03 October 2018

Sacred Sights in Cusco, the Incan Capital City

I booked my return flights to Lima and Inca Trail trek with Llama Path back in January, but didn't fix up the rest of my Peru itinerary until a couple of months before my trip. I arranged my whole holiday around the Inca Trail, however, and to ensure that even if my trek was delayed, I would have the best chance of being able to go. Inca Trail trekkers are advised to travel to the city of Cusco — the erstwhile Inca capital — at least three days before their trek to acclimatise to the altitude (Cusco is at about 3,400 metres above sea level).

I decide to spend three full days in Cusco, plus a final night after my trek, and it is one of my favourite places of the trip. I take a morning flight from Lima with LATAM, which arrives about an hour late. Delays are common as Cusco is often very cloudy and weather conditions can make landing difficult or impossible. But when I arrive, it is gloriously sunny. Although the temperature is only about 16C, the altitude means that the sun is very strong, and while waiting for my taxi, I remove a couple of layers.

I am staying at Loreto Boutique Hotel, which is mere steps from the central Plaza de Armas. Lonely Planet cautions me that 'boutique' is a bit optimistic, but the building is historic — if sometimes noisy thanks to the hardwood floors and other guests with very early wake-up calls — and the location ideal. Note that the hotel is divided into two sections by impassable original Inca walls. I am, I think, in the 'annexe', but the photos on the hotel website suggest the two parts are pretty similar. The staff are friendly, although I do need to speak to three separate people before I get my Sacred Valley tour booked. Here's what I got up to during my trip:

Things to do
Cusco's historic city centre is relatively small and easy to explore on foot — there are a few narrow streets and steep, if short, inclines. Many of the main attractions are located within 15 minutes' walk of Plaza de Armas. Most of the hotels are there too, although, the artsy San Blas area, a short uphill walk from the Plaza, also has some good options.

Many of the museums and Incan sites are accessible only with a boleto turistico (tourist ticket), which costs 70 soles (about £16) for the pequeño or 130 soles (about £30) for the grande, which lasts 10 days and also includes four Sacred Valley sites. Annoyingly, not all of the places I want to visit in Cusco are included — there's a separate boleto religioso to visit the cathedral and other religious sites, for example. In the end, I figure that I will be seeing enough Incan sites and historical museums on the trip that I can skip the boleto turistico. Instead, I buy the religious ticket (the cathedral — actually three separate churches joined together — is grand inside; the San Blas and San Francisco churches have bell towers with nice city views). I also go to the impressive Qorikancha temple, located just south of the Plaza de Armas, and visit the concise but informative Museum of Pre-Columbian Art.

I also book a trip to the excellent Cusco planetarium. At dusk, we take a minibus from the city centre up into the hills to the small, family-run observatory, and learn about both Western and Inca astronomy (featuring 'dark constellations' in the Milky Way, such as the big, black llama) in the Southern Hemisphere. Outside, there is some light pollution from the city below, but the view of the stars is still so much clearer than in London and I can make out Scorpius — which I later spot on the Inca Trail — quite well. Through the telescopes, we get great views of Saturn's rings, the Moon's craters and a binary-star system.

Cusco is very photogenic and I am blessed with warm sunshine and blue skies, so I spend a lot of time wandering the streets and photographing the buildings. Many of the original Incan walls remain locking history deep inside them.

Food, drink, coffee and shopping
After my splurge at Central in Lima, I try to reduce my food budget in Cusco. I stick to Lonely Planet recommendations, for the most part. I have a tasty and very cheap pork sandwich at Cafe Ayllu, a huge and a delicious quarter rotisserie chicken and chips at Los Toldos. I also have my first lomo saltado (stir-fried beef with peppers and onion, served with the usual suite of carbs) at one of the many counters at the sprawling Mercado San Pedro.

I discover my favourite Peruvian criolla dish of the trip: ají de gallina, or shredded chicken and potatoes, served in a creamy chilli and peanut sauce, with a boiled egg and rice on the side. It is rich and comforting and I order it several more times. My favourite rendition in Cusco is at Pachapapa, a short uphill walk from the Plaza de Armas in a lively restaurant with lots of ambiance and outdoor seating. Riddled with guilt, I try an alpaca steak at Marcelo Batata, the night after my Inca Trail trek. It is tender, juicy and delicious. The chilcano (pisco, ginger ale, lime and bitters) at Marcelo Batata is pretty good too, although it can't top the meticulously mixed pisco sour I drink at the Museo del Pisco. At the latter, I chat with the friendly bar staff, watch their enviable mixology skills and listen to the live music.

