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Best Places to See in Cusco – for Free

If you have the time and interest in history, Cusco is one place where you should absolutely hire an experienced guide to give you a full tour and explain all the city’s hidden secrets. We also understand that sometimes you just have a free day or half day to kill while you acclimate to it’s 11,000+ feet of altitude. If you’re looking for the best places to see around the city at your own pace, here are some of our favorite spots you should definitely not miss:

Plaza de Armas
  • Plaza de Armas – This bustling square is the heart of Cusco for good reason.  Not only is it surrounded by incredible architecture, restaurants, and shops, but it’s the hub for your introduction to Inca/Quechua culture.  Each street off the main plaza still has its original Quechua name and the locals can tell you what was once sold on that street through its translation.
  • San Blas – Known for its artisan shops and markets, the San Blas neighborhood is THE place to find your unique Peruvian souvenir.  Just a short walk (up a steep hill!) from the main plaza, you’ll find a small church and tons of shops and restaurants to peruse at your leisure. 
Qorikancha

  • Qorikancha – This is a historic landmark and one of the most important temples in Inca culture.  It was mostly destroyed by the Spanish, but the foundation remains, and the building and catacombs are a museum today.  If you don’t want to pay to go into the museum, take a 5-minute walk from the main plaza down the Avenida El Sol.  You can see the building of Qorikancha and the impressive Jardin Sagrado (Sacred Garden) on your left from the street.

  • San Pedro Market – While it’s still one of our favorite places to get breakfast, San Pedro market has so much more to offer than just food.  You can find any handicraft, food, fabric, or article of clothing Peru has to offer inside this impressive space.  Don’t be afraid to bargain with the locals – they love to chat and make a good deal.
View from San Cristobal

  • San Cristobal – Plan to start or end your day at San Cristobal Church for sunrise or sunset.  It’s a steep climb up the street or stairs to get here (depending on what direction you’re coming from), but the view over all of Cusco is incredible and worth the effort.  You have to pay to visit the church or continue up the mountain to Sacsayhuaman, but the view from the little plaza here will only cost you a few deep breaths.

  • San Francisco Plaza – There is a lot to see in San Francisco Plaza – a smaller plaza 2 blocks west of the Plaza de Armas.  Lined with native Peruvian plants, it’s the perfect square to find a bench to rest and people watch.  Grab a coffee and pastry at one of the bakeries along the square to enhance the experience.

Was Machu Picchu Ever Really Lost?

In 1908, Hiram Bingham had been serving as a delegate at a Pan American Scientific Congress in Santiago, Chile.  As part of his journey home through Peru, Bingham was convinced to visit the archeological site of Choquequirao.  After that trip, he became fascinated with the idea that there could be “lost” cities through the Andes and wanted to explore more.

Hiram Bingham was a professor, not an archeologist, but his curiosity led him back to Peru for an expedition in 1911 where the biggest goal was to find Vitcos – the place most historians called the “lost city of the Incas.”  In order to discover this city, he had to ask the locals to take him through the Sacred Valley so he could continue his search along the Urubamba River.  They found several archeological sites, but Bingham was not convinced they had found Vitcos. 

They eventually reached the small village of Mandorpampa, about 30 minutes from modern-day Aguas Calientes, where they met a local farmer named Melchor Arteaga.  Arteaga was the first to tell him that there were some Inca ruins on the other side of the river and took Bingham there the next day.  Those ruins turned out to be what we now know as Huayna Picchu mountain.

On the skirt of this stunning mountain, he met another family that had been farming crops on some of Machu Picchu’s terraces for a long time.  That day, Bingham was led by Machu Picchu’s first tour guide, the farmer’s son Pablo, who knew Machu Picchu like the back of his hand. 

Most of the city was under dense vegetation so its significance wasn’t quite realized on first discovery.  Hiram Bingham took some pictures and decided to keep exploring other archeological sites with the locals who finally led him to Vitcos.  The locals called Vitcos “Rosaspata” so Hiram Bingham could not identify for certain that they were in the right place.  He believed Rosaspata was Vitcos and Machu Picchu was another place called Vilcabamba.  Later he realized that Vilcabamba was a bit more rustic while Machu Picchu had impressive, finer stone walls. 

A year later, in 1912, Hiram Bingham was sponsored by the National Geographic Society and Yale University to return to Peru to clean up the vegetation at Machu Picchu with the help of the locals.  What started as a 4 month excavation became a multi-year project with much of Machu Picchu still under vegetation today.

In 1915, Bingham began exploring the Inca Trail as well.  He was genuinely surprised to find such fine stone walls preserved at Machu Picchu and the other sites after so many years left by Inca civilization.  Bingham tried to find out the history of Machu Picchu, but his investigation never revealed the true story.

