On our first visit to Cusco, Peru in 2014, I suffered what we still jokingly refer to as the trifecta of doom. Altitude sickness, strep throat, and a waterfall of diarrhea. Cute, right? I was so sick that I barely even remember being in Cusco or the things we saw or did.
There’s a vague flash of being inside the Cathedral looking at a painting of Jesus and his disciples enjoying a roasted guinea pig (a Quechua delicacy); a brief moment of clarity and relief when a local man poured some kind of chemical into my hands and told me to huff, claiming it would either turn me into a frog or cure me; and me, laying in bed miserable, while Tim tried to force-feed me a grilled chicken sandwich. So yeah, I’d say my first trip to Cusco was solidly “not great”…
You’d think after an experience like that, I’d want to never return. But my love of hiking, mountains, and ancient civilization drew me back 5 years later. This time, I arrived acclimated to the altitude after having spent about 2 weeks in the Andes of Chile and Bolivia. I was physically stronger, too. And with 5 days in Cusco at our disposal before setting out on our week-long trek around Ausangate Mountain, I was ready to actually experience the city and the surrounding archeological sites for the first time.
- Day 1: Arrive in Cusco from Puno, Peru
- Day 2: Free Walking Tour of Cusco
- Day 3: Maras and Moray
- Day 4: Sacred Valley Tour (Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero)
- Day 5: Sacsaywaman
- Day 6: Day of rest
- Day 7: Depart for Ausangate hike
Dates: March 28 – April 3, 2018
We stayed in an Airbnb about a 20-minute walk from the city center, near the university and student housing. Upon arrival, I wasn’t thrilled with the location or the limited food options nearby. I guess maybe I was hangry. In the peak of my grumpiness, as we were leaving the apartment in search of food, the fluffiest little fluff meister of a dog came bounding towards me. He gave me a literal hug with his front legs around mine, let me snuggle him for a moment, and then he was off as quickly as he’d arrived. It was hard to complain about anything after such a sweet greeting from a pup.
We ended up finding two places for food near our apartment that we returned to multiple times that week. One was a pizza spot, and the other a trendy cafe and bakery with the most delicious fancy coffee drink I’ve ever had. For those occasions where we didn’t want to make the trek into town for food, these two places became our regular spots.
We did spend much of our time in the heart of historical Cusco, however, starting with a free walking tour in the Plaza. Our guide shared the region’s history, pointed out the Inca walls still lining the streets, and ultimately led us up a hill to a bar with a viewpoint over the city. Once again we were greeted by dogs (a theme in South America), but this time we also got pisco sours.
Even after the official tour ended, a few of us stayed at the bar and enjoyed a few more piscos. Tipsy, our little group, composed of a few guys from Europe and a woman from Canada, made our way down the cobbled alleyway steps back to the main Plaza.
We were all interested in finding someplace local to eat dinner, so Tim navigated us to a market our guide had mentioned. Just outside the market, we saw a handful of small eateries grilling meat on the sidewalks. We chose one and ordered Cusquena lagers, grilled skewers of meat, and a lot of French fries. It may not sound exotic, but this is a very typical meal for Peruvians, thanks to the tens of thousands of species of potatoes grown in the country.
After eating we stumbled into a few more bars, and eventually, we ended the evening with a group hug in the Plaza. I can’t say I remember everyone’s names now, but the beauty of travel friends is that they come into your life for a short blip of easy, uncomplicated fun. Sometimes it feels like long term backpackers have almost a shared consciousness, or, at least, a tacit understanding of what it’s like to leave home in favor of foreign experiences in every sense.
The next day, we went on a small group tour to visit two archeological spots we didn’t see in 2014 – Maras and Moray.
Located an hour or so away from Cusco, the first stop was the ancient Inca site of Moray. The most notable feature here is the dramatic circular terraces that resemble crop circles.
Our guide explained that these terraces are an example of an ancient Inca agricultural laboratory where they would genetically modify crops. This is how Peru ended up with literally thousands of species of potatoes!
We spent our visit circumnavigating the circular terraces, stopping for photos along the way. An hour was plenty of time to enjoy the site, and even though there were other tour groups there, it never felt too crowded.
The next spot, Maras, is actually an ancient salt mine – one that’s still in use 2500 years later. Even without an inherent interest in salt mining in and of itself, I found the expansive terraces of salt pools here to be visually stunning. They go on for as far as the eye can see, and there were still locals mining the salt from the pools there today. Maras is truly unique – you don’t often get to visit ancient places that are still used for their original purpose.
The next day we went on another tour, this time to some archeological sites in the Sacred Valley. We’d toured some places in this region on our 2014 trip, but with so many to explore, it was easy finding a tour option that visited mostly sites we’d not been to before.
