We were lucky enough to arrive in to Cusco on the day everyone was celebrating the Winter Solstice, marking the shortest day and the longest night of the year. This meant numerous parades, parties and day-drinking to be had by locals and tourists alike. Many invited us to join them for a drink as we wandered somewhat aimlessly through the streets on our first day. Although neither of us could speak the same language, we got by just fine waving our arms around in a sort of a drunken, multilingual sign language and all had a great, Pisco-filled afternoon!
Cusco is beautiful and the sun was shining throughout our stay, which added to everyone’s high spirits. At 3400 metres above sea level, Cusco is actually higher in altitude than Machu Picchu (2,430 meters) and altitude sickness can be a problem for some people. We all felt fine, aside from getting a little out of breath. It’s actually a pretty bizarre feeling; walking at a snail’s pace yet feeling your heart beat so fast you are borderline concerned that you may actually keel over. Stairs proved to be most troublesome and unfortunately our hostel room was on the second floor – many of us took to having a little lay down at the top! When trekking, I lost my appetite completely and often felt sick by the end of the day, although I put that down to the exercise as much as anything. I probably should have listened to good old Mum’s advice and graced the gym with my presence at least once before taking on a seven day trek…
Coca leaf tea is supposed to reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness and you find it everywhere in Peru. Our guides always had some brewing for when we got back to camp; with 3 sugars per cup, it always left me feeling a lot better. Coca is used to create cocaine but the alkaloid content of coca leaves is really low, meaning chewing the leaves or drinking coca tea doesn’t produce the same effects people experience with cocaine – sorry!
Fun Fact: Coca leaf extract has been used in Coca-Cola products since 1885, with cocaine being completely eliminated from the products in or around 1929. Crazy.
Throughout Cusco, there are loads of historical buildings, cobbled streets and lane-ways, beautiful parks and also large market areas selling everything from pig heads to Peruvian fabrics and alpaca-wool jumpers. The main square (Plaza de Armas) contains a beautiful Cathedral, grassy areas to sit and is encased by a wall of shops, restaurants and market stalls. There’s also plenty of hostels – we stayed in Ecopackers, which has is situated in an awesome building with a courtyard area in the centre and loads of space to lounge about -I’d definitely stay there again!
Pisaq market is the biggest and best market in Cusco and is definitely worth a visit. Sundays are said to be a good time to go, due to locals coming in to the city from all over to attend the church and spend the rest of the afternoon selling their goods in the market. Here you’ll find row upon row of fruit, vegetables and meat products neighboured with amazing craft work, local fabrics and bags printed with traditional Peruvian designs.
Other options in Cusco include a walk to San Cristobel church which offers spectacular views over Cusco. By this point, I’d had enough walking (after doing the Inca Trail) so I didn’t bother, but photos from friends that did go looked incredible. Instead, I opted to enjoy a relaxing massage! In the central areas, you can’t go more than a couple of steps without someone offering you massage or spa treatments. I looked around and did a bit of googling to find one with good reviews and paid a whopping £6 for an hour! Amazing.
Besides people advertising massages along the many cobbled streets, you will also find women and children dressed in traditional attire, usually accompanied by a llama or a baby animal of some kind! They spend time posing for pictures for tourists and you can even have your photo taken with a llama. You’ll need to tip them for their troubles but the money is definitely worth the great photo you’ll get afterwards.
You can also take a visit to the Chocolate Museum, where they also offer a Cacao farm tour. I sadly only found out about after I had left! Other options include the Incan Museum or a hike to Cristo Blanco, a ginormous white statue of Jesus at the top a a nearby hill (Pukamoqo).
Restaurants in Cusco were great, we ate in a local restaurant one night and were faced with a set menu written in Spanish. When the first course arrived, we were delighted to see a green-coloured broth with large beige lumps. On closer inspection we realised they were chicken feet… no thanks! I have actually eaten chicken feet soup before, in Vietnam (prior to becoming Veggie) and I can’t say I’ll be rushing to recommend it any time soon…
After this encounter, I promptly learnt how to let the restaurant staff know I didn’t eat meat (Soy vegetariano – easy enough!). Aside from that, we had some amazing food – Jack’s Cafe ended up being a favourite and we returned more than once. Veggie / Vegan food is widely available in Cusco, which is great.
Nightlife in Cusco is also supposed to be pretty good. We only had time for one evening out and spent it in Mama Africa – one of Cusco’s most popular nightclubs, where we drank some rather interesting traffic light cocktails! The place was a good mix of locals and travellers and overall had a really good atmosphere. Getting drunk 3400 metres above sea is pretty easy…