Cusco – the Inca Capital

The main reason for us to come to Peru was to see and experience the Inca kindgom, mainly by visiting Machu Picchu and Cusco, the kingdom’s capital city. We had heard plenty about Cusco from fellow travelers. Some of the words that were constantly repeated were – touristy, expensive, beautiful. We were ready to check it out ourselves!

Getting In

Unfortunately, Oltrusa and Civa, luxurious and affordable tourist bus companies, were booked out for the Arequipa to Cusco trip. We shopped around a bit and finally decided to book with Transzuela. Although Transzuela didn’t provide dinner, it provided some snacks, a comfortable 150 degree bed, a toilet for use and all for almost half the price, 50 soles per person, USD 15.6. That was fine with us. We had a good meal at the terminal and were ready to sleep on the bus. 7am in the morning, we reached Cusco for another amazing journey.

The taxi driver started speaking to us and when he learnt that we did not have an accommodation booked, he suggested a place for 40 Soles, USD 12.5. We decided to stay there but soon realised it was a bad decision. We planned to move to another hostel the next day. Our first half of the day was just hostel shopping and it didn’t take us long to realise that Cusco was expensive! We managed to find Bright Hostel off Calle Palacio very close to Plaza de Armas for 60 Soles, USD 18.75. The room was new and it seemed a bargain!

Cusco at First Glance

We were still in the taxi when we started seeing Inca influence all around. A monument for an Inca warrior, Tupac Yupanqui, a Golden Sun waterfall and foundations of Inca buildings were everywhere. We knew we were in for a treat.

Tupac Yupanqui, Cusco

The historic centre of Cusco is incredibly pretty and well kept. The 360 degree view from the Plaza de Armas is incredible. One of the best plazas in South America!

Plaza De Armas, Cusco

Touristiest City

As travelers, we know we contribue to country’s economy through tourism and are comfortable with it. In fact at times we do not mind going out of our way to help a local make some money. During this trip we visited plenty of touristy places like Agra and Jaipur in India, Charging Bull in New York but Cusco was another level. There were incredible amounts of tourist traps here. Native ladies would bring a fully grown llama and a baby llama for photos every morning. It was cute but tough for the llamas and llama kids who were dragged around and passed from lap to lap. We did indulge in photos once!

LLlama ladies, Cusco

In the Central Square, there are plenty of shoe shiners roaming around wanting to clean shoes for 1 Sole. But once you agree to get the shoe shined, the ‘bill’ goes up to 10 soles because they applied “colour” or special chemincal on the shoe. We fell for this one as our shoes were very dirty after Colca Canyon. It was an intense stand off at the end where I threatened to call the police and they got agitated. Eventually, we settled for 5 soles for 2 people and walked away.

There are plenty of people selling bus tours every 10 feet, touristy ayahuasca ceremonies and shops selling alpaca clothing for incredible markups. The pull of Machu Pichu (sometimes the only thing people want to visit in Peru) has really transformed the economy of Cusco.

Cusco Bus Tour

There are so many bus tours in Cusco that there is a bus tour traffic in the city every morning. We took two bus tours in Cusco, one around the city to Inca sites and another to the Sacred Valley. The first tour of Cusco was unbelievably cheap at 20 soles per person. Read about the Sacred Valley tour in the next post.

The tour started with us meeting our tour group at the Plaza de Armas. We walked with the group to the nearby Qoricancha Church, passing through an ancient Inca pathway. Here things became a bollywood comedy, it was funny and confusing but we don’t know what happened. Our guide asked if we wanted a tour in English and we replied in the affirmative. The next thing we knew, we were hanging with another group of completely different people.

Inca Path, Cusco

The guide gave us a tour of Qorikancha in English as well as in Spanish. The Incas were excellent builders as well as astronomers and this was evident in the remains of the ruins at Qorikancha. The Spanish built a church over it but the Incan building is still visible. The rocks that the Incas cut were still the most perfect cut stones we have seen. Inca stones, CuscoTo emphasize their perfection, it is important to highlight that they had no chainsaws and other modern tools yet look much better than the Spanish stones. Moreover, Incas could view stars out of a particular door and predict whether the El Niño will occur. Amazing!

