Tag Archives: Peru

Choosing a tour in Cusco

With an estimated 400 plus tour agencies in Cusco, it can really be confusing to figure out who to go with, who to trust, and who will take your money and run. Most of these agencies, however, feed into one of five or so actual tour operators, so often it´s not the tour itself that needs careful combing over, it´s the cost.

Touts scour the streets with their tour books, agencies with double or triple names occupy many of the shops along the likes of Plateros, and signs suggest that there are trips leaving for all treks the following day (they don´t).

Whilst Cusco is a good base for multi-day rafting trips, it is much more famous for The Inca Trail and treks to Machu Picchu. There are also a couple of other popular options (and I´ve not included the activities at Action Valley or chocolate making workshops or Peruvian cooking classes), the main choices being:

  • The Inca Trail
    Expensive at around $500 for the four-day trek with the need to book months in advance. One girl I met managed to get a shorter waiting period of about six weeks, paid upfront (as you do) only to discover the day before that she had been duped. No Inca Trail for her. She was able to switch over to the Inca Jungle Trek, but was understandably pissed off. The Inca Trail is a tough walk up and down and along narrow ridges at high altitudes (Warmiwañuska or Dead Woman’s Pass is the highest point at over 4,200m). Not an easy option, but undoubtedly a necessary pilgrimage for some.
  • The Inca Jungle Trek
    Offered by every tout in town, this trek does actually seem to leave on a daily basis with tour groups of around ten to fifteen people. It´s a four-day, three night trek that starts with mountain biking from the highest point of 4,350m and includes options for ziplining and visiting hot springs. Some of the walk takes you through the jungle and onto the actual Inca Trail, finished by a wander along the rail lines and towards Machu Picchu itself. Transport, food, accommodation and entry to Machu Picchu included. For the majority of the trek you carry your own bags, so pack light. Treks should cost around the $180 mark, and not the $300 that one agency tried to charge me. With ziplining and entry to Huayna Picchu, the total cost to me was $220. Worth it. I went through EcoTours based inside Eco Packers Hostel, although from the street they are known as Andean Odyssey. Don´t ask.)
  • The Ausungate Trek
    So this  ´trek´ sounded ideal, being considerably cheaper than the others (S/.240 Note: Peruvian Nuevo Sol, not US dollars this time) and predominantly on horseback. What a way to enjoy the mountainscape and lagoons. But wait! This trek does require some walking each day, and the big sticking point for many is the altitude which is predominantly over 4,000m, the highest pass being 5,200m. Sore bums are not unknown and one guy I met who did the trek said he chose to walk alongside his horse because just being on horseback at a pottering pace was ´a bit boring´.

All in, shop around and consider your fitness level and how you deal with the altitude. I did the Inca Jungle Trek and expected it to be a bit of a soft option (I still stand by that hypothesis) but for some group members the climbs up through the jungle and onto the Inca Trail were really quite challenging.

Also think about when you decide to go: Peru´s rainy season kicks off late October and when I was there in late November, many tours were already not running because of rainfall that had caused problems accessing some of the pathways and passes. I took a gamble (how can you go to Peru and not trek to Machu Picchu?) with the jungle trek which did start off as a bit of a torrential, soggy mess, but that, dear reader, is for another blog post.

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Filed under activity & sport, hikes, peru, south america

Falling in like with Cusco

One can´t help but have some preconceived ideas about a place, especially somewhere like Cusco which is an absolute hub for backpackers in South America and has so much literature on the city and its surroundings.

Maybe it was the general bleurghy feeling following a fifteen hour overnight bus journey, but as we arrived into Cusco I really felt quite flat. I guess I expected architectural wonder and beauty right from the outskirts, but it just didn´t deliver. It was the same dusty streets and brown buildings with corrugated tin roofs and litter lying around that I´d seen repeatedly since arriving in Peru.

But then Cusco is a city, and all cities have their grubby, dirty sides. Yes, I was probably just feeling a bit travel tired.

