The city of Cusco is definitely tourist-central, largely for its proximity to – and base for – the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. Not that it should be overlooked as a destination in its own right. The European-style architecture and tree-lined boulevards of the centre contrast heavily with the favela-style housing spread across the surrounding hillsides.
The streets of the centre of Cusco also have something of a Medina feel to them, with narrow, crooked alleyways easy to get yourself lost in if you’re not careful. Still, getting lost can be part of the fun, and there’s always a Cathedral or some other interesting Barqoue/Gothic era monument to arrest your attention.
Around the city is the ruin of Saqsayhuaman, which inevitably is better-known among English-speakers as ‘sexy woman’. My friend and I didn’t get inside the ruin themselves, but seeing the tiered zig-zagging ruins from the bus was still worthwhile. This was the sight of a battle that effectively ended resistance to conquistador rule. So many Incans were killed that the condors had a field day picking over their carcasses, an incident immortalised with seven stars on the Cusco coat of arms.
Nearby is Cristo Blanco, a ‘baby Christ the Redeemer’, and a decent enough statue, which obviously can’t measure up to the one in Rio. Of more interest are the panoramic views of Cusco below. This being Palm Sunday, there were celebrations to mark the occasion in the main square below, which could be seen and heard from this distant vantage point when we visited.
After a stop off at another ruin, Quenco, we finished up at the ‘Santurio Animal de Cochahuasi’, a sanctuary for endangered and otherwise troubled animals who would not survive in the world, such as a toucan with a broken beak! There are a great variety of animals here – pumas, the ever-present llamas/alpacas and other camelids, bears, macaws and monkeys can all be seen.
But taking pride of place are undoubtedly the condors, which unlike their counterparts in the Colca Canyon are not shy of people, and with their majestic three-metre wingspan and all, have no problem perching themselves next to visitors. Seeing them in flight here is a great experience, although, as is the case with zoos, not seeing them in their natural habitat doesn’t quite provide the same visceral thrill as seeing them in the wild, even if it is more closeup and so allowing you to get better pictures.
There’s also lots of hawkers trying to get you to part with your soles for a massage experience too, especially in the central square. We sidestepped these and instead booked what is seen as a must for those in the area – a tour of the Sacred Valley.
So-called because of its fertile landscape throughout, the Sacred Valley is an area of outstanding natural beauty that simply shouldn’t be missed off any Peruvian itinerary, and has the added bonus of being in the same area as the place that everyone comes to Peru to see. The valley is full of stunning mountain vistas, with soaring peaks broken by tufts of cloud, and the hillsides blanketed with lush vegetation, all overseeing atmospheric Andean towns perched on the sloping valleys beneath.
There are ruins to be seen too, of course, such as that of Pisac, a citadel grafted on to the hillside above the town of the same name, with dizzying views of the landscape around. The rain decided to arrive at this time, but our enthusiasm wasn’t dampened, as our guide explained to us about the cemetery and how everyone there was buried in the foetal position, going out of the world the same way they came in.
The market at Pisac town is full of goods and trinkets to please all sorts of shoppers, with a store featuring clothes and other material made from alpacas, and an artisan jewellery store where they give you a demo on how to distinguish real silver from fake. Me, I went to the outdoor stores and purchased myself some fridge magnets and a Peruvian football shirt!
After lunch we headed to a ruin, Ollantaytambo, which our guide excitedly told us was arguably better than Machu Picchu. I’m not sure I agree, but it is definitely a hugely impressive sight, both when you catch your first glimpse of it and when you clamber among the ruins themselves.
Ollantaytambo has a story behind it that is sure to thrill romantics everywhere. A great warrior loved a woman who he was not allowed to marry; so great were his exploits that the elders of the tribe (i.e. the family of the woman) said he could have all the riches and lands he wanted as a reward…but not her. So he decided to elope with his love anyway, and to prove that he was indeed worthy of her, he built the great city of Ollantaytambo, with spectacular results.
The city, clad across two mountainsides as it is, also marks the location of a rare defeat in pitched battle for the Spanish conquistadors. A combination of a hail of arrows, spears and boulders from the high ground of the fortress above, and a flooding of the plain below by Incan leader Manco Inca, saw the Spaniards off.
The ruins are also made all the more impressive by the knowledge of how the temple is aligned with the hillside across the valley (which in itself has features such as rock formations resembling human faces) where the granary is, so that, on the solstice, the sun that shines through one of the ‘faces’ in the hillside then pierces the ‘eye of the llama’ (the alleged shape of the fort, with the ‘eye’ being where the Temple of the Sun is). Whether you’re an astrologist or not, there’s no doubt that it is an impressive achievement; and, indeed, the Sacred Valley is an impressive place as a whole.