On our 5th day in Cusco, we had booked a bus, day tour to visit part of the Sacred Valley. There are a lot of activities to do in the area, and you could definitely squeeze all of them into a long day trip if you want. I am really not a fan of spending all my time in a bus when I travel, so I usually try to do less but enjoy it more. Therefore, we decided to only book the day tour going to Moray, Maras and the Salineras (which is only a fraction of everything you could visit in the Sacred Valley!). I have heard really good things about Ollantaytambo as well, however, as we did see the area quickly during our train ride to Aguas Caliente (the views were epic, by the way), we chose to go for the sites that seemed different and more appealing to us. This post is going to be much longer that it should be, however I think this is a great travel story and you might enjoy it!
Our tour was pretty cheap – too cheap – and only cost us 25 soles. This did not include the 70 soles entrance day ticket to the Sacred Valley Visitor Areas (if you are in the area for multiple days you, can by a multiday pass to save!) nor the 10 soles for the entrance to the Salineras (salt mines). This tour didn’t include any food or lunch, although tour buses tend to do quick stops in touristy areas to buy some food – just ask when you buy the tour. We booked again with Pumas Tour Trek (on the Plaza de Armas), however this time we were not placed with Machu Picchu Reservations. This day was the worst of our trip (until I chose to pull the plug and make a change), and I hope our experience can serve you well and help you plan if you book a similar tour.
I was lucky that I actually had the Whatsapp number of the lady who booked the tours for us at the agency. It was easy for me to connect with her and make changes as needed to our booking (i.e postponing this tour when I was sick 2 days before!). However, as I chose not to get a SIM card, my phone was pretty useless outside of Wifi zones. That morning, we were told to show up at the agency at 845AM to meet up with the group and board our bus. My first mistake : not requesting that we’d be placed in a mini-van tour instead of a tour bus.
We met up with the agency representative as planned and she walked us out to the fountain on the Plaza de Armas. There, many many agency representatives were meeting their clients and forming bigger groups for their day tours. We waited about 15min and were told to leave with another person, who told us we had to walk a few blocks to get to the bus. Thing is, large buses are not allowed in the historical center, which is totally fine and makes a lot of sense. After walking for about 15min, we reached a gas station on a main street where, I kid you not, probably 100 other tourists were waiting in the parking lot. First red flag.
So we waited there and followed the directives of our agency person as we were placed in a much larger group. Our group seemed to be mainly locals on vacation, with only a handful of international tourists to be seen. As we waited (for we didn’t really know what exactly, as multiple buses where coming in and out of the lot), we had to shuffle around on the side of the parking lot because the group was blocking the incoming traffic for the gas station. One man in his car just started beeping and literally moving towards our group, forcing people to move as he almost ran a few people over. A man from our group got mad at him and literally kicked his car, insulting the driver and telling him to just drive the *beep* around the crowd. The driver eventually just backed up, parked again his car and walked out of it, never to be seen again before we left. That was just plain weird.
So finally, after what seemed like a good 30-35min wait, a bus arrived and our agency representative told us “Okay, this is your bus, you can get in”. Turns out, we had been waiting all this time for an actual bus, driver and tour guide to show up for our group. Second red flag. The bus was quite large and almost full, although I heard our agency person (who boarded the bus with us) fighting a bit on the phone with a client. She seemed to be arguing with someone who was late to the meeting spot, and the client seemed to want to get on the tour no matter what. I was just hoping she wouldn’t delay the rest of the group to wait for them. So we started driving (finally!), and at some point seemed to stop in a gas station. I thought to myself “Okay, the driver didn’t fill up the tank, better now than never”, however, I quickly realized that we had stopped to let that “on the phone client” in. This entire family had cabbed up all the way to this gas station to meet the bus tour to get on. So after a few minutes detour for this, we got on the road again. This was the third red flag, although it didn’t really delay us more than we already were. So here we go, hitting the road.
Our tour guide was bilingual, which was great, and he took time to explain a bit of the history and the views we had on the way. He told us that our first stop would be in the village of Cheqquerec (or near there), where we would stop to learn about some traditional weaving and would have a chance to buy some local craft and products. By the way, I am writing this post on the plane on my way back home, and someone next to me just keeps farting, and it is quite uncomfortable. But anyways, I’m getting distracted – so we learn that we will be doing this random stop that we were not told about, after we were already late for the tour itself. So the bus arrives and we stop, and our tour guide tells us the weirdest thing at that point, which is basically that we will be stopping to learn about local culture, because really, “You can Google the photos anyway, and you didn’t come here just to take photos, so let’s go and learn”. To be quite honest, I am not sure if my agency knew about this stop!
