After two long days and nights of bus journeying coming from Sucre, Bolivia, we found ourselves bleary-eyed and half awake at 4am at the bus station in Cusco, Peru. We quickly gave up any illusions of money-saving independence and asked one of the many touts in the bus station what he had available for cheap hotels. We knew we’d be paying a commission, and at that point didn’t care; we needed a room badly. After bitter negotiations with a taxi driver who acted like we were stealing his last cent by talking him down to a previously suggested price, the man drove us less than two minutes to our hotel, where I begrudgingly paid him his still-inflated fee and we finally got some sleep. Sounds fun, right? It is, kind of…
Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire and today is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Peru. Part of the attraction is that it’s the gateway to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, but Cusco stands up as a wonderful place to visit on its own. It’s packed with history from a whole series of cultures, most notably the Incas and the colonial Spanish, both of whom considered it a very important city and whose architectural styles combined to make a very interesting place. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s Cusco was already a large and prosperous city, and the conquering Spaniards proceeded to demolish much of it and rebuild in their own style. The Inca were amazing architects and stone-workers, though, so many of the existing walls were left in place and reused as bases and foundations for the new buildings. Many have survived repeated earthquakes over the centuries and remain to this day, and it’s pretty cool to see such giant rocks fitted so precisely together, all somehow done without modern machinery.
Cusco’s historic center is downright beautiful, filled with stunning architecture and serene plazas. It’s so pretty it almost seems cliché, and is the kind of place you can wander randomly for days and still chance upon a little fountain or square you didn’t know existed. There’s tons of shopping for artisan goods, some of it at decent prices, good restaurants for all tastes and budgets, and a variety of neighborhoods that range from glitzy to bohemian to sketchy. It is very touristy some areas and there are plenty of dottering oldies that would make an REI salesman drool, but it’s a fairly large town and never felt overrun to us. With so many tourists it’s no surprise that Cusco is more expensive than most other towns we visited in Peru (other than Lima), but it wasn’t too bad and we liked it a lot. The hotel we ended up at was about $20 US per night with free breakfast, and came complete with the ugliest mostly hairless dog we’ve ever seen. It had a few tufts of hair in random places and we thought it had some kind of disease, but someone later told us this is a prized Peruvian breed and to never speak badly of them to a local. We were a twenty minute walk outside the center of town which was a little annoying sometimes, but right next to a local market where meals were cheap and Denae finally found the nice wool cowboy hat she’d been looking searching so long for.
We spent our time wandering through town checking out all the great architecture, sampling the food options and doing some shopping. Probably the most interesting food we ate was a simple boiled ear of corn, but this wasn’t the typical sweet corn you get where we’re from in the US. Here the kernels are giant, almost fingertip sized, and have an almost potato-like taste and texture. One ear of corn is a true meal, and it helped me better understand the way corn was such a cornerstone of the indigenous diet throughout the Americas. There are some interesting museums in town and we went to most of them, thanks to the “Tourist Ticket” that Cusco sells. This rather annoying system forces tourists to buy one ticket (pretty expensive at about $45 US each) good for a bunch of different attractions in Cusco and the surrounding area. To get the value out of it you really need to visit most of the places, which turned out okay for us as they were mostly worthwhile, but I still prefer to be able to pick and choose individually what I want to pay to see.
One of the highlights of Cusco is Sacsayhuaman (pronounced similarly to and near-universally remembered as “sexy woman”), an old Incan walled fortress on a hill overlooking town. The walls are made using the Inca’s characteristic architectural style: rocks shaped and fitted together with incredible precision, stacked together without mortar in such a way that they’ve endured for hundreds of years. The largest blocks are estimated to weigh up to a mind-boggling 200 tons each. The history here and throughout Cusco is a big part of what makes it such an incredible place. You can really see and feel the presence of the old cultures in a way that’s more obvious than most other places.
Arguably the best part of visiting Cusco is the ability to use it as a base and bus around the surrounding area, checking out the many attractions nearby. We took full advantage of this, but in the interest of organization we’ll post these day trips separately.