We arrived in Cusco on the 5th of May and checked into our hotel. Most people divided to head out for a party and I joined them for a drink but called it an early night as I was tired from the long trip up from Puno. As with most South American cities, all the action takes place around the central plaza (in this case, the Plaza de Armas). One of the favourite pubs for our group around here is Paddy’s, the “worlds highest Irish owned” pub but its very small inside and get crowded very quickly. The massive cathedral situated on the square is quite a sight to behold and entrance to the cathedral is 10 soles should you be interested in viewing the impressive stained glass windows. There is a tonne of history surrounding Cusco as it was the Inca capital for 400 years and a guided tour I took of the “Sacred Valley if the Incas” was a great way to learn about its history as well as the Incas. More on that in a moment.
There is lots to see and do in Cusco itself. All forms of handicraft line the back streets were you can buy anything from precious stones, jewelry and the such to Alpaca clothing and accessories. I saved most of my purchases for the markets around Ollantaytambo as I was told they had some unique offerings. There is a cafe called Jack’s that we were recommended to visit for an amazing breakfast and coffee and Mike was right, it was incredible. Affordable and very efficient service as well as great quality food and drink has made it a favourite spot for me. What’s also been good is the massages. There are a couple massage parlours up the street to our hotel (which is a 5 minute walk from the plaza) that offer 1 hour full body massages for 20 soles. A steal. After months of camping on hard floors, was good to get the back kneaded into mush.
Another great attraction is the Cusco black market. All sorts of contraband can be found and bought there for good prices. Everything from music CDs, clothing, shoes and the like, to electronics of all forms. TVs, cellphones, iPods and car stereo systems. I bought myself a portable mini speaker to be used with my laptop and cellphone for a bargain at 35 soles. The markets are extensive and I didn’t manage to make my way through the entire thing so a trip back there would be good. Other than that, Cusco is quite a nice place to just hang out and relax. Tonnes of coffee shops (including Starbucks if thats your thing) and restaurants (yes, McDonalds too) to sit and relax in. Some of the more local places offer full course meals for 10 soles (roughly $3) and the street food is good and “safe” so far.
Sacred Valley of the Incas
Before going on the Inca Trail trek, our tour leader Alvaro figured it a good idea to go on the Sacred Valley tour to get a bit of history and background on the Incas people. We met out tour guide Raymar who was going to be the same guide for the Inca trek so was nice to get to know him a bit. A young guy at only 27 but very well spoken in English and extremely knowledgeable about the Incas and other ancient civilizations. The tour consisted of visiting three separate ruins all of various significant to the Incas. Pisac and Ollantaytambo being the two main places of interest. I’ve provided links to Wikipedia if you would like the history behind it all. It was all very interesting and glad I did it. A full day excursion for 25 USD and 70 Soles park fee so I think good value for money. If you doing it, just try make sure Raymar is your guide :)
The Inca Trail Trek and Machu Picchu
Definitely one of the highlights I have been looking forward to this whole trip. Machu Picchu are the world famous Inca Ruins in the mountains about 4 hours train ride from Cusco. There are many ways to get there including the lazy train or the Lares and Inca Trail treks. I had the Inca Trail trek booked through Tucan Travel long before I even started this journey. Our guide Raymar from the Sacred Valley excursion accompanied us along the trek with two other guides and 24 porters. As can be assumed with any trekking, the days were spend walking, sweating and panting. The altitude really got to all of us with the highest point (Dead Womans Pass) sitting at just over 4200 meters above sea level.
We were really well looked after by our porters. They would literally run ahead of us on the trail to have our tents all set up by the time we got to base camp. They treated us with a beverage (normally Chicha which is a drink made from black corn) and lunch / dinner on the stove. The chef, Alvino, cooked up great meals and decorated them with various food shapes like a penguin out of cucumber and carrot. Each meal was three courses always starting with a soup. Rice, veg, salads, meat and pasta came in for second course followed by a local desert. Each night held different flavours and as we learnt it took 6 porters alone to carry up all the food for us (with each porter restricted to max 25 kilos per person). Overall, we were very pleased with the work and effort they put in for us and how they turned what could have been a laborious effort to Machu Picchu into a hike in luxury.
On the forth day, we were woken up with tea and coffee (as we had every other morning) at 3am to try be the first group of hikers in line for Macchu Picchu. We came in second unfortunately but that wasn’t so bad. We had a good 1.5 hour wait until the gates opened to let us in and spent the time listening to music and slowly watching the sky lighten in colour. When the gates opened, we all took of at great speed to make it to the Sun Gate before the sun rose. Since Machu Picchu is a mountain within a valley, the surrounding mountains ensured this was possible. The speedy walk was easy except for the last 50 stairs to the top which are referred to as the “Gringo Killer”. I scrabbled up them on my hands and knees to see the Sun Gate in front of me and Machu Picchu down below in the valley.
I’ve seen quite a few Inca ruins so far but nothing compares to Machu Picchu. It is huge and still in very good condition (thanks to the solid structures of the Incas). One can only but imagine walking the same steps they walked and how their life must have been. Once we got into the actual Machu Picchu grounds, Ray took us around to all the various parts and explained in great detail what each room or structure was for. We had the Sun Temple, the Temple of the Condor, store rooms, residential areas, nobility sections, a quarry and many little passage ways connecting everything together. The experience of Machu Picchu made the hard work trekking their worth it and I think we that was on the Inca trek may have appreciated it a little more than people who took the easy route. Macchu Picchu is definitely one of those places that you have to go to in order to get everything out of it. Words and pictures can only take you so far. A definite highlight to my trip around South America!