The steep stairways and streets of Cusco open out to vistas and a hint of wildness that anyone can enjoy if they have a pair of sturdy shoes and half a day to wander.

The spectacular mountain walks in nearby valleys and ranges overshadow this one, but it’s a great way to enjoy the city and its hills in their own right.

The walk has an altitude gain of just over 300 metres, but once we’d made that height, the way is pretty level until we dropped down to the city again.

This morning, our friend Matt, an experienced hiker who has lived in Cusco for eight years, led us on a circuit, as he explores ways of sharing with visitors the Cusco of everyday Peruvians beyond the colonial centre.

We started at the statue of the most celebrated of the Incas, Pachacutec, in the roundabout where Calle San Martín meets Avenida 28 de Julio, at the edge of the barrio (suburb) of Abanhuay.

We waved good-bye to Pachacutec, and the metal and topiary llama across the road, and headed into Avenida Industrial, before turning into a side street and crossing the bridge over Río Huatanay.

Topiary and metal llama, Cusco, Peru

Topiary llama near the bus terminal in Cusco

Flowers on hillside, Abanhuay, Cusco, Peru

Abanhuay hillside bright with flowers

Here is where the climb begins. We followed sets of stairs up the hill behind Pachacutec, and in 20 minutes or so, had gained the ridge, and met an older, concrete Pachacutec. He looks over the city, the regional bus terminal, and his newer namesake. It’s a disturbing statue. People use to be able to climb inside the monument to a viewing platform, but the internal staircase has long since crumbled. From the outside, all that is visible of the platform is a round hole in Pachacutec’s chest. Perhaps it is meant to be the sun, to which he was related? But to me it looks like an enormous cartoon-like bullet hole that has exploded out of the statue’s chest, bringing to mind the tragic and bloody deaths of Incas to come at the hands of the conquistadors a century after Pachacutec.

Now the statue is just a shell, a place where young lovers seeking privacy come to caress and drink wine among the litter.

Statue of Pachacutec at Abanhuay, Cusco, Peru

Keeping an eye on his city … a concrete Pachacutec looks over Cusco from Abanhuay, the viewing platform window visible in his chest

As we continued up the ridge, the cheap homes of recent migrants to the city thinned out, and we found ourselves on a footpath that contours south around the slope through grasses, wildflowers and shrubs, and making for an electricity pylon in a gap ahead of us.


Path between Abanhuay and Tomoc, Cusco, Peru

Following the path from Abanhuay to Tomoc

We rose over a saddle, and below the western side of the hill, the town of Tomoc appeared. (At the rate Cusco is expanding, it won’t be long before Tomoc becomes just another suburb.) Although we stayed well above the town, the sounds of life swooped up the slope. It was Sunday, and we heard music as families and friends relaxed together, and the blare of car horns and motorbike engines, and choruses of barking dogs. We passed above a eucalypt forest, which, thankfully, filtered the sounds of Tomoc. We dropped briefly into a cleft in a rocky bluff, and lost the urban sounds altogether. High on the bluff was the observation post of a raptor, possibly a black-chested buzzard eagle (Geranoaetus melanoleucus australis). It circled us, decided we weren’t a threat, and swerved away on the thermal rising over the Tomoc valley. All we could hear now was thud and swish, boots on dirt and legs against grasses, and above that, pure notes of birdsong.

Scalloped ribbed markings on underside of succulent, Cusco, Peru

I love the scalloped markings on the underside of this metre-high succulent that we came across above Tomoc and Cusco

Across the slope was a raw gash of new dirt road. We walked up it a bit, then left it at the point of a switchback to make our own path up the last steep section, beside a gully.

It’s the rainy season, and the hills will be dressed for our visit in lovely gowns of fresh green, the fabric studded with floral jewels of red, yellow, mauve, orange, white. As we pushed through bushes and herbs laden with blossom, our feet crushed aromatic forbs, and we were enveloped in their perfume, herbaceous and clean. Surrounded by the vegetation and protected from noise below the crest of the hill, it was hard to believe we were just beyond the outskirts of one of Peru’s biggest cities.

Summit of hill between Tomoc and Cusco, Peru, looking down on Cusco

At the summit, from where we looked down on Cusco

Cusco, Peru, from hill above the city

Cusco from above

We stumped over a shoulder of rock, circled around to the other side of the hill, and Cusco became visible and audible again. The airport was below on the right, noisy with comings and goings. And we could see your path back, past a shrine and a cross, down through the outskirts of the city. Within 20 minutes, we were back on the valley floor, waving hello to Pachacutec, waving down a taxi, ready to share a beer in a pub that overlooks the plaza.

Cross on hill above Cusco, Peru, with city in background

A cross on a hill above Cusco … only 20 minutes’ walk back to the city