Cusco - The First Step on the Inca Trail

Where almost everybody on the Inca Trail goes before to acclimatise to altitude, Cusco is both full of backpackers, yet relentlessly, typically South American.

Cusco - The First Step on the Inca Trail

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by aardwhite on September 8, 2006

Cusco is a strange town. It really shouldn’t be as it is. It is of course the town where EVERYBODY goes to acclimatise to altitude before the rigours of the Inca Trail. It is at the same time full of Europeans and North Americans but totally retains the air of a thriving South American town. Around the central square there are themed bars but these are outnumbered by the local cafes, everywhere you turn you see backpackers, but they are quickly swallowed up by the indigenous throng. It is as if the business of life in Peru hasn’t the time to indulge the tourist, it won’t become a theatre or a theme park.

After my first experience of Peru, landing in Lima Airport where I couldn’t have been more underwhelmed as we travelled through the downtown area and suburbs. It seemed as if any one of the mid-sized identikit cities of the US had been transported South and had all its money taken away. The torrent of KFCs, Burger Kings, Taco Bells et al, which maybe I should have anticipated in the capital but hadn’t, was a little dispiriting.

Cusco has none of these. It may have an Irish Theme pub but it has no Starbucks. It may have a Harley themed biker bar but there is no McDonald's. It has retained its humanity and resisted the corporate onslaught. Somehow. More than 600,000 people visit Cusco each year, but Ronald has yet to pay a visit. It is enormously refreshing.

There isn’t an awful lot to do though there is a lot to see, but it takes a couple of days to manage your energy to enable you to do things anyway. It is hugely entertaining to watch recent arrivals snail pace their way around town while the hustle and bustle of local life speeds around them. Like a pop video where the star walks at normal pace while everybody else in the scene goes by blurred, filmed in time lapse.

It is a beautiful town that thrives on the tourists that Macchu Picchu brings yet is largely uncorrupted by them. You don’t need a plan, or hardly a map, just head to the main square and take it from there. Or just sit down in front of the cathedral and watch the town go by in front of you.
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Hotel Arqueologo

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by aardwhite on September 8, 2006

When the magical "word pixies," or whoever it is who has the job of sitting around and thinking up words, wanted to illustrate what their new word ‘charming’ meant, they could simply have pointed at the Hotel Arqueologo. It is the very quintessence of South American charm.

Converted from an old colonial house, the rooms are on the balconied first floor, arranged around a couple of internal courtyards. The atmosphere is highly conducive to relaxation, very useful if you are preparing, physically and mentally, for the Inca Trail. The rooms are decorated in traditional Peruvian style; ours had a beautiful oak four-poster bed, and though comparatively pricey at $60 a night, it was well worth the additional expense for the trade-off in luxury.

The hotel is about a 5-minute walk (once acclimatised, that is; make it 15 minutes on the first day) from the main square in Cusco, which is close enough to be convenient for everything in town and just far enough away to be perfectly peaceful.

There is a small restaurant, although we only ate breakfast there, which was fine, I can’t ouch for the quality of the general meals. It has a lovely view, though. There is also Internet access in the "business suite" available for the use of guests. The reception area of the hotel also has a bar and open fire, which we always found was a great last stop on the way to bed.

The hotel staff could not be faulted. The service that we received was impeccable at all times, despite the odd communication difficulty. I speak very little Spanish, and they knew only a little more English, but with goodwill, good humour, and patience on both sides, we always managed to communicate.
Hotel Arqueologo
Calle Pumacurco 408
Cusco, Peru
+51 (84) 23 2522

Hostal Rumi Punku

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by aardwhite on September 20, 2006

This is a bit more than a hostel, not quite a hotel. The name Rumi Punku means ‘stone doorway’, and walking up Choquechaca, one of the main, steep routes out of the main square of Cusco you could easily miss the unprepossessing entrance. It is a classical Inca trapezoid doorway that disguises what lies beyond.

Arranged around two courtyards and gardens and across two floors and apparently converted from an old colonial building, the rooms at Rumi Punku are comfortable and functional. At $40 per night for a double in the low season they are very good value for money if perhaps out of the range of the budget of a traditional backpacker. The facilities however are well ahead of what the rate may indicate. The rooms are a decent size, all with private bathrooms, cable TV and central heating. Believe me, this may be near the equator, but you are at some altitude here and the nights can get quite cold at all times of year. A buffet breakfast is also included in the daily rate.

