Cusco and Peru have changed dramatically since the first edition of Exploring Cusco was published in 1979: tourism has exploded, the paved road network has hugely expanded, a Marxist-Leninist insurgency (now long over) terrorized the countryside and even threatened Lima, and two small border wars were fought with Ecuador. One change is that everything now seems to have a museum devoted to it somewhere in the city: the Inka Museum, the Pre-Colombian Art Museum, the Coffee Museum, the Coca Museum, the Chocolate Museum, the Pisco Museum, the Textile Museum…  So we thought it only fitting that, to commemorate the 2018 release of EC 6, we create the Exploring Cusco Museum. This virtual museum documents some of the changes the city has undergone during the book’s 38 year lifespan.

Exploring Cusco, or just “EC,” has been around for a long time. The first edition, EC 1, came out in 1979, EC 2 in 1980, EC 3 in 1984, EC 4 in 1989, and EC 5 in 1999. The gap between number four and five was long, but it’s been even longer between five and six: 19 years to be precise. Exploring Cusco 6th ed. comes out in early 2018.


The following entries are arranged according to the order that they are referenced in Exploring Cusco 6.


What’s Changed:

General Information


  • In 1979, at the time of EC 1, the population of Cusco was around 150,000, and the city didn’t have neighborhoods crawling up its southern mountain slopes. According to the 2015 census, the city of Cusco (including some nearby towns) has about 450,000 inhabitants. This tripling has been in large part due to tourism.


  • Like all forms of communication in 1979, making international calls was a lot more difficult. First, you had to wait around two hours at the Entel office on Avenida el Sol. A $30 US deposit was required (a veritable fortune back then), and local operators couldn’t give you the rate until the operators in Lima reported the charges after your call was made; you had no idea beforehand what the call would cost.


  • There was an interesting way to get to Bolivia from Peru in 1979: the steamboat SS Ollanta crossed Lake Titicaca from the Peruvian city of Puno over to Guaqui, Bolivia. The boat departed at night and docked at 8am next morning. Improvements to the road around Lake Titicaca eventually killed the boat service. The SS Ollanta was the last in a line of Lake Titicaca steamships stretching back to 1861, when the Peruvian government commissioned the Yapura and the Yavari. These were constructed in pieces in Britain, shipped to Arica, taken by train to Tacna and then hauled by mule all the way to Puno on Lake Titicaca, where they were assembled. They were both fuelled with dried llama dung. The Ollanta is currently owned by PeruRail and available to charter; the Yavari is now a floating hotel and is being restored with the goal of making it operational again (
The Yavari – photo from


  • As late as EC 5 in 1999, all trains to Machu Picchu left from the San Pedro train station in Cusco to get to Machu Picchu. The station is still there, but now trains only leave from Poroy or Ollantaytambo. The San Pedro station was shut down over concerns about the stability of the steep railroad switchbacks out of Cusco and noise concerns. Also, after the Peruvian rail network was privatized in 1999, profit-minded executives realized that it was far faster to drive passengers to Poroy or even Ollantaytambo. 


  • In 1979, there was only one train to Machu Picchu per day, giving visitors just four hours to see everything. (Hardly anyone stayed overnight in Aguas Calientes as services were so poor.) People had to race to the buses to the ruins because visitors often outnumbered bus seats; EC 1 recommends waiting right next to the door of the train to get off as soon as possible. Missing the bus meant waiting 45 minutes for a second one.


  • EC 1 reports that a night in Cusco’s top luxury hotel, the Hotel Savoy at Avenida el Sol 954, was $13 USD. A night in the Hostal Boliver, the “classic Cusco flophouse for the boot-and-backpack crowd,” was $0.85 USD. In 2018, neither place exists. The fanciest room nowadays will run you $2,000 USD a night.


  • Hiking and camping isn’t a big part of Peruvian culture, and EC 1 mentions that equipment was impossible to buy locally. In 2018, you can hardly walk down a street in Cusco’s center without coming across an outdoor gear store. This is almost entirely due to tourists wanting to hike the Inca Trail and other high-altitude trails. 


