7 Reasons You Should Check Out Cusco and the Inca Trail

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Last month I traveled to Peru on a solo mission. I stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Cusco for a week then left to hike the Inca Trail with a tour group. The experience was remarkable and I’m still dealing with residual post-trip travel blues.

There’s far too much to sum up about my journey, so instead I figured I’d share a few reasons why I’d recommend this trip to everyone. 

Side note: I could have listed twenty more reasons, but these are the qualities that stuck out to me most. Also, nobody has time for that. 

Cusco is one of the most beautiful, historically rich cities I’ve visited. 

And I like to think I’ve seen my fair share of gorgeous, interesting places around the world. You may already know that Machu Picchu is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, but what you might not realize is that the city of Cusco itself is also on the prestigious list. 

Once you take a stroll around Plaza de Armas in the city’s historical center, you’ll understand why. The historical part of Cusco has (maddeningly small) cobblestone roads, fountains, steep, winding streets, painted blue doors, and some of the most impressive architecture I’ve seen anywhere. 

Not only is the city lovely to gaze upon from a café balcony or a bench beside a fountain, it’s also super walkable. You can mosey through the San Blas neighborhood and stop for a drink in a cafe, peruse jewelry stands and clothing boutiques, wander through the main square to people-watch, cruise over to the San Pedro Market for a fresh juice, and admire temples, churches, and cathedrals on every corner. 

I had the most wonderful time taking leisurely walks through the city, reading on benches, sitting on steps to watch the school kids and backpackers walk by, browsing in stores, and just generally soaking it all up. 

The food in Cusco is delicious and so diverse. 

Roasting cocoa beans during a chocolate-making class!

Roasting cocoa beans during a chocolate-making class!

Peruvian food is everywhere and it’s fantastic—think salted beef, grilled chicken, rice, potatoes, alpaca, guinea pig (it’s a specialty!), and the most flavorful quinoa soup. 

Full disclosure: I didn’t try the guinea pig or the alpaca because I’m not the biggest fan of meat that isn't chicken or turkey (even those I only like in small doses). 

But I ate at a lot of amazing restaurants during the week and even took a chocolate-making class where I learned how to assemble a proper pisco sour (Peru’s national drink) and temper my own chocolate à la Lucille Ball! I roasted the cocoa beans, ground them up, melted the chocolate, poured it in my seashell mold, added coconut, almonds, and sea salt, then wrapped my tiny chocolates in foil! It was a blast. 

The fanciest chocolate mousse there ever was. It's decked out with green apple slices, edible flowers, and edible strands of gold. 

The fanciest chocolate mousse there ever was. It's decked out with green apple slices, edible flowers, and edible strands of gold. 

Among my other favorite meals was a mushroom truffle risotto from Incanto, a chic Peruvian-Italian restaurant, and a quinoa brûlée with apple puree from Greens

Pad Thai from Green Point

Pad Thai from Green Point

The real standout, however, was Green Point, a small vegan place that served some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life, vegan or otherwise. I’m not vegetarian or vegan, but I visited this place on a friend’s recommendation and was so pleased I had to come back twice. 

My favorite dishes? Gluten-free pad thai, rice and beans with grilled eggplant and zucchini, and raw chocolate mousse. I’d plan another trip to Cusco just to eat at this restaurant. 

The most flavorful, spicy rice and bean dish from Green Point.

The most flavorful, spicy rice and bean dish from Green Point.

The people are friendly and warm. 

My Inca Trail group just after climbing Dead Woman's Pass on the second day!

My Inca Trail group just after climbing Dead Woman's Pass on the second day!

Cusco is very touristy—there are people walking around in the main square trying to sell you small wooden bowls and massages and nature tours and the chance to take your picture holding a baby alpaca. The only time I caved was for a massage, but hey? Twelve dollars for a sixty-minute full-body rubdown was so worth it. 

Beyond the haggling and nagging though, which you learn to circumvent by avoiding eye contact with people and replying to persistent shouts with a nonchalant “No, gracias,” the people are lovely. 

Everyone I spoke with was friendly, thoughtful, and kind. I particularly liked the company of a woman named Carmen, whom I met when I was buying a fresh juice from her stand in the San Pedro Market. 

As I sipped my pineapple-mango-prickly pear juice, Carmen grilled me about the pronunciation of various English words (bathroom, bedroom, squash), then scribbled them down in a small blue notebook. She was particularly shocked and disappointed to learn that the fruit she thought was a peach for her entire life was in fact a nectarine. But that didn’t stop her from giving me a second juice in a to-go cup (at not extra cost) when I left. 

Beautiful handmade goods at a village in the Sacred Valley.

Beautiful handmade goods at a village in the Sacred Valley.

Another plus? As opposed to Europe, where everyone assumes you only speak English if you’re a tourist, in Cusco everyone assumed I spoke Spanish unless I proved them wrong. 

