The Ruins of Cusco & The Sacred Valley – Learn From My Mistakes.

I don’t think I saw this region properly.  I don’t often say that.  But considering that the Inca Ruins were among the places that I was most excited to explore in South America, I have to be honest and say that if I ever do it a second time in life, I will do it differently.  Don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful time and am thrilled that I finally made it here.  But those of you planning your Cusco trips, please learn from my mistakes!

22-cuscoFirst of all, I strongly recommend researching tour companies before signing up for anything.  The majority of the vendors in the tour agency shops are selling the same exact tours.  Some give a better sales pitch than others, and some may offer slightly better prices than others.  Unfortunately, in my experience these tours are not quality.  I felt like I wasted my money on them.

The first tour I took was a “city tour” which takes the group to historic sites in and directly around the city of Cusco.  On this tour I felt rushed at each site.  They crammed too much into one afternoon.  The bilingual guide gave what I can only assume to be thorough explanations of important notable things in each site in Spanish, and then in English.  But I couldn’t understand a word she said when she spoke English.  I was told by the Spanish speakers that they couldn’t understand her either.  I considered walking out and leaving the tour at one point.

Sites on the city tour included the impressive Sacsayhuaman, Qorikancha, Tambomachay, and Puca Pucara.  Not being able to understand the guide was extremely upsetting because I genuinely had hoped to learn about these places on site.  I ended up doing more research when I got back in the evening to have my questions answered.  I also could not take pictures at our final site because by the time we reached our final ruins of the day it was already dark.

I ended up re-visiting Sacsayhuaman without a tour and payed a guide that I met onsite.  I wish I had done this in the first place and not payed twice for admission. This time I had the opportunity to walk around and really enjoy the site.  This guide gave a much more thorough and more understandable tour.

If I were to re-do these sites, or offer advice for how to do it better, there are two options.  1) research more in advance, read lots of reviews and pay more for a more quality experience.  But what I would really do is 2) rent a car for my entire time in Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.  If I had rented a car, I would not have had to pay for any tours that felt like a waste of money.  I could have spent as much or as little time in each place as I wanted without feeling rushed.  I could have hired tour guides on-site after talking to them and determining if they could even communicate.  This option would probably be more expensive than being bussed from place to place, but I think it would make for a far richer experience.  Also – nobody talks about the crazy winding mountain roads.  I am someone prone to motion sickness – so plan accordingly if you are like me.  Had I been driving, this would have probably been much more bearable.

This first set of photos is from my city tour in Cusco. Below it I talk about visiting the beautiful sites of the Sacred Valley.

Directly below is another set of images of women in their traditional garments with their lama, colorful shops set up outside sites of Inca ruins, and the famous cliffside hotel bungalows.  These are just some great visuals that might give you a feel for what the region is like.  After that, I am showing you the Sacred Valley ruins.

My Sacred Valley tour was another full day tour which started in Cusco in the morning and ended in Cusco at night.  Again, I would have preferred to break this up over two or three days.  I would have preferred to have rented a car, spent more time in each place, and hired guides on-site to my liking.  I would have probably really enjoyed staying in one of the small Sacred Valley towns, like Pisac, for a night or two while I explored the ruins at my own pace.

Pisac is the name of both a town, and the historical site that the town sits beneath.  This site is picturesque with it’s agricultural terraces, some of which are still used today, like stairs to the heavens and a mountainous backdrop.  The ruins include temples, water fountains, and even tombs built into the cliffs behind.  This site offers a great glimpse into the lives of the Incan inhabitants that once occupied this ancient site.

Another fascinating place amongst the Sacred Valley ruins is Ollantaytambo.  This site is one of the hike starting points for travelers embarking on the famed Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  This ancient town is described as a fortress.  It has similar features to all of the famous Incan towns: terraces for farming, temples and water fountains.  This site was built to mimic the shape of the oh-so-important lama, who still inhabit the area today.  When visiting Ollantaytambo, there are incredible views all the way around you.  Mountains on either side have ancient structures built into them.  The lighting was incredible here in the late afternoon, illuminating parts of the ruins and mountains perfectly for some great photos!

Another day, another tour.  There were two sites left that the crappy tour agencies were trying to sell us – Maras and Moray.  By the time I was ready to visit these sites I was really tired of bad tours where I couldn’t learn much.  So rather than the same thing, I ventured to these places on a quad-bike tour.  This tour was a lot of fun, and my first time ever driving any sort of motorbike.  If you are looking to really enjoy and spend time at these sites, this isn’t the tour for you because the focus is more about biking.

Our first stop was the Maras Salt Mine.  This is a spectacular vision of salt pools splashed with the afternoon sun.  You can walk around and explore this place freely.  It continues to be a functioning salt mine which dates back to pre-Inca times.

Next we vroom-vroomed our way to Moray, another site typical of Inca ruins.  What makes this site unique is that the spiraled terraces are complete circles.  Some believe that this mysterious place was an agricultural experiment on the part of the Incan people with respect to wind, temperature and light patterns throughout the year.

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