Cusco: The Breathless City

Home of the Incas and high in the sky, Cusco will leave you breathless.

From shopping for Inca trends to enjoying world-class Peruvian cuisine to engaging in cheap extreme sports, you won’t run out of things to do in Cusco.

Altitude lethargy is different from jungle lethargy. Rather than melting into and with your sweat among the palm trees, the thin mountain air of Cusco makes it feel as if your veins, from your heart to your fingertips, are lighter than the air they’re missing. Like if you stood up too quick, without inhaling as you ascend, you’ll float away. The only solution is to take it slow, drink water, and enjoy the healing and energizing effects of the bitter coca tea leaves like the natives have done for centuries.

Cusco, shaped like the sacred puma, sits 3,339 meters (11,152 feet) high in the sky, nestled near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountains. Qusqu, in Quechua, the language of the Incas, was the capital of the powerful Inca Empire until Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadores swaggered in like White, horse-mounted gods and destroyed Inca temples in favor of Catholic churches. Inca stone bases and small even steps blend seamlessly with Spanish balconies and smooth cobblestone streets, an aesthetically pleasing and constant reminder of the muddling of the two cultures.

While Cusco is often overlooked as a stopping point before the famous Machu Picchu, I find that I’m having a hard time leaving, despite the effects the dry air is having on my skin. Maybe it’s just the hostel I’m staying at or maybe it’s the way every time you turn your head, you seem to rest your eyes on an image from a postcard, but the picturesque city seems like it provides endless opportunities for activities and sights.

Where To Stay:

I am staying at EcoPackers hostel on Santa Teresa, 375, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. While some people may opt to stay at Pariwana, the party hostel chain with a roof bar, I find EcoPackers the perfect mix of cozy and trendy. When you walk in to the hostel, rated Top 3 in South America by TripAdvisor in 2013, you are greeted by an open Spanish-style courtyard with lawn chairs and hammocks. Around the lounging guests are other rooms to relax in after a long day of traveling or exploring, including a dining room with a beautiful Machu Picchu mural, a fully stocked bar, and a living room with leather couches, bean bag chairs, a fireplace and movies playing on the big screen. The staff is friendly and professional, the wifi is decent, and the place is simply convenient, offering laundry services for 5 soles, locks for 3 soles, towels for rent, an ATM, a tour agency on site, a proper bar, an affordable restaurant, breakfast and coffee included, coca tea leaves, candy and drinks for sale, a book exchange and hot showers. The dorms and bathrooms alike are clean, comfortable and warm. Rates range from around $11 for a bed in an 18-bed dorm to $18 for a 4-bed dorm to $56 for a suite with a private bathroom. I paid $12.50 for a bed in a 10-bed dorm where I met plenty of kind, interesting people from all over the world. The hostel also offers promotions of four nights for the price of three in February and March.

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courtyard from the second floor
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living room with fireplace and TV
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one of the many dining areas
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the bar

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Where To Eat:

Nuna Raymi– Located just outside the Plaza de Armas, this warm restaurant caters to tourists with a menu in English while still remaining authentic and affordable. Most main dishes cost anywhere from 31-33 soles, or $12-$13. I tried an alpaca dish covered in a plum and chincha (purple corn) sauce, served with a creamy rosemary spaghetti and a quinoa-crusted trout filet covered in a citrus-ginger sauce and served with vegetables. Did I mention that if you show your EcoPackers bracelet, you receive 15% off your bill?

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Laura eating one of her salads
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alpaca with chincha sauce and rosemary pasta
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quinoa crusted trout

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PachaMama– Named after the Inca goddess mother nature, this small restaurant is like so many others calling out to you near the Plaza de Armas. Nevertheless, I found their Aji de Gallina, a very traditional Peruvian dish of chicken and potatoes in a slightly spicy yellow sauce, to be divine. I was doubly pleased by the offering of a salad bar with my meal and the kitchen’s willingness to substitute my rice for vegetables, all for 25 soles.

