Reaching new heights in Cusco

I hadn’t expected to like Cusco as much as I did. First impressions were mixed: I adored the orange roofs that were sprawling in every direction but as we arrived traffic was intense, and I wondered if five nights in this seemingly overgrown market might actually be quite exhausting. 

As it transpired, five nights was too easy and I probably could have done more. Cusco is a wonderful base for so many excursions: obviously Machu Picchu, but also Humantay Lake, Rainbow Mountain and the Sacred Valley, to name just a few. There was enough in Cusco itself to keep us more than occupied for a few days and the food – wow. We did not have a single bad dining experience our whole time there.

Cusco sits at 3400m above sea level and yeah, we felt it. I had a mild headache for the first day and a half, and I would get irrationally puffed every time I went up any stairs (more than what can be attributed to just general unfitness!). Unlike in Bolivia, neither of us needed to resort to the coca leaf remedy to assist with our ailments… and we continued to drink coffee. 

My highlights of Cusco:

Hiking up to the Sacsayhuaman cultural site, which is basically a third grade Machu Picchu. We didn’t pay to enter (as it was a ticket that covered multiple sites that we wouldn’t be going to) but we got a good view from the road after we walked past the entrance, as well as stretching views of the city on our way up. The planetarium is also up that way and we heard it was meant to be quite good.

Visiting San Pedro Market in the morning (while everything is at its best) is an absolute must. There is everything from alpaca jerseys to fresh produce, to every kind of raw meat (yuck), cheeses, trinkets and other souvenirs, as well as restaurants with stalls selling amazingly cheap juices and actual meals. It’s a great introduction to Cusco and I could easily lose myself for hours simply meandering. We managed to pick up a cute little alpaca painting that will be our first making of a home in Canada! 

Sitting in the Plaza de Armas. Up there with the best plaza we have encountered so far in South America, it was a really relaxing spot to chill and people watch. We were lucky to witness a huge parade on our first morning there, where there was lots of colour, costume and music. There are also two huge churches bordering the square. We wanted to see the remake of ‘The Last Supper’ feat. Cuy (I.e. Roast Guinea pig) but the cathedral was closed to tourists for services each time we tried to visit. 

The San Blas district. Aside from the extremely narrow streets (which actually really got on my nerves), San Blas is such a pretty area to wander around – and some of the best food options lie in this neighbourhood. The streets are cobblestoned (you just have to cling to the extremely tiny sidewalks each and every time a car passes) and lined with souvenir shops, artesan produce (predominantly alpaca products and chocolate shops) and cutesie cafes. The square is also pleasant and the market was ideal for picking up some cheap fruit – and a whole lot less stressful than San Pedro. 

The last one is Andy’s highlight, not mine. While I was visiting Machu Picchu he took a day trip to Humantay Lake. It sounded pretty exhausting: a 4.40am start, a three hour drive each way and hiking at altitude (approx 4200m). Apparently there are horses available to catch a ride on if the hike becomes too much. The views at the top were simply beautiful, the colours were stark and something much more I would expect to see in NZ or Switzerland, rather than Peru. It looked like an extremely rewarding experience.

I’m going to do that thing I always end up doing… writing a separate post about the food places we ate it. Partly because this post is already long enough and also because they kind of earnt it! All in all, Cusco was a perfect last stop to our Peruvian leg and it certainly deserves to be a destination in itself – and not just a transit to get to Machu Picchu.

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