This was wonderful for practicing my Spanish skills and I loved having the chance to wander around new linguistic terrain with cab drivers, servers, and old fedora-wearing men who sidled up to me on benches and kissed my hands and told me stories about their long lives.

It’s the perfect spot for adventure and history. 

Sacsayhuaman

Visiting the various Inca sites in and around Cusco and the Sacred Valley isn’t like taking your average guided tour. Most of the places you visit will require some small amount of walking, hiking, or stair-climbing, making these trips pretty inherently adventurous and active. 

And when you get an interesting little history lesson on top of your scenery and adventure? That’s just a bonus. 

The country has a laid-back, casual vibe. 

Forget your all-black ensembles and chic booties—Peru is not a fashion-forward country. This isn't to say people who live there are slobs or morons when it comes to coordinating an outfit—they’re not at all. It’s just that the country as a whole doesn’t seem to place value on style and trendiness, which happens to be one of my favorite things about it.

Most people wear comfortable, casual clothes that are conducive to walking and accommodating the changing temperature. Every day I wore a plain T-shirt, jeans, sneakers, and a puffy down jacket, but there are also plenty of people who rock hiking pants and boots all day long.

The bottom line: you don’t need to worry about your appearance and that’s a beautiful thing. 

The Inca Trail is spectacular. 

When I signed up for the four-day Inca Trail trek, I thought it sounded like a cool, badass way to see Machu Picchu, rather than taking the train there for a day trip. 

I also thought there was a good possibility I’d be crawling along the path, knees shaking with fatigue, or else pausing every few hours to vomit on the side of the trail due to altitude sickness.

I’m happy to report I was right about the trail’s cool factor and completely off-base about how I’d fare. Despite its difficulty, I felt strong, healthy, and confident throughout the trek, not to mention totally inspired and rejuvenated.  

The trek itself is around twenty-five miles and takes place over three solid days of hiking, with the fourth day culminating in a visit to Machu Picchu. The trail features hands down the most spectacular scenery I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. 

The Andes mountains are so breathtaking—depending on the light and time of day, the mountains will appear to be any number of gorgeous earthy shades: deep navy blue in the early morning, vibrant green in the early afternoon, forest green as the day goes on, and tinted gold as the sun sets. 

There are snow peaks, grassy windblown passes, lakes, rivers, forests, streams, and jungle. All of it is absolutely marvelous and untouched. 

Not only that, but there are tons of Inca sites and ruins throughout the trek. Each one of these sites is more beautiful than the last, and each one is completely empty of crowds, guards, and ticket counters. 

The best part about hiking the Inca Trail wasn’t the sense of accomplishment I felt upon finishing it (although that was massive), but the many quiet moments of wonder and awe I experienced along the way. 

I was a bit faster than the other people in my group, so I hiked the the majority of the trail completely alone. I had some of the most reflective, awe-inspiring, and gratitude-filled moments of my life while I was walking or resting in solitude. 

To push yourself physically, walk the same path thousands of people before you have walked, and spend intimate, quality time with Pachamama (Quechua for “Mother Nature”) is a wholly spiritual experience, one I won’t soon forget. 

The tour groups make your experience as luxurious as possible. 

At a friend’s recommendation I chose Valencia Travel Cusco as my tour group for the Inca Trail trek, and they did not disappoint. 

We had the sweetest, most thoughtful porters lugging our food, camp equipment, water, and trash (we carried our own backpacks with personal belongings and sleeping bags) across the mountains.

Our amazing porters looking like a competitive track team in their matching outfits! Terrible lighting and my eyes are closed here, but you get the idea. 

Our amazing porters looking like a competitive track team in their matching outfits! Terrible lighting and my eyes are closed here, but you get the idea. 

Every morning they’d shake our tents gently, whisper “Bueno dias,” and offer us some coca tea to start the day. They packed up and set up our tents every day and night, hiked far distances to get fresh water and boil it, and made all our meals. 

When we stopped for lunch after a long morning of trekking, they’d greet us with fresh fruit juice and a round of applause. And when we finished our hiking at the end of each day, we’d find bowls of cold water and bars of soap outside our tents so we could freshen up. Before dinner every night they’d set up afternoon tea for us in the dining tent—complete with buttered popcorn, jam and bread, tea, and hot chocolate to whet our appetites. 

And the food! It was even better than the food I ate in fancy restaurants in Cusco. Our chef made five-course meals with dishes like grilled trout, chicken salad, quinoa soup, roasted vegetables, crispy potatoes, salted beef, mango ceviche, asparagus wrapped in turkey, and fresh guacamole with corn chips. 

For breakfast, there were quinoa crepes, corn pancakes, omelettes, fruit platters, and chocolate quinoa porridge. For dessert: banana flambé, chocolate pudding, and cake.

Machu Picchu! Look at all the little rows of people!

Machu Picchu! Look at all the little rows of people!

Have you ever been to Peru? If so, did you love it as much as I did? Feel free to share your stories and ask me any questions you might have about the trip! 

P.S. More travel adventures.