Saturday, December 14, 2019

Roaming Around Cusco

This is the "We have finished" celebration at Lake Humantay

By Kathy
Actual Dates: September 4th - 7th

When people talk about South America there is one place that is pops in everyone’s head,  Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. What you do not realize until you start looking into traveling to Machu Picchu is how many steps you need to take to actually get there. It makes sense when you think about how many years it was a hidden civilization. But those things do not really register until you try to get there. First, you have to make it to Lima, Peru. From there you need to travel to Cusco, Peru through the air or by bus. We did a little bit of both. Cusco is the gateway to the Sacred Valley which leads you to Machu Picchu. From Cusco you sign up to hike the Inca Trail or you take a train to Aguas Caliente which is the closest town to Machu Picchu. You cannot get there by car. When we first started planning we were ready to sign up for the Inca Trail. In our minds that was wrapped up into the bucket list part of Machu Picchu. After starting research we realized that hiking the Inca Trail is expensive. It was really expensive per person and when you multiplied it by five we just could not make it work with our budget and do the other things we wanted to do later in the trip. In order to do it we would have to skip Bolivia and the Amazon. So it was a family decision to choose the Amazon over the Inca Trail. Would we still see Machu Picchu? Absolutely! But we would arrive in Aguas Caliente via train instead of our own two feet.

Our Next Travel Hiccup
We will write about all of the cool things we see but I can’t leave out our next travel hiccup. It is the other side of adventure traveling. We ran into our next travel hiccup on our way to Cusco. It actually started when we were in the states but we did not find out until we were in Peru.  The very last night we were in Arequipa we realized our credit card was not working. When I called the company I found out one of our numbers had been stolen and somebody was trying to use it for purchases in the United States. Michaels, Walmart, Best Buy, you name it they were trying it. We have spent two years traveling outside of the US without any credit card issues and we go back for one week and this happens. UGH! If we were stateside this would be an inconvenience for about a day and then another magical card would arrive in the mail but we are definitely not in the US and we had no idea where we would be staying in the future. Our lodging was only booked out for about a week in advance and we were never in one spot for more than a few days. Also, the company could not guarantee that the card would make it to us when it left the US mail service. Would it get lost in transit? This was a very high possibility. So after many international call minutes with our credit card company it was decided that nothing could be done while we were in South America. This was so frustrating to deal with knowing that the intent was malicious and could possibly make our travels really difficult over the next two months. The good news is that since we have the chip cards our credit card numbers are different even though they are the same account so at least we have one working credit card. The next really BIG inconvenience is all of the reoccurring bills that were tied to my credit card number.  So our first afternoon in Cusco was spent dealing with all of our bills.

What did we do in Cusco??

We have been traveling non-stop for a week staying in a different hostel each night and it was time for a little break. We planned a few extra days in the town of Cusco. It is a pretty touristy town since they get a lot of visitors every year on their way to Machu Picchu so it was not hard to find things to do. We decided on three different activities which ended up being day long excursions so we did not get as much rest as we thought we would get.  

Activity 1: Sacred Valley
What is the Sacred Valley? What you learn as you research the Inca civilization is that they lived all over the area. There are ruins everywhere! The town of Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire and then it was later a Spanish colony. So you have a mix of Inca ruins and a colonial style downtown area.  The area between Machu Picchu and Cusco is called the Sacred Valley. There are a couple of big Inca villages in the valley that you can get to by bus and explore. We definitely wanted to see the valley for a day.

Activity 2: Humantay Hike
The next thing we decided to do was take a hike to mountain top lagoon called Humantay. On paper it looked like a nice day trip from Cusco. It ended up being quite a lot more. We will share the details a little later.

Activity 3: 4x4 Quad Bikes
Our last activity in Cusco was riding out to one of the ruins on 4x4 quad bikes and then visiting some salt ponds. The kids were super excited about this activity and the salt ponds turned out to be something we were not expecting.

Activity 1: Sacred Valley Tour

I know I have mentioned this before but we do not speak Spanish. We are getting by with translation apps on our phone, a calculator and general hand motions. But when we sign up for tours we try to find ones with an English speaking guide. It is hard to learn when you cannot understand when is being said. We were the last pickup on our Sacred Valley tour on our first full day in Cusco. It was a big tour bus that was completely full. When our guide asked how many people speak only English we were the only ones to raise our hands! Hmmmm…. How was this going to work? Everyone on the bus was a tourist but everyone else was from a Spanish speaking country. Our guide would alternate between Spanish and English on the speaker as we drove through the valley. We did notice that the Spanish version was much longer than our English version. What did we miss?? We will never know.

Our first stop was a small local market where we could buy anything we desired made with alpaca wool. We made a few purchases and then headed to the town of Pisac. The town was in the valley but the Inca village was high up on a mountain overlooking the valley. This was when we realized that bigger villages were really vast in size and there was quite a bit of it that had been preserved. One area of the village that that stood out was how many farming terraces still remained and surrounded the village.

A good visual map always helps

The Inca village, Pisac, is set up high on the hill

You can still make out some of the buildings in Pisac

A view of the valley

Touring the ruins

This was the hillside next to the ruins. Look closely and  you will see holes in the hill. That was an Inca graveyard.

We made a quick stop in the town of Pisac

The Peruvian markets are full of color

After our stop in Pisac we went to a local restaurant for lunch. I wish I had taken more pictures of our lunch. It was a buffet with typical Peruvian dishes and this one even had guacamole. The kids ate plates of the guacamole. Their other favorite was the roasted Inca corn. The kernels were huge and nice and salty. 

