When our time in Arequipa was over, it was time to catch yet another overnight bus heading north, to the famous city of Cusco, situated in the Sacred Valley. Although it’s a smaller city that Arequipa, it was much more busy and absolutely full of tourists. It’s the place people use as their base to explore many amazing archeological sites throughout the Sacred Valley, the most famous of course being Machu Picchu. We had allowed plenty of time for Cusco and the surrounding area, as we knew there was lots to see. Cusco is very touristy for a reason. The city is also very clued up on how to make money out of the visiting tourists, so there are many overpriced restaurants, and you have to buy an expensive ‘boleto turistico’ (tourist ticket) to be able to access any of the main tourist attractions (excluding Machu Picchu, which is expensive in itself!). However, we were of the mindset that we may only ever be there once in our whole lives, and we weren’t going to visit Cusco without visiting as many of the incredible Inca ruins as possible.
There are two main Inca sites that are situated in Cusco itself, Sacsayhuaman (pronounced as ‘sexy woman’), which is situated on a hill with an excellent view of Cusco, and Qoricancha, which used to be an Inca temple. Cusco was considered the historical centre of the Inca empire, and therefore the most important city in the whole of South America. Most of the inca buildings were completely destroyed by the Spanish, and Sacsayhuaman on the outskirts of the city, and Qoricancha are two examples where some ruins still remain. We walked up to Sacsayhuaman one afternoon, and spent a few hours wandering around the ancient citadel. Located on a steep hill, it is thought it was for military purposes, with an excellent view of the city. Qoricancha used to be a temple, which was destroyed by the Spanish and built over, but some of the old Inca walls still remain. This creates an interesting building with an odd mix of native and colonial building styles.
Our time in Cusco wasn’t all admiring historical ruins, however. The Rugby World Cup had begun (which from this moment on we will no longer mention after England’s tragic exit), so we visited Paddy’s Irish Pub (there’s always an Irish pub) to drink beer and watch the games. We stuffed ourselves on pub grub, and enjoyed the cosy pub environment, something we’ve missed since being away!
Also, much like the other cities in Peru and Bolivia, Cusco has an excellent market where you can buy everything from fruit and vegetables, to pigs heads (they have a special aisle for animal innards – yum), to bags of dead guinea pigs, to locally crafted clothes and accessories. If anyone reading this is thinking of heading to Peru, and doesn’t want to be horrendously ripped off all the time, I’d recommend always communicating with vendors in Spanish. Although we are clearly not Peruvian, we got much cheaper prices when we asked about products in Spanish, than when other tourists just asked in English. I’m sure South Americans all play the game of how much they can rip off tourists, which I’m sure is really easy as even when they rip you off it still seems cheap. Anyway, Cusco’s San Pedro market is excellent, even if you’re not there to buy anything, it’s an intriguing place to wander about.
Cusco is a great city, and we returned after visiting Machu Picchu for a few more days which gave us time to explore the less famous ruins too. I think a lot of people only go to Cusco en route to Machu Picchu, which may be unavoidable on a tight schedule, but is also a shame because the city has so much history and culture to offer on its own.
On our way to Machu Picchu we stopped for a day and night in Ollantaytambo, which is apparently the closest thing today to what an Inca town would’ve looked like. We stayed in a lovely quiet hostel right next to the river that runs through the town, a very short all away from the Ollantaytambo ruins. It’s also touristy like Cusco, but it’s much smaller, and definitely worth a visit en route to Machu Picchu. The ruins are right next to the town, so are really easy to get to. You can climb up the terraces and at the top there’s a great view of the small town which lies in the valley between two mountains. It was a great place to spend a day and good warm up for Machu Picchu!
We got the first train of our whole South American trip from Ollantaytambo to the town of Aguas Calientes, which is where the famous Machu Picchu is situated. We were really hoping that Machu Picchu would live up to its hype. We had to book our tickets fairly far in advance, which then dictated the whole order of our time in Peru. Although the tickets in to the site itself weren’t too expensive, the train journey there was very pricey (you can’t get a bus), and the town of Aguas Calientes also wasn’t the cheapest. We were really looking forward to seeing some of the most famous ruins in the world, but we were concerned that it wouldn’t live up to what we hoped. Absolutely everyone who visits Peru visits Machu Picchu, it’s a huge trend and we were hoping it wasn’t popular just because people felt like it was somewhere they ought to go. However, all our concerns were set aside, and the prices were all worth it when we caught our first glimpse of the incredible Inca city.
We entered the site and got our tickets checked at about 6.30am. As soon as we walked through the barriers we felt the first spots of rain, which soon turned into a torrential downpour. Our waterproof coats, that up until this point had been faultless, could not handle the crazy Inca rain, and we were soon soaked. We guessed which direction the main part of the ruins was in, and where the famous Wayna Picchu mountain was, which was behind a huge wall of thick white cloud. We could see absolutely nothing. Disheartened, we waited out the rain in a small cave under some trees, and hoped that it wouldn’t stick around all day. Two hours later the clouds began to thin, and they spookily parted to reveal an incredible view of Machu Picchu, which really still looks like a town and is remarkably preserved.
Later we climbed up Wayna Picchu, which was a tiring 40 minute scramble up a very steep and narrow path. We weren’t sure if we would be able to climb it, and we’re very grateful we hadn’t booked to go up in the first slot, which was during the peak storm time. But it was hot and the path had dried up mostly, so we took it carefully and luckily didn’t slip and fall off the edge (at points there was a fairly scary drop). From the top of the mountain there’s an aerial view of the whole site, which makes Machu Picchu look really quite small! It puts the inca city into context, and you can really understand why it wasn’t discovered again until the early 20th century – it’s on top of a mountain in the middle of thick forest. We then slowly (very slowly) descended back down, which was scarier than going up as you were facing down!
We spent the rest of the day exploring the ruins and taking lots and lots of photos. The weather held out and it was lovely and warm, and it was an excellent day. We walked through old buildings, which still had windows and doorways intact, all that was missing was roofs. Our day at Machu Picchu was a real highlight of our time in Peru, and I now understand all the hype!
So if we hadn’t had enough of ruins already, once we returned to Cusco, we took a short bus to Pisac, a small town with yet more inca ruins! We had a hearty lunch in the town before getting a taxi twenty minutes uphill (we didn’t fancy a long walk this time!) to the huge archeological site. The sun was low in the sky and the ancient agricultural terraces were bathed in golden sunlight. Much like Ollantaytambo, definitely worth a visit when in Cusco if you like picturesque walks and more ancient ruins!
After visiting the Sacred Valley, you can understand why it’s so sacred. The ruins are wonderfully preserved, showing the inca’s building techniques really stand the test of time (and earthquakes!). The region is full of amazing history, picturesque walks and an abundance of photo opportunities. It’s a gem of Peru and it deserves all the hype it gets.