7 days in sunny Cusco

After having an absolute great time together in New York, my friend decided to visit Peru, finally… And now that I think of it, that was the first time a friend from abroad was visiting me in Peru. That was time to show off my skills to arrange an itinerary that could cover the highlights, leave space to relax and enjoy of more under the radar experiences, and yet fit everything in just one week!

When she landed in Cusco we headed home for lunch, then to our hotel in the Sacred Valley. Now here, there is a great piece of information if you are planning to visit Cusco, as I said in another post the city is at 3,400 meters above sea level, which makes some people experience high altitude sickness. However, there is no rule that applies to everyone to know if you’ll get it or not, as some of the best things in life, you just find out when you land!

That being said, there is a way to reduce the effect of high altitude sickness, and no, it is not taking pills, it is booking your accommodation for the first days in the Sacred Valley which is located at 2,800 of altitude, and has even better weather than Cusco, believe it or not ;-). In the Sacred Valley you’ll find the magnificent remains of the Inca Culture expressed in many ways.

There are two ways to get to the valley by car from Cusco. Via Pisaq, and via Chinchero, the latter is the route we chose to start. Chinchero is at 3700 meters of altitude, and it is great to visit for half a day. This town is famous for its women weavers, whom have preserved Inca traditions and techniques for generations, here, besides visiting the beautiful Inca ruins, you will find the finest textiles. There are some places where you can see how these ladies dye wool and the instruments they use to produce what you will most definitely buy and get back home.

Cusco 2011 437

Our next stop was Urubamba, this is the centre of the Valley, and one of the biggest towns. In itself it is not so remarkable but it concentrates the best restaurants and hotels, plus an incredible view of the mountains surrounding the area. The local market is, however, something worth exploring if you got the time, where you will find a colorful offer of fruits and veggies in display, you may even find out a few of the 3000 types of potatoes that grow in the country, yes 3000!

After enjoying of a quiet night at Sol & Luna Hotel (which without any doubt is the best experience you can have in the valley) we woke up in the morning in one of the rooms surrounded by gardens, and where the only sound that could possibly disturb your dreams is the chant of early birds, in fact if you wake up before 6:00 am you may even be able to capture a photo of a Giant Humingbird.

iphone 036
Sol & Luna gardens

Our day took us to two places that I am fond of, because I went there often when I was a kid. First, Moray, it used to be sometimes ignored by conventional tours to the valley because it is needed to make a detour from the route, but it’s worth a thousand times, and I’m pleased to know that now it is far more popular. Here you can find unique architecture designed to adapt crops from other regions of Peru, each terrace you see has a different temperature and micro climate. Moray is impressive, beautiful and magical for when you get to the bottom you can feel a special kind of energy flowing to and through you, if you don’t believe me try it for yourself and then let me know 🙂

Cusco 2011 402
Terraces of Moray

Not far off from Moray there are the salt mines of Maras, they come from ancient times, and until now the community takes care of it, we made a little walk through the nearly 3000 little salt wells, and appreciated the unforgettable landscape.

Cusco 2011 359
Salt mines of Maras

So much already for a day, but not yet finished, after half a day in Moray & Maras we headed to Ollantaytambo (Ollanta is an easier version of the name that everyone will also understand) to visit the fortress, which is another favorite place for me, mostly for the challenge of reaching the top and the rewarding views over the valley from there. After the visit we had something to eat before catching our train to Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu).

Cusco 2011 054
Fortress of Ollantaytambo

Aguas Calientes is rather a crowded little town that concentrates a lot of hotels, restaurants and shops. Not so much to do, but I strongly advice to spend the night there in order to take the first bus to Machu Picchu (Quechua name for Old Mountain) the next morning. A useful tip here, make sure to buy the bus tickets (to and from the citadel) as soon as you get there, don’t wait till the next day.

An early morning is worth when you see the sunrise at Machu Picchu, when the fog and clouds clear up in front of you, just to unveil the magnificent view ahead, the citadel has been waiting for more than 500 years for you, and finally you’re there just imagine! Well I guess that’s what a person that goes there for the first time feels, I have been there far more times than I can recall, yet every time it’s special.

