Cusco is cobblestones, tightly packed streets, balconies, delicious food, adventure, and charm. It's unique and atmospheric, the kind of place you can never have enough time to explore. I loved Cusco despite some of the initial traveling hardships we dealt with.
Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport - We flew Peruvian Airlines from Lima. The landing was bumpy, and our nerves were shot after worries about the notoriously unreliable flights in and out of Cusco. Our hotel provided transportation which made things nice and simple when getting out of this airport. One odd thing that you should take into consideration when flying out of Cusco with Peruvian is that they allow for less baggage weight leaving than coming in. This is hugely problematic since Cusco is THE best and cheapest place to shop. We decided to pay for an extra bag on the way out just to store souvenirs. We saw lots of people opening their suitcases and dumping things on the floor trying to figure out what to do with all of their stuff. There were lots of upset tourists who didn't take note of this detail. While we planned for this, we didn't know that they would make you get out of line and pay for the extra bag in another line. Then you have to get back in line again to check in. While at first we panicked that we wouldn't make it to our gate in time with all of the line changing, the airport is relatively small, and we had plenty of time to relax and prepare for boarding.
Altitude Sickness - One of the main reasons we didn't bring the girls on this adventure was due to our concerns over altitude sickness. We did our research and tried our best to avoid getting sick. Cusco's altitude is just over 11,000 feet. Many people recommend acclimating by starting your travels in Aguas Calintes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, since it's elevation is under 7,000 feet. This didn't make sense for the amount of time we had, so we opted to take our chances.
We hydrated excessively for several days before flying to Cusco, and we continued to drink water on the plane and after arrival. We also took ibuprofen close to arrival, avoided alcohol, and planned for a low-key first day. We tried to take naps right after arriving, but the city was so loud and bustling, we couldn't get settled and decided to walk around slowly instead. As our arrival day wore on, Tommy began feeling like crap. He said it started with a bad headache that got progressively worse. He felt like he was in the midst of a horrible hangover. We headed back to the hotel where I knew things were not good since he didn't want to eat. He felt sick in the stomach every time he moved. We called the front desk, and they immediately brought up an oxygen tank. They recommended that he use it for twenty minutes and then go to bed early. He followed their advice, and felt surprisingly better the next day. It caused us to lose a bit of time on that first evening but the early bedtime was worth it since he was able to sleep in a bit the next day and then be back to normal. I can't imagine how awful it must be for travelers who are hit with worse symptoms and can't acclimate. It took him about one day to fully acclimate and feel completely normal.
The only thing I noticed during our time in Cusco was getting winded easily on the steps. It was definitely harder to climb, and I found myself uncharacteristically out of breath shortly after starting up a staircase. I lucked out and had no other altitude issues.
Craps happens when you travel - In addition to Tommy's bout with altitude sickness, I was battling some kind of unknown allergic reaction. Upon arrival in Lima, my eyes got bright red and felt weird. I kept my contacts out and located a pharmacy. With our sad, broken, semi-conversational Spanish, we asked for eye drops. Once we arrived in Cusco, my eyes seemed to clear up, but I noticed a rash breaking out on my arms. By day two, my face had started to swell a little, and the rash had spread to my stomach, back, and legs. We headed back to the trusty Inkafarma. I was pretty confident the topical cream we got was ok, but we also asked for help getting an allergy pill. We apologized in advance for our poor attempts at Spanish, but explained that I was having a rash. They listened patiently and gave me some pills. I cross-checked the ingredients with a Spanish language app, and downed it hoping I had asked for the right thing. It did the trick after a few days of discomfort, and we soldiered on. Traveling is going to have moments that suck. We dedicated ourselves to staying positive, enjoying our trip, and taking in all of the beauty of the country despite the weird stuff that cropped up.
