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MY TOP 5 BEACHES IN THE WORLD

MY TOP 5 BEACHES IN THE WORLD

What a better way to relax than a beach!

Now even if it’s always pleasant to lay down on the beach, it’s much better if it’s on a perfect white sand one with crystal clear water…

So where to go to find yourself in these magical places?

The good news is that don’t need to go to an atoll in the Maldives, there are places far more accessible.

So here is a small selection of what I consider as the 5 most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen:

  1. ZANZIBAR (TANZANIA)

Zanzibar is a magical place: on one hand, a fascinating culture at the crossroads of civilizations, and on the other hand an incredible coastline. After discovering its capital, Stone Town, a true cultural gem, you can head to some of the most beautiful beaches you’ll see in your life.

I had the opportunity to explore the island for some weeks before I ended on this spot I still consider as “my” most beautiful beach: “Paje”.

Located on the east side of the island, it is a huge strip of fine sand with crystal clear water. The tide is very strong here as the water is shallow. It’s not the best spot to swim (too shallow at certain times of the day), but the view is simply stunning.  When the tide is low, you can enjoy pure transparent water over kilometers, and when it starts rising, the water will come through a full range of colors: incredible shades of green and turquoise blue will scroll over the hours.

Low tide base is also an opportunity to appreciate the seaweed harvest. Moreover, this spot has good wind conditions and is loved by Kyte surfers.

Another must do on this island: “The Rock” restaurant. Its setting is quite unique: you reach it by foot at the beginning of the day, and as the tide surges, the restaurant will be surrounded by crystal clear water. You will need a boat at the end of the day to get back to the mainland (or if you feel like swimming –  like me, after having emptied 2 bottles of wine 😉

Friendly Maasai on the beach (Paje)
  1. NUSA PENIDA (INDONESIA)

Indonesia is a fascinating country – it is the largest archipelago in the world with over 18,000 islands. Therefore, it is one of the best places to find incredible beaches.

The most famous beach is found on the iconic Nusa Penida, a small island located between Bali and Lombok.

But it is far from being the only one worth a visit. I’d recommend you explore: Southern part of Bali, the Gilis (Gili Trewangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air) and Nusa Lembogan. And if you venture further on (till Komodo and Flores), you’ll see some of the best and most remote beaches.

Because most of the islands were shaped by volcanoes, the scenery is spectacular. I highly recommend you rent a scooter to explore Bali and Lombok.

The incredible beach of Nusa Penida
  1. TULUM (MEXICO)

Rivera Maya is the most tourist place in Mexico. It all started with Cancun, a former fisherman’s village converted into a holiday and resort center that looks more like Vegas than  Mexico. The second town to explode was Playa del Carmen… And finally  Tulum.

I remember the first time I visited this little Caribbean paradise back in 2003. A tiny village, a few huts on the beach where you could put your hammock in exchange for a few pesos. And an archaeological site with a breathtaking view over a deserted beach and turquoise water.

Unfortunately, things quickly changed: the village became a town, the Cabañas were replaced by hotels, and in 2006 a ramp was built to allow access to the beautiful beach at the foothill of the archeological site.

Hotels located on the beach have become very exclusive, and free access has been reduced by dubious commercial policies (a Mexico’s classic). Nevertheless, Tulum remains a beautiful beach and is on my top 3. Its long strip of fine beach has not (yet) been covered with concrete and it is still much more charming than Cancun or Playa del Carmen.

And all changes are not bad: last time I visited it (in summer 2017), there was a cycle path between town and the beach (located 4km away).

Another magical place of the Riviera Maya was Holbox. It is a bay located at the border between the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. But yeah, I have to say that it’s been almost 10 years since I was there. Back then it was a small village next to a long perfect white sand beach. No big hotels just huts on the beach… I’m pretty sure its fate was similar to Tulum.

A vintage photo of Tulum’s ruins before the access ramp was built…
  1. RAILAY (THAILAND)

Thailand is also famous for its dreamy beaches. Between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, the country has thousands of miles of beaches. The most famous are islands such as Ko Tao, Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Phi Phi (next to the beach from the movie “The Beach”), Ko Lanta, etc.

But my favorite one was Railay, located near Ao Nang in the province of Krabi. It is a superb bay with impressive limestone rocks overlooking the water (A popular spot for climbers). The beach is a perfect strand of white sand. Moreover, it is a relatively quieter place in comparison with the surrounding islands.

