Walking in the Inca Heartland- Cuzco and the Sacred Valley

Previous Post: Getting Real High In The Peruvian Andes

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It began with an easy six-hour direct flight from Toronto to Lima with Air Canada.  The list of flight options I stared at on the expedia.ca web page told me it wasn’t the cheapest- but it was a direct flight, no landing first  in New York or Miami or Washington or Bogota to pick up more passengers or to change planes. When you’ve got a duffel bag full of mountaineering gear, that’s the price you pay for reducing to the minimum number the chances for  baggage handlers to screw up!

Lima’s new international airport- a great intro to Peru- and all signs are in Spanish and English!

The 6:30 a.m. flight from Lima to Cuzco went without a hitch- and there I was hailing a taxi to take me to the Hostal Marani. It is a short walk up from the ultra-central Plaza de Armas on one of the narrow streets of the San Blas barrio (neighbourhood).

one-way traffic on Cuesta San Blas, the street leading up to Calle Carmen Alto where my hostel was located- notice the tourist police at the corner, standing by the door of Jack’s Cafe

To say the least,  I had to jettison some preconceived notions in a hurry. I was expecting a Spanish version of Namche Bazaar, the ramshackle capital of the Khumbu region in the Himalayas.  I plunged into a dynamic and thriving city of some 350,000 people with massive buildings both ancient (thanks to the fact that Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire for 200 years) and more modern (due to the Spanish use of the city as their Andean capital).

The very number of flights to Cuzco from Lima should have clued me into the reality- I later learned that over two million tourists visit the city each year.  Admittedly many of them are passing through Cuzco on their way to another attraction- Machu Picchu!- but still…it is a booming metropolis 3800 meters (11,200 feet)  high up in the Andes and it has the modern tourist infrastructure to match.  If up-scale is your style, Cuzco can accommodate you.  My fantastic room, complete with private bathroom but without TV or a telephone- cost $22. a night. (In South America hostal means guesthouse as opposed to the dormitory-style accommodation for young people that North Americans sometimes imagine when they hear the word.)

central Cuzco from higher up- you can see the Plaza de Armas on the bottom middle

I could have spent a week just exploring Cuzco and putting my newly acquired Spanish to use- and the city was crawling with Europeans and Americans in their early 20’s studying at one or another of the many language schools to be found there. Unfortunately, I only had seven days in total and that included four for the Inca Trail walk.

the cathedral on the main square (Plaza de Armas)

After a three-hour snooze, I spent my first day in Cuzco just walking around the central area within a kilometre or two of my room.  Frequent stops at outdoor cafes ensured that I didn’t get overly ambitious.

the heart of old Cuzco

the heart of old Cuzco

To get an idea of what the weather is going to be like, click here for a series of charts showing the historical monthly averages for various weather indicators.  You’ll see that the stretch from May to August is the best overall – and may just be when you are there too!

the Hostal Marani was on this street – the rooms have a courtyard view

I had set aside the first three days just to give my body some time to get used to being at 11,000 feet instead of the usual 400 feet altitude of the shores of Lake Ontario!  I did bring along the left-over Diamox (acetazolamide) from previous mountain climbing trips but left the pill container closed for the week and instead did all the other things you’re supposed to do- i.e. getting lots of rest,drinking lots of  liquids (non-alcoholic),  climbing high and then sleeping low, and here in Cuzco, drinking mate de coca.  I was fine. Check out this thread if you want to get a sense of other people’s experiences with soroche (altitude sickness).

I spent the first three days exploring Cuzco and its surroundings and getting a great introduction to the wonders of Inca building and architecture which I would later see at sites along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

impressive Inca stonework- it isn’t difficult to find!

The first site I visited is now the Church of Santo Domingo. It was built by the Spanish on and with the ruins of  Coricancha (also Qorikancha), the Inca Temple of Inti, the sun god.  (Not to flog the obvious but it should be noted that it was the conquerors who had done the ruining!)

the religious centre of the Inca world- a corner of the site of the Temple of Gold in honour of Inti,  the sun god- and now the Church of Santo Domingo

Cuzco is a fascinating and safe place to walk around. I did notice the presence of  tourist police in the central area of the city; city officials are obviously very conscious of the negative impact muggings and petty theft would have on a key creator of jobs in the city.

Turn the corner and you bump into another interesting photo op!

Cuzco- the touristy part I saw- is a remarkably tidy and well-kept city- this corner of a high school excepted!

Most of the sight-seeing was self-directed but I did make use of an all-day tour (also with SAS Travel) to get to further-away places.  This map illustrates nicely the $20. one-day tour of the Sacred Valley I did on the second day there.

