After a turbulent red-eye flight from Miami to Lima, we boarded our early morning TACA flight from Lima to Cusco. Our Airbus quickly ascended over the low cloud cover, and we were met with breathtaking views for the duration of the hour-long flight. An endless chain of dark, craggy peaks blanketed in crisp, white snow loomed below us as we traversed the serrated spine of the Peruvian Andes. Entranced by the soothing sights from my window, Cusco came into sight rather abruptly. Completely encased by the surrounding peaks, it looked as if the city sat inside a large mixing bowl. What followed was quite easily the most terrifying landing I’ve ever had… and as a nervous flier, I think one of my greatest achievements to this day is not wetting my pants during the descent. It felt as if we dropped like a stone as we made a sharp bank to the left, and I kept my eyes fixed out my tiny porthole. The final 5–7 minutes were entirely nerve-wracking and I know I was not alone in this feeling, given the gasps and colorful words exiting the mouths of nearby passengers. When we finally touched down, the aircraft skidded to a sudden stop. I’m not sure if we were still on the runway or the taxiway at this point, as the jet bridge was suddenly visible through the window. Regardless, all that mattered is that we had stopped safely and that I could exit the plane, albeit drenched from head to toe in sweat.
We hopped in a cab to head for our pre-hike briefing at Pachamama Explorers, bringing with us fifty pounds of school supplies for our tour company’s community outreach program, the Pachamama Children’s Organization. The group helps to rebuild schoolhouses and provides supplies in rural areas. Additionally, they host a Christmas chocolatada for impoverished kids in villages outside of Cusco, where children line up to receive a cup of hot chocolate, a little cake, and a toy.
After finally arriving at the Andenes al Cielo, a charming hotel in the historic San Blas district, we were greeted with a cup of coca tea (mate de coca). Raw coca leaves are regularly used in the high Andes regions, where they are steeped and drunk as tea or, more commonly, are wadded up and chewed. The alkaloids provide a mild stimulant similar to caffeine, and it’s suggested that this can help prevent altitude sickness.
Following our traditional tea, we headed off to explore the historic capital of the Incan Empire. Situated 11,200 feet above sea level in southeastern Peru, Cusco was one of the most important urban centers for the Inca from the 13th to 16th centuries, until the Spanish conquest. The architectural heritage of the colonial city was incredibly well-preserved. The majority of the small buildings had the white-washed façades and terra cotta roofs, characteristic of the Hispanic influence. Walking the stone streets of San Blas, we came to la calle Hatunrumiyoc, where we saw the famed 12-sided stone – the prominent feature of part of an original Incan palace wall. The stonework was incredible; each stone fit together so precisely (without mortar) that not even a credit card could fit between the seams.
From there, we walked a couple of blocks to the Plaza de Armas. Walking paths partitioned the meticulously-manicured central square, which was further adorned with a 19th century fountain. On the northeast corner, the Cusco Cathedral towered above the square. The Gothic-Renaissance church, built in 1539, had a grand, stone staircase leading to the street below. Neighboring the city’s main church, on the southeast side of the square, stood La Iglesia de la compañía de Jesus (the Jesuit church), an incredibly ornate, Baroque cathedral. Built in the late 16th century, it was nearly destroyed in a 1650 earthquake, and rebuilding the grand cathedral took more than 30 years. Both cathedrals were built on sites where important Inca palaces once stood.
We also made a stop at the Choco Museo, which overlooked the Plaza Regocijo. Here, we enjoyed a variety of handmade Peruvian chocolate treats, made by local chocolate artisans from local cacao. Stephan selected a hot chocolate with cloves and cinnamon bark, while I sipped on cocoa tea, steeped with the husks of the cacao beans. We also sampled some delicious cherimoya truffles and different chocolates flavored with coconut, aji, local coffee beans, coca, and salt from the nearby Maras salt terraces.
The rest of our time was spent wandering the historic center, passing by the Arco Santa Clara and more elaborate churches at nearly every corner, including Iglesia San Francisco, Iglesia Santa Clara, and Iglesia San Pedro. We eventually made our way to the mercado central (San Pedro market), the sprawling, open-air market where locals do their daily shopping. It was incredible to see all of the wares – fresh meats, a dozen varieties of potato, huge bags filled with assorted grains, an amazing display of fresh fruits and vegetables, and handmade textiles, crafts, and artwork. We stopped at a vendor who was making fresh smoothies from all of the delicious fruit, and each ordered one. We watched with a bit of trepidation as the blender and glassware were dunked in a bucket of standing water and then dried haphazardly with a rag. But, we figured that’s what vaccines and Pepto-Bismol were for, and in the end, our smoothies were absolutely amazing!
