Cuzco – An Easy Introduction to Peru (and South America)

For a brief video report on Cuzco, visit my YouTube channel.

Cuzco is South America in microcosm: it gives you a dose of all that’s great (and a little that’s not so great), but not such a large dose that you OD. It’s a fantastic city with a great mix of culture, history, archeology, markets, food and atmosphere.
The excitement starts on the flight in. Cuzco’s tucked into a valley at 11,000 feet and we flew in from Lima (sea level), so the plane climbed to a few thousand feet above the snow-capped peaks of the Andes and then hung there until Cuzco hove into view. I saw an airport to our left, surrounded by the city, and I figured we were heading somewhere else: I couldn’t imagine how we could turn sharply enough to reach it. Then I noticed we were very close to the surrounding hills as the pilot skillfully guided us down a parallel valley and then, Holy Cow!, he turned the plane on its side to drop us down on the same runway I’d just seen. It was an amazing landing.

Leaving the airport brought the usual South American mix of wild traffic, pungent diesel fumes, people rushing about (and selling everything anywhere), combis (small and incredibly crowded vans that form an unofficial transit system) pulling over and drivers calling out their destinations as people piled aboard, school children in uniform, buildings that were either coming down or going up (it’s hard to tell sometimes).

But after the boxing match of driving through the outer parts of the city, we were suddenly in the historic center. The smell of exhaust fell away. It became much quieter. The wide streets (with their edgings of dirt and patchy grass) were replaced by extremely narrow cobblestone streets squeezed between whitewashed buildings. (And by “extremely narrow,” I mean they only fit one car and when a car passes, pedestrians have to turn sideways – no exaggeration. It’s not as dangerous as it sounds: it’s so narrow that no one drives much over 10 miles an hour. Oh, and I should mention that just because they only fit one car doesn’t mean they’re one-way: most allow traffic in both directions, which leads to interesting puzzles when cars come in both directions, requiring one group to back up and/or pull into another street until traffic has passed, just like the game Rush Hour.) Ancient Incan walls, lovely squares and exquisite detailed cathedrals appeared.

Our hostel was in San Blas, the quiet artist quarter that’s tucked up the side of the hills above the city center. Manuel, our host, just opened Sunset House Hostel last year and it’s a lovely oasis with clean, quiet rooms, and a nice kitchen and lounge. He’s working through some hot water issues, but has great plans for the place and I’m sure it’ll be a prime Cuzco spot very soon. I’d certainly recommend staying in San Blas above the rest of the city, just for the peace and quiet. It does leave you with an uphill walk, which is a little tough when you’re adjusting to the altitude, but good for the soul in the end, especially as it allows you to experience one of the great joys of Cuzco: getting lost in the warren of narrow streets.

Food and Drink

Having left Lima at the crack of dawn, we hadn’t had breakfast so once we settled into the hostel, we immediately set out to explore, with food our first priority. We shortly discovered Cicciolina, which quickly became our favorite with its lovely ambience, fresh and varied local foods, and great service. It is toward the upper end of Cuzco dining, but that’s still extremely reasonable: a very full brunch was $9 per person. The amazing dinner that we had on our last night (including wine, beer, appetizers, main course and dessert) was $44 each.

Cicciolina is just one of many food options. On the other end of the scale, we found a hole-in-the-wall place that offered a prix fixe menu of basic but tasty appetizer, entrée, and dessert for only 10 sucres (under $4). Unfortunately I never wrote down the name! In between, you have dozens of places offering all types of cuisines, including the big Andean specialties: cuy (guinea pig), alpaca and more types of potatoes than you’ve ever seen. The verdict? Guinea pig is edible but very fiddly (make sure you try it at a good place), alpaca is as tough as the environment in which these critters live, and the potatoes vary wildly in terms of textures and tastes.

There are several pubs along Plaza de Armas that are fun, especially Norton’s Rat with its great narrow balconies overlooking the plaza. The local beers are the basic pilsners you’ll find everywhere in the world outside of the major beer producing countries. Serviceable but not too exciting. Finding good coffee can be tough but they are several cafes that do a nice job, including the aforementioned Cicciolina and one (I can’t remember the name) along Portal Espinar (one block over from Plaza de Armas). And make sure you have some coca tea, if only to help with the altitude.
Sights and Sounds
The range of things to do in Cuzco is extraordinary. We were there for almost five full days over three weekends and there were still many things we didn’t see or do. And we totally skipped the nightlife, which is apparently a pretty happening scene.
You can spend a full day simply wandering around the city, starting up in San Blas, heading down into the historic center and then spreading out into the surrounding streets, slowly working your way around with no real destination in mind. While the historic center is superb with its Incan walls, narrow streets and atmosphere, I enjoyed equally the rest of the city: the hustle and bustle, the unexpected courtyards, the narrow stores, the native woman in bright clothing with babies, produce and/or other good lashed to their backs with colorful blankets, and the wall-to-wall markets.
El Baratillo market was a highlight, if a somewhat claustrophobic one. We could see the market on a street running uphill that was wall-to-wall with dozens of overlapping blue shelters, but we didn’t realize how crowded it was until we stepped under the tarps. Being much taller than the average Peruvian, I had to duck through the whole thing, while simultaneously trying not to stumble on cracked pavement and potholes, or walk through someone’s display. If there’s something that human beings grow, make, fix or find that isn’t available at this market, I’d be shocked. It also helped explained why Cuzco (and Peru in general) is so clean: they reuse absolutely everything. We’d see a display of brand-new hardware, compact fluorescent lightbulbs, or furniture right next to completely random piles of metal junk, battered household goods, and books.
Archeological and historic sites are everywhere. We toured the main cathedral on Plaza de Armas (which is so opulent, sprawling and spectacular inside that you can’t help but wonder “Wouldn’t some of that money been more useful feeding or clothing people instead?”) as well as Iglesias Santo Domingo, which is built on and around the former Incan site of Qorikancha. Seeing how the two structures are blended together tells you more about the history of the Spanish conquest of South America than any number of books or films.
The archeological highlight is, without doubt, Sacsayhuaman (which inevitably comes out of tourists’ mouths, including our own, as “Sexy Woman”). While Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire and contained numerous palaces, including the palace of the Inca himself, this huge structure stood above the city and seems to have served as a fortress and a ceremonial site. While much of it was taken apart by the Spanish to build their homes and churches in Cuzco (you can’t blame them for taking advantage of the impressive Incan stonework: the enormous walls were constructed without mortar and with no space at all between the stones), there are still enough walls, staircases and other random stonework to leave a strong impression.
We also enjoyed the Museo Inka, which covers not just the Inca empire but the many pre-Incan civilizations. Its display cases are full of antiquities from all these eras and there are a number of reasonably well done displays explaining various aspects of Incan customs, religion, and social life.
Finally, the ChocoMuseo, although there very much to sell stuff, is quite interesting with a short but well done series of displays on cacao and how Peru is increasing its production and export of this product. Delicious traditional Andean chocolate drinks!

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