Peru Part IV – Pisco tasting and the Inca Museum

After our trek to Machu Picchu we spent another couple days in Cusco to take in what the charming little town had left to offer.  We came back to Cusco on Christmas Eve, and we discovered that our previous concerns about the possibility of nothing being open because of the holiday were completely unfounded.   Let me tell you  – don’t worry about things being closed when visiting Cusco during the Christmas holiday.  The place was hoppin’.  Crowds and crowds of people were in the streets, restaurants had patrons coming in and out all night, and people were setting off fireworks like it was a war-zone (This was no joke; through the night our hotel room would vibrate with what sounded like shotguns being fired on the street).  The Peruvians know how to party.

Here’s a rundown of a few more of the things we did in Cusco:

The four types of pisco: Aromatic, Non-Aromatic, Mosto Verde (partial fermentation), and Blend.
The four types of pisco: Aromatic, Non-Aromatic, Mosto Verde (partial fermentation), and Blend.

Museo del Pisco
Calle Santa Catalina 398 | corner with Calle San Agustin
Open everyday 11:30am – 1am
Kitchen is open from 12pm – 3pm & 6:30pm – 11pm
(with several plates available outside of hours)

If there’s one thing you must try, it’s a pisco tasting at the Museo del Pisco.  The name is a bit of a misnomer, the place isn’t really that much of a museum and more of just a bar.  If you’ve never had pisco, this is a good place to become educated in the national beverage.  The menu boasts an overwhelming amount of pisco – much like a wine or whiskey list. I decided since I knew absolutely nothing about pisco, I went with the tasting (40 soles for one, 60 soles for two).

Pisco tasting with Sergui
Pisco tasting with Sergui

Now in the US, tastings usually come with 4 or 5 glasses and you sample a bunch of different types of beer, liquor, whatever.  When I ordered the tasting, little did I know it would come with a personal pisco sommelier.  My sommelier’s name was Sergui, a clean cut, well groomed/dressed Russian guy who gave me the complete rundown of pisco.  He was amazingly thorough, especially after my response to his question “What experience do you have with pisco?” was “I’ve had some pisco sours in college…”  He was extremely passionate about the liquor and clearly loved his work and answering questions, which made the experience that much more enjoyable.

Even if you don’t want to try it (because that s**t is strong), the Museo del Pisco has a variety of other beverages, a fun vibe, with good live music (to my delight they played Pearl Jam’s Even Flow during my tasting) and a friendly staff. This is a highly recommended visit.

Museo Inka
Cuesta del Almirante 103
Monday – Friday : 8am – 6pm
Saturday and Holidays: 9am – 4pm

Museo de la Coca
Calle Palacio 122
Monday – Sunday:  9am to 8pm.  (Free on Sunday)

Little Inca man.  Notice the bulge in his cheek?  He's chewing on coca leaves.
Little Inca man. Notice the bulge in his cheek? He’s chewing on coca leaves.

As far as actual museums go, we stopped by a couple.  Both were 10 soles, but one was way better of a value than the other.  I’ll start with the Museo de la Coca (Not to be confused with the Choco Museo).  We only really went to this museum because the restaurant we wanted to have lunch at wasn’t open yet and they were offering free visits for the holiday (it’s normally 10 soles).  It’s a neat little museum that provides a nice look at the history of coca and its cultural impact.  You could probably do the museum in an hour or so if you take in each display, and I actually really enjoyed reading the mythical history of how coca became a part of Inca culture.  I wouldn’t say this place is a must-see, but in the end, if you really want to visit it and you’re in the area, 10 soles really isn’t that expensive.

However, if you compare it with what 10 soles will get you at the Museo Inka, you’ll see the drastic difference.  Museo Inka at first glance really isn’t anything to write home about.  In fact, when you first walk in and look at the first few exhibits, the initial reaction will be, “Well this place is an effing rip-off”.  Don’t let the first couple of rooms fool you.  Once you head up to the second floor, the museum is way nicer and jam packed full of amazing artifacts.  The museum walks you through the history of Peru with displays containing Peruvian tools, pottery, textiles, ceremonial garb, weapons and gold relics.  The one really cool highlight is a burial chamber display featuring several mummies. If the weather is nice, the impressive courtyard is a nice place to relax a bit as well.  Unfortunately, like a lot of museums in the world, they don’t allow photography and I usually respect that request, so no pictures (sorry).

Peru Part III – Machu Picchu

Obviously one of the highlights of any trip to Peru is a visit to Machu Picchu.  No trip would really be complete without it.  For this post I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking.  I will make one point however.  Most people will say that you must, must try and get to Machu Picchu for the sunrise.  I no doubt believe that that is probably an amazing time to see it, and we even got ourselves up before the ass-crack of dawn to try.  However, know that whenever you visit Machu Picchu, the weather is going to be a roll of the dice.  Unfortunately we weren’t so lucky, and the morning of our visit was cloudy and rainy.  Our guide commented on this saying that he loves how all the guidebooks suggest this, but they never tell people that its cloudy like 60-70% of the time.

