how to never leave cusco

I’m not much of a planner. I also tend to dawdle. The combination of these factors meant that I stayed in Cusco for nearly 2 weeks – which is the total length of the vacations of some people I met here.

I didn’t think I would spend much time in Cusco. I had booked a short trek to Machu Picchu (called the short Inca Trail) which took up a grand total of 2 days. And I thought Cusco was a touristy, expensive sort of place, so why linger. A week (or less) ought to do it no?

Turns out, Cusco is a pleasant place for long, goalless strolls, and a fantastic base for exploring the region, whether you’re into hiking or keen on delving into Incan culture or history. Or just cafe-hopping, my speciality.

The Cusco tourism authority also cleverly traps you into extended sightseeing by selling bundled ticket for star attractions. So if you want to see both Sacsayhuaman (just outside Cusco) and Ollantaytambo (in the Sacred Valley), for example, you’ll have to the buy the full touristo boleto for an eye-watering 130 soles, valid for 10 days.

So, I ended up up taking my time in Cusco, with something new to check out catching my eye every other day. And what was meant to be 5 days became 11. So, what did I do?

Visit the Sacred Valley (2-3 days)

Ollantaytambo

The area known as the Sacred Valley outside Cusco features a number of beautiful sites that shouldn’t be missed – I loved Ollantaytambo, Pisac, and Moray in particular, and one should set aside at least 2 days to enjoy them — with a knowledgeable guide, I might add. These sites, like Machu Picchu, contain no explanations and the concept of an audio guide hasn’t been introduced, since it will probably put tonnes of people out of work.

The town of Ollantaytambo itself is a pleasant enough (if touristy) place to stay and base yourself for exploring the sites without having to make the 2-3 hour bus rides from Cusco.

Any number of people will try and sell you cheap one-day tours to the sites and I tried one, because it was ridiculously cheap (20 soles, or just under S$10). It was terrible. The guide conducted the tour in both in Spanish and English and her English was terrible, for one. She also answered my questions vaguely, and I felt I was better off Googling for answers. There were also unnecessarily long stops at touristy shops, and too little time was spent at the sites.

But like I said, they are a cheap way of getting to the sites, particularly if you bargain and refuse the buffet lunch (I packed my own sandwich).

A better way if you’re travelling in a group or are good at making friends is to hire a cab for the day (about USD50) to drive you to the sites and try your luck by hiring the guides that hang around outside the sites. I saw Moray and Chinchero this way and it was a much improved experience.

Moray

Later I was recommended agencies that can do a 2D1N stay in the Sacred Valley with a guide for about USD120 per person, which isn’t cheap but then I think you might get more out of the experience.

By the way, skip the salt mine at Maras. It’s 10 soles to get in and it’s basically a salt mine packed with tourists, and nothing you need to see that badly.

Cusco and around (3 days)

Sacsayhuaman

I kicked off my stay in Cusco with a free walking tour, which was highly rated on TA and yay, lived up to expectations. It doesn’t cover a huge area but it was a great introduction to Cusco and Peru’s culture and history in general, and I used the chance to ask the guide (Richard) questions about Peru, as well as get some recommendations for tours/guides for the region. These recommendations came too late for the Sacred Valley but I used his recommendation, Mundo Tourismo, for a guided group tour of the key sites in and around Cusco included in my tourist pass, such as the amazing Sacsayhuaman. I paid 25 soles for my tour, which covered 4-5 sites, transport and was entirely in English (the Spanish/English one was 20 soles), and the guide was excellent.

The tour also covered the awesome Qori’cancha, an Incan temple turned monastery that has good explanations in English and is incredible example of how Incan architecture was built over by the Spanish, only for former to outlast the latter, which came crumbling down during an earthquake. It also has a great art gallery showcasing the Cusco style of art during the colonial years. Note that entry to Qori’cancha is not included in the boleto, but it shouldn’t be missed.

Another site not covered by the ticket but worth visiting is the Museo de Arte Precolombino. The collection is stunning and will give you newfound appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship of the pre-Columbian era civilisations.

Artefacts at the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art

Trekking

Vinicunca
On the Ausangate circuit

Where to start? I’m still kicking myself for not planning a trip to Choquequirao, sometimes called a sister site to Machu Picchu, especially after I read Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams. Incan history makes more sense when you see all the significant sites as part of a big picture, rather than isolation – that sense of awe is so much greater.

