We arrived in Cusco from Lake Titicaca on 23 December 2015, just in time for Christmas. In the end, we spent more than three weeks in and around Cusco and the Sacred Valley, which gave us plenty of time to explore the many, many Incan sites in the area. We’ve selected our favourite of these for an accompanying blog here – there is so much more to this area than Machu Picchu! As well as seeing how modern Peru marks Christmas and New Year, we caught the festival of the “Coming of the Kings” in the Sacred Valley at Ollantaytambo, and, despite it being the rainy season, we did some delightful walks along some lesser known Incan trails and even managed a little rock climbing, as well as the fantastic Skypod experience.
Having decided that the historic city of Cusco, and the lovely little campsite of Quinta Lala on the hill above town, would be a good place to place to base ourselves for the holiday season, our timings were then dictated by the earliest booking for the “Skypod Experience” (more of that later) not being until January 8th. So we settled in, with down jackets and waterproofs always to hand (Cusco is at 3,400m up in the mountains), for the festive period, with plenty of time to really explore.
Christmas in Cusco
We arrived in Cusco in time to go down into the centre for the traditional Christmas market on Christmas eve. The stalls were all under plastic to protect them from the rain on a grey, drizzly day, but the rain hadn’t put the crowds off. It is a traditional to build your own navity scene in your home for Christmas and everything you could need to do so was on offer, from stands and vegetation for the back-drop, to standard shepherd and sheep figurines, to perhaps less appropriate Disney characters to include!
Back at the camp, we set ourselves up with a little rain shelter out the back of the van, using the canopy we’ve got with us. We had expected to use it for shade from the sun, but needs must! We put on the new alapaca jumpers we had bought ourselves for Christmas in the market the day before and I got out my wellie boot shoes, brought out from our last visit to the UK ready for the rainy season. With some bottles of wine saved for the occasion, the big cheese bought on route to Cusco and the obligatory panettone (ubiquitous all over South America at Christmas), topped up with a visit to the supermarket on the way into the city, we were set for Christmas.
We spent the rest of the day, much like our family and friends back in the UK, hiding from the rain, eating, drinking and watching movies.
The rest of our time in Cusco (before and after going into the Sacred Valley), was spent visiting some of the numerous Incan sites in and around Cusco, complemented by some of the museums. Being a major tourist centre, Cusco also offered opportunities to taste some of Peru’s more modern offerings, including pisco. Bruce had been looking forward to trying Peru’s famous pisco for some months – since we tried pisco in Chile really – so we didn’t waste anytime on that one! There was also another favourite – chocolate.
The “Museum of Pisco” (which is more of a bar dedicated to pisco than a museum) included a pisco tasting as an item on its menu, which, after waiting our turn, proved to be an insightful talk from one of the members of staff, giving an overview of the history and types of pisco in Peru. Perfect! Pisco is a spirit made by distilling wine, with different types of grape and different houses making different tasting piscos. Peru has the oldest vineyards in South America, but, here, grapes are really all about making pisco (see Bruce’s recent wine blog here). We were happy to be educated!
The “Museum of Chocolate” was also more of a café / gift shop / workshop than a museum – we were starting to see a pattern here! It offered a chocolate making workshop, which sounded highly educational, so we felt we really should make the effort to attend. Indeed, it took us from cocoa plant growing, through pod harvest, bean roasting and all the way to making our own chocolates of our choice of shape and flavour. Really highly recommended!
Seeing in the New Year in Cusco
Cusco is one of the most exciting places in Peru to be at New Year’s Eve. We headed to the market at lunchtime, which was filled with stores selling all things yellow, particularly yellow underwear, because wearing yellow at New Year brings luck.
We planned our strategy for the evening carefully… We decided that the balcony of one of the tourist pubs in the corner of the main square would be a good place to be, where we could sit in safety above the chaos and look down on everything. Some seats on the narrow balcony became free soon after we arrived and we hopped into them, taking up our position at dusk, then moving, a little later in the evening, along to the nearest end. We put on our down jackets and settled in to wait for midnight.
We had this idea that there might be some entertainment in the main square – people had told us about a “fiesta” in the square and there seemed to be some sort of stage, but in the event, this was just occupied by a rather poor little brass band around midnight, which was all but drowned out by the crowd noise anyway. So, sitting out on the cold balcony for many hours turned out not to be the most entertaining way to spend the evening, but we kept ourselves occupied with pisco sours and people watching.