Life is hard in Railay!
  1. SANTA GIULIA (CORSICA)

The Mediterranean is also full of amazing beaches that are as beautiful as in the tropics. Greece is probably the most famous country for its dreamy beaches, but I was quite surprised by the beauty of Corsica. The crystal clear water of Santa Giulia, near Porto Vecchio, makes it a perfect stop. Of course, the sea is not as warm as in the tropics; But bathing is still great. And then, for those who live in Europe, there’s no need to grab a 12-hour plan to get there 🙂

When the Mediterranean shows its beauty…

 

So that was my top 5 but there are many other beaches I enjoyed so much, just to name a few of them:

  • Palolem in Goa (India): A relaxing and cheap place, a great stopover on a long and intense trip to India.
  • Camps Bay in Cape Town (South Africa): a great beach in Cape Town’s classy neighboorhood.
  • The “Calanques” in the south of France: a set of creeks formed by the rock. Magical landscapes between the blue of the Mediterranean Sea and limestone rocks.
  • Utila in the Bay Islands (Honduras): One of the best snorkeling spot in the Caribbean. Corals are impressive, even if Roatan has better beaches
  • Mexico’s Pacific Coast: from Baja California to Oaxaca, Mexico offers over 2000 miles of coastline on the Pacific. I didn’t have the opportunity to explore Baja California, but some of its beaches are as beautiful as those of Rivera Maya
  • Koh Rong (Cambodia): This island is located off the coast of Sihanoukville. A relaxed and enjoyable place to be explored in a few days. Its beaches are sublime, although I suffered harsh weather conditions.
  • Perhentians (Malaysia): Perhentians Islands are located off Kota Baru. A small diving paradise, with fine sand beaches and transparent blue water.
  • Likoma (Malawi): As weird as it sounds, this island is actually on a lake. Yet its freshwaters are warm and crystal clear.
  • Copacabana in Rio (Brazil): Finding a beautiful beach in a densely populated city is not an easy task. Yet the famous Copacabana beach is a great spot, even though you won’t feel alone.

Of course, this is just a very short list based on my own experience. So now tell me what is your favorite beach to include it on my next trip 🙂

ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT MACHU PICCHU…

ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT MACHU PICCHU…

Machu Picchu is a mythical place: an ancient Inca citadel felt into the unknown during colonization and rediscovered by Hiram Bighram in 1911. It is a unique place, representative of Inca Engineering: its structures respect perfectly the mountain shape (a feature found in all Inca sites). The complex is surrounded by lush vegetation, and with a stunning view of the Vilcanota River 600m lower.

This magical place has become the most visited site in Peru. Since Machu Picchu is the core asset of Peruvian tourism, you’ll spend most of your travel budget here. For the same reason, it is very useful to know the alternatives available.

  1. How to get there?

Machu Picchu is located about 100km away from Cusco (as the crow flies), yet its access is not easy (Welcome to the Andes). The train is the only transport accessing directly to Aguas Calientes.

So here are the only 2 alternatives if you want to use transportation:

  • The “classic”:

You have to get to Ollantaytambo and take the train. The city is located 2h away from Cusco and you can get there by taxi (80 soles) or by public transport (8 soles, departure from the Pavitos/Grau street in Cusco). Once in Ollantaytambo, you still have 1h30 of a fully comfortable train with beautiful landscapes. The downside: This service is ridiculously pricey! Perurail and Incarail share the monopoly. Expect to pay at least 60$  per way, i.e. 120$ the return trip.

It is recommended you purchase your ticket in advance (either online or at Incarail/Perurail ticket office/Ollantaytambo train station).

  • The cheapest:

If you do not want to pay such a sum for a short train ride (understandable), get ready for an adventure. Here is the way to follow: book your seats in one of the many vans leaving Cusco in the early morning to get to Hidroelectrica (you can get your tickets at any travel agencies in Cusco, 35/40 soles). It’s an exhausting journey (a 7h trip through mountain roads – you’ll reach a 4400m pass before going down to 1100 m and leave paved road on the last part. Once you arrive at “Hidroelectrica” station, you still have about 2,5 hours walking (11km) along the railway track to reach Aguascalientes. You can also take the train from there, but $29 for 11km in 45 minutes, this sounds like a scam. If you have time ahead of you (unlikely), stop at the Mandor’s garden. A beautiful place with tropical plants (located at  km114 of the track)

You’ll have to come back from Aguas Calientes the same way. I suggest you take your luggage with you to Machu Picchu, as this will save you 5km on the way back. The bifurcation to the site is between Aguas Calientes and Hidroelectrica (2,5km away from town).

You should save around 100$ proceeding that way.

However be careful during the rainy season (from November to March), landslides are frequent and roads can be blocked. Always check the situation beforehand.

 

On the other side, many people want to reach at Machu Picchu after hiking in the beautiful Andean region.

