Exploring Cusco With The Boleto Turistico

Whenever I try to describe a place to my parents via Skype, I can’t do it justice.

I could never accurately explain how jarringly different our little town in Korea was, or what it was like to live in the artsy neighborhood of San Telmo in Buenos Aires; how it felt to climb the Great Wall of China or take crunchy footsteps across the salt flats of Bolivia.

All I can say was, “It was really cool.”

Cusco, Peru
Cusco: It’s really cool.

So my parents are forced to ask questions to try and create their own impressions of where I am at any given moment.

For some reason, my dad’s first question is always, “Is there a Starbucks? Or a McDonald’s?”

In Yeongwol, the answer was no, which put it into perspective for him.

Wow. That must be a really small town.

In Cusco, Peru, former capital of the once-dominant Incan empire, my answer, sadly, was yes.

Starbucks in Cusco
But I didn’t go in, I swear.

Yes, there is a Starbucks in Cusco.

I’m sure the Incans would have been pleased.

Cusco feels both old and new at the same time. It’s got cobblestone streets and colonial architecture, but the buildings are occupied by travel agencies and coffee shops. It’s undeniably pretty, but oddly sanitized. It reminded me of Frontier Town in Disney World, which really doesn’t make any sense but it had something to do with the vibe.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru
That’s fake, right? Constructed for tourists?

Surrounding the town are four sets of Incan ruins: Saqsaywaman, Q’enqo, Puka Pukara, and Tambomachay. It’s possible to walk to the closest one, Saqsaywaman, and then make your way to the others, but there were two factors that stood in my way:

1. The walk is uphill. Cusco is 3,400 meters high. We know how I fare at altitude.

2. Lonely Planet informed us that violent attacks on tourists have happened on the way to the ruins. I have spent my entire time in South America doing my best to avoid a violent attack, and I wasn’t going to change tactics now.

So we joined a tour, which was a mistake. The tour guide, while lovely, was difficult to understand and extremely prone to talking. If it had been a television show, I would have changed the channel. Despite his enthusiasm for the subject, I grew bored and antsy.

Saqsaywaman, Cusco, Peru
At the Saqsaywaman ruins overlooking Cusco.
12-sided stone in Cusco, Peru
The 12-sided stone, literally a cornerstone of the indestructible Incan walls.

When the tour bus stopped at an alpaca sweater shop on the way back to Cusco, Jared and I vowed to avoid these types of tours in the future. Next time, we’d negotiate a price with a taxi driver.

Sweater shop, Cusco, Peru
This does not make me want to buy your overpriced sweaters, even if they are hand-knit with the fleeces of 1000 grass-fed baby alpacas.

To visit these ruins, foreign tourists need a boleto turistico del Cusco, an admission ticket that costs 130 soles ($50). It allows you entry to sixteen different sites in and around Cusco over a period of ten days – not including Machu Picchu. We don’t spend this kind of money casually (that’s like a week’s worth of accommodation between two of us) so we were determined to make it worthwhile.

It paid off, big time, because of two places in the sacred valley: Pisaq and Ollantaytambo. But more on those in the next post.

When we came back to Cusco, after Machu Picchu (more on that, later, too), we museum-hopped, concentrating on places that were covered by the boleta.

Museo de Sitio del Qoricancha

Qorincancha, Cusco, Peru
The museum is under this grassy field. Seriously.

While Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun) is not included in the boleta, its museum is. To get there, you have to go underneath the lawn behind the Santo Domingo church, where you’ll find an odd little labyrinth of rooms. Behind glass cases are an assortment of artifacts – shards of ceramics, tiny silver llamas, and disfigured Incan skulls.

Three guesses as to what I found the most interesting. Hint: It wasn’t the llamas.

Museo de Arte Popular

Popular Art Museum, Cusco, Peru
Pretty sure that’s an edible baby Jesus.

This museum is in the same building as COSITUC, the office on Av. El Sol where you have to purchase the boleta. As far as I can tell, it’s a room full of bizarre sculptures, most of which depict the nativity scene.

Museo Historico Regional

Tupac Amaru II painting, Cusco
I joined a group of open-mouthed schoolgirls and we all gawked at this together.

The famous Cusqueñan historian Garcilas de la Vega – we’ve all heard of him, right? – used to live in this mansion, which is now a regional history museum. The day we were there, some sort of event was on. Suited people were milling about in the courtyard while journalists followed a man around the museum, flashbulbs popping and microphones ablaze.

I was fascinated by the story of Túpac Amaru II, who led a failed indigenous uprising against the Spanish in 1780, only to be captured and quartered in the Plaza de Armas.

The very square that is now home to Starbucks.

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  1. Hello

    Thanks for your post that reveals the true price of mass tourism. Starbucks is still there. Along with KFC, MacDonald and Subway… This nice place… smells like French fries.

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