Cusco - the ancient Inca capital

The fountain in the Plaza de Armas with the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in the background

I dosed off shortly after the plane took off from the airport in Puerto Maldonado. It had been a fun-filled four days in the Amazon region’s rainforest and I was a little tired. It’s a short flight to Cusco so I know I didn’t sleep for long.

Flying low through the mountain passes approaching Cusco

As I awoke, I noticed the snow-capped Andean mountains through the window. What a stunning sight! I almost felt like I could reach out and touch them – probably because we were flying between the mountains and not above them. It was such an incredible feeling. I thought to myself, "I hope we’re not going to run into any of them". No, that wouldn't happen. I’m sure the pilots know what they’re doing. After banking a few times to the right, we were descending and staying in between the mountains – the snow-capped peaks gave way to brown and barren hills. We appeared to be descending into the local valley with the pilot lining up the plane with the runway. As we descended further, I could feel the wind moving the plane around. It seemed like no big deal. Most flights incur turbulence as they descend. The ground was rising at a quicker pace now. The plane was still getting pushed from side to side. My grip tightened a little on the armrests. The airspeed seemed pretty fast at this point. Within seconds, the wheels touched down. Careening down the runway, the plane started to fishtail as it was trying to slow and come to a stop. Quickly, the plane seemed to get under control and we were slowly heading to the gate. With raised eyebrows, I looked across the aisle at my neighbor (someone I had met at the rainforest lodge) and we both had the OMG look on our face – like 'what just happened'. We chatted for a minute or so about the landing and then proceeded to deplane.

I’ve heard from other people that landing in Cusco can be a little challenging due to the valley the airport is located in. I found out, from a local tour guide, that a new international airport, located near the Sacred Valley town of Chinchero, has been approved for construction. It will accommodate larger planes, such as the Airbus 380, which the current airport cannot. It will be closer to Machu Picchu and will have an initial capacity of 5 million visitors per year (and eventually 8 million), more than double the 2 million visitors that Cusco can currently accommodate. The new Chinchero-Cusco International Airport will be located in a wide-open area where takeoffs and landings should be a little easier. I'm wondering what this will do to the local area. Chinchero seems like such a small town with locals trying to deal with the current level of visitors.

As I exited the terminal, I spotted the taxi driver who had been arranged, by the hotel, to meet me. After welcoming me to the city of Cusco, we headed to my hotel – the Tierra Viva Cusco San Blas. I had stayed in their Lima hotel and really liked it. Just outside the airport, the streets are wide and weren’t impacted much by the heavy traffic. As we got closer to the Barrio (neighborhood) de San Blas, the streets became much narrower with many accommodating just a single lane. As we entered the Plazoleta de San Blas, I noticed a beautiful old church on the right. All of a sudden, traffic came to a grinding halt. An intersection at the end of the plaza was such a tight turn for oncoming traffic, cars had to do a three point turn to make a right turn heading to the city center. Shortly, we were at the hotel.

The Tierra Viva Cusco San Blas hotel, with the flags over the front door, is on a very narrow street

While checking in, the staff offered me some coca tea – which I heard from a number of people helps ward off the effects of the high altitude. Cusco is situated more than 11K feet above sea level. I can’t remember being at such a high altitude previously so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The travel medical provider, I go to, provided a prescription for altitude sickness. Since she suggested I only take it if I needed it, I decided to wait to see how I handle the effects before taking it. After a couple cups of the coca tea and settling into my room, I went out to get a late lunch and explore the Plaza de Armas. It was during this initial walk of the city that I started to feel the effects of the high altitude especially since the San Blas neighborhood, only four blocks from the Plaza de Armas, is an uphill walk back. Even walking on level ground, I could feel the shortness of breath – any uphill climbs compounded the feeling. I felt like I was in the worst shape of my life as I stopped occasionally breathing deeply to catch my breath. A couple of times, I felt light-headed and needed to stop until the feeling went away. During the next few days, I would experience shortness of breath, slight headaches and chapped lips since the air was so dry.

I had only been in town a few hours; however, I really enjoyed the atmosphere here. I liked the narrow streets of my neighborhood. I felt very comfortable walking around. The chilly, dry air was a stark change from the heat and humidity of the rainforest.