Qorikancha, Inca Ruin, Cusco

Our next stop took us on a bus journey to Tembo Machay. It was the highest area above Cusco city. The ruins itself were surrounded by the water streams from the mountains. The Incas thought this was holy and many Incans were buried in the caves here.

Tembo Machay, Inca Ruin, Cusco

Our next stop was the Puca Pucara ruins. The name means the Red Fort, like the one in India. However, that may have been in the older times. The ruins were now of the usual stone color as the other Inca ruins. The ruins were quite small and we were there for only 15 minutes.

Puca Pucara, Inca ruins, Cusco

Our final stop was the mother of all ruins, Saqsayhuaman or as tourists call it ‘Sexy Woman’. As we entered the ruins, we went through a cave which was the centre for burials and rituals. We exited the cave for the ancient water storage for Cusco. It was as big as a stadium and stored water for the biggest city in the empire at the time.

Saqsayhuaman, Sexy Woman, Inca Ruin, Cusco

Our guide told us about the King Tupac Yupanqi who built the temple above the city. The stones of Saqsayhuaman were 100s of tonnes in weight. They were carried to the top without any animals and using only humans. It is a mighty structure that is clearly visible from the centre of the Cusco old city. This was definitely the highlight of the trip. A trip totally worth it for 20 Soles!

Saqsayhuaman, Sexy Woman, Inca Ruin, Cusco

Shopping

Although we thought we will not shop in Peru, it was hard to resist the shopping in Cusco. The city had Incan textiles as well as real and fake Alpaca outfits. We bought some textiles for ourselves to wear at home as well as some souvenir shopping. Due to us touristy tag, the souvenirs can be cheap in Cusco as vendors compete for sales. We grabbed a few souvenirs as we bargained the vendors down.

Shopping, Cusco

Food

Cusco being a touristy city had some amazing food. We were recommended a Korean Restaurant by an American traveler, Emma and we were not disappointed. Sa Rang Che Restaurant was a little inside a complex off the street. It had Korean speaking people, k-pop music and plastic cutlery, cups and water bottle which is very Korean. We were not disappointed in the slightest!

Sa Rang Che Restaurant, Korean Restuarant, Cusco

Likewise, The Peruvian food was great as well and we were able to get some great lunches in Cusco for usually only 20 Soles. We had one of the best kebabs of our trip in Cusco as well. We found a breakfast place name Jack’s Cafe bar. The breakfast here was a little expensive to the usual Peruvian but it was huge and extremely well cooked. It was like a cafe from Sydney (or another Western city) had moved to Cusco. We were delighted to go there.

Final Thoughts

Cusco is the main city for travelers in Peru. It was the capital of Incas and everything in the architecture and the clothing of the people says so. They may have been defeated but they are not gone. The people and the history of the Kings is still here. It is a shame about the touristiness but as with the food above there are some benefits to it. Without question, a must visit place.

Cusco

Arequipa & Hiking in Colca Canyon

I had heard about Colca Canyon and wanted to visit it. But we couldn’t get there directly from Puno so decided to stop at Arequipa, the closest big city.

Getting in to Arequipa

We boarded a bus from Puno. It costed 20 Soles each, USD 6.25, and the journey was around 4.5 hours. At first glance, Arequipa looked like a dusty old town but we were there only to get to Colca Canyon.

Finding Accommodation

Booking.com, our trusted friend, for booking accommodation stopped working presumably due to canceling too many bookings. We had no choice but to note down a hotel name and address and just turn up there. A taxi to the now forgotten hotel arrived after 10 min drive and was about 10 minutes walk away from the Plaza de Armas of Arequipa.

Unfortunately, this hotel had no double room and especially not for the price we wanted. Thankfully, there were 2 other hostels close by and we got a decent room in one of them for 40 Soles, USD 12.50.

Resting for a few days

Shruti wasn’t feeling the best when we arrived in Arequipa. Moreover, we hadn’t done our laundry since La Paz and this was the perfect place before we went to Colca Canyon. So we decided to rest a bit and recharge before heading to the hiking destination.

