Destination: Cusco, Peru
Days Stayed: 7
Where we stayed: Monte Hereb Hospedaje - $33/night - $4 extra for the non-efficient heater
Best restaurant: Jack's Cafe has good international food (except for the hamburger - I thought it was a veggie burger but they assured me it was beef); Best Veggie Menu of the Day at El Cuentro for between $1-2 dollars you get a soup, salad bar, main dish and tea; For a nice dinner, we ate at Incanto and the steak with gnocchi is excellent as is the Alpaca steak.
Best of: Local market by San Pedro Church, impressive colonial churches (ask for the free audio guides - very informative but they like to hide them), Tons of shopping opportunities - Tracy was in her element
Worst of: Hassle alley, we quickly tired of walking through the perimeter of the Plaza Armas as we were constantly asked to come into restaurants and if we wanted massages.
After flying back from the Galapagos to Quito, we were reunited with our missing clothes...minus one sock, but otherwise in good condition. After a long wait in Quito, an overnight in Lima we hopped on the first flight to Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire.
Lima may be the official capital of Peru, but there is no doubt that Cusco is the heart and center of the tourism trade. Cusco serves as the jumping off point for Macchu Pichu and its million visitors per year so to say it's touristy is a bit of an understatement. Despite its popularity, it still has a charm to it. Not only was it the capital of the once mighty Inca Empire that covered most of the Andes, it also served as one of the earliest Spanish colonies in the Americas.
One other note of distinction on Cusco, it's high in the mountains. At over 12,000 feet altitude sickness can be a problem. With all the traveling, lack of sleep and altitude I (Tracy) wasn't feeling so well for the first couple of days. We decided to not push it by trying to squeeze in Lake Titicaca (sorry Jason, I know how much you wanted to go). This allowed for lots of time for resting and for enjoying coca tea, the local remedy for all of life's ailments. We both felt it helped with the altitude and for me, a dose of cipro chased away my illness after a couple of days (though it returned even worse on our Transatlantic cruise). Just don't chew the coca leaves (another recommendation for altitude sickness), it's just like chewing...well...a leaf! Not pleasant at all.
Cusco has lots of churches, ruins and museums to take in. The Religious Circuit ticket (60 soles pp or about $20US) gets you into the three principal churches and one of the art museums. All of the churches in the circuit date back to when the Spanish first showed up here and conquered the Incas in the late 16th century. A blend of Spanish, Moorish, and local Cuscuean design has its own unique flare. Intricate baroque carved red woods with gold plating are the standard by which most of the pulpits, choirs and altars were created. The main attraction of the ticket is the Cathedral, which actually is a complex of three churches under one roof. We ended up "touring" the cathedral three times. The first time we were on our own and wandered through reading what we could of the Spanish captions with broken English in parts. The next time it was part of a city tour we took to see the ruins just outside of Cusco. The last time, which in our opinion is the best way to see the complex, is by following the audio tour. Since there are tour guides available inside the churches who speak a little English and work on a tip basis, they like to hide the audio tours so you have to ask for them. The audio guides are in perfect English, very detailed and have side stories that even the guides don't tell you. One down side of the churches is that they don't allow photography of any kind, flash or no flash, and it is strictly enforced. Tracy did manage to get a shot or two secretly before they came rushing over to remind her of this but they didn't turn out well.
Nearly as stunning, and right next door, is the Compania de Jesus. Ask for the audio tour here as well, it's really well done and totally free. The audio tour even leads you through a secret doorway in the wall and up the stairs to the second level of the church with excellent views of the cathedral and the Plaza Armas.
The Iglesia De San Blas is an adobe church set on a hill. The exterior of the church is rather unspectacular but the wood carving on the pulpit is spectacularly done (unfortunately they allow no pictures). It took over 20 years to complete and is very intricately carved. The neighborhood of San Blas is also a joy to wander around with alleyways running this way and that with the odd alpaca to bump into!
To top off our Cusco religious ticket we stopped at the Religious Art Museum which is housed in the palace of the Inca Roca. The museum has a nice display of religious art and again has those handy (and free) audio guides! No one was on guard here so we got a few pictures!
Our favorite market in Cusco(by far) was the central market by San Pedro. We stopped by here several times always stopping by to say hi to our favorite fruit lady (fruit salads 2.5 soles - less than a buck & her fresh squeezed juices come with free refills)! She was conveniently located right next to the chicha lady who was kind enough to give us a free sample of her brew (think thick fermented corn with sugar)! While shopping in the market you can even get a pair of pants hemmed on the spot or buy hand knitted footwear! They also have roving carts with little snacks, chicharonnes (pork skins) or fried quail eggs anyone? We also enjoyed shopping and taking daring walks down the long meat aisle (once complete with a pig head wrapped in a blanket on the floor). Our recommendation is to do this with your mouth closed and try to hold your breath!
We enjoyed the courtyard in La Merced as well as the crypt area with original paintings but we were disappointed that many of the rooms were closed (probably our fault, we came 45 minutes before closing). We did get lucky and were serenaded by the local elementary school band practicing top hits like "Superman" and "Spiderman, Spiderman".
The Qorikancha. or Temple of the Sun, forms the base of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo (entrance fee 20 soles). It means golden courtyard in Quechua because in Incan times it was quite literally covered in gold. It was used during religious rituals as well as an observatory for celestial events. Today all that exists is the exquisite stonework, the Spaniards stole the gold during the conquest. It also contains the Inca's smallest mistake which was expertly patched (see photo).
Set high on a hill just above Cusco lies Saqsaywaman (entrance for all of the Sacred Valley ruins are covered by the Boleto Turistico pass - 120 soles/$40). With its wonderful views, Saqsaywaman is the largest of the four clustered near Cusco. It is famous for the largest Incan stone (see photo below). Don't miss a climb up the hill for stunning views of Cusco below.
Qenco is a small ruin located quite close to Sawsaywaman. In Incan it means zigzag. It's a limestone rock full of niches, steps and symbolic carvings. It also contains a stone sacrificial altar! The altar was once used for human sacrifices and the stone is extremely smooth from all the scrubbing!
We stopped quickly outside of Pukapukara, not going in but just snapping a photo from the outside. Pukapukara means red fort but it supposedly was used as a hunting lodge or a stopping point for travelers.
Tambomachay is the region's ceremonial bath which still channels fresh spring water. Built during Inca times, they still do not know where the spring actually begins. The belief is that if you drink the water you will experience eternal youth. Naturally we filled up a full bottle :-)
The most famous stone in Cusco is this 12 sided stone which is part of the original Incan wall. I'm not sure why it's so famous, the Incas used stones that contained 36-48 sides and they can be found in many of the temples (Qorikancha, Saqsaywaman & Machu Picchu) but beside this stone there are a number of little fly by night shops and a man that dresses in traditional Incan garb posing for pictures...perhaps this has helped improve its popularity.
The Museo Inka contained a nice collection of Incan ruins including lots of gold work, pottery and textiles. Sadly, like everything else in Peru photography was off limits but they did have this nifty little sign to let you know. Instead of listening, I whipped out my camera to capture it. All I could think was, why are they naked?
We also took in a folk show the Cusco Cultural Center...normally I like this sort of thing but I wasn't impressed...I'm glad it was free (included in the Boleto Turistico - 125 soles - $40).
That concludes our visit to Cusco! From here we headed into the Sacred Valley of the Incas!