Cuzco is the city of kings. It was the historical capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th until the 16th century Spanish conquest. Cuzco in quechua means “the Navel of the World” – the centre of the Inca universe. Located in the Andes mountains of the Peruvian sierra, the city can make your head spinning around not only because of the height (lovely 11,152 feet/3,399 meters above the sea level) but altitude sickness can be a real pain in the ass.
It’s a city of an incredible energy. We fell in love with it from the very first stroll in San Blas – Cuzco’s most atmospheric and picturesque neighborhood lined with artists’ studios and artisans’ workshops, and stuffed with tourist haunts – many of the best bars and restaurants. Like in Paris’ Montmartre you will be amazed by the shabby but evocative architecture and obviously the night life! Come here to dine under the stars and listen to alternative music lazily chewing coca leaves.
Numerous stalls with handmade clothes, smiley faces of native girls wearing long plaits and traditional, colourful dresses and that unique atmosphere of a local market where all the smells and tastes of South America mix and blend together… Cuzco is a real gem!
After all the typical “I’m-a-blogger” problems with delays and a total disorganization at Lima’s airport, we finally reach our hotel in Cuzco. My faveourite thing to do while planning my trips is looking for some unusual places to stay. We tend to travel in April and it’s my boyfriend’s birthday so I like to treat him with one or two nights somewhere amazing. This time I really can’t believe how lucky I was – I found a truly wonderful place – Garden of San Blas. The hotel has only 3 rooms – but each of them is unique and beautiful. Ours, inspired by Indian culture, has a SPA bath tube – this is exactly what we need after 17 hours of travelling. 🙂 It’s luxurious, it’s a palace and it makes me feel a bit unsettled as I have never stayed in anything as pretty before, but when we meet Jesus this place becomes our home… Jesus Sobrino, the owner of this extraordinary spot, is a tireless storyteller, an outstanding traveller and a great companion during our long nights in Cuzco sponsored by Pisco (local alcohol). Jesus is also a travel agency himself, but don’t feel obliged to buy anything. It’s not about it.
Jesus welcomes us with Peruvian tapas and start to spin a yarn. His tales about Cuzco and surrounding areas are so interesting and flamboyant we fell in love with the city seen through his eyes.
He takes us to the places unknown to people who come here with organized groups. Remember. All inclusive holiday is NOT what you do in Peru. Jesus gives us a list of things we have to see and the list is long. “You have to stay here at least 2-3 days” he says and we trust him so we decide to explore Machu Picchu by train and save some days to trample down our own map of Cuzco. We want to examine step by step every inch of the topography of The Navel Of The World.
Waking up at 6 am is a piece of cake when you are jet-lagged. Jesus feeds us with traditional Inca breakfast – a mix of 7 toasted seeds (including quinoa, soya and maca). It’s a warm drink with water and milk – it gives us a real kick of energy. A solid “Good Morning” straight from Pachacutec. That mixture is so good I buy 1 kg of that powerful powder and I carry it around Peru on my back. Say whaaat!? (Yes, I’ve been accused of smuggling cocaine but this is another Wild Tale – yet to come!). Apart from Inca breakfast we get a normal one as well. “Normal” doesn’t quite give the justice as it seems Jesus wants us to explode. Fresh juices, fruits, salads, avocado, omelettes, – whatever you wish for, it’s there. We are not able to walk so the only (and the most comfortable way) is to get a taxi and drive to the Sacred Valley. Depending on how much time you have – you can buy a pass to see 4 places (like we did) or all of the attractions (it’s twice as expensive but I think it ‘s totally worth it!).
Chinchero is a small Andean Indian village. It used to be the faveourite site of the Inca king. Nowadays, it lost a lot of its charm. The biggest attraction remains an adobe colonial church, dating from the early 17th century. It has been built unpon the foundation of an Inca temple of palace. The site is pretty but remember that “pretty” is everything you gonna see in Peru. 🙂 Sometimes it’s better to visit something really EPIC. Nevertheless, if you plan to go to Chinchero, I can recommend you climbing up to a small viewing point for beautiful views overlooking the Sacred Valley of the Incas, with the Cordillera Vilcabamba and the snow-capped peak of Salkantay dominating the western horizon. Chinchero is also a very good place to do your shopping – you can buy great textiles and crafts here and they are usually much cheaper than in Cuzco. The local market is full of vibrant colours and buzzing locals. It’s generally held on most days of the week, with Sunday being its busiest time. Markets in South America are good fun; watching the haggling locals, doing a bit of bartering yourself and simply just watching people in their natural environment – it’s a real experience. In Chinchero, you will also have a chance to visit a weaving cooperative where families work together in a way that generates a source of income by demonstating their techniques (washing, drying, colouring the wool) and selling the finished products. Don’t miss it out even though it smells like another tourist scam. It’s really interesting. I don’t buy anything there, but I will leave Peru with 2 great alpaca (this is what they said…) jumpers.
Moray and Maras.
Moray is all about unusual ruins, mostly consisting of several enormous terraced circular depressions. As with many other Inca sites, it also has a well working irrigation system. Each terrace has unique micro-climate. The Incas were cultivating different plants from corn to quinoa on different levels. Jesus’ tip – climb a bit higher that the viewing point for a beautiful panoramic view of Moray.
