While deciding what places I would mark off my bucket-list in South America, Machu Pichu and Cusco were always at the top. “The Lost City of the Incas,” was a travel destination that had always been at the forefront of my mind since a favorite teacher of mine, Mrs. Flynn, introduced it to me in 3rd grade history class. This was the first time that I remember having a deep interest in a school subject, and it peaked with learning how different cultures lived. In a previous post, “El Calafate, Argentina” I stated that I had experienced my first moment of “Awe.” Machu Pichu was the second. The amount of history, culture, and overall beauty of the landscape, overthrew everything that I had envisioned in my head. It is my wish that every traveler make it to this destination at least once in their lifetime.
I had entered into Cusco via a short flight from Lima, Peru. I found a pretty cheap ticket via StarPeru (advanced flights should normally costs around $120-130). Upon arrival at the airport, I noticed that it was actually quite small, yet it sees thousands of tourists a day. It is very easy to maneuver and find your way around. A word of advice – Skip past the official taxis stands on the interior, and make your way to the unofficial taxis outside. This is the total opposite of what is recommended in Lima, per my previous post. The reason being, is that the official taxis inside will gouge you by charging around $10 (30 Sol), whereas the unofficial taxis will charge you around half of that (10-15 Sol). Walk outside to the sidewalk and flag down your taxi. From there it is a very short trip to the city center.
As soon as you are on your way into town, you will feel as if you have been teleported to another time. Everything you remember reading about (or of recalling from the photos in your history book), will be brought to life. Take some time to get to your accommodation (hostel, hotel, B&B, bridge) so you can get settled before heading out around town on foot. I stayed at an awesome hostel called “Incama Cusco Hostel” with a private room and bath for just $20.00 a night. There was a pool room, a bar, a community lounge area, free WIFI, and a basic breakfast served every morning. And of course, the front desk can help out with any questions or tour accommodations. It also has a killer view.
As usual, I found walking around town to be quite an adventure, and a great way to spend the majority of my days in Cusco. The entire city looks completely different from everything and anything I was used to seeing back home in Chicago. Take the time to stroll around the streets and get lost. The city center is not that big, and yet there is a lot see. The locals are friendly, and for the most part, the streets are extremely safe. While starting off on foot, however, you may notice what I consider to be the biggest drawback of visiting Cusco; it has become extremely touristy. With nearly two million visitors a year, the town and people survive off of the tourism industry. This has been a cause of controversy between those in the industry and those advocating limiting the number of tourists going to Machu Pichu over the past decade, due to weathering conditions. Just be aware are that you are going to see a lot of Europeans, Asians, Aussies, and North Americans, walking around the streets.
There are many things to see in Cusco. If you are interested in seeing the large majority of sights, consider purchasing a “boleto turistico” at the OFEC (Avenue El Sol 103). This ticket allows entrance to a large number of key spots at a good discount. I suggest starting off around the main square, the Plaza de Armas. This is the historical center of the city, and is lined with numerous restaurants, bars, beautiful churches, and shops. Take some time to stroll around the area and get a feel for the environment. Do note; this is a very touristy area, and you may be bombarded with locals trying to sell you cheap tokens, paintings, and/or other gadgets. This is how they make their living, so keep a cool head about it, even if they swarm you or your group. The restaurants around this plaza, for the most part, are very expensive. Just an example: One exotic item of the cuisine is cuy, or guinea pig (you must try it). Most of the restaurants here will place this traditional dish on their menu for about $25-30. Whereas, in other parts of the town or neighboring towns, you can pick up this dish for less than half that price. However, they do provide a nice atmosphere, and are great for people watching. Find a spot to enjoy a meal or coffee around the square, and just watch the action from above. Be sure to check out some of the museums, especially the Qoricancha and the Choco Museum. The Qoricancha is known as “The Sun Temple,” and was the central site for Incan worship. A large part was destroyed by the conquistadors, but was rebuilt as a Church, Santo Domingo. Portions of the Incan ruins and architecture can be seen right alongside the centuries-old Spanish church and architecture. It is well worth a visit and guided tour. The Choco Museum allows you to check out the history and see the process of making cacao, an important product of the Peruvian economy. Yes, it has a lot of chocolate. Get your fix here.