Central City

Arequipa’s central city was quite small. The Plaza De Armas and 2 blocks in each direction was the centre. The good thing was that all the chain restaurants and banks were all in one place. We could do everything we wanted in one small place. Also being a big Spanish city from the past, it had plenty of Churches to photograph.

Arequipa, Peru

The Cathedral was incredibly beautiful especially at night. That was all there was to Arequipa really and I couldn’t imagine spending more than 2 days in the city.

Arequipa Cathedral, Peru

Bus Tour in Arequipa

Since Shruti didn’t want to walk much, we decided to do a bus tour. It was kind of strange when the 50 Soles per person, USD 15.7, suddenly came down to 25 Soles per person, USD 7.8. We didn’t even try and bargain. Luck we thought but we didn’t think that when the 10am scheduled tour didn’t start til 10:15am and then the lady from the agency took us to another agency 2 blocks away. There, another girl took us on a 10 mins walk to a row of buses parked with no one in them.

Eventually, a bunch of Peruvians turned up and we got going. Our first stop was the suburb of Yanahuara which had some architecture from the last century as well as a mirador (view point) with quotes from the Peruvian Independence. The best thing was the view of the Misty Volcano!

Mount Misty, Arequipa, Peru

Our next stop was another viewpoint with 3 volcanoes which border Arequipa. This really was magnificent with the 5-6000 meter mountains visible on a beautiful day.

Beautiful view, Arequipa, Peru

Our next stop was a little touristy and slightly strange as well. We stopped at an alpaca wool shop which sells jumpers, ponchos etc. That’s not strange at all as there are hundreds in Peru for the tourists. The strange thing was that they had a little zoo with alpacas, llamas and guanacos for tourists. Arequipa isn’t very high at 2000 meters and keeping those animals at that low altitude is tough on the animals. Strange indeed!

Guanaco, Llama, Alpaca, Vicuna, Peru

As the bus went on, the next stop was the House of the Founder. The Founder of the city had a house which was destroyed in earthquakes and was restored several times. It is now a museum and also hosts weddings. We liked some old objects, paintings and the fact that the place is rumoured to be haunted. Therefore, no wedding happens at night and all guests leave before midnight. I can’t see too many Indian weddings happening there!

Founder's House, Arequipa, Peru

The final stop was a restaurant/hacienda with a few activities like horse riding and random Peruvian women placing eagles on you for photos. We were tempted by the latter but decided not to encourage people who may not be so nice to the animals. Eagles belong in the skies looking regal not on people’s heads for photos.

The bus tour was interesting but also provided some incredible views of the city and its natural surroundings. It was good value!

Amazing View, Arequipa, Peru

Getting to Colca Canyon

We finally were on our way to Colca Canyon. It is a prime location for trekking in Peru but where to visit and how to go about can be confusing. Tour agencies in Arequipa and Cusco can take you on a 2, 3, and 4 day treks but you can also do it yourself. We decided to head on our own adventure.

We took a bus from Arequipa terminal to the village of Cabanaconde. Chivay is the centre of Colca Valley and a bigger town but Cabanaconde is the perfect starting point for trekking. The buses to Cabanaconde are at odd hours like 1:30am or 3:30am but we managed to get ourselves on the only sane time – 9:30am. We left our big bags at the bus company we used for a small voluntary fee. In our case, we arrived at 4pm after a very scenic drive.

PS: A tourist permit is needed to trek in Colca and a lady was there to sell us this permit as soon as we got off the bus.

Amazing View, Colca Canyon, Peru

Finding a hostel was easy as there are only a few choices and they were not full by any means though it’s best to book ahead in high season. We stayed in hostel Villa Pastor and paid 30 Soles, USD 9.35, for a night. The hostel also has amazing food for great prices. There was not a lot to do in the village though we walked to the mirador Achchihua after leaving our day packs bags in the room. The view was incredible against a setting sun and we understood the scale of the trek. Colca Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world. This was not going to be easy!

