As I peeked out the icy window of Row 12 on Avianca Flight 839 I caught a glimpse of a snow capped peak poking through the dense clouds in the distance. After twelve hours of traveling from Santa Marta, Colombia we were finally making our descent into Cusco, Peru. We had spent the past three weeks soaking up the sweltering Caribbean sun and I was ready for a change of scenery.
Cusco, Peru has been a bucket-list destination since the ‘90’s when the internal conflict between the Peruvian government and terrorist organizations was brought to a halt. With a quarter of a century gone by, as an outsider, it is hard to imagine that this city ever suffered due to its booming tourism industry as the Incan capital of the world.
The city itself sits at 11,000 feet above sea level and sprawls across 70,000 square kilometers with homes inching their way up the surrounding mountains. After climbing into our taxi, we zipped through the city of Cusco quickly made our way into the historical center which was bustling with life, alpacas, and tourists. With two weeks to kill in this vibrant city in Peru, we figured it’d be best to have the experts plan our time, so we reached out to Killa Expeditions for help. This tour and trek company, owned by Cusco born-and-raised Jose Montes, planned our two weeks to a T, and we are so glad to have worked with them. Here’s the highlight reel of our trip:
As you leave the city of Cusco and travel into the Sacred Valley, the Pisac Ruins is an Incan site that cannot be missed. Outside of Machu Picchu, the Pisac Ruins are considered to be one of the finest archaeological sites in the country – and it’s no surprise why. These ruins give you a glimpse into Incan agriculture with terraces sprawling across the mountainside and hold hundreds of years of agricultural history layered upon each plot of land. To avoid crowds, arrive as early as 8:00 AM so you can experience the magic of Pisac without a selfie stick within swinging distance.
If you love color and culture, the Pisac Market on Sunday will easily make the top of your list. Situated 45 minutes outside of Cusco, you can take a taxi (70 soles) or the local bus (6 soles) to reach the town of Pisac where the lively market is held. Here, you can find artisanal crafts such as pillow cases, rugs, and table runners that can be bought for little to no money depending on your haggling skills. Keep in mind that the price stays low because most of these goods are synthetic.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for some of the best-woven textiles in the entire world – yes, I said entire world – and prefer to practice sustainable tourism by supporting the local communities, then look no further than the city of Chinchero.
Chinchero Textile Factory
After walking the colorful and robust booths at the Pisac Market, our tour company, Killa Expeditions, took us to the ultimate textile center of the world: the city of Chinchero. Here you can visit a small textile factory with local women who have been deemed some of the finest weavers in the world. After a short introduction to how they clean, dye and weave alpaca fur, we shopped around their small market of goods.
While their table runners, pillows, and sweaters may run you a bit more than the Pisac Market (100 soles versus 30 soles for a pillowcase), the best part about buying from these women is that you are supporting them directly and the community of Chinchero. These women have all learned English to tell their story to tourists and coming home with goods from them means coming home with their story in hand.
Visit a Local Community
Conscious traveling always asks you to go deeper than the superficial and farther than the postcard photograph, so we teamed up with Killa Expeditions to visit a local community that the company works with. When you step off-the-beaten-path and take the time to get a glimpse into the deep culture of Cusco, you can see where the magic happens and why this incredible area has become so popular.
Three hours outside of Cusco, we visited the Willoc Community for a day of festivities and celebration. Killa Expeditions has devoted time and resources to this local community through charity work and home-stays where tourists can live with a member of the community for a couple days and envelope themselves in traditional culture.
Being with the Willoc Community and seeing their traditions will light you on fire with excitement and compassion. After trying local dishes, all sourced from their surrounding farmland, we danced, played music, and offered a blessing to the earth for the communities upcoming season of agriculture and alpacas. Unlike in most places around the world, each member of the community gives so much of themselves to support the whole. There is no better way to understand and learn about Cusco than to visit a local community such as the Willoc and spend a day in their shoes.
Take a Multi-Day Trek to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is an obvious must-see on the list, but to be honest the build-up of excitement comes from taking a multi-day trek. While this isn’t necessarily the budget-backpacker way to spend time in Cusco, it makes the visit the Machu Picchu all the more worthwhile. The Inca Trail is the most popular trek to take, but because of this you’ll likely be spending your time with dozens of other groups. Instead, opt for a lesser taken trek, like the Lares Hot Springs Trek where you’ll see local communities and waterfalls converging at crystalized lakes.
We decided on the 4D/3N Lares Hot Springs Trek with Killa Expeditions and could not have chosen better. The hike begins in Urubamba and ends at the Lares Hot Springs where you can soak your muscles amongst locals before taking a train to Aguas Calientes, the base town of Machu Picchu.
With thousands of years of history and a mystical air to the surrounding area of high jungle, it’s no surprise why it’s one of the seven wonders of the world. With popularity comes crowds, so be prepared to share this experience with hundreds of people. Take a walking tour with a tour company to explain the rich history of the Incan walls and book a ticket for the Wayna Picchu hike.
We traveled during the off-season (February) and had no problem getting postcard worthy photos as one of the first guests of the site, so take the 5:30AM bus from Aguas Calientes if you’re looking for a tourist-free photograph. Alternatively, you can get really good at Photoshop and remove the red, yellow, and blue dots of North Face jackets dotting the city of Incans.
Cusco is rich with history, but to really understand the culture, the land, and the mysticism of the area, it’s a must that you make your way to the small towns and cities residing in the Sacred Valley. While our two weeks were jam-packed with activities, we were so happy to have experienced such an array of the Peruvian-Incan culture that the area provides. It wasn’t hard for Cusco to move straight to the top of my favorite cities in South America, so the only question I have now is: When can I come back?
Thank you to Killa Expeditions for collaborating with us on our amazing journey!