The Sexy Woman of Cusco

Saksaywaman, pronounced “sexy woman”, is a site of some impressive ancient ruins just on the outskirts of Cusco town. It is about a 2K hike up and out of town and well worth a visit.  If you are heading to the Inca trail, it is a nice short hike that will help you acclimatize to the altitude.  In preparation for the upcoming Inca Trail hike, we decided to walk to the ruins which took about 40 minutes (we were meandering).  Once we got there, we hired a local guide because we wanted some historical information. You certainly don’t need a guide to see the ruins but if you want to learn a bit more history and ask questions, it is worth it.

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The ruins include a temple, ceremonial table and play field, an amphitheater which was the location of animal combat, a quarry, and some dramatic views of Cusco town.

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And after the warm hike, there is nothing like a cold Cusquena!

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The Llama Bums of Cusco

Cusco is a lovable tourist town.  By far, it is the most “touristy” spot we have visited in the last six months as we are usually not attracted to locations that are overwhelmed by tourists.

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There are people from everywhere here  – including quite a number of Peruvian visitors. Most are stopping by before or after their visit to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, others are visiting from the countryside to spend time in the big city, and, during our visit, many were visiting the cathedrals and churches during the big Catholic holy week. And there is not an insignificant number of young and old backpackers, gypsies, and perhaps “dharma bums” wandering the world and stopping by Cusco and Machu Piccu to be energized by the alleged mystical powers of the sacred rocks and and ruins.

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Reading the newspaper

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Considering a tattoo perhaps?
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The llama ladies park their llamas outside their favorite watering hole during lunch.

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I don’t need a backpack.

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Selling spuds is hard work.

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Yet, despite all the visitors, the relentless street vendors, and shop after shop of Peruvian kitsch, it drew us in. Maybe it was because Cusco was our first stop in Peru and we had our first opportunity to try a number of Peruvian dishes including lomo saltado (stir fried beef with vegetables sometimes served over quinoa), tacu tacu (peruvian refried beans and rice), alpaca ,  cuy (guinea pig), chicha morada (purple corn juice), coca tea, and so many more lomo  and vegetable dishes.

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Fry-o-lator, Guinea pig love

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Here are a few of our favorite Cusco restaurants that are somewhat off the radar.

  1. Morena – local Peruvian dishes at reasonable prices and the ladies here are super friendly.
  2. Mr. Soup – at altitude, sometimes you lose your appetite. This soup spot is just what the doctor ordered.
  3. Nuna Raymi – another good Peruvian spot that is relatively quick.
  4. Green Point – Veggies from the Sacred Valley.
  5. Carp Diem – run by Italians with great pizza, pasta….and limoncello!
  6. There are many more upscale restaurants where you can get some fine Peruvian dining. You can find these on Trip Advisor or other spots pretty easily. But the above spots are less known and were good to us.

 Susan and I were both reading books about the history prior to and during our stay which may have made the visit more compelling as well. (Check out our reviews). Or maybe it was the opportunity to mingle with so many like-minded travelers that we found compelling. Or maybe it is the gorgeous architecture and fascinating history that the former capital of the Incas holds. Certainly both the Spanish and Inca ruins integrated into the very heart of the streets and buildings of the city and its dramatic setting at 11k ft surrounded by stunning green mountains had something to do with its appeal.

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The cobblestone streets and countless squares very much have a colonial Spanish feel but the roaming llamas and alpacas remind you that you are in South America. The Inca ruins are also indication that you are not in Europe.  Amazing, Inca foundations have outlasted earthquakes and thousands of years – their engineering was so good that the Spaniards used most of the original foundations when rebuilding the city and building new cathedrals (this, of course, was after they demolished and burned all the existing structures as they raped and pillaged the entire civilization).

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It is quite a festive and lively city. During our short visit, we experienced Sunday and Saturday food markets,  elaborate street celebrations for the Easter week, fireworks, crowd-control, and visiting  government officials. Traffic and pedestrians were re-routed constantly.

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The line for the ATM needs its own crowd control.

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Gambling is popular and small stakes games are a big part of every festival.
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Street foosball

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Plaza de Armas, the main square with its cathedral, La Catedral del Cuzco, is a must see.  A short trek up to Saqsaywaman (pronounced “sexy woman”) should also be on the list.  And the San Pedro Market is a great place to sample the local food (walk to the back of the building to check out how the locals eat when in Cusco).

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We really enjoyed Cusco and due to an incident that shut the airport down for 24 hours, we ended up spending two more days during their largest festivals of the year.  If you are heading to the Inca Trail or Machu Piccu, make sure to spend some time here and don’t just pass through.  Check out the Sacsayhuaman ruins, take a day trip to the Sacred Valley, check out the ruins within the city, or just simply check out the squares and local cuisine. Check out more of Peru travels and thoughts here.

 

 

 

Exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas

If you are heading to Cusco or Machu Picchu, be sure to carve out a day to head out to the Sacred Valley. It is the agricultural bread basket for Cusco and filled with Inca ruins. We took a day trip from Cusco and made three stops in the valley.

Chinchero , known locally as the birthplace of the rainbow, seemed like a good first stop. We checked out some ruins and a local farm where we learned about the local customs  (a bit touristy, but it was quick). At the farm, the local women showed us how llama wool is made into yarn, how it is dyed using local plants as well as the beautiful textiles that these women make.  Chinchero also has a gorgeous Spanish church that dates back hundreds of years. Roughly 75-80% of Peruvians practice the Catholic religion now, and it only took about a hundred years of torture, massacres and other persuasive techniques by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries to make everyone see “the light”.

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Natural dyes for llama wool

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El Dinner! Cuy (guinea pig) is a local dish for special occasions
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Good luck charms found on most homes to ward away the earthquake spirits.

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High above the Urubamba River

Next stop was the town of Ollanaytambo .  This is the gateway town for those taking the train to and from Machu Picchu, but it also has an impressive set of ruins.  It is definitely worth a few hours to explore the town and ruins.  Ollanaytambo has storage houses built by the Incas for the produce from the Sacred Valley strategically located where the temperatures are lower.  The Incas also built an irrigation system that is still used today by the town of Ollanaytambo and folks that live in the town do not pay for water to the local government thanks to the Incas’ amazing engineering.  Manco Inca, the  emperor that fought the Spanish conquistadors in the 1530’s ,also stayed here for a period of time after fleeing Cusco when the Incas lost hold of Cusco to the Spanish.

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Inca expansion joint

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Quinoa still being grown among the ruins

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The three steps (Inca cross or Chakana) are everywhere in “Incaville” and represent the three locations of life- upper world, middle world, and lower world.

Pisac was our final stop. It is another small market town with some ruins. The views from above were quite dramatic.  The ruins include the largest known Inca cemetery, a residential settlement and ceremonial baths. The ruins are surrounded by agricultural terraces which were actually used by the local farmers until about the 1980’s.  Most of the porters working on the Inca Trail also live in a small village near Pisac.

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Look closely, you will see holes where grave robbers and pillaged ancient Inca burial sites on near vertical mountain walls.