The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cuzco & The Sacred Valley

For decades the forlorn majesty of the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu have drawn travelers the world over. Ever since I first saw that first picture of those terraced green slopes precariously protruding out of the Andean jungle, I vowed to someday see it for myself. So I booked the flights, arranged my transport and lodging, and felt that thrill of knowing nothing was going to stop me from realizing my dream. Then, in early 2010, something did—namely water. Lots of it. Whole mountainsides full of it. So much water that the flooding and ensuing mudslides critically damaged the only infrastructure to and from that iconic outpost, with repairs due a very inconvenient month or so after I was scheduled to return home.


However, due to a bizarre combination of factors that might possibly disrupt the time/space continuum if I tried to explain it, it would have cost more for me to cancel my trip to Peru than to go. So, in order to protect the universe as we know it, I went, and in return received the mother of all consolation prizes: A memorable stay in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley completely unencumbered by that show-stealing, wanderlust-inducing prima donna up to its neck in water less than 100 miles away. Yes, the sideshow had become the main attraction and I couldn’t have been happier.

Despite my clever moniker, I need to be (kind of) serious for just one paragraph. If you intend to visit Cuzco or any other location situated over 11 thousand feet above sea level, be certain your lungs can handle it. Not five minutes after disembarking the plane, my father, whom I was traveling with, began struggling to breathe. Apparently the high altitude exacerbated a previously unknown respiratory infection, so instead of joining me in this Inca wonderland, he spent most of his time in a Peruvian clinic, sucking down giant tanks of oxygen like it was…well…air. Granted, this was an extreme and unforeseen case, but I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that nugget of information along. So, if you don’t want to go the way of the conquistadores, see your doctor first before you book. That said, most people suffer little more than some mild shortness of breath and fatigue when they first arrive, which dissipates rather quickly the longer you stay.

Cuzco, once the capital of the far-flung Incan Empire and believed by them to be the center of the world, fell to Spanish invaders in the 1500’s. In turn, the new overlords denuded the city of its riches, tore down many structures and promptly built their own right on top of the existing (and much sturdier) Inca-built foundations. The result is a unique mix of architecture that blends Old World charm with even Older World engineering. Inca masonry consists of blocks of hewn stone in irregular shapes and sizes so perfectly fit together without mortar, that in many spots it would be really difficult to fit a knife blade between them. Picture in your mind a massive game of organic Tetris (cue maddeningly addicting music here) and you’ve got the idea.

At the hub of this menagerie of terra cotta and plaster is Plaza de Armas, the main square and site of the city’s famous cathedral. Branching off in all directions are narrow streets lined with souvenir shops, hole–in-the-wall restaurants, and indigenous people dressed in traditional garb standing next to the family llama, hoping for a few coins in return for the photo op. Seriously, there were so many llamas everywhere that I felt I was trapped in the end credits of Monty Python & the Holy Grail (you Anglophiles know exactly what I’m talking about).

Llocals with their llama, Cuzco
Llocals with their llama, Cuzco

Llamas aside, there are also a few museums and churches of note, but my favorite experience by far was just wandering the backstreets (not too far back—the neighborhoods can get kind of gritty), perusing the alpaca-centric handicrafts, and enjoying a grilled meat dinner (at times alpaca-centric as well) to be washed down with a pisco sour (the national drink) or a bottle of hyper-sweet Inca Kola, which I highly recommend for anyone who has ever wondered what liquefied bubble gum would taste like.

Once you’ve satisfied your taste for colonial Spanish culture, it’s time to venture outside the city limits to see those Inca ruins that bring so many people here in the first place. At this point I must stress the necessity of having already purchased a Cuzco Visitor’s Ticket, which grants entrance to most attractions both in the city and in outlying regions. If not, you may find yourself stuck outside with the llamas. Most visitors opt for conveniently packaged tours that take in the numerous ruins on the outskirts of town, which can be arranged ahead of time or by one of the many travel agencies in town which rival the llamas in terms of sheer numbers. Since I was divvying my time between sightseeing and my father’s bedside, I can also vouch for the simplicity of just negotiating a price with a local cab driver, which will likely not be as informative, but certainly more flexible to your schedule.

Yet Another Llama, Sachsayhuaman Fortress, Cuzco, Peru
Yet Another Llama, Sachsayhuaman Fortress, Cuzco, Peru

The largest attraction just outside of town, is by far the imposing ruins of the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, perched on a bluff overlooking the city. Pronounced as the English term sexy woman, though with no apparent correlation, this cluster of monolithic stones and grassy ramparts made me wonder how any army might have gained mastery of it while being defended. It also made me wonder what I was thinking in telling my wife later on that I went to see Sacsayhuaman (sexy woman) today. And since her appreciation of the subtleties of Quechua terminology are tragically limited, I emptied my pockets of coins and took a great picture of an adorable baby llama just for her as sort of a peace offering.

Not much farther down the road are the ruins of Qenko, Puca Pucara, and Tambo Machay. Here there are great examples of traditional trapezoidal-shaped doorways and windows, an ancient altar, and just a great Inca vibe. In fact, most of the aforementioned ruins just begged the questions: Where is Indiana Jones? Where are they hiding that giant rolling boulder? And what’s with all these llamas? Now that you’ve whetted your appetite for all things Inca, it’s time to venture out into the heartland—the Sacred Valley.

Leaving the congestion of Cuzco behind, a favorite stop is Pisac, known for its colorful market and terraced hillsides above the town. Once again shopping opportunities abound, and yes, you can take a picture with a llama here as well. Following the meandering (and as was the case during my visit) swollen banks of the Urubamba River past the small, touristy town that bears the same name, visitors arrive at what could easily be the main attraction if it weren’t for that ‘other’ set of ruins that people come to see—the living Inca town of Ollantaytambo.

Citadel, Ollantaytambo, Peru
Citadel, Ollantaytambo, Peru

Nestled at the base of the verdant valley, the terraced layers reach precipitously upward, forming an amphitheater with stunning views of the village below. Approaching the top of the fortress—once a strategic military post—there is an impressive set of granite monoliths forming a wall that both attests to the endurance of Inca craftsmanship, and leaves one silently pondering just how many llamas were necessary to haul them up there.

Back on the valley floor, there are preserved examples of stone irrigation and other structures that give a glimpse into the past, so long as you can envision the town without souvenir stalls. Still, standing there and looking around at the remaining buildings clinging to the mountainsides and absorbing the authenticity and sense of history, it was completely possible for me to say “Machu who?”

I know quite well that Cuzco and the Sacred Valley will always play second fiddle to the diva out in the hills, and honestly, I’d welcome the chance to return and compare them for myself. But to all potential travelers to the area, I say make some room for exploring the stage, not just its biggest star, and your trip to Peru will have been worth the effort. If not, you can take comfort in knowing that somewhere, very close, there will be a llama waiting just for you.