Even though Peru falls within the time zones of the U.S. the trip down there is still enormously tiring. We booked a nine-hour nonstop flight from LAX to Lima and then had booked a flight a few hours after landing to go straight to Cusco.
Cusco is HIGH. Literally. Cusco proper sits at some 11,100 feet of elevation, and let me tell you, coming from the ocean village of Los Angeles, it can be a shock to your system. It is definitely harder to breathe and you will be able to feel your heart beating harder in order to pump blood to your oxygen deprived extremities.
The easiest way to get from the Cusco airport to wherever you need to go is by taxi. Of course, be wary of the taxi drivers in case of scams or safety concerns, but feel free to negotiate with them. A taxi from the airport to the main square should cost you between 20 and 30 soles (Between $6-10 USD). Agree upon the fare BEFORE getting in the taxi as the fares are not metered and you don’t want to arrive at your destination to find out that you’re being charged double.
In Cusco, I recommend staying at the Wild Rover Backpacker’s hostel, it has amazing views of the whole city, free breakfast, great wifi, and the best common areas (ping pong tables!). Furthermore, there is a bar on the property for any late night shenanigans, but it also keeps the party out of the room for anyone [ME] who prefers to sleep. They also have free Coca tea which helps a ton with adjusting to the altitude. I had at least two cups a day (along with liters of water) and the altitude never bothered me again after that first day.
Cusco is the ultimate jumping off point for most of the tourist sites Peru has to offer. It was the epicenter of the Incan empire and has the history to prove it. There are tons of travel agencies all over the city offering day trips and tours to all the different sites. Michael and I ended up doing two relatively low-key ones.
The first was the Cusco City tour (you can find this one anywhere so I’m not even going to bother recommending a travel agency). It costs thirty soles per person (a little less than $10 USD), and contrary to the name, this tour actually takes you around the archaeological sites closest to Cusco, not around the city itself (there are other tours for that). We covered the ancient fortress site of Sacsayhuaman (sounds like “sexy woman” if you say it too fast) which is a prime example of Incan building strategies. The site consists of huge stones, we’re talking over 100 tons, cut to fit perfectly together; the site took over 77 years to build with over 30,000 laborers! The tour includes Quenqo which is the site of the ancient Incan calendar and a ritual site for actual animal and human sacrifice. We also covered Puku Pukara, a small ancient rest stop, and Tambomochay or the “Incan Baths” a picturesque waterfall site.
The second tour was covered a little bit more area. We wanted to do the Maras — Moray tour. Although this tour also was a half day, it took us much farther outside the city limits of Cusco. Moray is an ancient agricultural testing site made up of terraced concentric circles. The Incans used it to try out different crops and created over 3000 different strains of potato! (Why anyone needs that many different potatoes is beyond me…). Maras, on the other hand, is a small town that leads into the Salineras salt flats which have been producing salt since before the Incan empire. The water that feeds the flats is 70% salt and 30% water, and the flats produce black, pink, and white salt. We didn’t get to spend much time here but it was honestly one of the highlights of the whole trip.
Within Cusco itself, there are also plenty of sites to see. The main square alone has two cathedrals that are worth a peek inside, one is actually a museum, and through ambling along the tourist districts, you should be able to find many other little churches and squares. The San Pedro market should also be at the top of any Cusco visitor’s list as one can do literally all of their shopping at this market. Not only do they sell blankets, socks, jewelry and the like, they also sell coffee, chocolate, and have an indoor eating area with many different vendors selling their specialty at an incredibly cheap price (between $2-6 USD).
As far as food is concerned though, I only recommend eating at the market once because there are some far better options outside the market. First off, get your hands on some street meat. There will be ladies on the street selling enormous skewers of all different kinds of meat. We preferred the alpaca and because each skewer has a whole potato on the end of it, you can eat an entire meal for five soles! ($1.50 USD). If you’re looking for something more formal, our favorite breakfast spot was Jack’s Cafe. They have great Western and Peruvian breakfast options for a very good price and they give you tons of food! For dinner, we cannot recommend Pacha Papa highly enough. I had the roasted trout, Michael had the lamb shoulder, and we shared the whole roasted Guinea Pig and a traditional Peruvian Quinoa dessert. Everything here was AMAZING! It is so good, in fact, that you actually might want to make a reservation to make sure you get a table! On the other hand, there is a ton of Italian food in Peru, especially in Cusco, and I cannot stress enough that you SHOULD NOT try any of it. We tried to get Italian (pasta, pizza) a few times and each time it was awful. I’m a terrible cook and I could’ve made better pasta than these places, so beware. On the whole, the Peruvian dish ‘Lomo Saltado’ was my favorite. I got this a few times in Cusco and elsewhere in Peru and it is solid. It consists of marinated beef with red onions and tomatoes served with french fries and rice. Delicious every single time.
Michael and I spent the bulk of our trip in Cusco and it was definitely worth the extra time. The people here are helpful and kind, and for the most part, speak English! You’re able to negotiate for everything you buy and there is so much history to experience within the city and beyond. If you are interested in ancient empires or ancient architecture, Cusco is a MUST. However, everyone knows the real reason tourists flock to Peru each year. The best parts of the trip are yet to come, so stay tuned for Part 2!