Immersive Travel Cusco

Immersive Travel Cusco

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.

 

Arrival

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.

 

Settling in

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.

Local Infrastructure

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.

 

Cusco Walkabout

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

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.

Pisaq

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.

Sacsayhuamán

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.

 

 

Food Scene

Inkazuela

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.

Faustina

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.

Uchu

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.

Organika

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.

Limo

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.

Epilogue

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.

 

Related Topics

 

Peru Travel Planning

Peru Travel Planning

Why Go to Peru –  Peru Travel Planning

Peru travel planning can be tricky because there’s tremendous variety for the first time visitor. Options include the vast, arid Pacific Ocean beaches, the steamy, and exotic Amazonia, Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable Lake in the world, the high Andes with ancient Inca secrets like Machu Picchu, and the beautiful 16th century Spanish Colonial cities of Cusco and Arequipa. Peru could easily be a traveler’s first country to visit in South America.

I had nine nights to work with for this particular itinerary, my first time to Peru. I needed to choose from all that Peru has to offer with the intent of having an immersive travel experience there. Too many destinations with insufficient time spent feels rushed, rarely leading to a memorable experience. And rushing it in Peru may have other consequences as well. Many destinations around my points of interest in Peru are at high elevations, between 7,000 to 11,000 feet. A steady pace would benefit the immersive travel experience, as well as help to avoid altitude sickness.

Where to go in Peru – Peru Travel Planning

The selection of itinerary is as much about where not to go, as it is about where to go. For example, I avoided spending time in Lima on this trip. And I also discounted visits to Amazonia, and Lake Titicaca. It simply comes down to choice, and personal preferences. I elected to go with the major themes of the great outdoors, discovering Incan heritage, and exploring 16th century Colonial Spanish cities and architecture.

With 9 nights of calendar budget over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I chose to spend 3 nights in Ollantaytambo to focus on Incan heritage sites, like the massive site in Ollantaytambo itself, and Machu Picchu, of course.

I wanted to spend 3 nights in Cusco because it was a great combination of Incan heritage, and Spanish Colonial history. Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire, situated right at its center when the empire spanned from present day Colombia to Chilean Patagonia. It was also the capital of Spanish Colonial Peru until they moved the capital to Lima, so the city is steeped in 16th century Spanish Colonial architecture.

And finally, 3 nights in Arequipa – The White City, so named because of its white volcanic rock buildings – surrounded by 80 volcanoes in the region. Still touched by Incan heritage, but to a lesser extent than Cusco and its surrounding cities, including Ollantaytambo. This destination is more about Spanish Colonial history and architecture, but also about the great outdoors with a side trip to the Colca Canyon. I expected to have an immersive New Year’s Eve celebration in Arequipa with the locals.

Ollantaytambo – 3 Nights

Machu Picchu – Day Trip

Cusco – 3 nights

Arequipa – 3 nights

Logistics – Peru Travel Planning

Airfare to Lima from my home base in Atlanta was very straight forward, with non-stop flights available. Connecting flights to both Cusco and Arequipa from Lima were not scarce. The only real decision was whether to start in Cusco, and work my way to Arequipa, or vice versa. I would have much preferred to start in Arequipa at 7,000 feet, then work my way to Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet, and end the trip in Cusco at 11,000. This would have been the ideal itinerary to gradually acclimate to ultimate altitude of 11,000 in Cusco. Alas, I could not make the airline schedules accommodate my personal timetable around the holidays and had to opt for a Cusco/Ollantaytambo/Arequipa circuit.

While I tried to find apartments for each of the three destinations, there simply wasn’t any quality inventory in either Ollantaytambo or Arequipa. So I settled for hotel rooms accommodating my requirements.

Hotels and Apartments

I booked the Ollantaytambo hotel room through Booking.com. The interestingly named hotel, Sauce, was as boutique as could be, with only 7 rooms under management. It was very centrally located, just steps away from Plaza de Armas. They had a complimentary breakfast buffet included in the price of the room. And it was actually worth getting up a little earlier to hit the breakfast buffet.