Lunch Break - I wish I had gotten pictures of the food at the restaurant

Our next stop was the town of Olleytambo. This is the end of the road in the Sacred Valley. Literally the end of the road. This is the furthest town you can go to by car. From here you have to take a train. We had read about this town when we did our planning but what we did not realize was that they have a huge set of ruins and the town was very quaint with lots of small restaurants and hotels. Olleytambo is located near a river and many years ago the village made a series of canals that ran through the town to supply water from the river. It was so cool to see the little canals still being used today.

The ruins in Olleytambo. Lots of climbing.

The structures were amazing

Local animals living in the ruins

Taking llama pictures never gets old

A view from the ruins. You can see the town and the carvings on the other mountain

The small water canals running through the town

We did a little shopping for warm weather gear

Jack making a deal on some gloves

Sam's cold weather purchase

On our way back to Cusco we took the road to Chinchero. This little town was home to many groups that dye and weave alpaca fibers. We stopped for a demonstration and to purchase some much needed scarves and long sleeve pullovers.

They are getting ready to start the dying demonstration. Behind the table was a house full of guinea pigs.

Washing is the first step

Alpaca wool is very dirty

They use all natural ingredients to dye the wool

Lots of color!

Activity 2: Humantay Hike

We signed up to do a day trip outside of Cusco to Lake Humantay. In our minds it was a few hours by van, a stop for breakfast, a small 45 minute hike up a hill, hang out at a beautiful lagoon, a stop of lunch, then a return to Cusco. It turns out that the drive started at 5:30am in the morning and was a long ride to the closest town to Humantay. We knew the tour included breakfast and lunch and we were hungry when we arrived at the town. The van stopped on the side of a road in town and we were told to exit and go down into the house for breakfast. There was no sign and it was like walking into part of somebody’s house. There was a little room that had small items for sale for the hike and then a room with a large table. This obviously was not their first rodeo with a tour group but I still think it was somebody’s house and they host breakfast and lunch for the tour. After a breakfast of rolls, jam and coffee we bought some items to help with altitude sickness. Remember that bottle of 96% rubbing alcohol? Well we bought two for the hike up to the lake. We thought it make be used when we found out the guide carries bottles of oxygen in his backpack.

The trip up to the start of the Humantay hike was up a pretty big mountain with lots of switchbacks and we even had a bit of a traffic jam with a big water truck. Once we arrived we started to make our way to the beginning of the “hill” we would climb to the lake. Even before we hit any kind of incline we could already feel the effects of the altitude. To assist hikers on the way up you could opt to take a small horse up the mountain. Most people declined right away and started the hike up and then about 1/3 of the way up people started jumping on the horses. I am pretty sure we looked like a group that needed a horse so a few of the horse handlers followed us all of the way up the mountain with a horse asking if we wanted help. This “easy” hike was going to be a test of willpower for all of us. Not only was it a very challenging hike at 14,000ft  but knowing that we could get out of the hard part by riding a horse was really a true test. We would walk about ten paces and then stop, catch our breath and then walk another ten paces. Needless to say we did not make it up in 45 minutes. Eventually we made it up without the help of our horse friends and the view was amazing. We did lots of high fives and ate a celebratory Snickers bar.

Our breakfast and lunch stop. It is always and adventure. Breakfast was pretty simple but lunch was full of local Peruvian dishes

On our way to the beginning of the hike

Not a huge hill but it sure was a hard climb up

Jack making his way up!

The horse helpers

Dan with our guide. He stuck with us the whole way up to make sure the kids made it up safely. 

Getting closer

The last push to the top

The view at the top

Lake Humantay

Celebration jumping pictures!

Activity 3: 4x4 Quad Bikes

This was the activity the kids were most excited to try especially Emma. She was going to get her own quad bike and Dan and I would each have a boy on our bikes with us. After a few laps around the parking lot to make sure we got the controls down on the bike we took off following our guide to the set of Inca ruins called Moray. It took us about an hour to get there on the dirt roads and we soon realized a doing a load of laundry would be needed after this tour. We had dirt and dust everywhere. After touring the ruins we made our way back to the 4x4 garage and then hoped back on our tour van to go to the salt ponds. This was part of the tour we really had no idea what we would see. When we signed up we thought it was just the quad bikes for a few hours and then back to the hotel. The salt ponds turned out to be very fascinating. After a close your eyes and don’t look down kind of drive to the salt ponds we were greeted with an amazing view. We learned that the ponds are owned by the nearby town of Maras and families have about 30 ponds assigned to them to farm for salt. The salt ponds were built around 200AD so they have been around for a long time. It was used long ago to provide the entire Inca Empire with salt. This isn’t your plain table salt that you have in your kitchen. This pink salt has some has some beneficial minerals for skin conditions and hypertension. In more recent years they have also flavored the salt and we were able to sample it and buy some before we left the ponds. We brought home a small bag of smoked salt and it is amazing!!! I wish we would have bought more.

Sam is ready!

Emma doing her practice laps in the parking lot with our guide

Everyone is ready!

We made it to the ruins!

Why not dab in Peru?

Getting ready to head back

Emma wants one of these when we get back on land

The amazing salt ponds

Lots of different views

Lots of ponds. You can see some of the families working in the ponds.

This wraps up our time in Cusco as we take a little breather from moving around every night. It was a pretty jammed packed couple of days but we are very excited to catch the train to Aguas Caliente to see Machu Picchu. This post has gotten up in the word count department so we will save the details of our adventures visiting Machu Picchu for our next blog post!


  1. loved all these photos. Also love all the colors, particularly the dyed llama wool. thank you so much for sharing these amazing adventures. We miss you all.