Trip Report: 5 days in Cusco and the Urubamba Valley

Cusco city centre

By Marisol

Discovering Cusco and the Urubamba Valley

There are so many new options coming up in Cusco and the Urubamba Valley – to stay the night, to dine and to be active – there was no doubt that part of our trip was going to be spent in the area, trying out new services and hotels.

I define the Urubamba Valley as the area between Pisac and Ollantaytambo and also encompassing the town of Chinchero and the archaeological remains of Maras and Moray. This is an area where Aracari guests stop for a few days after they land at Cusco airport. The reason they do this is because it is a valley of absolute beauty that lends itself to a variety of outdoor pursuits, and lies at lower altitude than Cusco, making acclimatisation easier. Plus there are wonderful places to stay:  luxury hotels, lodges and private villas. After our guests visit this area, they go to Machu Picchu (which is the goal of most everyone’s trip), and then they visit the city of Cusco.

The whole area has changed much over the years since I have been travelling here,  and there is so much on offer: different options for different tastes, which is a wonderful thing. We also have new people to meet and old friends to visit,  and there was a great deal of fun to be had!

On arrival into Cusco Wanchaq Station, after our 11 hour train ride from Puno on the Andean Explorer, we were swiftly whisked to Urubamba town  (1 hour and 30 minutes), on the outskirts of which the lovely Rio Sagrado hotel is situated.  On the way, we saw the sunset over the Vilcabamba range, which was fantastic.

Urubamba is a sad case of poor (or rather a complete lack of) orderly development, and the result is a defaced urban enclave. The town’s bright blue concrete coliseum, the smart new concrete hospital and a couple of schools on several stories have all sadly been built on the sides of the road.  That, in addition to half-built homes, shops and street vendors advertising their product in a haphazard way, makes what could be a charming and inviting hub for this bucolic paradise instead a place to be avoided.

In fact, any charming little village or small town in this area – poor (but charming and tastefully built through the years) as it may be, perhaps with adobe houses in need of a good paint job, thatched or tiled roofs and cobblestoned streets – immediately becomes defaced as soon as visitors start pouring in courtesy of tourism. Thanks to tourism, the authorities seem to have more money to spend, leading them to “improve” the town’s looks. Instead of leaving the place as it is, restoring and keeping the little town’s charm, they immediately erect horrible nouveau-Inca statues, brightly coloured colosseums of concrete and polarised-window, multistoried  City Halls on the main square, paving the streets instead of keeping them as they are, or having them cobblestoned. From the point of view of the town’s authorities it is their way of embracing “modernity”, without realising that what they are actually doing is spoiling the charm of the town.

We saw it in the making when we stopped for a break,  biking into the little and (formerly charming) village of Maras, whose lovely Main Square is currently being excavated to accommodate a multi story market, and, as a backdrop, the city hall towering above.
Instead of unwinding on a bench in the sleepy Plaza de Armas, we had to sit in our car witnessing this destruction of the Plaza. The mayors in the Valley towns and villages should make a field trip to San Pedro de Atacama to learn by example.

Anyway, enough doom and gloom! My advice to you is that when you decide on visiting the Valley, try your best and to get into the landscape: hike, cycle, ride or take any possible means of transport to get you away from the main roads, and don’t expect much charm in most towns. In a very short time, you will be witnessing gorgeous landscapes, amazingly remote village scenery and very traditional lifestyles.

Hotels and Haciendas, Lodges and Private Villas, are all located outside of the urban enclaves, which is a blessing. Our all time favourite Hacienda is of course Huayo Ccari, unmissable during any visit to the valley. We had a delightful lunch with the owners and their children, and our great friend Lisy Kuon, who conducts our Art history tours. The Huayo Ccari Museum is a must during visits and lunch at the Hacienda.

