on January 21, 2010
Though it is often viewed foremost as the gateway to Machu Picchu, Cusco is a beguiling, fascinating city, rich in history and modern-day delights, and is overlooked at the traveller's peril. Understandably, the Inca Trail and the famous citadel at its end are the major reasons many people will come to Peru, and an eagerness to get straight onto the trail is inevitable - however, spending a week or so in Cusco itself is something to be strongly recommended – for wellbeing of body and mind.~ A breath of fresh, if giddy, air ~ If only to acclimatise, one should spend a few leisurely days in the city before exerting themselves; the altitude is well-noted, and is unlikely to come as a surprise in itself, but the extent to which it affects you may do. At 3000 metres, what should be a relatively comfortable stroll up the half-kilometre or so from the Plaza de Armas to San Blas – a quiet square with a number of neat restaurants and hotels in residence – becomes a great exertion as you puff upwards, wheezing like a dying locomotive. However, this does subside, and after a couple of days you should be able to explore the city and its surroundings with ease. A number of remedies will be suggested, amongst them chewing on Coca leaves to alleviate the symptoms. This may have some effect, but few cures are as good as taking things slowly and having plenty of rest - a good reason to leave a fair amount of time in the city when planning the timing of a visit. It should be noted that the Soroche (the most serious manifestation of altitude sickness) is a dangerous affliction, and should be given the respect it deserves. It can affect anyone, regardless of fitness or health, so take care. For some of course, there will be no perceptible effects, and for most it will be little more than a brief irritation. Most travellers are likely to have flown into Cusco from Lima, and will quickly appreciate the enormous differences between this place and not just the capital, but almost all major cities. Built into a secluded valley high in the Andes, the city is a remedy to every flaw that Lima has; the pollution is replaced by fresh, crispy air, the streets are not adorned by fast-food restaurants and miles of concrete, but charming cobbles underfoot and edifaces which fit into their surroundings, and the endless drone of assorted noise is replaced by … well, a lesser drone, at least. This is still a Hispanic country. The sky is noticeably nearer here, too - the close, soft blue above offering a physical aspect to the notion that this is a city which exists in a bubble, an apartness that perhaps stems from its choice as the seat of the Inca Empire. ~ Orientation, and filling one's stomach ~ It's likely you'll be staying somewhere in the vicinity of the Plaza de Armas, very much the hub of the city – at least as far as tourism is concerned – and providing a point around which most of the principal attractions can be reached by foot, even though the city extends for several miles out in various directions. We stayed in San Blas, a quieter square to the north-west of here, still within five to ten minute's walk. Around this area, a number of museums and imposing cathedrals can be explored, and the majority of shops, restaurants and bars are to found amongst these streets. Avenida Sol leads away from the Plaza torwards the less romantic extremities of the city and provides a variety of more practical, everyday shops - Pharmacies and suchlike - as opposed to the arts & crafts outlets / Internet cafes elsewhere around the centre. Taxis tend to be easy to find at all hours of the day and night, circling the Plaza de Armas and surrounding areas, and are rather cheaper than those of Lima - three or four Soles (nearly a pound) will take you most places within a couple of miles. Name your price as you get in, or ask the driver and be prepared to negotiate.Centred around the Plaza de Armas, a wealth of eateries compete fiercely for attention, all offering a good array of soups (Sopa Criolla stood out for me), salads and meat-based main courses, plus the nation's most infamous dish, Cuy (Guinea Pig), for a very reasonable sum. Another of the region's most popular dishes, Rocoto Relleno, is also to be found across the city. The battered red pepper, filled with meat and vegetables, is delicious and filling, if a little on the spicy side for many. Cuy and Alpaca both merit sampling at least once, especially the former, tasting like a richer, darker descendant of lamb. The city is also particularly strong on Mexican-Andean fused dishes, with the majority of the establishments hiding away down the narrow streets heading north-west away from the Plaza de Armas, especially Procurado, Teqseqocha and Plateros. Also around here lies Mia Pizza, which unsurprisingly offers a large and decent menu of Italian meals, as well as the beef/chicken/lamb numbers found elsewhere (about 100 yards up Procurado, on the right). The area around San Blas also houses a number of fine establishments, such as Pacha Papa, on the south-west side of the square, facing the church, although these tend to be a little pricier than those around the Plaza de Armas. Post-feeding, the nightlife of Cusco is as lively and enjoyable as, if less varied than, that in Lima - once again, the Plaza de Armas is the place to be; the square is lined with drinking houses, from the Irish pub, Paddy O'Flaherty's, on the eastern corner, or the English-ran Cross Keys roughly opposite, to the twin bars, Mythology and X'ess, on the north-eastern side. The latter two are notably cheap, often offering free drinks if you grab one of the many flyers being touted around outside. Even without these, three Cuba Libres (exceptionally skilfully poured) for 10 Soles doesn't represent shoddy value. Mama Africa's is a similarly lively, if slightly pricier, alternative next to Procurado - one should note that the thin air at this altitude does seem to help alcohol go to your head that bit quicker, so one circuit of the Plaza should be enough for anyone. ~ A little culture ~As with any city that sees such a steady and considerable influx of tourists, Cusco is not short on places to go and things to do. Numerous options exist just outside the urban limits – Sacsayhuaman, Pisac Market, the Urubamba River, Ollantaytambo and some place called Machu something amongst them – but there are also plenty of places to check out within walking distance.Many of these are located around the Plaza de Armas, and if you’re planning to spend a day exploring the city’s museums and sites of interest, the Cusco Tourist Ticket saves time and money, covering entrance to all the principal attractions (130 Soles/£25). The largest structure on the square is the Cathedral, built on top of an Incan palace by the Spanish in the 16th century, and fascinating for its architecture and artwork (including a reworking of the Last Supper with Guinea Pig on the menu). A host of other churches are also worth visiting on the square, alongside a couple of Cusco’s many museums (with the Museo Inka especially noteworthy).Leaving the square, head uphill towards San Blas and you’ll pass some fantastic examples of Inca stonemanship as you head into the artisan’s quarter of the city. If you had any appetite for knitwear, llamas and any conceivable combination of the two, consider it sated.To gain a little perspective of the tight-knit weave that is Cusco, head for the Cristo Blanco statue, a scaled-down version of Rio’s Redeemer who overlooks the city from a nearby hill, and is lit up at night. Head north from either the Plaza de Armas or San Blas for impressive views of the city. The intriguing fortress of Sacsayhuaman is also up here, but that’s another story …~ Ultimately ... ~ This is a city, and an area, which really deserves to be visited. It is like few other cities in its atmosphere, and although it is tourist-oriented in many ways, this is never too heavy or offensive a presence - rather, the people are simply very friendly and accommodating. The basics of your stay will all be impressively cheap given the amount of trade that passes through here, as well - food is likely to be the most pricey element of your stay, but a bit of searching and varying can get round this (and it tends to be worth it, anyway). By all means, experience Machu Picchu - but try to find as many free days as possible to first take in Cusco.
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