Cusco Sans Machu Picchu

We didn’t go to Machu Picchu.

That could be the end of our Cusco post since that seems to be the main reason people come here, and we started to get tired of explaining why we weren’t going. In reality, lots of travelers are struggling with whether or not to visit Machu Picchu since so many of the tours are insanely expensive, especially if you are hiking the Inca Trail. It turns out you can visit Machu Picchu on your own by taking local buses to Aguas Calientes and that’s a much more reasonable proposition. However, since Jess has already been to Machu Picchu and there are so many things in the world to see, we decided to spend our time seeing new things together.

We were in Cusco for two full days having arrived from Puno on a night bus with Turismo Mer. This was one of the most comfortable night buses we’ve been on except for our luxurious cama (full bed) bus to La Paz, and we had somehow gotten a discount off the normal price, so our tickets only cost 40 soles ($12.09) each (perks of booking last minute?). As usual with our night bus schedule we found ourselves in a very quiet Plaza de Armas with all our stuff at 6am waiting for a coffee shop to open. People kept coming up to us with flyers for hostels and tours – we suppose we must have looked a bit lost sitting there with sleep in our eyes, and if we had a hostel booked, surely we would have gone straight there – but we politely turned them away over and over again. Jack’s Cafe finally opened at 7:30am, so we went there for a delicious breakfast and cappuccino. We are definitely learning to appreciate good coffee given the ubiquity of Nescafe in South America. After breakfast, we walked to our hostel, which was a few blocks outside of the old town and plotted how we were going to spend the next few hours.

This is what good coffee looks like!

There are lots of interesting museums and archaeological sites to visit in and around Cusco. Unfortunately, Peru’s Ministry of Culture has implemented a tourist ticket system for visiting the main attractions and you can’t visit them without buying the tourist ticket that includes them. The full tourist ticket is valid for 10 days, costs 130 soles ($39) and includes sixteen attractions. There are two partial tourist tickets which cost 70 soles ($21) each. One is for the four archaeological sites – Sacsayhuaman, Qenko, Pucapucara, and Tambomachay and is valid for a single day. The other is for many of the museums in the city and is valid for two days. If you want to see some of the archaeological sites and some of the museums, you have to buy the full tourist ticket. Since we only had two days, we decided the cost of these tickets were prohibitive and set out to find activities not included in the tourist ticket.

On the first afternoon, we intended to hike up to Cristo Blanco which is a huge white statue of Jesus Christ on the top of a mountain overlooking Cusco. The views of the city are incredible from there although you can no longer see the puma shape the city originally had. On our way through the Plaza de Armas, we were stopped by someone with a flyer for a free walking tour. We decided that sounded like a good way to see the city, so we signed up for the next tour in English and temporarily abandoned our plan to see Cristo Blanco. The walking tour took us to a chocolate shop where we tasted some really good chocolate, wandered through the picturesque San Blas neighborhood, walked up to San Cristobal church where we got a good view of the old city, sat us in an alley where the guide played some popular songs on his pan flute, and took us to a restaurant where the guide prepared pisco sours for us. We learned about Cusco’s rainbow flag (which has seven colors and is not to be confused with the pride flag which has six), the impressive Incan stonework, and the syncretism of the locals who fuse indigenous and Catholic beliefs seamlessly.

In Cusco

After the tour our appetite for pisco sour had been whetted so we went off in search of a pisco sour with a view. We found it in a quiet restaurant with a 2×1 for 15 soles ($4.50) happy hour.

Pisco with a view (and a French flag?)

On the way to our pisco with a view, a guy thrust yet another flyer at us, this time for an evening of candlelit music in a yoga studio. We’d gotten really good at saying “no” to flyers in Cusco at this point, but for some reason we took this one, and then even decided to go, for no special reason, but our evening was free. Lucky we did! While we waiting in the lobby outside the yoga studio for the event to start, our friends, Laura and Nils, from our Uyuni tour appeared! They had just finished doing yoga in the yoga studio and were rushing off to catch a bus for La Paz. By pure coincidence, we had found ourselves in the same location at the exact same moment despite being there for different reasons. We couldn’t believe it, and we were super excited to see them again! The music ended up being a small concert by Leah Song, an American singer-songwriter who is part of a band called Rising Appalachia. She also performs solo under her own name and sings in English, Spanish, and Gaelic. It was a beautiful evening, and we wish more people would hand us flyers for things like that.

Candlelit concert by Leah Song

The next day, we set out on a mission to make it to Cristo Blanco, which we did this time without any distractions. The views from the city were as spectacular as promised.

We then made our way back down to the Museo de Arte Precolombino (Museum of Pre-Columbian art) which we had read about in another blog, and we were not disappointed. Entrance costs 20 soles ($6.02) per person. The museum has ten rooms filled with very impressive art from the various cultures that have inhabited Peru over the past 3000 years. This is some of the best preserved and most beautiful ancient pottery, metalwork and woodwork we have ever seen. It is well organized, telling the story of how disparate native cultures specialized in different artistic styles, as well as how the growth of the Incan empire contributed to the blending of the various cultures. The exhibits have descriptions in Spanish, English and French, so it’s one of the most accessible museums we’ve been to.

After the museum, we visited Koricancha, the temple of the sun, which was one of the most important temples in the Incan empire. The walls were historically covered in gold, but the gold was raided to pay the ransom of the Inca Atahualpa, so only the Incan stonework remains. We visited on our own, but it’s hard to know what you’re looking at without a guide because it just looks like stone-walled rooms, so we recommend getting a guide. When you enter Koricancha, the entrance fee of 15 soles ($4.46) per person also gives you access to the museum of the Convent of Santo Domingo and temporary exhibits displayed in the space upstairs. We saw a very interesting exhibit of photographs from the Matses culture which is an indigenous group that lives in the Amazon.  The exhibit showed them working to preserve the forest and document their culture’s knowledge of medicinal plants.

Koricancha, Convent of Santo Domingo and gardens

After Koricancha, we went to the Museo de Pisco, which is really a bar that offers pisco tastings and pisco-sour-making classes. Having made pisco sours before, we opted for the tasting. We learned a lot about pisco, the most interesting facts being that 1) it is made from grape juice (i.e. instead of making wine), not from the remnants of wine like grappa or brandy; and 2) that pisco sours are not originally from Peru but were created in San Francisco during prohibition when bourbon for bourbon sours was not available but pisco was being smuggled into San Francisco’s port. The pisco tasting was expensive: 37 soles ($11) per person for a small pour of four piscos, so we’re not sure it was really worth it, but Cusco is one of the most visited cities in South America and everything seems to be priced accordingly.

With our two days in Cusco over, we used Cusco as a launchpad for other excursions in Southern Peru, namely WWOOFing experience #2 in Abancay and our adventure to the rainforest in Salvación.

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