After visiting more than 50 countries, I would consider myself to be a pretty savvy traveller. I do my research, I ask for advice, and I credit that we have so many great adventures to the fact we prepare for just about everything.
So why did Adam and I decide to acclimatize in Cusco, whose 11,000 foot elevation towers over our hometown by 10,600 feet? We read the blogs. We talked to the travellers who made that mistake- and to those who were smart enough to visit the Sacred Valley first, where at 7,000 feet it’s a bit easier to get used to the thinner air.
We went to Cusco first because it worked better with our schedule. We survived 24 hours in the high altitude of Bogotá two years ago; for a whole day we went full force while making the most of an extended layover, never once questioning just how high above sea level we were or why we were so out of breath all the time. After that, we decided altitude sickness didn’t have much of an affect on us, so Cusco became our official launching pad into the Andes and Incan Peru.
Day 1: Sightseeing, Shopping, and Four Mistakes
Things started well enough for us. We arrived at the Cusco airport and were immediately met by the free airport transfer our hotel sent to greet us, so less than an hour after arriving we were comfortably settled into our hotel’s lobby sipping coca tea and studying city maps. We had been awake for close to 30 hours at that point thanks to an overnight flight and a connection in Lima, but we were too excited to start exploring to catch up on sleep, so off we went. That will be known as Mistake #1.
By lunchtime we were heading down the street to Plaza de Armas, a central spot in Cusco’s tourist area and the perfect place to start our exploration. The plaza was completely alive under bright blue skies with people from all over the world admiring the fountain and Catedral del Cusco. Locals peddle their wares (everything from tiny llama key chains to ponchos to hats), and it seemed like everyone had a camera in the air to capture the scene. We wandered around the plaza as well as several surrounding streets before deciding we needed food before we could consider visiting a museum or two. Acclimating requires lean protein and carbohydrates, so our search began.
Our lunch spot was just a five-minute walk from Plaza de Armas and right on Plaza Recocijo. Realizing we hadn’t enjoyed a proper meal since the day before, it wasn’t surprising that everything looked delicious- and that we ordered way too much of all the wrong things. Plates of tamales, empanadas, fish and roasted potatoes, and lomo saltado– Peru’s most popular meat dish- arrived at our table, and we enjoyed a leisurely lunch as we ate as much as we could. We’ll call these Mistakes #2 and #3: we didn’t eat the right carbs or protein, and we ate way too much of it. This was washed down by Mistake #4: a lovely glass of Preuvian Sauvignon Blanc and a Pisco sour. It didn’t occur to us to pass up on alcohol while our bodies adjusted to the elevation and recovered from the flight. By the time lunch was over, we were both completely stuffed but very happy with a fantastic meal.
The next couple of hours were spent window shopping; on our walk back to the hotel we discovered a little unmarked alley that opened into a great artisan craft market, and while we didn’t buy souvenirs we had a great time looking around. By the time we reached our hotel it was getting dark- and we were getting sleepy. Although we didn’t plan on a nap, that’s exactly what we did.
Two hours later, Mistakes 1-4 caught up with us.
As it turns out, there is no amount of enthusiasm for exploring a new place that can match the mix of physical exhaustion, heavy food, alcohol, and elevation. We both were nauseous, nursing terrible migraine-caliber headaches, and feeling generally horrible. Somehow we both got back to sleep, and over the course of ten hours we progressed from feeling awful to feeling good—not great, but not as miserable as the night before. With a promise to treat our bodies better, we were ready to face our second day in Cusco.
Day 2: All the Incan History We Could Want
By the time Adam and I awoke, we were both feeling much better. After a nice breakfast at our hotel, we headed back to Plaza de Armas to visit Museo Inka, or the Incan Museum.Adam discovered this particular museum before we arrived; he specifically wanted to seek out the collection of elongated Paracas skulls that some people think prove aliens once visited Cusco. The museum itself is fairly small and not easily navigable without some understanding of Spanish. It has been years since I took my last high school Spanish class, so I was of limited help when it came to translation, but I was more useful than Adam, who studied French. That said, much of the museum was pretty self-explanatory, and we really enjoyed seeing some of the artifacts that were recovered from Incan times. A big disappointment was that photography of any kind was banned, which was too bad, but Adam was able to see the skulls he was looking for—and they had a very interesting mummy exhibit that I thought was worth the price of the nominal admission fee alone. We spent about 90 minutes at Museo Inka, and we liked the context it provided for the rest of our time in Peru.
We took a break from history and moved on to more recent local culture with a visit to the Mercado San Pedro, an enormous market that sells just about everything. We had no need to buy anything, but we spent almost an hour wandering around and taking in the local scene. There were plenty of places selling souvenirs, but the really fun spots were away from where the tourists congregated. We watched as locals negotiated pricing on pig heads and chicken feet. Dozens of people lined up for fresh juices and snacks. The entire market was full of noise and color—the crowds made us feel claustrophobic, and smells of meat and fish mingling in the open air were a bit nauseating, but the experience felt authentic. We were some of the only non-locals there at that time, and it felt like a peak into an ordinary Cusco morning.
