Cusco is officially the Historical Capital of Peru, having been the capital of the Inka Empire from the 13th until the 16th-century, and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll feel the buzz the moment you arrive at 11, 152′ above sea level. I definitely felt woozy. Mike said he felt like he was still on a boat. Because other travelers we met on the trip had reported tingling in their fingertips and weird dreams when taking Diamox (Acetazolamide), we decided to forego the prescribed drug and instead relied on the coca leave tea that was offered at the hotel to combat the effects of the high altitude. After a good night’s sleep, we were much better and felt fine, if a little winded, by our second day in Cusco.

Staying at a hotel atop the quaint San Blas neighborhood, el barrio de los artesanos, probably didn’t help with the wooziness, but it was lovely. The streets are so narrow that we couldn’t fully open the taxi doors when it stopped. The vehicle pulls up to your hotel, the waiting bellmen extract your luggage while you quickly jump out, and the taxi takes off before all the cars behind it start honking. (I think the drivers call the hotel to let the staff know when they’re almost there.)

Antigua Casona San Blas:

Before and after the Machu Picchu leg of the trip, we stayed at the Antigua Casona San Blas, which is located well within walking distance of the main square, the Plaza de Armas. The Plaza is only a few long blocks away, but it is a great few blocks. There are a lot of small businesses on the street, including restaurants, souvenir stores, art galleries and upscale Alpaca clothing boutiques. The busiest block is Hathunrumiyoc, where everyone is taking photos of themselves in front of the famous 12-angled stone. The stone is a marvel of Inkan craftsmanship and set in one of the best preserved walls in the city. We walked up and down this street 3 or 4 times a day, to and from the Plaza, and encountered a number of women in traditional dress, carting baby llamas around and offering photo opportunities. On one occasion, we also ran into an Inkan emperor standing in front of the stone, also hawking photo opportunities.

The Antigua Casona San Blas was a great value, well appointed and lovely. However its best asset is the staff. Although there were some communication issues because my Spanish is so rusty, the staff always did its best to help us. The breakfast room staff and bar staff were especially accommodating and patient. Ken was able to get a good latte here, and they were nice enough to add an extra shot or two of caffeine at his request. As I am sure most hotels in Cusco are, this hotel is used to lodging people on their way to and from Machu Picchu treks and the staff know what these tourists need. We had immediately sent our laundry out upon arrival, thinking it would take a day or two to come back, but when we got back from dinner THAT night, there it was, less than 4 hours later! We were so pleased that we sent out another load before leaving on our trek later that week.

Mike and Linda enjoying the firepit at the Antigua Casona San Blas

My only issue with the hotel was the noise level, but this may have been because I was oversensitive, after the nature sounds of the jungle. Neither Ken nor the Andersons were bothered by the noise. The hotel is all hard tile surfaces, but I can understand the reason behind the design, with all those people coming in with their dirty trekking boots and luggage. Also, a rather large group came in late on the same night we arrived and all that luggage rolling by on the tile floors was annoying. I have to say that it was the guests rolling their luggage in. The hotel staff made it a point to always carry the luggage, not roll it, and in hindsight, I understand why. It makes a huge difference in the noise level of the hotel. By our third night there, I had acclimatized once again to city noises and wasn’t bothered at all.

FOOD:

Once we checked in to the hotel, we headed out to find a bite to eat and explore. We found the perfect place for our first taste of Cusco, Marcelo Batata’s beautiful rooftop terrace. The small plates of Andean potato skins, salted avocado and shrimp cocktail were beautifully arranged and delicious, and the fizzy lemonades hit the spot perfectly.

For dinner, I had made an advance reservation at Greens Organic, thinking that we wanted to eat lightly and not drink alcohol on our first day. The restaurant wasn’t full, but it was worth the peace of mind to know that we had a place to go. The dinner there was also delicious, specializing in organic and fresh foods.

While writing this, I figured out that we ate in several Cusco restaurants by chef Coque Ossio: Greens Organic, Inka Grill, Incanto, and LIMO. They were all good and had their own specialties, but what surprised me was how much Italian food was offered in these restaurants. During our time in Peru, I had pizza at the Inka Grill, pasta at Incanto, and even osso bucco at a great restaurant named Cicciolina. According to a Wikipedia article, Italians were the second largest group of European immigrants to settle in Peru. According to cuzcoeats.com, “The height of this immigration was between 1840 and 1880. . . On arriving many of them set themselves up as cooks. They opened small restaurants where they offered their best dishes.” Eventually, “A new style of restaurant has been created, called Italo-Peruvian.”

