Skipping along from Arequipa, I arrived in Cusco. I had a few days to acclimatise before embarking on the Inca Trail, so I spent some time exploring the city and the surrounding area. Cusco, or Qosqo, at 3,400m above sea level, was the navel of the Incan empire, its capital for 300 years. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For my first experience of important Inca ruins, I took a local bus out to the town of Pisaq. Getting off the bus, I had to cross the river on a rickety old bridge on which I actually felt seasick, after which I was immediately met with the usual “Taxi? Taxi!” I decided to walk. The second major attraction of Pisaq is the artisan market, with a big one on Sundays and smaller ones on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I was there on a Thursday and it was pretty overwhelming despite allegedly being small! I wove my way systematically through the stalls but came away with just two items: an alpaca hat to wear on the cold nights on the upcoming trek, and a smaller hat for my nephew.
Next, to the ruins. Confusingly, I had heard “Ruinas! Un sol!” back at the bridge, but here I was confronted with a complicated spiel of different options going to the top or the bottom of the ruins, with pick-up or no pick-up. I opted for the taxi ride to the top and then to walk through the archaeological site and back down by myself. I was told the site would take two hours to explore, and then I’d need another hour to walk down to the town. I did the whole thing in 1.5 hours. Oops. I was worried about the sun setting while I was alone up on the hillside and I have to admit that I was filled with thoughts of possible violent attacks along the way, which spurred me on through the deserted ruins. Perhaps I should have paid the extra money for a guide. On the way down, I met an English girl who was bravely going the other way. We took photos of each other against the fabulous views over the valley (not being able to take photos of yourself is one of the difficulties of travelling alone and why I end up with so many photos of churches and landscapes!). We agreed to meet up for dinner, which included a huge chocolate cupcake and a glass of red wine on her last night in Cusco, so that was a fortuitous meeting.
The second set of ruins that I visited was Saqsaywaman, believed to mean ‘speckled falcon’ but easier for us infidels to remember as ‘Sexy Woman’. The site lies a 30-minute walk up a very steep slope, at 3,700m above sea level – good practice for the Inca Trail! (I did this walk alone, despite Lonely Planet of 2010 warning against it… I felt a bit nervous again on the deserted trail, but everyone said it was safe, and I soon met up with the other tourists once I reached the site.) With Cusco designed in the shape of a puma, Saqsaywaman is its head. Originally thought to have been a fortress (it served as such in the battle of 1536 between Manco Inca and Pizarro, ending in a huge number of native deaths, the condors circling above the dead bodies forever commemorated in Cusco’s coat of arms), it is now believed to have had a more sacred purpose. Again it would have been helpful to have had a guide, but I enjoyed exploring the site on my own. The highlight was the view over Cusco from the hill with a wooden cross (in commemoration of Pope John Paul II who gave mass there in 1985) that lights up at night. Adjacent to the Inca site of Saqsaywaman stands a statue of Christ on top of another hill. Donated by Palestinian refugees following the Second World War, it doesn’t quite rival its cousin in Rio, but again the views over the city were well worth the climb.
In Cusco itself, the Qurikancha (from Quechua quri – gold – and kancha – enclosure) was a temple dedicated to Inti, the sun god, once covered in gold. As with other locations of Inca temples, the Spanish demolished the temple and used the foundations as a base for a Catholic church, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo.
There are many other ruins around the area – Qenqo, Puca Pucara, Tambomachay – but I was happy with my three visits before the Inca Trail, while anything after Machu Picchu was bound to be a disappointment! On my final evening before heading out, I got my briefing from the guide and packed my bag, ready to follow in the footsteps of thousands before me – from the Inca people of yesteryear through to the sweaty tourists of today.
The practical bit:
-Local buses to Pisaq leave from Calle Puputi and cost 3.50 soles
-The taxi ride up to the top of the Pisaq ruins cost 25 soles, a ride to the bottom 20 soles. Then you can either walk back down or have the taxi wait for you (but it really isn’t that far).
-You can pay an individual entry ticket to each of these sites for 70 soles, but in practice if you visit more than one it’s worth getting the boleto turistico for 130 soles, which gets you into a list of 16 museums and ruins in and around Cusco.