Stepping out of the sleepy Cusco airport into the morning Peruvian sun, it wasn’t the weather or the imposing mountains surrounding the city which struck me first, but the orchestra of tanned grinning faces rapping along to the same rap. It was repetitive and had few words.
“Taxi, taxi, taxi amigo!”
I selected one at random, an older gentleman with deep lines etched across his welcoming face and haggled him down from 20 soles to 15 for a ride to the centre of Cusco, a reasonable price for the length of the journey.
What is the altitude of this city?
Antonio, my warm-faced taxi driver chatted excitedly with me all the way to my accommodation. I asked him our current altitude. “3,400 meters” was the response.
The words were meaningless until I arrived at my accommodation and began the mammoth task of scaling 3 flights of stairs with my backpack. I struggled, wheezed and spluttered my way up three flights of stairs before collapsing in a gasping pile at the top.
At this altitude, the usually mundane task of breathing becomes something conscious and focussed. It will take some time to acclimatise to, no matter how fit and strong you are. If you can stomach the taste of Cocoa leaves, chewing them will help but the harsh bitter taste left me spitting and grabbing for water. I learnt to manage the altitude with the more tolerable coca tea and a greatly reduced walking pace with plenty of rest stops to admire the impressive blend of Incan and Spanish architecture.
Accommodation is much cheaper outside the centre and taxis cost next to nothing
My accommodation was in the residential district of Ucchullo. While it lacked the charm of the winding streets of San Blas or the elegance and beauty of the area around Plaza de Armas, I got a lot more for my money.
I was able to get a well-furnished, modern double room with a private bathroom for US$13 a night, the same price as a bed in a hostel in the trendy central areas. It was a 20-minute walk to the centre, or a 5-minute, white-knuckle taxi ride at just US$2.
Cusqueñan Guinea-pig is both tasty and a little macabre.
One of my principal reasons for heading to Peru was for the food. Cusco certainly doesn’t disappoint. My first destination was San Pedro market. Huge flower stalls engulf their meek Peruvian vendors in a tomb of colour before it opens up into a bustling gastro-market with traditional Peruvian dishes on offer. A two-course meal of soup and chicken or fried fish will cost just 5 soles (US$1.50) and the bench seating means you’ll be rubbing shoulders with locals grabbing a quick bite on their lunch break.
For something quieter in the evenings, we checked out Panchapapa on Plaza San Blas. It delivered quality Peruvian dishes in a beautiful setting of a colonial open-air courtyard.
I gathered up the courage and on the following day, took the plunge and ordered the Cusqueñan delicacy of roasted guinea pig, in Sumaqcha restaurant on Suecia Road, just off the main square. My guinea-pig, named Panchito by my smiling waiter, came complete with a tiny Peruvian hat on, to add a touch of dark comedy to our macabre lunchtime spectacle. Panchito’s crispy skin certainly went down well, and the meat itself wasn’t dissimilar to chicken, with a slightly more gamey aftertaste.
Cusco is more than just a base from which to see Machu Picchu
While Cusco makes a great base to explore from, it also has so much more to offer. Exploring the artisanal workshops tucked away in the cobbled San Blas streets was an afternoon well spent, and the trip to the surrounding towns in the Sacred Valley shouldn’t be missed. The ruins on the north of the city at Saqsaywaman are worth the lung-workout required to get there for the views of the city alone, but the ruins themselves are also a marvel of Incan engineering. The free tour of the chocolate museum on Calle Garcilaso allowed us to indulge in a guilty pleasure and was a delight for all the senses.
The nearby Machu Picchu ruins bring people to the city, but it was the electric atmosphere of Cusco that left the lasting impression on me.