Pisac, Cusco Region, Peru
So at the beginning of June, my husband and I set off on a very long journey to the Southern Highlands of Peru; specifically the city of Cusco, with plans to visit Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu from there. I’ve wanted to visit Peru for as long as I can remember so this was a huge deal for me! This will be a very photo-heavy post but I’ll talk about what we did in between shots.
First off, how we got there (bear with me here!). After dropping our guinea pig off at my mum’s on the Saturday, we got a train from Stockport to London Euston (2 hours), walked to St Pancras station then got another train to Gatwick airport (about an hour with walking in between). After staying in the Premier Inn there overnight, we flew from Gatwick to Lima, Peru on the Sunday morning (a 12.5 hour flight). After landing in Lima around 7pm Sunday, we stayed in the Holiday Inn close to the airport overnight, then took a flight to Cusco on the Monday (just over an hour), landing there around 1pm. Overall and including overnight stops, we were travelling for around two days, which was exhausting but probably the easiest way to do it!
Cusco, capital of the Inca Empire
We spent the majority of our time in Peru in Cusco, staying here for nine nights overall as it’s probably the most accessible base to see a lot of the south of Peru and most of the tourist attractions. I say accessible – in fact, you’re 11,152 feet above sea level, surrounded by the Andes mountain range which you have to completely skirt around if you’re driving to Cusco from Lima, as it’s the safest route. Cusco does, however, have a little airport, and a flight from Peru takes just over an hour. We stayed in San Blas which is up the hill slightly from the centre of the city – it’s definitely worth the walk up the hill (which feels much steeper than it is because of the alittude) as it’s a bit quieter plus it’s quite a safe tourist area. Cusco is a city full of history, and was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th century up until the Spanish invaded in the 16th century. It’s history means that the majority of its sights are almost a mash-up of traditional Incan temples and Spanish Catholic buildings. We actually visited a Convent which was built on the site of an Incan sun temple.
There are quite a few sights to see in and around the Plaza del Armas, including more Cathedrals and churches. However, the plaza is full of locals who will run after you when they see you’re a tourist – I had to turn down multiple copies of the exact same painting of Machu Picchu whilst walking through the square.
One popular tourist activity is to take a photo with one of the many llamas and alpacas that locals will walk down the streets with. It’s common to do this and do make sure you pay for the photo too – it’s expected to pay a couple of Soles!
Pisac, Sacred Valley
Partway through our stay in Cusco, we had a day tour of Sacred Valley booked before heading to Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu and the best place to access it from) that evening. Our first stop was Pisac, and it was probably my favourite!
Not only does Pisac have ruins atop a hill that are great to explore, it has some breathtaking views and agricultural terraces framing the ruins from the bottom. Unfortunately I was feeling a bit faint by the time we got up to the ruins so I didn’t take much of the tour in, but it was an amazing place to explore. The site was once on a main Incan road through the Sacred Valley to the Peruvian jungle and is said by some to rival Machu Picchu – definitely a reason to visit, in my opinion!
Maras Salt Mines // Moray Ruins
Our next stops were the instagram-famous Maras salt mines and the ruins of Moray. Maras is home to a vast span of salt evaporation pools which have been used since Inca times, connected from an underground stream. What I found really interesting about Maras is that the individual salt pools are owned by members of the community and passed down through families. Others wishing to take over an unused pool can do so by learning how to maintain it within the communal system. We actually saw people harvesting salt from their pools whilst we were there, and I just loved the community attitude towards maintaining this Incan site rather than fully selling it to tourist companies. Finally, a traditional site that isn’t being exploited!
Moray is an archeological site, featuring circular agricultural terraces. Although the reasoning behind how these terraces were built is still unknown, Moray is still obviously a remarkable site, with each level of terrace having it’s own micro climate. Because of this, the Incans were able to grow different types of crops depending on each terraces temperature – including many different types of potato.
Ollantaytambo Ruins, Urubamba
Our final stop in Sacred Valley was Ollantaytambo. By this point I have to say I was getting quite anxious as I knew our train to Aguas Calientes wasn’t far off – I also started feeling really ill climbing up the ruins so didn’t get to the top and didn’t end up taking many photos. Ollantaytambo was once the royal estate of Incan Emperor Pachacuti (who it is believed Machu Picchu was built for). Nowadays, it’s commonly used as the starting point of the Inca trail.
So, that’s the end of my summary of our main activities in Peru! I will be doing a separate post on our trip to Machu Picchu as I couldn’t bear to leave any of my photos out of it, but didn’t want this post to be longer than it needed to be.
I just want to finish off with a few tips for if you’re planning on visiting Peru. Firstly, definitely prepare for the altitude – I didn’t get hit by it too badly but Jordan did, and we actually had to cancel our trip to Rainbow Mountain as we were worried about going higher up. Altitude sickness can be mild (as Jordan had it) but can grow serious very quickly and be fatal. Where possible, you should go higher up as slow as possible – one reason why it’s actually better to take a coach from Lima to Cusco, as the slow ascent means you become used to the altitude as you approach Cusco. Another thing I didn’t realise until I was in Peru is that altitude can actually affect mental health. After a few days of having moments of feeling incredibly down, I started to think the altitude might be affecting me. Although these are just studies, there are definite links between high altitude and an increase in depression, mostly to do with the height impairing serotonin production. Anyway, all I wanted to say is, please be aware of this if you’re travelling to Peru (or any high altitude location) and stay safe!
Second, I would definitely recommend knowing at least basic Spanish. A lot of Peruvians do know some English, but you shouldn’t rely on this. I almost burst into tears at the airport because of the language barriers between myself and the girl working at McDonalds. If I had such trouble ordering some chicken nuggets, I can’t imagine how much worse it could’ve been if I’d had a genuine emergency and was dealing with a language barrier like that.
Finally, Cusco is cold! you’re way over 3000 metres above sea level, and it’s not gonna be warm at that height, especially at night. I didn’t pack appropriately enough for the temperatures and almost lived in the poncho I bought whilst there.
Those are my main three practical tips – I hope you enjoyed this post and stay tuned for my Machu Picchu post!
Have any of you been to Peru – or plan to go?
lots of love,