Little known tourist attractions in Cusco

Even forgetting about Cusco city, the Cusco region is one of Peru’s most exciting areas. The lead attraction is Machu Picchu, but many visitors overlook the area’s lesser-known attractions. Many people choose to spend at least three days near the city, and nearly everyone takes at least another two or three days to visit Machu Picchu and the other sites in the Sacred Valley. Still, many other villages and areas stimulate the energetic traveler with more than a week to spend. The Instituto Nacional de Cultura in Cusco has identified 36,000 known archaeological sites.

Chinchero, an old colonial settlement resting on Inca foundations overlooking the Sacred Valley and boasting a spectacular market, is only forty minutes’ drive northwest of the city of Cusco. To the northeast, towards the jungle, the attractive village of Paucartambo, built in colonial style and famous for its annual festival, nestles among breathtakingly high Andean panoramas close to Tres Cruces. On this remote mountain spot, locals and globetrotters alike go to experience a uniquely spectacular sun rising from the depths of lowland Amazonia.

Chinchero

CHINCHERO (“Village of the Rainbow”) lies 3762m above sea level, 28km northwest from Cusco and off the main road, overlooking the Sacred Valley, with the Vilcabamba range, the snowcapped peak of Salcantay dominating the horizon to the west.

The town itself is a small, rustic place, where the local women, who crowd the central plaza during the market, still wear traditional dress. Primarily built of stone and adobe, the town blends perfectly with the magnificent display of Inca architecture, ruins, and megalithic carved rocks; relics of the Inca veneration of nature deities. The best time to visit is September 8 for the lively traditional fiesta. Failing that, the market, smaller but less touristy than Pisac’s, has good local craftwork.

The market (Sunday morning) is in the lower part of town, reached along with Calle Manco II. Uphill from here, along with the cobbled steps and streets, you’ll find a vast plaza, which may have been the original Inca marketplace.

It’s bounded on one side by an impressive wall somewhat reminiscent of Sacsayhuaman’s ramparts, though not as massive – it too was constructed on three levels, and some ten classical Inca trapezoidal niches can be seen along its surface. On the western perimeter of the plaza, the raised Inca stonework is dominated by a carved stone throne, near which are puma and monkey formations.

The plaza is also home to a superb colonial adobe Iglesia (daily 7 am–5.30 pm; entry by Cusco Tourist Ticket, available here or in Cusco). It dates from the early seventeenth century. It was built on top of an Inca temple or palace, perhaps belonging to the Inca emperor Tupac Yupanqui.

Who particularly favored Chinchero as an out-of-town resort – most of its aqueduct’s terraces, many of which are still in use today, were built at his command? The church itself boasts frescoes, murals, and paintings, though decaying, still very beautiful and evocative of its colonial past, and many about the Cuzqueña school and celebrated local artist Mateo Cuihuanito. The most interesting depict the forces led by local chief Pumacahua against the rebel Tupac Amaru II in the late eighteenth century.

Northeast of Cusco

The two prominent places to visit northeast of Cusco are Paucartambo, 112km from Cusco, and Tres Cruces, another 50km beyond Paucartambo.

The road between the two follows the Kosñipata Valley, whose name means “Valley of Smoke,” then continues through cloudy tropical mountain scenery to the mission of Shintuya on the edge of the Manu National Park. Legend has it that the Kosñipata enchants anyone who drinks from its waters at Paucartambo, drawing them to return repeatedly.

Paucartambo

Eternally spring-like because of the combination of altitude and its proximity to tropical forest and guarding a significant entrance to the jungle zone of Manu, the pretty village of PAUCARTAMBO (“The Village of the Flowers”) is located some 110km from Cusco in a wild and remote Andean region. A silver-mining colony run by slave labor during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it’s now a popular destination at its best in the dry season between May and September, particularly in mid-July when the annual Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen takes place.

Visitors arrive in the thousands, transforming the village from a peaceful habitation into a considerable mass of frenzied, costumed dancers.

With its white buildings and traditional blue balconies, the beautiful central plaza has concrete monuments depicting the characters who perform at the party– demon-masked dancers, malaria victims, lawyers, tourists, and just about anything that grabs the imagination of the local communities. Also, on the plaza is the rather austere chapel, restored in 1998 and splendid in its way, simple yet full of large Cuzqueña paintings.

It’s also the residence of the sacred image of the Virgen del Carmen, unusual in its Indian (rather than European) appearance. When the pope visited Peru in the mid-1980s, it was loaded onto a truck and driven to within 30km of Cusco, then paraded on foot to the city center so that the pope could bless the image. Even if you don’t make it to Paucartambo for the festival, you can still see the ruined Chullpa burial towers at Machu Cruz, an hour’s walk from Paucartambo; ask in the village for directions. Travelers rarely make it here outside of festival time unless en route to the rainforest by road.

