During my visit to Peru early last year, I spent most of my trip in the historic city of Cusco. I based my visit in Cusco because of the Incan ruins throughout the city. I figured it would be the best area to see the most ancient ruins, and ancient ruins are one of my favorite sites to visit on my travels!
As a primary English speaker, and having previously traveled to areas where finding other English speakers (tourist towns in Europe, for instance) is easy, South America was an interesting change. When I visited Rio de Janeiro, I joined an English speaking walking tour. Most others who stayed at my hostel were from other English speaking countries like Australia and New Zealand. Most tourist sites in Rio had English speakers, though many shops and street vendors only spoke Portuguese.
Then, when I visited my friend in Jaraguá, I did not meet any other English speakers. Even my friend spoke primarily Portuguese and French (from attending a French school in Belgium and living there half his life), so we spoke our own mix of English, French and google translate.
So when I arrived in Cusco and most people only spoke Spanish, I wasn’t so unprepared. With the exception of solicitors trying to sell me “makeovers” and other services that I consider a waste of time in a place full of so many historical sites… though I got the sense that they did not know much English beyond what they spoke to sell to tourists.
I did not even think about booking any tours in advance because I tend to be a spur of the moment traveler, with few exceptions (for example, I booked my seat for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on London’s West End almost a year in advance). I researched prices to estimate my budget for Peru, and was pleasantly surprised to find out all the tours were a fraction of what I had researched online once I got to Cusco and booked through my hostel.
The first tour I took was a free (tip-based) walking tour through the city. I learned a lot about the history of the city, and the different eras of architecture. Most tours are in Spanish, or a mix of Spanish and another language. This walking tour I found was solely in English. I met some cool people on that tour, we grabbed lunch together, shopped for souvenirs, became Facebook friends, then went our separate ways.
The next tour I took was an Incan ruins city tour, which took us to the major Incan sites in and around Cusco. The first stop was a church with the oldest surviving Incan wall. I signed up for my tour in English, and was ensured there would be an English speaking tour guide. Normally they speak Spanish, and then repeat in English or another language someone booked.
Well, I ended up on a tour with a guide who only spoke Spanish. I started wandering around the church and grounds on my own, listening in on some English-speaking guides I passed by. One of the organizers found me on my own and asked why I wasn’t with the group. I told her I booked an English tour, and the guide only spoke Spanish, so I figured I’d explore on my own instead. Because of how tours are booked, I was put in the wrong group. The organizer then found an English-speaking guide, and I stuck with that group. I was the only person who did not speak Spanish on the tour. I did meet someone from Argentina who spoke some English in the group, and we explored the last few ruins together.
After the church, we took a bus to Rodadero ruins at the Saqsaywaman Inca site. As someone who prefers wandering over sitting around, I was quite antsy when the tour guide sat us down on a grassy hill and spoke for about 30 minutes straight. It didn’t help that he spoke in Spanish for most of it, and then would tell me snippets in English now and then. When he finished, we had about an hour to explore the site. I wish I had more time there! The rolling green hills were so tranquil, and the labyrinthine structure of rocks along the mounds intrigued me. Much more interesting than Machu Picchu, I say! But that’s another story…
When we returned to the bus, I noticed a lot of fellow tourists had what looked like giant corn on cobs! I wasn’t quite hungry just yet, but I wanted to try whatever they were. The couple behind me on the bus directed me to one of the old women walking among the tour busses selling “choclo,” which to me sounded similar to the word “chakra.” I bought myself one of those cobs of giant Peruvian corn (which don’t get stuck in your teeth like small corn!) and snacked on it on the ride to the next site.
The three smaller sites were my favorites! We stopped at Q’enco ruins, with nearby Templo de la Luna. Apparently, they had a mummy from Machu Picchu at the temple. But I think I missed it when we walked through the tomb area. I even asked some other tourists who spoke Spanish and some English what I was supposed to be looking at, and they were just as confused as I was. Nevertheless, I think I enjoyed those ruins so much because they were small and easily explorable. There wasn’t much hiking or climbing needed. We made it to another small site named Pukapukara at sunset, which led to some amazing pink skies!
Before Pukapukara, we walked through Tambomachay ruins. This one is actually part of the Inca trail! Across from a fountain area, there’s a rock that is used as a checkpoint for keeping track of those hiking the Inca trail. I hiked up to the rock next to it, and got a good view of llamas (or alpacas, it was tough to tell from the distance) being herded across the mountain.
All of these sites had street vendors nearby selling snacks and souvenirs and sweaters. After sunset, we visited Cusco’s Christo statue (akin to Rio’s, but smaller). Then, visited a llama and alpaca farm that sold baby alpaca clothing and accessories. Real baby alpaca fur is the most expensive, a pair of socks averages about $100 USD. Baby alpacas are softer than adult alpacas, so their fur is more valuable. I was content with my two $30 USD alpaca sweaters. I bought a zip-up one at a shop in Cusco and a pullover one at Aguas Calientes near Machu Picchu. My sweaters were clearly not real alpaca fur, and definitely not baby alpaca fur, but they were cute and make me happy!
The next day, I took a tour to Machu Picchu. The site itself was as boring as I expected, but the journey was an unexpected adventure…