So here are the best-known trekking options:

  • The prestigious classic: Inca Trail

This is a mythical 4-day walk that starts from the km82 on the railway between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Along the way, you visit many Inca sites (amongst which Wiñay Wayna). This is the only trek that allows you to reach the site directly by foot: indeed, on the 4th day at dawn, you enter the sanctuary through its upper part, “Inti Punku” (Sun Gate). And if you are lucky you will enjoy one of the most beautiful sunrises of your life over the sleeping citadel.

This is one of the most prestigious hikes in the world and has only 500 available seats per day (including guides and porters). It is therefore mandatory to book it at least 6 months in advance during the high season (April to October). In addition, only certified guides are allowed. So there is no other choice than going through an agency, which makes it a quite costly trek (min. $500).

The superb view from Inti Punku
  • The alternative mountain trek: Salkantay

This is a 5-day trek offering a wide variety of landscapes. It starts in Mollepata, 3:30 away from Cusco. On the first day, you can hike up to a superb lagoon at the foot of Humantay mountain. Then you reach the highest point of the trek (4700m), located 2 steps away from Salkantay (the 2nd highest mountain in Cusco area, 6.264 m). You then start descending almost  3000m till the coffee plantations of Lucmabamba, in the midst of tropical plants. You can also indulge yourself in the thermal waters of Cocalmayo. The 4th day is less interesting, passing through Hidroelectrica then Aguas Calientes along the railway. Almost all trekkers choose to do it through an agency, prices start from $175. Check what is included or not, the material etc. Because lower prices mean lower quality (and lower team salary and less care for the environment).

Salkantay trek has become very popular so be ready to share the road with hundreds of other trekkers!

The impressive “Apu” Salkantay
  • The backpacker option: Inca Jungle Tour

This is not a trek itself, but a varied option with different activities. You start biking from Malaga pass (4400m) till Santa Maria’s surroundings. On the 2nd day you hike in the tropical forest between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa. Then you go through Hidroelectrica and Aguascalientes before ending at Machu Picchu itself. You can add activities like rafting and zip line. Starting from $160, but remember to check what does the package include!

The beautiful area of Santa Teresa
  • The real alternative route; Long and exhausting, but beautiful: Choquequirao and Machu Picchu

An incredible 9-day trek to discover two amazing sites: Choquequirao and Machu Picchu. It is a demanding trek with more than 7000m of altitude gain, including a steep descent from nearly 1500m up to Apurimac river… Before going back up all the way on the other side. This is the price to pay to enjoy the magnificent Choquequirao, isolated in a dense forest and still unspoiled by tourism. It is a huge sanctuary of which only 30% have been discovered. Bigger than Machu Picchu but without the crowds. And one of its main highlights: you’ll camp on the site itself!

The classic Choquequirao trek returns to Cachora the same way, but it is possible to extend it to Machu Picchu (5 additional days), a magnificent hike in a remote area… En route, you’ll be alone in some Inca sites (like Pinchaunuyoc) and will gaze at high mountains (as Salkantay, 6.264 m) before reaching Santa Teresa and Aguas Calientes. Be ready for a true adventure far from civilization (and other tourists). You should take advantage of it now since the Peruvian government is planning to build a cable car accessing the site (fortunately, between speech and action in Peru, you should still have plenty of years ahead 😉

Once in Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes is a rather disturbing city … super packed, it is the example of the complete absence of urban planning in Peru.

You will find many accommodation and restaurants all over the place. I recommend double checking where you are going because there is the good, te bad and the worse in town. You can find cheap accommodation near the municipal stadium.

As regards food, avoid menus on the main street. I have never eaten well there. If you want to eat on the cheap, go to the market (8 soles menus). If you want to indulge yourself, head to “Indio Feliz”.

To reach Machu Picchu, you have 2 options: either you walk (around 1h to 1h30 of pure stairs climbing… nearly 600m of altitude gain!) or you use Consettur’s bus service (another monopoly as most services in the region). The first bus leaves at 5:45am (there is a queue as from 5am). The single trip costs $ 12 ($ 24 round trip). It is recommended you buy your tickets (at least to get to the site) the day before at the kiosk near the bus stop.

The sooner you get to Mapi, the more you will enjoy it (doors open at 6am, and at 8am it is already overpacked …)

When to go?

Whether you choose the easy way or the trek, it is obviously much more interesting to visit the ancient Inca ruins during the dry season (from May to October). Even though the fog can be very mystic…

You should know that the tropical region of Machu Picchu is very humid and that the site is usually foggy in the first hours of the morning. Normally, if your visit is in June, July or August, you should enjoy a sunny day (but don’t take it for sure: I went there three times (April, January… and July!) and every single time it was pouring!