I’m also a sucker for street food. Things worth trying are “choclo con queso,” (big corn with melted cheese), ANY street meat, guinea pig (like the Quechua Jesus ate), and empanadas, sweet and savory.

Where to Drink:

Mama Africa in the Plaza de Armas, next to Mushrooms, is a great club to get drunk and dance with locals and tourists alike to a good variety of music from salsa to techno to hip hop. They also offer salsa lessons!

KM 0 in the stylish San Blas barrio plays live music every night in a smoky atmosphere. Sip on a chilcano and puff on a hookah while you listen to local artists.

What To Do: As a tourist town, Cusco offers a wide variety of activities to partake in while enjoying the sights. Here are a few that I tried:

Free Walking Tour:

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First of all, I’d like to say that I love free walking tours. I’ve joined them all over the world, from Krakow to Barcelona to Quito, and the guides are always incredibly informative about the history and architecture of their city. Of course, the tours are not completely free as the guides work for tips, but they more than earn it with their positive energy and helpful tips, and by pointing out the highlights of the city that you might not have seen on your own.

I believe EcoPackers usually offers one that meets at 11:40, but for whatever reason their tour was canceled on the day my companion and I went, so we met up with a different group, called Free Walking Cusco, in the Plaza around 12:15 for a two hour tour.

As our guide walked us towards the beautiful Compania Church, he began to explain how the Inca and Catholic cultures combine. While we weren’t able to enter the church without paying a fee, he described the famous Last Supper painting inside, with Jesus and his apostles dining on a big Peruvian style loaf of bread, a guinea pig, and beer, Peter’s cheek apparently full of coca leaves. On our walk, our guide spoke about Cusco as a region very strongly connected to the cosmos. The northernmost part of Cusco, called Saqsaywaman, he said is the best location to see the movements of the stars and to find portals to other dimensions. This Inca spirituality has been repressed by the Catholic religion, but it is prevalent that the locals still take this way of thinking to heart.

La Plaza de Armas
La Plaza de Armas
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bird’s eye view of Plaza

 

monument to Tupac Amaru and other martyred Inca fighters against Spanish crown
monument to Tupac Amaru and other martyred Inca fighters against Spanish crown
cute old couple, cruisng on the plaza at night
cute old couple, cruisng on the plaza at night

 

 

 

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Our guide led us through the winding streets, up steep stairs, making all of us pant from the exertion made difficult by the altitude, to the bohemian neighborhood called San Blas. The neighborhood was styled like Granada, Spain, as can be identified by the signature Andalucian balconies, but is also influenced by the early Middle Eastern residents, painted clean white and blue to ward off the evil eye. I was pleased to see original arches over the doors, one claiming to have been built on September 9, 1660.

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While in the now-artsy neighborhood, we went into a music shop to sample some of the local tunes. An artisan who makes these curious small guitars (the Spanish wouldn’t let the natives play their guitars so the Incans created their own, small enough to fit under a poncho) called charangos, among other Peruvian instruments, played for us the most amazing music on 16 strings. You could almost hear the history of the Andes mountain region coming from under his fingertips, sorrow making way into joy as he applied more or less pressure to the acoustics.

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At the end of our tour, we were treated to delicious pisco sours, a classic Peruvian cocktail.

Mercado de San Pedro: 

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Every city has its own lively market. The San Pedro market is your one-stop shop for souvenirs and groceries, tchotchkes and tripe, hot soup and cold juices, Chakana necklaces and harem pants, ceramics and cat food. My friend Laura and I spent about three hours there yesterday, haggling over prices of hand-made hats and alpaca blankets to be sent home to friends and family.

Handcrafts Market: 

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Not far from the San Pedro Market, this smaller and calmer market is filled with hand-woven, Inca-inspired, old as dirt, cut from stone, tediously beaded, beautifully painted goodies. Go to the San Pedro Market first to see what the best price of items is, because this market tends to try to charge a bit more for their wares.

