Cusco

We only had about 24 hours in Cusco, but even just our short time there was enough to convince us that Cusco is one of the fascinating cities we’ve ever been to. It was the capital of the Inca Empire until the Spaniards moved the capital down to coastal Lima because they couldn’t handle the altitude. When the Spanish invaded, they plundered the city and constructed their own Catholic buildings, meanwhile killing many Incas with smallpox. Fortunately, a big earthquake in 1950 toppled the poorly-constructed Spanish buildings, while the Inca architecture underneath was left standing.

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We stayed at Hostal Corihuasi, a restored colonial guest house, just a brisk uphill walk from the main plaza. Our rustic room had parquet floors, hand-woven rugs, alpaca wool blankets, and wraparound windows that offered a panoramic view of the entire city. Cusco felt huge, especially after staying in little towns like Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes for the past week. From our windows, Cusco was a sea of red roofs and cathedrals, surrounded by mountains — much like Florence. Another thing we noticed in the lobby of our hotel was a huge oxygen tank, reminding us that we were 11,152 feet above sea level. We had saved Cusco for the end of our trip for that very reason, and thanks to that, we felt fine our entire time there.

Unlike Aguas Calientes, which is pretty much mocked by everyone we meet, Cusco seems to be universally loved. Remnants of both the Inca Empire and the invasion of Spanish conquistadors share Cusco’s narrow cobblestoned streets, creating a unique mashup of Andean and Spanish styles that makes Cusco like no other place on earth.

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Roaming around San Blas
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Steep staircases running through town
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Plaza de Armas

We joined a free historical walking tour, wandered around Mercado San Pedro, bought chocolate at the ChocoMuseo, got kissed by an alpaca, and then later ate alpaca burgers. If I could spend a month in only one place in Peru, Cusco would be my first choice because it felt incredibly livable.

By the time our cab arrived to take us to the airport, I wasn’t ready to leave Peru yet. This country didn’t hit me immediately the way my other favorite countries (Italy, Turkey, and South Africa) did. In fact, I didn’t start crying until our plane took off and I started going through my photos from Ollantaytambo. Peru was magical, but in a quiet way. This trip was my first venture into Latin America, opening a new world (pun intended) to me, and I can’t wait to return.

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Peru grows over 4,000 varieties of potatoes
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This alpaca is trained to kiss when you say “beso”

Tips for future travelers

We hired Taxi Datum for all our cab rides throughout Peru. It cost 127 soles from Ollantaytambo to Cusco, and 20 soles from Cusco to the airport. It’s easy to book online, and they’re always prompt.

If you stay in Hostal Corihuasi, request Room 1 for the best view.

The two alpaca burgers we tried were phenomenal. Chakruna Native Burgers is a fun burger shop in San Blas. Make sure to order a side of fries (even though each burger already comes with fries) because they are wonderful and are accompanied by five different sauces. Meanwhile, Hanz Homemade Craft Beer & Food had an even better alpaca burger and is entirely run by one man who took everyone’s orders, walked them to the outdoor restroom so they wouldn’t get lost, and kept us entertained throughout dinner. I’d probably be a regular at Hanz if I had my dream month in Cusco.

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A perfect alpaca burger, Peruvian beer, and a variety of Peruvian potato chips from Hanz
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Ollantaytambo (+ Sacred Valley)

I could immediately tell that Peru was going to pull my heartstrings because even our flight into Cusco was breathtaking. The pilot made an announcement that we were about to land, but instead of descending, our plane kept getting higher and higher, past snowy mountain peaks and through the clouds. That’s how high Cusco is. At 11,154 feet above sea level, this was the highest at which I’ve ever spent a significant amount of time.

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Flying through clouds

As soon as we found our guide Willian, who was eagerly waiting for us at the airport, we started our half-day tour through the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was Chinchero, where we drank our first of many coca teas, watched traditional weaving demonstrations, and learned the difference between llamas and alpacas. Llamas are generally larger, have longer ears, and are more independent. Meanwhile, alpacas are smaller, have more smooshed faces, and produce a softer fiber (thus, more expensive sweaters). Anthony ended up buying a llama sweater. All of the garments made here are dyed using pigments found only in nature, then tightly spun.

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Dying wool
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Weaving demonstrations
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Llamas and alpacas

Our next stop was the main plaza of Chinchero, encompassing a charming adobe church and Inca stone walls, surrounded by hillsides of fertile terraces that grow potatoes and quinoa. Chinchero is located even higher than Cusco, which is why we were huffing and puffing just climbing the few steps leading through town.

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Church overlooking the plaza
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Terraces of Chinchero

Inca masonry is legendary. Their structures feature precisely cut stones tightly fitted without mortar. The Inca split the stones along their natural fracture lines using stone, bronze, and copper tools. Walls are usually slightly inclined inside, while corners are rounded. This means that Inca buildings can withstand earthquakes.