We then entered this small indoor yard, with a few alpacas and llamas, as well as a small house where we were shown a few varieties of potatoes and local agriculture products. Then, we were asked to sit on some benches as one of the lady came around to give us some tea and explain us that she would do a presentation about how they clean and dye alpaca wool. This was quite impressive, actually. She showed us how they use pieces of this natural root as soap, which bleaches and clean in a minute dirty and browned alpaca wool. Then, she showed us how they use this white parasite on cactus and squish it to create purple dye (quite mind-blowing), and how adding lemon or other plants changes the color. It most likely has pH indicator properties and changes color as the pH is modified by different agents and ingredients – and they use this color to dip the wool and color it naturally. Quite cool. Then, they showed us quickly how the wool is weaved into the blankets or scarfs and other products. The lady who was presenting was quite funny (she was speaking really fast, you could tell she rehearsed and repeated that thing many many times!) and she made a few jokes about tourists not buying their products. At this point, she mentioned how the bone they use to weave was actually the bone from a tourist who came in their house for this presentation but decided not to buy anything before they left. She said something in the lines of “this tourist came in for free an thought he could leave without contributing or buying anything”, which made everyone laugh in an awkward manner. It’s actually an alpaca bone, and she said she was just kidding, however 2 minutes later she was leaving us in their product shop and our guide gave our group about 25min to shop, which was quite outrageous to be honest, considering we were not on this tour to shop, but to head to 2-3 major archeological sites, AND that we were already late. Red flag number 4.
So after buying nothing (and keeping all my bones!), we got back on the bus. I asked the driver how much time we would spend in each archeological site, and he said roughly 30min for each, depending on how much time we had left. This did not make my mood better at that point, as we had spent more than 30min in that shopping touristy area stop that wasn’t planned. But anyways, travel in South America isn’t always golden, and we had only paid roughly 10$CAD for this day, so at this point I wasn’t really expecting much.
Not long after leaving that place, our driver took a left turn on a dirt road. I wondered why this main archeological site wasn’t freely accessible through the main paved road, which seemed weird to me, but at the same time I am not really surprised anymore. So we kept driving for a bit until the bus stopped at an intersection. Red flag … is that number 5? Our driver asked for directions to a teenager on a bike in the street. Turned out, he didn’t know if the way to Moray was left or right. Well… that didn’t lighten my mood either. A few minutes after this turn, we stopped again, and I heard the driver and the guide exchanging and the guide telling the driver to just “go left”. By the way, left was not a road. It was a dirt path, only crowded with bikes and ATVs. Remember we were in a large, tourist bus, not made for off road. So the driver kept going, and it wasn’t long before everyone in the bus (including the locals) started shouting and asking what was happening. For these 10min, the bus was bouncing left and right and back and forth so much that the kids behind us were screaming – out of fear, not excitement. This was red flag number 6. Only good thing was that this road was in a field, far from any cliff, which was lovely (for a change!), so even if the bus was to fall sideways, we wouldn’t be tumbling own a cliff to our death (always see the positive!).
We finally hit the main road where all the other tour buses and mini-vans were. Phew – I thought. Until we took the turn following the Moray Archeological Site sign, of course down a gully over a small river and going up on a curve next to a cliff. At this point, nerves were sensitives in the bus. Our bus driver had to stop and back down 4-5 times as he tried to go up the hill, because he was always facing another large bus coming down the road. As you can imagine, the road can only take 1 bus large, so they have to manoeuver very slowly to let each other pass. At one point, we came so close to the cliff that the locals behind me were screaming at the driver, begging him to wait and not move. Our guide took the mic and reassured everyone that we were in good hands, and we had a professional driver with us (who, I shall remind you, as per red flag no.5, did NOT know his way and asked directions to a kid down the street).
So, I think I am somewhat well travelled. I also err on the side of safety. I try to listen to my guts as much as possible, and I have to admit, this time, it really did not feel right (although, having my mom almost in tears, holding my arm tightly in fear and closing her eyes probably influenced me as well here). Then I remembered that we still had a good half-day of touring and driving around with this bus, and it clicked in my head that this wasn’t happening for us. We got to Moray and the only thing I could think of was : “How do I get us out of this thing”. The group got off the bus and our guide asked us to head to the main entrance where we had to pay our 70 soles fee for the entrance ticket. The guide was insisting everyone stayed together, so we could walk around with us. I quickly understood that the guide wasn’t going to give us time to walk down on the path, but instead would give his speech to the group from the viewpoint at the top of the hill (basically next to the parking lot). So as the guide was asking us to go and get our ticket, I asked him how much time we had there and how was the road going to the next stop (the Salineras, more specifically). (Plane guy just farted again… other joy of travel we never talk about!) The guide came around telling us not to worry about the road, that we had a professional driver, blah blah blah. So I reminded him that he had to ask for his directions and that we did not feel that secure at all with his road choices and decisions. Our guide mainly just answered :”ha well, if you lost trust…”. So we told him we would not be doing the visit at Moray and would be waiting for them and meeting them at the bus.