So go early, if anything to beat the crowds, and if you’re luckier than us you’ll have clear skies.

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Peru Part II – Inca Trail and Aguas Calientes

No trip to Peru would be complete without seeing the country’s iconic ruins high up in the Andes: Machu Picchu.  There are several ways to go about visiting this legendary place.  For the adventurous backpackers, there are 3 and 4-day hikes on the Inca Trail that finish up at Machu Picchu.  For a less vigorous trip, you can opt for the option we chose:  A one day hike along the last part of the Inca Trail, a night in the small town of Aguas Calientes and a sunrise visit to Machu Picchu the following morning.

Before I get into the “good” of the trip, I want to get the relatively “bad” out of the way.  The tour company we booked our trip through was called Peru Gateway Travel – and I would NOT recommend them.  Now nothing “horrible” happened, but they were very disorganized and did a piss poor job of preparing us for the excursion.  They typically hold pre-trip briefings where a company rep comes to your hotel and goes over what you’ll need to pack, where to be, details, etc.  However, in our case, we were directed to a random address in Cusco to find for ourselves, and relatively late at night.  The thing is: they gave us the wrong address. So my family, while suffering from altitude sickness, was left wandering around a city they don’t know in the dark.  When they got back to the hostel, we had the hotel manager call the company (who gave them an earful) and a representative eventually showed up.  The next problem was that the kid they sent barely spoke English and thought we were going on the 4-day hike.  He was going over all the wrong details, and had no idea what details we needed to hear.  So we ended up bringing way to much of the wrong items for our hike, and all along the way didn’t really have any clue at any given time if we were in the right place or not.

So long story short, like I said, while the hike wasn’t horrible (our guide, Diego, was actually quite good), I’d recommend working with a more organized group.  Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the trip itself.

We took the Peru Rail to the 104 KM point of the Inca Trail.  The train ride took about 3 hours from Cusco and was surprisingly comfortable.  We got of the train and our guide Diego* commenced to take us on our hike.  Going back to how bad our prep was, we were seriously over-packed so here’s are a few tips:

-Take only what you know you’ll NEED and not what you might need.  Figure out if water and/or food will be provided in advance.
-If you’re getting a travel company to put this together, they’ll probably provide a bag lunch.  Leave extra room in your backpack for that so that you’re not carrying around a one pound plastic bag full of food  on the Inca Trail.  Trust me, it’s super annoying after about 200 meters.
-If you’re not in the best of shape, or would have trouble walking up to the 15th floor of a building at any given point, I’d suggest having a walking stick.

The hike itself is moderate to very challenging at points, including one steep section the locals call the “Gringo Killer”.  You’ll also want to make sure you’re good and acclimated before you go.  Coca leaves, which Peruvians/Incans have been using for centuries to help with altitude sickness, might help you.  But even if they do, it’ll only provide a small amount of comfort.  Once you get going, take the time to enjoy the beautiful mountain ranges, hundreds of different types of orchids along the path and and the unmatched feeling of breathing in the fresh, clean air of the Andes.  Part of the way on the trail we stopped at Winay Wayna, an ancient Incan ruin built up along the mountainside.  This location provided a great place to sit back, relax and enjoy the view.

The end of our hike concluded at Machu Picchu, but we only did a quick look since it was towards the end of the day and we would be going to be back the next day at sunrise.

For our evening stay, we made our way down to Aguas Calientes, the teeny, tiny town at the bottom of the Machu Picchu mountain.  This town really isn’t worth visiting on its own unless you’ll be at Machu Picchu for two days.  The town is very touristy and is full of hostels, touristy restaurants, an unbelievable amount of massage parlors, and a ton of backpackers.  Despite the touristy-ness, the town is cute and not a bad place to stay for the evening.  Here’s where we stayed and ate:

Hostel Chaska
Alameda los artesanos #209
Urb. Las Orquideas,
Machu Picchu, Peru
974 789818

The hostel we were put up in was Hostel Chaska which was a perfectly good, above average hostel.  Clean and no nonsense.

Chaska Restaurant
It was “eh”.  Full of backpacking groups and a basic menu of steaks, chickens, and other normal peruvian fare.

Inka Wasi Restaurant
Another “eh” restaurant.  Clearly you’re not going to have fine dining in Aguas Calienetes.  I did try one of the dishes here that I heard I had to try called Cuy, otherwise known as Guinea Pig.  Again, it was “eh”.  Kind of annoying actually.  I’d say it’s worth trying for the amusement of seeing a whole guinea pig (head and all on your plate), but it’s like eating shitty crabs: it’s a lot of work to get to just a little bit of not that great meat.

Cafe de Paris
Actually a pleasant little place to take a load off and have a latte and croissant.  The owner is actually French and you can tell he’s really into his baking (we asked him about the ingredients) which uses Peruvian spices along with European ingredients.

*Diego has been a Inca Trail guide for over 15 years and has hiked the Inca Trail hundreds of times.  His rate to guide a 4-day hike is $500.  So if you are ever interested, contact me and I will send you his email address.

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