Roasted cuy (guinea pig) at LIMO

Having done a bit of research before we went, I had high expectations for the food in Peru. It was good, but not the highlight of the trip. To be fair, we didn’t get to Central or Astrid y Gaston in Lima, although we tried, and we do love La Mar by Gaston Acurio here in San Francisco. We tried cuy (guinea pig) a few times and, as to be expected, it was better at some locations than others. At LIMO, it was deep-fried and delicious, and if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was Chinese roast pork. We also had alpaca a few times, which tasted a lot like beef. One of the best meals we had was when our tour guide Valentin took us to a local lunch restaurant and we had lomo saltado, which is a stir fry with meat, vegetables, and French fries, usually served with rice. Yes, French fries are IN the stir fry.

Speaking of French fries, did you know that there are over 4,000 variety of potatoes native to the Andean highlands. In Peru, you get potatoes with every meal, and I became partial to the little purple ones that were usually roasted and served as an accompaniment to every meal.

TOURING AND SHOPPING:

On our first full day in Cusco, we were still acclimating a bit so we decided to do just a bit of shopping and hit a few of the museums. We started at the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales, which I had learned about while visiting the Institute of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe. There is a weaving museum here and it is was a great place to shop and to see weavers and knitters in action. The Museo Inka is worth the 10 soles, but just barely. Although the place felt like a middle school history project, our guides over the next week referred to the Museo Inka’s mummy exhibit several times. The exhibit is creepy but relevant. The Museo de Arte Precolombino is great. The exhibits are set up as a timeline, so you get a useful idea of the groups that came before and ended up being absorbed by the Inkas. (This museum also has another Coque Ossio restaurant, MAP Cafe, that we heard good things about. It’s an interesting design, in a box, that you need to see to understand. Check out their website to get a better idea of it.)

Valentin, braiding straw into a rope

The next day, we enjoyed a great full-day tour with Valentin’s Pachamama Journeys. Valentin himself took us up to Tambomachay, Puka Pukera, Q’enqo, and Saqsayhuaman ruins and provided us with context and historical references that served us well for the rest of the trip, including our trek and visit to Machu Picchu. He is knowledgeable about the history and culture of the area and also the terrain, having been a trekking guide for years. Understanding the land is such an important part of understanding the history of the area. After a great lunch at a local restaurant called Qori Sara, he took us to the San Pedro market, where he introduced us to local foods and market items. Then it was time for more history at the Catedral in the Plaza de Armas and former temple of Quorikancha, which is currently a working convent. It was a long day of touring, but the information he gave us was invaluable to understanding what we would go on to see on our Lares Trek.

On the way from bean to bar

We spent our last full day in Cusco shopping and seeing what we might have missed. We bought sweaters made from baby alpaca wool at Sol Alpaca and Alpaca’s Best and visited the Choco Museum and the Archbishop Palace museum. (Thanks for the edit, Vicki. No, we didn’t buy sweaters for baby alpacas. They are born wearing their sweaters.) Those last two are easily skipped unless you’re looking for something to do. I could have just as easily spent the time exploring more or sipping another pisco sour. We had a casual lunch at Jack’s, where we loved their salt and pepper cellars so much that we asked the waitress if they were for sale. She directed us to Mil Trenzas on the Plaza San Blas, where the gentleman offered to paint the design of my choice in the color of my choice and have it ready for me when we returned to Cusco from our trek. The offer was kind but unnecessary, because I found the piece that I wanted on the shelf.

That night, we had our Mountain Lodges of Peru briefing and met our guides and some of our fellow trekkers. We had to make a decision at that time for what we were going to do the next day, hiking or the cultural activity. Then we had dinner and went back to the hotel to pack, figuring out what to leave at the hotel storage and what we would need for the trek.

Notes:

  • The Antigua Casona San Blas has non-smoking rooms, but it is not a non-smoking hotel. We were made aware of this when European tourists next to us in the courtyard were smoking. This isn’t a reason not to stay here, but if you are especially sensitive to cigarette smoke, you may not be able to enjoy the courtyard space as much as you like.
  • The search for money in ATM’s on Sunday night was not easy. I think a lot of the machines were out of money. We finally found one that only let us take out around $200USD each time, but it did let us make three consecutive withdrawals to reach our daily limit. I guess that’s how they make their service fees, by forcing us to make multiple smaller withdrawals.
  • Most people going to Machu Picchu end up returning to Cusco for a night before flying out, so the hotels are all prepared to store unneeded luggage for you while you’re away. They’re also ready to do laundry, quickly.
  • Are you gluten-intolerant or vegan? Although we didn’t try one, there are vegan/vegetarian restaurants everywhere in Cusco and most restaurants offered gluten-free options.

Next week: The Lares Trek with Mountain Lodges of Peru (Machu Picchu!) and maybe a few more llama photos.