Both Peruvians and travelers had been enumerating the beauties of Cusco at annoying levels, so that I had quite lost my interest in reaching the heart of Gringoland.
After all these months traveling off the beaten path, finding myself surrounded by loud tourists and their selfie sticks was not an exciting idea. Yet, as soon as I set foot in Cusco, I understood what all the fuss was about. The reason why the city was so popular was immediately clear to me.
With a mix of Inca and colonial charm, Cusco is a city you can easily fall in love with. Yes, remove the hordes of tourists in their khaki shorts and silly Indiana Jones hats, the hundreds of captadores offering you tours and massages and the Quechua ladies in traditional clothes posing with their baby lamas for a propina. Remove all that and you will, I promise, fall in love with this city that despite the mass tourism still conserves its customs and traditions.
And don’t let people scare you: Cusco is not expensive. You can find things as cheap as anywhere else in Peru: menus for 5 S, or a bed in a dorm for 15 S. Allow some time to acclimate and feel the vibes of the city: visit its museums, its markets, and get lost in the stone-paved streets. Take a free walking tour, try some alpaca meat and dance the night off in one of the many disco bars in town (first drink is for free!)
Also, if you decide to treat yourself with a nice dinner or a fancy hotel, this is the city to do it.
Three are the must dos around Cusco: Machu Picchu, the Rainbow Mountain and the Sacred Valley.
The Sacred Valley
In order to visit the Sacred Valley, you need to purchase a boleto turístico (130 S), valid 10 days and including 17 archeological sites, monuments and museums in Cusco and the valley. If you’re short on time and/or money, you can purchase the boleto parcial (70 S) that only includes some of the sites. Both tickets can be bought at Dircetur in Avenida del Sol.
Weaving villages, market towns and Inca ruins are the main attractions here. I packed Le Colosse with the necessary clothes for a few days, a book, my camera and my notebook and got ready for my trip that would begin in the weaving village of Chinchero.
The Iglesia Colonial del Chinchero is the most beautiful church I have seen in Peru. Its walls, as well as its wooden roof, are decorated with colorful flowers. The benches carry the names of the locals that sit here at mass.
The grey clouds were heavy with rain and the air quite chill. At over 3700 m.a.s.l., the village of Chinchero looks like a nativity, with its adobe houses climbing over steep stairs.
The textile is the main sector of activity here, and walking among the narrow streets you will find small cooperatives where women weave dressed in traditional clothes. It’s quiet and peaceful, and I spent my day wandering around the archaeological site, enjoying the calm of the mountains and my newly found peace.
I’m inspired again, far away from the crowds I’ve been meeting lately on the Gringo Trail. I shoot, I write, and I enjoy talking to locals again. From the little girl I explored the Inca ruins with to the lady who sold me the usual salchipapa, everything in this day was perfect. I’ve found my will to travel again and I’m not thinking about home today.
The next day the streets of the town got filled with colors and noise: it was Sunday, market day. With my belly warm from my new alpaca knit and a delicious apple pie, I took a combi to Maras, a quiet village just below the archaeological site of Moray. I hitchhiked a touristic van and was left to explore the different levels of concentric terraces carved into a huge earthen bowl.
I ate my picnic while overhearing a way too enthusiastic guide excitingly explaining his tourists how cool the Incas were.
Then, I hiked my way down to Maras, feeling the familiar and somehow cozy weight of Le Colosse on my shoulders. I hiked with the sun and the wind, feeling the freedom that only being alone with the Pachamama gives me.
I passed fields of hay, farmhouses and snow-capped mountains. For one and half hour, it felt like being on the Camino de Santiago again – only that this time I was completely alone.
After a short ice-cream break in Maras, I hiked one more hour to Salineras. Here, I walked like an acrobat among the thousands salt pans that have been used for salt extraction since Inca times.
I reached the main road, where I got a lift to the charming town of Ollantaytambo. Halfway between Cusco and Aguas Calientes, the town gets filled with tourists taking the train to Machu Picchu until late morning: after their departure, you have it all for yourself. Apart from the ruins, there’s little to do in town but relax.
The last overnight stop in the Sacred Valley is the lovely village of Pisac, a backpacker hub. Posters advertise Ayahuasca and San Pedro retreats all over the town, and its streets are filled with hippie travelers.
Here, you can shop for some handcrafts and spend a whole day hiking to the ruins and feeling the energy of the place, before heading back to Cusco.