Colca Canyon

Hiking at Colca Canyon

Before starting any hike in Colca, it’s great to ask the locals in the hostel and have a plan. How many days? Which villages? Where to stay for the night(s)? Get a map. These questions are important to avoid being in danger or be lost at night. We planned to hike to San Juan, make our way though Cosninhua, Malata and then descend to Sangalle for the night and ascend to Cabanaconde the next morning. We started our hike the next morning after an unsuccessful attempt to see the condors flying through the canyon. Local knowledge, yeah right!

Cabanaconde, Colca Canyon, Peru

Things didn’t go well at the start, we lost our way at the start as we tried to descend down a small trail. After a little course correction, we realized the actual trail was well beaten and on top of the ridge.

Mirador San Miguel, Colca Canyon

A lady at the mirador San Miguel checked our permits and gave us a few tips. We hiked down slow and steady towards San Juan De Chuccho.

Hiiking down to San Juan, Colca Canyon

Guess what? We even saw a couple of Condors flying through the canyon and another one munching on some meat.

Condor, Colca Canyon

The view was absolutely incredible, the trail went around the cliffs slowly descending down to the river and then rising back up. As we descended down, the lowering altitude and the sun made the descent very tough. The view was the only respite, looking up the canyon looked as remarkable as it did on the way down. Some people were sunbathing at the river under San Juan. A lady selling drinks showed us a quicker route to San Juan where we stopped for a bargain lunch – only 10 Soles, USD 3.1.

Crossing river over to San Juan, Colca Canyon

On the way to Cosninhua, we passed by a mountain stream. It was the perfect opportunity to cool down in the heat and the water from the stream was the best tasting on this entire trip. It was so fresh and so tasty that I couldn’t stop drinking.

Crossing a stream, Colca Canyon

The trek up to Cosninhua was tough and we needed a chilled coke when we reached the village. The next 45 minutes were flat through 2 villages and we were ready to start our our descent to Sangalle, the oasis.

Sangalle Oasis, Colca Canyon

If we thought we had it tough, we were wrong. Everything needs to be carried to Sangalle, either on donkeys or by humans. We saw two groups of tough guys carrying a fridge full of beer down the canyon. I salute thee Sirs!

Guys carrying fridge full of beer, Colca Canyon

Shruti and I have found out one thing during our travels. It’s easier for us to walk up the mountain than down. Downhill hurts the knees and is less stable so there is more chance of falling. The hike down was tough for us as it was downhill, though we made it in one piece. Sangalle is a sight for sore eyes and feet. It’s a green patch in an otherwise dry canyon. We argued whether it was actually an oasis and our opinions differed. Anyway, the lads carrying the fridges told us to get the second resort (there are only 2) and so we did. We showered, had a few beers and a great meal at great prices given the context.

Sangalle Resorts, Colca Canyon

The next morning, we started our hike early. It was meant to be a 3 hour climb but it got tougher as the sun got stronger. The trail was such that we felt a few times that we were getting close to the top. It was always a disappointment or KLPD in hindi colloquialism.

Hike up from Sangalle to Colca Canyon, Colca Canyon

Anyhow, we had our snacks along the way and made it to the top after 3 hours and 15 minutes. Another 15 minutes and we were back in the village where we bought the 11:30am bus ticket to Arequipa. There is an option of taking a bus to Cusco from Chivay but we wanted to get a good bus for the 10 hour journey. We arrived in Arequipa by 6pm where the bus company had kept our luggage safe. A great 3 day tour of Colca!

Brekky on the road, Colca Canyon

Hike Duration

Here are our hike timings from one spot/village to another. Take note, we aren’t the fittest people so these numbers can be used as a benchmark. Also, we took plenty of breaks for snacks and photos.

