Note from Andy: one of the most popular posts on my blog is this post about how to book Machu Picchu tickets and how I almost screwed everything up. Many people find the post via Google and have tended to ask the same questions over and over again (note to self: write better!). Over the years I noticed a very kind voice answer questions from the commenters, a gentleman by the name of Lyle Walker. I’ll let him introduce himself to you but I invited him to do some guest posts for you all to thank him for his generosity in answering so many questions with valuable information. All images are the property of Lyle Walker and are used here with his permission.
Greetings to all of Andy’s readers, my name is Lyle and Andy has asked me to provide some additional information about the Cusco region to all of his readers, and more specifically, cover some things that he missed.
Considering Andy only had 3 days and there is enough to keep you busy for at least 7, it is not surprising that he missed some things, yes he could have squeezed in a few sites, but if there is one thing I have learned in the past 4 years, it is that there is no one itinerary that will work for everyone. Everyone has their own pace and preference so what I will offer here is locations grouped together that can be done in one day, and I will be listing the areas in order of general popularity, this should allow those that might read this post to assemble an itinerary that will work well for them.
You are probably wondering “who am I that Andy would ask for my input?” Well I am glad you asked, my wife and I own, and have been operating, a bed and breakfast called GringoWasi in the Cusco region since 2012. We regularly assist our guests with planning their trips, so we have seen first hand what works well and what does not work as well. As we have been living here for over 4 years now, we have also had the time to explore the region and have visited many places that you will not find in any guide books, which we do like to share with others. So enough about me, lets get to the good stuff.
Yes I know that Andy visited Cusco (and Starbucks), but he just toured around the historic center and did not visit the archaeological sites on the hill above. A short taxi ride will take you to Saqsaywaman, the largest of the sites above Cusco and the most interesting, here you will see the largest stones used in Inka construction with weight estimates running from 100 tons up to 150 tons. Saqsaywaman is a large site that you can easily spend 1-1/2 hours exploring, and be sure to go over the hill opposite the main set of terraces, there is a whole area there that most visitors never see. Next to Saqsaywaman is Q’enqo, this is a much smaller site, being mainly a very large rock with a cave inside, what makes this site worth seeing is the sacrificial alter that is inside of the cave, and the only sacrificial alter that I know of at any of the sites. The two other sites Puka Pukara and Tambomachay are a little further up the hill and also very small, as neither site offers anything unique these can easily be skipped to provide more time in Cusco itself.
The Sacred Valley
This is easily the second most popular area to visit, but there can be a little confusion as to what exactly constitutes “The Sacred Valley”, this confusion is mainly due to the fact that the group tours normally include Chinchero with their Sacred Valley tours, even though it is not in the Sacred Valley, and I will cover this area shortly. If planning to do a group tour you will find that their Sacred Valley tours usually consist of a stop at an artisanal center for shopping (and sometimes a second stop), then Pisac, a stop at a buffet for lunch, then Ollantaytambo, finishing up in Chinchero. Personally I think the shopping stops are a waste of time as they are never good places to buy things because the agency will get a commission on anything sold, so if you would rather avoid the tour groups and visit the Sacred Valley on your own, then here is what I would recommend.
First thing is to go in reverse, starting with Ollantaytambo and leaving Cusco at about 7:00 am, this will put you on a opposite track from most of the group tours. After visiting Ollantaytambo (1-1/2 hrs) head towards Pisac and make a stop at the Inkariy Museum, which is a unique museum and worth a stop (40 min to 1 hour). After the Museum you might be getting hungry so the two best places to stop would be in Calca or once you get to Pisac, after lunch go up to the Pisac site and explore for about 1 hour, leaving no later than 3:30 pm, this will allow you to make one final stop at the Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary before returning to Cusco. This is one of two options that can also be done before catching the train to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu pueblo) in Ollantaytambo, just reverse the order, this will put you on the same track as the group tours, but will allow you to make the most of traveling from Cusco to Ollantaytambo for the train, and for this the 7:00 pm or later train works the best.
This is what we call the area where Chinchero is located, and while not really the hill top, we think it better describes this area. As these sites are closer together, and closer to Cusco, you can easily start this day around 9:00 am. For this day you can go in two directions (forward or backwards), but as this is also a good day to do before taking a train from Ollantaytambo, I will list the sites in that order. Today start with Chinchero, this is a town that not only has an archaeological site, but is also know for its weaving, so be sure to visit one of the many weaving centers while you are here to see a demonstration of spinning, dying and weaving and these are also good places to purchase hand made items. Chinchero also has a nice church to visit and as I mentioned, a fairly large archaeological site, additionally if you happen to be doing this route on a Sunday there is a medium sized Sunday market here as well. After Chinchero head to the Salt Mines of Maras where you can see a salt production area that has been in use since before the Inca’s. The last site of the day would be Moray, which are large circular terrace that many believe were an Inka agricultural laboratory due to the large temperature difference between the top and bottom terraces (around 22f).
If you are catching a train to Aguas Calientes after this then you can descend into the Sacred Valley from here, and if not catching a train, ask your driver to return to Cusco via Lake Huaypo, it it a beautiful drive and Lake Huaypo is the largest lake in the Cusco region, also if it is a Sunday you could stop at the Izcuchaca Sunday market on the way back, which is much larger and more typical than the Chinchero Sunday Market.
This is one of the less traveled routes as most people either don’t have the time, or have just never heard of it. This valley is actually more to the East than the South, so I am not sure why it is called the Southern Valley, but I suppose it is South of something. For this day there is not really any specific order that works best as once you reach Andahuaylillas, you must then return on the same road to Cusco, but here is the order that we generally do for our guests. Start the day with a stop in Tipon, this Inka site is considered to have been a water worship site due to its may water channels and fountains. The site sits above the town of Tipon and can easily take 1 to 1-1/2 hours to explore. Next travel to Andahuaylillas where you can visit the Church of San Pedro, this church is generally refereed to as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas due to its elaborately painted ceilings. After visiting the church be sure to check out the Museum on the left side (looking at the front of the church) which contains the famous alien baby skeleton. Andahuaylillas is also a good place for lunch and you will find a variety of local and tourist restaurants here. Now you can head back towards Cusco and stop at Pikillacta which is a Wari site and one of the largest Wari sites remaining, this is also a site that gets very few visitors so when we are there with guest, we rarely see any other visitors.
That does it for the Cusco area!
Well that ends part 1 and covers the most common locations, so if you have anywhere up to 7 days this should be enough for you, if you have more than 7 days or are interested in information on areas outside of the Cusco region, you will just have to wait for part 2 to be published.
For those that may want more information on the Cusco region, check out my blog “A Gringo’s Life in Cusco”, and if you are in the planning stages and are interested in staying in a small typical farming village, then I invite you to check out our bed and breakfast “GringoWasi B&B”. Of course if you simply have a question on any of the above feel free to post it in the comments below!