Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Cusco has been the gateway to Machu Picchu for many travelers. And, to be honest, it was for me as well during my recent trip to Peru. After visiting Cusco, I think it’s a destination in its own right. There are several sites that are beautiful and fascinating on their own within the Cusco area… oh, and Cusco is pretty amazing as well! This was once the capital of the Incan Empire from the 13th to the 16th century and it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The Cusco draws nearly 2 million visitors a year. The city is a mixture of the old Spanish Colonial era and the even older Incan architecture. If you do visit Cusco, they recommend relaxing the first day in order to acclimate yourself to the altitude. The city is over 3300 meters, or over 2 miles, high and I do recommend this as well. Also, eat light meals and stay away from steaks or heavy meat products as the altitude will affect digestion. I also had a headache for two days and I recommend drinking lots of water.
With that said, I didn’t have time to rest with a full two week itinerary packed with multiple destinations. I arrived in the morning and rested for about 3 hours before my Cusco half day tour started. I had a shrimp chupe soup for lunch and stayed away from the heavy meats. The soup turned out to be a wonderful decision as it was one of the best meals I had in Peru.
My hotel was located near the Plaza de Armas, the heart of the city and the starting point of the tour. In fact, it was only a two minute walk.
Our first stop would be the spectacular Cusco Cathedral, the center point of the plaza. The cathedral is home to Cusco’s oldest surviving paintings, classic colonial art and beautiful stain glass windows. Mentally soak in all this culture as you are not allowed to take photos inside the cathedral, and they do take this seriously.
We then made our way to Qoricancha, the Temple of the Sun. We walked through the ancient walk ways, now used as narrow streets, once used by the Incans. At Qoricancha you can observe the difference between Inca and Spanish cultures along with the difference in architecture. This was once the center of the city for the Incas.
We boarded the tour bus and made our way into the hillside overlooking the city to Sacsayhuaman. This is a fortified complex built by the Killke culture and later expanded by the Incas in the 13th century. With immense terrace walls, this is frequently referred to as a fortress. High above Cusco, this complex had a large military importance and was the scene of many battles.
I decided to climb over one of the walls to what is normally a small hill. But, with the thin air due to the high altitude, I staggered my way to the top. A park employee saw me staggering to one side and asked me to rest and drink lots of water. He knew I had arrived just this morning, common sign I guess. We also made two less memorable short stops at Q’enqo and Tambomachay. This was a great opportunity to take a photo with one of the locals. At these tourist destinations, you can take a photo with the locals next to a llama or, in my case, sit next to a local woman while holding a baby llama.
Actually, it’s a baby sheep that they try to pass off as a baby llama as the baby sheep are much cuter. The tour ended and I asked to be dropped off at the Plaza de Armas were I could do a little shopping and have dinner.
The next day would start early as I would join a tour through the Sacred Valley. The drive takes about 2 hours and one of the top attractions of the valley is the town of Pisac. The town doesn’t appear to know what century it’s in and has kept it’s charm and culture in tacked. The Sunday market is a big draw for this town but it was a Friday when I visited.
You can still enjoy shopping here as there are shops open every day where you can find key souvenirs for everyone back home. You can walk around the narrow cobble-stone streets and see the etched ruins on the hillsides.
This was the primary attraction for the Pisac visit. The ruins are terraces originally built by a pre-Incan civilization. The terraces were used for farming like you would see in Asia, with different crops. Another, difference would be that this was made with stone to keep the hillside from eroding. The complex is huge, spanning from one hillside to the next. After the guide gave us a short tour and history of the ruins, we had almost an hour to roam the complex.
I decided to hike down to one of the lower terraces where I could enjoy the amazing view on my own. It was a breathtaking view of the valley. From my vantage point, I could appreciate the size and energy that it must have taken to build these terraces. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site so it is no longer in use. There are terraces in the valley that still produce crops today, as they were intended. The tour continued and we made our way to our buffet lunch.
The second visit would be at the historic town of Ollontaytambo, on the opposite end of the valley. This town was built by one of the Incan emperors who had an estate here along with many of the Incan nobility. The center piece of the town is the temple of the sun. It’s an impressive structure built with many giant stone pieces that make up a hillside fortified in a terrace like design. Although, this structure was not designed for military use but for religious purposes.
We climbed to the top of this giant hillside which appeared to be made up of stone Lego blocks. From the top you can see the ancient town below and the other structures on the opposing hillsides, storehouses that were once filled with farm produce taken from the area terraces. The town is also a key point for those who are on their way to Machu Picchu as it has a train station that is on the route to the Incan ruins.
The Sacred Valley tour would end here and for those who would not continue to Machu Picchu, it would be another 2 hour drive back to Cusco. I had almost 3 hours before my train would arrive so I was able to walk around the market and see parts of this historic town.
There are several other attractions in the Sacred Valley and in the area of Cusco that are worth the effort and trek to this area, even if you aren’t going to Machu Picchu. Touring the area is liking stepping back in time, time were Colonial Spain landed on the Incan empire. Cusco and the surrounding area should definitely be a destination on its own.