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Cusco’s Boleta Turistica: Saqsayhuaymán, Tambomachay, Pukapukara, and Q’enqo

by Jessie Kwak | 21 April 2010 8 Comments

It’s a conundrum. In order to see some of Cusco’s best ruins and museums you need a ticket that covers 16 different sites. It’s got a hefty price tag of S/.130 (about $45), but it’s a decent deal if you hit all the sites.

But you have limited time and want to visit only a couple sites? That’s really too bad. All but a few of the lesser-known, out-of-the-way sites require the Boleta Turistica. It’s possible to buy partial tickets for S/.70 (one covering Cusco area and one covering the Sacred Valley), but how many people visit only one set of sites?

Back in January we made a mad dash to see all 16 sites in the 10-day period before the ticket expired. We were hailed out, bussed out, I spent a day in bed with food poisoning, and at the end we were very, very sick of Inca ruins and the Spanish bastards who kept knocking them down. But, dear readers, we made it. All for you.

Pukapukara scenery, Cusco, Peru

Over the next four weeks we’ll outline the 16 different sites and tell you what your options are to get to them. You may not see them all, but hopefully we can help you decide which ones are worth seeing (*ahemskipthemuseumsahem*).

And, as a special bonus feature, we’ll encourage you to visit three more sites (Cusco’s good museum, a salt factory and More! Inca! Rocks!) that aren’t included in the Boleta Turistica.

The Sites of the Boleta Turistica

  • Week 1: four sites above Cusco: Saqsayhuamán, Q’enqo, Pukapukara, and Tambomachay
  • Week 2: two sites on the road East of Cusco: Tipón and Pikillacta
  • Week 3: four sites in the Sacred Valley: Chinchero, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Moray
  • Week 4: six museums inside Cusco: Museo Siteo Qoricancha, Musea de Arte Contemporaneo, Museo Historico Regional, Monumento Pachacuteq, Museo de Arte Popular, and Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo.

Cusco City Tour

Every tourist agency in Cusco will try to sell you a City Tour, which includes a visit to the four “Week 1” sites in the list above, as well as a stop at Qoricancha and the Cathedral. That’s probably the easiest and fastest way to check these four off the list, but you don’t want to board a bus crammed with 25-30 other tourists.

What to take with you

You don’t need much for this little outing, just the usual (water, sunscreen, Exploring Cusco by Peter Frost…). And I know it looks like a beautiful day, but trust me. Throw that extra poncho in your daypack.

Bring small change with you for the bus, snacks, and tips. You’ll sometimes find guides waiting to give you an impromptu tour for tips, and any of the cute and traditionally-dressed children will expect S/.1 each for photos.

That’s not why you read Unpaved South America.

If you’re planning on going out guideless to visit any of the sixteen sites (and especially if you plan to do much hiking or walking), we highly recommend that you buy Exploring Cusco by Peter Frost. Everything we learned about Cusco and the Sacred Valley came from this book. Really. Amazon is selling used copies for $50 (!) but save yourself some money and help local economies: buy it in nearly any Cusco bookstore for about $10.

If you decide to go your own the easiest way is to take a bus or taxi to Tambomachay and make your way downhill. You can hire a taxi for about S/.10-20 (ask a local how much the going rate is), or take a bus or combi from the Rosaspata Market (# 3 on the Cusco Nuts and Bolts map). The “Huerta” combi or the larger bus to Pisac will both drop you off at Tambomachay for S/.1, and the “Cristo Blanco” combi will take you, predictably, to the Cristo Blanco statue that overlooks Cusco. From there it’s just a short walk to Saqsayhuamán (hereafter to be known as Saqs) or Q’enqo.

Tour company: S/.30
Bus and feet: S/.1

Tambomachay and Pukapukara

However you get here, try to do so early (10 at the latest) so you can avoid the onslaught of tour buses. Most of them hit Qoricancha first before heading up to the hills, so you have a bit of time before the first arrivals.

Tambomachay’s control point is open from 6:30 to 6:30, or at least that’s what we were told in January. Check around for up-to-date info. It’s thought to be a ritual bathing site, a lovely example of the Inca art of “perfecting” nature by refining and channeling it, taking a natural spring and beautifying it. (For more on Inca architecture as art, check out White Rock by Hugh Thomson [link to buy book at Powell’s]. It’s a funny, well-thought-out jaunt through the Inca Heartland, and you’ll find it in nearly every book exchange in Peru.).

