Our flight from Lima went up 30,000 ft, but only came down 20,000. After we’d reached the Andes, the peaks grew bigger and snowier around us, until suddenly they stopped and there was a flat clearing with Cusco at the centre. To land, the plane did a fairly dramatic u-turn around a peak at the far end of the city before practically skimming the low rise rooftops of Cusco suburbia.
This sky high city was the capital of the Inca empire, and is still the heart of Andean culture in Peru. It’s also the starting point for the various ways to reach the most famous Inca city of them all – Machu Picchu.
Our hostel was up in the cobblestone hills of San Blas. The uphill schlep would have been tiring enough without the 3,400m altitude depriving us of that extra bit of oxygen – we should have taken advantage of the basket of free coca leaves at the airport. The reward, though, was a beautiful area with views of Andean peaks at the end of every street during the daytime, and at night time, yellow and white dotted lights from the hillside houses that looked like stars against the black of the surrounding mountains.
Decorating most of the white washed buildings, from the crumbling Spanish masterpieces on Plaza de Armas to the not-at-all crumbling Inca walls along the streets of San Blas, were Peruvian flags and rainbow flags. Our first thought was that Pride was being celebrated in a big way, but the rainbow flag is actually the official flag of Cusco. It’s an interpretation of the Wiphala flag which represents people native to the Andes.
Signs of Cusco’s Andean heritage go beyond just the flag. Inca architecture is renowned for advanced masonry techniques, and the city is full of buildings and walls made with perfectly tessellating stones that have lasted centuries. There was a steady stream of people posing for photos next to the famous 12 sided stone on Hatun Rumiyoc (the street name actually translates from Quechua as ‘big stone’), but the most impressive example we saw was at the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. The Spanish church is built on top of, and held up by, the much older, but much sturdier Quri Kancha (Inca sun god temple).
Llamas are a big deal in Cusco. They’re trotting around town on leads, their wool is woven into hats, gloves and ponchos, and they’re even on the menu in steak and burger form. We’d arrived in Cusco not really prepared for the temperature but the llama knitwear at the market in front of Iglesia San Blas fixed that – the hats came in handy as extra pyjama accessories when we discovered most Andean hostels and hotels don’t have heating. Not everything in the market was llama based though; we spotted wooden chess sets where black vs white was replaced by conquistadors vs Incas.
Our last day in Cusco coincided with the city’s Kacharpaya festival. This sounds lucky, but from what we’ve read there’s a festival almost every week here, so you’d have to be pretty unlucky to miss one. A huge carnival parade had taken over the main square and surrounding streets. Some groups were in traditional dress doing traditional dances, others… less so: groups of guys dressed in gorilla suits, or as bakers doing a kind of morris dance with rolling pins.
A delicious roasted meat smell led us to side street lined with food stalls. For a change, llama was off the menu here. Instead it was guinea pig! In spite of the fact that we’d both had them as pets when we were younger, we were up for trying cuy, but it turns out that their status as a huge delicacy means they earn a huge price tag. Also, you’re served up the entire thing which was a bit off-putting. Back to those llama burgers.
Whilst many people use Cusco as a base camp to acclimatise to the high altitude in preparation for the epic 4 day trek to Machu Picchu, we left with slightly less adventure but much more style in the glass-roofed Vistadome train.