We bumped and bounced through the clouds before dropping below them and getting our first view of Peru, and she is a looker.
Cusco is at 3400m and altitude sickness hit us almost the instant we stepped out of the plane. We stood in the queue for immigration feeling light-headed, woozy, slightly nauseous and very sleepy. We could easily identify our fellow sufferers as those who were yawning non-stop and staring with spacey eyes. It was kind of funny at first but quickly became quite unpleasant and the very last thing that we felt in the mood for was our pre-arranged transfer not to be there. Another taxi driver very kindly let us use his phone to contact the hostel and we were happy to give him our custom when it transpired that the hostel had forgotten about us. (The hostel come out of this well because they left us chocolate in our room to say sorry, and they used an apostrophe correctly).
We didn’t take an enormous amount of notice on the journey in to town, it was raining and we felt like crap. When it came to checking in and Caro laid her head down on the reception, the staff realised that all wasn’t well and quickly provided coca leaf tea and assurances that a doctor could be called at any time. The tea worked its charm though and Caro was able to peel herself off the counter and make her way up to our room, where she immediately crawled into the enormous double bed. James was feeling much perkier and made it as far as the street outside the hostel in search of dinner before he realised that he too wished only to be in bed. Which is how we ended up having Pringles and Ritz crackers in bed for dinner on our first night in Cusco, along with the recommended gallons of water.
We felt a good deal better on our first morning but still got head rushes from standing up so took it very easy for the rest of the day. We strolled about town for about 2 hours, arranging our trip to the Sacred Valley the next day and handing over a small fortune to get to Machu Pichu, it was sufficient time to appreciate that Cusco is a very pretty town.
After a lunch of packet noodles, we got back in to bed for the rest of the afternoon, completely wiped out by the small amount of activity and feeling more than a little apprehensive about our upcoming trek that would take us another 2000m above sea level. Fortunately, we were able to drag ourselves out of bed for an early dinner at Organika, where they make Instagramable food with the taste to match.
We spent the next 3 days in the Sacred Valley but we are going to cover that in our next post so we will jump ahead to our return to Cusco, where we stayed for another two days before heading out for our trek. Unfortunately, by the time we got back from the Sacred Valley we both had colds, as if mild altitude sickness wasn’t unpleasant enough. This wasn’t ideal two days before doing a trek over 5000m, but hey ho, we persevere.
Sneezing and spluttering we headed out to explore the city a bit more thoroughly. Converts to tours for tips, we signed up for a walking tour of what is an uber touristy but undeniably beautiful town. Colonial buildings everywhere and large green squares combined with lots of restoration and continual cleaning results in a very pleasant place to be, even if it is a bubble from the rest of the sprawling city.
First and foremost our tour guide explained repeatedly that Cusco’s flag is not the “gay flag”; the Pride flag has 6 colours whereas Cusco’s has an additional stripe of light blue; he further assured us that this does not make the flag “more gay than the gay flag”. He was fairly adamant that we get this straight (no pun intended) before proceeding.
This point settled, our guide proceeded gave us lots of information about the city and Peru while wandering the streets, pointing out the foundations of Inca ruins which now have colonial buildings built on top of them. The Spanish conquistadors left very few Incan buildings intact, which is a shame, but what they did leave behind is still very beautiful.
The only place in town where you can see Incan ruins without the added colonial toppers is at Pachacútec’s palace, slap bang in the middle of town. It was closed when we were there so all we could do was look at the collection of calf level walls through a thick sheet of plastic.
We ticked off another Eiffel designed building at the San Pedro market, although, as our guide said, Eiffel was probably feeling the effects of altitude sickness when he designed it. It is in a similar vein to the rather unattractive Long Biên bridge in Hanoi rather than the tower or statue of liberty.
We had a fairly lengthy chat inside the market which made for quite a suffocating experience as we were right next to the rather rank meat section. What did look appealing were the rows of identical juice shops where you could drink a couple of gallons of fresh juice for pennies.
After the tour, we had a rather uninspiring lunch and went back to the hostel because Caro needed to lie down again; her cold was not improving. So, another afternoon was spent lying down, which wasn’t ideal in a city with so much to see but we had had a full morning and the most important thing was to get well for our trek. We didn’t venture far for dinner, Chalca Restaurant was about 200 metres from our hostel and turned out to be one of Caro’s favourites for the whole trip. The food was simple but tasty and incredibly cheap, but it was the décor that won her over entirely.
Our last “acclimatisation” day dawned and we were still feeling muggy with colds but were sure that we could push on and hike the next day. We had a very light itinerary planned, a trip to the Inca Museum and then a wander around the San Blas neighbourhood. Fortified with cold and flu drugs we set out. The museum is… interesting. You can’t take pictures inside but the building itself is lovely with a pretty courtyard typical of the colonial buildings in Cusco.
The quality of the exhibits was varied. There is an enormous amount of pottery and given the age of some of it (1400 AD) we couldn’t believe the pristine condition that it was in. About half of the exhibits have English translations, most relate to pre-incan settlements. It only costs 10 soles to get in so it is a nice use of an hour, but not a must-do. After the museum, we climbed up the steps to San Blas and a lovely viewpoint over the town.
San Blas neighbourhood is picture-perfect and we happily wandered the streets, capturing those travel blog worthy photos and nosing in the abundance of craft shops.
We also took in possibly the most unique and honestly underwhelming attraction in Cusco, the 12-angled stone.
After another lovely meal at another vegan restaurant the weather decided that it had played ball enough and proceeded to belt down with rain for the next hour. We ducked our heads down and ran/slid back to our hostel where we enjoyed our last bit of comfort and downtime before our 4 day Ausangate Trek and the dreaded 3:30am wake up call.
We’d expected to have another day exploring more of Cusco and its nearby ruins post hike but, for reasons that will become clear later, this didn’t happen. However, what we did see, we loved… despite the altitude sickness.
Some really lovely restaurants in Cusco:
Organika – Relly beautiful food and super tasty too. We went early, naturally, but there was a queue by the time dessert was served. Try the tomato dessert, it sounds strange but James loved it and you likely won’t have had anything like it before.
Chia Vegan Restaurant – We certainly won’t have been the first people to crave vegetables in South America. Don’t get us wrong, we looooove the steak but our cholesterol was through the roof and we suspect we may have started to develop scurvy, Chia Vegan was the very tasty solution.
Chalca – Caro’s favourite restaurant by appearance alone, it looks like you are falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. Eye up their beautiful collection of children’s books, admire the art (all for sale) and enjoy a two-course meal with nibbles for the bargain price of 10 Soles each.
Green Point Vegan Restaurant – Snuggled in the middle of San Blas, all but one of the waiters appeared to be a young American woman so don’t worry about speaking Spanish. The place itself is cute and their 18 Soles menu includes a mountain of self-service salad, soup, an enormous main course, juice and a little cake for dessert. Just what we needed after a morning of exploring.
JC’s Café – Not to be confused with Jack’s Café, which is in San Blas and always rammed. This café is a little bit out of the centre but quieter and we hear the WiFi is excellent. It was just around the corner from our hostel so we went the day after our trek and had enormous burgers and cake with delicious smoothies to wash it all down.