After spending a week in Lima, we hopped a flight to Cusco to begin our exploration of the Sacred Valley. There are of course other places to stay and other ways of getting around the Sacred Valley; for me, staying in Cusco was great–it provided enough going on and enough access to the things all around me.
The Cusco flag is very colorful. For the first few days, I thought I had landed in a very accepting town in the middle of the Catholic Andes, but that’s not the case. The rainbow flags is connected to the Inca culture.
1. go ahead and see machu picchu
There are several ways to get to Machu Picchu and really depends on what sort of adventure you want to have, how much time you have and how much money you’d like to spend. For a full look at what I know about getting to Machu Picchu, either by trek or train, here is everything I have on the matter.
2. consciously fall for aqua calientes’ tourist tricks
After Machu Picchu, we landed in Aquas Calientes. Having heard a bit about the hot springs, and anticipating wanting to lay low, we spent a day in there. We showered, napped, got pedicures and visited the hot springs the next day before going back to Cusco. The town itself reminded me of Gatlinburg, TN: a mountain-town solely focused on restaurants, gift shops and tourism. If you want to avoid all the places with the same menu of bland food, find the soccer (football) complex and venture to try some of the amazing (and cheap) street food!
Here are some sites we referenced when planning our detour to hot springs:
- Hot spring at Machupicchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes)
- How to get to Santa Teresa near Machu Picchu
- Hot springs of Santa Teresa
3. make some time for ollantaytambo
We delayed our ride back to Cusco so we could spend some time in Ollantaytambo . The stone streets and Inca-style water-ways through the town are amazing and worth an afternoon (if not more) exploring. My favorite find was the Awamaki Store. They have fantastic products and strive to support artisans in the region. They also have tours of the area where the women-weavers live, even a weekend excursion leaving to weave! If you are interested in a tour with Awamaki, just see their website.
Ollantaytambo has markets, ruins and restuarants to your heart’s content. The train to Machu Picchu begins there, so it’s use to people coming and going. Find your way to the Sunshine Cafe and say hello to some friendly expats who loved Ollantaytambo so much, they decided to stay.
If you have it in your head to visit a lot of ruin in the Sacred Valley, get a Boleto Turistico that will grant you access to several sites (within a 10-day time frame) for 46 USD (25 USD for students). For more information, see Best of Peru’s post on Boleto Turistico.
Here are what some others recommend for Ollantaytambo:
4. go to rainbow mountain even though it’s hard
If it’s scientifically possible, I believe I am becoming less in shape the more I hike around Peru. My first cause for this belief was hiking Rainbow Mountain a week after the Inca Trail. After 42 km you would think 10 km would be a joke, a walk in the park. Nope. I huffed and puffed and almost (almost) caved in and hired a horse to take me as far as it could.
You can hire a horse for s/.70 or s/.90 once you get to Rainbow Mountain, but they can’t take you all the way to the top. They are also sad looking creatures being dragged by stern-faced locals. It was not something I wanted to pay into nor the adventurous horseback ride through the mountains I would have paid for.
My melodramatics aside, Rainbow Mountain is definitely worth the effort. I’ve read plenty of blogs that shit on Rainbow Mountain. They say it’s not that that colorful and the weather is crappy, and blah, blah, blah. Well, of course Rainbow Mountain doesn’t look like the photoshopped, Instagram filtered technicolor magic you’re use to the seeing, but it’s a naturally multicolored mountain! Due to the area once being under water–thousands of years ago–the rocks have different mineral compositions and oxygen levels, and these differences create a full spectrum of color. I was constantly torn between wanting to look around at the gorgeous landscape and wanting to look at me feet and at the rose quarts, the Andes opal, the tiger eyes and the marble that I casually stomped across.
So yeah, let those haters hate. Rainbow Mountain is incredible.
It’s a full day trip from Cusco, but not too bad if you can manage to get comfortable in a 12-passenger van. My day started at 3am with a 3-hour drive followed by breakfast, hiking, lunch and a 3 hour drive back to Cusco.
I went with Llame Path, but there are dozens of options around Cusco.
Here is a great article from The Planet D for 6 things to expect when hiking Rainbow Mountain.
And here is one such hater of Rainbow Mountain: Roaming Around the World’s article Why NOT to trek Rainbow Mountain Peru: a not-so-colorful experience.
5. master the collectivos with the locals
My next four suggestions can be accomplished through a Sacred Valley tour or with a taxis, but I suggest you nut up and experience life in the Andes like a local. One of my collectivo rides ended up being a bus ride home for a dozen of children who go to school in Cusco but live outside of town. Hearing their chatter and watching their mothers wait for them on the side of the road was a real treat and perspective into life here that I wouldn’t have gotten from a cab.
Plus, rides are s/.2 to s/.5. You can’t beat that!
6. visit the sites near maras: salt ponds + moray
The salt ponds are amazing to see and even more amazing when known. The salt ponds have been in use since Inca time. Ownership of the ponds is shared amongst the community. Nearby is the archaeological site of Moray, featuring impressive circular terraced depressions that served as massive irrigation system for the Incas. We ventured to Moras via collectivo enroute to Urubamba. In our broken Spanlish, we told the driver we wanted to go to Maras. He dropped us off on the side of the road where a group of taxis were waiting for passengers. We negotiated a price with a cabbie and were on our way. If memory serves, it was s/.30 round trip to the salt pond, s/.10 to get into the ponds. The collectivo was a mere s/.4.
