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Things to do in Cusco other than Machu Picchu

After our six weeks in the jungle, a quick border hop for a new visa and a revisit to the lovely Arequipa, we arrived in Cusco, one of the most visited cities in Peru.

When you arrive in Cusco it will quickly become apparent that everyone is trying to get you to go to Machu Picchu. Why else would you be in Cusco after all? Whilst Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail were definitely a highlight of our trip, you might be wondering how you can occupy the rest of your time in the city. If like us you plan on spending more than a few days in the Cusco, the city has plenty of charms to offer.

Hike between the Inca Sights in the Cusco Hills

Next to the Inca Trail this in our opinion is the next best thing to do in Cusco. If you like hiking and want an easy trail to break you into the altitude then this is definitely a good way to spend a morning. So here are a few directions to help you out.

We started by taking a taxi to Tambomachay, the furthest Inca ruin. Admittedly it is probably the least impressive sight of the day but still worth a look.


Across the road is Pukapukara. You really can’t miss this Inca ruin if you stand with your back to the Tambomachay car park. Cue a few more touristy poses…


Now with your back to thePukapukararuins, turn left and walk along the road. You will pass a row of eucalyptus trees and just beyond these is the start of the trail back to Cusco. Looks a bit like this…


The turning for the trail is just before this lake…


With the lake on your right hand side, follow the trail and after 15 minutes or so you will reach a field in a little valley. Follow the field to the furthest corner (it slopes downwards slightly) and on the right hand side you will see a little trail alongside a small forest. Within a few minutes of walking along the hillside you’ll see these ruins…


Either view from above or descend to take a closer look like we did.


Then simply follow the valley down to the Moon Temple.

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And from here it’s a fairly straightforward walk to Q’enqo. If in any doubt ask a few locals to point you in the right direction. The path is sign posted but can be missed if you, like us, decide to follow the mountain bike track instead. Whoops.


Once you’ve explored Q’enqo it’s a further short stroll along the road to the impressive Sacsaywaman. By far the highlight of the day.

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All these sights are included in the BoletoTuristico. It’s definitely worth buying this combined ticket if you plan to stay a few days and see all the ruins around Cusco. It should be purchased in advance from the COSITUC office on Avenida Sol 103, in the centre of Cusco just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas.

Take a Tour of the Sacred Valley

Some choose to take a few days to explore, perhaps spending a night in Ollantaytambo, but we chose to do a day tour of the Sacred Valley. The ruins were busy, as being on a tour we arrived at the same time as every other tour group, but the sights were impressive nonetheless. Our tour visited Ollantaytambo and Pisac, but be sure to check which sites your tour visits as each tour is slightly different.




And at the end of our tour we were treated to a demonstration of wool dying, spinning and weaving, which despite the expected pressure to buy something this was a nice way to end the day.



Again the BoletoTuristico is a worthwhile purchase for any of the Sacred Valley tours.

Admire the Architecture and Visit Q’orikancha

Maybe we are just easily pleased but with a few sunny days during our visit to Cusco we were quite happy strolling around the city’s streets and admiring the people and the architecture.

We also stumbled across Q’orikancha. Certainly worth a few hours of your time thisseventeenth century church is impressive andguidebook recommended.



With the huge numbers of international tourists that visit Cusco everyday it is not surprising that the city has an equally impressive supply of international cuisine. Glossing over the McDonalds, the Starbucks and the KFH some of our favourites were Jack’s Café, a “gringo” restaurant with fantastic food, and Papachos, a gourmet burger restaurant with 5 or 6 veggie options to keep us happy.


Unfortunately you wont be able to explore the streets of Cusco long without being offered about a million massages. In fact “Massage, Lady?” pretty much followed me around the streets. Having ignored the offers for the best part of a week and after our 4 day Inca Trail, I couldn’t resist trying one. On the recommendation of a fellow backpacker I treated myself to a massage and pedicure at Andina Spa. I second the recommendation, especially after a hike.

But if all this isn’t enough to convince you to visit Cusco then look out for our next blog on the long awaited Inca Trail. Booked six months in advance we were naturally anxious to see if this experience would live up to the hype…

Paracas and Islas Ballestas: The “Poor Man’s Galapagos”

Known to most as the “Poor Man’s Galapagos” the Ballestas Islands in Peru are famed for their wildlife. With this reputation we had high hopes for our day trip from the little town of Paracas.

Like us, many opt for the combined tour – in the morning a boat trip to the islands and in the afternoon a trip to the National Reserve.