We arrived early to find the gauntlet of vendors just setting up, laying out their wares on gently sloping sod plots studded with dandelions. An old man greeted us with a Quechua-accented “Buenos tardsh,” and humored me a few questions about names of local plants. Someone had a radio playing tinny huayno music. Where normally Cusco’s vendor swarms are voracious, here everyone was relaxed, unconcerned with a few threadbare backpacking gringos, waiting for the arrival of the first tour buses.

Vendors setting up at Tambomachay, Cusco, Peru

Pukapukara shares a control point with Tambomachay, so make sure to get both sites punched on your ticket. It was thought to be a tambo, a sort of lodging place and customs checkpoint. Like everything Inca, the ruins crown a hilltop with beautiful views of the valley below, the walls undulating with the terrain.

When we arrived a nice young man named Javier was soliciting people for mini guides for a tip of S/.5-10 or so. Javier told us that under the ground is a quartz stone which the Incas used to meditate with. The Spaniards destroyed it and covered it over, but apparently Pukapukara is still a popular place for mystics. He also saved us several miles of backtracking by pointing us in the right direction for our hike to Q’enqo. Thanks, man.

Walking from T&P to Q

Once you’ve spent some good time wandering around Tambomachay and Pukapukara, it’s time to move on to Q’enqo. You can either wait for the “Huerta” combi to take you back down the hill (they come every 10 minutes or so), or if it’s a nice day and you fancy a walk, it’s only about 6km (3.8 miles), and you’ll get a chance to explore a handful of other random Inca rock confections. You did bring your rain poncho, didn’t you?

From the entrance to Pukapukara look back down the road to Cusco. There should be a stand of eucalyptus on the left hand side. A path leads downhill from the road–Javier told us that it’s a path “that even the blind can follow,” though it can be a bit tricky to find at first.

There’s a clearer path that heads down into the river valley below Pukapukara, but don’t follow that one. Instead, pass the eucalyptus and head along the road until you’re on the Inca path. This is the Inca road to Antisuyo (the eastern jungle quadrant of the empire). Farther towards the jungle, a long stretch of this road has been popularized as the Inca Trail. You may have heard of it.

After a few minutes you’ll pass near a little town, Wayllarcocha, which has a few roadside restaurants for lunch. The Inca Path keeps going and veers away from the main road, past fields and ponds, adobe walls with cactus growing out of them, cows and bright teal flies. After a mile or so the path widens and washes out, fans like a delta. To the left it leads up onto a granite outcropping edged by an adobe fence. To the right, it heads down into a valley. Go right. The path heads east, away from the road, into a narrow valley of farmland.

Please don’t step in people’s crops–for some it’s their only meager livelihood. Rule of thumb: stay on the path, and if it’s green, leave it alone.

Eventually you’ll come to a small gorge. The trail will split again, and down below you should see a set of ruins that we thought at first were an old quarry. The left trail leads through a stand of eucalyptus to a wide flat hill with a pretty view on all sides of the Cusco valley, hills and fields. From there the trail peters out, but you can head downhill back through the eucalyptus and carefully pick your way down the hill until you’ve reached the bottom of the “quarry.”

Alternately, you can take the trail to the right, which clings to the wall of the gorge, and will take you to the top of the “quarry.”

Inca ruins near Cusco, Peru

The “quarry” is a large granite outcropping, flat-topped with a grassy plateau. There is terracing above and below, drainage channels running along the lower north side. It’s been excavated, and the old Inca stones are neatly stacked as though the archaeologists meant to put them back but never got around to it (you’ll see this a lot in Peru). The rock juts out like the prow of a ship, stair-stepped channels carved for water on either side, though it’s dry now.

We met a woman, Señora Hipolita, who told us the name was Qoriwaynachina, but she didn’t know anything more about it. Turns out that Qoriwaynachina is also the name of some ruins discovered by the fantastic Peter Frost on Cerro Victoria in the Vilcabamba Range. The name means “where wind was used to refine gold.”

Señora Hipolita told us to make our way down through the valley, past an Inca wall that cuts across the valley like a dam. We’d find an Inca jail, she said, and about a kilometer beyond that, the Temple of the Moon.

At this point in our story, we were caught by a hailstorm and had to take shelter in the rocky hills up to the left of this dam for over an hour before making a mad dash through the unceasing rain, only to return to finish our walk another day. That won’t happen to you. But you brought your rain poncho anyway, right?

The Inca Jail is two large stones leaning against each other, forming a cave which the Incas carved out into a series of niches, one of which was filled with wilting flowers. It didn’t seem much like a jail, but it did provide great cover in a hailstorm.