Day 1 – Cabanaconde to Sangalle

Cabanaconde to Mirador San Miguel (stay on the main road, it is just past the observatory) – 30 mins

Mirador San Miguel to San Juan Bridge (at the bottom of canyon) – 2.5 hours

San Juan to Malata (crossing Cosñirhua) – 1 hour 10 mins

Malata to Sangalle – 1 hour 15 mins

Day 2 – Sangalle to Cabanaconde

Sangalle to Cabanaconde (almost 1000 meters hike up) – 3 hours 30 mins

Hike path from Sangalle to Cabanaconde, Colca Canyon

Other Recommendations for Hiking in Colca Canyon

If you have more time than we did and do not want to go crazy hiking too much in a day, here are some options –

OPTION 1:

Day 1 – Cabanaconde to San Juan

Day 2 – San Juan to Sangalle (this way you get to enjoy the Oasis)

Day 3 – Sangalle to Cabanaconde

OPTION 2:

Day 1 – Cabanaconde to San Juan

Day 2 – San Juan to Sangalle

Day 3 – Sangalle to Llahuar (enjoy geyser here!)

Day 4 – Llahuar to Cabanaconde

Exploring Puno, Peru

Finally we get to Peru! We worked real hard to get the Peru Visa for Shruti and it worked out in Bolivia. Our first stop in Peru was Puno, the other big town settled along the shores of Lake Titicaca. Read about our experience in the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca right here.

Getting in

We took Trans Titicaca bus to cross over to Peru from Copacabana, Bolivia. The ride to the border was less than 40 mins. After queuing up and getting stamped out at Bolivian Immigration, we walked across the border to Peru. We faced no dramas at either of the immigration offices. The remaining 3.5 hours bus ride to Puno was mostly uneventful.

Cheap accommodation

Our guide in the bus asked us if we had an accommodation in Puno and we didn’t. He suggested Don Tito Inn but we refused to pay more than 40 Soles, USD 12.5. He had no problem with that and agreed immediately. We weren’t hoping for much but the room turned out to be great for the price. We finally had really hot water without electrocution.

2 Day Tour

As we were checking in the hotel, the receptionist told us about possible tours around the area. We were interested to visit the Floating Islands. After comparing two available tours, we decided to go with a 2 Day Tour to Lake Titicaca. The tour costed us 100 Soles per person, USD 31.25, and was scheduled to start early next day.

A tour car came around to pick us up from the hotel and we headed to the wharf. Everyone had been told to leave the big bags at the hostel but Shruti wanted to get to Arequipa as soon as possible afterwards so we took all our stuff on the boat. This proved tricky as we had to walk across 3 boats with bags at the back and front to finally get to our own boat. There our luggage took up most of the storage area as most people had their bags in hand. This wasn’t turning out to be the best!

Lake Titicaca, Puno

We forgot all that soon as we reached our first stop, the Floating Islands of Uros. The islands were built on Totora Reed Islands and each island had 5-6 families living and working to renew the islands every two months.

Floating Islands, Uros, Lake Titicaca

Archaeologists researched as to how and why these people started living on these islands and the outcome is stunning. It seems during a drought in the area, the locals turned to the lake for food and shelter. We spent quality time on the islands and even took photos in the traditional dresses.

Traditional Dress, Uros Island, Puno

Our next stop was another Floating Island but we didn’t take the motor boat to get there. Instead, we went on a “Uros Island Taxi” or a boat which is made of the bamboo, Totora Reed and is rowed. Two men of the community rowed us to the next island for a small fee. The entire floating islands are very traditional, people still wear their dresses and still live their life. Yet it seemed very touristy as though the Islanders are continuing this lifestyle to skin money off tourists.

Uros Island Taxi, Puno

The second island wasn’t much except a shop and we managed to get a stamp on our passports. It was a really weird experience which on one hand was traditional but on the other hand touristy. In any case, we took some souvenirs to remember forever!

Traditional Ladies, Uros Islands, Puno

Homestay – Isla Amantani

Our next destination was Isla Amantani which would be our home for the night. It took 2 hours from the Uros Islands through the reeds and other parts of the lake. As we got closer, we saw people standing at the wharf. We were assigned to a girl with a small house up the hill. A french- spanish couple were to accompany us. It was a tough walk uphill with the backpacks and our host had to help Shruti.