And so I started going around the parking lot. I headed straight to the taxi drivers who were parked and started chatting with them. I basically explained to them that we were looking for a private transportation back to Cusco, or to join any other tours for the day that still had room and would take us back to Cusco at the end of the day. They told me they already had private clients for the day, but however they could call in their company based in Maras and send us a private cab in about 30min. I was a bit nervous at the idea of leaving Moray AFTER our bus, as I also did not want to get stuck in there with my mom with no other transportation. I told the driver I would go around and check the mini-vans to see if anyone still had room for us. As we walked towards the end of the parking lot, we saw our tour guide giving his speech from the parking lot viewpoint (as expected), and started to wonder what we would do. I also snapped a few photos from Moray’s ruins, and figured we would check out Wikipedia to learn about the actually history of the place (as we missed out the entire tour).
Just then, a man came up to us and told us that he had some room left and could offer us transportation for the day. After chatting with him, we learned that the cab drivers had referred him to us as he was privately doing the same tour we were, with his own vehicle. After double-checking that he was driving a tourist van, and not a personal car, he told us that he had 4 other travelers with him that he had planned to drop in Maras after the Salineras, but that he would drive us all the way back to Cusco for a total of 120 soles. Now, if you think about this, we actually paid 120 soles total to complete our tour with him, instead of paying 70 soles EACH for the Moray visit which would have been done from the view point. At that point, my mom and I were just like… Yep! So I went quickly to see our group and told one of the guide assistant that we both just had found private transportation and we would not be coming back with them. And so we went.
Turned out to be such a great decision! We had 2 great seats at the back of the mini-van, and there were 4 other backpackers who had dealt a good price for their tour to Moray and the Salineras. They were quite friendly and totally understood that we were crashing their van party as we gave them the details of our morning. We did a quick stop in Maras and then headed all the way to the Salineras, where we paid our 10 soles entrance fee. As soon as we started going downhill on the main road to the Salineras, I was so happy we made the switch. The road isn’t large, there are way too many tour vans and buses on it, and it would have been very uncomfortable to spend more time in the other bus with a driver we didn’t trust on this road. Sometimes, you just have to know when to pull the plug, take a step back, and adjust. Remember that feeling unsafe (but, really), is never worth it when travelling (anyway, to me). I am all for getting out of my comfort zone, facing my fears, and pushing my limits… but fear when trust as been lost and feeling unsafe is not in my definition of great life experiences. So, always carry a bit of extra cash on you for the unexpected, and don’t shy away from you gut when it’s telling you to change a situation you are in.
That said – the salineras were great! Our new driver gave us about 40min to visit on our own and check out the salt mines and the shops. These constructions are so impressive – especially the irrigation system that goes into it. We didn’t have a guide anymore, but I totally ear dropped on some of the comments from other tour groups around us. I also ended up buying a small sample of Smoked Salt (tastes like bacon!!) as a gift for my partner (hopefully he doesn’t read this before I get home, or the surprise will be a bit not surprising!). It is really impressive to see how these constructions have last for so long, and how the Peruvians keep using them for their local needs.
After the visit, we hopped back in the van and we drove back to Maras, where our 4 other companions left, as they had plans to hitch-hike back towards Cusco in the next few days. Our driver took us all the way to the Plaza San Francisco in Cusco, which is minutes away from the Plaza de Armas, and from there we decided to hit a nice restaurant to get a drink and early dinner. We also arrived just on time to catch a local parade on the Plaza de Armas. That night, we repacked our bags for our departure to Lima the next day, took warm showers, had a good night sleep and reminisced on how glad we were that I can speak Spanish (just one of those moments) and how we were happy about the way the day ended.
I took a few minutes to message back my agency with whom I booked this tour, but unfortunately didn’t get much of an answer back. They tried to explain me that it was normal that the buses don’t pick up the passengers straight in the Plaza de Armas (thus, why we had to walk in the morning), but never actually addressed the lack of experience of our driver and the tardiness of the bus. The truth is, things move so much and there are so many agencies that it will always be hard for us to know exactly how things will turn out. So my advice, in this area anyway, is to look hard for a tour that will guarantee you to be in a smaller mini-van instead of a larger tour bus. The roads will be much safer, and I’m sure you can add the extra 5-10$ to your budget to feel safe!
This was our last full day in Cusco, and we would be leaving back to Lima the morning after with LATAM Airlines. I read online that flights from Cusco to Lima are often delayed or cancelled due to bad weather or wind, so I chose an early afternoon flight to give ourselves some room if our flight was delayed. I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t miss the departure of our night bus, which left at 10PM that night.
Stay tuned as I will soon be posting details about our 5 days in Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca, North of Lima!