Locals wear their centuries-old traditional clothing

I enjoyed seeing the colorful outfits of the Quechuan women - a mixture of styles from Pre-Spanish days to the Spanish Colonial peasant dress. Hats, or monteras, vary greatly with some wearing the bowler style hat, which was brought to the country by British railway workers in the 1920s. Colorful skirts, called polleras, are worn with many women wearing three to four of them in a graduated layer effect. Small, rectangular handwoven shoulder cloths, called lliclla, are fastened in the front with a decorative pin called a tupu. Some women use a k’eperina, a large rectangular cloth worn over the back and knotted in the front to securely carry children and goods. Sometimes, I wondered what was keeping the child from falling out. Sandals, called ajotas, are made from recycled truck tires. They last much longer than the typical sandal. The women definitely wear a lot of clothing.

I thought the Plaza de Armas was one of the most beautiful plazas I've ever seen. Colorful trees, bushes, plants and benches create a park-like setting in the middle of the plaza which is flanked by two enormous 16th century churches - the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and the Iglesia de la Campania de Jesus (the Church of the Society of Jesus). The late afternoon sun was hitting the plaza and churches. Along with a deep blue sky background, it created a postcard-like setting. It felt like a photographer's dream. I was taking photos from all different angles.

The Convent of Santo Domingo sits atop the Qurikancha

A few blocks away was the Qurikancha - the most important sanctuary of the Inca Empire because it was dedicated to the Sun God Inti. The Spanish colonists destroyed the temple and using it as a base built the Convent of Santo Domingo on top of it. The original Inca walls still remain inside.

Near my hotel is the Plazoleta de San Blas. The focal point of the plaza is the Templo de San Blas – the first Catholic Church in the city of Cusco. Shops border the small plaza with a long fountain at the back of it.

Many roads are narrow with just a single lane and two very narrow sidewalks on each side. It was sometimes a little uncomfortable as a car approached from behind while walking on the sidewalk. I kept hoping the driver wasn’t trying to pick up a dropped cellphone from the floor of the car. Two small cars could navigate past each other; however, they would have to use the single lane and both sidewalks. You would think these roads would be one-way. Some were; however, some were two-way. When two cars approached each other who could not pass, one would have to back up to their previous intersection, back into the cross street, wait for the other car to go past and then turn and proceed on.

One morning, after being picked up by a taxi, we made a right turn onto the street past the hotel. There was an oncoming car. I could see in the passenger side view mirror two cars behind us. I thought, ok buddy, it’s three vs one – back it up. I’m not sure what the rules of the road are. The oncoming vehicle got very close to our front end. So what happened? The three cars on our side all backed up one by one turning onto the adjoining street to let the one car pass. It was actually hilarious. This kind of stuff happened on more than one occasion. How would you ever figure this out if you were driving a rental car.

I ate at Pachapapa (meaning father earth) each night. The local Peruvian menu is simply awesome.

For dining, I only ate at one place – Pachapapa’s (which translates to "Father Earth"). It was right down the street from my hotel located in the Plazoleta de San Blas. I loved it from the moment I walked in and stood in the small outdoor courtyard. A wood-burning oven at the end of the courtyard, the wooden tables and the tall, propane heaters made for a cozy atmosphere on a chilly night. There were several rooms surrounding the courtyard for those wanting an inside dining experience. The service was great. From my first visit, the servers learned my name and greeted me as such each day that I came for dinner. If there were no tables available when I arrived, they would seat me in the small bar area and come get me as soon as a table opened up. The Peruvian-based menu was simply awesome. I have become such a fan of the local food. The menu is loaded with delicious Peruvian food. My favorites were:

  • Causa rellena – smoked trout (it can be other things such as langostinos, chicken or something else), avocado, tomato and mayonnaise blended together between two layers of mashed yellow potatoes and chili served chilled. I never had it before this trip. It is so delicious. I’ve had it on multiple occasions since landing in Peru.

  • Rocoto relleno – stuffed roasted hot pepper with traditional filling of ground beef, raisins, peanuts and melted cheese oven baked. It’s spicy but oh so good.

  • Aji de gallina – shredded chicken in a creamy yellow chili sauce with nuts and parmesan cheese.

Cusco is the entry point for people visiting Machu Picchu. They arrive by plane and also by bus from Puno (Lake Titicaca). If you’re going to visit Machu Picchu, take a couple of days and enjoy the city of Cusco. It's got so much to offer.

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