Whether you’ve booked passage directly to Machu Picchu on Peru Rail’s luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham train or plan to hoof the Inca Trail for a while, you are bound to encounter the same advice: You’ll need to spend at least two days in Cusco. Why? Well, unless you already live at 11,200 feet above sea level (that’s double Denver’s height, for you coastal types), you’ll need at least that long to acclimate to the elevation before attempting anything higher than a sidewalk curb. This should not, however, be cause for alarm. In fact, you should be excited for this little sojourn where your sole job is to produce more red blood cells.
Cusco is the modern iteration of the Inca Empire’s former spiritual center Qosco; it’s a vibrant city and province of nearly 500,000 residents, with bustling markets, exotic restaurants, historic plazas and lively bars, as well as museums, Spanish language schools and even nearby Inca ruins for much-needed practice hikes.
Your lungs will thank you for the 48-hour stay.
Chances are you’ll fly from Atlanta or L.A. and Starbucks your way through a long layover in Lima before boarding an alarmingly small plane to Cusco. Then, somewhere high above the Andes, it’ll hit you: There’s a city? Up here? How?!?
Standing at the two-carousel baggage claim, you’ll get your first full breath of not-quite-adequate air. Relax, take deep, slow breaths and drink lots of water, especially if you’re on altitude medication. From here, catch a taxi right outside the terminal doors to your hotel, hostel or hospedaje (lodging) in the San Blas neighborhood, a charming collection of narrow, steeply terraced streets perched above the historic center. After checking into the perfectly located JW Marriott Hotel Cusco, accept a cup of mate de coco — a tea made from the coca leaf that’s stimulating and a great combatant for altitude sickness. You have a long day ahead!
If you’re ready for some instant culture shock, dive right in at Mercado de San Pedro. There, amid the aisles of fresh meat, dried quinoa, endless potatoes and the largest papayas you’ve ever seen, you can pull up a bench at one of the crowded stalls serving a breakfast of fried huevos y queso (eggs and cheese) sandwiches and café con leche (coffee with milk) — well, really more like warm leche with a spoonful of instant café.
Now fortified, you’re ready to hear all about Cusco’s past with a tour of Qorikancha, the Inca temple of Inti (the Sun God) that’s now located within the Convento de Santo Domingo, a stunning example of how native cultures and the conquering Spanish Catholics are today intertwined. And because it’s not completely excavated yet, there is no admission charge for a peek into neighboring Cusicancha, believed to be a place of religious preparation and reflection for Inca pilgrims. Take a photo there with a lamb or baby llama wearing a hat with help from one of the ladies leading them any which way on strings, or head around the corner to the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco (textile museum and store), where you can watch Peruvian women weave in the traditional style and pick up a llama-wool hat, belt or pouch, with proceeds actually benefiting the artisans keeping the native crafts alive.
For a little pick-me-up, cross the street to La Valeriana Bake Shop — look for the Parisian bicycle out front. This expat haven serves proper Americanos, espresso, lattes and the like to a crowd that is overwhelmingly European. Don’t let it deter you, though. Join in the fun with an empanada de queso Andino (a warm, flaky empanada stuffed with local cheese) or galleta (cookie) and you’ll be dropping a pin to remember the place for the next day.
From here, make your way back up Avenida El Sol to the Plaza de Armas. This busy square is dominated by the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, which also houses the Señor de los Temblores (Lord of the Earthquakes) statue, a monument believed to have ended a devastating earthquake in 1650. Around the square you’ll find Acllahuasi (House of the Chosen Women) and the famous-for-being-famous, 12-sided stone as well as plenty of camping and trekking outfitters. You’d be wise to rent one or two telescoping hiking poles for the day to come. Celebrate with a beer at the expat watering hole Norton Rats Tavern and watch the sun set from the balcony. Other expat staples include the Australian burger and Asian tapas joint — yes, that’s a thing here — Los Perros, and Jack’s Café, an oasis for those who need a minute away from Peru, just long enough for a pint or a macchiato.
It’s imperative that you stay awake a few more hours before giving in to jet lag, so march yourself straight up the hills to El Tuko Restaurant & Pizzeria for alpaca anticucho (on skewers) or cuy al horno (oven-roasted guinea pig). Climb the ladder to the upstairs dining room (tuko means owl) and enjoy an incomparable view of the twinkling city lights. From here it’s just a short stumble to Bar Kilometro Cero, a happening live music joint staffed by a young international assembly of millennials saving up for the next leg of their trip. The nightly, two-for-one pisco sour special will have you sharing your own stories with them in no time.
Do your best to get an early start (and a proper coffee at Jack’s or any number of enticing bakeries on Avenida El Sol) and make your way to the bus station for one of the following trial excursions sure to stretch your legs and your lungs.
Day Trip 1: For a satisfying, relatively easy day, take the Urcos-bound bus east of Cusco from Avenida de la Cultura. Get off at the town of Tipón and take a taxi up to the ruins. There, you’ll be greeted by a marvel of Incan ingenuity, a fully terraced mountainside with a complex system of working water channels. Don’t worry about the roaming packs of wild dogs; it’s a Peruvian thing, and they are far less interested in you than you are in them. Trails dart off in all directions, leading to even more ruins nearby; just follow those waterways.
Day Trip 2: Far more ambitious of an undertaking, catch a Calca-bound bus and take it to the Tambomachay ruins. After exploring the Incan baths and guesthouse, your group can walk back toward town on the same road and hit the Q’enqo and Puka Pukara ruins along the way before arriving at Saqsaywaman, a most impressive collection of ruins. That and the ethereally gleaming Cristo Blanco (White Christ) overlook the city and happen to be just minutes from the San Blas neighborhood.
Day Trip 3: For a challenging day, complete with climbs along the lines of what the Inca Trail has in store, stay on the Calca-bound bus till Písac, a glorious little town basking in the sun beneath the famous four-part ruins of the same name. Cross the bridge into the township, take a taxi up to the top where you can explore the citadel city, more working water channels, intact Incan stonework and cliffs honeycombed with raided tombs. When you’ve had your fill, hike back down to town for a light bite at the Blue Llama Café, or a frosty Cusqueña Negra and some unexpected fusion at Mullu.
No matter which excursion you choose on your second day, once you arrive back in town, you’ll be in need of some food and rest. Unfortunately, South American restaurants are ghost towns till at least 9 p.m. It’s a good thing then that a comfortable bed and refreshing pisco sour are always waiting for you in Cusco.
Photos Courtesy of iStock and Xania Woodman