Not quite in the Sacred Valley, but between Urubamba and Cusco lies a small and quaint town as the highest point. This is the town of Chinchero. It is quaint, and does have some smaller archeological ruins further back in the town. The town does also boast a textile market which happens on the weekends but in the mornings - it will be over by 2 pm, with just the few people trying to sell the last of the pile stuff - so be sure to get there early!
CUSCO - THE ARCHEOLOGICAL CITY - I personally love the city of Cusco - I find the mix of peoples, the vibe which is buzzing, yet calm, and also spiritual is intoxicating. I loved my time living there, and will always return. This city is lively with people rushing about their daily lives, street dances, cultural events, art shows, and many tourists visiting the various historical sites within and surrounding the city.
The reason I call Cusco and archeological living city is because it was originally the main City of the Incan peoples - one of the main cultural and religious groups of the ancient world - like the Egyptians or the Mayans. And so the city retains many of the Incan stone walls, streets, and even building bases. The reason only mainly building bases instead of the entire building remains is because of Spanish and thus Catholic conquest that saw many buildings and temples destroyed - only for those same stones to be used in the building of the city’s cathedrals. The sites of Sacsayhuaman and the Qorikancha are 2 sites where it is very visible to see a lot of the Incan stone work that still exists otherwise.
Places to stay - Once choice place to stay if you are on a budget is the Pariwana hostel which is 2 blocks of the main plaza, very safe, lively with events at their bar / restaurant almost nightly, and with a great movie room as well as courtyard to hang about in. If you are wanting something more luxurious there are your regular European hotels like Novotel, and then of course, on the high end, are the Peruvian “Casa Andina” chain which is luxury en grande, as well as the 5 star hotel within the Monastery which is top of the line. These places run fairly expensive however, as Cusco is not only just a tourist hub, but a place of research for Anthropologists, Archeologists, Botanists, Agriculturalists, Naturopaths, and so forth. So where as Pariwana hostel is about $15 American a night for a bed, or $50 American a night for a private room with bath, a Casa Andina or Novotel will run $150 - 250 per night and the Monastery hotel is about $750 a night and up.
Some great things to do in Cusco, other than walking / hiking the streets of this archeological living city, are visiting the main Cathedrals, visiting the main plazas in the day and at night, visiting the archeological area of Sacsayhuaman that overlooks the city and was the Incan sacred area for religious rituals and temples, visiting the highly sacred building in the city known as the Qorikancha, and visiting the museums of culture, chocolate, and of coffee. One can also have coffee, breakfast, or lunch on the main plaza, party away in the many night clubs, get a massage, or shop at a massive range of stores carrying everything from tourist trinkets to gorgeous alpaca sweaters to beautiful jewelry.
For those interested in the adrenaline rush - one can book bike tours, rafting adventures, camping, trekking to glaciers, and more within the Valley. For those interested in cultural events - pick up a dance class or cooking class or join in a football / soccer match. There really is something for everyone.
Some great times to be in Cusco include the Sun and solstice festivals of June, Easter time, and Christmas time. Because almost the whole country is Catholic - they really celebrate their events. That said, for many others their Incan traditions and culture are just as if not far more important, and there are many of the Incan festival and events that take place through the year - including as mentioned above the festivals of the sun and solstice and all the month of June.
If you are in Cusco for longer, make sure to check out some of the markets not just for shopping, but for the amazing food - the market of San Jeronimo is quite the overwhelming market - but so incredible at the same time - teeming with loads of fruits and vegetables freshly trucked in, with women bringing cacao and coffee straight from the jungle, and animal carcasses everywhere in the meat district within the market. Oh, they also repair shoes in 10-20 minutes within this market.
Good street foods include - Anticuchos, Empanadas, and Cut fruits
For more on visiting cafes and restaurants in Cusco, check out this previous blog post
At the end of the Sacred Valley main road before the trek or train to Machu Picchu, is the ancient stone wall town of Ollantaytambo. It is a quaint town towered by the ruins named after an Incan general named Ollantay. These ruin sites were agricultural at first and then also had become a site of defence protecting the ancient world beyond the valley - protecting Machu Picchu and further. This would play a significant role in the arrival of the Spaniards who would try to wipe out the Incan royal blood lines and destroy Incan culture.
Ollantaytambo is probably the most well known ruin site in the valley after Machu Picchu and Sacsayhuaman. The town is full of hostels and hotels as well as good cafes and restaurants. There is also a museum in the town that goes further into Incan history. It is quite interesting to visit.
