Week 23 – Cusco, Peru
Hi everybody! We’ve had a lovely week in Cusco, the Capital of the ancient Incan Empire. We’ve visited museums and ruins and have marvelled at a lot of incredible construction!
We arrived in Cusco around 5:30am, and realised that we wouldn’t be able to check into our Airbnb apartment for a few hours. Thankfully another hostel who partner with Peru Hop took pity on us and let us wait in their foyer. We found a handy blanket and wrapped ourselves up to watch some Netflix and wait for a more reasonable hour.
The Airbnb that we’re staying at is an apartment in a really lovely old building with a central courtyard. After checking in we went out to explore the city. We’re very close to the historic centre and central plaza. The plaza is beautiful and large, with two big churches and a central fountain. It had a really nice atmosphere. It’s obviously a tourist centre – we kept getting stopped by people offering tours, massages and open-top bus rides. We spoke to a few agencies and booked ourselves onto a tour for the following day. We also purchased the Cusco tourist ticket, which allows you into multiple attractions, and wandered round some of the shops, where we found our Peru bracelets.
For lunch we went to a restaurant with a beautiful view over the plaza, where we both tried alpaca! It was a bit like a mix of chicken and beef (as strange as that sounds). I think I prefer llama but alpaca is good too.
Our night bus hadn’t been the most comfortable night’s sleep, so we headed home quite early to relax and have an early night.
This morning we went to visit one of the large churches situated on Cusco’s main plaza. Cusco Cathedral is a strange building, mainly because it is one of three churches which are attached together; the Templo del Triunfo (temple of triumph), the Cathedral and the Templo de la Sagrada Familia (temple of the sacred family). I’m not sure what happens on a Sunday morning – maybe they have three competing sermons on at once?! Cusco Cathedral is one of the buildings that was built by the Spanish using stones from Sacsayhuamán, a site we visited later today. The three churches were all impressive in different ways, although the main Cathedral was the largest and fanciest. We definitely noticed similarities between these churches and the Colonial Spanish ones we saw in Ecuador.
In the afternoon we went on a city tour. The name is slightly misleading, as we were actually taken to some historic sites on the outskirts of Cusco. We met our guide in the plaza and walked to our first destination, the temple of Qorikancha.
Qorikancha was the most important temple in the Incan Empire. It was divided into a number of smaller temples. The largest was dedicated to Inti, their Sun God, and then there were temples for the moon, the stars, the rainbow, thunder and lightning. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, they demolished part of Qorikancha and built a church on top of it. Today the building is a strange blend of the two.
Qorikancha was really interesting, but unfortunately there were about 20 tour groups all visiting at the same time, which made it very busy and hard to look around. We found the architecture particularly interesting. The Incas were famous for incredible stone masonry. They would build with stone blocks that fitted together so well that there were no gaps between them, and they didn’t require cement or mortar to hold them together. We learnt that some stones were joined together with corresponding protuberances and holes, and others were connected by pouring molten metal in shaped grooves on the top of adjacent stones. It was really impressive to think how well the Incan structures have stood up to earthquake damage. In Qorikancha, two earthquakes severely damaged the Spanish church but the Incan temple was unharmed.
After seeing Qorikancha, we got onto a bus to be taken to the next site. Q’enqo was a large holy site in Incan times. It was a lot less pristine than the other sites we visited, with many of the rocks looking more wild and less sculpted. We were taken through a tunnel where saw a large old stone table, which it is believed was used for sacrifices and the process of mummification. We would have liked some more time to look around this place, but our guide was keen to get us moving on to site number three, which was the star of the show.
The third site was called Sacsayhuamán (we liked that this sounded like ‘sexy woman’!). It was a huge Incan fortress with more incredible stone walls. Unlike the regularly shaped blocks at Qorikancha, here the blocks were all different shapes and sizes, but still fit together with incredible accuracy. The fortress was in large part demolished by the Spanish, who used the stones to build churches in the centre of Cusco, but the remains are incredibly impressive.
We were taken around the site by our guide, and then given some free time to explore. There was a large grassy central area which is apparently still used for ceremonies today. We climbed up to the top of the rocky platforms and were rewarded with an amazing view over Cusco. The city is surrounded by hills on all sides and is really beautiful.
Our final two stops were both fairly brief. We visited Tambomachay, a site that may have been a shrine to water, a military outpost or both. There were a number of water channels and cascades that were created by the Incas, diverting water from nearby springs.
By the time we reached the last stop of Puka Pukara, another Incan military building, the sun had pretty much set and it was getting quite dark. We appreciated what we could of the ruins but really we couldn’t see all that much! We had been a bit delayed in starting the tour, but I think that it was also just an ambitious itinerary in the time that was allocated.
