We arrived in Cusco by plane with our Dutch friends and the five of us shared a taxi to the ‘Oki Doki’ hostel, one that Jacqueline had found. We had no reservation, but luckily they had a nice double room for us with a balcony. The hostel was pretty basic and we had a shared bathroom, but the showers were excellent and there were plenty of them. Once we’d all freshened up we went out to find some food. We’d been recommended a vegan restaurant called Green Point. It was a bit of a trek to the other side of the town but we found the place and were shown to a table outside. It was a little cold and the outdoor heater was not working even after the staff fiddled with it for a while and sent out for a new gas canister for us! Eventually our starters arrived and we knew immediately that we’d made the right choice. The starters were an interesting twist on Indian (Samosas), Japanese (sushi) and Italian (bruschetta), all done in a way that wasn’t merely a poor interpretation of the originals. I had a vegan version of Lomo Saltado, a famous Peruvian beef stew, that contained Seitan instead of beef. I have no doubt that it wouldn’t match up to the original, but it was delicious and the only way I’d ever be experiencing this dish. Anyway if you are a long time reader of this blog you’ll probably be aware that I can go on about food somewhat sooo…. moving on.
With the combination of the altitude and the bellies full of food we were a little tired (to be fair Esmee and Katinka were also a little jetlagged still) so we staggered back to our hostel. We realised that night that the one drawback of having a lovely balcony onto the street was that we could hear whatever was going on outside, especially once people started moving at around 5:30am. We were also pretty cold and although I thought I was coping pretty well with the altitude I woke up at 2:30am feeling like I was suffocating. It took 30 minutes of making myself breath gently before I was able to get back to sleep.
Thanks to the cold, the street noise and the nocturnal suffocation we woke up the next morning feeling awake and refreshed, well okay maybe not but we wanted to get up and explore the city so after a basic breakfast at the hotel we headed out. Alex and I had previously been to Cusco on our honeymoon, so we were pretty relaxed about what we did since we’d seen and done most of it before. At this point you may be wondering why we came back to Cusco, however when planning our trip we’d agreed that the one bit of Peru that we’d happily repeat was our time here as it’s a beautiful city with great food and a wealth of history. Anyway Cusco was brand new for the Dutch girls so we gave them some advice and pretty much let them chose the itinerary. We decided on the first day to take a walk around the city seeing some of the interesting sites including the market, cathedral, lots of Inca walls (which personally I can never get bored of) and plenty of other things. The girls were so excited by the views (taking many photos, buying many handicrafts) that our tour of the city went pretty slowly, but we made the market in time for some lunch and eventually saw most of what we had intended to. The girls were planning to do a trek so we went to a tour office with them. They also decided the next day to take a tour of the Sacred Valley, which we were more than happy to join as we’d loved the Inca ruins there, especially at Ollantaytambo. Since the girls were also booking a trek we managed to get a nice discount on the tour.
That evening Katinka and Esmee were feeling pretty tired so we decided to find a restaurant near the hostal. The problem with this however was that our hostal was located in an area with very few restaurants. We walked down the road and after discarding a place that looked like I wouldn’t have a hope of anything vegetarian, we walked past a pizzeria. This wasn’t your usual kind of pizzeria as it was tiny, looked like it had last been decorated by the Incas (by this I mean a long time ago, not with beautiful stonework) and in the intervening millennia the pizza oven at the back had totally blackened the upper parts of the walls and ceiling. The one good bit of news was the wood fired pizza oven which, although smoking everywhere, looked serviceable. The whole place seemed to be solely staffed by one old man. We sat down and got some menus. The choice was limited but cheap so we ordered a few big pizzas to split. When the pizzas arrived we were pleasantly surprised by the crisp bases, simple but tasty toppings and cheese that tasted like mozzarella. After this success we headed back to the hostel for an early night.
We woke up early the next morning as we were due to be collected for our Sacred Valley tour at 08:30am, unfortunately there had been a miscommunication somewhere and a guy actually turned up to collect us at 08:15. He looked rather annoyed when the girls weren’t ready but luckily Alex and I were ready and we explained that we had been told the wrong time. For 15 minutes he waited, looking anxious while receiving a constant stream of phone calls on his two mobile phones. At exactly 08:30 the girls were ready and we headed off. We were walked to a nearby Plaza where buses were waiting and tourists, who were mostly Peruvian, milled around waiting to be told where to go. A few minutes later we were herded onto a bus and off we went. Our itinerary for the day was to start at Pisac town followed by the Inca ruins there, then lunch on the way to Ollantaytambo, and finally stopping at Chinchero on the way back to Cusco. For lunch we were taken to a buffet restaurant. I wasn’t expecting much from this since our ticket for the full day tour was only £10 and included all the transport and guide as well as lunch, however we were amazed to find a huge buffet with nearly unlimited choice and tons of excellent food, much of which was vegetarian. Spying the price on the way out we realised that lunch alone should have been half of the total cost of our tour.
After lunch it was a drive though the town of Ollantaytambo followed by a climb up to the top of the ruins. I’d remembered this as one of my favourite bits of the Sacred Valley and, as we climbed up the stairs, looked back down to the town and across to the ruined granary on the other side of the valley, I remembered why. We got to explore a few areas of these impressive ruins that we had missed the time before as well.