7. go to the ccochahuasi animal sanctuary
The animal sanctuary is amazing yet unassuming. If you’re expecting a low-level zoo, lower your expectation even farther. The sanctuary resembles someone’s backyard more than a “sanctuary.” There are Andean bears, pumas, and more than six condors! All the animals have insane stories of people throughout Peru trying to keep their animals as domesticated pets. Grab a collectivo towards Pisac and tell the driver beforehand that you want to go to the sanctuary. The collectivo costs s/.5 and the sanctuary costs s/.10.
8. experience awana kancha
Awana Kancha is a women’s artisan collective that has more a dozen llamas and alpacas that one can pet and feed, a thorough tutorial on wool, natural dyes and weaving as well as a fair trade shop full of amazing (and equally expensive) woven goods made in the community. Though the cheap shops in Cusco are attractive, I beg you to consider that the goods you buy from a fair trade shop, such as Awana Kancha, get you a traditionally, well-made product with profits going right back to the community and the women who make them. Before you buy that cheap sweater that everyone else in Peru is selling and wearing, consider the benefit of a product purchased from a collective like Awana Kancha.
Soap box aside, Awana Kancha is just a little bit farther down the road from the animal sanctuary. Take a collectivo towards Pisac; it costs s/.5.
9. go on to pisac
Now that you may or may not have taken a collectivo towards Pisac for the animal santuary or Awana Kancha, might as well go ahead an go all the way to Pisac. It’s a small, unassuming town with a wonderful market in front of the their church. The best days for the market are Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. On the way there, we met an American woman who has moved to Pisac, building a school for girls, and she recommended Mullu for dinner. It was a delicious choice.
10. explore san blas bario in cusco
I’ve spent a lot of this post sending you away from Cusco, but Cusco is an amazing place in and of itself. The San Blas neighborhood was my favorite area, full of funky llama-necks on human art, hippies selling trinkets, and ex-pat-owned coffee shops. My artistic heart felt right at home. The Mercado San Blas has coca, fresh juices for s/.5 and sandwiches for less than s/.12.
11. hike up to saqsaywaman + cristo blanco
Deep breath and hike. Saqsaywaman is the archaeological site you can walk to from Cusco (but you gotta walk up!). Also nearby is Cristo Blanco. During Semana Santa, the locals carry the crosses near Cristo Blanco through the up and down streets of Cusco to pay homage to Jesus doing the same to Calvary.
12. gravitate to plaza de armas on sundays
Plaza de Armas is in the heart of the town that is arguably the heart of the Sacred Valley. On any given day at any given time, there will be something to witness there, especially on Sundays. During Semana Santa, going to Plaza de Armas is a pretty good life choice to discover how the locals celebrate Easter. Whether its a funeral procession for Jesus, an Easter Virgil relighting the cathedrals or fireworks and a service parade, Plaza de Armas is almost a silly item on this list because of course you are going to end up there by chance and happenstance.
13. visit qorikancha in cusco
Qorikancha is an Incan temple inside the city and it’s amazing. It’s where the Incan paid respect to their god “Inti” (Sun).
14. go on a free walking tour of cusco
Attending a free walking tour is my default suggestion for any city. The walking tour in Cusco is especially interesting just because of the violent history of Cusco has with the Inca and the Spanish. Plus, learning about Inca construction verse the Spanish construction is interesting beyond anything you can pay for.
15. have lunch at merrado san pedro
Mercado San Pedro has turned out to be my number one suggestion to fellow travelers I meet who are on their way to Cusco. The Mercado is a fascinating look into local life, and it has fantastically cheap lunches. For s/.5 you get a huge bowl of soup and a plate of whatever you like. For those afraid of food poisoning, I’ve gotten food poisoning three times in my life and all three of them were from restaurants. That’s not to say its impossible to get it from dirty food stalls in a foreign country; my point is you can get it from anywhere so might as well experience something real in the process rather than over price, poorly made pizza.
16. at least be aware of museo de pisco + museo de cocoa
I have found both Mueso de Piscos and Museo de Cocoa in several other Peruvian cities, so they are not a Cusco staple. However, it is worth visiting in a pinch. The variety of products and the learning opportunity are both fun and educational. At Museo de Pisco, sit at the bar and chat with the bartender. I got a few free samples of straight Pisco just for being charming.
17. party with ukukus + cusco nightlife
The nightlife in Cusco is hilarious and real. It’s backpacker-party heaven with amazingly odd live music you just have to embrace and enjoy. Ukukus was my introduction to the nightlife, and it was everything I wanted an Andean night club to be. It’s common to find “happy hours” throughout Cusco that go all hours of the day with two for one drinks.
18. be a digital nomad in cusco
Being a digital nomad in Cusco takes a bit of planning, but all in all, it’s a rather simple task. Cusco is a town focused on tourist and 21st century tourist are focused on their wifi, so most cafes and restuarants offer free wifi. Therefore, the trick is finding a place that is comfortable to work at for a few hours with a staff that will leave you alone. Here the favorite places I found:
- The Meeting Place in San Blas was above and beyond my favorite place to squat and work for a few hours.
- Creperia La Bo’M is also in San Blas. It’s connected to a hostel, but it has an amazing vibe and a great deal on crepes, coffee and juice.
- Valeriana is just outside of Plaza de Armas. They make a good espresso.
- Plaza Cafe is connected to a hotel; it has balcony seating that over looks Plaza de Armas.
- Starbucks… yes, I caved and did this a few times. I really needed to focus, and I needed a soy chia latte to do it. The Starbuck is right in Plaza de Armas.