Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Lured by the Inca ruins, indigenous people, and Phil’s desire to keep building his Spanish skills, we’d talked about going to Peru for quite some time before finally scheduling the trip. The challenges were the range of potential itineraries, from jungles to the Nazca lines to Lake Titicaca, and the fact that Peru’s best weather for tourists is our summer – a time when we rarely travel.
Peru is a mountainous country, so getting from city to city requires long bus rides, longer train rides, or frequently delayed air flights. As we only had 15 days and didn’t want to spend our entire vacation in transit, we narrowed our itinerary to Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley, and Arequipa.
We landed in Lima at the delightful hour of 4AM, and headed to our hotel in a pre-arranged taxi. Although we usually prefer to stay in city centers when we travel, Lima’s sights and museums are scattered throughout the city. We’d also heard that the downtown area was dangerous, so we stayed in the suburb of Miraflores, a 30-minute bus ride from the downtown center.
Each Latin American country has a distinct culture and feeling. Peru is full of contrasts – modern skyscrapers and people whose lifestyle hasn’t changed in 1,000 years. While Lima has traffic, it is mostly buses and taxis – private vehicles are far less common than in Mexico. While polite and welcoming, the Peruvian people are restrained and less exuberant. Even in a city as large as Lima, there are people wearing traditional clothing, speaking Quechua and Aymara rather than Spanish. All the guidebooks warn about pickpockets and petty theft in Lima, and we had made preparations to carry no bags and wear no jewelry. But as we wandered around we felt as if these warnings were greatly exaggerated. We felt perfectly safe, and noticed many middle class Peruvians carrying handbags.
We started exploring Lima by bus. The city’s system is easily navigable with just a little Spanish, and there is lovely colonial architecture in the city center. Returning to Miraflores on our first day, we noticed a group of 30 or so indigenous women with wonderful textiles in an impromptu market, spread on blankets along the street’s median strip. We made several purchases, which turned out to be some of the finest handiwork we were to see on the trip.
Lima is very western, complete with Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, and KFC – and Miraflores is an upper middle class suburb with beaches and parks along the cliffs that line the Pacific. There are casinos everywhere, with glittery facades and many slot machines. The parks and plazas hum with tourists and young Peruvians out on the town. Malls and restaurants command many of the best views, and Miraflores could be any city in Europe or North America.
On our second day in Lima, we visited the Museo de la Cultura, learning about the dozens of civilizations that pre-dated the Incas. One of the more interesting notes is that the Inca civilization only lasted 100 years – not even enough to spread a common language throughout the empire. The vast majority of the history of Peru is pre-Inca. And the 100 years post-conquest is glossed over – perhaps for good reason. It seems that all the Inca’s predecessors produced tons of pottery (found in graves). Therefore every museum we visited had superb examples of pottery from a range of cultures, each distinct and interesting.
Having recovered from jet lag, we were ready for our first pisco sours (a local drink made from a regional grape brandy, lime juice, sugar and egg white – Susan became an addict!) and Peruvian beer. We also began trying some of the local culinary specialties, including some of the many creative ways that Peruvians use the over 5,000 types of potatoes that are grown there.
From Lima we flew to Cusco, where we planned to spend a week exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Cusco is over 11,000 feet above sea level, so it took us a day to be able to walk up the hills without frequent stops, gasping for breath. We had taken medication so didn’t get serious altitude sickness, though moved slowly the first couple of days.
Cusco is one of the most picturesque cities in the world. The city sits in a valley surrounded by mountains (Cusco means “navel” in Quechua) and perhaps because of the altitude, the views are clear and crisp air filters the sunlight creating a golden glow on the adobe-colored buildings. There are two elaborate colonial-era churches on the main plaza, and we spent a lot of time vainly trying to capture on camera the feeling of the square. However, the plaza in Cusco was eerily quiet; and unlike its Mexican counterparts, there are almost no vendors on the sidewalks; he plaza is less of a family gathering place.
Cusco is also known for its Inca walls, which are the foundations of many of the colonial and modern buildings. Exact chiseling allowed the Incas to fit together large stones without mortar, and anything the Spanish didn’t destroy is still standing. Cusco was also a good base for exploring nearby villages and ruins of the Sacred Valley. We visited the nearby ruins at Tambo Machay, site of well-preserved Inca baths. From there we walked back (downhill) to Cusco, stopping at the fortress of Puca Pucara, the caves of Qenko, farms with llamas and alpacas grazing, small villages, donkeys blocking the road, and finally Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy-woman”). The city of Cusco was laid out in the shape of a cougar, with this huge complex, on a hill overlooking Cusco, forming the head. The zigzag walls of Sacsayhuaman were the teeth of the cougar and a substantial barricade against invaders – although unfortunately no match for the Conquistadors.
