When in Peru, the best thing you can do before trekking to Machu Picchu, is acclimatising in Cusco…
Cusco (also Cuzco) is not all about the Pisco Sours, Peru’s signatory cocktail – although very scrumptious. This amazing but exhausting city is renown as the base from which to start a trek to the incredible Machu Picchu.
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No alcohol on the bus so the boys sculled their beers before hopping on for the long journey, with the bottle of rum safely packed in a backpack.
This trip is supposed to be quite beautiful during the day so if you have time, take this opportunity.
Arriving at the uncovered bus station in Cusco, a horde of taxi and accommodation touts swamp you, badgering hard. Walk away and find a taxi outside of the bus station so you don’t get ripped off as much. Our hostel is on a no-through road so the taxi can’t drop us off at the door – walking uphill with heavy backpacks at this altitude, isn’t much fun.
Buses in Peru
If there’s one piece of advice I can give you and something I’ve learnt during the six months of travelling overland in South America, don’t go for the cheapest bus ticket, especially for long-haul journeys.
Buses in South America can be more comfortable than a plane’s cattle class seat. Pay for a reclining seat (or Cama – bed), so you at least have some comfort during the overnight journey.
Lower Deck – VIP: only 10 to 12 seats and allocated seating, reclining 180°
Upper Deck – Regular: allocated seat reclining 40 degrees
Upper Deck – On Sale: special price – allocated seat reclining 40 degrees
Upper Deck – Outstanding: outstandingly cheap, you may not get a seat
- Avoid sitting next to the toilet.
- Upper deck on buses is a little sickly whilst swerving around bends and typically, more jammed with seats.
- Take earplugs, warm clothing, music, and anything else for which to wallow away the long sleepless hours.
This very hilly city was the administrative and religious capital during the Inca period and in 1983, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the City of Cuzco listing.
Exhausting, not only for Cusco’s altitude of 3,400 metres above sea level, but the constant hassling from touts as after all, this is a major South American tourist destination. And, one where hordes of travellers’ stream in on a continual daily basis.
Still, try and ignore the badgering and experience Cusco for its wonderful colonial architecture, a legacy of the Incas and the Spanish.
The Inca’s original name for Cusco was Huacaypata, which is a Quechua word that means a ‘place of meeting’ or ‘of weeping’.
Plaza de Armas
Whilst ambling through this great meeting point for locals and travellers, and the vibrant heart of the city, check out the many restaurants, bars, cafes, and souvenir shops gracing stunning architecture.
At the plaza’s centrepiece, the intricate statue of Pachacuti – Incan ruler – stands proud amongst fastidiously manicured gardens.
An abundance of roaming vendors sell a profusion of Peruvian savoury and sweet snacks, including drinks – it’s cheap to eat at these snack carts.
The downside is that many of the hawkers also frequent this area and I guarantee, you will be approached to buy something.
Strolling away from the Plaza de Armas and finding yourself on Loreto’s narrow alleyway, the bustle of tourists lets you know that you’ve arrived at the Inca walls.
The wall belonging to the Amarucancha (Courtyard of the Serpents) is on the right and marks Huayna Capac, the 11th Inca’s palace.
Llama Ladies (my nickname) are everywhere and if you’re caught taking their photo, you have no option but to cough up money.
The oldest surviving Inca wall is on Loreto’s other side and belonged to the Acllahuasi (House of the Chosen Women).
Away from Plaza de Armas heading northeast, you’ll find yourself on Hatunrumiyoc, which is named after the famous 12-sided stone – a brilliant polygonal masonry technique.
Wonderful freshly-baked bread awaits at the wall, each day.
Many touts distract you, so watch your bags at this spot – an opportunist is always close.
Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin
Also known as Cusco Cathedral, the steps of this grand iconic cathedral is another terrific meeting point and wonderful for people-watching.
Almost one-hundred years after construction commenced, the cathedral finally saw completion in 1654…
…and is now a major colonial art repository – and of course, there is an entrance fee, which includes a trip into the crypts.
Iglesia de la compañía de Jesús
Built on an Inca palace, this imposing church started its life in 1576. Badly damaged in 1650 during an earthquake, the church’s rebuild was completed in 1668, and is hailed as Peru’s best example of Spanish Baroque architecture.
Barrio de San Blas
San Blas is by far the most picturesque and historic area of Cusco for its cobbled laneways etched away by centuries, but also its large bohemian and artist scene. Also known as Barrio de los Artesanos – artesans’ quarter – art studios and shops offer high-quality handicrafts.
Seems like everyone is selling something in Cusco and predominately, accommodating tourist tastes.
