The world’s most culturally rich, high-elevation city is the former Incan capital, Cusco.
Located in the heart of the Inca’s Sacred Valley at just over 11,000 feet, Cusco Peru blends the best pre-Columbian indigenous artistry with Spanish colonial architecture. Much of it remains the way it looked in the 1500’s with a thriving Indian population (350,000) that still dress in large stovepipe hats, colorful shawls and carry loads of potatoes and other produce on their back as they move through the narrow serpentine streets.
Cusco was the most important city in the Western Hemisphere when Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro descended in 1532 and wreaked its demise. But the city remains a vital crossroads on the international trek circuit and is among the world’s top cities for quick access to high mountain adventure. It is much more than just the jumping off city for visits to Machu Picchu, a two hour train ride away.
Founded in 1100 AD it was the epicenter of the Inca world at the height of its power in the 15thcentury. Today’s Cusco offers adventure travelers a week’s worth of time travel discovery that provides the foundation for your trek to Machu Picchu.
To fully comprehend Machu Picchu you need to spend time absorbing Cusco, the Incan capital and the surrounding Sacred Valley.
Cusco then and now
On Tusker’s nine-day Peruvian trip you will spend six nights in Cusco. Your time will be spent wandering through its ancient alleys, its overflowing markets and its revelatory archaeological sites in the mountains above the city. Most packaged tours to Machu Picchu only spend a night or two in Cusco and there is little opportunity for hiking on the Inca built trails leading out of the city.
Tusker’s trek includes high altitude hikes above Cusco before the climactic hike into Machu Picchu on the trek’s back end. By the time you hike to the Sun Gate atop Machu Picchu you will have a good grasp on why and how this World Heritage site was built. There are no museums containing Incan artifacts at Machu Picchu, but if you wish to see them, Cusco’s museums overflow with this rich gold, pottery and metalwork.
When Pizzaro entered Cusco, he found a city with temples and palaces laden with gold, all connected with a labyrinth of roads that led outward to the four corners of the Incan world stretching for 3,400 miles. He lost his brother Juan in the battle for Sacsayhuaman Fortress, that protected the north end of the city, but was soon victorious and built modern Cusco over the Incan architecture.
Starting in the 1930s, the Peruvians restored some of the ancient Incan structures making Cusco an intriguing blend of the best of both worlds. Many of the artifacts that were taken from Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham from 1911-1914 have now been returned to Cusco from Yale University after years of negotiation and threatened lawsuits. These are displayed in Cusco’s Museo Machu Picchu that has 366 artifacts formerly at Yale’s Peabody Museum.
Tusker’s South America guide Andrew Springsteel, designed the trip to give Tusker trekkers a deep dive into Incan achievement that not only includes the grand architecture, but ingenious farming techniques developed in this vertical landscape. These techniques are still employed today and chances are the quinoa you enjoy comes from these terraced hillsides. Day trips to explore seven sites are planned and include Pisaq, Qenqo, Pucara, Tamboachay, Qorikancha and Sacsayhuaman. Each is different and has its own intriguing stories that Tusker’s local guides will share.
“We want to give you the full picture of what was going on then and what was built – before you crown the adventure with the Machu Picchu trek. We want this trek to be so complete, so that when you get home and tell your friend what you saw and he asks, ‘did you get to the salt ponds at Moray?’ you can tell him yes. We don’t want our trekkers to miss a thing,” Andrew said.
And you don’t want to skip Moray, although most tourists do. Located 40 kilometers north of Cusco, it’s one of those overlooked places that you walk away from thinking, ‘how could this be?’ Salt ponds are almost always found near or on the coast, but these salt ponds were first developed by the Chanapata Culture (200 AD) that predate the Incas and are over 12,000 feet high. The mountains here were once part of the sea and today the Qoripujio spring runs through here and is siphoned by the terraced ponds developed by a local co-op. The 5,000 ponds produce a pink salt that is embedded in the rocks, but filtered by the spring. The pink salt is a gourmet specialty, and according to the locals, very good for your health. Peru’s top chef Gaston Acurio, whose Astrid y Gaston restaurant in Lima is often ranked among the top 50 in the world, won’t use any other salt.
Pickled snakes at the market
Peruvian cuisine is one of the world’s least understood and most underrated. Every night you will experience a different Cusco restaurant that captures the savory blends of meat, vegetables and worldly influences. Fusion Asian-Peruvian cuisine is popular in small lively bistros as well as the traditional Incan fare that includes Cuy or roast guinea pig. Other exotica include Adoba, a pork stew with corn beer. Papas de la huancaina is a vegetarian specialty blending various potatoes with a spicy cheese sauce. These traditional tastes developed over centuries are unlike food you will experience anywhere else.
On day 3, the morning is spent in Cusco’s San Pedro Market where many of Peru’s 3000 varieties of potatoes are on colorful display in all their bizarre shapes. Ever see purple corn? It’s here, as well as pickled snakes in buckets filled with a green mash that is said to be good for your intestines. There are 30 different juice stands blending the exotic fruits from Peru’s Amazonia as well as the Andes. Try locuma, granadilla and chirimaya for starters. This is a good place to capture the sounds and colors of the Cusqueñanswho are often seen in their vibrant shawls and outsized hats. Peruvian music wafts through the streets with flute and drum beats blending. Peruvian music is a soothing mix of contrasting sounds from Europe, Africa and South America. This market is a photographer’s chance to capture culinary/musical one-of-a-kinds as well portraits of the hard working locals.
The afternoon is spent at Sacsayhuaman, a sturdy fortress built at the north end of the Incan empire by emperor Pachacuti who later built Machu Picchu. If you like huge finely cut polygonal blocks over 12 feet high, this is the place. It took 20,000 laborers to put this massive jigsaw puzzle into place interlocking these blocks that weigh over 100 tons. Despite frequent Andean earthquakes over the past 500 plus years, there was little damage at Sacsayhuaman. The Spanish buried parts of this fortress and chipped away other parts to build Cusco, but the site remains impressive after being rediscovered in 1934 and excavated.
Dressed for Machu Picchu
The goal for all this sightseeing is designed to ground you for the climactic hike into Machu Picchu so you have perspective about how this magnificent ancient structure relates to the Incan world. To physically prepare you, there is a 14 kilometer, 4-hour hike on Day 5 to Antisuyo, a saddle along the Inka Trail above the Sacred Valley that offers spectacular views of five sacred Andes peaks. Before the viewpoint, the trail weaves through narrow canyons where Indian villages continue to farm and work with alpaca as their Inca ancestors did. You will see them weave; and if you buy just one souvenir on this trip, make it a fine alpaca sweater bought from an indigenous artisan.
You can wear it as the day cools as you approach the Sun Gate on day 7. Machu Picchu lies beneath you and after going back in time visiting Cusco and the Sacred Valley you have a sense of why Pachacuti built this palace here. You now want the intensely immersive Machu Picchu experience, so go ahead – fully embrace Machu Picchu, because it’s more than a bucket list achievement, it’s a momentous time in your life.