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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.

Hiking to Machu Picchu? How to Prepare

There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu and now that the National Park is open to tourists again, we wanted to answer a few common questions about hiking into this magical place. 

How long does it take to hike to Machu Picchu? There are several ways to hike to Machu Picchu and it can take anywhere from 2-11 days.  Currently, the famous Inca Trail pilgrimage is still closed to tourism due to the pandemic, but there are plenty of other trails to choose from.  We are specialists in off the beaten path trails, managing small groups right now for the safety of our staff and customers.  Most of our treks are 5days and 4 nights – understanding that you want to see and experience other parts of Peru while you’re in the area.

Do you have to carry your own equipment?  No, you don’t have to carry your own gear during the trek unless you really want to.  Our staff will handle everything from end to end including tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, and all food/cooking equipment.  We also provide duffel bags so we can carry your non-essential items from campsite to campsite.  You only need to plan to carry a day pack.

How do I prepare for altitude sickness? Unfortunately, you can’t prepare for altitude sickness. Every single person is going to feel differently when they arrive in Cusco (11,300ft), and there’s no way to tell if and when your body will acclimate until you get here. The best things to do on arrival are to rest, drink plenty of water, gatorade, or tea, and take your time walking from place to place.

What do you carry in your day pack?  We highly recommend you bring a day pack no larger than 30 liters (not affiliated, but something similar to these would be great).  You will be carrying any personal items you may need between campsites (passport, wallet, snacks, water, and rain gear, for example). Bonus points if it comes with a hydration bladder for ease of use.

How much water do I need to carry for the trek?  It depends on how much water you normally drink in a day or during a hike to say for sure, but we recommend bringing a 2L water bottle with you for the trek.  You will be able to refill your water at the lunch spots and at all camp sites with purified water provided by our staff.

What if I am vegetarian or I have a food allergy?  Our sales manager will ask you about your diet prior to your trip.  Based on the information you provide, our professional chef will make your meals during the trek according to your preferences or needs.

Is there a toilet along the trek?  There are usually no toilets on the trails, but we will set up a biochemical toilet at the campsites and lunch spots every day.  Along the trail, you may have to use nature.  Please keep in mind, that after using nature’s toilet, you cannot leave toilet paper on the trail.  Please bring your own plastic bag to keep any trash you may produce during the trek.  You can leave it at the campsite with our staff for them to take it off the trail at the end of the trek.

How cold are the campsites?  Depending on the hike you choose, it can get quite chilly.  We highly recommend bringing your thermal leggings.  The weather tends to drop at night, and sometimes you will get temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius.  You will get an all-weather sleeping bag and liner from us if you choose to rent one (and a sleeping mat) which will keep you warm enough in your tent, but it will be a good idea to have extra layers including a winter hat and gloves.

How do I get back to Cusco?  The First Step team will manage everything from end to end.  We will ask you questions prior to your trip so your tour guide will know where to pick you up and where to drop you off after your expedition.  The only thing you need to worry about is enjoying your Peru experience with us!

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.

Discovering Machu Picchu’s Backyard

If you’ve heard of Machu Picchu, chances are good that you’ve probably heard of the Inca Trail too.  It’s fantastic that this historic trail has gotten so much attention, but we’re finding most people now think that hiking the Inca Trail is the only way to get to Machu Picchu.  I am here today to tell you that’s not true!  There are many other trails that lead to Machu Picchu!

With the new regulations and limited permit availability for the Inca Trail, it’s becoming more difficult for people to get permits and it’s leading to disappointment among travelers.  If you want to hike to Machu Picchu and you a) can’t get a permit for the Inca Trail or b) would prefer to avoid the crowds, there are many alternative ways to get to there.  Eventually through our blogs we plan to tell you about every one of them, but today we will start with one of our favorites – the 5 Day/4 Night Salkantay Trek.

The Salkantay Trek begins from a town called Soraypampa (3 hours south of Cusco) and takes you over the snow-capped Salkantay Pass (elevation 15,091ft/4600m) through the cloudy forest and finally to Santa Teresa – Machu Picchu’s backyard.  Here are some of the things that make this trail great:

  • You will pass small villages and have the opportunity to interact with local, countryside people.
  • You will visit a coffee farm and have the freshest coffee of your life. You’ll see the process from the moment they pick the bean all the way to moment the first drop of rich brew lands in your coffee mug.
  • You have the opportunity to take a dip in some natural hot springs – they’ll be less crowded than the ones you’ll find in Aguas Calientes and you will get to feel all the benefits of the natural waters known for their healing abilities – perfect after 3 long days of hiking.
  • It’s mostly downhill! It’s not often the expression “all downhill from here” is welcomed, but after you reach the Salkantay Pass on day 2, the majority of the hike is all downhill.
  • You enter Machu Picchu from the back. This trail takes you around the mountain and into the Santa Teresa region – a part of the Andes that can really only be explored on foot.
  • It takes you through several microclimates – more than you would see on the Inca Trail. This trek has green valleys, snow-capped peaks (passing the 2nd highest peak in the Peruvian Andes), crystal clear blue glacial lakes, and the famous cloudy forest – a preview of what you would see in the Peruvian Amazon.