Horseback Riding near Saqsaywaman:

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Saqsaywaman (signifying Satisfied Falcon in Quechua) is a walled fortress of even higher altitude than central Cusco in the north part of town. This smooth-stone blocked complex, built in 1100, is said to have a strong spiritual presence. Legend has it that when the Spanish followed the Incas there from Cusco during the wars, the outgunned and outnumbered Peruvian warriors would tackle the conquistadores over the cliffs, killing themselves as well as the Spanish, rather than die at their hands.

The historical park costs 70 soles to enter, but we found a way around that while still including another activity. Try taking a cab to Cristo Blanco, a place where red-cheeked children play soccer in fields next to mountains and alpacas, and asking about the horses, caballos. Our cabbie’s family just so happened to own horses for hire, and a ten-year-old boy named Raul tailed behind our horses on a tour among infinite, dry mountains and plateaus to the backside of Saqsaywaman, some really cool caves, a pretty lagoon, and la Templa de la Luna. The horse ride cost 30 soles, but I tipped little Raul an extra 5 for being such an informative and equestrian-skilled guide.

Laura pretending to be Golem in the caves.
Laura pretending to be Golem in the caves.

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Templa de la Luna
Templa de la Luna

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ruins of temple of the moon

 

 

 

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walkway near Saqsaywaman

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The tour dropped us off in a rather secluded spot, but Raul told us how to get into Saqsaywaman. We snuck in among the tall eucalyptus trees and admired the beauty of nature and the scattering of an occasional ruin. Laura and I each took a minute to sit and meditate on the ground, and something about the energy of the place and the vibrations of the earth beneath me and the whistling of the wind around me made me feel rooted to the world, and very much a part of it, however small. All I could think was, I am grateful.

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Bungee Jumping: Right near our hostel is the office for Action Valley Cusco Adventure Park. As Laura and I were walking by, we decided to see what it would cost for our first bungee experience. An hour and $95 later, we were on our way to the outskirts of Cusco to free fall among the watching mountain people. When we got to the venue, which also offers paintballing, a climbing wall, and a slingshot, we were instructed to jog and stretch to warm up. I went first, listening intently to the instructions in Spanish as I was strapped in by my legs, waist, chest and neck. Up the steel-caged cherry picker 122 meters, a few deep breaths, and a gentle push from my guide and I was falling, falling and then something happened that I can only truly describe with a noise like “hhuuuuunnnfff.” I felt the tightness of the harness where there was just only air, bounced a few times, and finally settled, feeling the weight of my upper body as the blood rushed from my feet to my head and I watched the tall, thin trees spin around me. I heard the guys working the bungee yell, “Abrazos, Rebecca! Abrazos!” What? Hugs? I looked up, or was it down?, and saw the white landing circle quickly getting larger as it came up to greet me, and saw the men who had yelled at me for hugs with their arms outstretched, and opened mine up just in time for them to catch me and settle me down on a mat. It took me a few tries to stand up, but I finally did with a smile on my face. The next day, I felt like I had been hit by a bus, but it was well worth it.

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Get a Tattoo: On another whim, Laura and I decided to get tattoos to symbolize our journeys. Tattoo Willka in the Plaza offered us the low price of 90 soles each for our small, separate mountain-inspired tattoos. The shop was clean and well decorated, the artist was skilled, and it cost about $70 less than it would have in Boston or New York.

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Laura’s tat
My mountain inspired tattoo
My mountain inspired tattoo

 

Get a Massage: I totally would have done this if I weren’t terrified of anyone touching my muscles after the shock of bungee jumping. Women on the street offer massages to passerby for as cheap as 20 soles an hour. That’s like $6, people. I can’t attest to whether or not they’re any good, but it’s still an option for weary travelers.

