Cusco, Peru

Cusco is located at an elevation of 11,152 ft / 3,399 m. The flight time from Lima to Cusco is just over an hour but the two cities will feel worlds apart. Cusco is surrounded by mountains and Sara said that we sliced through two mountains on our landing. I didn’t see or feel us “mountain slicing” but I remember us flying really close to the mountaintops, closer than I’d ever flown before. Our descent into Cusco was bumpy and short, probably because we only had a couple thousand feet to descend.

Protip: Take the vomit bag from the plane when you deplane. This bag may come in handy if you do a day trip to Rainbow mountain.

I felt the effects of the thinner air immediately as we were walking up the gradual incline of the jet bridge. An incline that would normally go unnoticed now felt really steep. This was the highest elevation I’d ever been at it seemed every task was more difficult that it was at sea level.

There is a Crossfit studio in Cusco and I cannot imagine what working out would feel like at Cusco’s elevation. I remember seeing a westerner running through the streets of Cusco one day and my only thought was that he was an alien.

We pre-booked a transfer from the airport to our rental apartment. I recommend pre-booking a transfer if you are not staying in one of the major hotels. Many of the “roads” in Cusco are not wide enough for cars and if your accommodation is down one of these narrow paths, then you may have a hard time time finding it because doors, streets, etc. are not clearly marked.

My first observation of Cusco was the same as my first observation of Lima: CHOKING POLLUTION. I wondered how there could be so much pollution in this remote city but it became clear to me on our drive to our apartment. Black smoke was constantly puffing out of mufflers of vehicles as they drove by.

Cusco has a population of approximately 500,000 which is a lot of people given its location. Buildings – most of which are in some state of incompleteness – sprawl out from Plaza de Armas (main square) and up the steep mountainsides. At night when looking toward the mountains, it feels like staring out at a concert audience holding up their mobile phone flashlights. It’s pretty (and impossible to photograph).

On our first night at this elevation, it was recommended that we eat something light and abstain from alcohol so we dined on chicken soup and swapped wine for coca tea (natural way to prevent altitude sickness). The soup in Cusco is served in big bowls like pho and you can find soup at every restaurant – it is a big deal! If you are looking for a soup-centric restaurant, then I recommend this restaurant.

Our Cusco itinerary was as follows.

DayActivityElevation (ft)Elevation (m)
1Acclimate to the elevation in Cusco11,152 ft3,399 m
2Day trip to Machu Picchu7,972 ft2,430 m
3Day trip to Sacred Valley~9,160 ft~2,792 m
4Day trip to Palocoyo “rainbow” mountain16,400 ft4,392 m
5Shop and chill in Cusco until our evening departure11,152 ft3,399 m

As in Lima, there is no public transportation system (that is tourist-friendly) in Cusco so to make the most of your stay, I recommend that you find accommodation near Plaza de Armas because that is where all of the tourists stay, eat, and hang out.

Our first and only item of business in Cusco was to collect our Inca Rail tickets at the Inca Rail shop. I do not know why tickets purchased online must be collected in-person but this is how it works. Peru is half in the stone age and half in technological age.

Protip: There is an Inca Rail kiosk in the baggage claim area of the Cusco airport where tickets can be collected. Collect your tickets at the kiosk if there isn’t a queue.

We spent the day drinking espresso, drinking coca tea, taking various pain medications, and slowing walking around the San Blas neighborhood of Cusco. There is no such thing as bad espresso in Peru so drink up!

In Cusco, walking at a normal pace on a flat surface is not too much of an issue but if you turn around too quickly, you will get lightheaded and if you skip a breath, you will immediately find yourself out-of-breath and having to stop and catch your breath. The latter is very strange because you’d think that skipping one breath when speaking a long sentence would not have such a drastic effect on the body but it does.

Steps and inclines are really, really difficult and there are a lot of them, not only to get to San Blas but within San Blas itself. We averaged seven steps before needing to stop and catch our breath. The road (cars drive on this road) in the photo below is the main road from Plaza de Armas to the San Blas neighborhood. These steps are absolutely awful and we did them three times one day.

This is the main road from Plaza de Armas to Plaza San Blas.

Protip: Pedestrians never have the right-of-way, not even in marked pedestrian crossings and drivers are very aggressive so keep your wits about you!

The road in the photo above leads to Plaza San Blas which is nothing spectacular or special. The real gem in San Blas is Calle Carmen Alto, the street with boutique shops. At the top of the stairs (stairs continue for blocks and blocks) and slightly to the right is Plaza San Blas.

There will be several taxis parked in front of the plaza. Instead of turning right to go to Plaza San Blas, turn left onto Calle Carmen Alto. This is the street where the boutique clothing and goods shops are located. At the end of the street is a boutique shop with a coffee shop on the top floor that has windows that overlook the street.

View of Calle Carmen Alto

Most of the boutique shops on this street are part of a local group called The Best of Cusco. Pop into any of their shops (probably the easiest is the Patagonia store near Plaza de Armas) and pick up one of their cute maps to help you explore everything that Cusco has to offer that is not made in China!

On our first full day in Cusco, we ate lunch at a restaurant near Plaza San Blas. It was at this restaurant where we felt OK to try one of two regional dishes, alpaca. Alpaca tastes like lamb. If it is cooked poorly, it could be a very bad experience so be wise about where you decide to try it.

Alpaca skewers

The second regional dish is guinea pig (Spanish: cuy). Guinea pig is typically served whole (including the head, legs, tail). I overheard a server tell his table that guinea pig is served whole for presentation only so that customers can take photographs. After photographs are taken, the server will take the dish to the kitchen where it will be deboned, etc. None of us were willing to try guinea pig.

All main dishes in Peru are served with two carbohydrates. Potatoes are always one of the carbs and we were told by one tour guide that there were over 3,000 varieties of potatoes grown in Peru and told by another tour guide that there were over 4,000 varieties. I don’t know which figure is accurate but either way, no one needs more than four varieties in their life.

Let’s use chicken soup as an example of a main dish. It is served with either vermicelli noodles, rice, or quinoa AND a whole potato that floats in the soup. It is a very hearty mountaineering diet and I felt OK with this style of eating because I felt like a mountaineer hiking the hills of Cusco.

Cusco is a large city but there’s not much to do as far as tourist activities go. If we were soaking our livers in alcohol, we would have been more than content in Cusco but because we needed to be careful about what we were putting into our bodies, we, at times, found it hard to pass the time.

If I did one thing differently during our time in Cusco, I would have done a day trip to Humantay Lake or to Saqsaywaman. After our trip to Palcoyo mountain, I debated doing a day trip to the other, more popular rainbow mountain (Vinicuna) the following day. I ultimately decided that it was too risky to do a rainbow mountain day trip on our day of departure given our journey time back to Minnesota was 23 hours. I have regrets about that decision – I should have done it.

Next, Machu Picchu logistics.

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