It’s an early start of 8am when you head out on the boat and with just about as many tourists crammed in as birds flying above, it gets a bit crowded…



In just under 2 hours we where whizzed round the islands, spotting hundreds of different variations of birds, a few penguins, sea lions lazing on the rocks and dolphins. It’s fair to say on the wildlife front the Ballestas had lived up to their reputation. Although it was a fairly grey and miserable day this somehow intensified the colours and didn’t stop the wildlife from making an appearance…





However before we knew it we were back on dry land, having luckily escaped without a drop of bird poop. Apparently this is rare.

During our afternoon in the reserve we admired various viewpoints along the coast and some more of the various birds…







And a man with a motorbike…


But the reserve seemed to lack the wow factor we’d become accustomed too. The fossils sign posted left everything to imagination and the flamingos though pink were mere specs in the distance. Perhaps the grey weather didn’t help.


The Cathedral Arch, once a great attraction, had unfortunately collapsed in an earthquake…



The lunch stop naturally provided some overpriced restaurants in the middle of nowhere, and a free pisco sour the size of a thimble. But it did mean we got hassled by and up close to some of these feathered friends…


Who artfully backed Sam into a corner…


However for under £10 for the day we couldn’t really complain. And although the boat trip was brief, it’s worth it just to get a look at some of the wildlife on show.

Our Little Oasis: Huacachina

After our flight over the Nazca lines we decided to head for a bit of sun and sand in nearby Huacachina. Laying back on the sand, maybe a quick dip in the water and all over 25 miles from the coast. The oasis of Huacachina is now well established on the backpacker route for those interested in sand boarding and dune buggy rides.


The Ica desert, whilst not enormous benefits from gigantic sand dunes that have attracted tourists seeking the thrill of sand boarding. Having done some in San Pedro, Sam and I couldn’t wait to give it another go. Lauren was more excited about lying back in the sun with the local turtles.


Whilst all the hostels and travel agents in town offer sand boarding expeditions, we quickly noticed that the equipment was a bit rubbish. Most of the “sand-boards” on offer were in fact home made and you were meant to lie down on them like a sledge.

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Sand-board Peru is one of the only places to offer proper boards (well maintained) and the focus of the trip is the sand boarding. Most other agencies put their emphasis on the sand buggy rides. The buggy rides are good fun, but be prepared to be thrown about in the custom made vehicles. It’s not uncommon to turn up for a tour and find the police doing spot safety checks on some of the buggies.


After a quick re-introduction, we set off to the big dunes. The size of these monsters made the ones in San Pedro look like a children’s play park. We spent 3 hours moving between increasingly large dunes in the sand buggy as the sun set. Sam and I were soon reacquainted with getting faces full of sand, but at least we had a set of wheels to get us back to the top again.  We finally finished with a bit of starlight boarding back into town.


Even if you aren’t interested in sand based activities then Huacachina is still a nice place to stop for a couple of nights. All around the edge of the oasis there are plenty of bars and restaurants. The accommodation options aren’t great, but most places are fine for the short amount of time you’ll be there.

It’s also a good place to go and visit a couple of Peruvian vineyards. Whilst no where near the scale of Concha y Toro in Chile these vineyards have plenty of history and are also all producers of pisco.

After our wine tasting we headed for a pisco tasting, with everything from pisco cream to double strength pisco. In our group we had several Peruvians, two Aussies, three Brits and a Korean and as a result we all exchanged our words for “cheers” in various languages. However when we tried to teach the group the meaning of “bottoms up”, were pretty sure our Spanish translated as “arses in the air”…whoops. Ten glasses of pisco later we left (on unsteady legs) with several samples in hand.


Flying over the Nazca Lines

After much deliberation on whether to fork out nearly US$100 for a 30 minute flight over the Nazca lines we conceded. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, these ancient geoglyphs can only really be appreciated fully from the air.


Small fears of my occasional travel sickness surfacing, we prepared to board the 6-seater plane…



With two-pilots up front, one acting as a guide, and two fellow friends, we settled in for the ride.



And wow…



The Nazca lines themselves are a little hard to see at first but once spotted, these “drawings” are intriguing to say the least.




In all honesty though, we were more impressed by the flight. If you’ve never been in a light aircraft before this is a perfect opportunity to try it. The plane twists and turns with ease to make sure you get the best views and it is an entirely different sensation to that of a passenger jet.