On the way back to the big city, I stopped at the ruins of Tambomachay and hiked my way down passing through Puka Pukara, Q’enqo and Sacsaywamán, religious and military sites from the Inca times.
The Rainbow Mountain
At 5200 m.a.s.l., the so-called Rainbow Mountain (Montaña de Siete Colores) is a tough but very rewarding hike. The Vinicunca mountain is a 6 hour drive from Cusco on the way to Puno, so that you will have to leave the city around 3 AM in order to start hiking at a decent time.
Even the fittest hikers had told me how hard the trek was, so that I decided to leave it for the last, allowing time to acclimate and rest from the previous hikes. The scenery is amazing and the three hour hike up was easier than I expected. Still, coca leaves, nuts and lots of water were my best allies.
I reached the top just in time for a snowstorm, so that I couldn’t appreciate the colors at their fullest, but the pigmentation given by the minerals was all the same amazing. Once more, I couldn’t have my top model picture (how the hell do all those Instagramers do to always look great in their pictures? If I ever get a decent photographer, I still look like crap, wrapped in dozen of layers of clothes), and I was eager to walk down to get warmer.
SUGGESTED SACRED VALLEY ITINERARY:
Day 1: Cusco to Chinchero: combis to Chinchero cost around 8 S. The best day to visit the village is on Sundays, when the local market takes place.
Day 2: Maras, Moray and Salineras de Maras. From Chinchero , take a combi to the turnoff to Maras (3 S) and then one more to Maras (1 S). From the village, you can hike to Moray and back (9 km each way) through beautiful fields. Once you are back in Maras, hike to Salineras (around 1h downhill). Entrance to Salineras is not included in the boleto turístico and costs 10 S. Walk till the end of the salt pans and keep walking to the main street, where you can get a combi to Ollantaytambo (around 1 S).
Day 3: Ollantaytambo: The Ollantaytambo ruins are included in the boleto turístico, but there are a few more ruins you can visit for free if you decide to spend more time in town, such as the Pinkulluna ruins (around 1 h climb), Pumamarka (half a day trip) or Intipunku (day hike).
Day 4: Pisac: From Ollantaytambo, take a combi to Urubamba (1.5 S) and then one to Pisac (3 S). You can spend a whole day hiking among the Pisac ruins. The entrance is just besides the market square and it takes around two hours to reach the top. At the time of writing, part of the ruins were closed for restauration and even at the information office they will tell you that the only way to visit the upper part is to take a 50 S taxi to the upper entrance. This is certainly not true, as you can walk the whole way (except for the closed parts) – ask the guards onsite. It is a beautiful hike and I suggest you go in the morning, so that you can take your time and enjoy the energy of the place. The market takes place on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and it spreads from the Plaza de Armas to the surrounding streets.
Day 5: Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Q’enqo and Sacsaywamán: Take a combi to Cusco (4 S) and ask to be let off at Tambomachay, 10 km away. On your way to Cusco, you will find four ruins included in the boleto turístico (Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Q’enqo and Sacsaywamán) that you can visit in a day and all on foot. You will also find the Temple of the Sun and the Moon (free – between Q’enqo and Sacsaywamán) and the statue of the Cristo Redentor (free – on the hill opposite to Sacsaywamán). The path will lead you to the Iglesia San Cristóbal in Cusco (tres cuadras from the Plaza de Armas).
Most agencies will offer you daily tours to the Sacred Valley, but if you have the time, I strongly suggest you follow this itinerary and slowly discover the charm of each village.
WHERE TO SLEEP:
Cusco: Hostal Antis – dorm 16 S or 12 S according to promotion. Check Couchsurfing or their Facebook page for updates. They accept volunteers. With WiFi, kitchen, lockers and free Netflix.
Chinchero: Hospedaje El Encanto – private room with shared bathroom 20 S; WiFi.
Ollantaytambo: Hospedaje Las Portadas dorm 20 S; WiFi and a beautiful flowered courtyard.
Pisac: Hospedaje Backpackers Chaska – dorm 20 S; WiFi, kitchen, beautiful courtyard, TV with DVDs and free drinking water.
ENTRANCES AND TOURS:
Boleto turístico: 130 S, valid 10 days
Salineras de Maras: 10 S
Rainbow mountain: 60 S including breakfast and lunch (entrance is extra 10 S). Departure time is 3 AM. You will reach the height of 5200 m.a.s.l., so make sure you are acclimatized (I suggest you do this hike after the trek to Machu Picchu) and bring lots of water and coca leaves.