I booked the Cusco apartment through Booking.com about 7 months in advance of arrival. The photos speak volumes regarding the apartment. It’s all about the views. Stunning views both day and night, which include the old part of town, and the Plaza de Armas. The apartment’s location had a minor drawback being several hundred steps above Cusco street level, enabling the spectacular views. Several hundred steps is trivial downhill, but not so much going back up at over 11,000 feet of elevation. I am glad to share that I never did take the stairs up, as Uber was so incredibly inexpensive (less than $USD 1.50) to get from the center of town back to the apartment.

I also booked the Arequipa hotel on Booking.com, making it a trifecta for this particular itinerary. The boutique hotel was centrally located right on the Plaza de Armas. It had a high quality restaurant attached, which served a fabulous New Year’s Eve menu to its guests. This was the best place to stay in Arequipa given my Immersive Travel principles.

Driving in Peru

I did not rent a car in Peru. And I am so glad I didn’t. They drive maniacally as if immortal in Peru. I personally love to drive, and have driven on travels in some places known for aggressive, if not chaotic driving – but nothing like this. I saw people passing uphill, around a hairpin turn, on a narrow mountain road, for example. No thanks. I wouldn’t recommend driving in Peru, unless you’re a daredevil with a death wish.

How get Local Currency in Peru

My approach when traveling is to use local currency for cafes, restaurants, and incidental spending. I use credit cards for major spend, for example, hotels, car rentals, and other transportation, like rail. I’ve adopted this approach over the years of traveling because it’s the most convenient, both for myself, and the various little restaurants and cafes I like to patronize.

The best way to get local currency, everywhere I’ve traveled, has been to use ATM machines associated with major local banks. They provide a very good exchange rate, and with a little planning, a minimal transaction fee. By planning, I mean that the traveler must select a financial institution in their home country that provides an international travel-friendly debit card, charging no transactions fees – and even reimbursing transaction fees other institutions would charge. I personally have two for this purpose: Fidelity Investment Services Visa debit card, and Capital One 360 Mastercard debit card. I use the Fidelity card exclusively because they reimburse other bank ATM fees, and keep the Capital One card as a backup.

Based on my previous travels, I’ve found the effective ATM currency exchange fee to be 1% or  less.  I withdrew Soles from all four of the Banks represented near the food court on the second floor of the Lima airport. Three out of the four had effective exchange rates below 1%, and were competitive. The fourth was a bank called BCP.  It was interesting that they allowed for a larger withdrawal of 700 soles versus the 400 soles the other 3 banks allowed. And moreover, they charged less for the transaction fee. But, they rob the consumer with an effective 4.5% exchange rate fee. I will never use a BCP bank ATM again, and neither should anyone with a choice.

How to Avoid Food Sickness in Peru

I have never commented on traveler’s food survival strategies previously because I had never written about any place where such a thing would be a worry, until now.

Do not drink the water. It has both bacteria and parasites that will ultimately make the unaccustomed very ill. Do not drink anything that comes with ice, either cubed or crushed. You can take the risk and ask if the ice is made from purified water, or you can be sure and simply avoid iced drinks. Do not eat fresh fruits and vegetables because they’re washed with the local water. Avoid anything that has not been cooked, and preferably eat cooked food served hot.

Do not buy food from street vendors, including ice cream.

And here’s the toughest advice: do not eat the ceviche. Are you kidding, Peru is famous for its ceviche? Fresh fish bear a variety of parasites that are only killed by proper cooking, and ceviche is raw fish marinated in citrus juices. Uncooked fish need to be frozen for a week or more to an internal temperature of -4°F to be considered safe. I wouldn’t trust a nation that cannot deliver drinkable water to have that level of responsibility in preparing raw fish for ceviche. Furthermore, I personally know someone that came down with a parasitic infestation after a trip to Lima – the cosmopolitan city of Peru, where you’re more likely to have better hygiene, and adherence to best practices for food preparation.