We got back to Cusco after being taken to an artisan shop selling alpaca wool goods. It felt a bit frustrating to have an enforced visit to a shop, but the owner did give us a lesson in how to tell if something was made of real alpaca wool or whether it was synthetic. We also got to feel a sample of vicuña wool (remember the other week I was saying how valuable it was?), which was so soft, it was amazing!
Today we stayed around Cusco and decided to visit some of its churches, mainly because the ticket we bought for the Cathedral yesterday was a multi-church deal. The first place we visited was the Archbishop’s Palace, which is now a museum. The building was pretty and surrounded a central courtyard like our Airbnb. There were lots of rooms, and each of them was filled with religious artwork. There wasn’t any information under the paintings, so while we enjoyed looking at them all we didn’t really learn anything. Retrospectively I’ve read that there is an audioguide available, but this wasn’t mentioned at the entrance.
We also visited the Templo de San Blas. This church felt quite similar to the ones we’d seen in Quito. It had huge paintings hanging from the walls depicting various scenes from the Bible. We enjoyed climbing up to the belltower, which wasn’t very high but gave us a nice view over part of the city.
As well as our multi-church ticket, we’d purchased a tourist ticket that lets you into multiple attractions around the city. One of these was the modern art museum, which turned out to be a one room exhibit. All of the paintings were very similar, with different jungle animals being portrayed. I’m not sure we understood the significance behind them (one of the pumas was wearing a suit), but they were quite interesting to look at.
Today we woke up bright and early to go on a tour of the Sacred Valley. This is the valley of the Urabamba river and runs through the Andes, with a number of archaeological Incan sites. Our tour guide Mihai introduced himself and gave us a brief overview of the day. Very soon we started getting tantalising glimpses of the valley between the mountains. We stopped at a view point and it was really gorgeous. The mountains here are so beautiful – compared to some of the other ones we’ve visited in the past few months, these were lush and green.
Our first stop was the town of Písac. It had a large market and we were given some time to wander around it. It’s really tricky looking around a market in Peru. Anything woolen could either be made from synthetic wool, sheep or llama wool, alpaca wool or baby alpaca wool. The price increases if something is made from alpaca, particularly baby alpaca wool. Because of this, every market seller tells you that their products are alpaca, even when the price and quality show that they clearly aren’t. It’s really frustrating and it puts me off buying anything!
After shopping, we climbed back in the van and started ascending up the other side of the valley to Písac ruins. Písac was a large Incan city that overlooked the southern entrance to the Sacred Valley. Historians believe it probably had military, religious and agricultural roles. There are amazing agricultural terraces which were built to provide an increased surface area for farming. We were given time to wander around and were amazed by the walls and terraces still in existence today, as well as by the incredible views of the valley below. Our guide explained that building in the valley would have made the Incas vulnerable, both to attack and to river flooding, which is why they built so high up. It definitely gave them an incredible vantage point.
After admiring the ruins, we were driven to the town of Urubamba where a delicious buffet lunch was waiting. We both ate our fill while being serenaded by traditional music of the Peruvian highlands.
In the afternoon we visited the town and ruins of Ollantaytambo. This city was built by Pachacuti, the 9th Incan Emperor. It was an important city in the Sacred Valley, both as an administrative and political centre and as a strategically positioned defensive stronghold. Ollantaytambo has a sun temple that was never completed, likely due to the civil war that broke out after the 11th Emperor died and his two sons both claimed the right to the throne. This was shortly followed by the Spanish invasion, so it’s no wonder they didn’t get round to finishing the temple!
We found Ollantaytambo so interesting. The town itself was old and beautiful, with a large tourist market. The ruins were incredible. We had to climb up a number of steep steps to get to the top. Mihai our guide helped us out by dividing up his talk. We’d climb up a few of the terraced levels, then stop to get our breath back while he taught us a bit more about the areas history. On the opposite hill we could see some old buildings, built on an impossibly steep incline. Apparently these were military watchtowers and also an Incan food store. The Empire would gather up food surplus that could be redistributed during hard times.
When we finally got to the top of the ruins we had an awesome view down over the town and back through the valley. There were still the remains of some buildings, and we enjoyed wandering through the different rooms at the top, before descending back down to the town.
We said goodbye to half of our tour group, who were staying in Ollantaytambo or catching the train on to Machu Picchu. The rest of us were driven on to our final destination, the town of Chinchero. The scenery on the way was absolutely gorgeous. I didn’t manage to take any photos as there were no opportunities to stop, but as we drove through some of the Andean highlands we saw gorgeous snow covered mountains, valleys, farms and cute buildings. It was amazing.
Chinchero is home to some Incan ruins, including a number of terraced fields, but I think they were closed for maintenance or something as we only saw them from afar. Instead, we visited a group of traditional weavers. We were shown how they clean the llama and alpaca wool, using the saqta root as a natural detergent. It was amazing – we watched one of the ladies grate some into a bowl of warm water and it frothed up like washing up liquid would. After cleaning and drying the wool, they then showed us how then spin it out into a single thread. The wool is then dyed, using various natural pigments. They use purple corn for the purple colour, a type of moss for the brown, chillca leaves for the green, ccollo flowers for the yellow. The weirdest one was the red dye. This was made from small insects that live on prickly pear cacti. They are crushed and added to water, and then the intensity of the colour can be varied by adding salt to the mix. The ladies in this community also use these crushed insects as lipstick. I found that a bit gross, but I guess it’s no worse than the Tudors using lead and mercury for make-up. Once the wool is dyed, it’s spun again, and then woven into patterns and textiles. It was all very impressive, and looked like a lot of work. Some of the blankets and tablecloths that they make can take months.
We returned back to Cusco in the evening and had a quiet night. It had been such an awesome day!
Today we went to the Incan Museum in Cusco. On our way there, we walked through the central plaza and there was a large parade going on. We stopped to watch for a while. From what we could understand it was some sort of celebration for different goods/produce. We saw different groups celebrating fruit, meat, shoes and alpacas. It was quite cool to see the procession.
The Incan museum was really interesting. It had different displays about the pre-Incan communities who lived around Cusco, with displays of artefacts. It then had a big display of different artefacts from the Incan times. There were lots of examples of pottery. There wasn’t a lot of narrative about the Incas’ rise to power, but what we saw complemented what we had learnt from the tours on previous days. The most interesting display was of some preserved mummies from the Incan times. Similar to the Egyptians, the Incas believed that the body had to be preserved for the afterlife. The mummies were put into the foetal position and wrapped in cloth. Apparently, they were considered hugely important. They would be brought out and consulted for advice, and they were brought to ceremonies like weddings and harvests where they’d be offered food and drink. When the Incas had to evacuate Machu Picchu, they took only their most important possessions with them – and their mummies.
We spent the afternoon looking around Cusco’s numerous markets and shops for souvenirs. I’m very indecisive to after a number of hours of searching, we didn’t end up buying anything at all!
Today we went to another one of Cusco’s museums, the Qorikancha museum. We’d been to the temple earlier in the week, and this museum was in its grounds. It was quite small and was fairly similar to the Inca museum. They had a small model of the Qorikancha temple which was interesting to look at, and some more preserved mummies.
I decided to spare Ben the pain of more souvenir shopping, so he went home to rest while I went round the shops a second time. I had better luck this time, probably because I’d had all of yesterday to think about what I wanted. I practically have a whole alpaca in my suitcase to take home now, I’ve bought so many alpaca wool products!
We woke up early this morning to go on another tour, this time to two sites called Moray and Sal de Maras. On the way, we stopped at Chinchero and had an identical demonstration by the weavers about how they create their woolen products. It was funny to hear the exact same jokes being made almost word for word.
Moray is an Incan site in the Sacred Valley. It houses a number of circular terraces. Our guide explained that these were used by the Incas for agricultural research. The terraces were designed with clever irrigation to prevent them from getting waterlogged. Each terrace created a different microclimate, due to their different depths (and so temperature) and types of soil used. Using these terraces the Incas were able to study different crops and develop new varieties. Apparently Peru has 2,000 different varieties of potato, and 1,500 of these come from Cusco! The Incas were amazing.
The scenery on the way in between Moray and Sal de Maras was absolutely gorgeous. This part of the Andes is stunning, with snow capped mountains and lush green fields.
Sal de Maras, the salt extraction site near the town of Maras in the Sacred Valley, has a very long history. For hundreds of years the locals have been mining salt from this area. Millions of years ago, tectonic activity pushed up the seabed to form the Andes. A natural spring passes underground through the Andes and picks up salt from the rocks, then exits near Maras. The salty water is diverted through a number of terraced pools created from mud and clay. The water evaporates and leaves behind the salt, which is then harvested and sold.
The site was really interesting. There were a few thousand pools, arrayed down the mountain. We wandered along the top of the site and had an amazing view down over the pools and into the valley below. It was very cool.
In the evening, after returning to Cusco, we had our Inca Trail briefing. We are going with a company called Valencia, and 12 other travellers. We were given an overview of what the trail would involve, and last minute tips on what to pack. Ben and I had hired sleeping bags, and were slightly taken aback by how hefty they were. We hadn’t planned on hiring a porter to carry any of our personal belongings, but these heavy sleeping bags might persuade us to change our minds! We had to have a very early night after the briefing because we are leaving Cusco at 4:30am tomorrow.
Next week will be a very long post. Not only will it include the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, but following this we’re going to the Amazon! I’m super excited.