However if a flight isn’t for you then the Nazca lines can be seen from a viewing platform just outside town.


We opted to stay in Nazca for a few nights. There are a few decent restaurants to keep you occupied but not an awful lot else. If you’re short on time, like our friend Claire, you can get an over night bus from Arequipa, do the flight early in the morning and head on in the afternoon to our next destination Ica.

Visting the “Ice Princess” in Arequipa

As the mini bus from our Colca Canyon tour approached the outskirts of the city of Arequipa I quickly realised I had grossly underestimated the size of the place. Not having read the guidebook yet, and having become accustomed to the smaller more basic towns in Bolivia I was pleasantly surprised that before I knew it I was driving past a Starbucks.


Arequipa is in fact one of Peru’s largest cities and is the second most industrialised and commercial in the country. The centre of town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and whilst there is plenty to do in the city, like us, it is easy the while away the days enjoying the pleasures of modern city life again. We ate good food, drank coffee and socialised with the friends travelling with us.

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If you’re in Arequipa, even only briefly, there are two sites we highly recommend seeing.

Firstly we visited the “Ice Princess” or “Juanita” at the Museo Santuarios Andinos. Juanita, like the Children of Llullaillaco, which we visited in Salta, she as an excellent example of an Inca Mummy, a child sacrificed to the gods, buried and frozen on Mount Ampato. No photos but the tours of the museum are well conducted and the artifacts are fascinating.

Secondly a visit to the Santa Catalina Monastery is a must. Built in 1579 it is over 20,000 square meters and still has approximately 20 nuns in residence today. We got up early and arrived for opening. The sign on the door said it opened at 9am, despite the guidebook saying 8.30am, but they let us in at 8.30am anyway!

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I urge you to drag yourself out of bed and do the same, as by about 10am the tour groups started to arrive disrupting the tranquillity of the place. Our pictures were people free and the morning sun made the colours and the architecture truly beautiful.

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We wandered around undisrupted for a good few hours.



Occasionally one of our group would get in shot…


But most of the time we had the place to ourselves…


Well except for a few creepy nun mannequins and some guinea pigs in the larder…

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We were a bit snap happy so here’s a few more shots to inspire you to visit…


Condors and Cliffs: Colca Canyon

After our days at Lake Titicaca we headed to the Colca Canyon, one of Peru’s most visited attractions. With a depth of over 3500m, Colca Canyon is over twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. Yet another high altitude and sheer cliff experience for Lauren!

The bus from Puno direct to Chivay at the end of the canyon is another great scenic drive where there’s a chance to see flamingos, alpacas, volcanoes and high altitude vistas. We must have finally reached our limit, whilst all the other tourists were snapping away on their cameras Lauren and I watched a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad. Lauren commented that snapping photos of llamas must be as funny to the locals as tourists taking pictures of sheep in Britain is to us.


At the highest point on the journey there’s a chance to get out at an old Inca way station. The Incas used to leave small stone cairns to the gods here to ask for a safe journey. There are hundreds of them spread all over the top of the pass with towering volcanoes (worshiped as gods) in the background.


Sadly they were all knocked over when the road was built and all the ones in the photo have been subsequently built by passing gringos. Go us!



Colca Canyon has two main attractions, hiking and condors. This is one of the few places where you’re all but guaranteed views of Andean condors – you might see one or you might see a hundred. Whilst the hiking opportunities are meant to be great we weren’t all that interested so decided on just the condor trip.


We imagined we were pretty lucky as within 10 minutes of us turning up there were over twenty condors flying directly over our heads on the thermals.



The adults are black and white whilst the juveniles are a brown colour.

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With a wingspan of around 10 feet (Almost Iain and a half) it is one of the largest birds in the world. The Incas believed them to be sacred as they were capable of flying above the tallest mountains, which they considered to be gods, so the birds feature heavily in native arts and crafts. A final fact is that they are reported to live for over 70 years.



There was also a hummingbird darting around. I was desperate to try and get a photo with one of the worlds smallest birds and biggest birds in, but alas wildlife just won’t pose properly.


The Colca valley was one of the most important fertile valleys for the Inca empire, but habitation in the valley predates the Incas by thousands of years. Every patch of soil in the valley has been terraced and given over to farming for hundreds if not thousands of years. The word “colca” refers to a type of cylindrical building built into the cliff sides to keep grains and potatoes cold. There used to be hundreds all over the canyon, so Colca Canyon is literally the canyon of colcas.