In most cases you will still be able to enjoy Mapi even in on a rainy day (it always ends up clearing a little). But if you go for a trek, the season is much more important: I would not like spending the 9 days of Choquequirao/Machu Picchu under the rain. Note that the Inca trail is closed for maintenance every year in February.

The downside of the dry season: it is also the “high” season: high number of people and high prices. Well, that being said, there’s no longer low season in Machu Picchu

Cost and practical info

Machu Picchu’s access regulation has changed a lot in recent years and it can be a bit tricky to understand. The first time I went there (in 2009), it was still possible to climb to Huayna Picchu (a mountain located 300m above the main site, a former Inca observation site) without hassle. But then you needed a separate entrance ticked. At about the same time an alternative viewpoint (“Montaña Machu Picchu”) was designed. In 2017, a “shift” was introduced: since then, you can visit the site either in the morning (6h to 12h) or in the afternoon (12h to 18h). Supposedly, guides are mandatory.

With the new changes introduced on January 1st, 2019, here is where we stand:

Entry fee to Mapi alone is 152 soles (77 soles for students). It must be purchased from the Ministry of Culture (Casa Garcilaso/Calle Maruri in Cusco or Aguas Calientes) or online (only Visa cards are accepted. If you don’t have a Visa credit card, the other solution is to make the online reservation and pay the amount at any Banco de la Nacion counter within 4 hours). The entrance to the site + Huayna Pichu/Montaña Picchu costs 200 soles (125 soles for students). It is mandatory to book Huayna Picchu well in advance!

As for the timetable, the morning/afternoon shift is maintained but in addition, your ticket will indicate a minimum arrival time (6am, 7am, 8am, etc.).

The view from the Huayna Picchu

8 MUST DO ON A WEEKEND IN HAVANA…

8 MUST DO ON A WEEKEND IN HAVANA…

Cuba is a very special destination… Beautiful landscapes, paradise coastline… And also a country that has a very special (and controversial) history. Armed revolution and mystical Che Guevara are part of it.

The Caribbean island offers a unique cultural mix and an impressive musical scene. Cuban music is indeed as its people: rhythmic and joyful. In spite of the day to day struggle, Cubans enjoy life, they smile, dance, and always look on the bright side of things.

The home of the “Guajiros” has many places prone to be visited: Varadero beaches,  Viñales, Trinidad, Cienfuegos bay, etc.

Since I only had a few days, I focused on visiting its heart, Havana. I had wanted to explore this city for a long time. And the recent changes in Cuba’s situation made me hurry.

Indeed, one of the intriguing sides of Havana is its relation to time. Between the 1960s and 2000, the city changed very little. But since then, things have changed rapidly. Old American cars from the 50s, the Cuban cliché itself, are being replaced by more recent models, and will soon become a collection object. Regretting these changes would be a non-sense: we shouldn’t forget that Cuban people have suffered a lot from the embargo and good rationing. Economic precariousness is still one of Cubans’ main concern. Things can only get better with the gradual ending of the embargo.

Anyway, let’s move on to the very purpose of this article: A practical guide to Havana.

Preliminary note on Cuba’s currency: Cuba uses a dual monetary system: the CUC (convertible peso, at parity with the dollar) and the CUP (Cuban peso, local currency). All prices in tourist areas are in CUC. Only local buses and restaurants are in CUP. There’s a striking difference in prices: items priced in CUC are not much cheaper than in Europe/the U.S. The CUP version is absolutely different… Don’t worry about the exchange rate: it is the same everywhere. Avoid dollars because you’ll face a 10% extra tax. I also recommend changing CUP (1 CUC = 24 CUP) in case you want to enjoy local prices because otherwise, you’ll get ripped on the exchange rate.

 

8 MUST DO:

  • My top advice: Explore the city center through a free walking tour.

Organized in Spanish and English, this tour of approx. 3 hours will show you the main city sights (among others: The Plaza Vieja, the Floridita, Capitolo, the Plaza de Armas, the Plaza San Francisco, the Universidad,).

There are 2 itineraries: Habana Vieja and Centro Habana. Departures are at 9:30 and at 4pm from the road junction next to the Inglaterra hotel, located at Parque Central (hang around and enjoy a coffee at the hotel’s terrace while listening to Cuban rhythms).

The tip you’ll leave at the end of your tour is really valuable for your guide (the average salary in Cuba is $30 per month!).

 

  • Meet Afro-Cuban culture and enjoy its rhythms at the “Callejon de Hamel”

Located in the area of Cayo Hueso, near the University, this colorful and artistic neighborhood will surprise you with its unusual frescoes. It is the work of the Cuban sculptor Salvador González Escalona, who gave a second life to this popular district.

And if you are around on a Sunday, join the crowd and enjoy Afro-Cuban music!

