Cuzco is a very bustling town, driven mostly by tourists frequenting the area on their way to Machu Picchu like us. Our city tour guide told us that Cuzco’s economy is over 70% tourism and it’s certainly noticeable as you walk down the cobblestone pathways lined with nightclubs, bars, restaurants and spas. Enter any restaurant and you’re bound to find at least one person from the other side of the world and each one has their own story to tell on why they are passing through the city. I actually enjoyed this city the most and I think it was because of how much it reminded me of Fort Collins — right at the foothills of the mountains, pretty high altitude, many hiking trails at the edges of the town, the air felt crisp, and it never felt humid while the sun was out.
Checking-in and off to breakfast.
On our arrival, it was a very misty early morning after raining and we dodged puddles as we walked along the roads. Our first stop was the hostel where we checked in at only 25 Soles for 3 people and met with our guide who would be taking us on our 5-day trek to Machu Picchu beginning at 4am the next day. He informed us of a local, affordable restaurant serving typical Peruvian food we could try for breakfast and were on our way.
Coca Tea Image courtesy of GreyBack
Coca Leaves: Just leaves if you ask me…
One thing you find out rather quickly in Cuzco is the locals affinity to the Coca plant. It’s treated as a holy plant in many cases and throughout the week we were told from many locals that Coca leaves have had a long and rich history in the region, including even being used by the Incas. I’m not so sure about any of the rumors surrounding the plant, but one thing was certain — locals really pushed everyone to have it to help ease altitude sickness by providing the body a little energy. If you’ve never heard of the plant, check out the Wikipedia article on it and see why it’s actually banned in the US. They served this as a tea, known as Coca Tea, in the restaurant we had breakfast at where I had the opportunity to try it for the first time. Personally, it tasted like a tangier and slightly bitter Jasmine green tea that I have often in the states, and I felt this idea of it providing a great deal of energy is actually just in our heads — making people more energetic simply by believing they should be. We ended up having this tea often during the 5-day trek, including once every morning when they would wake us up from our tents, and I never felt as energetic even compared to a cup of Chai. Cuzco is at a relatively high elevation(3326m or 10912 ft), and during our trek we reached a peak as high as 4500m. Other travelers I met said they felt less light-headed from the altitude, especially on the steep climbs after chewing coca leaves or having some of the tea so take it for what you will. Having lived in Colorado for almost a year now, I’m sure it was easier for my body to get acclimated to the high altitudes here so I was lucky enough not to experience any sort of altitude sickness what-so-ever anyways.
Seeing the Incan remains in Cuzco
After breakfast, we headed over to the main square to get a city tour of Cuzco. I’m typically not a fan of seeing touristy things to pass time in a city, but Cuzco is littered with remains of the Incan civilization and some of the ruins are simply stunning. For 70 Soles, we got a bus tour and a guide for the next 4 hours as we saw each of the main Incan sites throughout Cuzco:
Temple of the Incas - Qorikancha
This was a temple of the Incans that has been preserved in Cuzco. Supposedly it used to be covered mostly in gold and silver before it was pillaged. It’s a rather large and intricate building and fairly massive as you walk through. The main features of the temple, and soon we’d find out is common in Incan architecture, was how finely crafted the stones were on the walls of the temple. If you notice in the image below, each stone is crafted almost perfectly to fit with every other stone and so finely placed that you would not even be able to place a piece of hair between the blocks. We were told the Incas usually laid blocks this precise in their most holy or special buildings — temples, important houses, monuments, etc. And you can actually see this same architecture in other ruins including certain areas of Machu Picchu.
A pretty panorama from the center of the temple:
Also, I don’t typically like tour guides, mostly from my so-so experience with museums in the states and the sense I get that they simply regurgitate facts they’ve memorized… but the guide we had for this tour spoke very passionately about not only what we were looking at — but he would also add his personal intuitions and anecdotes from experience being around these structures and showing them for over a decade. It’s something I find is very common among the guides in Peru because many of them have been making a living and providing for their families by showing tourists around these attractions for years and really taking an affinity towards it. For example, he told us stories about his own grandmother pointing at the stars showing constellations like the Llama when he was young, and how he’s seen similar drawings from the Incas as they were looking at the same night sky charting out the soltices. Next up – Sexy Woman! — I mean, Sacsayhuaman? (pronounced like Sexy Woman!) Our guide could not help articulating the pronunciation of the next site, Sacsayhuaman, multiple times as we drove up the mountain pass towards it. While explaining, every other time he would add emphasis on the syllables that would make it sound more and more like “Sexy Woman”. This place is truly a sight to see while you’re in Cuzco. You don’t really even need the city tour to get here if you just wanted to see it, and it’s pretty amazing. Basically it’s a huge replica of a puma, with a large part of the mane and head visible from a side-profile. The guide mentioned what we see today is only around 20% of what it used to be, but from the right angle you can almost see what it once was. Many locals were selling different wares near the site including a black puma which is sculpted in relation to how this site was built. Check out some of these beautiful shots of it including a panorama of the grounds:
The ancient Incan refrigerator.
We ended up hearing quite a few stories about Sacsayhuaman that it slowly began growing dark so we quickly headed over to the next site which was equally beautiful. It looked like a building that served as a sort of an ancient refrigerator, a store house to keep the harvests throughout the year and used to distribute throughout the Incan empire. You can still make out the area where food was placed, but this site only has 10% remaining after the destruction during the inquisition.
The Sun Altar?
As the sun was just about to set(it sets early in Peru around 6:30pm this time of year because it’s technically winter for them) we continued on to the last stop which is a mysterious little cave with a small Incan table and a neatly cut hole in the roof. It almost looks like a dining table for a large cave man with two carved out seats on either side. The purpose of this spot has been a mystery, but apparently archeologists think it may have simply been an observatory for solstices because when the sun shines on the top of the cave still to this day during a solstice, the shadow will be perfectly visible on the table. The carved edges that looked like chairs are supposedly altars they would have knelt at while it was happening too. It was too dark to get any pictures of it at this point
Briefing for the 5-day trek and little sleep.
Afterwards, they offered free Coca tea at a small gift shop on the way down, and soon they dropped us all off back in the main square of Cuzco. We hurried back to our hostel for the briefing on the exact details of our trek beginning the next day. Below you can see the flier they handed out for it. It mentions the estimated distances and altitudes of the trek which came out to around 60 miles or 98 km and various inclines up to 4800m at the highest point. It was quite an experience from the moment it started at 4am the next morning.
Looking back, it was quite an epic trek — following similar paths that even Hiram Bingham, the guy who discovered Machu Picchu, passed. We went through plains, snow-covered mountains, and a tropical jungle lined with fruit trees for over 7-8 hours a day in grueling conditions at certain parts. My friend Nathan unfortunately even injured his foot during a very rocky decline in one area. There were mules, alpacas, nomads, and many travelers from all over the world trekking along with groups on their way to Machu Picchu and it was quite the adventure! I’ll post a detailed account of the whole trek with many pictures on Friday!