There is a communal TV room where, if the mood takes you, you can mix with the other guests, play a selection of games, or catch up on a bit of web surfing. Unfortunately while I was there I was way too exhausted for that, coping with jet lag and altitude, so apart from a peek around the door, I didn't really have this experience.

According to their website they now have a Finnish sauna and jacuzzi. That would have got an extra grade of recommendation from me had it been there for my visit. Perfect, I should imagine, for a bit of relaxation and bodily adjustment.

Rumi Punku was our first stop in Cusco and was an excellent introduction to what the city has to offer. Winding up the vertiginous streets, acclimatising gradually, on the so slow journey, we were rewarded at the hotel with some spectacular views. There are two lovely roof terraces and on arrival we were treated to our first tea made with fresh coca leaves to aid relaxation as we looked out across Cusco and contemplated the pleasures of the Amazon basin and the Inca Trail still to come.
Hostal Rumi Punku
Choquechaca No.339
Cusco, Peru
+51 (84) 221102

Cristo Blanco

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by aardwhite on September 20, 2006

Like a smaller version of Rio’s Christ, the Redeemer, the Cristo Blanco (White Christ) looks out over Cusco from a nearby hilltop. If you are in town to acclimatise for the Inca Trail, then a trip up here is worth the couple of hours for a number of reasons. If you’re just in town for a visit, it’s the number one thing to see.

Number one: the fantastic view, obviously. In the shadow of the statue you can stand a survey all of Cusco laid out before you. Maybe it’s even worth doing this when you first arrive; it will certainly give you an appreciation of the complexities of the city’s layout, and of how the main square dominates the plan.

Number two: this altitude plus. Cusco is already some 11300 feet above sea level; you can add a good 500 feet more on top of that. If you are acclimatising, try and have a game of football with the local kids that play up there. Bet you can jog 10 yards max.

Number three: there are some steps on the way up. Don’t cheat on this one and get a taxi. If you are heading out to Machu Picchu you are going to be doing some stairs and then some. Get in a bit of practice early—there’s around a thousand, possibly more—I lost count when I had to start really concentrating on breathing.

Number four: did I mention the view?

The steps start from the centre of Cusco and take you up through the residential areas high on the hillside till you break through to the hill proper. We picked them up from Choquechaca which is where our hotel was, but I am fairly sure that they run further down still into the heart of the town. At the top, around the Christ, you will find local families and children picnicking and playing (although we may have been there at the weekend). There are of course plenty of opportunities to have your picture taken with a llama too, or to buy a finger puppet.

Anyway, any number of words I write won’t relate the majesty of the statue or the accompanying view. I hope you get a sense of it from the photos I’ve attached.
Cristo Blanco
Cusco, Peru

Pisac Market

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by aardwhite on September 21, 2006

Well, you’re in Cusco for a few days because you have to acclimatise and you’ve got time on your hands. What to do? One of the big favourites is a trip to Pisac market. The main market day is Sunday, where the market seems to go on and on forever, though there are smaller ones on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

There are frequent buses from Cusco, which cost about $1 for the approximately 30km trip, though I was travelling in a group of four, so it made sense to get a cab – it was hardly extravagant at $10 between us each way. If you are on a budget, though, the bus ride is a fine alternative and only takes an hour.

The journey is quite hairy, though, winding up and down the foothills of the Andes around hairpin bends with phenomenal drops. On reflection, I think the taxi was the better option. I may have seen The Italian Job one too many times to appreciate a bus journey on that route.

Pisac itself is a picturesque and typical Andean village. The market has retained its authenticity, despite the clutter of tourists and proliferation of knickknack stalls. A large part of the market is still where the people of the local villages come to sell and barter their wares.

It isn’t noticeably cheaper than buying in Cusco, but the sheer range of goods for sale is astonishing. If you have your heart set on some alpaca scarves, hats, and gloves, you will have the choice of every colour and design under the sun.

You will be expected to haggle. As a guilt-ridden capitalist Westerner, I have enormous trouble with this, negotiating over $1 that would feed the vendor’s family but I would scarcely bother to bend down in the street to pick up. (This is a figure of speech by the way; I am aware that it makes me sound appalling and appallingly spendthrift.) You just have to grit your teeth and remind yourself that it is expected—they have built it into their opening price at the start of the haggling process.

The market has become something of a tourist trap, as it is one of those things that appears on the "backpacker checklist," but it has it roots as a "working market" on display and retains enough of its authenticity to make it a worthwhile experience.

Throw yourself in. Enjoy the throng.
32 kilómetros al NE
Cusco, Peru

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