  •  The Urubamba River was good for trout fishing up to EC 4 in 1989. Not long afterwards, some local towns began dumping their raw sewage into this sacred river, and EC 5 recommends against fishing in it. This is still the case in 2018.


  • The Peruvian national currency has changed three times since the first edition of Exploring Cusco in 1979. In 1979, there was the Sol de Oro, whose exchange rate was roughly $1 US : 200 Soles. Due to hyperinflation, in 1985 the Sol became the Inti. This didn’t solve the hyperinflation problem, and the Inti became the Nuevo Sol in 1991 at the rate of 1 Nuevo Sol : 1,000,000 Intis. The Nuevo Sol has proved to be much more stable than its predecessors, hovering around $1 US : 3.25 Nuevos Soles in 2018. Despite all the currency changes, the faces on the bills are still dour old men.


An old 1000 Soles de Oro bill
A 100 Inti bill
The current 100 Nuevos Soles bill
  • In 1979, EC 1 sold for S/.950 (old soles, of course), about $5 USD.


  • There were only two hotels in Aguas Calientes at the time of EC 1, each charging $0.85 per night. There are now hundreds, with the most expensive charging over $1,000 per night.


Inca Trails to Machu Picchu


  • The Inca Trail used to be very different. EC 5 in 1999 had detailed instructions for hiking the Inca Trail independently, and you started by getting off the Aguas Calientes train at Km. 88. You could do the Inca Trail on your own, with no permit, and camp in the ruins sites along the way. But the hike was being loved to death: campsites overflowed with garbage, irresponsible hikers built fires up against Inca walls, blackening and cracking the stonework, and the path was becoming badly eroded. This came to an end in 2004, when the Peruvian government started requiring hikers to use a licensed guide agency and implemented the modern permit system limiting paying hikers to about 200 per day (plus roughly 300 support staff, for a total of 500).


  • The following is a textbox from EC5 about the early days of the Inca Trail written by the late Alberto Miori, the former owner of Apu Expeditions, a Cusco adventure travel operator:


      History tells us that the route known today as the Inca Trail was discovered by Hiram Bingham during his explorations of 1915. Today we are prone to believe that the trail, and the Urubamba Gorge below it, had lain deserted, buried in forest, for the previous four centuries. We may also imagine that the names Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu and so on were unknown to the rest of Peru until Bingham’s discovery.
     Not so. A church document of 1728 states that “over 900 souls inhabit the stretch of river between here and Guaynapicho [Huayna Picchu] who lack any form of spiritual administration.” I have in my possession a copy of a map drawn about 30 years prior to Bingham’s journey by the explorer Antonio Raimondi. Clearly marked and in their correct position are the words “Cerro Machu Picchu.” Bingham must have used this map in his explorations, and it is strange that he never acknowledged the importance of Raimondi’s cartography to his work.
     Did the Inca Trail itself lie abandoned during those long centuries? Again, no. Through the last century of colonial rule and the first of independence the area downriver from Machu Picchu became a center of great sugar and coca plantations. They distilled cane alcohol, on which taxes were levied as it moved along the official route to Cusco via the Abra de Málaga. However, moonshiners evaded taxes by hauling illicit trago on muleback up the Aobamba (the valley you see below you from the ruins of Sayacmarca, which joins the Urubamba near the modern hydroelectric plant just west of Machu Picchu), joining the Inca trail at the Pacamayo, between what we now call the 1st and 2nd passes. The heavily-laden and sharp-hoofed mules must have eroded the Inca road, which probably explains the complete absence of Inca paving stones from Km. 88 to the Pacamayo Valley, and the good state of preservation thereafter.
     So it was only the section of the Inca Trail from the Pacamayo northeastward that remained mostly overgrown and unused. Pacamayo, aptly enough, means “hidden river.” Even so, this trail was not unknown. According to “Old Zavaleta,” everything that has been discovered, along with much that remains for outsiders to discover, was already known to the inhabitants of the region.
     Old Zavaleta used to live on the south bank of the Urubamba at the point now known as Km. 88. Several generations of his family owned most of what is now the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary until the Agrarian Reform of 1969. Even after losing most of his land he was a force to be reckoned with on the river. When he became fed up with all the gringos wandering across what was left of his land, he put an axe to the wooden bridge spanning the river. Later he replaced it with an oroya – a steel cable with pulley and metal basket – and charged a fee for using it. Many a hiker found himself dangling high above the river, engaged in a fierce but futile debate with an inebriated Zavaleta over the price of arrival on the south bank. On those days when he was too indisposed, or away from the homestead, there would be no oroya at all, for he kept it padlocked. A mass of hikers and porters would pile up on the banks of the sacred river, Waiting for the Man… After a lengthy legal battle the authorities put an end to the problem by building the footbridge we use today.
     While rereading Hiram Bingham, let us remember that in his day walking the trail to shortly beyond Phuyupatamarca was a relatively easy task, but no one at that time managed to reach Machu Picchu. There were one or more tunnels on this section which had completely collapsed, and Bingham’s men could not find their way around them. Eventually they completed this section by walking back from Machu Picchu, discovering Intipunku in the process.


