Once the Capital of the Inca Empire
Getting to Cusco from Arequipa was simple and only $48.07 US through Peru Air. Our morning flight was delayed about an hour but worth the wait. After takeoff the view was amazing. Right outside my window you could see ash and smoke rising from Volcano Misti, an active volcano last erupting in 1985.
Day 1: Morning | Book Train to Machu Picchu
Straight away, Esau and I went to the local train station for tickets to Machu Picchu. Because Esau is Peruvian he can only buy tickets there, not the airport. Also, super important to buy tickets a few days in advance during low season and even further out in high season, otherwise they’ll sell out. Keep in mind, these are TRAIN tickets only, not tickets to enter Machu Picchu.
Tickets are limited and a bit confusing to figure out on your own. Basically, before entering Machu Picchu you can either stay in Aguascalientes which is the town right below Machu Picchu or an hour away in Ollantaytambo. If you stay in Ollantaytambo you'll need to take the train in the morning over to Aguascalientes. Once in Aguascalientes, you're at the base of Machu Picchu and will only need to take the bus up the mountain or hike the peak.
Esau thought it would be nice for me to experience the train ride during daylight so we decided to stay the night in Ollantaytambo and travel by train to Aguascalientes in the morning. It was definitely gorgeous and after seeing how cute the little town of Aguacalientes was, plus the thought of seeing Machu Picchu during sunrise, I'd love to stay there if given another chance.
Machu Picchu ticket options are as follows:
Ollantaytambo 8:00 a.m. - Machu Picchu 9:25 a.m.; Machu Picchu 6:20 p.m. - Ollantaytambo 8:05 p.m. $105
Urubamba 10:30 a.m. - Machu Picchu 1:34 p.m.; Machu Picchu 6:10 p.m. - Ollantaytambo 7:51 p.m. $180
Ollantaytambo 1:27 p.m. - Machu Picchu 2:50 p.m.; Machu Picchu 8:53 a.m. - Ollantaytambo 10:52 a.m. $90
Ollantaytambo 1:27 p.m. - Machu Picchu 2:50 p.m.; Machu Picchu 9:50 p.m. - Ollantaytambo 11:35 p.m. $95
Ollantaytambo 6:10 a.m. - Machu Picchu 7:40 a.m.; Machu Picchu 6:10 p.m. - Ollantaytambo 7:51 p.m. $125
The first option worked great for us and Esau was able to get combo tickets - one on the nicer train and the other on a local train. A certain number of locals are able to get deeply discounted tickets to Machu Picchu by traveling on less fancy trains. Esau paid $3 US on the way back for a standing ticket while I paid nearly $60 US.
Day 1: Afternoon | Explore Spanish Colonial Architecture
Kokopelli Hostel Cusco sits in the center of town. We checked in after buying tickets to Machu Picchu and took off to Greens for lunch - a touristy organic cafe with steep prices and delicious food. My latte, smoothie and salad were incredible. Esau chose an alpaca wrap which was delicious, too.
With full bellies the two of us left to explore the city. Cusco is located in the Peruvian Andes and definitely leaves an impression. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, the city is now known for Spanish colonial architecture and archaeological remains. Plaza de Armas, the central square in old city is full of carved wooden balconies, arcades and Inca ruins.
When the Spanish invaded, they took over the city and damaged many ruins. Most notably, they built the baroque style Santo Domingo Convent on top of the Inca Temple of the Sun, Qoricancha. The convent still has archaeological remains of Inca stonework and is gorgeous at night (not shown).
Women from the countryside make daily trips into Cusco to pose with tourists for tips. If you'd like a photo with a baby llama make sure you offer up a few soles in exchange. Multiple women may rush you and become aggressive requesting more money. Be fair and clear about the exchange before you take any photos.
If you wander through the center of town toward the back right corner you'll stumble upon a very famous stone down a tiny cobblestone street. The 12-sided rock previously used in an Inca palace and is now part of the palace of the Archbishop of Cusco. It's an example of how perfect Inca architecture really was. You can’t even slide a piece of paper between the stones - they fit perfectly together.
Later on, Esau and I found a local restaurant off a small side street. They offered "el menu" for eight soles. El menu included lomo saltado, soup and a cup of tea. You sure can't complain when your meal costs less than $3 US!
Before closing, we stopped in a few tourist offices to gather information. The following day would be a tour to Rainbow Mountain and then Esau and I would explore Sacred Valley. Our hostel was offering a Rainbow Mountain tour for 120 soles but the shop only wanted 60 soles, so make sure to shop around.
Kokopelli is a tough one for me. In a previous life I would have enjoyed it much more but found the stay to be pretty obnoxious. The hostel is huge and people were constantly coming and going (and pretty noisy). There’s an open air rooftop allowing guests to smoke indoors. Bags can be kept at the front but its a bit of a hassle.
The location is great - right near the city center and breakfast was really nice. Things seemed clean enough and Kokopelli offers free tea near the communal area. Overall, unless you’re in your 20’s and looking for friends, don’t bother.