Other treks highly rated for the terrain and scenery, Salkantay and Ausangate, two mountains sacred to the Incans, and Lares. Also exploding in popularity is Vinicunca, popularly referred to as the Rainbow Mountain, because of its eponymous unreal beauty, which has made it a hit on social media in the last couple of years — many tour operators began offering one day tours via a new route only in the past year.

I decided to kill two birds with one stone by going for trek that covered both Ausangate and Vinicunca as they’re near each other. I had dreams of attempting the 6D5N option but there were no group departure dates that worked for my schedule and I was neither rich enough to afford a private trek nor experienced enough to attempt it myself unguided with rented equipment.

In the end I settled for a starter 2D1N version, hiking to the top of Vinicunca (5,200m) on the first day, and then doing a tiny section of the Ausangate circuit (14-15km) to see some lakes and the glacier that hangs over the region’s highest peak. It was just as well, because hiking at altitude turned out to be a serious challenge, the kind that had me stopping to catch my breath after every ten steps. The best thing about Ausangate? While Vinicunca was crawling with tourists, Ausangate was gloriously quiet.

Machu Picchu 

Machu Picchu

There’s always a sense of apprehension that comes with visiting incredibly famous places (pyramids of Giza, Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat) – can anything really live to the hype? Especially when it’s crawling with tourists?

Well Machu Picchu can, if you make the effort to visit during less crowded hours (late afternoon for example). I chose to trek to Machu Picchu and if that’s within your physical capability then it should be done – following in the steps of the Incas to Machu Picchu with a knowledgeable guide (passing other important Inca sites along the way) is the best way to appreciate what an achievement and unique site the place is.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

Mooch in cafes 

L’Atelier Cafe Concept

You’d be hard pressed to to not find a cute cafe in the neighbourhood of San Blas to bum in, but I’m sorry to say that not all coffee is created equal in these places, despite the fact that very fine coffee is grown in Peru.

L’Atelier Cafe Concept is exceptionally cute – just don’t order the hot chocolate. It’s a nice place to while the afternoon away, even if the coffee wasn’t the best I had. They also sell cute but slightly pricey things by independent designer so the space is also good for a browse. Wifi was decent.

Pan…tastico is not as cute but the cakes and bread are truly awesome and the coffee is decent, plus wifi is strong.

Cafe Richary is good for coffee but not so good for whiling the hours. A good option nearby is Cafe Panam – can’t fault the quality if the baked goods and coffee is good. Cafe D’wasi also does good coffee but the food is pretty so so. The latter two have decent wifi.

A note – I fared much better when I ordered espresso and asked for steamed milk on the side, or else anything I order is always too milky, even the machiatto.

Food 

No surprise that eating out in Cusco is expensive – it’s after all one of the most touristy cities in Peru. The upside is that you can get very good quality food living up to the prices you pay for.

I was surprised by the food at Greens, which I had ducked into expecting the usually gringo cafe parade of unimaginative salads, soups and sandwiches (I had gone in for soup, as I was recovering from diarrhoea). But the food is actually a nice, refined take on Peruvian dishes and ingredients and a standout for me was their fried trout. Given the quality of the food I was happy to pay the higher prices. Service was excellent too.

Alpaca steak at Greens

For a hearty meal after trekking, I loved Papachos, a burger joint opened by Gaston Acuria. The burgers are extremely well done and there are interesting options incorporating South American flavours and ingredients. The milkshakes and desserts were so good I wanted to go back for a second round.

In terms of local food, I didn’t have anything exceptional although I ate cheaply and satisfactorily at little joints near the mercado by ordering the Menu del Dia – usually soup followed by a dish of meat or fish with rice. These rarely cost more than 5-7 soles and it’s just a matter of picking a stall that has a large number of locals and seeing what’s before them on the tables.

So, that’s my Cusco. Touristy? Certainly. But after being there, I understood why. It has the unique position of being exceptionally beautiful, a place of historical and cultural significance to both the Incas and the Spanish, and it’s surrounded by superb trekking and less touristed sites that reward travellers for making the extra effort. Bring me back anytime.

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