The bus first descended 1500′ (460 m)  to the Urubamba River valley (aka the Sacred Valley) to the town of Pisac, where the weekend market was in full swing.

an enterprising Quechua woman and her children pose for tourists like me and earn a few sols

the Urubamba Valley, stretching north and west from Pisac towards Machu Picchu

souvenir carpets with classic Quechua motifs at the market in Pisac

for artisanal crafts most stuff looked like it came from the same two or three factories!

corn on the cob- who knows how many different varieties?

Above Pisac sits the ruins of an Inca site which served as a defensive military post at the south end of the Sacred Valley.  Also evident still are the agricultural terraces and what are said to be religious buildings.  Some imagination is required to recreate the scene but all in all it gives the tourist/pilgrim some insight and appreciation of the civil engineering skills of the Inca.

The Inca hilltop fortress commands an excellent vantage point over the Urubamba Valley

Inca Pisac ruins- roofing or imagination required!

Pisac village lies below and you can see the road to Cuzco switch-backing across the mountain side  and around the corner to the right

hillside vegetation

Then it was time to move on to Ollantaytambo, another Inca site which helps make the argument for Panchacuti as the greatest of the Sapa Inca. He is credited by historians with rebuilding this site as his personal estate. The results are impressive- and can be added to Cuzco’s  Coricancha and Machu Picchu and the great fortress above Cuzco itself (Sacayhuaman) as projects built during his reign between 1438 to 1471.

a view of the agricultural terraces of Ollantaytambo

And then it was on the road back to Cuzco.  But first, a perfunctory stop at in Chinchero to see the colonial-era church.

the colonial-era church at Chinchero on the way back to Cuzco from Ollantaytambo

It was getting dark now and we must have been behind schedule because we were soon back on the road and by 7:30 we were home.  Definitely a bargain for $20. A quick bite to eat at the  nearby  veg-friendly  Jack’s Cafe and then I was done for the day.

My last day in Cuzco was split between museum visits and a walk up above the city to the ruins of the Inca fortress of Sacayhuaman. Walk high, sleep low!

item at the Museo Inka…notice the frog design?

a typical pre-Inca mask

the Inca ruins above the city of Cuzco- the guides say “Sexy woman” like it hasn’t been said a zillion times already. You gotta laugh!

impressive stonework at  Sacayhuaman

the Andean Condor spreads his wings- a similar wing profile to the turkey vulture I saw in Cuba

Cuzco down below as dusk approaches

one last shot

A meeting at the SAS Travel office with the other people signed up for the Inca Trail trek the next day forced me to shift gears.  By 8:30 I was packing the stuff I’d be taking on my next adventure.  The rest of the gear (like the ice axe, crampons, mountaineering boots, climbing harness) I’d leave behind in the hostal’s storage room. A taxi had already been booked for 6 a.m. with pick-up at the Plaza San Blas. I’d be sharing the ride with a young American couple- we were on the way to the start of our Machu Picchu adventure!

Next Post: Walking The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu


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3 Responses to Walking in the Inca Heartland- Cuzco and the Sacred Valley

  1. Rich Maurer says:

    Sir- I am enjoying reading about your Inca Trail hike. I, too, am going with SAS Travel for the 4 day hike next month. Was the Trekkers Hostal still open when you made the trip? I was wondering about the availability of the showers there. Also, I wasn’t going to bring a trekking pole. What are your thoughts on the need for a pole? Thanks, Rich Maurer (Richardmaurer@charter.net)

    • albinger says:

      Richard, since one of the motivations for posting was to take some of the mystery and apprehension out of setting off on unknown paths, I’m happy to hear my post was of some use. SAS is one of the leading companies working out of Cusco so you should be in good hands- they’ve done the trip a thousand times I’m sure! Re; the Trekkers’ Hostal- you mean the one at Winay Wayna, right? I made the trip in mid-May and it was definitely open then. I think I had a beer or two there. I am not sure about the showers. I’d take it as a bonus if they were available (especially with hot water!) and otherwise accept that I’d continue to smell just as bad as most everyone else!

      When I first saw folks using trekking poles in the Chamonix area of the Alps about fifteen years ago I remember thinking- “What a bunch of Euro wusses!” Well, I’ve changed my tune big time. In fact, I credit trekking poles (two, not just one) for extending my trekking life and reducing significantly the stress and strain on my knees. Black Diamond and Leki are two companies whose poles I have purchased; they are incredibly strong and light. I would not go on a trek without them. They are especially effective on downhill sections of a trail but are useful in many other situations too where stability is required.

      Have a great walk along the trail and enjoy what must be one of the world’s great hikes.

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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