The town of Chivay is particularly small and most people just use it as a stop off before heading on a canyon tour. If you’re stopping by, make sure you head to the thermal baths. Ask the locals or a taxi driver, as you want to go to their one, not the tourist baths. Even at the local baths there are dedicated tourist pools. We managed to spend a good six hours lazing around, they’ll even serve you alcohol in the pools so you don’t have to get up for your pisco!

If you do a condor tour then you’ll probably get taken to one of the tourist baths for a quick thirty minute dip. It isn’t really long enough to enjoy such a nice experience, so we just went and sat by the river in the sun instead.


Floating Islands and Homestays: Lake Titicaca

After our days in the Amazon, and a brief stop over again in La Paz we made our way to Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is highest navigable lake in the world and is the largest lake in South America. It sits on the border between Peru and Bolivia.

First we stopped at the Bolivian side at Copacabana.



The journey there was interesting in itself, as after a few hours drive we were all asked to disembark whilst our bus made the ferry crossing with us trailing behind in tiny boats. And from the picture below you can see why they weren’t keen for us to be on the bus at the time…


Once in Copacabana there isn’t an awful lot to do other than visit the Isla del Sol, but that it after all why we’d come. Boats leave regularly from the port and the trip can be done as a day-trip or some choose to spend the night on the island itself. We opted for the day-trip, fearing the winter winds and cold nights on an island with no central heating. However if we did the trip again, we would probably opt to stay the night. The island is beautiful and in a day there is barely enough time to take it in.


Once we disembarked we walked across the beach and headed for the Inca Ruins. Guided tours of the island can be arranged but are not vital – on the short 30 minute hike to the ruins all the locals point you in the right direction even if you just hesitate to catch your breath.


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After the ruins and brief stop at the mirador (viewpoint) we started off on the 7km hike across the island. If you prefer you can opt out of the hike and make your way back to the original port were the boat will be waiting, but if you feel up to it, you can be picked up from the other side of the island a few hours later. And the views really were spectacular.




A word of warning to those considering the 7km hike – there is only just enough time to do this hike in time to catch your boat. We are of average fitness and hike in the UK but bear in mind the island is undulating and is at altitude, so it will be tougher than what you are used to. Don’t hang around too long at the ruins and set off early. Also pack some sandwiches. We literally made it in time to jump on the boat and after hiking for 3 or so hours we were starving! But the views are worth it.


The next day we set off early for Puno in Peru. Puno is not much to write home about but is the gateway to homestays on the floating islands. After some deliberation we decided to go for the two-day, one night homestay tour. Sam and Claire, our travel companions, were convinced at our promise to act as translators between them and our family for the night. (Thankfully our Spanish later proved to be just good enough, if very broken!)

However first we made our way to the floating islands. Originally the Uros people constructed these islands as a method to hide from the Inca invasion. Now they are still inhabited but are mainly a tourist attraction.

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To start with we were given a demonstration as to how the islands were constructed. Essentially huge rafts of reeds are anchored down. These same reeds are used to create their houses and the boats.

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Next it was off to the island of Amantani to meet our Mamas and Papas for the night. The accommodation was basic, no running water and minimal electricity, but it was welcoming and homely.


Long story short, I had caught a stomach bug the previous evening and after spending the morning throwing up I opted to spend the rest of the afternoon in bed. With some lovely herbal tea prepared by the Mama, tea is the local cure for everything, I was quite at home under a mountain of blankets.

Meanwhile the others headed off to the highest viewpoint on the island to watch the sunset.

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By the time they returned I was recovered enough to take part it the evening celebrations. Before we knew it we were attired in the traditional dress and were off dancing with the entire village. The local children couldn’t stop giggling…and you can see why…



Only Sam really pulled off the look…


Soon it was early to bed, as the cold was setting in, and at sunrise it was early morning goodbyes to our family and back on the boat. We would highly recommend the homestay experience to anyone and it provides a livelihood to the families on the island. Speaking even minimal Spanish certainly enriches the experience, as at dinner we were able to learn about the life of the family and the island. If you don’t speak Spanish – try and link up with someone with the basics, or fumble your way through a phrasebook. The families are well used to this!

Later that day we hiked over the island of Taquile.


We were treated to a trout lunch (from the lake of course) and demonstrations of the local handicrafts.




Unfortunately by this point Iain had caught the stomach bug and so by early afternoon we were a little bit glad to find ourselves back on the mainland in Puno. But we thoroughly enjoyed the two days and would recommend it to anyone!