We took a bus to Ollantaytambo, a city with a massive fortress that was the site of the Incas first victory over the Spanish. The first part of the bus trip (2½ hours) was uneventful. But for the last ½ hr, we transferred to a combi, a minibus that picks up people and packs them in along the route. At each stop, we believed that not a single more person could possibly fit in. Finally, Susan was wedged with 5 others on a seat designed for 3, and Phil was hugging his knees as people leaned against him – and the bus stopped for a family of 3. For the last part of the journey we had people in our laps. In all, there must have been 20 people in a microbus designed for 6 or 7. While this was entertaining for a short trip, we took a different route for the return.
Ollantaytambo consists of dozens of Inca-period agricultural terraces fortified by stones, with a structure on top that was both a fortress and a temple. As the Incas believed in getting as close to the gods as possible, they built their temples on the tops of mountains. We have NO idea how the massive stones were moved up the hill – llamas can’t carry more than 35-40 pounds, the Incas did not have horses, or the wheel – and these mountains are STEEP! Perhaps it was the coca. On the way back to Cusco, we shared the trip with some chickens.
We also visited Pisac. We first climbed the ruins, which include an observatory, beautiful terracing cut by diagonals, and well preserved gateways. The Pisac market is full of crafts and people in traditional clothing, but it felt touristy, until we got to the “food court”. This plaza gave us our first exposure to cuy – guinea pigs that are skinned and then roasted over a grill, and served whole, complete with gaping mouth and little paws curled in the air over their chests. Oddly, we weren’t tempted to try this rat-like delicacy. We cut our market time short, but on the way we had noticed what seemed to be a llama and alpaca sanctuary, so stopped there on the way home. This sanctuary, Awana Kancha (see below), turned out to be a state-sponsored program to encourage thoroughbreeding, thus improving the quality of wool and supporting local weavers. The sanctuary included several species of llamas and alpacas as well as guanacos and vicuñas – and opportunities to feed some of these. The sanctuary seeks to stop the crossbreeding of llamas and alpacas, and breed alpacas of similar colors together to create a higher quality wool, which yields a product that brings a higher market price. The sanctuary also supports weavers who produce traditionally designed blankets and clothing. We spent several hours wandering through; watching shaggy alpacas with bangs covering their eyes, petting baby alpacas, and feeding llamas and guanacos.
We soon headed for the prime tourist destination in Peru, Machu Picchu. We took the 6 AM train out of Cusco, and along with many other sleepy tourists took the 3 ½ hr. ride. The initial ascent out of the town of Cusco involved a series of switchbacks out of the valley – the first time the train started going backwards, everyone suddenly woke up. The train makes its way through the Sacred Valle to Aguas Calientes. The train used to go all the way to the ruins of Machu Picchu, but the final leg of switchbacks were destroyed in 1998’s El Nino, and the government replaced the tracks with a road. Aguas is a touristy little town but unless one wants to spend just 3 hrs at the ruins for a day trip or pay $400 for the Inn at the ruins, Aguas is the only option. We got up at dawn the next day the next day to catch the 5:30 AM bus to the ruins, traveling through semi-tropical areas filled with wild orchids. Our first glimpses of the ruins were through a warm mist, with towering craggy peaks surrounding the “saddle” of extensive ruins. Machu Picchu covers 5 acres, spread up and down along terraces and steps. In spite of the crowds, we had many magical moments of walking along Inca stone walls and coming face to face with a llama. We spent most of the day absorbing the site, including a watching a guanaco and her baby grazing, perfectly framed by stone walls and towering cliffs. It is a cliché to say that Machu Picchu is a magical place, but it’s true.
Our next destination was the colonial “white city” of Arequipa, built of distinctive white volcanic tufa called sillar. Within the city, we visited several churches, including La Compania, which is known for a beautifully painted chapel with polychrome murals of jungle plants and birds – it was supposed to prepare Jesuits for missionary work in the jungles. We had a superb meal in a restaurant that featured “pre-inca” cusine called Sonccollay, overlooking the plaza. Everything in this restaurant is prepared in ceramic over a wood fire, and it was a great opportunity to try kalapurka (a dried potato and peanut casserole), and rocoto relleno (stuffed Peruvian peppers). Phil also tried roast alpaca, which came with an amazing sampler of 9 different types of potatoes and tubers.