Fly Fishing

We really got out into the landscape when we went on a day out fly fishing – possibly one of the best days on our entire trip. It involved a drive of approximately 1 and a half hours (1 hour on paved road, 30 minutes on unpaved road) all the way up to 4,000m. We headed from Urubamba to Lamay, a little village in the Valley, and from there we drove uphill for 30 minutes to the lagoon belonging to the community of Pachar. On the way there had been a mini landslide which presented a major obstacle, with large boulders blocking the way.  But a few comity members appeared and duly helped our guide Alvaro and our driver Wilmer to haul the stones out of the way.

We got to the lagoon and the rest of the day was pure bliss, the location was remote and beautiful. There were plenty of Andean wild ducks, and all you could hear was their occasional flapping in groups across the lagoon. Nico and I are complete novices at fly fishing, but after our day with Alvaro, I feel I learned a great deal and Nico (with the help of Alvaro of course) even caught a couple of trout.
I would strongly recommend a day fly fishing under the expert care and guidance of Alvaro, to novices and experts alike, visiting the Urubamba valley. It is not only about fishing, it is about getting into the landscape and getting to see the real Peru. There were a couple of shepherds with their flocks who were extremely entertained by our pursuit and sat on the banks of the lake to observe us for a long time. Alvaro set a lovely table for our picnic,  on a makeshift deck built by the community right by the lake, but we had to abandon that idea because it got really windy. It is best to start early in the Andes, because after 1pm (sharp) it gets very windy and the windchill factor makes it feel very cold.

Hot Air Ballooning

On that particular day we were a bit late for fishing, because we had been ballooning early in the morning.  This is a brand new activity in the Valley or at least noone has been carrying out this activity for the last 8/10 years. The Hot air Balloon company Globos Peru is excellent: they have first class equipment and an expert pilot. We thoroughly enjoyed our 45 minute overflight, which started at 7.15 am. We were collected at our hotel  and driven for about 20 minutes, where our deflated balloon was waiting for us. We witnessed it being filled with air, which was fascinating, and once it was ready did we hop inside the (very smart) basket holding 4 passengers and our licensed pilot, and up we went!

It was a wonderful and unique feeling (first time for us). Luis, our pilot, expertly changed altitudes between 150 and 350 metres to catch the air currents which made us drift. This is real hot air ballooning, where you go where the wind takes you. Luis knows where the current tends to carry you at that time of the morning so he confidently changed altitudes to take us to our destination. The support team and driver were in constant contact with Luis so they were at the right spot to collect us when we landed. The landing was very soft, by the way. This is an experience I would highly recommend, as the views are stunning and the feeling is fantastic. It would be a good idea to organise the balloon ride  over an Inca archaeological site (which wasn’t the case this time round, but we can make it happen), in order to make the visit extra special. I would also not recommend organising an additional activity for the morning ensuing the balloon ride, because one really doesn’t know how long its going to take. It all depends on the wind.

Mountain Biking

Another highlight of our time in the Valley was the mountain biking experience. It is true that one has to have some sort of degree of skill and fitness level, but Paul and his expert team will guage your level right there on the spot and take you through a terrain you can handle. We went with Paul, Oliver (Paul’s 8 year old son and a very skilled cyclist) Nico and I. we went through unpaved village roads on flat and slightly hilly terrain until we reached Maras, and from there to the Salt Pans of Maras. The terrain was challenging, Nico passed on this one and went by vehicle. I, meanwhile, tried my best and fell in the process (I am a complete novice on Mountain biking) and I wasn’t half bad (that’s what Paul said, surely to flatter me!). We ended with a visit to the Salt Pans of Maras at sundown which was perfect. Again, unbelievable scenery and a highly recommended activity.

Urubamba Valley Hotels and Dining

Both Rio Sagrado and Sol y Luna hosted us gracefully in their lovely deluxe hotels which we loved staying at. These are our two favourite options in the Valley, with a slight preference to Sol y Luna as it has a better sense of place, which is an Aracari “must”. At Rio Sagrado we had an excellent cooking lesson and Nico especially enjoyed eating his personally prepared Pizza at Pizza Night (a kiddie highlight) at the Sol y Luna.