Callejon Hamel

 

  • Wander around Plaza de la Revolucion

One of the largest public squares in the world, dominated by the monument to Jose Marti (entrance fee 1CUC). On the opposite, you will see the famous steel image of Che Guevara and Camilo Cien Fuegos. Located outside the city center, expect a 30-minute walk to get there or a 10-min drive (5 CUC by taxi).

Habana’s classics in a photo…

 

  • Walk around Vedado’s neighborhood

It is an old residential area where you can have a closer look at the pre-revolution architecture.

 

  • Visit one of the city’s museums

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Parque Central, 5 CUC) and Museo de la Revolucion (Avenida Belgica, 4 CUC) are your best bets.

 

  • Enjoy the Malecon (seaside).

Sea breeze and nice views of the Castillo del Morro and Castillo de la Real Fuerza. The best way to get around: ask the owner of one of those old American cars to take you on a ride (10 CUC for 30 min).

El malecon

 

  • Have a mojito at La Bodegita del Medio:

Habana’s history is intimately linked to Ernest Hemingway who spent several years in Cuba. One of its favorite bars was “Bodegita del Medio”. A colorful place where crowds gather. But I’d rather warn you: you won’t have your best mojito here!

Cuba’s most famous bar

 

  • Take Salsa lessons: 

Remember that you are in the birthplace of salsa music and as you may know Cubans are true salsa masters! There are many salsa schools spread around town. You can choose either group or individual classes. A top pick: La Casa del Tango (Calle Neptuno). Individual classes cost around 15CUC. Don’t forget to practice your skills in one of the many “Salsoteca” (nightclubs playing only salsa music) the city has to offer you. Locals will be happy to help you improve your body movements.

 

What and where to eat?

Cuban food is not very famous. Needless to say that the embargo and rationing did not help (options available in supermarkets are so restricted!). Remember that Cuban people eat to live and not the contrary!

That being said, here are a few Cuban dishes: Congri (rice and black beans), Moro y Cristianos (black beans), Plantin banana, Pork fricassee, Yuca (cassava), salsa mojo (oil, garlic, and orange gravy).

The historical center has decent food options, as Dona Eutemia (typical Cuban dishes between 7 and 15CUC, located a few steps away from the Cathedral-Callejon del Chorro) and San Cristobal Ladar (in an old restored mansion, main dishes at around 20CUC)

On the other hand, almost all restaurants located downtown are touristic and priced in CUC (which means not cheap).

If you wanna go more local (and get the related prices), stay away from the tourist areas and look around. You’ll see small signs offering daily dishes (the classical rice/beans/plantain/pork or chicken) for 30 to 35 CUP (1,5$)!

If you want to make sure you are at the right place: ask if the price is in CUP!

 

Where to stay?

One of the advantages of Cuba’s recent economic opening is the development of some kind of “competition”. During ages, options were limited to beach resorts in Varadero (applying European prices (from 50 CUC upwards) and “Casas Particulares” (Guesthouses) costing around 25/30$ per night.

Nowadays you can stay in dorms starting from 10$ (although these keep the form of casa particular, so do not expect a classical backpacker with bar and pool).

After a quick search on Booking and Hostelworld, I went for Hostal Corazon del Mundo, located in Calle San Jose (12CUC per night in a 6-bed dormitory). Clean and decent. The location was ok (a 10/15 minutes walking distance from the center, in a very popular area).

 

What BUDGET?

As you ‘ve probably understood, Cuba is not cheap!

But if you do it right, you can still make it on a decent budget.

Example of a daily budget (be ready to walk):

  • Dorm accommodation in a casa particular: $10
  • Breakfast in a shopping center: $4
  • Daily dishes in local restaurants: $5 (2 meals)
  • Mojito in a bar downtown: $3

or about $22 (in thrifty mode)

 

How to get there?

Many flights options from Europe and Latin America. I flew from Brussels to Varadero for as little as €200 with Tui Fly.

My flight out: Habana-Cusco (Peru) with a stopover in Bogota ($330 with Avianca).

Interjet operates daily flights from Cancun and Mexico city (approximately $100 per way).

Return flights from Canada cost approximately $300.

Arriving at the airport:

In Varadero, the bus company Viazul has bus connections to Havana (more or less 3 hours). The cost is 10CUC ($10). Very irregular service (don’t trust the official schedule listed online).

From Habana International Airport: Taxi is almost the only option. $25 from/to the center (try to share the cost with other people if you are travelling alone). It is possible to get to the airport using local buses, but I was strongly advised to avoid it with luggage.