I make coffee each morning in my Espro Ultralight Travel Press, but I also visit two good speciality coffee shops in Cusco. The first was recommended by Jess Eating East, among others. Named Cafe D'wasi, it's only a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Armas, and roasts its own coffee in the small roaster at the front of the shop. I have a good cortado (ordering a doble may have been a good call) and get a V60 pourover to take back to my hotel to drink cold in the morning at my 3:45 am Inca Trail wake-up call. This tastes great too, although I am not sure quite how engaged my palate is at this ungodly hour.

The second coffee shop is Monkey Coffee in San Blas. I have seen Monkey mentioned in a Google review of a brunch spot so when I come across their small cafe, I hurry on in (once I've realised that the door slides rather than swings open). Their single-origin coffee is available with several filter-coffee brew methods, and the barista and I agree on the Clever Dripper. The coffee is fruity and flavoursome when it arrives, and I enjoy the calm respite from the busy city, with a view of original Incan walls across the road.

For cheap souvenirs, try Mercado San Pedro or at any of the dozens of very similar souvenir shops throughout the city centre. There's a branch of Patagonia right on Plaza de Armas, in case you've forgotten any hiking kit (the prices are even higher than in Europe, so you may be better off seeking less official shops if you're on a budget). I pick up a slightly higher end, 100% baby alpaca chullo (traditional Peruvian hat) at Pure Alpaca and a couple of cheaper but colourful alpaca-mix (allegedly...) scarves in the market. My favourite shop in town is a boutique called Cocoliso, which sells expensive but beautifully soft knitted items in both vibrant and muted colours. They have very nice leather bags too.

Sacred Valley of the Incas
An hour or so north of Cusco lies the Sacred Valley of the Incas, also known as the Urubamba Valley, the Urubamba River being a headwater of the Amazon. Even if you only have a few days to spend in Cusco, it's well worth allocating at least one to the Sacred Valley — and ideally two if you want to visit more of the Incan remains and other historical and geological attractions, like the Maras salt ponds.

Walk into any of the tourism agencies in downtown Cusco and they will offer at least one Sacred Valley tour variation. I book a one-day tour through my hotel. I don't know which tour company they use — it is well-organised and our guide is good, but I suspect they are much of a muchness. It costs $25 including a buffet lunch but excluding the aforementioned 70 soles pequeño boleto turistico (you can buy the 130 soles version if you're planning to visit some of the Cusco sights too).

After a pit stop at a small market, our first port of call is the Pisac archaeological park, a well-preserved Incan site set on a hilltop — probably with a defensive function. It's a short but steep hike up to the fort at the top, where there are wonderful views of the valley and of the terraces, which were used for growing crops like potatoes and quinoa. NB, we arrived around 10:30 am, along with many, many other groups. If you are travelling with anyone else, it may make more sense to organise your own tour with a taxi driver, who can take you to the places you want to visit and in a different order to the standard tourist route.

We drive on to Urubamba, a small town that runs alongside the 'sacred' river of the same name. We stop for a buffet lunch at an unmemorable tourist restaurant. Afterwards, I nap in our minibus — the filling meal and the warm afternoon sun have made me very sleepy. Before long, we are parking in Ollantaytambo, once an important Incan stronghold and now a small market town that makes a good base for stays in the Sacred Valley. It's also just a two-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes if you're planning a Machu Picchu day trip, and close to the starting point for our four-day Inca Trail hike.

The Incan remains at Ollantaytambo are impressive. You can climb up 250 steps to the top of the agricultural terraces to the Temple Hill fortress for views across the three valleys that meet here and Pinkullyuna Hill, just opposite, where it's possible to make out the remains of Incan storehouses and a giant carved head of the Incan god Viracocha. We have a little free time to explore — note, to preserve the site, no leaping is allowed — and then it is back to the minibus.

Our final stop is Chinchero, a rustic, hilltop town known for its weaving. There are some Incan remains here too but we are running late and don't have time to visit — or to photograph the stunning sunset. Instead, we watch a weaving demonstration and an explanation of how vibrant dye are sourced from natural products — cochineal bugs produce a rich scarlet colour, for instance. The demo is interesting and similar to one I saw in Teotitlán del Valle in Mexico. I must confess to being a tiny bit distracted by the very cute camelids sitting with us in the yard.

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