There are many dining options outside hotels in the Valley and from now on we will urge our clients to go out and about while they are staying here, not only for the dining but for the experiences to be had. For example, having dinner at Heart’s Cafe in Ollantaytambo, is not only delicious, nutritionally sound and excellent value, it is also a way to learn something about the environment you are in. Heart’s Cafe is the cafe/restaurant connected to a wonderful charity called “Living Heart” which helps with children’s nutrition in remote communities in the area. They do wonderful work (as we’ve previously mentioned on the Aracari Blog), and dining there is a way to learn and contribute with their work.

There are other great options, too, such as gourmet restaurants “Los Tres Queros” and “Huacatay”, or atmospheric venues with high quality entertainment such as Wayra, next to Sol y Luna. So if you are staying in the Valley, don’t necessarily stay at your hotel every night for dinner. Get a cab and go out, and you will enjoy it.

Choco Museum and Workshop

And then, after so much activity and our lovely morning with Sonia Newhouse the founder of Living Heart – which filled us with  energy and inspiration – we headed to Cusco, to try out the much-announced new Hotel by Orient-Express, Palacio Nazarenas, and visit and stay at other hotels. We also met with Carmen of Aracari who was inspecting other properties, and we had a lovely chocolate workshop together at the “Choco Museum” in Cusco (owned and run by  a young French man and soon opening a branch in Lima) another highly recommended visit.

Cusco Hotels and Dining

Palacio Nazarenas just opened a month ago, and it is finding its feet. Its “Urban retreat” concept, to encourage guests to stay longer and use more of the hotel, is very interesting and the heated outdoor pool (the only one in Cusco) is thoroughly inviting. Our two Giancarlo butlers were charming and helpful and did their best to accommodate our every need. Nicolas loved “Misky” the soft toy snake given to little kids who stay.

The rooms are large and comfortable, we stayed at a “Chica” “Z” Suite. The “Z” indicates that the suite has something special, such as a particularly nice view, or an architectural feature. Travel agents on inspections please bring a big notebook when you visit, as there are suites, grande suites and chica suites some with the “Z” and some without. So it is important to take good notes. Breakfast also aims at being  a different concept. There is no buffet but a served breakfast and a la carte cooked options. The idea is not to rush but to enjoy the process. I took my time and enjoyed my breakfast. In short, it is a very different option to the Monasterio Hotel next door: more exclusive for guests, more contemporary with larger rooms and more spacious in general. Monasterio is an architectural highlight of the city and a grand property. Nazarenas is discreet.

A pleasant surprise was the “La Lune One Suite hotel”, which is just that, a small boutique hotel that has actually 2 spacious and well decorated suites, on the second floor of a centrally located period building. The owner and host Arthur is charming and the restaurant “Le Soleil” (open to the public) offers superb and uncomplicated French cuisine with local accents. This was the best meal that I had in Cusco. If you want personalised and authentic hospitality this is the place for you. There are no keys and no signatures every meal, and there are no strict schedules. You are treated like a friend and not a paying guest. And we love this at Aracari. We felt, on departure, that we had a new friend in Arthur.

And last but not least on the hotel front, is the wonderful 3/4 star option (and our new favourite), the brand new Plaza de Armas Hotel. Hands down the best location, the best level of comfort and with excellent, simple decor for a moderately priced hotel in Cusco. Check the pictures (also on our recent blog article), they say it all. 360 degree view of the city from the rooftop, and most rooms have an amazing view. Double glazing keeps it noise free.

The Museo Machu Picchu, housing the artefacts found at Machu Picchu and which were held until recently at Yale University is well worth a visit. I found the models of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary to be superb and the exhibits showing the discovery of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham to be very educational. “Casa Concha” where the museum is housed, is an excellent example of Colonial secular architecture, so all in all another good visiting option.

And as an addition to our restaurant guide: Green’s organic, a casual and lively restaurant perfect for families (great juices and smoothies).

And that was that, we already long to go back!

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