We know now that Machu Picchu was built during the reign of Inca Pachucutec in the 1400s and that it was abandoned after a century around the time the Inca kingdom was invaded by the Spanish in the 1530s.  It’s believed the Spanish never found Machu Picchu because it was abandoned prior to their arrival. 

It’s hard to say that Machu Picchu was “discovered” by one person because this incredible city was never forgotten or lost by locals.  The communities around the area knew it was there for centuries, but it’s thanks to Hiram Bingham’s exploration that Machu Picchu has finally found its rightful place at the world’s eye.

Is it “safe” to travel to Peru right now?

Here are a few things to consider before you plan your trip.

  • Peru is still seeing new cases of COVID-19 daily, but most of the cases are found in the hot spots of Lima and other coastal towns.  The Peruvian government has taken steps to limit exposure in these areas by requiring both masks and face shields in all public places.  Cities in the Andes, like Cusco and Puno, still have a mask requirement and curfew, but they are seeing significantly less cases per day in those cities.
  • The 14-day quarantine requirement has been lifted.  The Peruvian government is updating COVID-19 travel requirements every 14 days, but for right now you can travel to Peru with documentation showing a PCR test with a negative result received within 72 hours of your departing flight.  The negative PCR test is still required whether you’ve received a vaccination in your home country or not.  The PCR test or an antigen test performed in Peru (at your own expense) will be the only accepted documents to allow you to freely roam around Peru.  When you travel from city to city, you will be required to sign a sworn affidavit that you don’t have any symptoms and you must follow the guidelines specific to that area, which will likely include wearing a mask, following a curfew, and practicing social distancing. 
  • The majority of Peru’s tourist attractions are outside so it’s much easier to safely social distance.  Some indoor attractions are open to a limited capacity too, so you should be able to visit all the places you would like to see as long as you’re following the government guidelines.

BOTTOM LINE: It is as safe to travel to Peru now as it is to travel to most other countries as long as you’re willing to follow the government’s rules.  Tourists are starting to come back, restaurants and hotels are following a strict protocol to clean between guests/patrons, and the locals are doing everything they can to help keep the communities safe and healthy for everyone. 

If you have any specific questions or are thinking about scheduling your trip, please contact us and we can help plan and navigate the requirements. 

Why Hiking Off the Beaten Path in Peru Should Be Every Hiker’s Dream

Peru is one of the richest countries in the world for so many reasons that have nothing to do with money – the kindness of its people, the culture, traditions, impressive landscapes, and its yummy cuisine are just a few of the things that make this country what it is.  This is a place that inspires you to go out and experience everything it has to offer, and you’ll find the best opportunities to do this in places you may never have heard of before. 

Here are 3 hikes off the beaten path that will change everything you think you know about Peru: 

  • Salkantay/Savage Trek to KM 82 – The Salkantay “Savage” Mountain stands in the heart of the Mollepata district – 3 hours south of Cusco by car.  The trail head in Soraypampa offers a spectacular view of the Salkantay and Humantay mountains and the sleepy Humantay glacial lake below.  From there, the similarities to the Classic Salkantay Trek end though.  This hike takes you to the northwest towards the Incachiriasqa Mountain – the highest peak of the hike standing at about 4900m/16000ft – and is more often used by local ranchers rather than hikers.  The trail offers 360-degree views of the region with its incredible snow-capped peaks and grassy slopes.  It takes 7-8 hours of hiking to get to each campsite, but you’re rewarded with a quiet night and starry sky.
  • Lares Trek plus Short Inca Trail– This trek is one of the few places in the Cusco region where the Inca descendants are still alive, pasturing their llamas, plowing the soil, and keeping their Inca textile practices to create fully self-sustaining communities.  The trail begins from the heart of the foothills in the Sacred Valley of the Incas – Huaran.  It will take 7 to 8 hours to hike between campsites, but you will pass several villages and meet many local people who will come to say hello, share their stories, and sell their textiles.  With the blessing of Pacha Mama, you may be able to see the Milky Way on the first night and take a dip in the natural hot springs by day two.  This trek immerses you in the living Inca culture the whole way before you ride the Iron Horse (train) to the cherry on top of the cake – the last leg of the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
  • Ancascocha – While the Inca trail may be well-known by outdoor adventurers and covers the front page of all kinds of magazines, the Ancascocha Trek is the complete opposite.  You may never have heard of this trail, but it’s strikingly similar to the Inca Trail with one added bonus – it’s one of the few places in the northwest of Cusco where the Inca ruins were not touched by archeologists since the Incas left the area.  The trail is rated as “challenging” but the views in each stop are extraordinary and you’re likely to have those views all to yourself.  Make sure you bring plenty of water and sunscreen because there is not much shade along the route which means your views from the top will be unobstructed by tall trees.  You’ll be able to enjoy the impressive flora and fauna along the way too while getting up close to llamas and alpacas who roam freely along the hillside before eventually hopping on the train along the Urubamba River to Machu Picchu.

