Cusco is a bit like a restaurant menu that’s just too long. When time is precious, how do you choose from the dazzling array of museums, galleries and archaeological sites on offer? Cusco’s “boleto turistico” alone has more than a dozen attractions included in the price. And while many of the city’s sights are truly breathtaking not all of them are everyone’s cup of tea. But don’t worry. If you start to feel a bit “Cuscoed out” there is a huge selection of sights within striking distance of the city limits. A half or full day trip to the pretty market town of Pisac is just one of those must-do trips, and is justifiably a firm favourite with many visitors.
Top of the list for day trips from Cusco – beautiful Pisac
The short and winding road
At little more than three quarters of an hour by taxi from Cusco on a good road, Pisac should be on everyone’s itinerary. The drive, climbing high above Cusco through fragrant Eucalyptus forests, skirting around Sacsayhuaman and various other “minor” Inca sites makes a trip to Pisac worth it for the journey alone. As you make your final descent into town you are treated to panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and the steep-sided valley as it leads you down into the pretty town. It’s a photographer’s dream, so even if you have had your fill of Inca archaeology you should still visit Pisac for memories that will stay with you long after you head home.
On top of the world: Fine views from the Inca ruins at Pisac
There are two reasons most people visit Pisac. The wonderfully well preserved Inca ruins and the huge artisans’ market. Calling the archaeological site at Pisac “ruins” is a little misleading as the Inca citadel is remarkably well preserved and many of the buildings have undergone full reconstruction to give visitors an idea of what life would have been like here when it was constructed in the mid 1400s.
Perched high on a spur above the town the views are stunning and on a sunny day you can walk along the terracing, eye-to-eye with the falcons that ride the thermals rising from the valley floor. There are also irrigation channels, well preserved temples and narrow foot tunnel hewn out of the mountainside leading to the more remote parts of the site. Well worth spending a couple of hours or more here, especially on non-market days when it is relatively quiet.
He’ll be coming through the mountain when he comes…
The walk from Pisac town up to the ruins is steep – allow between one and a half and three hours depending on your fitness and how accustomed you are to the altitude. Alternatively, ask your driver to take you up to the site and either wait for you while you stroll around or meet you back in town after you walk down. The descent is much easier (and quicker) than the ascent.
Food, drinks and souvenirs can be bought from the shops and stalls at the entrance to the site. If you haven’t already bought your boleto turistico you can buy that here too – 130 Soles, US$41 or £26, valid for ten days. You can also buy a Sacred Valley “partial boleto turistico” which covers Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero and Moray – 70 Soles, US$22 or £14, valid or two days, or simply pay the entrance fee to the Pisac site.
Going down might be preferable to going up
Drop till you Shop
Once you drop back down into town, it’s time to shop till you drop. Pisac is literally world famous for its traditional artisans’ market which now seems to fill the entire town. There is even a giant tarpaulin covering most of the town’s central streets and alleyways which can make the experience a little claustrophobic but means you can offload your spare Nuevos Soles to your heart’s content, even in the pouring rain or when the fierce Andean sun would otherwise burn your scalp to a crisp in a matter of minutes.
Pick up a poncho: traditional textiles abound at Pisac’s market
It’s worth exploring some of the “permanent” shops as well as the market stalls especially if you are looking for jewellery, ceramics, alpaca woollens or traditional textiles. You will also find all manner of new age souvenirs since Pisac has become arguably the strongest magnet in the region for fans of alternative lifestyles. With a handful of cafes and restaurants where you can enjoy an empanada or two and a beer or coca tea, the town is also a very pleasant place to while away a few relaxing hours.
When to Visit
Pisac, and its ruins, can get very busy on official market days – Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday –and tourists flock to the town by the busload. In reality the market is now huge every day of the week and the main difference between official market days and normal days is the number of tourist buses. So if you prefer mooching around the market in relative peace and quiet, splash out on a private taxi, and make your own way here on Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday. The site is open daily from 7am to 6pm and a return taxi, with waiting time should cost around US$75 or £50.
Of course the other advantage of using your own driver is that you can ask him to stop for you at all the wonderful photo opportunities on the way. If you are really lucky, you may even find yourself with a driver like ours who spent much of the journey teaching us a few words Quechua, the traditional Andean language.
Get up close and personal with the falcons above Pisac – any day of the week…
If you have time you can stop off on your way back to Cusco at the Inca ruins of Tambomachay, Pukapukarra or Q’enqo – and enjoy wonderful views of the city below. Or you might just head straight back for a well deserved Pisco sour or Cusquena beer in the Plaza de Armas to recover from a hard day’s serious shopping!
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