If you are looking for a cheap, basic meal, your best bet is to venture a few blocks away in any direction. Do some exploring and find a local spot. Or, if you want to do some cooking back in your room, check out the San Pedro Market. This market is a must-see, selling all sorts of foods, textiles, home goods, and necessities for Peruvians, by Peruvians. It is located just a few blocks west from Plaza de Armas at San Pedro Plaza. On your way, also stop by San Francisco Plaza, located just a few blocks east of San Pedro Plaza. This also an open market, selling similar items including clothing and souvenir gadgets. For some nightlife, I hit up several main spots on my stay that were a lot of fun, both alone, and with new friends. Ukuku’s is a great bar located close to Plaza de Armas that features both local and traveling musicians, having live shows every night. Be sure to get there early, as the seating is limited. If you are feeling homesick and in the mood for something a little more “comforting”, there is a great Irish pub owned by an actual Irish man, called “Paddy’s Irish Pub”. They claim to be the “Highest Irish-owned Pub in the World” at over 2 miles high. This is located a half block from the South East corner of Plaza de Armas.
When you have been overloaded with all of the amazing features and sights of the city, remember to save some of that energy for your trip to Machu Pichu. Some people choose to visit Machu Pichu via Cusco, as I had done. Others choose to go through the Inca Trail. Unfortunately, for myself, booking the Inca Trail was near impossible at the time I chose to visit, being booked for months. You get to Machu Pichu via a 3-4 hour train ride from Poroy. You must drive to Poroy from Cusco. This short drive can be done via taxi or bus. I suggest asking your accommodation’s front desk for the best suggestions. The hotels and hostels usually have special deals worked out for pick-ups from your accommodation. The drive over is enjoyable, with beautiful views of the countryside.
The train ride from Poroy to Aguas Calientes (from which you then take a bus to Machu Pichu) usually costs around $60-$70 via PeruRail. The train cars are rather comfortable, and there are more amazing views to be seen on the ride. There are several stops on the way in which you can decide (beforehand) which place you would like to stay for the night. I took the train all the way to the last stop, Aguas Calientes. This small town is rather rundown with poverty, as well as being another place that is overrun with tourism. You won’t be spending much time here, as it is just a base for the next day’s trip to Machu Pichu. While here, though, be sure to check out the town, walk over to the restaurant area, and get a pleasant view of the hillsides overlooking the flowing stream that runs through the center of town. Walk around the neighborhoods and check out the little shops and galleries. Don’t be afraid to stop near the residential areas, as well. I particularly enjoyed a soccer, excuse me, “futbol” match being played in the stadium, after checking out the street vendors cooking up alpaca (llama) meat and veggies on kabob sticks for just $2 per stick.
Eventually, depending on your tour itinerary, you will be on your way to that final destination – Machu Pichu. Likely, you will head out early in the morning after breakfast. I cannot put into words the majesty and beauty of this “Wonder of the World.” As I believe, you are best to experience it with little guidance and just get lost in exploration. Initially, take the guided tour, and tip your tour-guide well. Then, spend the next few hours wandering around the site. There is so much beauty and history to take in, so take your time. Pack a lunch, beforehand, and enjoy a break on the grass among the ruins (the restaurant near the entrance, of course, has tourist prices). Check out the llamas chomping through the grass. Walk through the maze of rooms and doors made out of stone. You’re going to be taking lots of pictures, so make sure your battery is fully charged! If you’re feeling more adventurous, take a 20-30 minute hike through the side-paths to the ruins above, with a spectacular view overlooking the entire area.
Use a few moments to really take-in the spirit of the place, in whatever manner you choose. For myself, it was enjoying that moment of pure “Awe,” that struck a chord about realizing what I enjoyed doing most in life. It confirmed that my lust for travel and the “Unknown” was something much more. It made me want to continue in search of another place, just as beautiful. It made me realize how grateful I was for the ability to do the things in which I was doing. It made me thankful for the opportunity to see the things in which I was seeing. It made me remember that time, seeing that 4×4 picture in a small history book, back in 3rd grade, with Mrs. Flynn. Now, here I was, standing in that same spot! It made me realize how much time in my life had passed, and how limited that time is, here on Earth. Although these feelings and memories had been long passed, I realized that travel helped to keep them alive. It’s moments like these, which continue to help me feel alive.