My first visit to Cusco was in 1999 at the end of a backpacking trip through Peru with my brother Erik. As a finale to our journey we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Standing together at dawn at the Puerta del Sol high above the celebrated Inca city, the clouds parted and the shining white stone buildings revealed themselves. It is an experience I will always remember. As soon as Erik left I was surprised by a visit from Paul, and we traveled together through the Sacred Valley, an area rich in important Inca archaeological sites.
My memories of Cusco are among the most vivid of my past travels. As I recently returned to this much-loved place after thirteen years, I could not extricate my past recollections from my new experiences. And that was big part of the fun!
Of course I expected differences. The most notable change is how tourism has grown. Cusco then was still very touristy but I was not prepared for the marked increase in boutique hotels, shops and restaurants. In 1999 there were maybe one or two franchises in the city but now are many more with, of course, a Starbucks on the corner of the Plaza de Armas, epicenter of the Inca world.
Visiting Cusco and the important sights now requires an expensive, all-inclusive boleto turístico entry pass. To hike the legendary Inca Trail you now need to sign up months in advance and pay hundreds of dollars. In 1999 Erik and I just showed up at a travel company and booked the four-day trip for $60 leaving the next day. But these changes are not bad things per se, of course regulating the Inca Trail limits the environmental impact of thousands of walkers each year and the much-needed entry fee revenue helps Peru maintain and improve its national treasures.
Fortunately, despite these changes, Cusco remains a marvelous destination. The city admirably balances the strain of mass tourism and its vibrant Peruvian highland culture. Local markets still subsume the central Plaza de Armas during festivals, you can still walk along streets lined with stunning Inca stonework, fill up on a hearty breakfast of rice and beans, fried eggs, avocado, onion, tomato and spicy salsa de ají at the boisterous San Pedro market. And good budget accommodation can still be had; it’s just a few blocks further from the city center.
Cusco remains one of my favorite places in Latin America, most of all because it is evolving and changing. The city lives and breathes its history, like Rome or Bangkok, drawing upon its past and present identities to sustain its exceptional character. Traditional and touristy, Cusco still boasts an incredible concentration of art, history, folk traditions, architecture, religion and creature comforts that few areas on the continent can match.
Cusco – The Navel of the Earth
I was in Peru only for about a week this time, my main objective was to travel from La Paz, Bolivia to Guayaquil, Ecuador where I would meet Paul just before the New Year. Given how large and mountainous Peru is, I calculated I would spend 53 hours in buses (yikes!) to reach my destination. As an added complication, the hectic Christmas holiday was upon me, so I decided last minute that a few days in Cusco would be a welcome respite amid my flurry of travel.
It was a great decision. I realized how much of Cusco I had missed on my trip in 1999 when I concentrated my attention on the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. I originally planned a return to Machu Picchu but the cost – a whopping $250 for a day visit due to the holiday crunch – promptly ended that idea. So I opted for Plan B (“Plan B”), visiting the “secondary” archeological sites in the area which I skipped previously.
I spent three days in Cusco and the Sacred Valley visiting these lesser-known sites. They were greatly rewarding! Machu Picchu is stunning – sí señores – and can’t be missed. But added together, the other sites equaled (or surpassed) the famed “Lost City of the Incas”. Fascinating, easily-accessible and never crowded, these secondary sites are a great complement to the “must see” sites and offer fresh insights into the complex Inca world of pre-Colombian Peru.
Below are photos and a summary of the many awesome sites I visited on my “follow-up” tour of Cusco and environs. If you find yourself in Cusco, don’t miss any of them!
Qorikancha – Cusco’s Golden Courtyard
This 15th-century sanctuary was once the richest temple in the Inca empire. Its attractive curved and masterfully carved stone walls (some so intricately joined that the seams are barely visible) were topped with 1400 kg (over 3000 lbs!) of brilliant gold lining. Inside Inca priests and kings paid tribute to the sun and the moon, performed agricultural rituals, observed the stars, and buried Inca royalty.
Greatly reduced when the church of Santo Domingo was built over the site, the pre-Colombian structures still demonstrate the finest stonework of the Inca found anywhere. It is the best-preserved Inca site inside the city of Cusco today.
Tambomachay – Resort of the Inca
Just a few kilometers outside of Cusco off the Great Road connecting the capital city to the other corners of the Inca empire, is the small but attractive site of Tambomachay. With ritual fountains and sturdy mortarless terraces, it is said the Inca lodged here regularly to escape hectic Cusco.
Cradled in a compact valley of rich farmlands, the handsome limestone terraces, bubbling fountains and spring-fed baths still provide a peaceful getaway for any visitor.
Puka Pukara – The Red Fortress
I walked a couple of kilometers down the road to this multi-purpose site: hilltop fortress, road control, barracks, food storage and imperial administrative center. It housed the Inca’s entourage when he resided at Tambomachay.
Meaning “Red Fortress” in Quechua (the language of the Incas and still predominant in indigenous communities today), the pinkish stone is built right into the cliffs. The wide, flat field in the center of the complex affords great views of the surrounding mountains.
Q’enqo – Ceremonial Labyrinth
An unusual sanctuary of fertility worship, Q’enqo (“Labyrinth”) is a complex carved right into the rock face high above Cusco. It consists of several galleries, an amphitheater, astrological observatories, passageways running through the rock and caves used for sacred rites.
Carved staircases lead up to stone seating where carvings of sacred snakes, jaguar and birds adorn the top. Q’enqo is a curious and attention-grabbing site.
