The first stop of our South American road trip was Cusco in Peru. After having some issues with our luggage in Lima because of a 2-hour delay of the previous flight, we finally arrived to Cusco.
The airport is a really tiny one, and when you exit the plane you can really feel the fresh air.
Altitude sickness or not?
Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire, it is only about 80 km away from Machu Picchu, and you might haven’t known it, but Cusco is located around 1000 m higher (at 3500 m), than Machu Picchu.
Before our trip we were a bit worried about how our body will become acclimated to this high altitude, because on the internet there are quite a lot of examples, where travelers noted that it really was a problem for them. - On the other hand there are people who say that they didn’t feel any difference.
Based on this, we really did not know what to expect. After experiencing it, we can say that for us at least it was nothing that bad. Personally, I didn’t feel anything bad, I could breath normally, but Dani had a bit of headache and while walking uphill became very tired, but in the end nothing serious fortunately. However, it is also important to note that for example we saw people sightseeing with oxygen inhaler.
So it is difficult to predict what effect will the altitude have on you, but it is better to be on the safe side, and not overwork on the first day. Believe me there will be so many places in South America to test your physical tolerance… :) So stay calm on the first day in Cusco!
Spanish or English?
Before going to South America, I heard and read it a couple of times, that I should refresh my Spanish knowledge, but I was kind of hoping to be able to get around with English. However this was not the case.
Even if Cusco is a super touristic place, and almost all the tourists have a stopover here before continuing to Machu Picchu, it is really difficult to get around without Spanish. There are a couple of tiny tourist offices on the street, and you would think that at least they do speak English, however this is not the case.
Tip: SO, I would HIGHLY recommend to anybody who doesn’t speak Spanish, to download Google Translate with its Spanish vocabulary to your phone so that you can also use it when you are offline. It will definitely help a lot, not only in Cusco but in other South American countries too.
The downtown of Cusco is a really pretty place, with churches, Inca stones and baby alpacas. We went on a Free Walking Tour, to get familiar with the history of the city. It was a nice way of exploring the city and getting to know more insights. Did you know that there is a “Cusco-copy” of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting, however in Cusco, there is a guinea pig on the table, which is actually a traditional dish in the Inca Capital.
Additional uniqueness, that you can’t really see anywhere else, are the local ladies in the traditional Andean clothes hugging their cute baby alpacas. Obviously it is more like for tourists to take a photo, but still quite a unique thing. If you are lucky, there are also some hidden gardens in Cusco with alpacas grazing around.
There is a viewpoint on top of the city with not only an amazing view on the centre, but also the hills - surrounding Cusco.
After experiencing the Inca cacao beans, and tasting their famous coca tea, we managed to book a private tour for the next day in one of the tiny tourist offices of Cusco. It cost ~300 Sol + we had to buy the combined Sacred Valley highlights’ entrance ticket for 75 Sol/person.
We had our train tickets to Machu Picchu for the next day afternoon from Ollantaytambo - this way we could get the most out of our Sacred Valley day, because at the end we didn’t have to take the car back to Cusco, to catch the connection bus for the train, but we could also explore the Ollantaytambo Sanctuary.
Sacred Valley day
Our private driver picked us up at the hotel at 7 am. It was a bit of a surprise, because not only our driver/tour guide came with us during the whole day, but also her wife and their 1,5 year old little daughter. Another surprise was, that even if we booked an English guide for the day, we could barely understand each other, and for getting to know some historical and deeper insights from them, was not the option unfortunately.
To Sacred Valley, there are a lot of organized day trips from Cusco, most of them are like for groups of 15, and there they normally provide really English speaking guides. However, if you go on a private tour, it is kind of a lottery, because I have friends who got a really good guide, but our experience was different in terms of level of English.
Anyways, other than that, it was a really cool and intense day.
We started our tour, with visiting the Christ statue which is standing on a hill above Cusco - this looks like the small brother of Christ the Redeemer in Rio.
After, based on yesterday walking tour guide’s recommendation, we asked the driver to go to the llama-alpaca park nearby.
From the outside, you can’t really see anything, but you can just park your car there, and enter for free. Once you get in, you get a big bunch of grass, that the alpacas and llamas love, and you can just walk around and feed them. They are really keen on eating from people’s hands, and you can easily pat them. The different species of animals are separated with fences, so you can distinguish them and see what are the differences between the species.
If you want to exit the place, you have to go through a shop. Just before the entrance to the shop there is a cage full of guinea pigs, from which (not exactly those) they bake their traditional food. :( - They even have a tiny Guinea pig village in Sacred Valley. Where there is a huge guinea pig statue in the middle of the village, and all around you can buy baked guinea pig as street food.
Anyway, back to the farm, → so after the alpaca feeding you have to go through a shop to exit. In this shop the vendors are offering, and also presenting alpaca woolen pullovers, and other clothes.
After the Alpaca farm, we headed to our next destination, to Pisac. Pisac is famous for its Archaeological Park with agricultural terraces and hilltop Inca citadel with ancient temples & plazas. Visiting the Archeological Site, is kind of a warm up for Machu Picchu. Here you can also find the unique Inca architecture - precisely fitting stones.
After reaching the top of the ruins you can see the hill behind, in the steep hillside the Incas had their cemetery. It was really interesting to walk around and try to imagine ourselves in the 15th century, the time of the Incas. After discovering the whole site (took us like 2 hours) we headed back to the car and alleviated our hunger with some local cooked corn.
In Europe the small grain corn is the most popular (and almost only) type of corn, however in Peru there are many kinds of corn, just like this, which has grains as big as my finger nails.
The taste was not so sweet, that we are used to in Europe, and besides the corn they gave us a slice of really salty cheese. The two together were really the perfect combination. Everybody who visits Peru should try it out.
Maras & Moray
On the way there it was really shocking that in some areas, in how poor houses do the locals live, and another interesting thing that in the region there are so many half-ready houses, where the construction has stopped - and it looks like that they are never gonna finish them.
Maras is famous for its salt evaporation ponds, located towards Urubamba from the town center. These ponds have been in use since Inca times.
There are a lot of vendors around, where you can try out all the different types of salt (from black to pink) and also their local snack - the roasted corn grains.
After admiring the salt terraces, and buying 2 kgs of original Inca salt (that we were carrying for another 2,5 weeks.. :D), we headed back to our car.
After a short ride we already arrived in Moray. In Moray there is another famous Inca creature, the circular terraces. These terraces were built for agricultural purposes. Between the level of the top and the bottom circles there is a 30 m height difference, which can result even 15 Celsius degrees difference.
Thanks to the temperature difference, the Incas could grow really different types of plants at one place. Plants that are normally growing on different elevation, but here in Moray thanks to this architectural creation, they could grow the different fruits and vegetables.
In Moray we did not have time to walk down to the bottom of the circles, because our last stop, the Ollantaytambo Ruins were still like an hour car drive away, and in order to get there before 5 pm (their closing time) we had to hurry.
Fortunately everything went well, and we arrived there 5 minutes before five. We quickly said goodbye to our guide and his family, and ran to the entrance. The site entrance closes at 5 pm, but the people who enter by 5, can stay until 6 pm.
The ruins are standing on a very steep hill, with a lot of stairs. After climbing the stairs, there is a very beautiful view on the whole site and the hill opposite, with the Sun Temple.
After visiting the highlights of Sacred Valley, and already seeing Inca architecture we kind of felt prepared for Machu Picchu the next day so we headed to the train station, and took our train ride to Aguas Calientes, the base town of Machu Picchu.
Check out our day in Machu Picchu here.
Have a nice day,