Once you are in the city: the historic centre of Havana is a very pleasant walk. There is also a “Habana Bus Tour” which costs 10CUC (for the entire day). Very useful to get to “Plaza de la Revolucion”. There is public transportation, but it doesn’t look very well organized, and having only a few days, I skipped it.

Last tips: Enjoy the country and its people but remain aware that many Cubans have suffered a lot. Poverty and the embargo have struck them (although they will not openly admit it). Show empathy. And if you can, leave them some basic items (toothpaste, shampoo, cosmetics, etc.).

Kisses from Habana…
THE SACRED VALLEY OF THE INCAS ON A SHOESTRING

THE SACRED VALLEY OF THE INCAS ON A SHOESTRING

Peru is a fascinating country. Of course, it is home to the Machu Picchu, elected as one of the new world wonders in 2007. But the country has much more to offer than the MP and it is sad that most tourists just rush straight to the ancient Inca citadel, without taking any time to explore the innumerable highlights of the country, whose three large geographical areas (coast, mountain and jungle) mean a great diversity of landscapes, cultures, music and gastronomy.

So writing about the main country’s highlights would be quite time consuming, but I wanted to dedicate my first article about Peru to this beautiful region where I decided to settle, clearly one of the most beautiful places in the world: the Sacred Valley of the Incas, linking the ancient site of Machu Picchu to the capital of the empire (Cusco). For this very reason, the area is full of archaeological sites, lost in the mystical Andes.

As said before, a great number of tourists just come to see the Machu Picchu and try to get there as fast as possible from Cusco, which is a non-sense to me: take your time and you’ll enjoy many wonders on the way. Isn’t the journey as important as the destination?

So here are a few tips to plan your trip to the Sacred Valley. Classics are included but also some less known (and cheaper) alternatives.

Note: all prices are mentioned in Peruvian soles. 1€ = 3.9 soles and $ 1 = 3.23 soles (April 2018)

How to get to the Sacred Valley?

Cusco is the unavoidable hub to access the Sacred Valley, no matter where you come from.

The golden rule for your arrival in Cusco: cab’s price … 4 soles for a ride inside the city. 5 soles from the airport (They can ask you up to 40 soles at the airport so be careful!). Just get outside the airport building, a short 200m walk. And be firm about the price, avoid mentioning that it is your first time in Peru).

Cusco is Peru’s most touristic city and I will write a separate article about it shortly.

To get to the Sacred Valley, tell your taxi driver to drop you off at “Pavitos” where there are many transport companies (6 soles to Urubamba and 8 soles to Ollantaytambo). For more comfort, you can also opt for a taxi (about 60 soles to Urubamba). The journey time is approx. 1h30 to Urubamba and 2h to Ollantaytambo.

What to do in the valley?

Since most people only have 1 or 2 days to spend in the Sacred Valley, almost every single tourism agency in Cusco will offer you the following options:

  • Sacred Valley tour: Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero archeological sites
  • Tour of Maras salt ponds and Moray

If you are on a tight schedule, go for it! Both are relatively inexpensive (around 30 soles for half a day tour. However, be informed that it includes neither the meal nor the entry tickets; basically it’s just transportation).

If you have a few days in front of you, it’s worth taking your time to explore the valley. You will enjoy its quietness, especially after the bustle of Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Some places of interest:

WITH ENTRY FEE:

  • Chinchero: a small town located on a highland between Cusco and the Sacred Valley at around 3.700m. The Inca terraces are impressive and offer an overview of the Sacred Valley and the surrounding Apus (sacred mountains of the Incas). You can also stop at many weaving workshops, a nice way to learn more about the manufacturing process. But beware the overrated prices. I personally suggest purchasing of any souvenir and Andean clothing in Cusco.

To get there: take a bus or mini-van from Cusco or Urubamba (6 soles by minivan, 3 soles by bus)

Weaving woman in Chinchero
  • Pisac: friendly Andean town located upstream of the Urubamba river, do not miss its local craft market on the main square (prices are to be bargained). The Inca site is located 4km above the town. The easiest way is to get there is by cab. Terraces are huge and impressive. I recommend you getting back to Pisac following the footpath from the last temple. On the way, you’ll see some old Inca tombs in the rock (the remains were mummified and placed in small cavities inside the mountain).

To get there: From Urubamba: bus to Calca (1.5 soles) and then Pisac (1 sol). From Cusco, bus to Pisac (4 soles) located in Puputi street. Taxi from Pisac to the ruins: 15 soles (one way)

The superb terraces of Pisac
  • Ollantaytambo: a beautiful place, coming straight from another era (this is actually the only village built on its former Inca structure). Feel free to wander around its narrow streets, full of small water channels flowing in all directions. The archaeological site is obviously worth a visit. It has many nice temples. Last train station towards Machu Picchu, this picturesque place deserves more than just a 45-minute visit while waiting for the train.