We spent a morning at the nearby Convent of Santa Catalina. This is a fascinating “mini-city”, which was cut off from the rest of the world for over 400 years, and only opened to the public 35 years ago. Daughters of wealthy families brought dowries, servants, nice clothes, and even their pianos to the convent, and their families furnished their rooms in high style. This went on for over 200 years, until someone in Rome got wind of the situation and sent in a new administrator. However, the nuns resisted many of the new rules – a unique example of women’s resistance to the Church in those times.
One of the main reasons for coming to Arequipa was to take a 2-day side trip to the Colca Canyon. Larger than the Grand Canyon and the Copper Canyon, this region has many villages where the indigenous people have maintained their customs and traditional clothing, and is also the location of a condor sanctuary. (In each village, women have different hats, shaped to mirror the mountain worshipped by that town. Before the Spanish conquest, the Indians shaped their infants skulls to imitate the mountains, but the Spanish convinced them to shape their hats instead.) We were fortunate to book the tour through Giardano Travel – our small group had an excellent guide who took us to a vicuna reservation and to tombs near Chivay, as well as pointing out many interesting sights along the way. Our hotel had a rambunctious pet alpaca, which pranced through the yard and kept trying to get in the front door. As with most of our accommodations, Casa de Mamayacci was far nicer than we’d expected, with wonderful food and great vistas from every window.
A highlight of the canyon is the condor sanctuary. These huge birds need wind currents found at the bottom of the canyon to take off each morning, and it was incredible to watch 13 or 14 of them over a period of 90 minutes slowly soar upwards, sometimes passing right over our heads. The scenery was amazing.
We returned in the late afternoon to Arequipa, and the next morning flew back to Lima. On our last day we visited the ruins of Huana Pullcana, which date from 900 AD – an interesting adobe pyramid in the middle of Miraflores. We had a final walk along the beachfront and great Peruvian meal, and realized we wanted to learn more about the current politics of Peru – before we visit again.
Notes and logistics
Lonely Planet guides are usually great for logistics – and notoriously poor on sights. LP Peru is no exception. We recommend augmenting your Machu Picchu trip with a recent book, not the original Hiram Bingham treatise, but one that points out some of the interesting parts of the site without overloading you with soon-forgotten details.
Hotels: Every hotel we stayed at was excellent and highly recommended.
Lima: Hotel El Patio – As soon as we arrived we were happy with our choice – a charming little hotel with the rooms facing a central patio filled with flowers and birdcages. Well located near El Ovalo, two blocks from a supermarket, and walking distance from lots of interesting places.
Cusco: Casa de los Niños II (we stayed at II – a LONG painful block further from the main plaza than Niños I), but with the nicest staff anywhere. The hotel was founded to benefit the orphans of Cusco, many of whom are trained and get jobs at this hotel.
Arequipa: Casa de mi Abuela Gardens, internet, and a good bar with free pisco sours in the evening (Susan was happy). It was close to the main square www.lacasademiabuela.com
Travel Agent for the Colca Canyon: Giardino Tours www.giardinotours.com
Music: Some people love Andean music. Phil is not one of them. The most popular music amongst the general public is reggaeton, cumbia, and romance (like Elefante and Mana). But in the highlands, everybody seemed to be listening to fusion Andean rock like Los Kjarkas.
Altitude meds (Acetazolamide or Diamox).: take ‘em. Buy them before you leave. The coca leaves help the headache and speed up your heartrate, but they don’t give a noticeable buzz.
Awana Kancha: Outside Ollantaytambo on the road to Cusco. Featured in a BBC show (seen on LinkTV), and perhaps the best opportunity you could have in getting up close and personal to Peruvian camelids. No – they don’t spit. But oddly, they really don’t like being touched. The ½ hour tour is free.
Spanish: You could probably get by with minimal Spanish. Peruvians are patient and helpful – but speaking Spanish is a definite plus.
Beverages to try: Beer: Peruvian beer is not exactly the most exciting in the universe. Nuff said. Chicha: made with fermented corn. It’s interesting, but is probably an acquired taste. Chicha morada – a non-alcoholic purple corn punch: brilliant. Pisco Sour: Habit forming. Coca tea: tastes like chamomile, and helps adjust to the altitude.
Foods to try (or maybe not): Cuy (guinea pig): Looks like rat. Nothing could make us eat one. Alpaca: like a cross between lamb and beef, but a bit tougher. Very tasty. Fish: The trout was superb. We didn’t try the ceviche. Various potato dishes: try every one you see, especially those that look like ginger. Vegetarians would not do well in Peru. Fried corn nuts, served as an appetizer everywhere: Grease, carbohydrates – who cares? These are delicious.