These are just a few of the many trails that lead to Machu Picchu and other destinations in the Inca Trail network, but they offer some of the best opportunities to experience living Inca culture along the way.  If you really want to avoid the crowds and discover the riches of Peru, get off the beaten path and live it.

Free Admission to Machu Picchu? Here are the Facts

As we enter week 9 of Peru’s state of emergency, there finally does appear to be some end in sight.  The most recent quarantine extension will last through May 24th and it is expected to be lifted this time in a phased approach. 

While there has not been any communication about what the phased approach will look like, President Vizcarra did pass a legislative decree on May 11th stating that entrance to Machu Picchu and 54 other national parks and landmarks will be open to the public again beginning July 1, 2020.   The decree also stated that from July 1 to December 31, 2020, there will be free admission to all of those sites for children (under 18), senior citizens (over 60), and any public servants.  The free admission applies to both Peruvians and foreigners.

If you’re able to get down to Peru this year or the quarantine has forced you to stay here until after July 1st, this would be a great opportunity for you and your family to take advantage of the free admission.  Here is a list of all the sites included:

No.CULTURAL SITEDISTRICT
1Chavín Archaeological SiteAncash
2Nazca lines and geoglyphsIca
3National Museum of Peruvian CultureLima
4Royal Tombs of Sipán MuseumLambayeque
5Bruning National Archaeological MuseumLambayeque
6National Museum of SicánLambayeque
7Huaca Ventarrón Archaeological MonumentLambayeque
8Chan Chan archaeological complexLa Libertad
9Huacas del Sol y Luna Archaeological Complex – MocheLa Libertad
10Huaca el Brujo Archaeological ComplexLa Libertad
11Exhibition Hall “Gilberto Tenorio Ruiz”Amazonas
12Kuélap Archaeological MonumentAmazonas
13Ancash Archaeological Museum “Augusto Soriano Infante”Ancash
14Museum of Archeology, Anthropology and Natural History of Ranrairca – YungayAncash
15Anthropological Archaeological Museum of ApurímacApurímac
16Regional Historical Museum “Hipólito Unanue”Ayacucho
17Quinoa Site MuseumAyacucho
18Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum of the Monumental Ensemble of BelénCajamarca
19Regional Museum “Daniel Hernández Murillo”Huancavelica
twentyArchaeological Museum and Inka Palace “Samuel Humberto Espinoza Lozano de Huaytara”Huancavelica
twenty-oneRegional Museum of Ica “Adolfo Bermudez Jenkins”Ica
22Julio C. Tello de Paracas Site MuseumIca
2. 3Junín Regional Museum (Chupaca)Junin
24Loreto Amazon MuseumLoreto
25Gold Room of the Municipal Museum of VicúsPiura
26Sillustani Archaeological MonumentPuno
27Juli “Our Lady of Asunción” Temple MuseumPuno
28Departmental Museum of San MartínSan Martin
29Tacna Regional Historical MuseumTacna
30Site Museum of Las PeañasTacna
31Archaeological Zone and Site Museum Jiménez BorjaLima
32Cumbe Mayo Archaeological MonumentCajamarca
33Huallamarca Archaeological Complex and Site MuseumLima
3. 4Kotosh Monumental Archaeological Zone: Hands Crossed Temple, Temple of the Nichitos, White TempleHuánuco
35Pachacámac Archaeological Monument and Site MuseumLima
36Mateo Salado Archaeological ComplexLima
37Caral-Supe Archaeological Monument, World HeritageLima
38Aspero Archaeological MonumentLima
39Vichama Archaeological MonumentLima
40Wari Archaeological Site and Site MuseumAyacucho
41Huaca Rajada Archaeological MonumentLambayeque
42Túcume Archaeological Monument Route A and BLambayeque
43Chotuna Archaeological Monument – ChornancapLambayeque
44Tipon Archaeological ParkCUSCO
Four. FivePikillacta Archaeological ParkCUSCO
46Ollantaytambo Archaeological ParkCUSCO
47Pisaq Archaeological ParkCUSCO
48Chinchero Archaeological ParkCUSCO
49Moray Archaeological ParkCUSCO
fiftySaqsayhuaman Archaeological ParkCUSCO
51Qenqo Archaeological SiteCUSCO
52Puka Pukara Archaeological SiteCUSCO
53Tambomachay Archaeological SiteCUSCO
54Regional Site MuseumCUSCO
55Machupicchu Archaeological Park, Inka Trail network and Machu Picchu “Manuel Chávez Ballón” Site Museum CUSCOCUSCO

Please contact us to help with any arrangements when we’re able to start making plans again.  Our staff is ready and willing to take you anywhere you want to go!

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