Choco Museo: This free museum of chocolate hooks you in by offering free samples of chocolate on the street. Learn all about the cacao plant and the history of chocolate. You can even take a chocolate workshop and learn how its made from bean to bar.

More Walking!: Cusco is not too big of a city, and if the weather is nice, every street seems to offer a beautiful sight. Cruise the Avenida del Sol after the Plaza de Armas, looking in at shops as you pass by the Qoricancha, a revered Inca temple dedicated to the sun god Inti. Pay a braided haired lady in traditional mountain garb to take a picture with her and a baby alpaca. Check out the churches and cathedrals if you’re into that sort of thing. Take in the mountains around you, rising like gods above the tiled roofs. The city is just gorgeous. Enjoy it.

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Qoricancha

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Machu Picchu

How I tackled the famous Inca site, Machu Picchu.

Traveling from Cusco in the middle of the night to exhaust ourselves climbing Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, a truly incredible experience.

There are a number of ways to see Machu Picchu. You can book a tour of the Inca Trail, or other such extended, slightly expensive treks for the experience of walking through the Sacred Valley all the way up to village atop the green, round mountain. You can stay the night in the town before Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, and arise with the sun for an early morning, two hour hike up to the city and surrounding mountains. Or you can do what Laura and I did, which has its pros and cons.

Some other travelers assured me as I bought my ticket for Machu Picchu online and a week in advance (good idea to do this because Machu Picchu and her sister/his brother? Huayna Picchu only allow a certain amount of tourists per day to walk their even steps and stones. Something about preserving the site….) that Machu Picchu takes all day, and that I wouldn’t be able to find a train back to Cusco that night, and should plan to sleep in Aguas. So we decided, like so many others, to leave Cusco very early in the morning and arrive in Aguas Calientes at around 8 in the morning to begin our ascension then.

Rather than take the train straight from Cusco to Aguas, which would have cost around $75 each way, we booked a couple of round trip tickets from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. The red-lipsticked PeruRail associate suggested that it would be cheaper to take a $3 colectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, which leave regularly beginning at 2 am, and take the train from there, all together around $55. So we saved like $40. Woop!

Our alarm clocks went off around 3 am, and we gathered our things silently in the dark, already dressed in what we’d wear for the next 20 hours. We booked a 5:20 train out of “Olla-whatever,” as I had been calling it, so we knew we’d need to be on a collective mini van by 4 am to make the hour long journey.

After a short cab ride to the colectivo meeting point, we were immediately accosted at our taxi window by at least ten men and one woman, all beseeching us to join their van. I picked the guy with the most honest face, and struggled to follow him to his van, the woman blocking my path in a sad attempt to change my mind. Unfortunately, we were the first two in this particular mini van, and we watched, mostly horrified, slightly amused, and incredibly impatient, as our driver sprinted with the herd to other new taxis pulling up to stake their claim into the latest tourist.

The road through the Sacred Valley was bumpy and winding and filled with the most annoying, loud, upbeat Peruvian music it has ever been my displeasure to listen to for an extended period of time. Not even my earplugs combined with light humming to myself could drown it out. We got to the picturesque town of Olla-whatever, that most tourists (including us) overlook, just in time to make our train. We spent another two hours rocking steadily along the Urubamba River and under earthy, brown mountains that appeared wise and judgmental as the full clouds hugged them. The PeruRail trains are covered in skylights (that would prove to be my undoing on the way back due to a migraine and an odd musical fashion show), and the rising sun shone through beautifully while we were served muffins and coca tea and a recording of a perky white woman happily informed us passengers that, “Families living in the community grow corn, potatoes and various vegetables.” It felt like a ride at Epcot.

