Many tourists come to Peru to visit the famous sanctuary of Machu Picchu and the only way to get there is via Cusco. This city with a population of 500,000 has become a major tourist destination, receiving nearly 2 million visitors every year. Cusco is more than just a gateway to the ancient city, there are actually lots of things to see and do, not to mention the bounty of local food to try. We spent two and a half days exploring Cusco and the surrounding areas and we still barely skimmed the surface of this enchanting city. So whatever you do, please do no rush because you will also need extra time to let your body acclimate to high altitude. Don’t underestimate what 11,000 feet can do to you.
Cusco is a city in southeastern Peru near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range. It was the historic capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th into the 16th century until the Spanish conquest. This city that is steeped in history was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983.
It only takes 1 hour and 15 minutes to fly from Lima to Cusco, and the flight offers a spectacular view of the Andes mountain range before landing at the airport with its elevation at around 3,400 metres (11,200 ft). As soon as I stepped off the plane and walked on the tarmac to the terminal, my heart started to skip a beat faster and I also took a few deep breaths of fresh air. It was partly excitement but mostly because of the high altitude where the oxygen level is lot lower. As I suffer from high blood pressure, so I was particularly conscious about how my body would react to the high altitude and had been advised by my doctor not to do anything strenuous on the first couple of days.
It was already midday by the time we landed in Cusco. We got picked up at the airport and transported straight to our hotel for lunch before some sightseeing later that evening. We were pretty lucky to be spending three nights at the luxurious Hotel Belmond Palacio Nazarenas.
Hotel Belmond Palacio Nazarenas
The hotel stands on the site of a former Inca building and reuses stones that may have been used in the original construction. This building is well known as the Siete Culebras (House of the Serpents in English). It is an example of transitional architecture built by Inca masons working for the Spanish conquistadors. The masons carved reliefs of snakes as symbol of wisdom in Inca mythology, into the Inca wall that forms the base of the building.
Belmond Palacio Nazarenas stands on the site of a former convent called “beatario”, a type of convent for what was considered to be a “lower order” of nuns. Then a church was built within the complex which is still used for religious worship, weddings and secular gatherings occasionally. Many early frescoes were painted on the walls of the complex, a number of which remain and have been restored.
If you are ready to splurge, hands down Hotel Belmond Palacio Nazarenas is the most exclusive hotel in Cusco. There are 55 suites in the hotel, all come with the luxury amenities of 24 hour butler service, free WiFi, a self-serve Pisco & Rum bar, just to name a few. Except the junior suites (on request), all rooms are also enriched with oxygen through the air-conditioning system to combat altitude sickness. I was assigned to the suite with balcony overlooking the swimming pool and also the panoramic view of the neighbourhood on top of the hill nearby. But no time to rest, I quickly dropped the bags off in my room and headed to the restaurant for lunch.
The restaurant is located right next to the outdoor swimming pool. A perfect spot for some al fresco dining on such beautiful day. To help us acclimate the high altitude, they had prepared a light vegetarian lunch using herbs and vegetables grown in the hotel’s gardens. I loved the freshly made bread using coca leaves which I’ve heard a lot about that supposed to help reducing attitude sickness. But what took my breath away was the dessert – Cherimoya (custard apple), local cheese and chia seeds, three different ingredients that I’d never thought I’d put together, but surprisingly it worked like a charm!
It was time for some sightseeing after lunch and our first stop was Saqsaywaman.
“Let’s go and see the Sexy Woman!” Our tour guide sure has a sense of humour.
Located just 2km on the northern outskirts of the city of Cusco, Saqsaywaman is a citadel dated back to 1100AD where sections were first built by the Killike culture. Then the complex was expanded and added by the Incan from the 13th century. They built dry stone walls where huge boulders were carefully cut to fit them together tightly without mortar. As many locals say that even a piece of paper cannot penetrate the cracks. Piece by piece, put together like Tetris, the wall is holding together strong and sturdy without any binding agent like cement for instance. It is truly mind boggling piece of architecture.
The site is actually at an elevation of 3,701 meters above sea level, so some of us including myself were definitely struggling with the high altitude. I was constantly short of breath easily, felt lethargic and needed to rest after climbing a few steps at the site. I’m just glad that I didn’t have any other severe symptoms of altitude sickness like headache or vomiting.