Transportes Gallitos de las Rocas buses leave from their Cusco office (Av Diagonal Angamos 1952; T226895) daily to Paucartambo ($8.50; 3–4hr) and three times a week to Pilcopata. Trucks, which leave from the end of Avenida Garcilaso, beyond the Ormeño office, are slightly cheaper but slower and far less comfortable.

Buses generally stop off in Paucartambo at the marketplace, from where you cross the stone bridge into the central part of town up to the plaza, where, during festival times only, there’s a tourist information office.

The Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen

Paucartambo spends the first six months of every year gearing up for the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen. It’s an essentially female festival: tradition has it that a wealthy young woman, who had been on her way to Paucartambo to trade a silver dish, found a beautiful (if body-less) head that spoke to her once she’d placed it on the plate.

The energetic, hypnotic festival lasts three or four days (usually July 16–19, but check with the tourist office in Cusco) and features crowds of locals in distinctive traditional costumes, as well as dancers and musicians, with market stalls and a slight fair springing up near the church. Clamoring down the streets are throngs of intricately costumed and masked dancers and musicians, the best-known of whom is the black-masked Capaq Negro, recalling the enslaved Africans who once worked the nearby silver mines.

Note the grotesque blue-eyed masks and outlandish costumes, a parody of the white man’s powers. Malaria, a post-Conquest problem, tends to be a central theme.

An older adult suffers terrible agonies until a Western medic appears on the scene, with the inevitable hypodermic in his hand. Suppose he manages to save the older man (a rare occurrence). In that case, it’s usually due to a dramatic muddling of prescriptions by his dancing assistants – and thus does Andean fate triumph over science.

Tres Cruces

The natural special effects during sunrise at TRES CRUCES are, in their way, as magnificent a spectacle as the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen. At 3739m above sea level, on the last mountain ridge before the eastern edge of the Amazon Forest, the view is a marvel at any time: by day, a vast statement over the start of a massive cloud forest with all its weird vegetation; by night an enormous star-studded jewel.

Seen from the highest edge of the Manu Biosphere Reserve, the sunrise is spectacular, particularly around the southern hemisphere’s winter solstice in June: multicolored, with multiple suns, incredible light shows that last for hours. Transport to Tres Cruces can be a problem, except during the fiesta; however, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Transportes Gallitos de las Rocas buses to Paucartambo continue to Pilcopata or Salvación; beyond Paucartambo, you can disembark at the Tres Cruces turn-off ($20; about 6hr from Cusco).

But be prepared to walk the remaining 14km into Tres Cruces itself, though you may get a lift from a passing vehicle (especially early in the day from late June to mid-July).

Northwest from Cusco

It takes about thirty hours to travel from Cusco to Lima via Abancay, Andahuaylas, and Ayacucho, then down to the Pisco Valley on the coast, just a few hours from Lima. Though only knocking off around four hours from the trip, a more direct route goes to Abancay, then crosses the Andes to join the coast at Nazca (5–6hr from Lima). If you take the Nazca route, there are a few opportunities to break the journey, for example, at Tampumayu (056/523490). A small Andean style hotel-village with individual houses of stone, adobe, pan-tile roofs, a restaurant, and a bar, located about halfway between Puquio and Abancay at Km 361.

Whichever route you choose, you’ll pass through the village of Curahuasi. Within its district are a couple of diverting sights: by the community of Concacha, and some 3500m above sea level, is the archaeological complex of Sayhuite comprising three massive, beautifully worked granite boulders.

South from Cusco

The first 150km of the road (and rail) south from Cusco towards Lake Titicaca passes through the beautiful valleys of Huatanay and Vilcanota, from where the legendary founders of the Inca Empire are said to have emerged.

A region outstanding for its natural beauty and rich in magnificent archaeological sites, it’s easily accessible from Cusco and offers endless possibilities for exploration or random wandering. The whole area is ideal for camping and trekking, and in any case, only the towns of Urcos and Sicuani are large enough to provide reasonable accommodation.

Heading south from Cusco by road, after about 5km, you pass through the tiny pueblo of San Sebastián. Originally a small, separate village, it has become a city suburb.

Nevertheless, it has a tidy little church, ornamented with Baroque stonework and built on the site of a chapel erected by the Pizarros in memory of their victory over Almagro. The next place of any interest is picturesque Oropesa, some 25km on, traditionally a town of bakers. Whose adobe church, boasting a uniquely attractive three-tiered belfry with cacti growing out of it, is notable for its intricately carved pulpit and the beautiful.

