Are you trekking the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu with Peru Ecocamp? Before or after that great adventure, you’re bound to spend time in Cusco, the old Inca city in the heart of the Peruvian Andes and the jumping off spot for the trail.
Cusco is one of the highlights of Peru. And for good reason! The vibrant city offers beautiful ancient Inca architecture, a friendly atmosphere, lots of shopping opportunities, and modern bars, pubs, restaurants and hotels.
Here are the four things you absolutely must do in Cusco:
The city’s central square was laid out in Spanish colonial times. When religious festivities like Semana Santa (Holy Week) take place, the square is crowded with celebrating Peruvians. Find a bench around the fountain in the middle of the square, relax and people-watch.
The Plaza de Armas is surrounded by restaurants and cafes, some with balconies from which you can view on the plaza. And that view is amazing — red-stone buildings, cathedrals and churches, with the snowcapped Andes as a backdrop. The view at night might be even more spectacular: hundreds of flickering lights from the houses in the mountains, yellow lanterns illuminating the square . . . It’s magical.
When you walk around Cusco’s old town, you’ll bump into many women offering massages, ponchos, or guided tours. Don’t be afraid to bargain — they’ll probably reduce their prices. Another remarkable sight in Cusco is women walking around with alpacas or llamas. The furry animals are dressed up with colorful accessories like bows, looking so cute it’s almost impossible to resist taking a picture. But you have to pay! The women ask around one or twp Peruvian Soles per picture, but be sure to negotiate an airtight deal.
2. Rainbow Mountain
Many trips to the awesome countryside around Cusco can be done in a day or less. For example, Montaña de Siete Colores (Rainbow Mountain). The most common trip to Rainbow Mountain starts with a pick up from your hotel at around 4 am. After driving for about three hours, you stop at a local restaurant for a simple breakfast and then drive another 45 minutes to the Vinicunca Mountain Checkpoint where everyone exits their vehicles.
From the checkpoint it’s around a two-hour hike to the viewpoint. Due to the high altitude (the viewpoint is at 5,200 meters/17,060 feet) it’s quite a tough walk and you’ll be out of breath quickly. However, if hiking is not your thing, you can also do the trail by mule. Many locals will take you on their mules, one way or return, for 50 to 100 Soles. The viewpoint is often crowded with tourists, but it’s absolutely worth the effort.
Why is it called Rainbow Mountain? Due to changing environmental conditions over millions of years, different minerals have become exposed along the mountainside, creating a beautiful multicolored “rainbow” effect. Every color is another mineral: green is copper, red is iron, yellow is sulfur and brown is sandstone.
Make sure you dress for a range of temperatures. If it’s been raining, there can be snow at the top. Another, more relaxed option is an overnight stay near Rainbow Mountain. Please contact Peru Ecocamp for more information.
The ancient Inca sites of Moray and Maras makes another great day trip.
Moray is renowned for circular concrete terraces shaped a bit like an old Roman Amphitheatre. There is an almost 60-degree Fahrenheit difference in temperature between the top and the bottom terraces, and it’s thought that the ancient Incas used this phenomenon to experiment with growing different crops.
Maras (or the Salineras de Maras to use its full name) is an area of more than 3,000 evaporation pools. An underground spring feeds the pools through a network of channels, yielding 330 lbs of salt per pool, per month. Maras is also a stunning place to visit.
To visit either place, you will need to buy the Boleto Turistico (which you can find in every tourist shop in Cusco) for admission to the sites. The ticket costs 70 Soles for one day, but for 60 Soles more you have a ticket valid for 10 days.
Situated on the Vilcanota River, the lovely village of Pisac is only a 45-minutes drive from Cusco. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, the village offers a large local market offering fruits, vegetables and handcrafted souvenirs. On a sunny day, it’s the perfect place to enjoy fresh-pressed juice while relaxing on one of the little balconies, enjoying the view over the central square. Pisac may be a small village, but the market is huge. From alpaca-wool clothing to Andes jewelry and accessories, it’s impossible to go home empty-handed.
Tags: Alpacas, Cusco, Llamas, Maras, Moray, Plaza de Armas, Rainbow Mountain, Salineras, Salt mines