Despite being saturated by tourism, and all that goes with it, Cusco remains a must-see destination in Peru, if only for its ideal location at the gates of the Sacred Valley and its world-famous Inca ruins and mountain ranges.
We spent just under a week in the area, including our visit to one of the 7 Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu, which we talk about in the follow post. On the days that we stayed in the busy city, we caught up on much needed rest and correspondance with family, planned our Machu Picchu trip, and restocked our backpacks with stuff we lost in previous legs of our journey (towel, toiletries, phone…!). We wandered around the arty quarter of St Blas, admired colonial streets, squares and monuments adorned with the symbolic Inca rainbow flag, as well as some preserved Inca architecture with its characteristic, impossibly-perfectly cut blocks, and statues of the last Inca emporor, Pachacuti.
We visited the Inca Museum for some insight into the pre-colonial civilizations, their impressive handiworks and their tragic defeat at the hands of the Spanish conquistadores. We visited the free chocolate museum, sampling some delicious chocolate-flavoured piscos at the end. We ate in cheap restaurants, tasting the very tough alpaca meat for the first time, and trout – yet again! And of course we enjoyed a few drinks, catching up with friends we met along our journey: Adrien from Huacachina at the highest Irish-owned rooftop bar in the world (which to Renaud’s great disappointment, did not serve Guiness on tap!), Sasha, minus Bec, from Lima and Huaraz, at a terrace bar with an amazing night panorama on the twinkling Cusco streets below, and Osman from Huacachina (aswell), with whom we shared coffee and then drinks and chicha at the quirky km-0 bar in St Blas.
Had we been better informed, we probably would have bought the 10-day Cusco/Sacred Valley cultural pass that includes access to most museums and archeological sites around Cusco and in the Sacred Valley, at the hefty price of 130 soles (about 40 euros). Unfortunately, we were confronted with this decision at the entrance of one of these sites, unwarned by the travel ‘agency’, and very surprised and annoyed at the high cost and fact that it is impossible to buy individual tickets into these sites, of which we were not intending to visit that many. So we ended up visiting only one: the circular terraces of Moray, said to have been used as some kind of farming laboratory, each level being at a slightly different temperature or humidity factor, to the next.
Although the site was interesting and quite unique, we were disappointed by the lack of information about it (at such a price too!), and by having to rush through the visit, as part of a tour we were forced to take, as a form of transport (as is the case with most tourist attractions around Cusco). The rest of the tour was visiting an alpaca fabric weaving cooperative (where the women demonstrated to us all the natural ingredients used to clean, treat and dye the material), and the Maras salt pans.
The highlight of our time in Cusco, apart from Machu Picchu, has to be our hike to the aptly-named Rainbow Mountain (or Vinicunca). The tour included a very filling breakfast (including quinoa hot chocolate) and colourful buffet lunch, one of our best meals in Peru so far! (lomo saltado, lasagna, grilled veggies, savoury polenta cakes,…). Outside of that, the climb from 4400m to 5100m was quite strenuous due to the altitude, but taking it at a slow pace we made it to the summit, savouring this acheivement with our French friend Adrien. The reward was worth so much more than the effort we put in: endless 360° views over the colourful valleys and grazing llamas below, the snow-capped Ausangate mountain range (highest in Peru), and the mineral-streaked wave-like domes that form the Vinicunca range. This unique geological feature, which can be visited in few other places in the world, is due to high tectonic activity in the area millions of years ago, that hauled up, bent and squeezed together layers of iron, sulfur, and traces of other precious elements like gold.