A lot of the other tourists got off the bus at Ollantaytambo to either stay there or to get a train back to Cusco, so for our final stop at Chinchero the bus was half empty. We saw how the local women hand weave lots of interesting textiles with some fascinating natural dyes but we didn’t buy any, as we already have an amazing wall hanging at home that we bought last time (and haven’t seen anything as good since). After a quick stop at the Chinchero ruins we headed back to town. Thanks to our huge lunch nobody was especially hungry so we stopped in at a supermarket where the girls bought stuff for sandwiches and Alex and I bought pasta, olive oil, onions, garlic and fresh parmesan. Back at the hostal I slowly cooked the onion and garlic with plenty of oil and combined it with the pasta. Thanks to the lack of a grater I had to use a vegetable peeler on the parmesan but I’m pretty sure you pay more for flaked parmesan at home, and it turned out pretty well. It was the first time I’ve cooked anything in three months and although the outcome was simple but delicious, I think I actually enjoyed the cooking more than the eating.
This was a special evening for the Dutch girls being the night of Sinterklaas back home however Katinka had suddenly started to feel unwell so we decided to save the celebrations until we next met up with them. The girls were due to start their jungle tour the next day so we were all quite worried that Katinka would be able to go and start the trek. Sinterklaas is an interesting one for me as although it’s not what we celebrate in the UK I have memories from my childhood of celebrating it at the Iona school. At the time I was so young that I didn’t really understand these strange German/Dutch festivals, and in the intervening years have forgotten all about them but as the Dutch girls described them it all came back and I finally understand some of it.
The next morning the girls were due to leave early on their trek and although we said goodbye to them then, we actually ended up waking up early the next morning and saying goodbye again over breakfast. Although Katinka still wasn’t feeling great she was well enough to go. We took the opportunity to hand over some Sinterklaas presents we’d managed to sneakily buy as a surprise at the markets the day before. Since neither Alex or I has been sleeping particularly well we went back to bed for our first proper lie in (where neither of us were ill) for a while. We emerged just before lunch and ate at Green Point 2, the sister venue of where we ate dinner the first night. They had a deal on where we got soup, salad, juice, a main course and a small dessert for just £2.40 each! After our lunch we walked into the centre of town, found a taxi and asked him to take us up to Tambomachay, the furthest away of the Inca ruins located close to Cusco. Our plan for the afternoon was to see Tambomachay then walk back to town via Pukapukara, Q’enqo and finally Sacsayhuaman. We visited the first two then cut across country to find the last two. About halfway to Q’enqo we saw another Inca ruin in the valley beneath us. It had no road leading to it and no tourists, but the high quality stonework on the walls around it had me pretty convinced that this would have been something of some importance. I later Googled this and found that we had wandered across and Inca ruin known as Zone X, originally believed to be a quarry but now suspected to be something more important due to the same high quality stonework that we’d spotted. I won’t be at all surprised if in 10 years once it is well known it gets added to the tourist trail.
We didn’t have a lot of time before it got a dark so we pressed on to our last two sites finishing at Sacsayhuaman just before sunset. We walked back into town and to our hostel. It had been weeks since our last curry and, having been to Cusco before, we knew of an Indian called Korma Sutra famed for it’s British style curries as much as its Alapaca curry (which Alex tried last time) and guinea pig starter. The food was just as good as we remembered and we went home happy and full having had our curry fix.
The next day we’d booked into a half day tour of Moray and the Maras salt mine. These were two destinations that were included on our tourist ticket but never part of the standard Sacred Valley tour. We’d seen Moray on a documentary back in the UK so we were really keen to visit. We’d been told to meet at the tour office and arrived on time only to find the office closed. About 5 minutes after we were due to leave we decided to call the phone number on the receipt. The tour office lady answered and told us everything was fine and to wait. Sure enough 5 minutes later a lady came past leading a group of tourists and shouted Moray at us. We crossed the road and joined the throng of tourists behind her. We were led to a large bus and climbed aboard. As the bus made its way out of town our guide Roberto introduced himself. His English was excellent and immediately came over a little eccentric! We arrived at Moray and Roberto put on an odd felt hat, picked up an Andean version of a recorder and led us down to the ruins playing the instrument after shouting “follow the music”. It was an interesting technique and made a nice change from follow the flag!
Moray is a series of circular terraces descending into a natural dip into the ground. By varying the height and depth of the terraces the Incas could effectively use it as an agricultural lab for adapting and acclimatising plants to the altiplano. Besides the fascinating history of the Incas here, the sight of these perfect concentric circles descending into the ground is beautiful. After a good walk around we returned to the bus to visit Maras.
Maras is an open salt mine where they direct salty water that emerges from the ground into open beds where it dries leaving salt behind. It was created by the Incas and has been continuously expanded since. The view is a valley filled with lots of rectangular salt filled beds at different heights. The sheer scale of it makes the effect quite beautiful. After a careful walk in between the beds to get some photos we walked back up the valley to where the bus was waiting to take us back to Cusco.
For our final night in Cusco we went to Papacho’s on the Plaza de Armas which served burgers and had Gaston Arcurio’s name on the front door. For the first time ever I actually had a choice of four different veggie burgers, and Alex had about 20 to choose from. The portions were huge and once again we waddled back to our hostel.
The next morning we had to leave early to catch a train to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca but that is the subject of the next post!