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Urubamba River

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We arrived at the lovely tourist town of Aguas Calientes at around 8 in the morning and walked uphill along a river to our hostel, SuperTramp, which I wouldn’t recommend (slow wifi, dirty bathrooms, no hot water, no kitchen, bitchy cook). By the time we got settled and caffeinated, it was 9:30, and we didn’t want to waste time climbing the mountain up to Machu, which would have taken two hours. Also, lezzbehonest, we were pretty pooped from waking up at 3 am. The bus up cost about $10 and took 30 minutes, and soon we were being accosted by more Peruvians, this time tour guides exclaiming that it would be impossible to visit the site without a guide. I very much doubted this because I had read a book on Machu Picchu prior, but my friend Laura was keen to learn, and I agreed to translate the tour for her, an offer I regretted five minutes in, my tired mind struggling to grasp Spanish so early.

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Aguas Calientes

 

Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes

Our guide, a small, flat woman with nice skin, explained that when people today talk about Inca culture, they don’t know that they are technically referring to the fourteen trend setting kings who are the only true Incas, the most well known being Tupac Amaru, the last Inca who died fighting for independence from the Spanish conquistadores, and Pachacutec, the ninth Inca king who transformed the Kingdom of Cusco into an empire and was the architect for Machu Picchu. Apparently, the village in the clouds was the only part of the Inca Empire that escaped destruction by the Spanish conquistadores, who tried to follow the Inca soldiers who fled up the mountains from Cusco by following the Urubamba River, and therefore missed Machu Picchu, which was abandoned only 100 years after its creation.

As many people know, American historian Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu and published his findings in 1911, and now the city is an UNESCO world heritage site.

While on our tour, we also learned about things like the length of the Inca Empire (1438-1533 when the Spanish invaded) and how those who lived in the city created even step-like spaces in the mountain so they could domesticate potatoes, plantains, and chocolate.

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the Sacred Rock- inspiration for my tattoo
the Sacred Rock- inspiration for my tattoo

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The Three Windows

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I mostly just wandered and took pictures and wished I didn’t bother spending 20 soles to translate things I already knew, but alas, the sun was shining and the views were spectacular.

After the tour, we snacked on some nuts and warm cheese sandwiches that we made the night before and hustled over to Huayna Picchu (Waynu Picchu? one is Quechua and one is Spanish….IDK), innocently unaware of the challenge that awaited us. Once Laura caught wind of other exhausted tourists just ending their climb up the mountain, she gave me a look like, “Fuck off.” I knew then that I needed to be the wind beneath her wings, although I’m sure a big part of her wanted me to tell her to wait it out at the bottom.

Huayna Picchu
Huayna Picchu/ Wayna Picchu…however you spell it

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The hardest part of the ascent, in my opinion, was the stairs. The hour and 15 minute climb seemed much longer with every steep step. We zigzagged up the mountain, stopping at every corner for a breather and a sip of water, which we ran out of halfway up. Climbers on their descent squeezed by us on the narrow trails, trying not to tumble while they assured us that it was worth the trouble once we made it to the top. I believed them, especially after climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador, which was more difficult because the altitude was much higher. This just felt like a perpetual stair master.

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The view of Machu Picchu, the surrounding green mountains, and the glittering Urubamba River below were absolutely breathtaking. I was happy for the challenge of the climb, especially when the payoff was so magnificent.

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from the top, with the Urubamba below

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The way down was possibly more exhausting than the way up. We were out of water, the sun was high in the sky, and our legs felt like jello. Parts of the climb were so steep that we had to actually sit on the steps and “bum-shuffle,” as Laura called it, down.

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By the time we made it to the bottom, we were so depleted and dehydrated, the only thing that could rouse us from sitting breaks was a constant reminder to each other that we needed water. A breeze felt like the sweetest kiss.

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“I feel like any children I bear will feel the effects of that,” said Laura. We laughed spastically, our diaphragms unable to support the oxygen intake for a proper giggle.

After chugging the most expensive water I’ve ever bought in my life, we decided to rest our weary legs and take the bus back into town rather than climb down Machu. Some people may call us lazy for not climbing the mountain up or down. They would be right.

 

by Rebecca Bellan