Cusco

 

I didn’t give much thought to Cusco before we went there. I knew it was the big city near Macchu Picchu, and that it has an airport and other transport links that make it easy to access that ancient wonder from the rest of the world. But I didn’t think much beyond that, which means I was totally unprepared for what we found on arrival. I quickly discovered Cusco is an ancient Incan city in its own right, with numerous historical sites in the surrounding area, a beautiful town square surrounded by lofty churches and narrow cobbled streets, and a restaurant scene that left us gobsmacked (and very well-fed). In short Cusco is a world-class destination that is a must for any visitor to Peru.

Like the majority of visitors to Cusco, we were lured by its proximity to Macchu Picchu. That famous landmark can be visited on a day trip by train or bus from Cusco, and most people do exactly that. Not us, however! We were determined to do it the hard way, trekking the “classic” Inca Trail over four days from Piskacuchu to Macchu Picchu. Having booked our trek slots months ago (there is a limit of just 500 starters per day, including all guides and porters, so booking early is essential), we flew into Cusco four days prior to departure.

We had no real plans for this four day period, other than to re-acclimatise to the high altitude. We had already spent a couple of weeks up high in Ecuador, particularly trekking around the Black Sheep Inn, and we had learnt that your body can “remember” the experience of altitude for up to a month afterwards. Because of that we didn’t think we would have any sickness during the trek, but nevertheless we heeded the advice of our tour company to spend at least two days in Cusco (altitude 3300m) before attempting it. I’m glad we did; as you will read in a later post, some parts of the trek were extremely testing and I don’t think we would have completed it if we hadn’t prepared properly…

Anyway, about Cusco. What a surprise this city is! It’s larger than expected, with several hundred thousand people clustered around the hills of this high valley. Tourist activity is tightly focussed on the Old Town, and rightly so, however our few forays into other parts of the city showed it to be a bright and positive place, and completely different from our experience of Lima. The main square, the Plaza de Armas, is huge with fountains and statues in the landscaped gardens of the central park. A square cobbled road encircles the whole park, and old-style buildings (including two large and imposing churches) surround the whole.

It’s utterly charming standing in the Plaza and admiring the view of the buildings and surrounding hills, and we later informed by two people on our Inca Trail trek that the style was very Spanish, and that similar squares can be found throughout that country. That may be so, but none of those Spanish squares can boast foundation walls made of Inca stones, can they? Cusco was well-established as the capital of the Incan Empire by the time the Spanish arrived in 1533, and the invaders were quick to tear down what they could and construct buildings in their own styles to put their imprint on the city. They were helped immeasurably by the earthquake of 1650 which devastated Cusco and destroyed many Incan buildings, but even so there are numerous structures standing today which have Incan stonework in their foundations. The perfectly measured and cut stones originally used for Incan temples and palaces are highly distinctive, and their presence in many parts of the Old Town contributes to Cusco’s uniqueness.

After a couple of weeks at or near sea level we found the quick change to altitude a little tiring, so we didn’t do a great deal during the pre-trek period. We knew there was nothing more we could do to improve our fitness at this late stage – indeed any serious exercise would simply make us more tired – so we turned our attention to the one thing we tackle in any condition: food.

It turns out Cusco has a sensational array of restaurants covering a variety of cuisines, and the overall quality was exceedingly high. Variations on Peruvian cuisine were naturally the most common, but quite a few of these aimed well above the simple and instead offered modern takes on various classics or new dishes entirely. We visited Chi Cha once, part of the massive Acurio empire, and it was very nice without being startling (though we think perhaps we didn’t choose the best options on the menu). Our favourite restaurant in town, which we discovered early and revisited several times, was Green’s Organic Restaurant. Producing healthy and tasty organic food of the style we love (and which can be very hard to find in South America), it’s understandably popular. We even visited one of the generic Peruvian restaurants on the Plaza, one of those places that have people downstairs badgering you to try their food whenever you walk past. We went there more out of resignation that any particular desire to eat there, but we both found the meal of alpaca steaks with cheesy quinoa “risotto” very tasty and the view over the Plaza as a local band played Peruvian music was relaxing.

On our last night before the trek we had a pre-tour briefing, where we got to meet our fellow travellers and the head guide, Eric. Our group of nine consisted of us, an older American couple, two young American women, two young Dutch people, and a solo Malaysian woman who has lived in London for the last seven years (though she wasn’t present for the briefing). First impressions count big, and fortunately we got the feeling that everyone was nice and that we would get on well together as a group. Eric advised that we should get a few things prior to the trek (knee braces for me, batteries for our torch, more insect repellent and rain ponchos for both of us), and that we would have to be ready at 4am the next morning for our pickup! That didn’t give us much time, but we managed to get everything and have dinner before heading home for a final pack. A combination of excitement and noisy neighbours meant we headed into our first (and hardest) day of the trek with just a couple of hours sleep. Hopefully it would be enough!

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Born in New Zealand, now living in Australia. When I'm not travelling, that is... Though I have travelled quite a bit before, 2012 is the first time that I've taken a year off to roam the world. Spending this time with Kristen exploring some of this planet's finest sights has been the best decision I've ever made. Who knows what 2013 will bring?

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