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Inca masonry

After leaving Chinchero, we drove half an hour to Maras to view the salineras. Salt ponds were dug into this canyon thousands of years ago. Salty water from a local subterranean stream is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto these terraced ponds. The ponds are shaped into polygons and carefully monitored by workers. As the water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the water becomes supersaturated. The pond’s keeper then closes the water-feeder notch and allows the pond to go dry. Within a few days, the keeper harvests the salt by scraping the dry salt from the sides and bottom.

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Salineras built into a canyon
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Love the different shades of brown

Our fourth stop, Moray, is famous for its grass-covered, terraced circular depressions. The temperature differences between each terrace creates a series of micro-climates that matches the varied climates of the Inca Empire, leading many to believe that Moray was a test bed to see what crops could grow where. Even the soils come from different regions. These ruins never flood despite Peru’s infamous rainy season, so there must also be an underground irrigation system.

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Moray

Finally, Willian ended our tour in Ollantaytambo, where we were staying at an adorable hotel called Kamma Guest House. After touring four incredible Inca sites, I felt almost humbled to be staying in the same village as descendants of the Incas.

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Arrived in Ollantaytambo!

Like most tourists, we had come to Peru for Machu Picchu, but I actually preferred the couple of days we spent in Ollantaytambo, a small town of cobblestone streets and ancient Inca buildings. This town is where the Incas retreated when the Spanish started colonizing. Ollantaytambo is surrounded by spectacular green mountains dotted with old ruins. A few small canals run through the town, and a vibrant community still lives in pre-Columbian dwellings. Many of the women still wear traditional attire, and people speak the indigenous language of Quechua.

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Ollantaytambo
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Typical streets in Ollantaytambo
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Little streams bisecting the streets
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Tiger trash cans!

On our first night there, it seemed like the whole town was in the central square for a Christmas children’s performance. Peruvian children are adorable! Due to the high altitude, they were born with bigger lungs and highly oxygenated blood that causes a red flush in their cheeks.

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Children wearing traditional attire
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Christmas festival in the plaza

While roaming around Ollantaytambo, I noticed trapezoids everywhere, especially in the doors and windows. The trapezoid is an extremely stable shape — structurally much more stable than rectangles. Given that the Inca Empire ran through the Andes in a seismic zone, Inca architects learned over time that trapezoids provided extreme stability in times of earthquake.

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Trapezoidal door

One morning, we hiked to an archeological site called Pinkuylluna, which consists of grain storehouses built on the side of a mountain. The entrance was right across from our hotel, and though the hike wasn’t exceedingly high, we were still acclimating to the altitude and needed to take multiple breaks on our way up. Along the way are stunning views of Ollantaytambo. The storehouses were built up there to keep grain dryer and cooler than down in the valley below. They’re now empty, providing an interesting setting for photo shoots. 

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Our goal
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First of many rest breaks
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Stumbling upon ruins
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We’re getting closer!
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We made it!
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Beautiful view of Ollantaytambo below

Ollantaytambo was breathtaking not only because of the high altitude, but because of the remnants of the Inca Empire, as well as the seemingly untouched villages scattered across this region. I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the people we met; they come from such a rich, brilliant civilization. I fell in love with everything we met here — alpacas, Peruvian children, stonework, high-quality salt… you name it. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me that Ollantaytambo was the one town in Peru that brought me to tears when it was time for us to leave.

Tips for future travelers:

The best way to acclimate to the high altitude is by starting in the lowest area, then ending your trip in the highest. We stayed in Ollantaytambo first, moved up to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, and saved Cusco for last. Our first couple of days in Ollantaytambo were still a little rough, but by the time we got to our most important hike in Machu Picchu, we were fine. I took some acetazolamide pills before and during the trip, and we drank coca tea whenever we had a chance. Coca tea is available everywhere for free.

Hike Pinkuylluna in the morning to avoid the intense sun and larger crowds. It takes about an hour and a half.

Our six-hour Sacred Valley tour with Taxi Datum cost $65, which included an airport pickup and a hotel drop-off. Just be aware, our guide was more of a driver than a comprehensive tour guide.

Things to eat: potatoes (Peru has over 4,000 varieties!), alpaca (tastes like beef), cuy (guinea pig), corn, pisco sour, Cusqueña negra, chocolate, grains

All the meals we had in Ollantaytambo were good, but the most unique one was at Chuncho. “Chuncho” comes from the Quechua word meaning native. Everything on the menu is local and organic — even the cocktails (yes, all their alcohol is distilled on site!). We grated our own salt onto some toasted corn and tried cuy for the first time. I also found my favorite potato (the one with a purple skin and white flesh that makes perfect chips).

Other places to eat: Inti Killa (try the quinoa pizza) and El Cafe del Abuelo for coffee

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Better than 80% of the pizza we’ve had in Italy

A big reason that I fell in love with Ollantaytambo was our hotel, which has only five guest rooms, a view of the entire town from the rooftop, and the sweetest host who gave us restaurant recommendations and made us feel at home. Our room overlooked a small water channel, so I was able to fall asleep to the calming sound of moving water. Breakfast was served on the roof, and our host remembered my random food preferences. Our room cost $65/night.

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Pointing to our balcony at Kamma Guest House