Immersive Travel Cusco is the 2nd destination of three in the Peru itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Peru circuit are described in The Peru Travel Planning post.
Cusco was the capital city of the Inca empire. At its height in the early 16th century, just before the Conquistadores arrived, the empire spanned from the Andes in Colombia, to Patagonia in central Chile, the end of the Andes mountain range. The various Inca trails radiated from Cusco to the ends of the empire. The word Cosco (Cusco was more easily pronounced in Castilian) translates to ‘center of the world” from Quechua, the language of the Inca descendants.
Cusco was also the center of Spanish colonial activity throughout the 16th century. Cusco served as the Colonial capital of Peru before it was transitioned to Lima to make for easier communications back to Spain. There was a rich history and architecture left behind by the colonial Spanish conquistadores, and their descendants.
I hired a taxi for the day to drive to Cusco from Ollantaytambo, with stopovers in Pisac and Sacsayhuamán to visit the Inca ruins there. We left Ollantaytambo at 9:00am and arrived at our Cusco apartment by 2:30 in the afternoon. The stops at Pisac and Sacsayhuamán were welcome diversions from an otherwise long and bumpy ride on poor quality roads. Peruvian roads experienced on this trip were poorly maintained, and had speed bumps strategically placed, forcing the driver to a near stop to avoid damaging his vehicle.
The first thing I noticed on arrival was my slightly labored breathing. Cusco is at 11,200 feet of elevation – as measured by my iPhone at the apartment. I spent 3 days in Ollantaytombo at 9,000 feet of elevation before I acclimated to that higher altitude. But my arrival in Cusco started my acclimation process all over again. I drank plenty of water, and moved slowly and deliberately when necessary. My altitude related headache returned on arrival to Cusco, but not the bitter, metallic taste in my mouth, or the feeling that I was hungover – mentally fuzzy. Those were the altitude related symptoms I endured in Ollantaytombo.
The apartment I selected through Booking.com had spectacular views of Cusco and the surrounding mountains. The stunning views were made possible by the apartment’s location – well above the city vertically. But not so far from the city center to become inconvenient. It was an easy 5 minute descent using a staired walkway very close to the apartment to get the center of town. All points of interest were within a few minutes walk because the city center was fairly compact. And the ascent back to the apartment was never necessary because Uber was both available and inexpensive – less than $USD 2 from the city center.
We spent several hours relaxing on arrival, catching up on communications with family and friends back home. And every few minutes re-visited the spectacular views from our apartment’s lounge area. Almost as if to confirm that they were still there. I had previously rented many apartments, and many were interesting and memorable, but none offered views this stunning.
A comment on Cusco’s infrastructure: there isn’t much of it. For example, our apartment had no heating or air conditioning. And moreover, our apartment was upscale, so these amenities are rarely included in local residences. The reason is related to the climate at 11,000+ feet in the Andes. There is relatively little temperature variation. The highs are in the mid 60s Fahrenheit, and the lows in the Mid 40s.
Water pressure was highly variable. The water sputtered violently out of the tap or the shower head, depending on the time of day. Our upscale apartment had hot water only for the shower, the rest of the taps in the kitchen and bathroom had only cold water. I was advised that a large proportion of residences in Cusco have no hot water at all.
The tap water was not potable unless boiled. And even something as mundane as making tea had to take into consideration both the altitude, and the poor water quality. It took water longer to come to a boil at 11,000 feet, and it must boil longer to render the water drinkable. Different, and indicative of a lesser developed country.
Plaza de Armas
It was an interesting five minute walk to descend the stairs from our apartment perch to get the the central plaza. There was spot on the way down with a nice view of the main square.
Plaza de Armas is also called Plaza Mayor, the most important square in Cusco. We were offered a tour of the plaza and surrounding area by an entrepreneurial Quechuan young man. He described some of the history of the square as dating back to Inca times, originally called Huacaypata. It was the heart of the ancient city, and it looked like the prime gathering place in modern times. The square hosts a series of sixteenth century Spanish Colonial arcades, the massive Cusco Cathedral, and the strikingly ornate church of La Compañía de Jesús.
San Pedro Market
This covered market was a grand slice of life in Cusco. Everything imaginable was sold there. Vegetables, dairy, seafood, butchered meats of all variety, fruits, household goods, handmade textiles, wines, and liquors, all were available at the market. And a food court of sorts was in operation with a variety of stalls offering things I dared not try . The market had a smell that essentially was the commingled aromas of all things for sale there. Not a particularly good one.
The San Blas Neighborhood
The Barrio de los Artesanos, now known as the Artisans Quarter in Cusco. It may be a bit less touristed than the Plaza de Armas, or at least it felt that way. We found a narrow street with stairs heading up, and followed it until we arrived at little residential lanes at the top of our climb. And we found out of the way restaurants, cafes, and shops. While this section of town still catered to tourists, the throng was thinner, as was the din. We spent a wonderfully relaxing, and laid back afternoon exploring, shopping, and indulging in random exploration.
Qoricancha loosely translates to “Golden Palace” from the Quechua language. It was a grand Inca complex comprising temples dedicated to the Sun, Moon, Venus, Mars, and Rainbow gods. It was built by Pachacuti Inca, the king whose ambition and conquest propelled the Inca to the grand empire it would become over a few generations. The Spanish reported incredible opulence at the temple, with walls of gold, and gardens with golden statuary. All plundered by the Conquistadores. The temple was destroyed, and the Spanish built the Cathedral of Santo Domingo on its foundation.