Cusco 2011 170
Sunrise in Machu Picchu 😉

I will disappoint you a little and not go in depth about Machu Picchu in this post (I will keep it for a next time) but will instead talk about the first time I hiked up the Wayna Picchu, the taller mountain you see in every classical picture of Machu Picchu. To be able to enter here one needs to book it in addition to the regular Machu Picchu ticket, and there are only two groups of 200 people each allowed in every day, one at 7:00 am and the other at 2:00 pm, the hike is not too complicated but the altitude from the base to the top is relatively challenging even for a local (that’s me) and the roundtrip takes up to three hours.

Cusco 2011 275
The tallest mountain is Wayna Picchu

Hiking up Wayna Picchu (Quechua name for Young Mountain) I discovered I am scared of heights, specially in one part of the path on the way down where to one side there was a wall and on the other 900 meters of cliff, but don’t worry I made it back, and so will you, even my friend did, by sitting one stair down at a time, because if I was scared, she was terrified. Anyway, that is just one more adventure in the bag when you sign the book upon returning to the starting point, to then make the tour to the citadel.

Cusco 2011 191
View from Wayna Picchu (the zig-zag is the bus road)

Our trip continued back to the valley for another night, to sleep off the adventure of the day, not without enjoying a full-body massage, which in this cases is heaven, you should think about fitting a massage in your schedule at some point of your trip to Cusco, trust me!. The next day we made our way to Pisaq before returning to Cusco.

Pisaq is another beautiful place in the valley, very dear to me, one because of its Inca remains that are quite unique -if you have the time you can even hike from the little citadel on top of a mountain down to the town-. Two for its handicraft market which is one of the most picturesque and beautiful I’ve seen in my life, you can walk around and see the artisans working on their pieces. Three for its giant corn and cheese which you can find also in the market, there’s no more traditional and delicious thing to eat when you visit the area, because the valley is where the giant corn is grown, fresh and juicy, yummy!.

Cusco 2011 508

Four because at this point I can not think of anything else than food, the Empanadas, stuffed with cheese, onions, tomato and oregano, just taken out of a clay oven and ready to melt your senses, okay, I give this to you, this might be in heavy competence with the corn and cheese for you to try, I can’t decide, so I will leave it to you, hoping you can tell me which one you liked the most. Additional tip, there is one and only one of the several ovens in town that makes the best empanadas, it is located in Mariscal Castilla street and it’s called Horno San Francisco.

On the way back to Cusco, there are two options to stop by, one is Awana Kancha where you can see llamas, alpacas and vicuñas and learn about textiles, and/or you can visit the family ran Cochahuasi zoo. Now before you disregard the idea, know that I don’t like the idea of capturing an animal from its natural habitat and reduce it to live in a cage. However, in this particular zoo, all animals have been rescued from places where their lives where beyond hard and miserable, and now they (or at least most of them) are unable to readapt to their natural environment, there is also chance to closely interact with Condors! We both were happy to contribute with this family to continue their work rescuing more animals.

Cusco 2011 542
Rescued Condor

The last leg of our week was a couple days to enjoy Cusco and relax a little before my friend took her plane back to Europe. At this point she didn’t feel the altitude that much, and we could walk through the charming narrow streets of my favorite city in the world, you can read more about Cusco here, and I promise I will dedicate another post on more things to see and do there.

Cusco 2011 592
Classic view of the rooftops in Cusco centre

Now, this has been probably the longest post ever, thank you for keeping up with me until the end! I have to give especial credits to my dad for showing us around that trip and sharing his knowledge about almost everything we saw. There is much more to tell about Cusco, Peru and the world, and this is just the beginning, I enjoy a lot writing and recalling so many warm memories of my trips, of home, my life lessons, and dear friends as I met fantastic people on the way. So I hope you feel the joy and excitement in my words.

Until the next adventure! In the meantime… Hasta pronto! See you soon! Auf Wiedersehen! A presto! Au revoir!