We had three evenings in Cusco, which we spent tasting some classic local fare. One evening we dined at the MAP Café, a small glass cube in the Museo de Arte Precolombiano (pre-Columbian art museum). Here, Stephan was able to try cuy (guinea pig), a traditional regional entrée. While he did not particularly care for the dish, I would highly recommend the ‘beso de lúcuma’ (lúcuma kiss). Made with chocolate & lúcuma, a fruit native to the Andean valleys, the dessert featured the fruit in five applications, and included a chocolate-coffee ice cream.
On the northwest corner of the Plaza de Armas, across from La Compañía, we enjoyed a great meal at Inka Grill. Stephan thoroughly enjoyed his lomo saltado, a stir-fry of beef, onions, tomato and yellow peppers served with rice and fried potatoes – one of Peru’s most beloved dishes. Again, I was a big fan of the dessert! I had the crujiente ponderaciones, an extremely thin, crispy fried dough spiral paired with a guanabana sauce. I had previously tried fresh guanabana fruit and juice in Ecuador and, I have to say, it’s probably my favorite South American flavor… plus, it reminds me of the Muppets. How can you possibly go wrong?
Our final meal in Cusco, after returning from our Salkantay trek, was probably our best indulgence in the city. On this night we chose to dine at Limo, a fabulous restaurant beside the Cusco Cathedral, set on the second floor of a charming colonial house, with grand windows overlooking the Plaza de Armas. Stephan said he had one of his most favorite meals of all time here – a grilled alpaca steak with rosemary and port wine over quinoa. As for me (big shocker here), I loved the dessert. We tried a tasty little chocolate tart with a passion fruit compote, and alfajores (a traditional South American cookie) served with flambéed pineapple and quince. We also were able to try some traditional Peruvian drinks with our cuisine, something we looked forward to but abstained from prior to the hike, in an effort to further ensure no ill effects of the altitude. Stephan ordered Peru’s national drink, the pisco sour, made with pisco (a grape brandy), lime juice, egg whites, and bitters, while I tried a chilcano, a blend of pisco, lime juice, and ginger ale. Both were delicious, and we tremendously enjoyed our last evening in Cusco.
Walking around the quaint, stone alleyways of the historic center each night was very peaceful, and we felt very safe navigating the city independently. The Plaza de Armas was exceptionally beautiful after dark – the street lamps were orbs of warm, yellow light, the fountain in the square’s center glowed from carefully-placed uplighting, and spotlights illuminated the intricate designs on the cathedrals. We grabbed a spot on the cathedral staircase after our meals to take in the inviting scenery.
Some of the most impressive ruins, the complex of Sacsayhuaman is a series of ancient Incan walls overlooking Cusco from a slope at the northern edge of the city (12,000 feet above sea level). Interestingly, recent archeological evidence suggests that portions of the site were actually initially built by the Killke, an indigenous group that occupied the area from A.D. 900 to 1200, preceding the Incas’ arrival. The Incan civilization, however, completed construction of the site, and were responsible for the incredible stonemasonry work that stands today. While the design of the site resembles a walled fortress, some believe that Sacsayhuaman served as a temple or royal sanctuary. Most likely the complex had both military and religious significance, according to archeologists.
Construction took upwards of 20,000 men nearly a century to complete, and some of the enormous, hewn stones were transported from sites 15 to 20 miles away. The largest stones along the foundation’s base are estimated to weigh an astonishing 300 tons, and some rocks stand as tall as 11 feet.
We walked to the ruins from our hotel in the San Blas neighborhood. The roads leading to Sacsayhuaman were easily accessible from this location, and the walk up the series of alleyways and steep, stone steps took us about 20-25 minutes. At the entrance we purchased our boletos touristicos for about US$45/each. The price seemed high, but the tourist ticket is good for a number of historic sites throughout Cusco and the Sacred Valley (Sacsayhuaman, Ollantaytambo, Moray, Pisac), including some museums. We had decided to explore the site later in the afternoon, which provided a nice light, as the warm sun was a bit lower in the sky. I think we also missed some of the larger groups that venture up earlier in the day, which allowed us to better enjoy the serenity of the citadel. Roaming along the massive stone walls was incredible! It was mind-boggling to imagine these stones being moved so far and fit together with such precision (again, without mortar) – just an astounding engineering accomplishment.
After marveling at the Incan walls, we took a short walk up the adjoining hill to see the Cristo Blanco, a sculpture of Christ with his arms stretching out over the city of Cusco. The 26-foot statue was gifted to the Cusqueños for their hospitality after welcoming Palestinian refugees to the city in 1945. The views from the spot were fantastic, looking out over the sprawling city. The landscape was a sea of red roofs, punctuated by the giant cathedrals dominating the verdant Plaza de Armas. In the distance, the words, ‘viva el Peru glorioso’ were carved into the hillside, emphasizing the pride of the Peruvian culture.