Posted by on Jan 11, 2013 in Play-by-plays, South America | 2 comments

Nestled in the Andes a mere 11,200 feet above sea level, Cusco is the historic capital of the Inca Empire and the gateway to the Sacred Valley and world renowned Machu Picchu. The city is an amalgamation of ancient Incan and Spanish traditions–and its citizens have found ways to blend their beliefs and honor all the gods. In the many Cathedrals that are around the many many plazas, the depictions of Mary, for instance, bear striking resemblance to Pachamama, the Mother Earth. And the painting of the Last Supper at the Cathedral has cuy (guinea pig) as the main dish. The Christmas Nativity scenes around town have llamas. Duh. More on llamas later…they’re too freakin cute.

We arrived in Cusco early morning and checked into the Pariwana Hostel, which I highly recommend for all that it offers: several lounge areas, a bar and restaurant with decently priced and generously portioned food, daily activities, a computer room, and the most comfortable beds/blankets ever. I felt like I slept in a cocoon for 2 nights. People deal with altitude sickness (sort he) differently, and while Yusuf and I had the symptoms (tiredness nausea etc) we knew it was due to our Lima caused hangovers and not the altitude. We oh had ourselves to blame and took it easy the first day acclimating”.

Our arrival happened to coincide with Epiphany (Adoracion de Reyes Magos), so Cusco was bursting with parades, fireworks, and just general festivities. At one point a congregation of masked men dancing and singing through Plaza de Armas sprayed everyone observing with beers…Cusqueña showers, if you will.

One of my friends from Cal happened to overlap with us for a couple hours so we met for coffee and he gave me an overview of what itinerary he followed, which is when I realized that we’d been planing Machu Picchu so narrowly that we totally overlooked the Sacred Valley. So we decided to explore Cusco and a few surrounding spots the next day and stay an extra day after Machu Picchu to see more of the Valley. There are tons of town and ruins around for those who are into this sort of thing, but I think we’ll focus on the main ones…because after a while…you can’t really tell if a pile of bricks is an ancient ruin or a dumpster.

We booked a 40sol tour of Maras and Moray through the hostel and the next morning set out on our first Inca adventure. First stop was actually in a tiny village near Cusco, where the local Quechua women demonstrated how sheep turn into sweaters! Basically there was an entire hide which was plucked and stretched into thread. Natural ingredients like plants, insects, minerals etc are then heated up and used to dye the thread, which is then spun into meticulous designs by the women, who learn the craft over generations mother-to-daughter.

We then headed to Maras, which is a salt mine. The pools of saline water dry out and turn into edible and medicinal salt. The terraced pools are connected by mini channels and show how earthing in the mountainous regions — from agriculture to salt — was terraced to take maximum advantage of the land.

Next up was Moray, which today is thought to have been ancient Incas’ agricultural experiment site. The concentric circles at different elevations all have a different microclimate and were used to acclimatize local plants to differing altitudes by replanting higher and higher up once the plant was healthy at a given altitude. Pretty clever!

Back in Cusco, we took the rainy afternoon to visit the interiors of La Catedral, which was inordinately ornate and where the art features Biblical scenes with flora and fauna of the Andes. Then we headed to Qorikancha, which still has Inca foundations, but the Spanish built the Santo Domingo convent on top of it, which I guess is better than razing the whole thing? The foundation, with it’s mathematical precision and stonework is truly impressive.

After coming back from Machu Picchu, we had a half day in Cusco, so I took some time to explore Sacsahuaman, the terrace walls perched high above Cusco. The structure was first thought to be a fortification, but it is far too involved–huge boulders several times higher than an average person–to have been just a defensive fortress. Something easier and smaller could have gotten the job done. Plus the main plaza in the center now leads archeologists to believe that it was used more for religious ceremonies. Either way, just thinking of how those boulders were moved or put together is mind boggling.

Next to Sacsahuaman (pronounced “sexy woman”), is a huge Jesus Blanco, literally “White Jesus” who looks over the city and is lit up at night along with a few nearby crosses. I’m waiting for Rio to see Christ the Redeemer, so this was a mini intro. Both these sites are a relatively short walk from Plaza de Armas, albeit steeply uphill on the way there.

There are also more ruins as you head away from Cusco on the same road, but my tolerance and interest in brick walls and brick piles has a limit, no matter how historically significant they may be. Seein all the archeological sites is more bang for your buck though, because tickets are sold grouped by sites or individually, with the group ones offering more value. Peep this Tripadvisor page for a good summary of the Boleto Turistico. Also, If you have any sort of student ID (my Cal one is OLD), you can get a student discount in most places. An ISIC card gets you more, but I can’t complain given how obnoxiously I’ve been flashing this plastic relic. (For any readers who went to Cal, it’s still the original I got at CalSO)



  1. jealous I am!!!

  2. Cant wait for the Rio pics either!!! I wanna def go there in the next year so take good pics and great info!


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