Day Hikes in and around Cusco, Peru

Cusco is a wonderful city, deep in the heart of the Andes at 10,600 feet of elevation.  And while we were primarily there to hike the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu, we also found a lot of other things to enjoy in the area.  Here are some of our favorite adventures and expeditions…and a few things we’d like to do the next time we’re in town!
 
We loved walking around Cusco, seeing the old stones, the charming courtyards, and the beautiful houses.  And yes, there were a lot of tourist shops and touts on the streets.  But it was all pretty innocent and good fun..  And it is the heart of this part of Peru--so it makes a great center of operations for explorations futher afield.

Sachsayhuaman: this is the massive stone fortress overlooking the city of Cusco, perched on a ridge about 700 feet above the northeastern side of the city.   It is a wonderful display of some of the most amazing Inca stonework you will ever see, and when you get tired of that, you can always climb up the Western side of the ruins and look down over modern Cusco.  It’s also a great way to get a little exercise at altitude as you are preparing yourself for the longer hikes and higher elevations of Machu Picchu.  We spent a couple of hours there, and it took another hour to climb up there. So figure on spending half a day exploring this magnificent site. 

 

Not far away is Qenko---a small ruin that we did not visit.  But we will the next time we’re in town!  It's part of a larger group of sites that include Tambomachay as well.  All accessible for very little money via the bus that takes to you Pisac...below.

 

Pisac:  These ruins are a one hour (20 miles!) bus ride from Cusco, and well worth the effort.  There is a food and crafts market here every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday-but it isn’t that different from other craft markets that we saw in Cusco, Aguas Calientes, etc.  On the other hand, the hike through the archeological preserve above the town was a thriller.
WARNING:  Do not go here with a standard tour of the Sacred Valley, as those tours only give you enough time to explore here for about an hour.  And the best part of Pisac, the wonderfully worked stones of the Intihuana temple, are not accessible in that length of time.   As you can see in the photo at right, the stonework here is of exceptional quality.  And you only see this part of the ruins if go beyond the normal tour, and hike up over the hill.  Take your time and see the whole thing.
How can you do that?  Take the local bus to Pisac, and then take a cab up to the ruins.  I think we paid about $6 total for the four of us for the bus trip--they leave about every fifteen minutes in each direction.  And less than $10 round trip for the cab.    And the cab will pick you up again in two hours, after you have wandered around to your heart’s content.  Not to be missed. 

 

Museums in Cusco:  Walking around the city is fun in itself, but there are a few of these that really stand out.  The Museo de Arte pre-Colombino is a stunning presentation of the greatest Pre-Columbian art from around Peru.  And yes, it is more of an art gallery that a museum—but these pieces really do deserve that kind of treatment.  Simply the greatest ceramics in the world.  Gotta do it.   And the café in the patio is one of the best restaurants in Cusco...and most expensive.
You can see some of our favorite pieces from the museum at left and right--and there are a lot more on our Picasa page.  Click on this link to get you started: https://picasaweb.google.com/balzaccom/Peru2011#5600419144247918674 

Nearby is the Inca Museum—which is also good, but lacks the presentation and style of the previous museum.  This one has great stuff, but it's a little tired…and looks as if it is curated by a nice junior high school teacher, instead of a world class museum.  But the mummies here are worth the price of admission, on their own!

Qoriqancha is the ancient Temple of the Sun in Cusco—it’s right on the main Avenida del Sol, and houses a nice, if small museum.  Interesting exhibits, and a wildly confusing presentation of Incan cosmology, including an attempt to compare it with Western theology.  If you can understand all of that, you are ready for anything at the spiritual level!  This temple was destroyed by the Spanish, and they built a monastery on top of it…but you can still see the massive stonework of the Incas supporting it all.   The photo at left captures the monastery, and the massive stonework below it that was created by the Incas.

Museo Garcilazo de la Vega:  This was a remarkable man.  His father was one of the original Spanish Conquistadores, and his mother was the daughter of the Inca!  He was raised in Spain, then came back to Peru and became an important source of information about all things Inca.  This house contains a collection of interesting artifacts and stories about him, his life, and the way that the two cultures in Cusco mixed…and created problems.  The interior patio is simply delightful.

The Cathedral:  a massive monument to colonial power and wealth, this heavy, gilded church is the biggest building on the Plaza de Armas.  But we were not enchanted.  It was a full 25 soles to get in, and while the famous painting of the last supper ( complete with roast guinea pig as the entrée) is fun, there is way too much blood, suffering, and hurt for this to be much fun for anyone.  If you think that the Incas were a primitive and savage tribe, a trip through this cathedral will give you second thoughts about the Spaniards as well. 
The history of the church euphemistically states that the land was "acquired" in 1544--not mentioning how it was "acquired."
The Church of the Compania;  The big story here is that this church, which sits just across the corner from the Cathedral, became so ornate that the bishop complained to the Pope…and the Pope decreed that there should be no more ostentatious decorations installed here.  Apparently, that was a major story in Cusco for a few centuries.  At any rate, thanks to the Pope, the Cathedral could still be the most ostentatious church in Cusco.    It is, but not by much.  If you like heavy metal, as in gold, and your Catholicism with a groan instead of a smile, this is for you. 
 
Hotels:
 
We stayed at th Tierra Viva on Saphi street.  (pronounced sap hee). This is the street that leads up to Sachsayhuaman, but the hotel is about five blocks away from the Plaza de Armas and the center of Cusco.
It was more expensive than most in Cusco, at about $80 a night for a king-sized bed.  It's new, beautiful, and everything works perfectly, including the free WiFi.  We loved it, and would go back in a split second.  The staff could not have been more accomodating at every single point of our visit.  The price included a wonderful breakfast every morning from 5 -10 a.m., two bottles of water everyday in the room, and all the coca tea you could drink.
The photo at left is the moon from our patio at the hotel.
The rest of our group stayed at a much less expensive hostel called the Pirwa Colonial.  I think they paid about $25 a night, and it was clean and pleasant.  Admittedly, you had the whole youth/economic traveller aura about this place, but if you just want a decent place to sleep at night, it seemed to work really well.  And each night they had some kind special--pizza and a coke for ten soles--that encouraged visitors to hang around and get to know each other.
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