After finishing another successful volunteer house build with The Fuller Center for Housing, I was fortunate to extend my stay in Peru. If you plan to visit Machu Picchu while in Peru, most likely your jumping off point will be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Western Hemisphere and the former capital city of the vast Inca empire—Cusco. Much smaller, more charming and easy to navigate than Lima, Cusco is worth visiting even if you go no further.
Cusqueños are friendly and accustomed to tourists. You’ll see a lot of foreigners here. I highly recommend hiring a guide or taking a tour to get the most out of your visit, especially if you are not bilingual. This was indeed the place where my small group of seven would begin our hike along the Inca Trail, so we also booked a city tour as part of our package.
With an elevation of just over 11,000 feet, it’s not exactly a gradual introduction to altitude if you arrive from the seaside country capital. Unless you’ve been up this high before, you won’t know exactly how you’ll feel. You may experience headache, nausea, fatigue or nothing, except perhaps being out of breath quite easily.
[PRO TIP: At every corner pharmacy you can purchase over-the-counter sorojchi pills to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. Cocoa leaves can help and are widely available and cheap, but you may find the taste and effects of sucking the leaves unpleasant or even nausea-inducing. Do your own research before you leave home if possible to determine what might work best for you!]
I stayed at the fabulous Antigua Casona San Blas [243 Calle Carmen Bajo, San Blas] boutique hotel, now one of my most favorite hotels in the world! Everything about it was sublime.
Within 30 minutes of stepping off our LATAM flight from Lima I started to feel the effects of the altitude. I was pleasantly surprised that the feeling was akin to getting high, and the worst thing about it was having to watch my step on the narrow cobblestone streets of the San Blas area of Cusco~! In other words, I was feeling no pain!
After settling in at our hotel, we walked a few paces up the street to eat at the hoppin’ Pachapapa [120 Carmen Bajo] which specializes in local food including roasted cuy or guinea pig, popular eats in South America. Many dishes including the delicious pizzas are cooked in the wood-fired oven, which is in the center of the outdoor courtyard. Live music and outdoor mood lighting complete the perfect scene.
The breakfast at Antigua Casona is absolutely incredible, and included with your room. So get down there and order your soy latte and amazing food and get fueled for the day!
Today on our tour we saw the archeological sites of Saqsaywaman, Qenqo, and the Temple of the Moon, one of our favorites. We headed down on foot to the main city square, the Plaza de Armas and ate a hearty and well-deserved sit down lunch at Andean Grill just off the Plaza.
Afterward we explored the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, built on the site of the most important Inca Temple, the Temple of the Sun, or Qorikancha. This was another favorite site as our guide did such an amazing job of educating us on Inca architecture and culture. The stonework is stunning and incredibly precise, as seen below.
We rounded out the day visiting the outdoor vendors along the streets at the Mercado de San Pedro, where we sampled local fruits, many of which we can’t get in North America. You can also check out the Mercado de San Blas, a small more low key market located in the San Blas.
Flying to Cusco to meet us to hike the Inca Trail, we ended the afternoon meeting our friend at the Paddy’s Irish Pub [enter 124 Triunfo Street just off the Plaza de Armas] for a few beers.
Heading back to the hotel, we happily met the rest of our group and sat outside next to the fire tables in the courtyard, dining al fresco. Again, 5 star food and 5 star atmosphere.
This is the morning we departed to hike the Inca Trail; we returned to Cusco 5 days later.
Late in the afternoon we arrived on train from Aguas Calentes where our driver met us and took us back to the Antigua Casona in Cusco. Some folks turned in early so they could answer their 4am alarm clock buzzer to awaken to hike Rainbow Mountain. Others…
…slept in, enjoyed that amazing breakfast and then hit the city to do something we hadn’t done much at all—SHOP! I have to admit, I didn’t buy much as I prefer not to check a bag when I fly. But, if you are looking for beautiful clothing made from alpaca, colorful textiles and ceramics, or unique baubles, you can find them here.
Once we worked up a thirst, we did however, treat ourselves to some local brew at the festive local watering hole La Bodega 138 [138 Herrajes]. If you are hungry they serve tasty pasta, pizza, salad and dessert.
With a location right on the Plaza, you’d think Ceviche Seafood Kitchen would be just another over priced and not very good restaurant, as many touristy locations are. Discover some of the best ceviche in the city, right here my friend.
After a nap and saying goodbye to some of our friends who were heading home, the remaining few ate a late night dinner at Limbus Resto Bar [133 Pasnapakana]. Clear is the owner’s passion for unconventional mixology and unpretentious Peruvian food artfully presented against a backdrop of the twinkling lights of all of Cusco. Yes, the view is incredible.
After a quick online search at breakfast for the “Best Boutique Stores in Cusco” my friend and I went in search of Lamaland, Hilo and L’atelier, all located in San Blas. This was our last blissful day to wander and we stopped at any shop that looked interesting to us.
Next we headed down to the Plaza de Armas, and on a whim, decided to take a tour of the massive Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, which took nearly 100 years to construct and was completed in 1654. A total serendipitous encounter, we stumbled upon the ONE painting that I really wanted to see, but had forgotten all about and had no idea where to find. Turns out, this one-of-a kind large scale painting hangs inside.
An active place of worship and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cathedral holds a large collection of Cusco’s colonial art. But, The Last Supper by Marcos Zapata painted in 1753 presents Jesus and his disciples dining on a uniquely local foods. At the center of it all, lying paws up on a platter is a cooked guinea pig. A wonderful depiction of a widely known Biblical story with a local twist, even if it was meant to convert native Incas to Catholicism. [No photos are allowed inside, or certainly you’d be seeing them!]
After fueling up at a lovely cafe on the Plaza, we finally explored all the narrow back streets and the big boulevards finding our way to the fabulous Traditional Textile Center of Cusco, or Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco (CTTC). Established in 1996 by Andean weavers and their supporters, the CTTC is a non-profit whose mission is to aid in the survival of Cusqueñan textile traditions and to provide support to the indigenous people who create them.
The tiny yet detailed exhibit explains the history of traditional Andean weaving and textile making. The Center works with ten weaving communities in the Cusco region on a fair-trade basis to sell their work. Whatever handmade item you buy is often accompanied by a tag with the weaver’s biography.
Before saying goodbye to Cusco, and Peru, the final thing on our list was to stuff ourselves on the most delectable plant-based cuisine at Green Point [235 Calle Carmen Bajo] wondrously located next to the Antigua Casona, where our bags waited in anticipation of our late afternoon departure to the airport. A perfect meal to end a perfect trip.