The Tipon temples and aqueducts

TIPON RUINS (daily 7 am–5.30 pm; entry by Cusco Tourist Ticket) is one of the most impressive Inca sites in setting and architectural design. From Oropesa, the simplest way to reach the ruins is by backtracking down the main Cusco Road some 2km to a signposted track. Follow this up through a small village, once based around the now crumbling and deserted hacienda Quispicanchi, and continue along the gully straight ahead. Once on the path above the town, it’s about an hour’s climb to the first ruins.

Well hidden in a natural shelf high above the Huatanay Valley, the lower sector of the ruins is a stunning sight: a series of neat agricultural terraces, watered by stone-lined channels, all astonishingly preserved and many still in use.

The impressive stone terracing reeks of the Incas’ domination over a massive and subservient labor pool, yet at the same time, it’s little more than an elaborate attempt to increase crop yield.

At the back of the lower ruins, water flows from a stone-faced “mouth” around a spring – probably an aqueduct subterraneous diverted from above. The entire complex is designed around this spring, reached by a path from the last terrace. Another sector of the ruins contains a reservoir and temple block centered on a large exploded volcanic rock – presumably some Huaca.

Although the stonework in the temple seems cruder than that of the agricultural terracing, its location is still beneficial. By contrast, the construction of the reservoir is sophisticated, as it was initially built to hold nine hundred cubic meters of water, which gradually dispersed along stone channels to the Inca “farm” directly below.

A large tapering stone aqueduct coming off the back of the reservoir crosses a small gully before continuing uphill, about thirty minutes’ walk, to a vast zone of unexcavated terraces and dwellings.

Beyond these, over the lip of the hill, you come to another level of the upper valley covered in Inca terracing, homes, and large stone storehouses.

Equivalent in size to the lower ruins, these are still used by locals who’ve built their own houses among the ruins. So impressive is the terracing at Tipon that some archaeologists believe it was an Inca experimental agricultural center, much like Moray, and a citadel.

It’s a breathtaking place to camp with no village or habitation insight and fresh running water. There’s a splendid stroll back down to the main road – take the path through the locals’ huts in the upper sector over to the other side of the stream, and follow it down the hillside opposite Tipon. This route offers an excellent perspective on the ruins and vistas towards Cusco, north and over the Huatanay/Vilcanota valleys to the south.

Pikillacta and Rumicolca

About 7km south of Oropesa, the neighboring pre-Inca ruins of Pikillacta and Rumicolca can be seen alongside the road. After passing the Paucartambo turnoff, near the ruins of an ancient storehouse and the small red-roofed pueblo of Huacarpay, the road climbs to a ledge overlooking a vast alluvial plain and Lucre Lake (now a weekend resort for Cusco’s workers). At this point, the route traces the margin of a stone wall defending the pre-Inca settlement of Pikillacta.

Spread over an area of at least fifty hectares, PIKILLACTA, or “The Place of the Flea” (daily 7 am–5.30 pm; entry by Cusco Tourist Ticket), was built by the Huari culture around 800 AD, before the rise of the Incas. Its unique, geometrically designed terraces surround a group of bulky two-story constructions: apparently, these were entered by ladders reaching up to doorways set well off the ground in the first story – very unusual in ancient Peru.

Many of the walls do build of small cut stones joined with mud mortar, and among the most exciting finds here were several round turquoise statuettes. The city is in ruins these days, but it still seems evident what took up much of the site by barrack-like quarters.

When the Incas arrived early in the fifteenth century, they modified the site to suit their purposes, possibly even building the aqueduct that once connected Pikillacta with the ruined gateway of Rumicolca, which straddles a narrow pass by the road, just fifteen minutes walk further south.

This massive defensive passage, RUMICOLCA (open all day; free), was also initially constructed by the Huari people and served as a southern entrance to – and frontier of – their empire.

Later it became an Inca checkpoint, regulating the flow of people and goods into the Cusco Valley: no one was permitted to enter or leave the valley via Rumicolca between sunset and sunrise. The Incas improved on the rather crude Huari stonework of the original gateway, using regular blocks of polished andesite from a local quarry. The gateway still stands, rearing up to twelve solid meters above the ground, and is one of the most impressive Inca constructions.

Andahuaylillas and Huaro

About halfway between Rumicolca and Urcos, the otherwise insignificant villages of Andahuaylillas and Huaro hide deceptively beautiful colonial churches. In the tranquil and well-preserved village of ANDAHUAYLILLAS, the adobe-towered church sits above an attractive plaza, fronted by colonial houses, just ten minutes from the roadside restaurant where buses and minibusses drop off and pick up passengers. Built in the early seventeenth century on the site of an Inca temple, the church has an exterior balcony from which the priests would deliver sermons. While it’s a relatively small church with only one nave, it is a magnificent example of local colonial art. Huge Cuzqueña canvases decorate the upper walls. Below are some unusual murals, slightly faded over the centuries; the ceiling, painted with Spanish flower designs, contrasts strikingly with a tremendous Baroque altar.

