MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE ANCIENT INCAN CITY OF CUSCO
There’s something you need to know…… I am a little bit in love with Cusco. We had a tough relationship, but the distance is helping. It made me love, it made me terribly ill but no pain no gain’s the motto, right?! You may ask why, but you know what they say, you can’t help who you fall for!
My love affair with the once capital of the Peruvian empire, started as we landed at the airport from Lima and made our way to the Belmond Monasterio Hotel. The city sits almost 14,000 ft above sea level and boy did I feel it from the minute you land at the airport to the day you leave. Yes I was hit by a stroke of altitude sickness lasting 3 whole days, that’s pretty much the whole time I was there but Oxygen from the hotel, coca tea and taking it easy definitely allowed me to get to know Cusco more!
Here is why I fell in love with Cusco…
01 PLAZA DE ARMAS
This is definitely the cultural hub of the city. There are restaurants, bars and coffee shops lining the plaza and they all have great views of the city too. This is the best place to start the process of acclimatising to the altitude by sitting back and relaxing with a drink in hand. Most locals simply sit around and gather here on the sun-drenched benches around the Statue of the Incan ruler, Pachacuti, in the middle of the plaza.
02 THE CATHEDRAL BASILICA Of THE ASSUMPTION OF THE VIRGIN
This stunning Spanish emblematic feature of Cusco’s main square was built in 1560 and took a whopping 100 years to complete. It is most definitely worth a visit inside and as well as the opulent interiors there are crypts that can be visited if you so wish. The cathedral was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the City of Cusco in 1983.
03 SAN PEDRO MARKET
If you’re struggling with altitude sickness then you can pick up a bag of coca leaves to chew on in the market as well as lots of fresh produce. The market is home to over 30 juices stalls but remember there is no refrigeration so everything I absolutely fresh each morning. If you fancy lunch, you can grab a 2 or 3 course lunch at a bargain price and sit and eat amongst the locals.
04 PLAZA SAN BLAS
This is the boho/artisan district of Cusco, notable for its architecture and quaint shops. A shirt walk from the Plaza Armas, the terrain becomes rather steep on the way up to the San Blas area with cobble-stone streets. Small boutiques and galleries line the streets where you can pick up authentic gifts. You’ll spot the San Blas Plaza picturesque Iglesia San Blas so stop and take a snap or two and drop into the bakery, come hostel, Pantastico for some sustenance for your walk back!
Pronounced ‘sexy woman,’ this ancient Inca site is a 45 minute trek from the centre of Cusco but definitely worth the trek! Take note, this is where you get the best view of Cusco city and also get to see some incredible stonework. Infact when we went Dr C and myself were the only one’s admiring the romantic Cusco city view, accompanied by our guide Fabricio.
Sacsayhuaman was a religious sites as well as the scene of a bloody battle between the Inca forces and the Spanish conquistadors. This is a valuable place to visit with a local guide to set you up for the trip to Machu Picchu and sites surrounding the Sacred Valley. You can also catch a glimpse of Cristo Blanco form here, which is a huge statue of Christ that stands above the city of Cusco.
This archaeological site was unearthed in 1934 and was a religious Incan site. Today it is part of the Sacsayhuaman Archaeological Park. It consists of deteriorated carved stones and cave remains which have been destroyed. It is believed that the site is dedicated to funerals and other incan rituals related to death, in particular sacrifices. Although this site doesn’t look as interesting as the other sites around this area, I would recommend a visit if you have spare time. The experience can be further advanced by hiring a guide who can talk through the history for you, authenticating the experience.
07 KORIKANCHA (THE SUN TEMPLE)
This place is a fine example of Spanish and Incan influences in Cusco. This temple of the sun was once lined with sheets of gold but was destroyed by the Spanish before they decided to build the Church of Santo Domingo upon the ruins. This used to be one of the regions holiest sites and I would recommend taking a stroll through the once spectacular gardens to admire the architecture.
08 INCA MUSEUM
If you’re trip to Cusco involves visiting Machu Picchu, which I think it probably does if you’ve made it to Cusco, then a visit to the museum would be very useful to you. You will get an insight into the empire’s history and is run by Cusco’s San Antonio Abad University. The museum is housed in an impressive colonial home and artifacts include mummified bodies, art as well as a courtyard where Andean women weave textiles. I would recommend hiring a guide to aid with explanations to enhance your experience.