San Blas is a steep walk from Plaza de Armas, but this is our daily walk and great training in preparation for the trek.
South Americans love their street parades and Peru is no different.
Wandering around the city streets, it’s not long until we bump into a colourful cultural street parade with young girls dressed in colourful pretty costumes.
Absorb yourself amongst many beautiful buildings, whilst soaking in Cusco’s atmosphere – night time is a little quieter and probably because the temperature drops so quickly.
Rambling up and down hills exploring aged alleyways provides a favourite daytime distraction.
Children seem content with sitting quietly watching a parade, or just playing on ancient stone steps.
An unusually quite lane.
Even tired tourists need a rest sometimes…
Football in Cusco
Together with our friends, we decide to venture to the Estadio Inca Garcilaso de la Vegao to watch a football game, of course.
The local Cusco team Cub Sportivo Cienciano, lost 0/1 to Sporting Cristal in today’s game.
Not expecting to see such a huge police presence donning full riot gear around the stadium, but especially on the field, this makes you a tad nervous.
Luckily nothing major broke out – police are used to escort teams off and on the field, from potential objects thrown at the players.
3 cool things to do in Cusco
Cusco’s nightlife is buzzing with a plethora of bars for young and old, and there is always something happening most nights. You won’t be bored and just venture out to see what’s out there…
Spanish and Salsa classes
Although I did neither, many travellers head to Cusco to take Spanish classes and also Salsa classes. I’m sure that other travellers and most hostels know where you can join classes.
San Pedro Markets
Go where the locals go and head out to San Pedro Markets for cheap excellent freshly squeezed juices and local food, including fresh produce. Everything is on offer including jellied drinks and Peru’s delicacy BBQ Cuy (Guinea Pig), but go in the morning as produce is fresher, due to lack of refrigeration.
If you’re strapped for time or on a tour, then you can visit Machu Picchu in one day or overnight, and The Sacred Valley on a separate visit. For those with more time, treks to Machu Picchu can take from two to five days, or longer.
The manager at Pisco and Soul recommended an agent to book our Machu Picchu trek, but there are so many in Cusco that my only advise is read some traveller reviews first.
Booked on the five-day Salkantay trek, the agent promises a great local guide, smaller group at a budget price. I’ve dedicated a whole post just to this incredible trek and will publish this next week, so stay tuned.
Where to sleep
Such a touristy city offers a multitude of choices at every budget, so rest assured, you won’t need to sleep in a bus stop.
Pisco and Soul
From the moment you meet the marvellous managers from Pisco and Soul, you receive a wonderful warm welcome and instantly made to feel at home. Accommodation is clean and a great breakfast is included.
A free Pisco Sour is thrown in for good measure on your fist night. Made with love and passion whilst fiercely debating whether its inception stemmed from Peru or Chile, it’s a delightful and genuine welcome to Cusco.
Our room is in another building and around the corner from the main building, but still within the historic San Blas area. You can also leave your gear safely here for free, whilst taking off to Machu Picchu.
Where to eat
Too many grazing choices in Cusco but whilst in Peru, you must try Ceviche. Served throughout Peru, this deliciously tangy raw seafood dish is addictive. It must be made fresh as the raw fish is cured in lime or lemon juices, spiced with chilli peppers, Ají or depending on the region, cilantro, finally chopped onions and tomatoes.
Apart from cooking at the hostel to save money but also as we’ve both been sick on and off (my partner more on, than off), I’ve listed just a few places for you to try, especially if you need some western food with a Peruvian flair.
Jack’s Cafe – situated in San Blas, one of the oldest Cusco districts, this American-style restaurant with Australian roots, is a great travellers’ point. The food is delicious, with good service and reasonable prices.
Paddy’s Irish Pub
This pub claims to be the ‘highest pub in the world’, but La Paz has many pubs and the altitude is a couple of hundred metres higher than Cusco. Nonetheless, if you’re in need of a Guinness, then try Paddy’s next to the cathedral – it really is as if you’re stepping through a door and into Ireland.
Naturlandia – Cusco
South America is meat heaven. But, if you’re in need of a veggie fix then this vegetarian and vegan restaurant is your go-to place for delicious food. The veggie burgers and juices are great.
Lucky to have the luxury of spending just under two weeks in Cusco and finally fulfilling the lifelong dream of experiencing mystical Machu Picchu, it’s now time to head to Lima.
Invited on our friend’s boat to sail down the Hudson River and in to New York, booked a flight from Lima. Who wouldn’t take up this once in a lifetime opportunity? Even if it is a little side trip from the South American adventure…