To get there: by bus from Urubamba (1.5 soles) or Cusco (8 soles)

The Inca site of Ollantaytambo
  • Moray: incredible terraces where the Incas undertook agricultural experiments (based on the various microclimates according to the altitude, the sun exposure, etc.). The site is about 12km from the junction with the Cusco / Urubamba road

To get there: bus from Cusco or Urubamba to Maras’ junction on the main road (6 soles – 3 from Urubamba). There is a Taxi stand at the crossroads (40 soles including return journey and waiting time)

Experimental fields in Moray

Note: to enter the above-mentioned sites, you will need the Cusco tourist ticket: it can be obtained either at the tourist office (Av. Sol in Cuzco) or (an even easier way) at the entrance of the archaeological sites. This ticket will cost 130 soles and gives you access to 16 archaeological sites for a period of 10 days. If you only have one day, the daily entrance fee is 70 soles and gives you access to either the sites of Cusco or those of the Sacred Valley.

WITH ENTRY FEE (NO TOURIST TICKET):

    • Maras (entrance 10 soles): impressive salt ponds that have been cultivated since the Inca era. Therapeutic virtues of this salt of exceptional purity were proven. You can get a great sight of all the ponds on the way down from Maras. To get there, take a cab from Maras’ junction. On the way back, I recommend you walking after the last salt pond (a 30-minute walk downhill)). From there, just cross the bridge and reach the Ollantaytambo – Urubamba main road), where you can grab a “combi” to Ollantaytambo or Urubamba (1 sol).

    To get there: take a bus from Urubamba (or Cusco) and get off at the junction with Maras / Moray located 10 km away from Urubamba. From there, there’s a taxi stand where you can get private transportation to the site (15 soles one way – 25 soles return)

Maras salt ponds
  • Museo Inkari (entrance 30 soles): there are many museums dedicated to the pre-hispanic cultures of Peru, but most of them disappointed me. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of archaeological museums. Watching the remains of some pottery under the showcase with a small written description is nothing but exciting to me (you need a lot of imagination to get a glimpse of the way they lived). Inkari includes interactive tools so that you don’t only read about the culture but also feel it through amazing ambiance rooms. Inca culture is put in its context: although it is the most famous for being one of the largest empires in the world (and especially the last one before the arrival of the conquistadores), it is in fact only one of the many cultures of this diverse country. Actually, the peak era of the Incas lasted for barely two centuries and most of the elements of their daily way of life were integrated from previous cultures (as it always happens). In Inkari, you will travel back in time, following by chronological order Peru’s 8 main pre-hispanic cultures. Descriptions are detailed and allow you to deeply understand the essence and the evolution of these cultures. But you’ll reach the climax inside the ambiance rooms that will immerse you in the heart of these ancient civilizations, using a great light and sound performance. Rebuilding these environments involved a great amount of work. For this reason, Inkari is not the cheapest museum in Cusco, but if you just wanna see one, choose this one: I guarantee you won’t regret it!

To get there: take a bus to Calca from Urubamba or Pisac (1 ground), the museum is indicated by a giant statue (you can’t miss it!), located about 15km from Urubamba.

The ambiance room at Inkari
  • Machucolca: it was used as a food reservoir by the Incas and has many terraces located halfway between Cusco and Urubamba, at 3,800m above sea level. There’s a sign on the road and you will see some small stalls selling fake alpaca sweaters. In fact, the beautiful view is a common picture stop for tourists on their way to the valley. But nobody really takes the time to visit the archaeological site located a little higher. Go for it and give me your feedback. You will not only enjoy a delightful quietness in the peaceful alleys but will also get what I consider as the most beautiful view of the valley. Moreover, nobody is gonna charge you an entrance fee or try to sell you souvenirs. Don’t spread the word too fast, so that it remains as calm as it is.

To get there: the site is located 10km away from Chinchero heading toward the valley (Cusco – Urubamba road). 6 soles by minivan, 3 soles by bus.

The incredible view from Machu Colca
    • Pumahuanca: a nice walk that goes partially along the path of the trek that goes from Urubamba to the thermal springs of Lares (I’m planning to write an article about the best hikes of the Sacred Valley soon). It will take you up to ancient Inca ruins lost in the middle of nowhere. The site itself is not the most impressive, but the inner peace of the place and the lovely walk to get there makes it the perfect option to spend half a day.

    To get there: from Urubamba, ask the way to the fish farms (“pisigranja”) of Pumahuanca (or go by moto-taxi: 4 soles), and follow the path that goes between the mountains. The way up will take you around 2 hours (gradual ascent) and the way back around 1h15.