09 CHOCO MUSEUM
If you love chocolate, the food of love, then you’ve just got to go and have a mooch around the museum as well as book yourself into one of the many classes they have on offer. The museum is ideally located few steps away from the Plaza Armas. You can also buy plenty of chocolate products here such as creams, lip balms, real chocolate as well as liqueors, which you can taste before purchasing. It’s a fun afternoon activity and you can also enjoy an indulgent hot chocolate and pastry whilst you people-watch in the first floor window seats!
10 PLAZA REGOCIJO
This little square is just a behind the Plaza de Armas but is quieter and less touristy and a fab place to sit and relax on the many park benches that line it. It has beautiful architecture surrounding it and infact you get a great view of this square from the first floor of the Choco museum. There are many museums (Museo Inka, Museo de Arte pre-colombino & Museo) around this square to provide you with the background knowledge you’ll need before you head out to Machu Picchu. Plaza Regocijo is also a pleasant sun-trap for those slightly chilly afternoons/late evenings!
11 AN UNEXPECTED FOODIE CITY
Cusco provides a lovely backdrop for many a candle lit dinner but also the quality and variety of food was quite outstanding. There are many restaurants that specialise in Spanish and European cuisine with a Peruvian twist. If you’re after suggestions, I can provide the three below and if you’re staying at the Belmond Monasterio hotel then this I would say is the place for a fine dining experience! You can also eat here if you’re a non-resident but either way make sure you make a reservation to avoid disappointment.
This is a cute little organic restaurant located on the second floor of a colonial building located just off the main plaza. The philosophy is using local ingredients sourced from the nearby Sacred Valley. The array of veggie options is impressive and meat eaters, like Dr c can tuck into Alpaca medallions! The tropical juices are to die for and they have a a good selection of organic beers and wines.
Calle Santa Catalina Angosta 145
Tel: + 51 84 254753
A very chic and contemporary restaurant and pisco bar with a fantastic day and night view of the main Plaza de Armas. The decor is minimalistic and very European, featuring bare red tiled floors, wooden tables but still complementing the historic original colonial past of the building. The restaurant specializes in Peruvian-Asian seafood dishes namely sushi and tiradito, a version of Peru’s sashimi.
Portal de Carnes
Tel: +51 (84) 240 668
This place serves up real hearty warming dishes. It’s perfect for an evening one-bowl dinner on a cold Cuzco night. Big earthenware bowls of Cuban-styled meaty or vegetable stews, Caribbean coconut soup and Andean quinoa dishes are served up from the second floor café which has the perfect low-lit ambience you’d expect from a Cusco eateria. We were there on a cold night and grabbed a table by the open clay oven. The service here is very friendly, attentive and the chef tries his best to accommodate dietary requirements.
Plazoleta Nazarenas 2nd Floor, 167
Tel: +51 84 23492
Realistically, I think you could do all of the activities above in 3 days in Cusco with sufficient time to relax and acclimatise. One of the mistakes I made was to go full steam ahead on the first day and feel totally whacked. You can never underestimate altitude sickness and it’s effect are very specific and differ from person to person.
MY TIPS FOR COMBATING ALTITUDE SICKNESS
- Slow down and take it easy
- Drink plenty of water and go slow with the alcohol and Pisco Sours!
- Some people say Coca leaves and Coca tea helps with altitude sickness but Dr C and I disagree!
- Some hotels like ours (Belmond Monasterio) can have oxygen pumped into your room or provide an oxygen canister to help with breathing.
- Try and take long deep breathes and don’t panic.
- High Altitude affects everyone differently, for example, Dr C was OK but I was on oxygen therapy for 30 minutes or so a day.
(I am not doctor so please seek medical attention should you have any serious issues when you’re out there.)
I custom designed our trip to Peru but booked through Laura Olds at Peru for less. Our guide in Cusco was Fabricio Ochoa Serrano.
So now you know why my heart will always belong to Cusco. Have you been to visit the ancient Incan city or if you’re planning a trip and would like to get any more inspo or ideas please leave a comment
Did you read my last post on Peru’s capital Lima?
Read the next blog post in my South America series:
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