Cusco, Peru and the Sacred Valley

Clockwise starting at top left: Woven coca leaf bag, million dollar bum courtesy of Gisele shot by Inez and Vinoodh for French Vogue, Mate de Coca Tea and Coca leaves, pic from my trip to Machu Picchu, background is a woven blanket I picked up in Ollantaytambo

What to pack

1. all weather light jacket good for layering, pockets a must! 2. keep that sun off your face girl! (hat by Kapital) 3. cozy sweater for cold nights 4. how about some chambray bloomers instead of the more predictable cut-offs? 5. I lived in this moccasin/ hiking boot hybrid while I was in Peru– walking on air and made in the USA! 6. your pack for all the treasures you pick up 7. some comfy sandals or tennis shoes for hot days (Bernard Wilhem x Camper) 8. there’s is so much incredible color and pattern in Peru, why not add some indigenous flare? (background image from the same Gisele/ Inez/ Vinoodh editorial– sexy, romantic hitchhiker vibe)

Last year I went to Cusco, Peru for a work trip and it was mind-blowing!  After a long trek to Lima, I hopped on another flight that dropped me high up in the Andes in a green, terraced valley.  Cusco sits nestled in the mountains and is the historic capital of the Inca Empire. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1983 by UNESCO and is culturally most well known for it’s Incan history and the story of the Spanish conquest.

I immediately felt the altitude as we de-boarded the plane, so we took it easy the first day and drank a lot of the local Coca Tea which helps your body adjust to thinner air.  Some of the locals chew the leaves out of these colorful woven hip bags, but the tea seemed easier to handle.

Cusco is definitely a backpackers town– super relaxed with a lot of indigenous flare. There are incredible textiles everywhere you look, as well as colonial architecture and cobblestone streets.  The vibe is earthy and comfortable.  You will inevitably do a lot of walking up and down hills, so it pays to be healthy, in shape, and feeling ready for different terrains and changes in weather.

I want to give a special, BIG shout out and thank you to Susie Quillinan for helping me with this post.  She practically wrote this for me, not to mention helped our crew navigate some bumps, bruises, and lots of adventure during our stay in Cusco. Susie is an Australian producer/ artist who works in Peru part of the year and she is extremely knowledgable about the area and an excellent person to have on your team– especially when you are trying to get a shot of a model in a eucalyptus grove with a moody llama. You can see some of her work/ projects here:

Beyond being an excellent guide, Susie is also involved in a really interesting project that brings urban street art to more rural locations around Peru.  “The idea is to create a public art event in remote and unexpected places as a way of taking the cultural conversation out of major centres and into smaller, culturally peripheral locations”.  Check out Proyectoafuera! Really interesting…

So here we go….


Cusco is all about the local flavor.  If you are into indigenous textiles, natural dyes, and woven goods, there are some major treasures waiting for you in the outdoor markets.

“A lot of shopping in Cusco comes down to forraging through loads of tourist-y junk to get to some gold mines. Along the street called “San Agustin“, there are a bunch of antique-y places and a few good little markets for fabrics. Also, some of the villages outside of town often have good stuff that are a little less pricey than in Cusco itself. Chinchero is a good place to go forraging, especially for accessories like hats, jewellery and blankets/throw rugs”, says Susie.

The four main markets in Cusco are San Pedro, Huanchac, San Blas, and El Barratillo.

San Pedro is the market that everyone goes to. It has everything from fruit and vegetables, meat, juice and flowers, to hats, fabrics and the colorful, patterned traditional skirts you see all the women in town wearing. It is a little more expensive than the other markets mostly because it is the most central and the most touristy. You can buy a lot of touristy stuff here, but also some great costume items.

Huanchac market is the more local version of San Pedro. The fruit and vegetables are much better and cheaper and there are also juice ladies, meats, and cheeses. Outside the market, there are lines of small stalls selling batteries, plastic things, socks and any number of odds and ends. This is not the best spot for skirts and traditional garb.

San Blas is a much smaller market, really best for juice and to pick up a bit of food.

El Barratillo is the market I visited on my last day in Cusco– It was one the highlights of my trip because I found a pile of vintage textiles, woven backpacks, hatbands, and beads. It is a black market of sorts and known for being a bit dangerous. You have to be on your guard here and avoid carrying cameras, bags etc. Word to the wise: Susie recommends tucking your cash into your bra and avoid taking anything else. This market is only on Saturday mornings and the earlier you get there, the better. People come in from all over the countryside to sell their wares and you can find amazing textiles here, not to mention antiques, furniture, broken bottles and stolen electronic goods. Pretty much anything you could be looking for, you’ll find here. Susie says El Barratillo is Cusco’s answer to Paris’s flea markets!

The textile arts in Cusco are not limited to antique finds however.

There is a fantastic design store in Cusco called Puna. It is a store that specializes in contemporary Peruvian design and is a fantastic place to see an updated version of the usual “traditional” onslaught in Cusco. It’s also a great place to buy gifts.