Wildlife in the Amazon

Pink River Dolphins and Piranhas: The Pampas

After the wet days in the Amazon Jungle and the continuous downpours in Rurrenabaque, our journey to the Pampas was never going to be easy.


Like in many rural areas in South America, the roads around the small northern town of Rurrenabaque are unpaved. What should have been a mere three hour journey along the dirt track turned out to be closer to six. In all honesty we were surprised we made it to the Pampas at all. But we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to attempt the journey…


In three people carriers without 4WD, the journey was more chaotic than our trip across the salt flats! Each car took its turn to get stuck…ours was so deep in the mud, the doors were jammed shut and we had to escape though the windows…


The farm animals and those on horseback trotted by, whilst we dug out the cars with pick axes and a ball of twine as a towrope. I say we…most of us tourists could barely stand up straight in the mud…thank goodness for the experience of our drivers…


Instead we tourists made ourselves useful by playing with this little sloth by the roadside. He really didn’t seem to care as we stood below him snapping away and instead focussed his efforts on his afternoon nap. Way to live up to the stereotype, Mr Sloth.

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So was the journey worth all the trouble? Without a doubt! As we eventually disembarked the beaten cars, ourselves coated in mud, we were greeted by the second wildlife encounter of many. Our lodges were a little way up the river and as we waited for our boat to transport us, the playful pink river dolphins made their first appearance.


Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to swim with them, we dumped our bags at the lodge and grabbed our trunks and bikinis and were in the water within minutes…


Despite trying to entice them near to us with all the tricks we’d learnt from watching “Flipper” as children, these dolphins were very much disinterested in us. Instead they were fixated with the plastic water bottle toy our guide had made for them…



Although our pictures do not show this well, they really are pink in colour! As we watched from the boat we could really see the various shades – as the dolphin gets older, the pink intensifies.


As dolphins have been one of my favourite animals since childhood this really was a fantastic experience for me. Swimming with dolphins was certainly on my bucket list. Swimming with alligators and piranhas, however was not. As we travelled back up stream to the lodge our guide took this opportunity to point out the various caimans and alligators along the riverbank and also announced the river was infested with piranhas. Best we knew after our swim I guess…


After a good rest and some wonderful food back at the lodge, on Day 4 we donned our wellies (or rubber boots to some of you) and set off in search of anacondas.


Long story short we failed to find any but we spent a good few hours traipsing through mud, grass and ponds deep enough to almost render the wellies pointless…



Somehow looking back walking in long grass looking for one of the largest snakes in the world seems like a bad idea, but at the time the intrepid explorer in all of us took over…and the ponds didn’t disappoint with other wildlife.




IMG_4381Slightly disappointed not to have found an anaconda but relieved to have made it out of the bog un-constricted we set off once again up the river to see what other wildlife we could find. And wow…we could now understand why the Pampas is famed for the endless wildlife on show.









We literally sat back and floated along, not knowing where to look first…



After seeing the capibaras, caimans, alligators, endless birds, turtles and monkeys jumping tree to tree we finished off the day with a spot of piranha fishing. In a few hours our group had caught 24, enough for a decent dinner.


Then we watched the sunset before returning to eat our catch.



The final day finished on a high. We set off in search of squirrel monkeys and before we knew it they were in the boat with us. I’m not sure who found who more fascinating…




Some admired their reflection in my lens…


Whilst others were clearly in a stand off with the monkey looking back…

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When it was time to leave they looked at us blankly as we attempted to encourage them off the boat, but as we pulled away from the bank they elegantly jumped back into the safety of their tree. And with that the wildlife adventure was over.


Sad to leave all the animals behind, that afternoon we made our way back to Rurrenabaque. Thankfully the mud had dried out so the return trip was less eventful than the previous…yet we still managed to bump into this anteater along the way….


This was right before we ran out of petrol and had to flag down a passing car to beg for a loan. Who said travelling is easy…

Once back in the little town we relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon and the next day made our way back to the airport…if you can call it that…


Although our fears of finding a tiny propeller plane waiting on the runway had been quashed on our outbound flight this time we weren’t so lucky!


With just 20 seats and two captains that we could wave at from our seats at the back, the journey started off fine. That is until they announced our plane would be diverted, as there was an “incident involving a plane” at La Paz. As a result we experienced what we can only be described as a hair-raising near vertical landing into Cochabamba. Give me a muddy track and a people carrier any day.