore mentioned day tours stop here on route to the sacred valley.
Salinas de Maras
These salt pans are thought to be pre-Incan and continue to be passed down through generations. Our guide explained that the salts are harvested and sorted by quality, with the best salts being sold to the government (then distributed widely, including abroad) and lower qualities in the local market. At the sight of the salt pans there are shops selling salts in different varieties as well as snacks and handicrafts.
We passed through here on the way in and out of the sacred valley. It’s the transportation hub of the valley. It could be a good place to base yourself. However I cannot say more about it as we didn’t spend any time here.
These circular farming terraces are an example of the Inca’s brilliance in their farming techniques. Moray is located near the town of Maras, close to the Salinas de Maras. From Urubamba you can take a bus to Moray and then a taxi to Salina’s de Maras. There are also half-day tours from Cusco to both sites (40 soles). This is easier than navigating it yourself and both sites are small, not requiring more than a half hour visit.
Most know this town as the place where you take the train to/from Machu Pacchu. It is also home to a large Inca ruin of the same name and the town itself is worthy of spending a day or two, in a pretty and relaxed environment, with a quaint town square and the river running through it. Less hustle and bustle than busy Cusco. The ruin is right beside the main town, unlike other ruins which require transport or a several hour hike.
Pisac again is a village nearby a Ruin of the same name. The Pisac Ruin is several kms uphill from the town, so you can hike up and down or take a taxi one or both ways. Both Ollantaytambo and Pisac are large Ruins that are worthy of at least half a day on their own, more than the day tours give you (usually 45-60 minutes). Pisac town is not as charming as Ollaytaytambo but is supposedly the best place to purchase silver.
Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu
Also known as Machu Picchu town, we only spent a few hours in Aguas following our visit to Machu Picchu. The only way to reach the town is via the expensive tourist train from Ollantaytambo (tickets vary, ours was $US68 one-way, included in our Inca Trail booking, go to Peru rail for more info). Locals have their own cheaper train. It’s an absolute rort but there is one way to avoid it. You can take a collectivo to the Aguas Calientes hydroelectric station, the closest point from which you can hike along the railway track to Aguas Calientes. Also If you want avoid the $US12 fee for the 10 minute bus from Aguas up to Machu Picchu, you can hike up, which takes about 1.5 hours. We didn’t do this but its a must if you’re on a tight budget. Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail trek was by far the most expensive four days of our entire trip, even counting our occasional splurges on nicer accommodations. It is a one-in-a-lifetime experience. For more info on the Inca Trail, see my blog entry about ‘Braving the Inca Trail in the wet season’.
If you’re not arriving in Machu Picchu via a trek, Aguas a good place to spend the night to get there early and even spend a second night if you’re planning on the budget option of hiking up the mountain/ train tracks. There are also hot springs which if you do want to visit (we didn’t) go in the morning, by mid-afternoon it’ll be full of hikers coming off the Inca trail who haven’t showered in four days!
The things to do in are around Cusco are endless and there are many other things I’d would have liked to do. After the Inca trek, we weren’t feeling like more hiking but there is a four day hike to Choquequirao, Machu Picchu’s sister city (supposedly even larger but still being uncovered) We seriously considered and made some enquires. The only way to reach this site is via a 2-day each way hike up and down a valley. Unlike the Inca trail it’s not a circuit and not yet popular. However I hear they are building a cable car directly to it and once this happens, the hoards will come. We also did a one day trek to Rainbow Mountain. I had mixed feelings about it, you can read about our experience here.