Turning Pages: Places to Check Out
Soccer Games - Copa Cup
We woke up one morning in the hotel to fireworks and lots of yelling in the streets. Something big was going on, but we didn't know what it was. We ventured outside and made our way to the square. There were soldiers lined up and a crowd was beginning to assemble to watch the Copa Cup: Peru vs. Brazil. We stumbled upon the city's pre-game parade and viewing event. There were people in costumes, school groups, karate teams, stilt walkers, vendors, and all sorts of excitement building. As the afternoon wore on, we bought Peruvian soccer shirts and face stickers before joining the crowd gathering in front of a giant TV screen and viewing platform. We watched the game, cheered, drank some beers, and had the absolute most insane time getting lost in the chanting, national pride, and general camaraderie. Closely tied with Machu Picchu, this experience was a favorite just because it was spontaneous and surreal being surrounded by the patriotic spirit and charisma of such a huge group of Peruvians in this majestic, colonial square. Clearly unprepared for standing in the hot sun all day without a hat, I could feel my pale face frying. A kind woman who didn't speak English noticed my discomfort and offered up a bottle of lotion. Red faced and glowing sweat, we soaked up the party and loved every minute of it. Pictures don't do this experience justice so make sure you check out my Facebook page or Instagram for the videos.
We bought so much stuff in Peru - blankets, table runners. backpacks, purses, pens, llama toys, pom-pom door hangers, candy, place mats, a chess set, ties, and various other odds and ends. Cusco is probably the best and cheapest place to shop. You can and should definitely haggle here. I really hate going back and forth over prices but Tommy gets a real kick out of it. The prices are fair, and the inventory is so immense here that you can definitely shop around, negotiate, and come to an agreement that all parties can be happy about. The San Blas area is worth a walk. The skinny streets are something to marvel over, and there are tons of stairs. You'll pass the Twelve-Angled Stone which is not very exciting to look at but tends to gather a crowd. It's considered an archaeological marvel for it's twelve intricate cuts. I also can't stress enough how much the people appreciate when you try to speak Spanish. Even if it's terrible, the effort goes a long way.
Moray Incan Ruins and Maras Salt Mines
We used one tour company, CUSCOPERU, for two different day adventures. We don't typically do the tour group thing but figured due to the language barriers and time restraints we had, it was best to leave some of our touring to the experts. They were reasonably priced, responsive in communication, and easy to work with. They provided transportation including buses, trains and vans for all parts of our trips, organized ticket purchases, tour guides, and any other requirements needed for a smooth trip (passport information for Machu Picchu, etc.) Overall we thought they were fantastic, but there were a few things along the way that could have been better. CUSCOPERU sends a rep to your hotel to orient you on the plans for your trips. This was a great perk and made us feel prepared. The thing we weren't prepared for was that they insisted we pay the remainder of our balance in cash which would have been way too much money to be carrying around. The only other option was to pay on their website with a card which also included a fee. None of this was explained in advance so we were kind of stuck and had to figure out the online payment system on my phone. Other issues with CUSCOPERU were small, and I'll address these as they come up. CUSCOPERU has great reviews on TripAdvisor, and our tours functioned like really well-oiled machines.
The Maras salt pans (Salineras de Maras) are absolutely fascinating. The ride there is harrowing and will most likely make you squeeze your eyes shut in fear more than once. The salt pans are located deep in a valley which means climbing high mountains and making your way down to them. The dirt roads are single lanes with zero guardrails. When zipping around corners, van drivers slam on the horns alerting oncoming traffic to stop. When buses and vans attempt to pass one another they delicately inch forward as each vehicle scoots past just inches from scraping metal and skirting the edge and each other in a fragile, dangerous balance. It's terrifyingly exciting.
Was the guinea pig delicious? No. Was the guinea pig edible? Yes. Did we also order a pizza? Yes. There was a very small amount of meat. It was gamey and greasy-tasting. I didn't want to throw up, but I also would never order it again. We ate all of it and enjoyed the experience. The following day we saw little hutches with guinea pigs in them, and I felt like they knew what I had done and were judging me for it.
