I’m back in Peru, this time with Lisa who has not been here before. We’ve been here since May 3rd when we arrived in Lima, Leeds to Lima! (via Amsterdam with KLM). We spent our first night in a handy hostel near Lima’s airport as we flew down to Cusco early the next day. I really enjoyed Cusco on my last visit with Russ in 2007, and this time was no different. I love the mix of Inca and Colonial history, the small alleys, and the laidback and friendly people.
It has changed since my last visit with noticeably more tourists and McDonalds, KFC, and Starbucks now installed on the Plaza de Armas. Nevertheless, it’s a quaint place that is well worth a visit. Cusco is set in a valley and we stayed at a basic guesthouse on the northern slope, which meant a steep 15 mins uphill walk from the Plaza de Armas but meant we had fantastic views over the city.
We visited many of the same places I visited last time such as the Cathedral (very impressive), the White Christ (worth the climb for good views), San Blas (artists area), and the 12-sided Inca Rock (still not sure how they created this?). There was also some new stuff too, such as the vibrant San Pedro Market where you can buy practically anything – vegetables to handicrafts. Lisa’s Spanish skills are very handy, not only allowing us to get to know the locals but also secure a good deal!
We also visited the picturesque town of Pisac about 35km out of Cusco, which made for a nice break from the hustle of the city. In the towns square there’s a market packed with stalls selling souvenirs to the tourists, but more interestingly some Inca ruins high on the mountain overlooking the town.
Of course the main purpose of our visit to Cusco was to trek, over 4 days/3 nights, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. We used the same company as Russ and I used back in 2007, and they didn’t disappoint – it was another magical experience. This time I was fully focused on ensuring Lisa had a great experience as this is something she has wanted to do for a long time. Given the altitude (3500m+) and physical challenge she was understandably a little nervous before we set off. We left Cusco early, joining up with our group of 16 trekkers from the 8 Brits, 4 Americans, 2 Aussies, 1 South African, and 1 little German! Plus 2 enthusiastic Peruvian guides (David & Ernesto), and 19 hardy Chaski’s (porters) – big respect to these guys for looking after us (setting up camp, cooking excellent and plentiful food, and carry all the equipment) during the trek.
Setting off on day 1 it was very sunny and hot, which made for a nice day, but the main challenge was not getting sunburnt. It’s a relatively flat 12km trek along the scenic Urubamba river, passing several Inca ruins on the way, to the first campsite at Wayllabamba.
Day 2 (12km trek) was all about the challenge of reaching the top of ‘Dead Womans Pass’, at 4200m it’s the highest point on the trail. Thankfully it was a cooler day, which made for nice walking conditions and we took it slow and steady on the steep path to the top.
From there it’s a steep stepped descent all the way to the campsite at Pacamayo at 3600m. Not our favourite campsite as the ground was hard and cold and we had altitude induced headaches.
In 2007 on day 3 it rained, but this time it was bright and sunny (we were lucky with the weather throughout the four days, it only rained overnight), which was good as this is arguably the most scenic day of the trek – albeit the longest, and undulating 15km to Winay Wayna. The day starts off with a 1 hour climb up to the ruins of Runkuracay before dropping down into the next valley through some Inca tunnels.
The aptly named ruins of Phuyupatamarca (translated as Town of the Clouds) where we had lunch nearby. The afternoon was my favourite part of the trek as it’s a relatively flat and scenic walk through the cloud forest. Just before we reached the campsite we passed the impressive Winay Wayna terraces, which offered some amazing views down into the valley below – we stayed a while to take it in.
The final day is a straight forward – except for the 3:30am start! – 5km trek to Machu Picchu. It’s an adrenaline fuelled walk as everyone is itching to get a first glimpse of Machu Picchu, which you get when you reach the Sun Gate (Intipunku) – I really enjoyed seeing Lisa’s face light up when we got here, it is a fabulous sight.
From the Sun Gate it’s 30 minute walk down into Machu Picchu, where we became another 2 of the 3000 tourists that visit the site everyday. I really enjoyed doing the Inca trail again but I did find the incredible amount of tourists at Machu Picchu a bit of an ambiance killer this time. We queued to take the necessary postcard photos, which of course was worthwhile.
We spent a few hours walking around the ruins, including a tour from our guides before heading back to the luxuries of civilisation in the town of Aguas Caliente, which serves as the gateway to Machu Picchu. Russ and I stayed overnight here in 2007 and it was a quaint little place, now it has become something of tourist trap with posh hotels aplenty. However, as in 2007, the hot springs that give the town it’s name are a great way to relax the aching muscles!
In the early evening we took a combination train and bus back to Cusco. The next day we took it easy and relaxed – a visit to the San Christobal cathedral, some souvenir shopping, and a traditional meal of roasted Cuy (Guinea Pig) – tasty crispy skin but not much meat!
Yesterday we took a tour into the beautiful countryside that surrounds Cusco, firstly we visited the community at Chinchero where the traditionally dressed ladies showed us something of their culture. Then we went to the Maras salt mines, which are an impressive array of pools that capture salty water that runs out of the mountains – the sun evaporates the water and the remaining salt is harvested.
The final stop was the Inca ruins of Moray, an interesting circle of terraces that was used for farming.
Later in Cusco we visited the Chocolate museum where we took a 2 hour chocolate making class, using locally sourced ingredients. A very interesting, tasty, and highly recommended experience!
Last night we took an overnight (10 hours) bus south to the city of Arequipa, which will be our base for the next few days. We’ve got another week in Peru and I’ll write about that in the next post.