I clutched the arm rests of my seat and closed my eyes. The nose of the plane made a sharp downward turn and my blood pressure sky-rocketed. This was my worst nightmare... we kept going down at what seemed like a faster and faster pace. I looked out the window and saw the Andes mountains whizzing past. As we approached the ground, the plane finally leveled off and we landed in Cusco, a beautiful city nestled at 11,000ft. Turns out Cusco is in the top 3 most difficult airports to fly into - glad I didn't know that before - but it was well worth the anxiety, because this place was beautiful!
Cusco is one of my favorite cities in Peru. It's the hub that blends the modern Peruvian culture with it's Quechua history. When there's limited time, this high-in-the-sky city is often just a means to an end to get to Machu Picchu, but I would recommend putting this city at the top of your travel plans and spend a few extra days here.
The first thing you'll notice about Cusco is the streets. Navigating the city can sometimes feel like a maze, with the skinny sidewalks and the random staircases that make for short cuts to other plazas. Be prepared to do a lot of walking, but also be prepared to do a lot of stopping. There is so much to do and see in Cusco, it's worth spending at least a day just exploring.
We arrived to Cusco on the day of the Sun God festival so the city was teaming with life and vibrant colors. Plaza de Armas is where you'll find the impressive colonial Spanish architecture, however religious activities for both Christianity and Incan beliefs are celebrated in this square. It's in this square that the Sun God festival starts and then makes its way up the mountain for more celebrations and offerings throughout the day. We were a bit winded and tired given the altitude so we decided to stick close to the area and explore the shops.
As you wander throughout the city, you'll more than likely run into my furry friends, alpacas. It's totally normal and don't be alarmed when you're trying to skirt by cars on the streets only to be "stuck behind" a few alpacas and Quechuan women all dressed up. Relish in the moment because unfortunately you can't bring the alpacas home with you, but you can take pictures with them. The women will frequently expect a tip or some sort of compensation in exchange for the photos (or holding baby alpacas - yes you can hold one!!) It can be a bit pricey, but totally worth it. They are soft, cute, and I like to think this photo opportunity is going to preserve these sweet creatures because alpacas are both used for their fur and unfortunately their meat.
Once you've had your fill of alpacas (although I was insatiable throughout the entire trip and stopped every time I saw one), check out some of the more touristy highlights throughout the city. Explore the multiple churches and cathedrals built by the Spanish, learn about Incan history at the Incan museum, and taste test cocoa nibs at the Museum of Chocolate.
Of course no trip to Cusco would be complete without stopping at some of the world class restaurants. Peru is actually known as one of the top culinary countries in South America. Lima has some of the top chefs in the world, but Cusco is right up there with delectable meals that get your mouth watering just thinking about it.
We had breakfast at Jack's Cafe for a hearty breakfast complete with eggs, french toast and Peruvian coffee. Cicciolina was the perfect spot to try different types of pisco sours paired with great service and savory traditional Peruvian cuisine. And we tried alpaca at Marcelo Bartata (I hate to say it, but it was some of the best meat I've ever had - and the restaurant offers cooking classes too!) It seemed every block we turned on there were more and more places to try, but we only had three days in total...and we wanted to explore the culture in the Sacred Valley, just outside the city as well.
If you do spend a few days in Cusco, there are a few places that are must sees just outside the city. If you can, I highly recommend hiring a driver for a day and taking a tour of the Sacred Valley. We were hooked up with a wonderful guy, Clemente, who took us around the countryside and showed us all the best spots - for sightseeing, shopping, and snapping pics.
Our first stop on the road trip was Chincero. Chincero is a small town about 20-minutes outside of Cusco known for its textiles. The community sits at 12,500ft, a little higher than Cusco, so definitely make sure you're acclimated before walking around. The shops are great if you want to pick up blankets or pillow cases in bulk to bring home, but the most interesting part is learning about their textile manufacturing process. Definitely ask to take the behind the scenes tour where you'll learn how they spin alpaca fur into yarn, dye it, and then spend hours weaving it into the beautiful tapestries and garments that gives Peru it's vibrant appearance. We had a ton of fun... and again, I made friends with the alpacas!
As we continued on our road trip, we drove down the mountain from Chinchero into the Sacred Valley. Scattered throughout the land, the Incas ruled the entire valley. Little communities that specialized in various agricultural techniques, this area was made up of farmers. The Cusco region is known for growing potatoes, but as you travelled closer towards the more jungle landscape there was room for pineapples, coca, and passion fruit.
We stopped by one of those agricultural experiments at the archeological site of Moray. Incas tried a new technique of building farming depressions in a circle into the ground. From top to bottom there is a difference of 27 degrees due to different wind and sun patterns. This was to help understand what crops could grow in what conditions... unfortunately this experiment was ultimately abandoned and deemed unsuccessful. But it did leave a pretty cool site to visit!
My favorite spot on our road trip was the Maras Salt Mines. Another relic from the Incan age that has left its mark and still prospered in the future. We drove down a mountain and suddenly we were surprised by an entire side of a mountain, decorated with individual salt pools that reflected the sky above. It was so clear that it gave the illusion that one could walk on clouds.
As we made the winding road down, you could make out thin walking paths that weaved between the pools for salt miners to collect their weekly yield. Each square is owned by individual people, so while the entire mine is protected, the pools are locally managed by those in the community.
The salt was extreme - very salty, but perfect for cooking or to add as a garnish to chocolate dishes... and a great gift for those at home if you have foodie friends!
Cusco has a lot to offer, from food to culture to history. You'll certainly never get bored, but you may still want to head to the Lost Incan City. So while I say you shouldn't skip Cusco, you also shouldn't miss Machu Picchu either - if not just for more alpacas and llamas!
If there's anything I missed in Cusco, share below in the comments! I just might have to go back.