The High Plateau Northwest of Cusco


  • There was no Chinchero-Urubamba road in 1979 (the author knows of people who got lost trying to drive between these two towns), and Chinchero was a backwater off the main Cusco-Izcuchaca highway. Not many tourists visited. Nowadays, it’s an important tourist destination poised to become a huge city if the international airport goes in there as planned (see “Some Things Never Change” below).




  • The municipal government of Cusco in 1979 was considering imposing a $10 US per head tax on all foreign visitors to Cusco. Fortunately, this never came to pass.


  • Entrance to the four major Cusco ruins (Saqsaywaman, Qenqo, Puca Pucara and Tambomachay) in 1979 was $0.75 US. This will cost you about $21 nowadays.


  • At the time of EC 1, public transportation in the Sacred Valley didn’t go past the town of Pachar to Ollantaytambo. You had to take the train from Pachar or walk to get there.


  • The Vilcabamba region, from Vitcos to Espiritu Pampa, was off-limits to foreigners in EC 1, and you had to have special permission to enter. In 1976, a Peruvian historian erroneously declared that he had discovered the lost city of Vilcabamba (he had actually only stumbled upon the ruins of Espiritu Pampa, discovered and publicized 60 years earlier by Hiram Bingham), and foreign treasure hunters and adventurers began pouring into the area. The Peruvian government quickly restricted access to limit looting. Today, the area is open to all.


  • Visiting Manu National Park was exceedingly difficult in 1984. EC 3 states that a journey to the biological station there used to take about two weeks for a round trip due to the bad roads and general lack of access. In 2018, a week would be plenty for this, even less if you flew there.


  • The full tourist ticket to all sixteen major sites near Cusco cost $10 US in 1984. This is about $35 in 2018.


And Some Things Never Change…


  • In 1979, Quinta Eulalia restaurant was open in its current location at Choquechaca 384, serving meals for under $2. This place is a veritable Cusco institution and has been in business since 1941.


  • Cafe El Ayllu, another Cusco institution, was open and serving coffee and pastries to locals and travelers alike in 1979. Back then it was on Portal de Carnes in the Plaza. It had to move when rents there started to skyrocket, and it has two current locations: Almagro 133 and Marqués 263.


  • The Cusqueño Josefina Olivera was in business selling textiles in 1979, but his shop was on Santa Clara street. His current location is the store Tiendas Museo, Portal de Comercio 173.


  • The pioneering adventure travel outfit Explorandes was open in 1979, making it the longest-running such agency in Peru.


  • Construction of the Chinchero airport was being planned in 1984, and EC 3 muses about the impact it could have on the region. It still hasn’t been started in 2018 but seems likely to go ahead.


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