We started in Pisac, where the Inca ruins and farming terraces you see today are a hint of the ancient city that was once even bigger than Machu Picchu. We loved exploring these picturesque ruins on the side of a mountain. We saw the remains of temples, waterways, and even tombs (at a distance) inside the cliffs!
Next, we visited Ollantaytambo, which photos tell me we visited in 2014, but I have hardly any memory of it. I think this was the place where a local told me to huff that frog potion I mentioned. Ironically, Tim was actually feeling ill this day, so he stayed at the bottom of the site’s stepped terraces to nap while I went with the tour group to explore.
Ollantaytambo has been inhabited since the 13th century and is surrounded by ruins. The main site is both a fortress and a temple. It’s also the site of a significant Inca victory over the Spanish conquistadors. The highlight here is climbing up the terraces and taking in the view over the town. You can even walk along some of the original Inca trails cut into the mountains. Speaking of “Inca Trails,” most people think of the famous hiking route when they hear “Inca Trail”, but in reality, any roads leftover from the Inca time are considered Inca Trails.
After our guide gave the group information about the site, we had free time to explore, which I used to walk along the top of the terraces and take some photos.
Tim and I did meet up at the bottom of the terraces and we walked through some of the remains he could comfortably get to while not feeling well, including a segment of the terraces that were much less restored-looking (and roped off from climbing), and a few stone rooms and structures.
Our last stop of the day was Chinchero. Tim once again stayed back in the car to rest, feeling very unwell (don’t worry, it passed by the next day). This was another new destination for me, and I found the mix of ancient and colonial architectural elements beautiful. Our van parked just outside of the center of the village, so we had to walk about 10 minutes to get to the main square, where locals were just packing up their goods at the market, bundling their items in sheets.
A colonial-era whitewashed church is the centerpiece of the square, but what makes it unique is that its foundation is made from the stone remains of ancient Inca structures. The interior of the church is also stunning, as all of the walls and ceiling were painted in floral and religious designs by indigenous artists. In reality, though, these artists were more than likely forced to do this work by the Spanish colonizers. Still, the building is a beautiful place to visit and its history is worth learning, and the views overlooking Inca-era farming terraces are spectacular – especially at sunset!
The next day, Tim and I set out on a long walk, with Sacsaywaman, the ancient Incan site overlooking the modern city of Cusco, our destination. This would require walking several miles from our Airbnb, through the city, and up the hill to the site. While ambitious, we knew it would be an excellent way to prep our bodies for the big 6-day hike we had coming up.
Pronounced a lot like “sexy woman”, Sacsaywaman is one of the most-visited Inca ruin sites (aside from Machu Picchu) thanks to its proximity to the Cusco city center. Most people take a tour, bus, or taxi, but for us, the nearly 2-hour walk was perfect, and it brought us to an amazing viewpoint over the city, with its orange-hued rooftops and expansive Andean mountains behind it.
After appreciating this view all to ourselves, we continued on to the ruins of Sacsaywaman.
This large complex of ruins is one of the best examples of the precision of Inca architecture. These boulders are massive, yet somehow they rolled them into place and fit them together seamlessly! We spent about an hour exploring the different “rooms” of the site, which is believed to have been a fortress in its heyday in the 13th century.
Qenqo and Qenqo Chico
A 20-minute walk from Sacsaywaman is another, lesser-known site called Qenqo. We decided to try to check that one out but accidentally ended up at ANOTHER site called Qenqo Chico!
We ended up exploring this one all on our own without any other visitors around! Again, we were wowed by the precise, seemingly laser-cut edges of the stonework. It seems that Qenqo Chico may have been a site for rituals, and possibly one that is still used today.
After exploring our “secret” ruins, we walked to the neighboring site of Qenqo (our intended destination)!
This site is known for its zigzag caves and crevices, as well as unique petroglyphs carved into the rock. Looking at it from Qenqo Chico, it admittedly just looked like a jumble of rocks, but when you get closer, you can see the narrow pathways carved through the stone, forming something like a labyrinth.
By the time we’d explored both of these sites, the sun was starting to set. We knew it would be dark before we would reach the city center, and agreed that walking down the hill through these rural areas in the dark made us an easy target for theft. It’s worth noting that Peru is not particularly unsafe for tourists, and we would have felt equally uneasy in the same situation at home. Thankfully, we were able to flag down a cab to bring us back down the hill.
The next day was our last full day in Cusco before our trek around Ausangate Mountain, and we decided to use it as a day of rest. We had a briefing that night with our guide to finalize our preparations for the trek, but otherwise, we relaxed, recuperated, and got in touch with family and friends before one of the most incredible travel experiences we’ve ever had.