Apart from that, it is worth checking out the CTTC which is a museum and store on Avenida el Sol. It is dedicated to high quality weaving. The CTTC project has been going for many years and is focused on rescuing the art of weaving using traditional techniques and natural dyes. The weavings are more expensive but they are also the best quality you will find in Cusco and the money goes directly to the individual weavers.

There is a store called the Cotton House on the Plaza de Armas which specializes in Pima cotton products and there is also a store called Kuna which specializes in Alpaca and often has good quality items.

While we were in Cusco, we also worked with an Irish expat artist called Eibhlin. Her store Hilo is a modern take on the Peruvian feel- lots of layers, and hand sewn but with a burlesque-y twist.

There’s more!  Beyond all of the amazing wovens found in Peru, there is a great tradition of costumes for all of the festivals, holidays, and parades.  I went into a costume shop on Limapampa (just off Calle Tullamayo) in the city center that specializes in masks, strands of feathers, and the traditional garb worn for these special occasions.

The masks and costumes are for any one of the hundreds of festivals in and around the Cusco area! Peru is big into festivals and dances, especially in the Andes. There are special dance troupes and each have their own costume based on the character the dance represents. You have everything from the dance of the bakery girls, to the dance of the law-makers, drunkards, the ex-slaves, the Chileans, the bull fighters and everything in between. One example is the Ukuku costume, whose outfit involves elaborate layers of fringe and a white mask with ceremonial markings. This figure goes around and keeps everyone in line, makes sure the audience are taking their hats off when appropriate, and that no one bugs the dancers while they are performing. They usually have a whip which they crack to keep order in the crowd. They are a kind of clown figure, but also supposed to be a little scary too.

Local festival costumes

food/ drink

Peru is fast becoming known for it’s world class cuisine. In the Andes, the staples are still indigenous animals like guinea pig and alpaca (I couldn’t do it– there were too many other yummy options– lamb and quinoa, stuffed peppers, and cassava), but Cusco is now host to a variety of great choices with influences from around the world.

I ain’t gonna lie– I (and about 5 of my co-workers) got REALLY sick in Peru.  It was the stomach bug of all stomach bugs– I don’t know where I picked it up or what it was from, but my gut instinct (no pun intended) is that it was from some sushi. After a couple days, it passed, and I have to say everything else I ate was great and the trip was incredible, so I would do it all over again.  BUT I would come prepared with something good for your stomach.  The locals say to eat papaya seeds on an empty stomach every morning if you think you have a bug.

That being said, you gotta eat (!!), so here are some recommendations from Susie Q. who knows all the good stuff there is to know about Cusco:

Limo is a perfect example of the new fusion-style dining– they showcase Peru’s Nikkei cuisine which is a mash up of Japanese and Peruvian styles. Great for ceviche, tiradito, sushi etc. Also has a selection of traditional Peruvian mains including pork, lamb and fish dishes.

Cicciolina is Mediterranean style food using Peruvian ingredients. It has a tapas/wine bar in front and a dining room out the back for more of a formal meal. Great service and a good wine list (for Cusco!) Also has a bakery downstairs and Cusco’s best kept breakfast secret. Although this spot is usually crammed every night of the week (you can wait up to an hour for a table, definitely need to reserve,) it is usually totally empty in the mornings and you can have a gorgeous breakfast sitting in the sun drenched windows overlooking the Cusco streets.

Baco is Cicciolina’s sister restaurant and is more of a meaty affair. It is a great place to try Alpaca steak and also good for pizza and salads (which aren’t so easy to come by in Cusco). Good wine list.

Pacha Papa is the place to sample some traditional Peruvian dishes without worrying about getting sick! Designed to give tourists a taste of authentic Peruvian cuisine in a really nice atmosphere. The courtyard is perfect for a sunny day. Best dishes here: quinoa soup, Lomo Saltado and cuy.

Green’s Organic is great for the vegetarian traveler. They have good organic vegan food by the same people who did Limo.

Some good spots for a drink include:

El Pisquerito– a pisco bar for cocktails and all things pisco. It has more of a sophisticated slant for an early evening cocktail.

Frogs is a big bar with lots of rooms for the partying types. It is run by Cusco’s resident drag queen and a party spot for the travelers in town and the locals with a penchant for parties.

Siete Angelitos is a bar in San Blas with bad decoration, but usually a pretty good late night crowd. Live music most nights, bit hit or miss.

There are plenty of clubs on the Plaza de Armas which all play pretty much the same music with the same vibe. That is, gringos partying hard and locals trying to score gringos! Keep your wits about you here, but most people end up having at least one messy night in these spots.

The best of the bunch is “Ukukus” which is on Plateros (one of the streets coming off the plaza). They often have live music and sometimes quite big acts who are visiting town. Also the club of choice for locals.

where to stay

In Cusco itself, the Casa Andina Private Collection is reliable and housed in a beautiful old colonial mansion with lots of internal courtyards. The Casa Andina San Blas is also good.