Just beyond the Inca Jail the valley begins to spread out. Cross right over the hump of the hill, rather than continue down the ravine. You’ll see the outcropping of the Templo de la Luna. Or, continue to hug the curve of the ravine and walk along the little creek upstream, pass a carved rock outcropping with stepstones, cross the river and climb up from there. You’ll be directly in front of the Templo de la Luna either way.

Inca Trail, Cusco & Machu Picchu: Includes Santa Teresa Trek, Choquequirao Trek, Vilcabamba Trail & Lima City Guide
by Alexander Stewart
Powells.com

The Temple is another massive stone outcropping that has been carved. The remains of a settlement have been roped off and are under excavation, but you can climb up the southwest side to find a cave and some fissures with carved steps. The lowest cave contains an altar, decorated on the day we went with multi-colored confetti and coca leaves. A shaft of sunlight bathed the altar, and the cave smelled faintly sweet, of coca or incense or chicha. The cave is two chambers with a carved door between them, all sharp angels, 90 degree planes combining with the swooping natural stone. Stone benches have been carved in the antechamber, the rock smooth and shiny from centuries of use.

Standing at the entrance to the cave, you can see two options to continue on your walk. Either head east toward the houses (a little settlement called Villa San Blas)–from there you will be able to see Q’enqo downhill of you. Or take the road that leads downhill to your left. This path is marked as the Antisuyo trail, and has a nice little sign explaining the Inca royal roads, the Qapac Ñan. If you follow that path for a little bit you’ll come upon the Temple of the Monkey, another carved outcropping with strange little carved places and narrow passageways through them, one curiously perfect raised circle carved near the top.

Q’enqo

Q’enqo is a welcome relief after you’ve seen to many examples of “fine Inca stonework.” It’s a limestone outcropping shaped with haphazard carvings (if you walked from Pukapukara you’ve seen a fair amount of this already, but Q’enqo is pretty killer). The name means “zigzag,” a reference to the carvings on the limestone monolith at the site. It’s widely believed to be used for religious ceremonies, with a large semi-circular amphitheater, and religious carvings.

Just below Q’enqo is the outcropping known as Q’enqo Chico. It is a hill surrounded by a massive stone retaining wall and a moat. You can climb up to the top, a wide green field, a tumble of rocks aesthetically carved. Sweeping curves and sinewy sinuous staircases and niches. Sometimes hard to tell what’s been carved and what’s natural. Handholds? Or just erosion.

This was by far my favorite Inca site.

Cristo Blanco and Saqsayhuaymán

From Q’enqo follow the road to Cusco around a few bends. You’ll see the Cristo Blanco statue, a gift from Palestinian Refugees, ahead of you. Pass in front of the statue and go over a small rise, where you’ll see Saqs. It’s a “must see,” not far enough to escape the sirens of the city, the traffic of the road, and the swarms of tourists who weren’t as hardcore as you were.

It’s best known for the absolutely massive stones that make up the zigzagging walls, and for being one of the few places that the Incas gave the Spaniards a run for their money. Today the wide flat grass plaza in front of the walls is used for the Inti Raymi ceremony every June, and for Cusqueña family picnics on sunny summer days.

Like many Inca sites, Saqs was used for centuries as a stone quarry for locals building their own homes. That was its main source of worth until it was discovered that tourists would flock to it, and, like many historical places, it was found to be worth more as a tourist attraction than a source of pre-dressed stones.

From Saqs, follow the steep pedestrian path back down into the city, admiring the views along the way.

And nurse your sore feet, because you still have 12 more sites to see!

Written by Jessie Kwak

I am a farm girl who moved to the big city, and then just kept right on moving. I love camping, hoppy beer, and good conversations. See all posts by

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  • Neil said:

    Hi there!
    Just to say a quick thanks – we came across your site about 2 hours before we went to do this walk ourselves and we are pleased that we took note of your directions. Without them we would have got more lost than we did…

    Cheers again,
    Neil and Bindya (UK)

  • Steve said:

    I am leaving for Peru in 2 days from the States. I was dreading being smashed into one of those awful tour buses and being fed the information. I love that you are giving an alternate path to these well toured sites and give a more exciting perspective! I am again excited about the trip and again…many thanks!

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  • Matt said:

    I love this trek – it’s short and all downhill and you get to see some of the beautiful countryside around Cusco. Everyone seems so happy to pile on to the tour buses and they really miss out on seeing everything inbetween the stops.