Peru Travel Diaries: Colorful Cusco
Today I'm eager to share the continuation of my Peru Travel Diaries series with the colors of Cusco! While you may have seen my previous entries and read about how much I enjoyed Lima, Cusco was my favorite of the two. I loved the historic feel and colorful energy that surrounded the town.
At the Plaza de Armas
Our trip to Cusco was short- only three and a half days- and our main purpose for going was to see Machu Picchu and the Inti Raymi Festival of the Sun that only happens once a year. We had a packed schedule for our time in Cusco and literally hit the ground running as soon as we got off the plane from Lima. Below I have recapped some highlights from our short time in Cusco and my favorite aspects of the city, as well as some not-so-favorite aspects, like how to deal with the high altitude sickness.
Walking the historic town of Cusco was one of the highlights of my trip (along with the art scene in Lima!). Cusco's historic streets are filled with character, energy, and best of all- color. This is where you can find men and women in their traditional Andean clothing like handmade wool skirts and pants, carrying cloths, sandals made from recycled tires, and chullos (knitted hats with ear flaps). The colors and intricate handmade designs of the traditional skirts and dresses worn by the women and little girls was absolutely gorgeous and I admired each ensemble I saw. Even the Cusco flag is colorful! It is a rainbow that looks like our Pride flags!
My step-sister, Genie and I with women in traditional dress and baby alpacas
Color is everywhere you turn in Cusco. From the bright blue sky and white clouds as a backdrop to the beautiful city, to the cobblestone streets and the people walking them, to the textiles and handmade goods covering the inside of stores, there is certainly no shortage of color, or character, in Cusco. Since we didn't have much time in Cusco, I actually skipped one of the day-long tours to really get to walk around the city and people watch- a favorite past time of mine to do while traveling. I was glad I did this, as it was the day before the Inti Raymi Festival, and the main square- Plaza de Armas- was filled with parades and people dancing in their traditional regional clothing. It was an awesome and unique experience.
In Cusco, the people watching is amazing. The culture and dress is so different there, it is always humbling to see how others live and work in different places of the world. You'll see everything from women and children in traditional dress with their alpacas asking you to pay them for pictures; to neighborhood parties in the town square where the locals gather to mingle and cook dinner on portable grills; to women carrying their craft, harvest, or baby(!) on their backs in carrying cloths. The cultural aspects of Cusco were refreshing- we get so wrapped up in silly things as Americans and always want more and more, that its humbling to see people who live with what they have and make a living off their craft.
Basilica Menor de la Merced
One of my favorite places in Cusco was the Basilica Menor de la Merced. Although I am not a very religious person, I always like to experience the beauty of churches in other countries. In Peru, the churches are breathtaking with gold and silver adorning the walls- something we don't see here in the states. While we kept trying to go to the churches during off times when they were closed, we got lucky with the Basilica Menor de la Merced and were able to sneak in right before their evening mass. Upon entering the church, I was instantly moved by its beauty and the spiritual feeling that overcame me. I was so in awe by this church's beauty and positive energy, I was literally moved to tears- something that does not happen to me often. I started to take pictures, but I was quickly told no photography was allowed so I obeyed and turned off my camera. I was able to get a few shots of the interior before being asked to not take pictures, but I'm telling you these do not do it justice at all. I walked the entire expanse of the church admiring and taking in its moving character, and decided to stay for the beginning of the mass. Something told me that I should be there, in that moment, to remember and experience this church.
Shopping in Cusco was my absolute favorite. The markets are a serious dream filled with handmade textiles, alpaca knits, leather goods, and jewelry. Cusco is also the best place to buy alpaca knit products as they are cheaper and higher quality. I splurged a bit on a baby alpaca knit shawl, but the price was too good to leave knowing it'd cost an upward of $1,000 at home! And before you freak- the alpacas are not killed for their fur, they are only shaved (like wool), and the locals value alpacas since they are a huge source of income for many people.
My favorite market in Cusco was on Calle Espinar and it was filled with scarves, alpaca knits, charms, jewelry, textiles, paintings, throws- you name it. And the cost of everything there is so cheap. You can also negotiate in the markets and ask for lower prices, which they normally accept after a few rounds of negotiations. My favorite store in Cusco was called Inka Treasures and they specialize in silver and gold jewelry inspired by Inca and the quality and price points are amazing- buying the same thing here in the states would double or triple in price! While I bought the alpaca shawl, a handmade leather purse, jewelry from Inka Treasures, and random things from the markets, I didn't shop as much as I wanted since I didn't have the room in my suitcase, so I know next time I'll bring an empty suitcase and shop til I drop!
The day we arrived, we had a city tour that started an hour after our arrival time. The tour started at the Qorikancha, 15th century Inca ruins that were once adorned with walls and floors made of pure gold. From there, we were bussed into the mountains to Sacsayhuaman, an ancient Inca ceremonial ground which over looks the town of Cusco below, followed by tours of other Inca sites in the mountains, and finished in an alpaca factory where we could shop and learned how to spot fake alpaca knits- you never want to buy an alpaca knit that says its a blend, or if it pills easily- solely 100% alpaca. The alpaca fur is so sturdy and durable, a 100% alpaca sweater can last you up to 15+ years!
As mentioned above, our time in Cusco was jam packed with tours. We had day-long tours each day to ensure we saw as much as we could in a short time, but at some point it was a little much for me. The tours are planned to maximize your time and you end up in large groups of other tourists being herded along like cattle rushed from one place to the next. You also spend a large amount of time on a tour bus, which is great to see the landscape, but I was over it by day 3 which is why I skipped out on our tour of the Sacred Valley to experience the city. My family and I agreed that in the future, hiring a private tour guide is definitely the way to go, so you can tailor your tours to your interests and take your time at each location.
The High Altitude
The resounding thing everyone said/warned me about in Cusco was the high altitude sickness. Having experienced this in Colorado Springs, CO a few years back, I knew this had the potential to really mess with me. The sickness can hit you with nausea, massive headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, upset stomach, and dehydration. I experienced all the symptoms while there, except the headaches. I also had a sore throat which I think was caused by the extreme weather changes. In the morning and at night it was on average 30-40 degrees, then during the day it could reach 70-75 degrees!
To help with the altitude sickness, we took the altitude pills upon arrival to Cusco to help us adjust, and after that I lived on the coca tea. You can also chew the coca leaves bare or eat coca candy, but I preferred the tea as it soothed my throat too. The coca tea and staying hydrated was the best thing that helped the altitude sickness, but I did struggle with a sour stomach the entire time. I even got sick from the bottled water towards the end of the trip, but I'm not sure if it was the high altitude messing with me, or my system not wanting to accept anything since I was feeling under the weather. Luckily I stocked up on Tums before leaving the U.S. and those really helped in addition to the coca tea. I tried to put the sick feeling behind me as much as I could, as I did not want it to interfere with my experience, and I'd recommend doing the same for sanity! Also, since it's so common for tourists to experience high altitude sickness in Cusco, you can find coca tea almost anywhere- so when you start feeling low, drink some coca tea and keep moving and living the experience!
Blonde in the District