My heart was beating fast, my fingers were pulsing with electricity, I felt faint–no I’m not describing an encounter with a hot Peruvian guy–these are the symptoms of altitude sickness. In Cusco, a city in southeastern Peru, altitude sickness isn’t uncommon at an elevation of 11,200 feet. In fact, Cusco has a higher elevation than Machu Picchu, which is why many tours start in Cusco where people can get acclimated.
The high elevation, however, makes for some exquisite scenes, especially from Parque Arqueologico de Saqsaywaman. Parque Arqueologico, an ancient walled complex located 12,142 feet above sea level, offers an impressive view of the city below and the valley to the southeast.
Cusco’s city center is very beautiful with its quaint colonial buildings, plazas, streets and churches. It also retains many remnants of the Inca Empire and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1983 by UNESCO. The city offers many opportunities for shopping, museum hopping, and eating amazing cuisine. We took a walking tour that roughly followed this route and I took many of these random shots.
Our tour guide took us to the Convento de Santo Domingo Del Cusco, which was built by Spanish colonists who demolished the Inca temple that previously existed there. The Qorikancha temple, dedicated to the Sun God, was the most important in the Empire and had walls and floors covered in sheets of solid gold, and its courtyard was filled with golden statues. Needless to say, the Spanish promptly cashed that all into their own coffers.
Our guide also took us to the Basilica de la Catedral, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco, and La Compañía de Jesús, both located in Plaza de Armas. The Catedral, which has many names, is a delight! Inside you can find a pulpit made from a single piece of wood nearly 400 years ago, a sculpture of a black Jesus, and a huge painting of the Last Super with a small added detail — a cooked Guinea pig on a platter in the middle of the table!
We did quite a bit of shopping along Calle San Agustin, where we bought baby alpaca fleece blankets and a sweater. We stayed at the stylish Sonesta Hotel Cuzco, an ideal location near many flea markets, restaurants, banks, and a 10-minute walk from Plaza de Armas, where we had an amazing dinner at Inka Grill.
Just outside of Cusco, which was the capital of the Inca Empire, there are Inca ruins around every corner. Despite the fact that the city’s indigenous people were Killke, the Inca who came after and grew to prominence are celebrated. This is probably because the Inca empire was massive–by the time the Spanish arrived in 1528 it extended from the Patía River in southern Colombia to the Maule River in Chile, and eastward from the Pacific Ocean to the edge of the Amazonian jungles–covering 690,000 sq mi with a population numbering over 16 million. Sadly, the diseases introduced by Europeans, namely smallpox and measles, killed off 93 percent of the population. The population today is mostly a mix of indigenous roots, Inca, and Spanish.
Between Cusco and Machu Picchu is the beautiful Scared Valley of the Incas, formed by the Urubamba River, and is generally understood to include everything between Calca and Lamay, Písac, and Ollantaytambo. The drive through the valley is phenomenally beautiful! The mountainside, with fields of barley, corn, and potato, looks like a painted green canvas. Terracotta-colored homes made of mud bricks line the roughly paved or cobble stone roads, Quechua farmers steer ox-drawn plows, and sheep and cows perch high up on steep rock formations.
We drove through the valley to get to the Quechua mountain town of Pisac where they have a Sunday market. The market is packed with all kinds of goodies, from fresh fruit and meat to tapestries, alpaca fleece sweaters, and other tchotchkes. The market is more for locals then tourists, so it’s a great way to see the locals. I had some amazing quinoa soup at a small restaurant called Blue Llama. And I bought a cute framed tapestry for my home from one of the vendors.
From there we went to Arqueologico de Ollantaytambo, a town and an Inca archaeological site, located at an altitude of 9,160 feet and about 40 miles northwest of Cusco. This once royal estate is a great hint of what’s to come at Machu Picchu. The tiered landscaping and the ancient stone work is everywhere. The coolest thing was the old aqueducts that run through the city.
Between visits to Pisac and Ollantaytambo, we settled in at our hotel Sonesta Posadas del Inca Sacred Valley. This little slice of heaven has scenic gardens, a wide courtyard, simple but classic rooms, and an amazing restaurant. Unfortunately, because I was suffering from the stomach flu my entire stay in Cusco my experience was not as stellar as it could have been. I saw more of the hotel’s bathroom than anywhere else, more specifically the floor of the bathroom. At least it was clean…
The night before we were scheduled to go to Machu Picchu, I was in the room throwing up. I couldn’t even keep down water! It got so bad that–well, let’s just say I could have used an adult diaper… I went to bed not knowing if I’d make it to the place that was my entire reason for coming on this trip. So, did I make it…. stay tuned.