By late morning we were hungry and facing a bit of a time crunch; we had scheduled a Cusco city tour for the afternoon with a hotel pickup, and we needed to get back so we wouldn’t miss it. I had big plans to visit a restaurant near the hotel that looked really good, but as our luck would have it they were closed that day. We were resigned to snacking on emergency granola bars in our room until we saw a police officer walking out of a doorway with a loaf of bread. We found a bakery! The place was called Tantaq Wasi (T’anta Wasi) and it ended up being one of the best spontaneous finds of our trip; for about 5 USD we each bought a cheese roll and a slice of French bread pizza, which were great for our still-acclimating stomachs. You never know what great surprises are behind some doors!
Catedral del Cusco
Our tour guide picked us up on time, and we headed back to where we started—Plaza de Armas, this time at the Catedral del Cusco, the beautiful church we had admired during our first moments in the city.
The cathedral has some impressive history and is one of the largest in the world. Again, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, but more than 500 years into the building’s existence it boasts some ornate décor and beautiful oil paintings!
One of the most important artifacts is known as “Señor de los Temblores,” or Lord of the Earthquakes. This statue of the crucifixion of Jesus was created in the 1500s and is credited locally with protecting the town during the 1650 earthquake; the statue became the patron saint of Cusco after that time. The statue is particularly notable because of its coloring; when it was first created, Jesus’ skin was a cinnamon color, but after He was subjected to soot from the earthquake, candles, and other elements, His skin took on a black tone.
Almost as interesting as Señor de los Temblores was a large painting of the Last Supper that hangs just around the corner, where Jesus and the apostles are feasting on cuy, or guinea pig. As a proud guinea pig owner, my heart broke just a bit, but culturally I understood. My adorable rodent would be a meal for a big family in Peru. I’m glad he doesn’t have a passport.
Next we visited Qorikancha, which was considered one of the most important temples built to the Incan sun god Inti. The temple complex is big and took quite a bit of time to walk through, but the history there was just as compelling as at Catedral del Cusco.
During its best times, the temple was decorated to the brim with gold; however, when the Spanish arrived, they demolished huge portions of it, leaving just a few sections in tact and taking out most of the gold.
Qorikancha gave us our first great look at Incan building techniques; Incan stonework is arguably the most impressive in the world, and when the Spanish demolished the temple they rebuilt upon the temple walls. After the major earthquake, the Spanish-built walls fell, but the Incan walls remained strong and in place.
As we wrapped up our visit to the city, we drove further up into the Andes to visit Sacsayhuaman.
This was a huge highlight for Adam and me; the Incan citadel was built in the 1100s, and standing in its shadow looking at the enormous, precisely-carved and stacked stones that formed its walls left us questioning how anyone could build something so massive and move rocks so huge without modern construction tools. There are dozens of theories out there (ropes? logs? aliens?), and standing there admiring the Inca’s work I would have to say it’s anyone’s guess. I was resigned to just being overwhelmed and impressed.
The huge boulders were fit together with such precision that they didn’t even need to use mortar between the stones. In fact, you couldn’t even fit a piece of paper between between the stones.
Our day tour continued at Q’engo, where we spent more time walking through a zigzagging tunnel of rocks than we did learning about its historical significance (the tough part of organized tours- not that there were any explanatory signage to be found!).
Q’engo is believed to be a site used for mummification and sacrifices to Pachamama, an Andean goddess. Incans were believed to have brought llama fetuses and guinea pigs (again with the adorable pigs!) for sacrifice in exchange for good luck.
Shortly after our visit to Q’engo we arrived at Puka Pukara, or the Red Fortress.
Built late in the Incan empire, Puka Pukara was likely part of the Inca’s defense of Cusco given its location; beyond allowing for some gorgeous views of the hillside and surrounding area, it was easy to spot enemies approaching from all angles!
The stonework isn’t as well-built at Puka Pukara, possibly because it was constructed quickly based on the growing need for a lookout or checkpoint in that spot. We watched the sunset from the red walls, and my mind wandered to the Incan soldiers who stood in that spot centuries before me. On quiet nights, when intruders weren’t making their way along the trail, they would have enjoyed an incredible view!
Our final stop of the day was at Tambomachay. Historians aren’t exactly sure what significance this spot held for the Incans, although they believe it may have been a place for royalty to bathe. What remains impressive is the series of waterfalls and aqueducts that run through its walls. There is no indication of what the source of the water might be despite the fact it has been streaming for centuries; yet another Incan mystery!
This spot was easily the most challenging stop of the day for us. It required a walk to a height of 12,500 feet (the highest altitude we had experienced yet!), and it was so exhausting that a few people on our tour elected to walk back to the bus. Getting there was worthwhile, though, and Adam and I felt proud that we had gone from sick in bed 24 hours before to standing tall just a day later.
With that, our second full day in Cusco drew to a close, and we found ourselves back at the hotel to prepare for the biggest event of our itinerary: our trip to Machu Picchu!
With heads swirling with Incan history and seats confirmed on the 6:40 AM train, we called it an early night. Just two days in, Cusco had already exceeded our expectations.