Cusco was definitely one of the highlights of our trip, and we were glad to have had a bit of time to explore it. We also experienced some of our most extreme highs and lows of the trip in Cusco; it was definitely a memorable stay.
Our first day in Cusco was predominantly filled with sleeping and altitude sickness symptoms. We both felt fine when we arrived, apart from a slight headache and a little bit of fatigue, so we decided to let our bodies acclimate to the altitude while we caught up on sleep that afternoon. A few hours later, we woke up feeling fine and started getting ready to head out to dinner, only to feel dizziness and nausea hit us in full force partway through getting ready. Thank goodness we’d bought water already, as we ended up being incapacitated most of the evening and sleeping off the rest of the altitude sickness that night. We spent a lot of time looking at the ceiling of our hotel room. :)
Exploring the City
By the next morning we felt fine, just easily fatigued. We spent that day exploring the city, including the Plaza San Blas, Plaza de Armas and both cathedrals lining it, and the Mercado San Pedro where we bought some delicious bread and cheese and bananas for a light lunch.
Plaza San Blas
Plaza de Armas
Mercado San Pedro
We also had an amazing dinner of anticucho de alpaca (grilled alpaca skewers) and adobo de costillar de chancho (pork stewed with Peruvian corn beer, onions, and spices) at Pachapapa, where we discovered we were lucky we headed to dinner early because this restaurant was nearly filled by reservations for most of the evening.
Day Trips and Further Cusco Exploration
On our third and fourth days in Cusco, we spent the mornings on day trips to the ruins north of Cusco and the ruins near Pisac (more on these to come), then spent the afternoons and evenings exploring more of Cusco, including a beautiful textile gallery and the Museo de Arte Precolombino (more on these to come).
We had some delicious afternoon snacks including ice cream from Siete & Siete and banana, maracuya, and lemon cakes from Pantástico Panadería.
Our dinners on those nights were interesting, as one night we went to an Irish pub (Paddy’s, “the highest 100% Irish owned pub on the planet” at 11156 ft) to try to catch a football bowl game on TV (no such luck). We ended up trying Cusqueña beer (reminds me of Coors Light or Miller Light, but Corwin thinks it tastes better than those) and having shepherd’s pie and a lasagna that seemed like a cross between pasta and shepherd’s pie (I’ve never seen mashed potatoes on lasagna before). Nonetheless both tasted good. Can you tell which photo is which dish?
We also had our first pisco sour (likely from a mix since they didn’t have a full bar, but still tasty) and some OK alpaca dishes (one with Andean sauce and one with a red wine sauce) at Toqokachi.
Return to Cusco
We also stayed a couple of nights in Cusco at the end of our trip and spent those days sightseeing within Cusco again (and to some extent readjusting to the altitude since the towns we visited in the meantime are located at much lower altitudes). Cusco has an amazing number of museums and historic churches to explore. We also made a lunch of another giant flat loaf of bread from Mercado San Pedro and fresh juice from one of the juice-makers in the market.
We visited Pachapapa again to try cuy horneado (roasted guinea pig seasoned with huacatay and panca chili), also having the alpaca skewers again and trying PachaChoclitos (boiled corn in a sauce of butter, herbs, and spices). All were delicious. The PachaChoclitos tasted like a restaurant version of the boiled corn we tried in the street in Ollantaytambo, and the cuy looked somewhat like a cooked rat and smelled and tasted like a rotisserie chicken (although with more fat, more the moistness of duck). I’m not sure I’d eat cuy again since it’s a lot of effort for a little bit of food (like cleaning an entire rotisserie chicken to get one meal’s worth of meat), but I’m glad we held out during the trip and had it here because they definitely did make it well.
On our last night, we had dinner at A Mi Manera. We sat in a booth overlooking a pedestrian square, eating one of our best meals on the trip. I had lomo de alpaca (alpaca medallion with a grape and coconut sauce), and Corwin had chuleta de cerdo (pork chop with an awaymanto and caper sauce, although we were confused to not see capers but opted to not mention it since they’d originally brought out the wrong dish). We also had an excellent pisco sour, freshly made from scratch. Yum!
Tips for your visit:
- Altitude Sickness Tips:
- Likelihood of Feeling Altitude Effects: Cusco’s altitude is around 11,200 ft. Unless you live at a high altitude already, expect to experience some altitude sickness symptoms at some point during your stay, and expect to feel tired or winded much more easily than you would at home.
- Medicine: Pack some Dramamine to help with the nausea symptoms of altitude sickness, or if you have time, visit your general physician to get a prescription for Diamox before you leave.
- Conserve Energy: Take a taxi from the airport to your hotel/hostel even if you feel ok when you get off of the plane. Altitude sickness doesn’t always set in right away, and the steep uphill walk with your luggage to the tourist areas could accelerate the onset.
- Have Water and Food on Hand: Pick up a couple of huge bottles of water and some bland food like bread or crackers as soon as you drop your things off at the hotel in case altitude sickness hits you hard. If it does, you could be fairly incapacitated and hotel-bound for the next couple of meals. You might not end up wanting the food but you’ll definitely want the water.
- Sleep it Off: Plan to sleep for several hours (as in 12 hours, not 3 or 4) to let your body acclimate to the altitude and avoid altitude sickness. We slept for 3 or 4, thought we felt ok, then felt the symptoms of dizziness and nausea in full force a few minutes into getting ready to go out for dinner. If you don’t feel altitude sickness symptoms and end up getting to use that time to sightsee, that’s great, but at least you won’t have to worry about missing out on planned sightseeing if you do need the time to rest. One of the groups we met on our trip started sightseeing immediately and didn’t feel symptoms until a few days into their stay, so each person’s experience is different.
- Cusco Map: If you plan to visit the ChocoMuseo, do it early in your trip, as they have an excellent free map of Cusco by the checkout (Cusco Centre Map, by Day and Night Maps). It’s better than any maps available at the tourist office in Plaza de Armas.
- Restaurants: Make dinner reservations for any restaurants you want to try (most of the ones you get recommendations for will need a reservation) if you’re staying in Cusco near New Year’s Eve or other major events. Also, avoid restaurants on Plaza de Armas on New Year’s Eve unless you’d like to pay a steep cover.
- Rainy Season Scheduling: Cusco has a lot of museums and churches to choose from. If you visit during the rainy season, save these for the afternoons when it’s more likely to be rainy. See the previous Peru blog post for other tips on visiting during rainy season.
- Mercado San Pedro:
- Bread: Buy a small loaf of round, flat bread. It tastes faintly like King’s Hawaiian Rolls. Even the small loaves feed more than two people for a meal, and they’re the best deal in Cusco at 2 to 3 solas.
- Fresh Juice Vendors: If the vendor hands you a printed menu of juices to choose from, disregard the prices and instead look to the handwritten board above them for the current price for your juice. Also take a close look at the condition of the person’s work station before ordering, as we had some second thoughts after we looked around but had already ordered at that point.