Plane windows are small, but never did it feel as tiny as when I was flying to Cusco. The aerial views were beautiful — incredible mountains with small villages tucked in the pockets of the ranges. I could only imagine what it might be like to live in those villages, insulated from the rest of the world. As we were landing, I immediately noticed the vibrant colors of the brick buildings. Driving to the Airbnb, Cusco's environment seemed much slower and calmer than Lima's; nobody seemed in a rush to be anywhere.
After settling down, we went straight to Plaza de Armas, where we strolled around to get a feel for the city. I admired the small shops tucked underneath the buildings with eye-catching architecture.
We made our way to the artisan market, where we sat down and enjoyed coca tea to counter the cold air. We shopped around, collecting an assortment of “alpaca wool” products. A small tip to the future traveler — they're all fake. As we found out later, real alpaca wool is very expensive and is not sold at a street stand.
Today we did the Sacred Valley tour, which took us around many of the archeological sites near Cusco.
Our guide used to give tours of Machu Picchu for 16 years, until he retired to work in his hometown. On the ride to the first site, he told us stories about how Machu Picchu is still an active site for the Incas. One story that he told us stuck out. After a night tour, he was strolling alone in an isolated part of the site. He said he then saw a lady in a white dress, floating from the ground, but she quickly disappeared. He continues to pray, by taking three coca leaves and pointing them in the direction of a mountain. He then blows on them and places them somewhere on the site. This ritual will grant wishes.
As we got further from the city, the building density steadily decreased. Interestingly, many of the buildings on the outskirts of town were not fully constructed. There were empty foundations and unfilled support structures for additional stories on buildings.
Our first stop was Chinchero, where we stepped into a plaza where locals were selling more alpaca wool products. In the background, you could see the beautiful rolling hills of terraces. The site is perched high in the mountains — even higher than Cusco. Behind the plaza was the church, which is still active and holds mass. Frescoes in amazing condition cover the church, making it a miraculous display of art.
In the distance, a large plot of cleared land was clearly visible. Our tour guide told us that it was for the new Cusco International Airport. He expressed the worries that locals have about how their culture will change with this airport. They expect that their small community will soon balloon into a large city. He said unfortunately that if this happens, a lot of the locals won't be able to afford to stay.
Our next stop was the Moray Terraces. It was incredible to see how the Incas mirrored geometric shapes into their own practical purposes. The site was so big it was hard to take in the entire perspective up close. One thing I learned was that the site was still used for farming until recently.
After, we took a short bus ride to visit the Maras Salt Mines. Getting there was an adventure in and of itself — the road to the site was a tiny dirt path along a steep cliff. Many large tour buses were trying to go down but got stuck from the traffic. It was a deadlock - buses couldn't back out or move forward, and all this was happening next to a 200 ft drop. We got off and walked between the maze of cars to enter the site. The trek was more than worth it — the salt mines is a treasure pocketed in the vast mountain ranges. To see how locals meticulously worked the mines to get the salt was incredible.
After, we went to Ollantaytambo. It's an isolated town in the middle of nowhere, with a huge fortress towering in the middle. I was curious to learn how such an extravagant fortress and Sun temple was built over such a steep cliff.
Our last stop of the day was the Pizaq market. To get there, we had to drive through many small villages, where many of the locals were hanging out in the streets. When we reached the Pizaq, we saw more amazing layered terraces and stayed to watch the sun disappear behind the mountain ranges.
In the morning, we visited the beautiful San Blas area. It was a cozy area, where small local artisan shops lined the tight windy streets. The streets were so narrow that a car passing by would leave only an inch of clearance on each side.
From there, we walked through the main plaza to the San Pedro market. This is a huge market which both locals and tourists visit. There are a plethora of items available from fake alpaca souvenirs to fruits, vegetables, meat, and drinks. It was crowded, but we spent the rest of the morning exploring the variety of goods at each stand.
In the afternoon, we went on the City Tour. The first stop was the same Plaza de Armas we had first visited when we landed. This time, we went into the Cusco Cathedral. Our guide told us about many local traditions. For example, in Catholicism St. Anthony is the Lord of Lost things, but in Cusco he is also considered to be the matchmaker. Local women write their personal contact information into small pieces of paper and place it by his altar. Later in the day, local men will sneak over the barrier to try and get the contact info.
After, we went to the Santo Domingo Monastery. It was almost at full capacity, and I was struggling to move in the huge crowd of people. I learned a lot about the history of how the Spanish treated the Incas and how they influenced the architecture.
Then we went to Qenqo Temple to learn about the rituals in which the Incas sacrificed children. The children were given alcohol and hallucinogens until they passed out. They were then suffocated in their sleep and laid down within the temple.
Our last stop was Sacsayhuamán. Huge stones, a few of which weighed over 100 tons, laid solidly within the wall. Because we came during golden hour, it was beautiful to see how the warm light filled the vast space. If you climb the wall, there is an amazing panoramic view of Cusco available to enjoy.