The ruins themselves are quite steep with many many stairs leading up to an area that would have been for great scholars, upper classes of military, and of course those of royal blood. Besides the stairs leading up to the top of the ruins are many terraces on which agriculture would have been cultivated. At the bottom of the ruin site stands a bath house for those of noble or royal blood - and it is said that this bath house may specially have been used by the few young girls who would have been brought up to be sacrificed by the gods. These few girls would have been chosen at a very young age from noble families who would have considered it an honour to have been chosen. The girls would be raised with the utmost in education at the time. At the tender age just during puberty the girls would have begun a slow steady and very harsh trek with top Incan members of spiritual practice from the Sacred Valley, it has been hypothesized, to the volcanos surrounding Arequipa in the central part of Peru. I would assume that a trek like this may take a few months or even much longer and of course due to the altitude both the sun and the cold would have been extraordinarily harsh. A number of mummies of children who seem to be of noble blood have been found nearing the tops of a couple of these volcanos. It has been studied and said that the majority of these children would have come from Cusco because that was the Incan centre. There is a museum in Arequipa that gives much more knowledge and insight into these areas of expertise They feature a very well preserved mummy there - the most famous one - Juanita. The first time I had gone to the museum Juanita was on loan to Harvard or Yale - this happens frequently so make sure to check that you are going while she's at the museum if that is your interest. This time I was lucky enough to see her and truly she is a very well preserved mummy.
On another note there is an amazing story around the general Ollantay and his chosen love an Incan Princess. This story based on historical events but also in part fiction is interesting, but that is a whole other post - for another time.
The sites of MARAS and MORAY - From Urubamba going up towards Cusco one can take a turn off via taxi for MARAS and MORAY - 20 soles from Urubamba.
The site of Maras are salt flats - incredible to see - They are almost like the rice paddies of South East Asia but instead if rice, it's salt - and it's breathtaking. The site was used by the Incan peoples for salt cultivation and gathering and still in use today. The salt flats are within the Andes and thus have breathtaking views. Depending on the time of year, the viewing of the flats can be even more spectacular with an even higher concentration of salts. I find that summer and autumn are the best time to go in regard to the flats. There are 2 other ways to get to these sites other than by car, one is via tour bus - there are tours from Cusco, that visit many sites in the Valley including this one. One can also go via foot - a hike - which for myself is a beautiful way to go - you get a work out, travel along an ancient path to get there, and along the way you can see ancient burial grounds - holes in the sides of the mountains surrounding where some Incan peoples would have been buried.
Moray is an archeological site close by to Maras that is built downwards in terraced circles of stone - used for agricultural purposes, so it is said. However, that standing in the middle circle at the bottom of all the terraces brings a real feeling of peace over a person, or at least a heightened sense of energy. Again it is breathtaking to see and climb down into.
Even further down the Valley, in the middle, one comes to the town of Urubamba which does have some small ruins, but is mainly a fast growing town that is the fork in the road between Ollantaytambo and Cusco and also Pisaq. This town has 4 schools, 2 main churches, lots of cafes, restaurants, and hotels, and a very cool pottery studio that is absolutely a must to visit. If you have a few hours take a break and walk this town - the main plaza is quaint, and off the main plaza there is a market, and further down, a peaceful tree lined street - Berriozabal Avenue - you will find a number of nice cafe restaurants and Seminarios - which is this pottery studio by a world famous potter whose works one can view on a tour of the studio. It’s a large outdoor indoor studio with museum qualities, and llamas and parrots on the grounds. Definitely worth a visit! Some nice cafes and restaurants here include Kaia (laid back, vegan, vegetarian, great sandwiches and desserts), El Eden (wonderful jams and baked goods), Pizza Wasi and Paca Paca (pizza), and El Huacatay, Hawa, Quanela, Wayra and Muna (all fairly upscale). This town is a great one to stay in as a base if one is visiting the Sacred Valley.
PISAQ - A town at one end of the Sacred Valley following the Vilcanota River - it has become quite the tourist hub with a more of a hippy feel - many cafe restaurants and pizza joints, spas, and nice hostels - but book early these hostels fill up fast. Pisaq boasts incredible ruins - enter for 70 soles - or Get the Sacred Valley pass for around 160 soles - good for 7 - 10 days - well worth it. The ruins found here are some of my favourites - make sure to take a tour guide so that they can explain about the Incan's system of education, their understanding of astrology, and also their burial rites. Pisaq also has one of the best artisan craft markets in Peru - best to go in the mornings - traditional market day for Pisaq is Wednesday. Also if you've got some time and are in need of a good coffee or hot chocolate, on the main market square in the lower SW corner, if facing the ruins, sits a lovely cafe with some of the best hot chocolate I've had the pleasure of enjoying, world wide. It's called The Blue Llama.
