The ancient capital of the Incas and a modern-day backpacking base for all who visit Peru, Cusco is the touristic centre. The benefits of readily available ATMs, a variety of food options and (relative) safety to walk wherever you want were all welcome. However, with touristic centres, comes drawbacks as well. It was hard to walk anywhere in Cusco without being chased by hawkers selling anything from tours to cheap knock-off sunglasses. This is also where I first found out that I must fit the profile for drug tourism. Cass did not get hassled at all but I could barely walk 20 metres without been offered a range of mind-altering substances. As much as I had a good laugh about this to start with, it wore thin after a few days.
We booked a cheaper hostal on the outskirts of the main tourist area. Despite a less than impressive façade on one of the more “suburban” (dirty) streets, it proved to be a real find. Sure we had to wrangle our Spanish skills, but the rooms were great and we got some of the best sleep of our trip so far.
On our first full day in Cusco we did our now obligatory free walking tour to learn the city a bit better and find out what there was to do. Our guide was a particularly colourful character who originated from the Amazon forest and had taught himself to speak a variety of languages to work with tourists. One of his many interesting life experiences he shared with us was growing up working for Cocaine producers in the Amazon jungle. It was fascinating to hear first hard about the drug trade in South America and how it had affected and continues to affect, so many people. He also gave us an excellent city tour with plenty of great historical information from an indigenous perspective.
Of particular interest were the long-lost building techniques of the Incas, still on display in the many remaining temples of the city. The immaculate joinery between massive boulders to make near perfect walls was incredible. As was the gradual slanting of the walls which had withstood earthquakes for centuries. Unfortunately, much of this information was lost around the time of Spanish colonisation. No one can explain how the Inca’s were able to work stone in the way they did with the technologies available to them. Our favourite find from the walking tour by far was the San Telmo marketplace with its dirt cheap juices and sandwiches. We made sure to visit again several times before we left Cusco.
Our activities in Cusco were planned around the Salkantay trek in the middle of our stay. This definitely made us a little bit less productive with exploring the city, especially the days after the hike. We still managed to explore some of Cusco’s museums, including the Sun Temple.
Our favourite part of Cusco ended up being the San Blass neighbourhood on the hillside above the main square. This neighbourhood was greatly influenced by European, especially Italian, design and was very picturesque. Much of our time was spent wandering the streets of this neighbourhood and exploring the cafes and small shops. We were lucky enough to find a restaurant that not only served excellent American style wings but also played us the first Game of Thrones episode of the new season. Needless to say they were tipped well.
We also took the opportunity (post-hike) to enjoy some of the higher end food offerings in Cusco. Across Peru there is a lot of Chinese fusion restaurants which are popular with the locals. We decided to try one of the better “chifu” places in Cusco since we were missing our plentiful Asian cuisine in Australia.