As midnight approached, things started to get a little more excitable. In the square and all over the city around it, people were letting off fireworks. This wasn’t some sort of organized and controlled display, as we are used to in Europe, this was people wandering around carrying huge fireworks, stopping somewhere, seemingly at random, maybe putting it on the ground, maybe just holding it in their hands, and lighting it, leaving people around them to sort themselves of the way. We were told that supposedly it’s illegal, and we did see a couple of police at one point make a token effort to move some firework releasers on, but clearly this was a battle they simply weren’t going to win without a more concerted effort!
It was a riot of bangs and flashes and explosions. Despite our long, cold wait, we were quite happy to be sitting well above it all in the safety of the balcony!
Here are a few more images of historical Cusco:
Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley
On New Year’s Day we left Cusco behind us and headed over the pass to the north and into the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was the delightful Incan fort of Pisac at one end of the valley (see Incan blog), from where we worked our way along the valley to the ancient town of Ollantaytambo.
The small centre of Ollantaytambo is where the road turns away from the Sacred Valley and heads over a pass and on down into the eastern slopes of the Andes. From there, only a railway line continues to follow the valley passed Machu Picchu.
This old town exists on the original Incan layout, with Incan foundations, and is thought to have some of the oldest continuously occupied houses in South America.
The “Bajada de Reyes” festival
We were in Ollantaytambo on January 5th, the 12th day of Christmas, for the festival of the “Coming down of the Kings”. Once again, we found a vantage point looking down on the town square from the windows of one of the cafes around the square.
In the late afternoon, three sacred effigies of child kings were brought into the square accompanied by groups of dancers and musicians in colourful costumes.
Two effigies were brought from the church and one was brought down from its shrine in the hills above the town. They met in the square, facing each other, with some ceremony, and then they were all carried off to the church for an evening service. After the service, the partying carried on with each group taking it in turn to perform and dance in the square through the evening.
Food and drink stalls were set up in the main square and the festival continued for 4 days, which seemed to involve life pretty much continuing as normal except for people eating and drinking around the square.
A little walking and rock climbing
With help from a lovely little Cicerone guidebook to walking and mountain biking in the Cusco and Scared Valley area, as well as doing a guided mountain bike descent passed the Incan salt pans (see the Incan blog), we also took the opportunity to do some day walks, mostly following Incan trails.
From the campsite above Cusco, we took a taxi out to Tambo Machay, an Incan royal bathing place, and Puca Pucara (the “Red Fort”) opposite, from where we enjoyed a gentle and picturesque walk back down to the campsite, skirting around behind the Incan site of Sacsayhuaman, which we had visited previously.
Another day, walking out of the campsite away from Cusco, we headed up a delightful valley to find a little rock climbing crag. To get out there, we followed a modern vehicle track, winding in and out following the edge of the valley. This turned into a much longer walk than we anticipated, not giving us long to try much of the climbing once we got there, despite lugging all the kit in! It would have been pretty hard work climbing anyway, as we were up near 4,000m once we got up the valley to the crag.
To get back, we decided to try to find a way across the gorge at the bottom of the steep valley to get to the old path that we could see followed a much more direct route up the bottom of the valley. Having been chased off by dogs on our first attempt to find a way down and across, we asked some people bringing llamas down off the hills and, although we couldn’t understand all they said, they confirmed there was indeed a way across, a “puente natural” (natural bridge) and pointed us in the right direction.
We set off, aware that we would be cutting it fine to get back up and around the way we came before nightfall if we didn’t find a way across to the shorter path. But it was there – a natural bridge across the gorge taking us across onto the ancient Incan trail back down along the valley bottom.
While staying in the Sacred Valley, we took a bus up out of the valley from Urubamba to Chinchero on the picturesque plain above and walked back down following a lovely old Incan trail.
Chinchero was yet another Incan religious site, on which the Spanish built a rather lovely town of adobe and stone. The walk back down followed an well constructed Incan road down a steep valley.
The Skypod experience
A highlight of our time in the Sacred Valley was a completely modern experience – climbing up a Via Ferrata put up the side of the valley to access one of three “Skypods” suspended off the cliff face, in which we spent a lovely cozy night, before descending the next morning down a series of zip-wires.
And here’s a full gallery to tell the story: