Cusco, Peru was our next destination, which gave our trip a historically chronological order, going from pre-Incan civilizations in Nazca to the ancient Incan capitol. We really were not prepared for all of the site-seeing opportunities in Cusco, but a quick trip to the tourist information office around the corner from our hostel gave us much needed information on how to spend our time in the city.
Our first task was to buy the Boleto Turistico de Cusco (BTC), which would be our entrance ticket to 16 different attractions in Cusco and the surrounding area. If you use a student card, you will be able to save 50% on your BTC and your ticket to Machu Picchu.
Then we took advantage of a free walking tour, which gave us a brief history of the city, a tour of a few of the more modern neighborhoods, an introduction to the architecture, and a great sampling of Peruvian food from a few of the city´s restaurants. (Tip: Stop by the Choco Musuem for a free sample of chocolate tea, and don´t forget to try chicha morada and a pisco sour before you leave.) On the tour, one of the most interesting facts we learned was that Cusco is actually higher than Machu Picchu.
After the tour we hit up a free cultrual arts show being put on by the local university. Here we experienced a few traditional dances, a classical flautist performance, and several local bands staring panflutes and other native instruments. Later, we made our way to the Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo for the cultural show that was included on our BTC – this one featuring only traditional dances of several indigenous groups in the Cusco region.
While in Cusco we were also able to visit several museums and further immerse ourselves in the Andean and Incan cultures. If we had to reccommend just one museum it would be the Monumento Pachacuteq which is included on the BTC. This tower, dedicated to the Incan ruler Pachakuteq, provides a great overview of the importance and modern influence of this historical figure. It also explains why he has come to symbolize revolution for many Peruvians to this day, and you can read what it means to be related to Pachakuteq from some of his descendants. The top of the monument also offers nice views of Cusco.
Other recommended options, if you have time in the city, include the nearby ruins of Saqsahuaman, Moray, Qenqo, along with the many art museums. There is also a museum in the church which was built over the Incan temple of the sun by the Spaniards (called Qoricancha, not to be confused the Museo de Sitio de Qoricancha that is on the BTC) which we heard a lot about, and the Museo de Inca. Both of which are unfortunately not included in the tourist ticket. Several churches can also be visited, or simply walking around the city admiring the colonial buildings built on top of original Incan stonework are great options as well.
For shoppers, Cusco has several busy artisan markets, many alpaca wool clothing stores, and, for the trekkers, a myriad of establishments selling any last minute gear that may be necessary.
All in all after visiting Cusco, we would recommend that any traveler schedule at least a few days to spend in Cusco before heading to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley (the valley in between Cusco and Machu Picchu). We also recommend visiting all the other ruins before going to the main event of Machu Picchu in order to fully appreciate the other sites. Regretably, we only had 2 days to spend in Cusco before our journey to Machu Picchu and even less time to explore the sites and take in the culture in the Sacred Valley. On the way back, we did manage to stop in Ollantaytambo on our way back to Cusco (where we needed to catch our next bus).
Ollantaytambo is a town in the Sacred Valley next to a large set of Incan ruins of the same name. The town itself is quite small, but it also contains Incan-Spanish architecture similar to that in Cusco as well as plenty of places to eat and a range of accomodations catering to the gringo market.
The highlight of our time in Ollantaytambo was probably the hostel we stayed at: Chaska Wasi. There, we had a great time chatting with the awesome owner, her friend and the British volunteer that was working there. The owner was also able give us directions to a great restaurant on our route back to Cusco, where we could find authentic rocoto relleno (stuffed peppers), which was one of our favorite Peruvian dishes. So, after a quick trip to the ruins (these were part of an Incan military outpost), and delicious stuffed peppers we were back on the bus to Cusco and ready to hop on another bus the next day to our next destination.
Another note, there are many more ruins in the Sacred Valley besides Ollantaytambo (some included on the tourist ticket), as well as plenty of hiking, hot springs, mountain biking, and other adventure sports. Since we didn´t have time to explore it all, we will definitely be back to the Cusco area in the future.