Cusco, the mystical centre of the famous Inca empire. Over 3000m above sea level and the departure point for Machu Picchu. It’s a world away from Lima, what with the altitude and mountain valley setting, colonial streets and the typical dress of the Quechua women.
I’d decided to head all the way out to Cusco from Lima and then to stop at other places on the way back round. Thus I took a 22-hour bus ride with Civa (90/S – approximately 3 Soles for every US dollar and 4 per British Pound) from their terminal near the football stadium (all bus companies in Lima have their own mini-terminal rather than there being a big one for all of them) and luckily ended up on one of the front seats upstairs, so no one was reclining their chair into my legs. Their service, much like other companies, was good, with comfortable chairs, dinner and breakfast included and TV screens showing a plethora of films, including Southpaw for the first of about six times during bus journeys in Peru. The first two thirds of the journey was fine, as the bus pretty much follows the Pan-American Highway down the pacific coast and through flat desert, but when climbing the Andes, there are incessant curves and sharp braking, meaning that you can barely sleep and start to feel a little queasy. When breakfast was served, I don’t think anybody ate it, and when the bus stopped for the first time, after about 18 hours, everybody dived off the bus either to go to the bathroom, vomit or simply get some air. Luckily I managed to keep control of my stomach for the whole journey, but I don’t know how much longer I could have lasted. I wondered whether I should have taken a flight of just two hours, but figured paying more than three or four times the bus fare wasn’t worth it financially. And backpackers don’t take planes!
I’d bumped into a couple of fellow tourists on the stop and we agreed to jump in a taxi together to get to the centre of Cusco. The first bandit we asked wanted 15/S for the 5-minute ride, but as we’d done our research on prices before, we politely said no. The second taxi driver, breaking all the rules of taxi driverdom charged us the correct price of 6/S and off we went.
Cusco could be termed as sprawling, such is the way the houses are spread out over the hillside. Women wear their traditional dress and cart baby llamas dressed in colourful wools around the main square to entice tourists to take photos with them. The city is very touristy, indeed it is the most visited city in Peru, owing to its proximity to Machu Picchu, and there are hordes of foreigners wandering around among the locals. The temperature is warm during the day but quickly drops when the sun goes in. For the most part, the centre is flat, and any climbing may only be need done to access certain residential areas or to get a panoramic view of the city. Due to the narrow streets, there is quite a lot of traffic, but to combat this there are also lots of traffic police, for the most part women, apparently a local initiative.
Where to stay
I stayed in Kokopelli Hostel (38/S), of which there are several in Peru. They are spacious and clean, and have ample places to lounge about as well as a decent bar area. They aren’t particularly party hostels, so you’ll be able to sleep fine, and another advantage included having unlimited coca tea available, very necessary if you’ve climbed to a high altitude from a low one quickly. Coca leaves can be used to make cocaine when combined with other chemicals, but consuming the natural leaf is perfectly legal in Peru and other Andean countries, and you might also come across coca chocolate, coca sweets and coca-flavoured alcohol. Speaking of which, I stayed dry in Cusco, and tanked up on water and coca tea, as I was desperate to avoid altitude sickness, which had ravaged me years previous in La Paz, Bolivia.
Where to eat
I felt the altitude slightly on my first day, but it didn’t adversely affect me as I’d anticipated. Slightly after arriving, I wandered over to the local market, where indeed the locals tend to eat and you can procure a set meal of soup, main and a drink for a tidy sum of 5/S, a pittance. It is often cheaper to eat out in Peru than buy your ingredients and make your own food, so I was happy not to have to cook for myself. During my stay in Cusco, I sampled arroz chaufa (rice mixed with vegetables and ginger), aji de gallina (comparable to chicken curry in texture and flavour but with Peruvian seasoning) and lomo saltado (strips of beef tossed together with chips, rice, red pepper and huge chunks of onion) for this price. Fruit juices, aimed more at tourists than locals, were more expensive than the meal itself, at between 5 and 8/S depending on what you got. I tried Lucuma, a fruit which is yellow inside and has a distinct sweet taste, with pineapple and I was pleased with my choice as well as the pleasant conversation with Shirley, the stallholder.