San Pedro Market
Local markets are the absolute best way to experience the culture of a community. San Pedro market is incredible. It's located within easy walking distance of our hotel, and we visited there several times for food and shopping. The vendor and food stalls are crowded but the sights and smells are intoxicating. We had huge, insanely cheap meals at this market and enjoyed trying to chat with the locals. We found ourselves gaping at one customer's order of head soup. It was either a ram or lamb head laying in broth. For some reason I found this to be much grosser than the cuy. It was basically half a face laying in some liquid. I didn't want to take a picture of someone while they were eating, and I don't think either of us could have handled ordering one of those, so my verbal description will have to suffice. Our adventurous eating ended with the guinea pig.
Postscript: What I Missed
Things I wish we had time for (for the next visit):
Coricancha and the Convent of Santo Domingo - a massive religious compound with a sanctuary to honor the Sun god, Inti. We visited the church attached to this but didn't have enough time to see the complex.
Sacsayhuaman - ruins of an ancient Incan fortress
Cristo Blanco - Jesus Christ statue and views of Cusco
Rainbow Mountain - hike to see a mountain range made of ringed rainbow colors. We debated this trip seriously for a long time, but it's over three hours from Cusco. We also heard mixed reviews about it and ultimately nixed it.
Q'eswachaka Rope Bridge - relic example of a handwoven Incan suspension bridge. I really wanted to go to this one.
**If I could plan this trip again, I would definitely spend more time in Cusco. We only spent four days here and crammed in as much as we possibly could, but also felt like we missed so much. Between the colonial city and all of the day trip ruins, you could spend a month here and not feel satisfied.
A Few General Notes:
Safety - We did our research and stayed in areas that had good reviews for safety and security. Miraflores is one of the most affluent districts of Lima and has tons of hotels, apartments, shopping, restaurants, and bars. The Airbnb we chose in Miraflores had a doorman with a secure entrance. We felt extremely safe in this neighborhood at all times, and we walked to everything. It felt like there were police and private building security on every block. We walked everywhere day and night and didn't even use Uber until we were closer to the end of our trip.
Transportation - Driving in Peru is bonkers. Car horns are used instead of turn signals and stop signs. The traffic noise is grating and made me really appreciate the quiet of the rural area we live in. The constant honking and blaring was something I just couldn't get used to and by the end of our stay in Lima, I kind of wanted to bash my head into a wall. We wouldn't have felt comfortable renting a car here and trying to get around on our own. From Jorge Chavez International, look for the official airport taxi companies to take you to your next location (Taxi Green, Taxi Direct or Taxi 365). For around 60 soles, (approximately $18) they will guide you out past the exit gates directly to your driver. Finding an Uber here would be a challenge. When you exit, there's a mob of people trying to give you rides, sell tours, and look for arriving guests. It's insanity. There's a tiny opening in the exit gate and then they are upon you like vultures on a carcass. The $18 is worth making it out unscathed and unfrazzled. We actually ended up getting the airport driver's number, and we used him for private transport for several more trips. We also used Uber at least 3 or 4 times and it was incredibly cheap. Our longest trip (about 45 minutes) cost around $12.
Money - Peru's currency is the sol. We chose to order soles from our bank ahead of time. There is a shortage of small coins in the country. Try to carry as many small coins as possible and use them whenever you're shopping or eating at small stands. Use your big bills in hotels and nicer restaurants.
Tipping - Tipping is not customary in Peru; however, we definitely tipped people that went out of their way to have great conversations with us, kindly tolerated our poor Spanish speaking skills, gave us great recommendations, or were just generally cool people. Since we met a lot of awesome drivers, bartenders and tour guides, we ended up tipping a lot.
Turning Pages: Places to Check Out
The Malecón is a 10km walkway that gently curves along the Pacific coastline high above enormous cliffs with spectacular views. There are little cafes, parks, statues, strolling couples, runners, and humorous outdoor exercise equipment (check my Insta for the elliptical video).