Saqsaywaman – Cusco’s Mammoth and Mnemonic “Sexy Woman” Fortress
I had visited this awesome site with Erik on our previous trip and I was eager to return. A colossal fortress overlooking Cusco, it features formidable three-tiered defense walls that zig-zag to in the form of the puma’s piercing teeth. The razor-sharp precision of the stonework is exquisite and extraordinary considering that the interlocked stones are massive – one weighs over 300 tons! Despite being heavily quarried by the Spaniards during their rebuilding of Cusco (only 20% of the original structure remains), the complex still amazes with its immense scale and skillful design.
Traveler’s Note: The above four sites can be easily visited as part of a moderate day walk. Catch a local bus headed towards Pisaq and ask the driver to drop you off at Tambomachay. From there it’s a mostly downhill walk to the other sites and you’ll end up in Cusco exercised both physically and spiritually!
Chinchero – Towering Terraces
A farming center in the Sacred Valley, the enormous terraces of Chinchero are mesmerizingly perfect. Once the estate of the Inca, the Spanish built directly on top of the stone foundations resulting in a strange hybrid of pre-Colombian and colonial buildings. Highly functional and productive, the agricultural terraces continued to be farmed throughout the colonial period. These beautiful terraces, now being carefully restored, provide a fine-looking backdrop to the miles of walks on lasting Inca trails that lead through this fertile region.
Salineras – Peru’s Salt Mover and Shaker
A hot stream of saline water that gushes from a tight ravine feeds thousands of salt pans, the main attraction of this site. In continual use since Incan times, the extracted salt is still used for cattle, food preparation (llama jerky or dried guinea pig anyone?) and table salt. It was fun to wander all about the salt pans, admiring the salt formations building up on all sides! An amusing visit to an uncommon site.
Moray – Inventive Test-Bed Terracing
This place blew my mind. The deep terraces cut into terrain in concentric circles resemble a huge earthen bowl, and when first viewed from the cliffs above, it is a mighty sight. Each ring of the terracing has its own unique microclimate, which leads many to believe that the Incas used this site as an agricultural laboratory, experimenting with small changes in altitude and temperature to develop new hybrids and optimal farming techniques. A testament to Inca ingenuity!
Ollantaytambo – A Living Inca Town
Paul and I visited here in 1999 and it proved to be the highlight of our visit to the Sacred Valley. Continuously inhabited since the 13th century, Ollantaytambo still is perhaps the best living example of pre-Colombian town architecture with its quaint cobblestone streets laid out in a perfect grid.
Being a small town with fewer than 1000 residents, I noticed the onslaught of tourism here the most. Parts of the town are significantly changed. For example, the riverside lane where Paul and I stayed previously has converted from a quiet cobbled street with two hostels ($10-20 for a room in 1999) to a busy tourist thoroughfare with a dozen hotels in the $80-90 range, new restaurants built on stilts above the roaring Patakancha river, and numerous tourist agencies touting adventure trips. I barely recognized the street.
But stray a few blocks from the touristy center and you’ll find delightfully tranquil streets dominated by locals. I stayed in the wonderful Hostal Rumi Wasi (“Stone House”) guesthouse. My room had fantastic views of the surrounding mountains, the rooftop terrace was filled with blooming flowers, the living room had the largest domestic Nativity scene I’ve ever seen – it consumed an entire floor-to-ceiling corner – and a sociable pregnant cat that was a day or two from popping.
Despite the hordes of tourists that pass through Ollantaytambo each morning en route to Machu Picchu, after breakfast the town quiets down and the friendliness of the residents predominates. I sat in the Plaza de Armas watching village women beautifully adorned in traditional dresses, listened to children sing Christmas carols, dined on tasty trout, and sipped bottles of Cusqueño beer on the terrace of my guesthouse while watching the clouds move in and out of the valley.
I could easily spend a lot more time in Ollantaytambo for sure!
Ollantaytambo Fortress – Where the Incas Routed the Spanish
The steep and impenetrable terraces of the Ollantaytambo fortress compound overlooking the town was the site of a major Spanish defeat at the hands of the Inca after the fall of Cusco. It was also an important ceremonial site with a monumental Temple of the Sun that features improbably massive stones positioned high above the Sacred Valley.
I was happy to see that Peruvian archaeologists have restored huge new areas of the site since my last visit. New cliffside walkways lead to rebuilt terracing and reconstructed barracks. A reestablished garden complex with graceful fountains and irrigation canals now adorns the lower portions of the site. It’s satisfying to see ongoing progress of these amazing monuments, the architectural splendor of Inca Empire is coming more alive with each visit.
Pisaq – Hilltop Citadel
My last stop in the Sacred Valley, I was paying a return visit to the ever-expanding archaeological site of Pisaq. After a pleasant lunch in Pisaq’s town square with Emili and Beatriz, a couple of gregarious Spaniards I met the day before as we shared a taxi to the Moray and Salineras sites, I hiked the steep Inca trail leading upwards past waterfalls and terraces to the well-preserved intihuatana temples dedicated to the cult of the sun.
The only other visitors I encountered were two older Peruvian campesinos, decked out in traditional attire, who were visiting their country’s amazing Inca sites during the Christmas holidays. We chatted over the marvels of Cusco and when I asked the man to snap my photo, he was also clearly impressed with the marvels of digital cameras.
The Pisaq ruins are massive in scale. I could have spent the entire day hiking to all the sites: Inca tombs in the cliffs, impressive terracing elegantly flowing down the mountainsides, restored military outposts and farming complexes, dangling-but-still-intact Inca trails with remarkable carved tunnels, astrological observatories, and ceremonial temples. It is a testament to the sophistication of Inca society before the arrival of the Spanish.