The city of Cusco is deeply located in the Peruan Andes and was the former capital of the Inca empire. Most tourists probably come here to later visit the famous ancient city remaining of Machu Picchu but the city and the entire area is a treasure for diving deep into the lost culture of the Inca empire. The sacred valley is one of the spots no one should miss, when visiting this area. Furthermore there are also other venues like the rainbow mountain or the Humantay lake that let you experience the unique natural environment of the Andes. Be aware of altitude sickness, as Cusco is located at 3400m above sea level and the peaks reach up to 5000m.
Cusco city center
The historic center is located in the few streets around the Plaza de Armas and consists mostly of buildings from the colonial age. From time to time you can spot old remaining wall pieces of the Inca age. The Inca empire was at its peak before the Spanish arrived and Cusco was the capital of it, because geographical situated in the middle. The size was remarkable and reached from Ecuador down to Chile, far beyond of what we know today as Peru. The Inca provided infrastructure to their people and had built and well establish road system which was centered in Cusco.
Plaza de Armas de Cuzco
The main square of the town is characterized by the big cathedral in the top middle of it. Actually it was built on existing Inca infrastructure and was for them the center of their capital and their empire.
This smaller square is between main and the San Francisco square and has a chilled vibe to relax and enjoy the sun.
Plaza San Francisco
The 2nd large square in the center is named after the church dedicated to San Francisco de Asís.
Arco de Santa Clara
The arch of Santa Clara is an old remaining artifact from the age in the 18th century when Bolivia and Peru were for a few years a joint state. It ended in a war after already a few years. The arch was originally built to celebrate the reunion of the 2 countries.
San Pedro Central Market
The market a little walk through the Santa Marta arch to the west is quite typical for South America. Enjoy fresh fruits, handcrafted goods and delicious fresh food. I can highly recommend the food court there which has absolut pricey amuerzos menus for 10 soles.
Piedra de los 12 ángulos
This is a large piece of remained stones of an ancient Inca wall you can find east from the main square.
Another exiting trace of the old Inca culture and their buildings is Kusicancha which shows the remaining walls of an old palace.
The sacred valley of the Inca follows the Urubamba river and stretches from Ollantaytambo to Pisca and is definitely a must see when in the area. Besides the venues the view in the valley is just amazing and fascinating. There are plenty of tour companies offering a day trip to say a few archeological sights along the valley (cost around 25$). You need to be aware that you also need the regional tourist pass to enter the archeological sights (partial pass for 70 soles covers the 4 sights I describe here). I did a 12h tour that visited the following spots along the day.
The first stop was at the ruins of the Inca city Chinchero. There are plenty of old terraces and walls visible and you can also see that the existing colonial city was build on existing infrastructure. Here also the view in the mountains is amazing.
The next place is a little different because Moray was not a former Inca city, nut something like a agricultural test environment where the Inca people grew special seeds and also experimented with different climate behaviors. Therefore they built the 2 visible terraces in the shape of the deep holes.
A very interesting place are the Salineras because you will find there terraces for salt production through evaporation of salty water. You expect such a salt production infrastructure mostly near the ocean where there is plenty of salty water, but also there the volcanic terrain creates a warm and salty fountain. The salt is harvested by many families who owns one of the dozens of ponds at the terrace.
The Inca city of Ollantaytambo is the end of the sacred valley and for me the highlight of the trip. The mountain surroundings and the massive structures that have been built into the mountain is just mindblowing. Parts of the city actually were never finished because of the arrival of the Spanish.
At the other end of the sacred valley there is the Inca city of Pisac with its huge terrace all up the mountain. At one side of the mountain there are plenty of whole in the stone which have been ancient graves which makes this place the biggest known Inca cemetery. Unfortunately it has been destroyed by the Spanish.
A typical daytrip from Cusco is to the 3h bus ride away rainbow mountain and the red valley. As it is so typical it is quite crowded and if you arrive early morning in the parking lot, it is already full with other buses. The hike itself takes around 1,5h to the top and is not quite difficult. Be aware of the height beyond 5000m, that you will divinely feel at the last passage over some stiff stone stairs. At the top it is even more crowded because of a lack of space and you have to queue for getting your picture. When I was visiting it was cloudy and later also a snow storm occurred. So conditions were not the best as you can see:
With a litte help of computer magic you can easy make your pics also look like on the typical instagram pics from the venue.
Here again a comparison of the same pic without/with heavy filters.
Machu Picchu via Salkantay Trek
There are a few ways to take a multi day hike to the Machu Picchu sight: the Inca trail is the most popular and follows the ancient path. Another one is the Salkantay trek over the same called pass and coming from the back side to the sight. I chose the last one (version with 5 days/4 nights), because it has the saying to be less crowded. I can tell much abut that as I lack the comparison but from my experience there were max. 20-30 people in the camps per night. So it was OK. There are many information on the trek itself in the web so I wont repeat this here again but rather want to give you my impressions and leave you with some tips.
The first and the third day are really easy and you should take the chance to regain your energy level there, as day two and four are both over 20km walking distance. This only applies for the 5 day version, in the 4 day version the 3 day is a 20km+ hike. The option for the thermal baths on day 3 is worth taking but buy on the trek as I observed some agencies overcharging at the booking time.
Some collected impression from 4 days of walking the trek in chronological order:
My Tips for the trek:
- Don’t go back to Cusco via shuttle bus. It is a nightmare as it takes 8h and on the most booking website it is not mentioned. Rather pay the double amount and be back at Cusco in 3-4h.
- Take enough Soles with you – you will need it. There is for example no fresh drinking water supplied at the camps and you have to buy bottles 1l for 6 to 10 soles. Also Wifi, hot shower and other nice things all cost extra.
- Speak through you extra bookings (Wayna Picchu mountain for example) for Machu Picchu circuit with a pro. It is very complex with timings and entry slots so that i might happen that you miss your train or bus back.
- Walking poles are an assets as some passages are just stiff stone stairs over kilometers of distance that really suck out your energy.
- Everybody says the name wrong and rather „old penis“. The correct pronunciation is Matschu Pich tschu meaning „old mountain“.
The 5th day of the trek is reserved for visiting the citadel. Normally the entrance ticket is also organized by the agency but better double check here. Mostly likely you will access the citadel very early around 7:00. The chance of fog is quite high but when you are patiently waiting some minutes, the sky also clears up to get your shot. Very important: respect the place and don’t do stupid things like crawling on walls etc. There is a lot of security in the place, which I find very good, but I also saw people doing unnecessary things. I had just a normal circuit ticket (no mountains included) and was walking slow through with a guide in around 1,5h. The views and impression form the place were amazing and all 5 days of suffering on the trek was definitely worth it.