How to get a good-priced tour
Now, there are tonnes of tourist agencies dotted around Cusco, most of them concentrated near the Plaza de Armas (central square) as well as people hawking for tourists in the streets. There are a range of excursions to choose from in Cusco, including quad-biking, a trip to the Rainbow Mountain and some mountain climbing, but my objective was to find a trekking package to Machu Picchu for a good price. The famous Inca Trail, named so because the majority of the route was used by Incas in bygone eras, can only be booked way in advance and you often need to shell out upwards of 500 USD for the privilege. The alternative therefore is the Salkantay Trail, a different route, not as authentic as the Inca one, but still taking in original paths as well as others created for tourism. I’d researched this and decided I wanted to do the 4-night/5-day version and had noted that prices were in the region of 200-300USD online. Some other tourists I met had booked online and had paid this price and more, but I knew that on the ground and with many agencies vying for your custom, a bargain could be got.
I went to several agencies and asked for details and prices, and found that most of them basically offered the same deal: a guide, food, tents, donkeys to carry your bags (with a donkey ranger), transport to and from the trek starting point and entrance to Machu Picchu itself. Going to four or five agencies was enough to give me an idea of prices and they are fully aware that tourists are looking for a good deal, so if you rock up with pen and notepad in hand, they know that you’re comparing.
In the end, I happened upon Goyo Tours (Calle Suecia to the left of the main cathedral in Plaza de Armas) and went with them because the guy in the agency gave me a good vibe and he seemed genuine. Also, as opposed to the other agencies, he offered me the tour with the option of taking train or bus on the way back into Cusco. If you take the bus back, you save between 50 and 60USD, though there is a little more walking involved. I figured that it wasn’t worth the extra cost paying for a train, and I could stick an extra three hour’s walk along train tracks with such a saving in mind. In total, the whole thing set me back 190USD, including a sleeping bag, which you usually have to rent, but less the tips that groups tend to give at the end of the walk to the guides, cooks and donkey ranger.
What to do in Cusco
Wandering around Cusco is pleasant, as most of the architecture is colonial and protected by heritage laws. The cathedral is supposedly worth a visit, but I baulked at what I recall being a 20/s entrance fee, whereas religious buildings don’t usually charge.
Having spent the first day looking around on foot, the following day I decided to rent a bicycle so as to ride to the top of the city and get a panoramic view from their Cristo Rey statue. However, it turned out to be quite difficult to find one; most agencies hired out motorbikes, but not bicycles, yet in the end I found one for a rather hefty price of 50/S.
The way up was quite steep and because of the altitude I was literally puffing all the way up, perhaps not the best thing to do before a 5-day hike. Not knowing where the uphill part would ever end, I opted to take a rest mere metres from the summit, and was caught up by a Uruguayan girl on a bicycle who had wheeled it most of the way up from Montevideo over the past few months. Needless to say, she burned past me on the ascent, but I ended up bumping into her later. If you follow the path all the way round and keep right, you’ll end up at the Cristo statue, but if you miss the turning, you’ll be going deep into the Andes, which I thankfully realised shortly after going straight ahead rather than right. The statue site offers a wonderful view of the whole city and I stopped for a while to rest and take pictures. Nearby is the Saqsaywaman archaeological site, but it was very expensive, so I just looked at it from the outside. The ride down the hill was great and I picked up rather a lot of speed and had that ‘wind in your face’ feeling.
When I got back from Machu Picchu I also took in the Choco Museum, which is free entry and well worth a visit. You also get a free tour and get to sample cocoa and chocolate at their various stages of production, as well as chocolate liquors and creams. One can also pay extra to take part in a chocolate-making workshop, which I didn’t do, though their ‘free’ marketing ploy did work as I ended up buying some coca-flavoured chocolate and drank a hot chocolate too, which came in the form of melted chocolate, hot milk, honey and chilli pepper, which I had to mix together myself.
Later that evening I got a taxi to the bus terminal and was charged a very honest 3.50/S. From there I took a bus for 50/S with a company whose name I can’t remember to Puerto Maldonado, a city perched on the edge of the Amazon jungle.
Most people’s reasons for going to Cusco, including mine, is to get to Machu Picchu, Peru’s crown jewel. However, spending a few days in the Inca capital is worth it, not only to become accustomed to the altitude and lack of oxygen, but to check out the city too. Despite being mega-touristy and having a McDonalds and Irish pub just off the main square, the city retains a certain charm with its narrow winding streets and colonial architecture.
I had a few days to relax and get excited about going to one of the seven wonders of the world via a 5-day trek, which would be completely worth it.