The Salkantay trek really is one you should consider if you’re planning to make the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu.  Even if this one might not be for you, we encourage you to consider any of the alternative treks over the classic Inca Trail.  Calling them “alternative treks” should by no means leave you with the impression they are inferior.  Any hike through the Andes will be an unforgettable experience you will never regret.

If you’re interested in joining one of our Salkantay treks, please contact us or check out our product page to reserve your space.

How to Avoid the Crowds on the Inca Trail

By now, everyone has heard of the Inca Trail – the legendary trek leading to the lost city of the Incas – Machu Picchu.  This incredible trail takes you through some of the most amazing scenery in the Andes and passes massive Inca sites you’ve likely never heard of.

Typically, people complete this trek in 4 days – 3 long days of hiking and the 4th bringing you into Machu Picchu.  Over this 4-day experience, the most common questions we get are “how much farther?” or “are we almost done?” and our favorite – “how many more stairs?

We’ve realized over time that it might be a common misconception among travelers that this trail has to be completed in 4 days.  What if we told you there is actually an option to spread the experience over 5 days?  Over this last year, we had more customers opting in for the 5-day Inca Trail and the response has been incredible.  Taking this extra day will help you avoid the crowds, make the trek less strenuous, and let you have more fun so you may even want to come back and do it again.

Here are some reasons we think you should opt for the 5-day Inca Trail if you’re considering making this life-changing journey:

  1. We take the trail at a much slower pace. The days are shorter and the campsites closer together, so you have more time to take breaks and photos.
  2. The trail takes the same path, but the campsites are different. You start your days later and further away from the 4-day trekkers which lets you avoid the crowds not only on the trail, but in the evenings when you’re relaxing and trying to sleep.
  3. You have more time to enjoy the trail and the Inca sites along the way. Many people don’t even realize that there are Inca sites other than Machu Picchu.  Taking the trail at this pace gives you a chance to really explore each site and understand their unique purpose. 
  4. You still have 3 nights camping under the spectacular southern Milky Way, but you have a 4th night at a hotel in Aguas Calientes. This gives you a chance to sleep in a comfy bed, take a hot shower, and reflect on your journey before returning to Machu Picchu on the 5th
  5. You have the opportunity to visit Machu Picchu twice. On day 4, you visit the city in the afternoon, and you go back in the morning on day 5.  With the new regulations at Machu Picchu, we can’t stay all day like we used to so this opportunity to visit twice with one ticket is unique (stay tuned for a future blog about the new timing regulations!)

Regardless of whether you choose 4 days or 5 days, taking this journey will be an experience of a lifetime.  This trail is meant to be enjoyed and we often hear from our customers that they hold more value in the journey than in the moment they step foot in Machu Picchu.  If this is something you’re going to do just once in your life, we hope you take the time to really enjoy it and appreciate every moment. 

If you’re interested in hiking the Inca Trail over 5 days this year, please contact us for availability.  We would love to be a part of your experience.

Mamacha Carmen – The Biggest Peruvian Festival You’ve Never Heard of

If you’ve been doing your research on Peru, it’s likely that you’ve heard of the huge sun festival called Inti Raymi that occurs every June.  But did you know there’s another huge festival down the road from Cusco in July?

There is a town on the eastern slope of the Andes called Paucartambo (pronounced: pow-car-tom-bo) that comes alive with its own folklore.  Just about 3 hours north of Cusco, this town has celebrated a festival as big as the Inti Raymi for centuries, and it remains one of the most excellent opportunities for travelers to experience the authentic, Peruvian culture in person. 

Origin –

The origin of this festival lies in the 17th century when K’apaq Q’ollas (llama traders), from the highlands would frequently travel to Cusco through Paucartambo offering gifts and merchandise.  On one of these trips, the face of the virgin appeared in a clay pot.  The people of Paucartambo were inspired by this apparition and created a larger image of the virgin.  Since that time, locals from the area have held this festival every year to honor and pay tribute to the sacred image.

Today –

While Cusco is obviously well-known for its history and is considered to be the folklore capital of Peru, Mamacha Carmen is an experience beyond a typical festival with just dancing and parades.  Each custom dress, mask, dance, food, and drink tells a story the Peruvian people are happy to share to those passing through.

This festival takes place every year from July 15th to July 16th beginning with a parade in the main plaza and fireworks in the evening that light up the sky.  On July 16th, the main day of the festival, there is a morning mass followed by a full day of performances of original, regional dances.  Finally, you get to witness the highlight – the grand parade of the virgin Carmen followed by dancers and worshippers behind her.

If you want to experience the Peruvian living culture for yourself, sign up here.  This can be combined with any of our other tours or treks to create the perfect itinerary for you.

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