Like an old provincial town, Cusco’s centre is laid with cobbles streets, wooden balconies, archways, flower beds and cathedrals. But this is South America, and this is Peru. Rickety carts of watermelon and pineapple wobble by, women in bright weaves cradle baby llamas, buses screech round the tightest of corners , and school children trickle by. The city is full of tourists of course, but that makes the hawkers shout louder and the town more alive. Cusco is a place for beers in the sun, for dancing in the street and for long nights, but it’s also a place for beautiful churches, long hikes and ancient cities of the Inca empire.
From the steps of the old cathedral, see the city sprawl up the hills behind, and the main square bustle below. From here, the streets spread outwards into other squares, towards the San Pedro Market, and the La Merced convent. The square caters to every taste and budget, with macdonalds, an Irish pub, a French bistro and shumoosy cafes. In the centre you’ll also find the delicious buffet Indian at a breezy 15soles, a two course yum mountain at the market for 5soles, and a free chocolate museum. Bump up your day with a chocolate class, where you’ll learn about the beans, Mayan cocoa, Spanish cocoa, tempering, and -the good bit-, making your own chocolates.
Beyond the cobbles and plazas are the mountains and hills of the sacred valley. Here is where Cusco joins with its Qucheua past, in the form of the Inca Trail. Walk one of the four pilgrimages to the Inca city and discover the legacy of the warrior king Patchacuteh. Also in the area is the small town of ollyombo, pico, the hilltop ruins of sexywoman and the mineral rich Rainbow Mountain.
Named ‘old mountain’ and ‘ young Mountain’, Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu stand at around 2,500m high. In the direction of each point on a compass are mighty glaciers, a perfect cross, forests and lakes suffocate the rock and everywhere there are sharp mountain peaks. In the middle, wedged precariously between the two sacred Picchus, is the city of kings. Here is Machu Picchu, where the great Inca empire ruled South America. Trails go from each of the four glaciers, as ancient pilgrimages, the most famous being ‘The Inca Trail’ from ‘sacred tears’ glacier. Sweat your way up dead woman’s pass, explore the perfect ruins, see tiny hummingbirds, teeter on the edge of valleys, and see the sunrise of your dreams.
Most people do the four day, three night trek, starting at kilometre 82, and finishing in Machu Picchu. If you’re up for the challenge, there’s the eight day option from cusco. You can also upgrade your normal trek with a hike up huayna Picchu, complete with sheer monkey steps and panoramic views.
The trek is hard, but the warm tents, three course meals and endless cocoa tea make it a little more cosy. Every tour is different, but they all have something in common, a squad of porters working day & night. They sprint up the valleys with food, tents, stools, bowls, and if you’ve paid for it, your personal belongings too. Being Quechua, they’re acclimatised, and doing it everyday means they know their stuff, but that doesn’t make it easy. Give some time and appreciation to the porters, the real Inca warriors.