The road leaves the Río Huatanay and enters the Vilcanota Valley to the south. HUARO, crouched at the foot of a steep bend in the road 3km from Andahuaylillas, has a much smaller church whose interior does wholly covered with colorful murals of religious iconography, angels, and saints. The massive gold-leaf altarpiece dominates the entire place as you enter. Out in the fields beyond the village, as you climb towards Urcos, you can see boulders gathered together in mounds to clear the ground for the simple ox-pulled plows that do still used here.

Urcos

Climbing over the hill from Huaro, the road descends to cruise past Lake Urcos before reaching the town, which shares the lake’s name. According to legend, the Inca Huascar threw his heavy gold chain into these waters after learning that strange bearded aliens – Pizarro and his crew – had arrived in Peru. Between lake and town, a simple chapel now stands poised at the top of a small hillock: if you find it open, go inside to see several excellent Cuzqueña paintings.

The town of URCOS rests on the valley floor, surrounded by weirdly sculpted hills. It centers on the Plaza de Armas, where several substantial old trees give shade to Indians selling bread, soup, oranges, and vegetables. On one side of the plaza, which is particularly busy during the town’s excellent, traditional Sunday market, there’s a large, crumbling old church; on the other, low adobe buildings.

Viracocha’s Huaca

One of the unusually shaped hills surrounding Urcos is named after the creator-God Viracocha. He is said to have stood on its summit and ordered beings to emerge from the hill, thus creating the town’s first inhabitants. In tribute, an ornate Huaca with a gold bench was constructed to house a statue of the god. It was here that the eighth Inca emperor received a divinatory vision in which Viracocha appeared to him to announce that “great good fortune awaited him and his descendants.” The emperor obtained his imperial name, Viracocha Inca, supposedly his first inspiration to conquer non-Inca territory. However, his son, Pachacuteq, carried the empire to its most incredible heights.

The Temple of Raqchi, the Puente Colgante and Sicuani

Between Urcos and Sicuani, the road passes through San Pedro de Cacha, the nearest village (4km) to the imposing ruins of the TEMPLO DE RAQCHI (daily 9 am–5.30 pm; $8), built-in honor of Viracocha, the Inca creator god. Buses pass within a few hundred meters of the temple entrance. The temple was built to appease the god Viracocha after he had caused the nearby volcano of Quimsa Chata to spew out fiery boulders in a rage of anger, and even now, massive volcanic boulders and ancient lava flow scar the landscape in constant reminder.

With its adobe walls over 12m high on top of polished stone foundations, the site does scatter with numerous other buildings and plazas, such as barracks, cylindrical warehouses, a palace, and aqueducts. Raqchi was an important religious center. Today the only ritual left is the annual Raqchi Festival (usually June 16–22), a dramatic, untouristy fiesta comprising three to four days of folkloric music and dance – performed by groups congregating here from as far away as Bolivia to compete in the central stage.

The performances are well stage-managed, but the site can be mayhem in a boggy field, with hundreds of food stalls, a funfair, Quechua women selling chicha maize beer, and their drunken customers staggering through the tightly knit crowds.

Also accessed from the Urcos to Sicuani road, there’s the PUENTE COLGANTE, a hanging or suspension rope bridge that has been rebuilt almost ceremonially every year since before the Spanish conquest. Annually, up to a thousand locals gather on the second Sunday in June to rebuild the bridge using traditional techniques and materials, including ichu grasses, to make ropes for the 33-meter span.

The building and celebrations generally take three or four days and conclude with a ceremony and dancing between the area’s principal Ayllus or clans. To get to the Puente Colgante, you have to get off a bus or combi at Combapata, about 30km before Sicuani and 10km further south than Checacupe. From Combapata, it’s another 31km (45min more by car) to the suspension bridge.

SICUANI, about 20km from Raqchi, is the capital of the province of Canchis and quite a thriving agricultural and market town, not entirely typical of the settlements in the Vilcanota Valley. Its busy Sunday market is renowned for cheap and excellent woolen artifacts, which you may also be offered on the train if you pass through Sicuani between Puno and Cusco.

Although not a particularly exciting place in itself – with too many tin roofs and an austere atmosphere. The people are friendly, and it makes an excellent base for trekking into snowcapped mountain terrain, being close to the vast Nevada Vilcanota mountain range, which separates the Titicaca Basin from the Cusco Valley.

Camping is the best way to see this part of Peru, but if you haven’t got a tent, there are several hotels in town, including the reasonably comfortable Hostal Tairo, C Mejia 120 (T351297). The train journey south continues towards Puno and Lake Titicaca. The Vilcanota Valley begins to close around the line as the tracks climb La Raya Pass (4300m) before dropping down into the desolate pampa that covers much of inland southern Peru.

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