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Cusco outskirts

To add to my frustrations, the taxi driver couldn´t find the hostel and tried to charge extra as a result. The hostel was expensive, nice, but outside of my budget. The next one seemed much more like it: dorm beds starting at S/.13 (£3.08). But it was a bit of a dive and smelt musty and if I´m honest, I was too quick to dump down my bags and sign up for the night. Lack of sleep drove the decision.

Fed and watered, I quickly found a better place to stay – clean, affordable and friendly – so I checked out of the first place. Even the half price they charged me was worth the switch. I looked forward to a night in a comfy bed with crisp linens. Oh, sweet luxury.

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The turning point came a day later with a free walking tour of Cusco. I met my guide, Yonathan, and a bunch of other travellers at Eco Packers hostel. Beaming and full of beans and information, Yonathan was the key to understanding and appreciating the city.

Starting in the main square, Plaza de Armas, I learnt about the Inca sacrificing of virgins, and about the impact of earthquakes on the city (not as much as there could be due to anti-seismic structures).

In Plaza Recogijo, the Inca church foundations still stood strong despite Spanish attempts to rip down what they saw as a place of Pagan worship, only to rebuild it in their own style. ´Inside this church, it´s a more genuine experience,´ explained Yonathan, ´less fancy and touristy.´ All churches in Cusco open their doors to the public for free between 6:00am and 8:00am and Yonathan suggested we take a look inside this one at some point, particularly to look closely at the deity of the virgin Mary and observe that this statue was in fact… a barbie doll. ´And we all know that there is nothing virgin about Barbie,´ he said, before going on to explain typical religious festival parades led by girls in mini skirts followed by marching bands and religious idols carried carefully with pride. ´It´s a strange mix of traditions and ideas,´ he added.

The concept of a plastic doll as an idol is not totally unexpected. Peru seems to encourage and embrace all things kitsch (another good example of kitsch in full swing is in The Fallen Angel, a bar and restaurant glitzed out in gold and floating angels and bathtub tables and strokable furnishings, the ´gayest place in Cusco´, apparently).

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Fallen Angel, Cusco

In San Francisco square I learnt about the botanical properties of the plantings, including the muña tree whose leaves provide natural altitude relief when rubbed together and breathed in deeply.

In the San Pedro market I sampled a fresh juice from one of thirty or so fruit stalls, and noticed how huge chunks of San Pedro cacti were on sale (I was also offered ayahuasca). I indulged in an ice coffee shot in Cusco Coffee and tried chocolate tea in the Choco Museo, a cute little set-up offering a wealth of information on the chocolate making process alongside chocolate making workshops (S/.70).

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Steps and alleyways in Cusco

Wandering up old streets and steep, difficult steps nearby Plaza San Blas, we arrived at one of the highest parts of Cusco´s centre offering wide views of the city and overlooking a park in the process of being completed. Peru´s history came back for a modern bite. ´It – the park – is funded by the Spanish´, smiled Yonathan, ´they guilty for what they do to us.´ 

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Views down over Cusco

We made our way back down cobbled streets and by pretty, tiled street signs, back down to the hassle and bustle of Plaza de Armas. It had been three interesting and fun hours of discovery and making new travel friends. Now was the time to tip. (Tipping guides seems to be common practise in Ecuador and Peru, how much is up to you. In this case, many people gave between S/.5-S/.15).

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In the evening after food, I walked along Plateros and passed a group of young guys doing some form of line dancing on the square close to the Santa Teresa Convent, hats held in close to their chests.  

The walk back up to my hostel in Nueva Alta took me away from the tourists and touts along tight streets with tired buildings and peeling paint, and passed dozens of little shops all selling the same snacks and drinks. Popping into one for some water, I noticed that it opened up into a makeshift working men´s club, guys of all ages huddled in together on wooden stools, chatting and drinking and laughing.

Cusco, I like you more already. Let the days roll on and the romance blossom.