Keep pace on the Malecón, and you'll see a take-off spot for paragliders. You'll also eventually come across el Parque del Amor (Love Park). In addition to a little fence area where you can hang the requisite lover's lock with you and your partner's initials, there's a giant, romantic statue called El Beso (The Kiss). The park is lined with glittering mosaic benches and walls and is a perfect spot for a rest with your lover and maybe some PDA (only a little - control yourselves people).
Uncovered in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Miraflores, this pyramid made of clay bricks is a fascinating juxtaposition of old against new as the city buildings tower all around it. The Pre-Incan people of ancient Lima made this structure for a variety of purposes including burial grounds for leaders and a location for religious rites and sacrifices. We toured the ruins at night, and it was mesmerizing and even a little spooky. A guided evening tour costs about $5.50 (a dollar more than a day tour) and is well worth it. They also have a restaurant on the grounds that allows you to dine in view of the ruins. We didn't try this out the night we were there because it was closed for a swanky, private party.
Kennedy Park is huge and located in the direct center of Miraflores, surrounded by restaurants, shopping, and street vendors. The thing I liked the most about this park is that there are cats everywhere: cats in trees, cats in flower pots, cats stretching, cats sleeping, cats staring creepily at nothing, cats playing tag, cats getting back rubs, cats riding bicycles ... wait sorry that last part's not true. I got carried away. I just find it fascinating that this park is completely overrun with cats, and everyone's just cool with it.
We consistently found that when we did eat at restaurants or had drinks, Peruvians take food service seriously. Bartenders take pride in creating drinks with fresh ingredients and present drinks as an experience. We went for drinks two nights in a row at Pitahaya just because the bartender was so incredible. He gave us tastings of all the different Peruvian liquors, and had us smell each of the ingredients he put in our drinks before mixing and serving.
Appendix: a Hodge Podge
Larcomar - Larcomar is a shopping mall with a killer view. This multi-tier shopping center is built into the cliffs boasting a view of the Pacific. It's gorgeous and worth a stop whether you want to shop or not.
Indian Market (on Av. Petit Thouars) - This artisanal market was our first introduction to Peruvian shopping and haggling. There are tons of stalls. We didn't end up buying anything here because it was too early in the week to start adding to our luggage weight, and we had another flight to Cusco in a few days. My suggestion is to wait to make purchases in Cusco because it's much cheaper.
Postscript: What I Missed
Things I wish we had time for (for the next visit):
Bike rental on the Malecón - Get some exercise on the clifftops with a view of the Pacific.
Ceviche - Everyone said we had to get ceviche in Miraflores, and while we saw it everywhere, we just didn't get around to trying it.
Peña - A Peña is a venue that has traditional, live Peruvian music and dancing. There are many different restaurants and clubs that have this authentic folk scene including La Candelaria and Don Porfirio.
This is the book that motivated me to start Travel All the Pages. Set in several locations in Peru, the main character Nita starts off in Miraflores. I loved reading Nita's descriptions of the district. While I wasn't a big fan of this book, I do appreciate how it inspired me. This book is pretty gruesome for a young adult selection, but I think there's definitely a market out there for this type of supernatural/horror combo. It gets pretty good reviews overall in the book world. It just wasn't for me.
Not Even Bones by Rebecca Schaeffer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I was really pumped about this one, and it was the worst. First, it was set in Peru, and I enjoyed reading about some of the spots we just visited but aside from that, there was little to appreciate. The world-building is non-existent, making it hard to connect with the characters. This is supposed to be set in a future where different species with supernatural powers exist around the world. The main character Nita is able to heal herself from injury and also enjoys dissecting unnaturals while her mom sells their body parts on the black market. Nita struggles with the morality of what they do and rationalizes it as acceptable because the unnaturals they deal with are bad people. Plus, they never come to her alive. This all changes when her mom brings one back alive and eventually Nita gets kidnapped to sell on the same same black market she’s been feeding. In theory this sounds fascinating but the entire story felt stilted and disconnected.
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Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.