For something a little smaller and more personal, the Niños Hotel is very cute and is part of a pretty great project that was started by a Dutch couple over ten years ago. They adopted a bunch of orphans and set them up with families and use the hotel and adjoining bakery to help teach the kids useful skills.

Inka Terra is a mega luxury place that is all about embracing the colonial aesthetic. Definitely more of a splurge.

In Ollantayatambo, El Albergue is the best in the whole Sacred Valley in my opinion. The gardens are gorgeous and the whole place is so relaxing you never want to leave! The restaurant is also excellent!

At Machu Picchu if you can splurge a little, The Sanctuary Lodge is a great option. It’s hidden out of the bustle and ugliness of Aguas Calientes and has a great bar and beautiful private orchid gardens.


Machu Picchu is obviously the crown jewel of the Sacred Valley.  If you have been there, you know the feeling of being truly baffled as to how human beings built this mega-empire high up in these terraced mountains by hand (no machines, no engines, no cranes).  It’s incredibly beautiful and verdant.  My one day was not nearly enough to learn all the history and hike the trails, but it made an impact regardless.

Ollantaytambo is a town about two hours driving from Cusco and is the gateway to Machu Picchu. This is a place where a lot of hippies ended up making a little community in the 70’s and is a jumping off point for MP and other valley trips.  It was once a fortress, the last stand before Machu Picchu, so is historically significant beyond it’s incredible landscape. There are loads of impressive day walks to do around here and lots of shopping in the markets on the lower plaza and around town. The restaurant at the train station is called Cafe Mayu and is part of the hotel El Albergue (noted in “Where to Stay”). Cafe Mayu also has great coffee on the train platform for those early morning train trips to Machu. Some of best meals of the entire trip were had here.

Another day trip is Lucre, a small village about 30 minutes south of Cusco. There is an abandoned textile factory and it is full of incredible machinery that was taken to Cusco at the turn of last century from England and Spain. It traveled up from Lima on donkeys! It is a really beautiful place and if you have some luck to catch the caretaker, he can let you in. “Either way the village is worth a visit because it is famous for it’s duck. There a bunch of small family run restaurants that specialize in duck prepared in all kinds of ways. The best of the bunch is on the corner of the plaza as you enter town on the right hand side. You sit under a big tree in a courtyard that backs up to the church and eat the best duck of your life!”

Chinchero is also worth a visit. Apart from the ruins around the town and the beautiful old village, Chincherro has a market in the church square a few days a week which is always worth a look. Prepare to be hounded by sellers, but this is a great place to pick up weavings, throw rugs and the like. Chinchero is also the home of the weaving revival so there is a lot of high quality stuff here. For those especially interested in the traditional weavings, you can visit the CTTC Centre where you can see women sitting around weaving, dying and spinning yarn and also buy some of their wares. It’s in one of the back streets, but definitely worth a look.

Machu Picchu and the Urubamba River valley

 Andean hill tribe in traditional garb

The road leading up to to the hill tribe village, locals in Ollantaytambo, and the Salinas Salt flats

Patron saints

As far as cultural figures go, Peru’s second most famous photographer (the first being Mario Testino) is Martín Chambi. He was the first photographer to take portraits of the people of Cusco and the Valley and created a series of quite incredible images of life in Cusco in the early years of the 20th century. He is an important figure in the cultural life of Cusco and you will come across his work all over town in different guises. The best art gallery in town is in the Qoricancha which is the church that was built on the site of some Incan ruins. It is an incredible site to visit on its own merits, but the contemporary art gallery which it houses upstairs is worth a look, if just to get a sense of the art scene in town.

Susie says the true Patron Saints of Cusqueñean style are the older ladies who rock the layered, patterned skirt look with over the knee woolen socks and ojatas (the sandals made from old tires). They also always have an enormous amount of things on their backs wrapped neatly in a beautiful woven blanket. Contents include children, wears to sell, groceries, or ginormous bundles of lilies.  It’s pretty impressive.

Local women in traditional costume with their llamas

Final Notes

I don’t post too many pics of myself, but here are a few from the trip… I have a feeling I’ll be back to Peru, either on a buying trip, or to hike the Incan Trail. There is simply too much to see to only go once!  It is one of the few places and times in my life that I felt very far away from all things familiar…

Below is a pic of me with some cute kids from the hill tribe (wearing my trusty Footskins, see “What to Pack”). And me, a post-peruvian-parasite survivor, at the edge of the world in Machu Picchu– it was worth it! Note the killer baseball cap I found in one of the markets in Ollantaytambo. My boyfriend is now the proud owner of this gem and gets major props when he sports it in NYC!

3 Responses to “Cusco, Peru and the Sacred Valley”

  1. Leslie says:

    I want all the gear listed above! Love the bloomers and backpack especially!!! Stylin’

  2. Maggie says:

    Thank you for this AMAZING review of the Sacred Valley. I am headed there in 1 month and am searching for markets and villages that provide access to vintage textiles and weavings. I can’t wait, and your essay has been immensely helpful!


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