The landscape on our flight to Cuzco was beautiful – incredible mountains, with small villages tucked in the pockets of the ranges. They seem so insulated from the rest of the world. As we were about to land, I immediately noticed the vibrant colors of the brick buildings. Cuzco's environment seemed much slower and calmer than Lima's; nobody seemed in a rush.
The first thing we did was go to the 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. We shopped around, getting an assortment of “Alpaca wool” products. A tip – they're all fake. Real Aplaca wool is very expensive and won’t be sold in a street shop.
Today we did the Sacred Valley tour, which took us around many of the archeological sites near Cuzco. Our guide used to work in Machu Picchu for 16 years previously, but recently 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. A story that stuck out to him was when he was giving a tour late in the night. He was strolling alone in a somewhat 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 also 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 will grant whatever was wished for.
Leaving the city, the building density steadily decreased. Interestingly so, many of the buildings on the outskirts were not fully constructed; there were empty foundations, and many 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 entire site is perched high in the mountains – even higher than Cuzco. Behind the plaza was the church, which is still active and holds mass. The church was covered in many frescoes in amazing condition.
In the distance, you could spot a large plot of cleared land. Our tour guide told us that it was for the new Cuzco International airport. He exclaimed that the locals worry about how their culture will change with this airport. They anticipate that their small community will soon balloon into a large city, meaning 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. In fact, the site was still used for farming until just recently.
After, we went back onto the bus to visit the Maras Salt Mines. Getting there was an adventure in and of itself – the road down to the site was a tiny dirt path with a steep cliff. Many large tour buses were trying to go down but got stuck. We had to get off and walk between the maze of cars to visit 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 also incredible.
After, we went to Ollantaytambo. It was 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 could be built on 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. I imagined myself in one of these small communities, surrounded by huge mountains. When we reached the Pizaq, we saw more amazing layered terraces. We stayed to watch the sun disappear behind the mountain ranges.
In the morning, we visited the beautiful San Blas area. It was cozy – small local artisan shops lined the small windy streets. The streets were tight, so a car passing by would only leave an inch of clearance.
From there, we walked through the main plaza to the San Pedro market. This is a huge market for both locals and tourists which sells a plethora of things, from fake alpaca souvenirs to fruits, vegetables, meat, and drinks. It was absolutely packed, but we spent the rest of the morning exploring the variety of goods being sold.
In the afternoon, we went on the City Tour. The first stop was the same Plaza de Armas we had visited previously. This time, we went into the Cuzco Cathedral. Our guide told us about many local traditions. For example, St. Anthony is the Lord of Lost things in Catholism, but in Cuzco, he is also considered to be the matchmaker. Local women write their personal contact information onto 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 information.
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. Here, 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 would be 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 around during golden hour, it was beautiful to see how the light filled the vast space. If you climb the wall and go to the other side, you can see an amazing panoramic view of Cuzco.