Leaving Bolivia behind, we were running out of time in South America. Scrapping our plans to visit Puno and Arequipa (and adding them and the rest of Peru to our “Reasons to Return to South America”, alongside the must-see countries of Ecuador and Columbia), we headed straight for one of the 7 Modern Wonders of the World: Machu Picchu. But before reaching South America’s top destination, we enjoyed 2 beautiful and relaxing days in Cusco and the nearby Sacred Valley.
We had assumed that Cusco would just be a stopping point on our way to Machu Picchu, but were pleasantly surprised to learn otherwise. During our short stay in the high-altitude city we:
- Explored Cusco and enjoyed several unbelievable meals with Dom and Susan, an awesome Australian couple we met during our 4×4 adventure to the Uyuni Salt Flats. We returned more than once to an amazing local vegetarian place where we each ate from a small selection of salads, slurped up a hearty bowl of soup and chowed down on an entree… for only a whopping 7 soles (~$2 USD!) each.
- Alongside Dom and Susan, took in the incredible Incan ruins at the edge of the hilltops that surround Cusco at Saksaywaman (yes, it does sound like sexy woman and don’t be alarmed by all of the drivers enthusiastically yelling “Taxi Saksaywaman?”). We were lucky enough to hire Julio at the site, who proved to be our favorite tour guide ever (we’re not exaggerating). Over the course of an hour, Julio (who speaks 7 languages, lived in Germany, studied to be a physicist, and was completely overqualified to walk us around) offered a thorough overview of Incan culture and the Saksaywaman site while guiding us through a hidden pitch-dark passageway in the midst of the ruins, demonstrating the perfect spot to create an echo across the crowded site, revealing a natural (ancient?) rock slide and letting us slide down it and pointing out the hidden animal rock formations built by the Incas (notice the puma paw and the snake in the pictures below?), none of which we would have found on our own.
- Hitched a ride on a very local bus through the beautiful Sacred Valley to Urubamba. In Urubamba we grabbed yet another delicious lunch at a local market and then traveled back up from the valley floor to check out the ruins at Moray. We were completely impressed by the 150m ditch dug and terraced by the Incans to test crop yields at various altitudes (and by the numerous yogis granted permission to meditate in the agricultural-turned-spiritual site).
Cusco is a city that has maintained it’s charm not in spite of the widespread tourism, but because of it. We appreciated the comforts of the city – delicious food, comfortable hotels, safe streets, great alpaca sweater shopping – while enjoying the culture and the history (we even got to witness the crowded/bizarre Holy Week celebrations ahead of Easter). Cusco is well worth the hype and we certainly plan to return!
Things To Do:
- There’s plenty to keep you busy in Cusco. You have to buy a combined ticket for all of the sites for 140 soles (~$40 USD), so it’s worth it to take advantage of multiple sites. The ticket granted us access to Saksaywaman and Moray (along with countless other sites around the city), both of which we recommend visiting. If you head to Saksaywaman, make sure to reach out to our favorite tour guide Julio (firstname.lastname@example.org; 984714755)!
- The Sacred Valley is well worth a proper tour – even the drive through was beautiful enough to merit the trip.
- San Pedro market has everything from alpaca sweaters to fresh juice and is a short walk from the center of town.
- There are countless museums in Cusco, we didn’t have time to visit any but we heard the mummy, choco and coco museums are worth a visit.
Getting There/Away: We arrived in Cusco via an overnight bus from Copacabana. Most buses depart Copacabana around 6:30 PM and arrive in Cusco around 5:00-6:00 AM. We chose a “Cama Especial” bus, which only reclines to 140*, but is nearly half the cost of Cama buses, which recline close to 180*. The border crossing is comical but simple. Bus tickets do not need to be purchased in advance – there are plenty of tour companies in Copacabana.
Accommodations: We stayed at Hatun Quilla, which is a short walk to the center of town. The rooms are comfortable, the staff is friendly, and the rooms are reasonably priced. For those of you not on a backpackers’ budget and willing to splurge a bit, check out The Belmond. We were in awe of the hotel but, as mesmerizing as it appeared, we couldn’t push ourselves to spend the equivalent of 15-vagabonding days on one night.
Days Stayed / Recommended: Don’t just rush through Cusco if you are visiting Machu Picchu. We think 3-4 days reasonable just for Cusco.
Local Food: We can’t recommend enough the vegetarian restaurant, El Encuentro (located on Calle Tigre), where we grabbed our lunch the first day. Incredible food at an incredible price! We also loved the purple corn chica morada juice served across town.