Cusco: Ancient capital of the Incan Empire and modern day magnet for mountain and party hungry travellers the world over.
I stayed an entire week in this lovely city – recovering from the food poisoning, dog bite and encounter with Jesus I’d sustained in Bolivia – and found the city to be the perfect place to recover my sanity.
Cusco, apart from being the base camp from which travellers attack Machu Picchu, is gorgeous in its own right, and full of surprising little moments at each turn.
Here’s why Cusco was rad:
1) Bakery goods
My mate Max and I always found breakfast difficult. As it wasn’t provided at the hostal we were staying at, each morning we repeated the ritual of going out to hunt and gather something to fill our bellies with. Sometimes, it got a bit old.
But one beautiful morning, we discovered a bakery halfway up the hill from our digs which alongside empanadas and bread, sold borrachitos or “little drunkards”; a rich chocolate cup cake soaked in pisco.
We thought they were totally valid as a breakfast choice.
2) The “Viva El Perú emblazoned across the hillside”
This wish “Long Live Peru” got us talking each time we walked out of our front door and saw it, as the idea of a bunch of Aussies climbing up their city’s near-by mountain to carve out “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” across it just doesn’t compute.
No doubt, they’d be charged with being a public nuisance before they’d even packed up the Holden with the machetes and carton of Toohey’s they’d need to get them through the thirsty work of branding the mountain with their message.
3) Its sunsets
Max and I were rendered useless by stomach bugs within days of each other, and so spend the greater part of our afternoons writing. We called the loft-like space above our hostal home, and watched the hours pass by and the sun set over the city below. For a couple of minutes each day, it would erupt in a pinky, purple sort of rapturous happiness above the rooftops, before finally saying buenas noches.
4) The owner of our hostel
On the advice of friends met in Bolivia, we stayed at Hostal Andrea very close to Plaza de Armas. As we’d just left the house of a rather foul-smelling coke addict, it seemed a welcome change before we’d even met the owners. When we did finally meet them, well, we were stoked as.
Reynaldo and his wife were as pleased to see you each time you walked in as the day you arrived. He would great you with a big holaaaa and she would smile, hair as ridiculously perfect as it was at 6am, 4pm and 1am…every time you’d previously seen her.
These qualities were ace, but what made staying at Andrea’s ace on legs was the incredible amount of no-strings-attached tourist info he had.
Of particular amazement was the way he would sit down with each and every traveller who wanted to walk the alternative route to Machu Picchu, and explain the trip step by step in incredible detail; complete with self-drawn maps, prices, advice on bargaining and staying cheaply once at Aguas Calientes. If it wasn’t for his help, making our own way to Machu Picchu would not have gone off as smoothly as it did. (Sadly, even he could not foresee Max’s hideous illness raining slightly on our parade.)
I’m giving him a long-distance high five right now.
5) Its health services
Four days before arriving in Cusco, I was innocently strolling on a beach on Lake Titicaca’s La Isla del Sol, when a scraggy dog who I thought was coming up to woof me hello, bit me on the calf instead. My brain went “Tetanusssss, tetanussss!!” before I remembered that I’d been vaccinated against that particular issue. So I disinfected the bite up nice and went home.
It wasn’t until I got to Cusco that Max looked at me patiently and said “But what about rabies?” and it was like a cartoon anvil had fallen from the sunny Peruvian sky to quite profoundly screw up my week. I’d completely forgotten that rabies is faaaar more common here than in Australia. My body was quite possibly incubating a nice hot case of rabies at that very moment. Not a great way to start a trip in Peru.
I will admit that some google doctoring followed before I decided to find myself a professional. That professional was a doctor by the name of Dr. Shugar and his gang of hilarious nurses. They came to get me in a free ambulance (unnecessary, but rad as) and took me away to the clinic to inject me with some nice anti-venom and free me of that mutt’s dirty little germies.
They were all lovely, professional, prompt and honest…and we scored a ride home in a fast car afterwards. They even remembered me when I came back for a second course of injectable goodness – always a plus.
Of course, I can’t speak for all the medical centres in Cusco, but I had a blast at mine.
(Side note: It is, however, quite odd how extortionate simple medicine is in Cusco. While I had to fork out S/.150 for a serious shot of “no rabies for me, thanks,” (quite a serious choice of medication), Max was forced to pay S/.5 for 5 pissy little parecetamol tablets. Not the best value, me thinks. Perhaps the moral of the story is to only need interesting medication dolled out?)
6) The goat track to El Cristo Blanco
To be fair, getting us lost on the way to El Cristo Blanco (the white statue of Jesus overlooking Cusco) was probably my doing. I was so sure I’d understood people’s directions correctly, but suddenly we were scrambling up a goat track and no longer within eye sight of anything recognisable. In the end, we met the lovely lady below, who showed us the way…
…and off we went again. In retrospect, scrambling towards El Cristo and the ruins of Sacsayhuaman via the hills encasing Cusco was a great spot of exercise and a fun little interlude, complete with many a llama met along the way.
7) The menús del día
I will champion the menú del día until the day I die: Not only for its amazing economic value, but for the casual way in which you are served. For a few soles, you get a soup as a starter, followed by a meat-and-rice, fish-and-chips or casserole type second and a cuppa to finish up. It’s quick and simple; not a place to be picky about how your meat is cooked, or what you side is. Nor is it a place to go if you are not a fan of soup like Max.
“Do you want the rest of my soup?”
“What, again? But it’s delicious. You really don’t like soup do you?”
“I don’t like transparent soup.”
This conversation was repeated daily, and I never ceased to be amazed. I could live in a bowl of soup, after all: Transparent, noodley or otherwise.
Choosing a menú means getting in, making a choice between a couple of dishes, eating and getting out. No hanging around to chat over coffee for hours after. Nup! It’s about simple service and a community feel…as you’re sure to be surrounded by a stack o’ locals, oddly mostly single men over 40.
8) The juice ladies at the San Pedro market
Cusco’s central market like so many others sports an aisle where a gaggle of ladies wield blenders, creating juicy goodness from what juice was originally designed to be made from: Fruit.
The choices and prices are the same the aisle over – saving you shopping around and bargaining. – and can be made with or without water. Don’t forget to wait for your yapa, the leftover juice hanging around in the blender…only to go to waste if you don’t drink it alllllll up!
9) The fact that you can find Tim Tams
Craving junk food one afternoon, Max and I stocked up on Doritos, Inca Kola…and oddly enough, Australia’s favourite bikkie: Tim Tams. Granted, Choc Strawberry is usually the flavour of the devil and not something I’d travel even one aisle at Woolies to find…but it being here on the other side of the world made it a much more attractive option to me.
However, it seemed that Australia and New Zealand do not approve. Nup, this particular fabrication of our beloved Tim Tams – developed especially for the South East Asia market – will grace neither Australian supermarkets nor mouths. And, as someone who’s tasted them, I can tell you that that’s not such a bad thing really.
(But they did make our afternoon more amusing as we chewed through each and every overly sugary and very dry one of them…and laughed at how balls they really were.)