Peru '22: Charming Cusco & The Splendid Sacred Valley

Suzanna Pinder on 11 August 2022
Once the ‘navel of the world’ for the Incas and capital of their Empire, Cusco is a beautiful city situated high in the Peruvian Andes, brimming with fascinating history, beautiful avenues and squares, magnificent Incan and Spanish architecture and a fabulous mountain feel.

Arriving late afternoon, we were immediately taken on a wonderful orientation tour with our guide, Ale, learning about the fascinating Incan history and Spanish conquest in the mid 1500’s. As darkness fell our tour arrived to the beautiful Plaza de Armas (main square), flanked by many wonderful buildings and lively with both locals and tourists. Standing proud over the square is the city’s impressive cathedral, constructed by the Spanish on the grounds of an Incan temple using stones from their original construction. Whilst some Peruvians still have animosity towards the Spanish for their disregard of the Incans all those years ago, the cathedral is magnificent and famed for its unique depiction of The Last Supper, with Jesus and his disciples being treated to a fine feast of guinea pig, a nod to the traditional Peruvian dish.

Cusco is very much a touristic city, gateway to the Sacred Valley and legendary Machu Picchu. Full of shops and local markets, it is an ideal place to stock up on souvenirs from alpaca hats to guinea pig jumpers and knitted bags to woven cushion covers. With sustainability the theme of our trip, we were taken to a small market that encourages local producers of handmade souvenirs and had a thoroughly enjoyable morning browsing the stalls, chatting to the locals and attempting to haggle over items in our broken Spanish/Quechuan – I am now the proud owner of some marvellous woven cushion covers!

There are many wonderful restaurants in Cusco to suit all tastes and budgets and with sustainability again in mind, we ate in a lovely restaurant supplied by local farmers and another, my favourite, ‘Mama Seledonias’. Meeting Mama Seledonia, we learnt about her struggle to find work with a young family and who subsequently set up this wonderful restaurant, not only to provide delicious traditional Peruvian food (I highly recommend the alpaca steak!) but to encourage young mothers to develop their culinary talents and support their families. With children sat quietly drawing in the corner whilst their parents worked the evening shift, there was a lovely family feel and wonderful to see these young girls keen to enhance their lives and interact with visitors from all over the world. We even were even honoured to have a very detailed picture of our table drawn by Mama Seledonia’s son!

Overlooking Cusco is Sacsayhuamán (or Sexy Woman as some locals apparently refer to it – yes, really!), a citadel built by the Incans to represent a lions head keeping watch over the city and to provide places for worship, ceremonies and storage for arms, food and valuables. Whilst the Spanish unfortunately used Sacsayhuamán as a source of stone to build their own Cusco and so it is no longer the towering construction is once was, there are still adequate remains to appreciate given the weight of some of the stones (up to 200 tonnes), the location high above the city, the period of build (15th century) and the perfect dry stone build technique (where it is said not even a pin could fit between the joints) it is mind-blowing to see! The site also provides stunning views across Cusco, nestled in the valley below.

Leaving Cusco behind, we next headed into the dramatic Sacred Valley, with the beautiful snaking Urubamba River and flanked by the soaring peaks of the Andes. This rich and fertile valley has long been home to traditional Andean communities and is fast becoming a mecca for adrenaline junkies, from whitewater rafting to rock climbing and ziplining to mountain biking… anybody fancy climbing a ‘via ferrata’ to sleep in a transparent capsule bolted to the side of a mountain 400 meters above the ground, then zip wiring down in the morning?! Fortunately our exploration did not involve having to leave the ground, visiting the remote community of Amaru, tucked away high in the mountains. Arriving to a shower of petals and gifts of flower necklaces, the community ladies made us feel very welcome and we had a wonderful few hours practicing our Quechuan, learning about life in the mountains and enjoying demonstrations of ancient textile dying and weaving techniques, producing beautiful scarfs, hats, purses and bags. We were even given the opportunity to be dressed by the community in their local attire and try the national Peruvian dish, guinea pig!

Bidding farewell to our new friends of Amaru, we continued on to Ollantaytambo, a charming mountain town with narrow cobbled streets and pretty stone buildings, centred around a small yet lively square and overlooked by some of the best Incan terraced slopes and ruins in Peru. For many, including us, Ollantayambo is embarkation point for the train to Machu Picchu, but first we had an evening to explore this delightful town and relax over a couple of Pisco Sours in a very friendly local bar.

A question often asked when planning a trip to Peru is about the altitude. Although I have been at altitude skiing and on summer hiking holidays in the Alps, I will admit that I was still a little nervous, knowing we would be travelling to nearly 4,000m at times. However, I need not have worried! Ale (our super guide extraordinaire!) originated from Cusco and having guided in the mountains all her life, was very much aware about the effects of altitude. Prior to our flight to Cusco, Ale noted our heart rates, oxygen levels and general health and throughout our stay at altitude, she monitored us twice daily and assessed everyone’s needs individually. She encouraged us to keep well hydrated (in fact throughout our whole trip there were always large boxes of drinking water travelling around with us to refill our bottles whenever required) and whether it helped or not, I had taken some electrolyte tablets to pop in my water. The pace was definitely slowed a little whilst at altitude (no charging about the streets or running up the stairs!) and fortunately aside from a few minor symptoms (slight headaches and a little difficulty sleeping), we all seemed to fair well, but it was comforting to know should the altitude have got to us, we were in safe hands.