According to Inca oral history, Pachacuti, the Emperor of the Inca Empire had called Cusco the lion city. He said that the tail was where the two rivers unite which flow through it, that the body was the great square and the houses round it, and that the head was wanting.” The Inca decided the “best head would be to make a fortress on a high plateau to the north of the city. Hence the Inca continued to expand the site into a fortress which was originally built by the preceding Killike culture.
From Saqsaywaman, instead of hopping back into our bus, we decided to walk the 2km downhill descend all the way back into town. There were some alpacas grazing on the green slope, then I spotted a little girl running down the hill effortlessly, on the way home after school as she was still in school uniform. She was over the moon when I gave her a gold coin for letting me taking photos of her.
Don’t forget to have a rest at the Church of San Cristobal and have a look when you’re on your way down. It offers a great view of the city as well.
It was a great way to get off the beaten track and explore the neighbourhood that is less touristy. We saw old ladies walking along the cobblestoned streets and children were playing with backpackers who volunteered to be teachers are the local schools. Eventually we arrived at Plaza de Armas, the main square which has been the heart of Cusco city since the Inca Empire period.
Plaza de Armas and the myth about Coca Leaf
Here are the main square, The Cathedral on the northeast side is the main attraction. The cathedral was built in 1669 with the main altar made of silver, weighs 400 kilograms. Inside also has an impressive collection of paintings from 16th and 17th century. It is worth to go inside and take a look, but photography is prohibited, especially during the service on Sundays.
The southeastern side of the square is dominated by the church of La Compania, which is often mistaken for the cathedral because of its ornate facade. The center of the square is a place to rest with many benches scattered around the beautiful garden and a fountain with golden Pachacuti sculpture on top.
After a quick visit of the main square, we finally made our way back to hotel for some rest. But I couldn’t help myself checking out all the souvenir shops along the way, and found myself a Chullo hat and also a bag of Coca leaves as I was curious about it. The Incan have been chewing on coca leaves for centuries as it acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue. It helps overcome altitude sickness. However, coca leaves are banned in many countries as it has the compounds to make cocaine.
I took a few leaves and started chewing like a cow. It tasted a little bitter and like chewing on grass. Then I just left the now bitter, saliva-soaked ball of fibre inside my mouth and waited for magic to happen. Nope, nothing. I didn’t feel any different whatsoever. Then I found out apparently you need to use bicarbonate powder or a lejia (a sweet tasting of ash and flavour) to activate the alkaloids inside the leaves to feel any effect. Also, I’ve been warned not to chew too many, as it can also have laxative effect.
I’ve never ever had butler service in my hotel room before, so it was too tempting not to give it a try. After a quick freshen up and before heading out for dinner, I called up a butler for a Pisco Sour mixing demonstration which was included in the cost of the room rate. Within minutes, a butler knocked on the door and in he came, carrying a tray with all the ingredients ready to mix me a cocktail. I felt rather awkward to sit at the lounge doing nothing, watching him concocting up a delicious cocktail in front of me. I tried to make small talk but my butler was more interested to shake me a perfect pisco sour. The cocktail was delicious nevertheless. I was about to tip, but somehow I didn’t think he expected me to and left me to enjoy the cocktail myself.
Opera dinner at Belmond Monasterio Hotel
We didn’t have to go far for dinner as the restaurant was right next door at the Belmond Monastery Hotel. The hotel is a refurbished Baroque seminary built in the 17th century on Inca foundations. What a coincidence (or not) to have a convent for nuns and a monastery for monks right next to each other and now both had been transformed into 5 stars luxurious hotels.
That night we were in for a special treat. Three nights a week, the romantic arches of El Tupay restaurant resonate with the operatic sounds of Cusco’s best tenor and soprano. Throughout the evening, we were serenaded by amazing voices as we enjoyed our meal. It was exquisite, well executed classic International and Peruvian cuisine with modern twists, featuring fresh, locally sourced ingredients. We finished off with sweet picarones freshly fried at the cooking station right in front of us.
The high altitude, the delicious wine and the scrumptious meal sure sent me off to slumberland in no time.
[ …to be continued ]
How to get there – LAN Airlines now operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile. LAN also offers non-stop flights between Sydney and Santiago every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday in a codeshare partnership with oneworld partner airline Qantas.
- Make sure you have your vaccination for Hep A & B, Typhoid and Yellow Fever prior to departure.
- Get some US dollars and then exchange it to local currencies when you get to South America.
- Drink Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Camenere, Syrah from Chile; Malbec from Argentina
- Best to get bottled water rather than drink from tap
- To create your own holiday in South America, please visit South America Travel Centre.