The first thing we noticed arriving in Cusco was the thin air. Breathing was a chore, walking was more like stairmaster from hell . The local word for altitude sickness is ‘soroche’. The local remedy is to chew on coca leaves, yes the same leaves used for making cocaine. We highly recommend it!
Altitude aside, Cusco is a charming and easy place to visit. The areas surrounding the Plaza de Armas are covered by cobble stone streets with many buildings and churches built on original Incan stone foundations.
When we were not exploring ancient sites around Sacred Valley, we kept ourselves visually entertained by exploring the old parts of downtown Cusco. Walking among the narrow alleys lined with hand carved stones was a Cusco highlight. We recommend visiting the Qorikancha, temple of the sun, containing the smooth Incan stonework reserved for holy places.
The Mercado Central, sells everything from coca leaves to cow’s heads. This is a great place for a delicious fresh fruit smoothie, a savory bowl of chicken soup, or a rice plate with eggs, avocados and fried plantain.
A sure fix to altitude sickness was to descend into the Sacred Valley, the breadbasket for the Incas. Our first stop was Pisac an enormous and beautiful agricultural complex. The town of Pisac contains a colorful market offering authentic, hand-made local products from that region. We soon learned the differences between baby Alpaca wool (first cut), adult Alpaca, and the varieties of synthetic wool (maybe alpaca) offered for sale.
The next destination is Ollantaytambo, the last Incan stronghold to fall to the Spaniards. This is where most people will catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the base of Machu Picchu.
Our favorite site was Moray, an agricultural experiment station for the Incas, located high above the Sacred Valley. Driving up a steep dirt switchback offered us several breath-taking vistas. We stopped to marvel at Urubamba River bending its way through the valley floor and acres of quinoa fields. Moray itself is indescribable; the beauty, technology and pure size of it left us speechless.
We were losing light so we decided to bypass an area known for its salt production and headed for Chinchero. Arriving famished, we had chicken anticuchos (meat on a stick) and choclo (corn on the cob). The church here is built on an Incan temple a theme we repeatedly became accustomed to. The lighting was very tranquil. We seemed to be the only visitors there. The vendors and children were hitting us hard to buy souvenirs as we were their last customers for the day.
The following day we took the city tour around Cusco that included Saqsaywaman, Q’enqo, Tambomachay, and Pukapukara. Saqsaywaman (pronounced ‘sexy woman’) was the first stop and was our favorite. The site itself is in the shape of a puma’s head (the puma being one of the three sacred animals). The cheaper option is to hike to sexy woman from Cusco. We were impressed by each of these sites. At this point, our bodies had adjusted to the altitude and we were anxious to begin the Inca Trail the next morning.