| 5 min read
Even though many people see Cusco just as the starting point for a visit to the famous city of Machu Picchu, it is actually much more than that. It's no bad idea to foresee some extra days to visit Cusco and its surroundings as well. The city itself exhales history and culture and you'll find traces of its eventful past scattered all around. Also its surroundings, the Sacred Valley -or Urubamba Valley-, is worth exploring for all the archeological remains it harbours.
The Sacred Valley
Every agency offering tours to Machu Picchu also has tours to the Sacred Valley. The day tours are an easy and not too expensive way to explore the area, so we decided to participate.
In Pisac, we started off with a visit to a local colourful handicraft and textile market. As usually, there was a large assortment of beautiful alpaca clothing for sale. Or that's what the vendors claim it to be... If you feel unsure about the quality of the alpaca wool, you can check out this guide to buying alpaca products. In any case, by the time we left, a new woollen bonnet had found its way to the top of my head.
It is remarkable how in Pisac two terracotta bulls are placed on the roof of every house; they're supposed to bring good luck to its inhabitants.
When entering the ruins of Pisac, the first thing you gaze upon are agricultural terraces on a steep hillside. They allowed the Incas to grow seedlings at different altitudes on the mountain sides - a technique that is still in use today. Above the terraces are other ruins of farming cottages, and a sacred area that was used for the mummification of the higher classes. In the adjacent mountains, there are holes in the walls; that's where the mummies were kept. The higher ruins also offer a beautiful overview of the spectacular surroundings.
Around noon, we drove to a local restaurant for lunch, after which we visited Ollantaytambo with renewed energy. There is something very special about this town: the ground plan today has remained exactly the same as in Inca times. When the Spaniards came, they brought down all the Inca buildings, but kept the foundations to build their own house on top of it - just to show their superiority.
At that time, the Incas were in the middle of building a massive fortress right next to the village, which fortunately remained spared of the Spanish destruction fever. It was built with huge stones that had not been mined in this part of the valley, but transported from mountains further away. The complex comprises a temple to the sun, that was used for astronomical observation, some ceremonial princess baths, a series of terraces - which in contrary to Pisac didn't serve an agricultural purpose, but were merely decorative. Unfortunately, as the Incas didn't have script, we're left without any explanatory sources about the exact purposes of the fortress.
Just before dusk, we arrived in Chincheros. On the central plaza, there's a colonial church that had been built on top of the limestone remains of an Inca palace, probably once owned by Tupac Inca Yupanqui, the son of the great Pachacutec. Apart from the church and the plaza, there isn't much more to see; there are some other ruins, but it's hard to imagine what they used to be.
When it had become too dark to wander along the ruins, we visited a local textile atelier. After giving us muña tea, a young girl gave an interesting explanation about how they produce their textiles. First, the wool is washed using a soap made from the Sacha Paraqay plant. When grated into water, the root makes detergent-like suds and the animal fibres come out naturally clean and white. After drying, the wool is spun on small spindles and dyed. It's fascinating to learn what plants and minerals are used for dying wool. One of them is the cochineal, a small bug living on cacti that turns red when crushed. Other ingredients are leaves, flowers, volcanic rocks, parasites, fruits, etc. Then, children's urine set to ferment for a month is used to set the colours into the wool. These colourful yarns are then ready to be woven into cloth.
That was the end of our excursion to the Sacred Valley, so now it was time to head back to Cusco.
If you need a treat after such an educative day...
...then visit the chocolate museum in Cusco. The museum isn't very large, but as it's free it's certainly worth checking it out. Through a series of explanatory boards and a short video, you learn about the history of chocolate production. All throughout the self-guided tour, tempting chocolate plates will be served to other customers. I bet you won't get out of there without ordering something yourself. In any case, we couldn't.
Useful information for travellers
- If you want to enjoy a student discount for visiting cultural heritage in and around Cusco, make sure you have an ISIC-card. They don't accept other national student cards.
- To enter the ruins in the Sacred Valley, you'll have to buy a boleto turístico. A regular ticket will also grant you access to several museums in Cusco: PEN 130 normal price, PEN 70 student price. There's also a partial ticket with which you can only visit the Sacred Valley, which costs PEN 70 for everyone.
- In Cusco we stayed in the Inka's Hostel, where we bargained a little and got beds in a dorm for PEN 20 pp - breakfast included.
- The Tepsa bus from Arequipa to Cusco costs PEN 80 and the ride takes about 10h30.
- The taxi from the bus terminal to the city centre of Cusco costs about PEN 8.
- The entrance to the chocolate museum is free. They offer also workshops to make your own chocolate.
Do you have questions? Did you experience something similar? Did you notice a mistake? Please share!