With Machu Picchu closed, this traveler took the opportunity to experience other must-visit gems in the Cusco area. Read her story.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way – my lifelong dream of visiting Machu Picchu was denied because a railroad blockade closed the sacred destination to the public for the second time in 2020. Locals were protesting against being charged tourist prices for the train ride to Cusco.
In December of 2020, I traveled with my Peruvian fiancé Weninger to places in his country that had long been on my bucket list. This included the white city of Arequipa, the Andean condors of Colca Canyon, archaeological Inca treasures of the Sacred Valley, and the colonial mystique of Cusco highlands, the gateway to Machu Picchu.
9-day tour of Peru during COVID-19
Being a fan of Traveling & Living in Peru website, I worked with Flavia, head of the travel agency team, to coordinate our itinerary and logistics. Even though I am a travel writer and photographer, coordinating with a local agency was essential because the COVID-19 protocols were rather cumbersome at many of the sites, plus requirements kept changing. I didn’t want to worry about the administrative minutiae. Instead, I wanted to focus on fully experiencing Peru with my fiancé.
Our 9-day tour was filled with extraordinary experiences, despite being deprived of seeing Machu Picchu. “There is so much to explore in and around Cusco,” says Percy Avendaño Medina, naturalist and owner of Peru Wild Birds. “From culture, history, cuisine and architecture, this area has much to offer.”
Here are five top things to do in and around Cusco, home to eleven UNESCO World Heritage Sites and one of South America’s most important destinations- Machu Picchu.
1. Cusco: For architecture, culture, history, and religion
Cusco is an enchanting high-altitude city, with colonial architecture and heritage, Inca history and archaeological sites that will leave you spellbound. A walkable city with a surprising array of cuisine, plan on spending several days to fully savor the mystique. My fiancé and I had our wedding bands custom-made here because the price of gold is extremely competitive and the craftsmanship is superb.
2. Sacred Valley: For its archaeological sites
Explore the Inca Empire with visits to the archaeological sites of Chinchero, Moray, and Tambomachay. One of my favorites was Moray because it is an archaeological testament to the agrarian skills of the ancient people. While the altitude of this site is about 11,500 ft, the terraced Inca ruins and irrigation system was their scientific approach to farming.
It is widely thought that the concentric terraces were constructed to study climatic conditions on crops. Each circle represents temperature differences of about 10-15C that result in microclimates. Also, different soils were brought in from various regions.
It is widely thought that this structured approach to growing crops such as maize led to the development of over 55 corn varieties that can grow in various temperatures, soils, and climatic conditions.
3. And: For history, culture and crafts
Chinchero is home to Inca archaeological remains and a beautiful seventeenth-century church built on top of Inca ruins. (That was the Spanish tradition of conquerors in their belief it showed the supremacy of the Catholic church over local beliefs).
Additionally, the area is a haven for preserving artisan traditions and handicrafts. Be sure to include a stop at Centro Cultural Parwa to learn about how textiles are made using traditional techniques. After you learn how they dye wool and weave their textiles, you have an opportunity to purchase from an exquisite array of rugs, clothing, and hats.
The Living Museum of Yucay is a center for Andean traditions and interpretations, where you can see demonstrations of textile work, adobe, pottery and silverware as they were done in ancient times. Don’t miss the opportunity to feed some of the residents of the museum such as llamas, sheep and alpacas. This is an excellent place to purchase jewelry, pottery, and textiles.
4. The magical city of Urubamba
Urubamba, located near the Urubamba River in the highlands, is the largest town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and is located near Machu Picchu. It is used by many travelers to acclimate to the high altitude prior to a visit to Machu Picchu. It is also home to several luxurious hotels and resorts.
We were scheduled for a 1-night stay at Casona De Yucay Valle Sagrado, but because of the closure of Machu Picchu, we spent two magical nights at this enchanting hotel. A colonial home built in 1810 with spectacular views and beautifully manicured gardens, the property is framed by the surrounding Andes. Simon Bolivar, known as the South American liberator, also stayed here in 1825 when he traveled the Peruvian Andes looking for support to overthrow the Spanish rule.
Today, it offers 54 well-appointed rooms for those that want to be surrounded by natural beauty. Enjoy a pisco sour as you stroll the gardens. My fiancé and I had a ghost sighting while there—a gardener working the flower bed was there one moment and then vanished just as quickly.
Visit the local market where you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables and an assortment of kitchen items. Some stalls have alpaca garments and others have bags of coca leaves for the asking. Brewed as a tea, these leaves are very helpful in combating altitude sickness.
(Photo: 16. Photo Credit: Karin Leperi)
5. Book a nature trip with Peru Wild Birds
If you have extra time, consider booking a nature tour with Peru Wild Birds to see iconic Peruvian wildlife like Cock-of-the-Rock, Amazon jaguar, and macaws at a clay lick. Manu National Park from the Andes to the lowlands is a 9-day/8-night itinerary that appeals to nature lovers, birders, photographers, and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Percy Avendaño Medina, owner and guide, is one of the best in the business.
Cover photo: Karin Leperi
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