After several days exploring the coast and desert areas of Peru we took a flight to the city of Cusco, up in the Andes mountains to the East. We stayed at the Palacio del Inka (thank you credit-card points!) and our friends stayed at the Novotel, a short walk down the street. Both hotels were in good locations with very nice rooms and friendly staff. The food served at their respective restaurants was excellent, I’d easily recommend either hotel if staying in Cusco.
Most tourists looking to visit Machu Picchu, especially if hiking the Inka Trail are expected (if not required) to spend a few days acclimating to the elevation in Cusco. Generally, a person can start feeling the effects of “high altitude” around 8,000 feet (~2400 meters) and the risks of altitude sickness include High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), brain injury and/or death. Mild symptoms of altitude sickness include nausea, headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath and fatigue. This is caused by rapid ascent into a low-oxygen environment that the body is not used to. There are some medications like Diamox that can help with altitude sickness, so talk to your MD if planning a trip. (I didn’t take any and was the only one to experience any problems, however minor). Gradual exposure will allow the body to adjust without suffering injury and Cusco is an absolutely wonderful place to hang around (at 11,200 ft/3,400 m) while your body adjusts.
To be sure, the altitude in Cusco is no joke! Daniel and I and our friends trained for months before this trip, we were all afraid to be the “fat Americans” who couldn’t finish the hike or be the ones to hold the group up. “Just don’t be last” was our motto. Our friends, who live in Florida, ran stadiums 2-3 times a week and took long hikes with their packs on to prepare. The stadiums were the highest elevation they could find close to them. Daniel and I in California were able to take our packs out on some pretty steep hikes in the mountains here – none higher than 8,000 feet though. We went every weekend we could and even took 2-3 mile walks around the neighborhood with our packs on during the week! We got a lot of questions from neighbors about that. I would say that we all were in above-average shape heading into this adventure, however Cusco kicked our collective rear-ends.
Just walking around the town on mild grades we were out of breath. Our pace was more of a stroll than a walk and stairs…stairs were avoided if at all possible. We took lots of rest stops and sucked on “coca candy”, coca-tea and coca-gum as much as our heart-rates could tolerate. The people who settled in these mountains had long been using coca leaves and by products to help with the altitude for hundreds of years, often just chewing the dried leaves straight like tobacco. I tasted a leaf or two and the taste was bitter and unpleasant and whatever was in it also degraded the enamel on my teeth (like after eating a lemon) so I chose not to be as authentic as the locals. Despite all that I still had a touch of altitude sickness, the nausea left me unable to eat very much and I had to sit down for breaks often. I was very glad we had planned 4 days to acclimate in the area before starting the 4 day trek to Machu Picchu.
The upside was getting to spend those days exploring Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The city itself was charming. There were old churches, crypts and monasteries to see, lots of little parks, a few museums and of course touristy shopping areas. I actually liked the shopping though, there were a lot of handmade products there like clothing made from llama and alpaca wool, pottery and jewelry, art…and of course all the trinket items you find at any touristy market. The people were so friendly and we felt safe walking around town at all hours. There were some locals dressed in colorful, traditional clothes, some carrying or walking llama’s to pet and take photos with.
The food there was very good. Pastries, breads, roasted meats and traditional dishes like “Cuy” at some of the restaurants were all fun to try. Yes, I ate cuy – guinea pig. I tried it both fried and roasted …I did not care for fried much, the taste was very gamey and there was so little meat it wasn’t worth it. The roasted taste I had was much better because they had removed the bones and the flavor was better. I also had roasted Alpaca and it was very very good! Lean like pork but darker in color and very tender (when cooked properly). The flavor was like a light beef, close enough that if you weren’t paying attention you could mistake it for beef I think.
Peruvians do not eat llama, they are revered in the culture there and are/were a critical resource for living in the Andes. Their wool was used for clothing, they are strong pack animals that are comfortable living at the altitude in the Andes so were important for helping carry goods and harvests from point A to point B. Ancient Incan and other art from the cultures of the Andes depict the llama in paint, pottery and even gold figures. The alpaca, a related species very similar to the llama was domesticated for all the same purposes as the llama but also for food.
We spent time in the Plaza de Armas which has a beautiful fountain in the middle and has the Cusco Cathedral to one side. There are also numerous eateries and shops nearby as well and lots of places to buy extra hiking gear if you’ve forgotten something important. The city is very walkable, we never had to take a taxi except from to and from the airport.
Another interesting part of Cusco to see are the partially intact original Incan walls. The Inca who built the city of Cusco were eventually conquered by the Spanish in the 1500’s and the Spanish unfortunately tore down a lot of the city as they came through. Some of the walls were kept to be rebuilt upon with more Spanish style architecture. It is amazing to see the stonework still standing and the precision that the stones were cut and laid. I’m interested in history and architecture so visiting these ancient cities and seeing parts of their original architecture was really exciting for me.
I would definitely visit Cusco again, even if not going to Machu Picchu. We did not get to see everything we wanted to and it was a really beautiful and wonderful place. I would encourage anyone traveling there to learn at least some basic Spanish, we spoke enough but our visit would have been more difficult if we didn’t speak some of the language.
Next, part 3: our visit to the Sacred Valley.