Isla Amantani, Lake Titicaca

Family, Isla Amantani, Lake TiticacaWe had lunch, dinner and breakfast with the family and heard their tale of trying to make some money by bringing in tourists using the roun-robin system used by all villages on the island. However, it hadn’t helped at all with only 3 tourists since January. Moreover, they had invested quite a bit hoping that it will bring in income but nothing of the sort.

Homestay, Isla Amantani, Lake Titicaca

The girl who may have been in her late 20s and unmarried tried to sell us her knitted goods but as luck would have it we had already bought them. Same was the case of all tourists who came there. Maybe only the mayor of the island was earning from this system. The interesting thing were the outfits of the island. Men and Women much like India wore clothes according to their marital status. Unmarried women line our hostess wore white top with flowers like roses to indicate that they are single. Cool system!

Traditional Dress, Isla Amantani, Lake Titicaca

Traditional Beliefs

We visited the Pachamama and Pachatata on the island along with the rest of the group. The belief in the traditional religion was still strong on the island and we stayed in this beautiful spot as the sun was setting.

Pachamama, Isla Amantani, Lake Titicaca

Party

As part of the tour, the village organises a traditional party. We went along with our host on our promise that we wouldn’t stay too long as the her siblings had to sleep. We were dressed up in traditional clothes and got ready to leave. We walked with her in pitch black and arrived in the community hall. There were chairs setup along the wall and one old lady was selling soft drinks and beer. If it wasn’t for the beer, it could be a primary school party.

Homestay, Isla Amantani, Lake Titicaca

Anyhow, all that didn’t matter once the music started. It was high tempo and fast rhythm. We were meant to hold each others hands and move side to side in a big circle. It started off slow but eventually the speed picked up and we were whirling around. It ended soon for us as the kids needed to sleep.

Traditional Dance, Isla Amantani, Lake Titicaca

Upon reaching home, Shruti decided to take some photos of the starry night. Here is one of the night shots!

Night Sky, Isla Amantani, Lake Titicaca

Isla Taquile

Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, PunoThe next morning we got ready to visit another island in the the lake. Our guide told us that here again, the system was different. Men and women wore separate clothes according to their marital status. The men wore particular design on their beanies to indicate that they are single while women wore bright colors. As textiles is the main industry on the island, every resident knits and their goods are sold at the main community center at the cooperative office.

Cooperative, Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Puno

We did a tough little walk to the top of the island where the main square was. We saw men sitting together and knitting which is something unusual in Peruvian society. Another walk and we reached the restaurant for lunch. Here we had a problem, we ran out of almost all the money we had exchanged at the border.

The lunch was 20 Soles, USD 6.25, and that was all the money we had. Shruti had the soup while I had the mains and somehow managed to make it work. When we finally reached Puno, we realised that ATMs in Peru charge up to $5USD to take money out. Bummer!

Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Puno

Group Party

Renate, one of the tour members who became friends with us during the journey, was keen to catch up after the tour. Although we had initially decided to leave Puno right after the tour, we thought it would be good to rest and party a little. Everyone who was in Puno that night, including the tour guide, met up by the main square and soon we were heading for a kareoake party.

Our first stop was a bar in the main restaurant district where everyone warmed up over some drinks. The next stop was karaoke close by. No one could beat Shruti in singing classic rock and that got even better after a few beers. Our guide was keen on the party and kept buying more drinks.

We finally left the karaoke at 1am to get to a club. The group was 6 girls and 2 guys and we had absolutely no trouble getting in. However, no one wanted to drink except the guide who had a tour the next morning at 7am. Him, me and a few other tough people managed to finish the drinks. We all danced to reggaeton and finally left at 3am. Of course, no good night ends without early morning food and we grabbed a pizza at a local joint. Here, we met a drunk old man who recognized Shruti and I for Indians and started talking to us about SRK and Kajol. It was a great end to a great night!

Leaving Puno

We left Puno for Arequipa the next morning. We bought the ticket for 2pm but there was no bus to be seen. Finally, at 2:30pm the bus arrived and we reached Arequipa around 7pm. The view was ok but Arequipa looked like a dusty old town. It ended up being better than we thought! Watch out for the next post.