And last but not least, do not brush your teeth with tap water. No I am not paranoid, I just want to improve my odds for having a healthy, if not immersive travel experience.

How to Avoid Altitude Sickness in Peru

The altitude at the Cusco airport is 11,000 feet at landing, and the taxi ride to Ollantaytambo takes you to over 12,000 before a descent down to 9,000. People not acclimated to this type of altitude may pay a price. Altitude sickness has a variety of symptoms ranging from headache, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath and a variety of others.

It’s best to acclimate to high altitude by starting at the lowest altitude planned for the trip and work up to the highest. For this trip it would have been best to start in Arequipa at 7,000 feet, then to Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet, then to Cusco at 11,000 feet. I simply could not make the airline flights available work for my schedule, but would highly recommend this itinerary because it is altitude acclimatization friendly.

How to Acclimate to High Altitude

Even with the altitude acclimatization friendly itinerary, I would highly recommend staying well hydrated. The high altitudes make for drier air, which is dehydrating and makes worse any altitude related symptoms. I would recommend a slow, acclimating pace upon arrival at the first destination, even taking a nap first thing. I would recommend taking it easy with alcohol as high altitude heightens the effects.

My full altitude sickness symptoms for 3 days in Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet were a low grade headache, a bitter, metallic taste in my mouth, and a feeling like I was hungover – a little fuzzy around the edges. All wore off in due time, and by the way ibuprofen did not help with the headache. The local remedy for altitude sickness, among other things, was Coca tea. And I tried it, but alas it had no effect on any of my symptoms. And moreover, I found it to taste like like tea brewed from barnyard straw, so I didn’t try this remedy a second time.

It is possible to get preventative medication from your local doctor before departure. My own research showed that the medication may have more harmful side effects than the altitude sickness itself, so I didn’t go this route. But it may be worth considering for those prone to severe altitude sickness.

How to Stay Healthy in Peru

Vaccines and mosquito preparation are necessary for a trip to Peru. The short list of vaccines recommended by the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control for a visit to Peru include Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Hepatitis A & B, and Rabies. Vaccination should be an integral part of travel planning for Peru. There are no mosquitoes at higher elevations, like Cusco, for example. But elevations of 8,000 feet – Like Machu Picchu – and below can be mosquito breeding grounds. Long sleeves, long pants, and mosquito repellent with Deet are strongly recommended. The Deet should be applied to clothing to deter the aggressive mosquitos.

Resources – Peru Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport.  

I rely on several sites for apartment rentals.  In the order of preference:  HomeAway, booking.com, and last and definitely least, Airbnb.  Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them. All hotels and apartments for this trip were booked through Booking.com.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of needs.  On this trip, I mainly used it for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on my discovery treks.

TripAdvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, and I find the travel forums specific to my destinations particularly useful. There’s no better advice than from someone that’s already done what I’m planning to do.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. I did end up in places where English was not spoken, so this phone app was very handy. It’s also very necessary for non-Spanish speakers because the locals speak little English.

 

Epilogue – Peru Travel Planning

Reflections on Peru. Peru is definitely a highlight of South America, and bucket-list worthy. The premier reason for going, and my personal highlight, was the great outdoors. From the Andes cradling Machu Picchu near Ollantaytambo, to the beautiful ruggedness of the Cola Canyon, the great outdoors were both breathtaking and memorable. The next most compelling reason to go, for me personally, was the 16th century Spanish Colonial history and architecture in the cities of Cusco, and especially Arequipa. And the last, but certainly not the least, reason is the Incan history and heritage peppered throughout the country. I should note that Peru would require a much longer visit to see the attractions I bypassed, like Lima, the coastal beaches, Amazonia, and Lake Titicaca.

 

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