Ever been to a place that literally takes your breath away? That’s Cusco for me. But after it challenged me to chase and catch my breath every single day (altitude sickness is real!), it charmed me endlessly.
I had the chance to arrive in Cusco twice on my trip. One was from a morning flight from Lima to Cusco. I watched the mountain snow peaks from my window imposing its regal presence and the clouds opening up like a curtain to reveal Cusco. And then the second one was an evening ride from Ollantaytambo. I witnessed the stars, millions of them, twinkling so clear and so near (?). Well I was 11,000 ft nearer, I thought. And so I got excited in the only tour we booked in Cusco. The Planetarium. A family-run business who wants to share their love and knowledge of Inca Astronomy that defined their way of life. It will also challenge us on how we view the universe today as we hardly ever look up and gaze. But surely the sky hundreds of years ago was totally different today. If I was already amazed by the stars I saw that night, what more back then. I try to comprehend that for Incas, the heavens were their eternal guide and I try to imagine the size and vastness of the universe where we all belong. The tour ended with actual star gazing. We were not blessed with the clearest skies but we’re fortunate to see the planets Venus and Mars and the constellations Pegasus and Llama. I wonder what the Incans have been fortunate to witness back then! And I thank the Valencia Family for cultivating this knowledge and sharing it with us.
So for the rest of our stay, we wander the streets of Cusco and surprise ourselves whatever we can discover. Here are our observations and favorite discoveries:
Cusco is absolutely a walking destination but altitude will make you feel tired a lot easily (it will make you feel you’re not living a healthy and active life haha). So when it’s time to head back to our place of stay, we always take a cab. There’s no Uber, bus and train around. Their cabs do not have a meter so set the price before getting in. It should not be more than S/.4 except for Sacsayhuaman (S/.15 per way) and airport (S/.10) which are a little far off the center. It may come a shock that you’ll meet stray dogs, hundreds of them, as you go around. But they are not bothersome at all.
PLACE TO STAY
We stayed in an Airbnb near the San Blas Area. As long as it’s walking distance to their Plaza de Armas, it should be fine as it gives you the opportunity to explore the streets teeming with local shops, cafes and delis. If you’re going on a winter time, then a heater must be a consideration. Thick wool was enough on a summer night.
Apart from The Planetarium Cusco tour, there is another interesting tour we could have signed up for if we had longer time. It’s the Rainbow Mountain Tour. It will take the whole day and all of your energy for this tour but am sure it’s all worth it. You get a chance to see a unique landscape. There’s a lot of trekking and one must be fully acclimatized and prepared (rested and hydrated) to take this. There are cases of throwing up and needing oxygen. While it does feel an accomplishment and will merit over 100 likes in your social media, take the tips seriously.
Pizza parlors are aplenty! They don’t make great pastas and their pizzas are considerable. That is if you’re not up for their local meats like us! Because I was on a vegetarian mode the whole trip and my fiancé is a vegetarian (but eats fish only), we were delighted to have so many options. Quinoa is a staple here. Our favorite vegetarian places are Kintaro (Japanese restaurant we just chanced upon), Green point (a popular vegetarian cafe) and Jack’s Café (an old favorite in Cusco!). I wish we had more days to try the other ones!
Good news is VISA is widely acceptable in ALL shops and even in markets that to think about our baggage allowance and only choose what we could carry was a pain. There were so many beautiful handicrafts and home wares I wish I had bought. From blankets, bags, head dress, scarves to kitchenware, I wanted them all. What also make a great pasalubong is chocolate! Peru is part of the Top 10 nations that produce the largest crop of cocoa beans. So thank you for making Earth a sweet place to stay in 🙂
WHAT NOT TO MISS
It’s hard not to miss Plaza de Armas, the heart of Cusco where the beautiful and grandiose Cusco Cathedral stands. It is safe to say that this is the most touristy part and you can expect the prices from restaurants and shops to be higher. In here as well where locals peddle tours, massage, shoe shine and imaginable souvenirs. Even if we got ripped off by the shoe shiner (charged to experience!), it’s beautiful nonetheless. If you want a more laid back and quiet place for dining, shopping and just wandering, San Blas is a perfect choice. I love, love this side of Cusco! We chanced upon the weekend market, discovered quaint shops, bookstores, vegan delis and even a yoga studio where we practiced one morning. We got the chance to talk to the owners, learn stories and got more tips. It’s rather quintessential than the busy center. On our last day, we intently got up earlier and started going while the city was asleep, the stores were closed, very few people (almost none) were up and about. We sat by the bench, listened to the music echoing from a nearby church and enjoyed the neighborhood to ourselves. And then of course, there is also the historical Sacsayhuaman which lies in the north of the formal Inca capital. You’ll see another amazing Incan stonework here.
And despite as tourist hub, Cusco has retained its authenticity and even simplicity. I love how proud they are of their work, of their history; how they carry on with their lives. I love the shared values I sense growing here, from living sustainably and practicing compassion to people and to universe. It’s no wonder, that 5 months later, I am still charmed by it 🙂