La Compañía de Jesús Jesuit Church
This church was built by the Jesuits in 1571. It was built on the site of the Inca palace of King Huayana Capac, the last Inca king to rule before the Spanish conquered and divided the empire. This Baroque style church was built to upstage the existing Cusco Cathedral, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption. It was built higher, with a soaring dome, and a grand alter. In my personal opinion, this church simply did not rise to the grandeur of European cathedrals from the same era. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside.
The Cusco Cathedral
This was truly a Gothic cathedral to compete with its European counterparts. Unfortunately, they do not allow for pictures or videos once inside. So descriptions will be subjective. The cathedral was built on the foundations of previously destroyed Inca temples. But I think we’re past the notion that the Spaniards were evil. The cathedral had a grand and sweeping internal architecture, with arches and pillars to support its massive frame. A camera would have captured the incredible amount of gold leaf incorporated on statuary, altars, columns, banisters, gates, and various other interior infrastructure. Silver was also prominently displayed in the form of various sculpture pieces, and in great quantity. All of the gold and silver originated from the Inca empire through the ages.
We stopped in Pisaq on our way to Cusco because it was a highly recommended Inca site by my taxi driver/Inca guide, Jose. Pisaq was a much larger Inca community than Machu Picchu. For example, it has been estimated that some 3,000 residents comprised the Pisaq community at its peak. Unlike Machu Picchu, Pisaq was a mixed community of commoners, the priest class, as well as the upper class. It was more difficult getting around Pisaq as compared to Machu Picchu because Pisaq was 12,000 feet of elevation, versus 8,000 for Machu Picchu.
This was our second stop en route to Cusco, also highly recommended by my taxi driver/Inca guide. This site was an enormous Inca temple, just outside of Cusco. The temple was in high ground with grand views of Cusco and surrounding areas. It was constructed with very large monolithic stones at the base, and ever smaller stones going to the second and third level of complex. The temple was of enormous importance to the Inca, and was dedicated to the sun, snake, puma, condor, and thunder – the most important gods in the Inca pantheon. There were beautiful panoramic views of the city of Cusco from the end of this archaeological site.
My wife was not feeling well, and was in the mood for some hot soup. I did a TripAdvisor restaurant search which turned up a lot of restaurants to choose from. Flipping to the map view on the search results, I was able to narrow the search to those restaurants near me. I selected Inkazuela because it was highly rated with good reviews, and their focus was Peruvian soups and stews. I had the chili con carne as my starter, and the alpaca stew as my main. Both were very good, the stew was especially flavorful.
We found this place through a TripAdvisor search after getting hungry while walking around. They advertised classical Andean/Peruvian fare, and followed through with the presentation. We were greeted with a serving of Chicha (Peruvian corn beer), in the Quechua tradition. Then we were offered bread, a local cheese, butter, and marmalade, more Quechua tradition. I had the ceviche as a starter, and the grilled trout for the main course. My wife was still nursing a cold, and tried some chicken soup. The food was good, and the service was top notch.
This place was recommended to us by our host as a high quality Peruvian steak house. The service was slow, and it got worse from there. I ordered the 20-hour slow-cooked pork ribs, crispy native potatoes, and the meal came with a green salad. My wife was still nursing a cold, and was eating lighter fare – so she ordered the shrimp bruschetta from the appetizer menu. The ribs were too lean, and not tender enough. Definitely not slow- cooked for twenty hours. To complete the disappointment, the potatoes were dry, and the salad was bland because it was served with no dressing. Two thumbs down.
This lovely little place was recommended to us by our host. It was just down the pedestrian stairwell down to the city center, first place of any significance. They pride themselves on organic, and have their own garden in the Sacred Valley to source the produce. We both chose the omelette, and my wife got the hot chocolate, while I had the foofoo orange, papaya, pineapple juice. The juice was awesome. Freshly prepared, and very tasty. The omelette was to die for good. This was an awesome value at 32 Soles, less than 10 $USD for a two person breakfast.
Sumaq Cha’ asqa
OK, not a real meal. But I stopped here in the early afternoon for a cocktail, or two. We were exploring the San Blas neighborhood in the early afternoon, and stumbled upon this lovely little cafe/bar. We had it all to ourselves, as we arrived a bit early for the locals. Naturally the service was fabulous, because we were the only customers. The beer was cold, as was the Pisco – to my surprise. They did have a menu, which I did not explore.
Right on the square. The kind of place I wouldn’t normally patronize. But, my host recommended this place for an up-scale experience. We were on their balcony, right in the Plaza de Armas, with nice views. To my surprise, they had a Japanese fusion type of menu, and focused on a Pisco experience for cocktails. I will order octopus every time I have the opportunity – because the opportunity so rarely presents itself. Their presentation did not disappoint. I followed up with the whole grilled trout. It was very good. For dessert I had some sashimi, and this too did not disappoint. The Japanese/Peruvian fusion thing worked. I would highly recommend this restaurant.
Reflections on Cusco. The highlights of Cusco for me start with the sixteenth century Spanish Colonial Architecture surrounding the Plaza de Armas. And continue with the exploration opportunities found in the neighborhoods surrounding the plaza. I especially liked the artisan’s haven barrio of San Blas. And finally I really enjoyed the cuisine in Cusco. The Food Scene section details some wonderful dining experiences. While the apartment had beautiful panoramic views of the city, and we enjoyed our stay there, I never got the Immersive Travel Experience thrill from my time in Cusco. In honest reflection, I think that Cusco’s infrastructure prevents it from rising to a great travel experience.