The old houses of Pumahuanca
  • The “chulpas”: These are small constructions set up by the Incas on the mountain slopes, where food (mostly grain) was stocked all year round. They are scattered all over the valley, but there are two that are particularly worth the seeing:
    • In Ollantaytambo: the chupa is right in front of the archaeological site and offers an incredible sight over this latter. It is accessible until 4p.m. The steep climb will take you around 40 minutes. To get there from town: from the main square, take the alley on your right, go straight on during a few hundred meters, and then you will see a sign and some steps on your right.
    • In Urubamba: the chulpa is located in Pumahuanca area. You have to find Torrechayoc church that is located on the avenue named after it. Then you go straight on for about 1km and take the second path on your right. There is a sign “hotel-restaurant las chulpas” (you have to reach that restaurant). Once you get there, the path going up to the chulpas is on your right (around 30 minutes to the chulpas).
View of Ollantaytambo from the chulpa

 

 

Cross the bridge before arriving at Ollantaytambo and follow the path on your right, along the river. It is the starting point of an awesome hike that will lead you to an Inca sun gate (Intipunku). Be ready for a 3 to 4-hour harsh walk before you reach the top. On the way, you’ll enjoy the stunning views over the Snowy peaks and the Sacred Valley.

 

When you finally reach Inti Punku, take your time and enjoy the scenery: in front of this ancient Inca gate, you’ll have a glorious view of Apu Veronika (5.750m) and the flat valley located 1.200m below your feet. The perfect spot for a picnic before heading all the way down using the same path.

The beautiful Intipunku

Consider at least 5/6 hours of a strenuous walk for that hike, but it’s completely worth it. If you wanna split the hike in 2 days, there is a camping site around 1 hour away from the top.

Simply the perfect camping spot!

Where to stay?

Options are wide: you can stay either in one of the 3 main towns of the valley (Pisac, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo), or in one of the many hotels located on the main road. Budget hotels are mostly in towns. Here are a few of them:

  • Ollantaytambo:

Hostal el Chasqui: simple but comfortable rooms starting at 40 soles. Center location at the corner of the street that goes to the train station.

Chaska Wasi: quiet and well-located hostel, with a green area. Dorms cost 30 soles.

  • Urubamba

Hospedaje Calendula: nice family-run hotel located 10 minutes walking from the main square, with inner patio and comfortable rooms from 40 soles.

Flying Dog Hostel: Newly opened hostel (a classic of the backpacker scene in Cusco), outside the center with a large garden. Dorms starting at 30 soles.

  • Pisac

Hospedaje Inti: rustic, but well located 2 steps away from the center. Kitchen facilities available. Single rooms from 35 soles.

Casa Intihuana: Located a little outside the city, in the popular area of La Rinconada. Dorms starting at 20 soles.

Where to eat?

The Valley obviously has a great number of restaurants… with a very wide range of quality. Besides the popular restaurants offering simple and inexpensive menus, there are numerous tourist restaurants, aimed at foreign customers and of course much more expensive.

Here are some good places:

  • Tourist restaurants options (usually a buffet): Alhambra and Tunupa at the exit of Urubamba on the road to Ollantaytambo (set buffet at 70 soles). Other excellent addresses in Urubamba: “El Huacatay” and “Uru gastropub” (with a la carte and mid-range prices).
  • Popular restaurants in Urubamba: El Chorillano, with its delicious menu at 8 soles and the Cevicheria “El Nuevo Rey” (Yes, it is possible to find a decent ceviche in the valley!). Seafood platters starting from 15 soles. As far as Pisac and Ollantaytambo are concerned, many small restaurants offer 10 soles menus but to be honest, none really appealed to me so I will not include any of them here (if anybody has good references, they are most welcome!). As a general rule, avoid the main square surroundings where you will pay double for the same (average) quality.

Finally, there’s an emerging beer culture that has recently developed in the Valley. In case you are looking for an alternative to industrial Cusquena and Pilsen, there’s some nice crafted beer option available. The most famous is the Sacred Valley brewery that is located in Pachar, near Ollantaytambo. High-quality tasting and nice snacks available, with musical events organized each month to support local organizations.

In summary, the Sacred Valley is full of charming places, and it is difficult to issue an exhaustive list. Visiting all the region’s highlights will take a lot of time, so I recommend you to take it easy, even if that means planning another trip to the region (not a big deal at all!). We usually want to see it all (we believe that it’s the only way to get the most of it) but we end up losing the pleasure of traveling, which is a unique opportunity to disconnect from everyday stress and open ourselves to other realities. Feel free to get in touch with me if you plan a trip in the area, I will be happy to assist you 😉

Have a nice one!