We had dreamed from a long time of Cusco, the entry door to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu and after a night bus from Arequipa, we were finally there! With a architecture mixing Spanish elements due to the colonization and typical Incan elements, Cusco is so far the most beautiful city we have visited in South America: we loved strolling around the city by day or at night, trying the small coffees and restaurants spread all around the city center and chilling in our beautiful hostel. The city is located at 3400m above sea level, so if you are coming directly from Lima, take it easy for a few days before planning your excursions around!
Around the Plaza de Armas, you will find some Incan walls which are quite fascinating: indeed, there are made of amazing irregular shaped stones with many many faces! Just behind the Cathedral of the main plaza, there is a small place from which you can have a beautiful view on Cusco.
It is also around the main square that you will find all the agencies where you can book tours to Machu Picchu or to the rainbow mountain. With several beautiful churches, many souvenir shops and restaurants, the city center is well prepared for tourists:
- On the good side, this means that it is very safe, clean and there are many places to visit as well as good quality restaurants to choose from. You can even drink good coffee!! If you have time, try l’Atelier, this coffee place has a lot of charm and the pies are delicious 😉
- On the bad side, it means that there are many people offering massages, a gang of old ladies wearing traditional costumes proposing Lama pictures for 1 or 2 soles at every corner AND the prices in the center are substantially higher than what we experienced in other areas of Peru.
We really enjoyed our time in Cusco, it is a city where you can easily spend a couple of relaxing days. From there, we visited the Sacred Valley and booked the Inca Jungle Tour to Machu Picchu. After these two amazing experiences, we went back to Cusco for 2 days and had our last diner in Peru. We went to the restaurant Barrio Ceviche: normally not in our budget, but for our last Peruvian meal, we wanted something special, and we got it! It was probably one of the best seafood we have eaten in our life, so this diner will remain a vivid memory for us 😀
From Cusco, we decided to go on a day trip to the so called Rainbow Mountain. It is a 3.5 hour drive away and it includes some hiking, so we had to get up at 3:00 am as we were picked up at 3:20. Sadly, Charlotte decided to try fish for the lunch the day before and was not feeling well at all, so she decided to stay in the hostel to get better. Due to the early start, I decided to sleep some more on the bus ride and when I finally woke up around 06:30, we were passing through a narrow valley with few small villages beside the roads. The people were apparently herding Lamas here, as we saw loads of them with colored ears or small colored cloth stripes bound around them. The mountains were rich with green and red colored areas and it was a stunning valley to pass through.
Around 07:30, we reached a small village where we stopped for a toilet break – actually, the “toilet” was more a hole in the ground inside a cabin – and a Peruvian breakfast consisting of coffee, tea, bread butter and strawberry jam. Our guides also shortly explained the itinerary and assured us that they brought herbal medicine against altitude sickness as well as an oxygen bottle for extreme cases! From here, it was another half hour drive to the final parking, we started to see more and more buses and the parking lot was already hosting a couple buses.
From the parking lot, it was a supposedly a 1 hour and 15 minutes to 2 hours hike from 4500m to 5020m, where the rainbow mountain is located. While I did manage the hike in this timeframe, I believe that it is quite short for anybody not having been around this altitude for at least a few days. The hike itself is not really demanding, but the way goes constantly up over approximately 5km. There are two small steeper parts and the last ascent of 100m is basically made of steps.
If you don’t feel like walking, you can take a horse-ride up there for 60 soles or 90 soles including the retour. Besides two small parts where riders have to walk, the horses can bring you almost at the top of the hike, but you will have to walk for the last 100m. Many of the horse riders had serious altitude sickness, going as far as throwing up for some of them, as they were probably not used to the altitude at all. I seriously recommend taking some kind of medicine against altitude sickness if that is the reason you decided for the horses in the first place 😉
While the valley with its many colors was already very beautiful, the last parts turned even more amazing by intensive yellow and dark blue colors joining in as well as the snowy peaks of surrounding mountains showing up in the background. The Rainbow mountain itself is the flank of the Apu Vinicunca mountain and colored this intensively due to different oxidation reactions of present elements. It was only recently discovered, as this area was originally covered by ice and snow but due to ecological changes they are now snow free and thus can be visited. As Charlotte was sadly not with me, I found the best replacement possibly for our obligatory selfie.
In the background, you can see the fittingly called Red Valley, an optional hike to finish at the place we took our breakfast and lunch later on: a group of 4 people had actually booked this option and arrived at the lunch place around 13:30, when we just had finished the soup. They told me the hike was very beautiful and there was almost nobody there, but the path was very steep. As apparently few people request this hike, it was actually difficult for them to find an agency offering it. Sadly, I hadn’t heard about before, otherwise I believe I would have preferred booking the Red Valley hike instead of going back the same way I went up the mountain. This said, I felt very well acclimatized and had no problem with altitude sickness – if it is your first days so high on the mountains, it might not be a good idea to prolong the hike.
After spending 45 minutes on the mountain shoulder – including an ascend to a 5100m peak with an amazing surrounding view – our guides gave us a short explanation about the rainbow mountain and the Pachamama and sacrifice rituals before we started heading downhill. It took me 1 hour to hike down to the bus again, and when finally all members of the group arrived, we headed back to the breakfast place for lunch. After the typical Trigo soup, they had prepared a variation of vegetables and rice and chicken as a buffet which was very welcome and nourishing after the hike.
From here, we returned to Cusco passing through the same valley we came in the morning, honking herds of Lamas away from the street. We arrived around 6:00 pm in Cusco and I was really looking forward to a hot shower after this long but beautiful day 🙂
Accommodation in Cusco
We really recommend the Hostel “America Guest House“, the rooms are beautiful and clean, there is hot water, the breakfast tastes good and it is 7 minutes away from the Plaza de Armas. If you book a twin room with shared bathroom, you will pay 50 soles per night including breakfast. For a twin room with private bathroom, it’s 60 soles per night including breakfast.
Transportation to Cusco
We went with the bus company Oltursa and paid 102 soles per person, leaving at 20:00 pm and arriving around 07:00 am in Cusco.
Restaurants in Cusco
We loved the restaurant Barrio & Ceviche: if you want to eat some delicious seafood or try a Ceviche, a Peruvian traditional dish, go there! Note that you won’t eat there for less than 20€ per person though, so it is definitely not cheap…
If you are looking for a good vegetarian restaurant, try Green Point: the food is tasty and the atmosphere quite nice. The lunch menu is really affordable – we paid 15 soles per person – but if you want a dish from the general menu, the prices are more expensive.
To book a tour in Cusco
We have one main advice: DON’T book a tour on the internet before arriving in Cusco. To give you an idea on how much money you would waste: we saw an excursion on the Internet for 500$/person that we booked in Cusco for 145$….
Whatever you want to do, you will find plenty of agencies offering the same tours around the Plaza de Armas. Go in, compare the prices and ask for a detailed description of the excursion as well as the included services and additional costs. For the rainbow mountain trip, we paid 60 soles per person including breakfast, lunch and transportation.