Cuzco, or Cusco, is many a traveler’s gateway to the Andean high country and the Inca Nation. From Lima it’s an hour and a half flight up the mountainside, past some of Peru’s highest peaks, to an elevation of 11,000 feet (3,300 meters) above sea level. Even in the atmosphere, the town remains a bustling regional hub of about 350,000 people, amazingly managing to keep a small town feel to it all.
Dealing with the Altitude
Be aware of the rarified air—it might be a shock to the system as quickly as the plane door opens. It’s best not to begin your mountain adventures too quickly as the altitude will likely lay you low, no matter what level of fitness you happen to have. Take a day or two to acclimate yourself, drink lots of water perhaps along with the native remedy, mate de coca, or coca tea. Many hotels and hostels provide mate to guests upon arrival to help ward off the effects of altitude sickness.
The town itself is a wanderer’s dream, comprised of row upon row of low, terracotta-roofed houses, quaint cobblestone streets hiding tiny cafés and shops with an occasional Incan farmer with his pack llama undoubtedly running you over if you happen to be in the way. In the Plaza de Armas, the central square, you can visit two 16th century cathedrals of the Spanish renaissance style, along with many a traveler’s bar and restaurant. Be aware of the hundreds of street hawkers, vendors and beggars there, many of them young children. While not dangerous, don’t acknowledge a child vying for your attention as he or she will, quite literally, never leave you alone. As much as a hair-tousle will get you a puppy-eyed friend for life. Donating money to kids remains a personal moral decision but unless you want twenty other kids flying in like pigeons, best to leave it alone.
In areas around the center of town are walls of original Inca masonry, stone blocks fitted so perfectly together no mortar was needed to keep them standing for 700 years. It’s often not possible to fit a sheet of paper between them. Meander up the hill behind the Plaza to the San Blas neighborhood for cool art galleries and patio restaurants. The view of town from up there is incredible and well worth the huffing and puffing.
Incan Ruins of Cusco
In the town’s vicinity there are four Incan ruins to explore, the most impressive being Sacsayhuaman, the site of a 16th century battle between Conquistador Pizaro’s men and the local Incan resistance. The other three are Qenko, Pukapukara, and Tambomachay, all possible to see in one day. Guides can be rented for the day at the site’s control office. There’s also the Pisac market, about 20 miles from Cuzco showing much local color, both literal and figurative.
Probably Cuzco’s most associated spot is Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River, which is the reason most people find themselves there. Popular transportation to Machu Picchu is either by train or foot. A couple variations on the train exist—a luxury version and backpacker version. It’s a personal choice but if you have a few extra dollars the luxury train is a great option. The difference in price, about $20 each way, doesn’t quite justify sacrificing a four hour trip on nice cushy seats and a partial glass roof for mountaintop viewing.
The other way to get to Machu Picchu is to trek along the Inca trail. You’ll need to set up an organized excursion (complete with porters and cooked meals). It’s an extremely popular pastime so book it in advance, or you can try your luck and attempt to hook up with a trip at a travel agency in town. It’s not allowed to hike the trail alone and you’ll get yourself a steep fine by doing so. Save the hassle get on an organized trek. There are two and four-day options and even at its altitude the route will likely not be the most grueling you’ve ever encountered as a hiking enthusiast. The views, above all that, are spectacular. See next week’s destination Tuesday for a more detailed review of Machu Picchu!