CALCA - Further down the Valley one comes to the town of Calca - Calca is a cute town but not too known for ruins or anything. However, if you are looking to go off the beaten path and you have time - take the painful (but with amazing views) 10 sol 2 hour bumpy bus ride into the interior from Calca to Lares - and visit the hot springs there taking in the beautiful surroundings deep in the Andes.
What is the Sacred Valley? Its a stretch of land - a valley stretching from the south Peruvian jungle to Machu Picchu. It is considered sacred because the Incan peoples built many of their cities and strongholds along this valley, and also the river Ollantaytambo runs its length. The main cities of interest that most tourists will visit in the Valley after leaving Cusco, include: Pisaq, Urubamba, Chinchero, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu. There are fairly large ancient ruins and sacred sites to be found in all of these locations, as well as many others dotted around. Some other notable ruins and sacred spots include Tipon, Maras and Moray.
If you are in a rush - I still recommend at least 2 days in Cusco, and 2 in the Valley before seeing Machu Picchu. For those people with more time, you may want more time to relax and unwind in the valley, exploring more various sites, visiting spas and boutique hotels, and trying the varied and delicious cuisine.
The jungle in Peru the one other place, other than the North, that I’ve not really travelled to in Peru - but from what I have seen and heard, it is fairly similar to the Costa Rican jungles, in regards to the types of birds, mammals, and insects that can be found within, albeit with Peruvian culture. The jungle fruits and seeds consist of cacao, coffee, plantains, mangoes, papaya, many varieties of passion fruits and so forth. The jungle foods include cooking with a lot of plantain and fish, consuming jungle meats from certain animals - probably illegal - but still consumed by peoples from there. Both my Peruvian parents have been to the Jungle of Peru and describe it like a very hot paradise with good food, kind peoples, and lots of sun and heat. Of course there are also a lot of bugs and some larger spiders to contend with. This very much mimics the experience I had in Costa Rica in the jungles - with a lot of tarantulas and unique spiders, many types of birds and small wildlife, a lot of tropical fruits, and very hospitable peoples. Some things that are more unique to the Peruvian and Amazonian jungles include fishing for Piranhas and eating them, seeing the pink river dolphins, and though quite unlikely, having the chance to see a puma or anaconda! In regards to Jungle Tourism, in Peru, most either head to the northern jungles of Iquitos, or to those closer to the Sacred Valley - Manu.
On a curious note, Paddington bear the fictional children's book character comes from "deep dark" Peru and again if you are completely lucky you may spot a bear unique to the Peruvian jungles - the speckled bear - the pictures are adorable :)
TRAVEL IN PERU - Northern Peru
My experience of Northern Peru was quite different then I expect most visitors would have. While most visitors would generally visit Huaraz, Chiclayo, Cajamarca, and Trujillo to visit the beaches and many pre-Incan ruin sites - inclusive of pyramids, I have only been to the city of Piura almost at the very North of Peru, and that was a number of years ago. From what I understand, surfers do go to Piura for the waves. Piura is not quite on the coast, but it is close enough. In the north as we get closer to the equator, it becomes hotter of course, and being in Piura was oven hot and very humid. I remember going for cold showers and coming out of the shower to dry only to be soaked again with sweat in a few minutes. That said it was nice, tropical, and had some beautiful colonial neighbourhoods in the city. Unfortunately as soon as one leaves this fairly wealthy inner city, there are miles of shanty towns surrounding. There was dessert close by on the other side of the city away from the coast, there were also swampy regions, and a number of plantations. The seafood was incredible, the bars laid back, and the ice wine milkshakes were heavenly in the sweltering heat.
A few friends, this time, did travel through the North, but only had a week, so instead of visiting ruins in Huarez and Catamarca, they enjoyed the beaches around Chiclayo and Trujillo, which they loved.
Hello! My name is Tahira Karim. I was born and raised on the Canadian prairies have been leaving and returning ever since. I absolutely love to travel. I am an observer of life and culture, and I have a passion for history and food. I am a visual artist who specializes in painting and drawing. And this blog is a jumble of my writing and thoughts on travel, culture, and food, with a bunch of personal stories thrown into the mix. Enjoy!