Tourist sites in Maras include the colonial church, the local salt evaporation ponds, and the surrounding scenery. Those ponds are one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen during my travels and definitely one of the highlights of Cuzco area. Lying in the middle of inconspicuous mountains, with sun reflecting on it as though they were snow, the salt flats will stun you with their beauty, shining out like white gold. It reminds me of one of the places I would die to visit – Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. An interesting fact – all the salt you can get in Peru comes from Maras. And you can also try banana or sweet potato crisps – they are delicious!
We get to Pisac around lunch time. Jesus recommended a nice traditional restaurant run by his colleague but it turned out quite expensive so we were happy they couldn’t serve us anything, being super busy with a big group of tourists. Moreover they didn’t have one thing I wanted to try that day – rocoto relleno – stuffed spicy pepper.
We go back to our driver asking him to do us a favour – “take us to a place you would go to eat” – we say and after a while we end up in a small street canteen specializing in ceviche – raw fish marinated (so technically it’s not raw) with lemon juice. It’s a thing you have to try while in Peru.
A nice lady working in this place notices that I’m not so sure about eating fish (we are in the mountains) so she gives me a sample for free. It’s not bad at all, but we decide to eat something warm instead – a fish soup with a big dollop of choclo – local type of corn. To drink chicha morada – a drink made of (obviously!) corn. Everything tastes good and before we leave we get 2 shots of leche de tigre (juice you get after marinating ceviche) on the house. Well, I want to be polite, so I try it but it’s not something I would order again in my life. Ever. For God’s sake if I don’t end up in the toilet tonight I will be very lucky…
After lunch we visit Pisac – one of the Sacred Valley’s best archaeological gems situated in the mountainside above the village. The ruins are one of the finest remaining Inca archeologic sites in the country and they consist of Inca cemetery, a residential settlement and ceremonial baths, temples, water channels and wells at the top of the mountains and further down there is a beautiful urban area located on a high semi-circular ledge.
Pisac ruins are bigger that Machu Picchu, but for me they don’t have the same type of brutal energy.
It starts raining in the afternoon so I have to take out and put on my lovely poncho. This is how I became a tourist attraction for local people – they even wanted to take a picture with me (no autographs unfortunately). Fame! 🙂 It turned out we didn’t plan our itinerary properly or we simply spent too much time in certain places coz when we reach our final point – a small animal sactuary to see alpacas and condors, it’s already closed. 🙁 To cheer me up, Gustavo our driver, takes us to another viewing point where we can admire a nice panoramic view of Cuzco.
Ollantaytambo was part city, part fort and part rural retreat for the great Inca Pachacutec who ordered its construction. It also has town houses with huge food stores and places of astronomical observation. The town’s primary attraction is the Ollantaytambo Fortress on the outskirts of the settlement in a section known as the Temple Hill. Ollantaytambo dates from the late 15th century and has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America. The name Ollantaytambo comes from qechua. Ollana – was the name of the Inca warrior and the “anta” refers to his family – ruling this land in the Inca time. The town is very picturesque and it’s a great alternative if you look for a peaceful place to stay. If I had to choose one thing to see in the Sacred Valley it would definitely be Ollantaytambo ruins. It’s a great appetizer before you head to Machu Picchu as after your visit you can hop on a train directly to Aguas Calientes.
Map-free strolling around Cuzco.
I know that it sounds trivial but it’s cool to get lost in Cuzco. Triviality ends when I add that it’s cool to get lost but just in the city centre. Cuzco’s suburbs look like a big favela and I wouldn’t go there without a local guide. Is Cuzco safe? The Old Town is peaceful so you can let your hair down at night. You are fairly safe. Cuzco is one of the undisputed highlights of South America. I love this city, it’s seductive. It seems able to preserve its unique character and enduring appeal despite its growing prominence on the international tourism radar (and bear in mind we are here in low-season). The heart of the historic center is Plaza de Armas – walk around it to discover all the main attractions. The city has suffered relatively few modern intrusions, and despite the staggering number of souvenir shops, travel agencies, hotels, and restaurants overflowing with visitors, it doesn’t take an impossibly fertile imagination to conjure the magnificent capital of the 16th century. The most important church in Cuzco is Cathedral Santo Domingo with Qoricancha, the Temple of the Sun inside it. The Spanish colonists built the Church demolishing the temple and using its foundations. There is a musem inside where you can find the finest examples of Peruvian Arts.
For me the most important place in Cuzco will be its market. It’s the real heart of the city. The spirit.
Peru is a gastronomical paradise, mainly because of all the fine ingredients so easy to find and so cheap – chia seeds, quinoa and all fruits are a real bargain – and you know they are always fresh and tasty!
We were eating mainly in our neighborhood San Blas or at the market. We were on a tight budget – it means our options were limited. Now it’s my time to confess – I have to admit that when we came back from Peru I was bragging around about how awful the food in Peru was – I was so sick of Chicken Broster – deep fried chicken with french fries. Even thinking about it made my liver cringe! Deep fried food was the basic of our diet for more than 2 weeks. Well, you know what they say – what does it kill you makes you stronger (and looking back… I wouldn’t say it was so awful). We will need that strength. In my next post we will reach over 5 thousands meters above the sea level to discover the secrets of the highest lake in the world – Titicaca. Our tournée around Peru is yet to begin!