If you ever had Machu Picchu on your bucket list schedule, you probably will not get past the historic capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco. Located at the foot of the Urubamba Valley, the city is today´s capital of the Cusco Region and Province and counts over 430,000 inhabitants. Not mentioning the annual two million visitors that find their way either via plane or foot to the mountain area. While most of the romance and adventure of foregoing ancient times may have passed, Cusco still remains exciting and different and is a great gateway to the Andes and the magical ruins of Machu Picchu.
One thing that everyone should be well aware of before planning a trip up here is the massive elevation that Cusco is located on. I know this by heart, since I had suffered majorly from the high altitude disease during our two-days visit before continuing to Aguascalientes, from where we eventually made it into Machu Picchu.
Cusco lies on an altitude of around 3,400 meters. And that is a lot. After our arrival by plane from Chile, we roughly had a week for the city as well as Machu Picchu before we had to fly back to Sao Paulo from where we eventually headed back to Europa. That left us with only two days to acclimatize in town. And that was, in my case, not enough. I could hardly breathe, my head was dizzy the whole time, every step was a major effort, I had the worst sleep ever and I had the constant taste of blood in my mouth. Not sexy at all and also quite harmful to the body. So if I was to do this trip again, I think it would help a lot to either slowly mount up to Cusco by feet, car or train or to plan a much longer stay at the city itself.
I had to make a choice. Either abort the whole trip and return to lower altitudes straight away or taking the chance that it would get better once we would reach Aguascalientes and Machu Picchu, which both lie a lot lower than Cusco. Since this was a long kept dream of mine and you never know what is going to happen in your life next, guess what I chose for. I would never suggest anyone to put his/her life in danger by being ignorant to signs of sickness, but in my case I decided to continue and carry on the best I could. So I could finally make me dream come true!
This meant a huge decrease in speed and the cut of a lot of sightseeing spots in and around the city. But in the end, I was still able to take more than enough colorful impressions and life lasting experiences with me back home. It is very important though to listen carefully to your body and never to push the limits! Drinking water constantly and staying hydrated is also a major key in reducing symptoms, but it might not eliminate them. Always have in mind that you can still visit a doctor, should you have the feeling that symptoms are worsening.
Cusco is great to be explored by foot. While the classic downtown area around Plaza de Armas is rather touristic with lots of ordinary souvenir shops and bars that are overpopulated with party driven backpackers, the thousands and thousands of back alleys and side streets that crawl up the surrounding mountains open up the authentic local touch that makes Cusco so romantic and scenic. Hidden little cafés and artesian shops throne high above the hustle and bustle of the city, revealing amazing panoramic viewpoints onto the valley itself and the mountains towering in the distance.
My favorite neighborhood is San Blas (read about our boutique hotel experience here). It is a great area to wander around as the majority of the streets is pedestrian only, but the incline can be quite challenging, particularly when you suffer from high altitude sickness like I did.
This is where we ended up by chance at the local restaurant Kukuly. The owners and service staff hardly spoke English, yet this place is a very popular spot for locals to have lunch at. That is why we decided to take a well-deserved break from mounting up and down after taking a look through the windows inside. It was packed! And what do we know about restaurants that are full with locals? Right, they can´t be that bad.
Kukuly serves a set menu with three courses, differing from day-to-day. One kind of a non-alcoholic beverage was served along and the ingredients were, as we were told by a French that came here on a regular base and that had been living in Cusco for over 10 years now, cropped by a children´s home outside the city which the restaurant supported financially.
The food was simple yet delicious (not to mention a true bargain) and it was great to know that we could actually contribute with our meal and the tip to support local social institutions and artesian farming. There surely are far more luxurious and sophisticated restaurants around, yet this can be described as truly authentic experience with a Peruvian soul.
From here, it is only a little walk over to San Cristobal church from where you have one of the most beautiful panoramic vistas over the entire area, particularly historic downtown of Cusco with the famous cathedral and Plaza de Armas spread right to your feet.
Another highlight of the city is its ancient marketplace Mercado San Pedro. With lots of local street vendors outside and inside the building and many women dressed in the traditional Peruvian dresses, this location feels like stepping back in time.
Colorful and speaking to all your senses, San Pedro is a rollercoaster trip for your eyes. Each stand is neatly decorated and the merchandise is presented appealingly, wherever it is meats, souvenirs, fruits or food stands. It is hustle and bustle yet such a pleasure to walk the narrow alleys, only eight minutes away from Plaza de Armas.
While Plaza de Armas and the surrounding was the last stop on our sightseeing tour, there surely is way more to see and explore when in town. The old cathedral though, which was built on the remains of the Incan temple which was (along with the rest of the city) destroyed during the siege of the Spanish, is absolutely worth visiting. This is where Cusco has its beating heart.
Yet this is also the place, where you can sense and eyewitness the extreme touristic evolvement that the city had gone through since the discovery of the Machu Picchu ruins, making Cusco the main gateway. You can hardly make a step without being asked or offered guided tours, special massages or anything like this. That can be a little irritating from time to time as it ruins the romantic touch that these ancient walls emit. Yet I would not want to imagine how much worse it must be in the summer, when it is high season for travelers to visit the region. Having been here end of December, we certainly did enjoy the less crowded atmosphere, though we had to compromise on the weather.
As a major part of travel is food, always be willing to try local specialities! Some extraordinary dishes that Peru is most popular for are Cuy (guinea pig) and Alpaca (camelid). I only made the latter, which actually has a firm yet tender meat that tastes a little bit like in between ostrich and beef. The guinea pig, which is often served in one piece, I decided to hold for the next time to Peru :).
For a complete photo gallery of our Cusco adventure, click here.