At 12000 feet above MSL, stands the ancient capital of the Inca’s. The city of Cusco when seen from air as the flight makes a dash to the landing strip looks like a giant mess of brown and discolored concrete. Looks can be deceptive very deceptive.
“Drink water, lots of water and walk slowly”, the locals tell the visitors. The altitude can make things difficult for some especially if you were coming from Lima. Give it some time and you would be ready to walk the streets of Cuzco, and then the image that you saw from the air would fade. I like Cusco in the evening when the sun is not too harsh and the Plaza de mayor, the main square starts to shine, both with the lights and the people that hang out in its womb. This was Cusco for me for me much after I liked Lima.
Cusco or Qos co in the local Quechua language means the navel, and navel it was back when the Inca’s ruled and still is now when the tourism rules. Most of the tourists on a tour of Peru spend most of the time in Cusco. In Cusco however, I am not sure how many of them spend a complete day just in the city.
It is easy to neglect the city and just concentrate on the many day trips that you can do around in, which involve varying levels of physical activities. So, if you visit the Incan site of Saqsaywaman or hike up the rainbow mountain, by the time you come back in the evening to your accommodation in the city, all you are like to do is to have a bite nearby and go to bed. To those who stay in the city, Cusco offers trips of its own. No, I am not talking about the sights in the city. I am just saying walk its streets, mingle with the Cuqueneons and then see how you feel.
My list of top 5, non-sightseeing things to do in Cusco
- Walk the narrow streets, chuck google maps.
- Get lost while walking and find something new.
- Strike a conversation with a local
- Eat where the city guys eat. Its clean, filling and cheap.
- In the evening sit in any of the squares and just watch the people.
The food of the highlands is different. In Lima, I thrive on seafood and fish. Here in Cusco, its meat, and since I am not a big fan of red, I eat chicken. Polleria, a place of chicken, is one on every corner in Cusco and they are all good. So, once you feel hungry and want a bite, avoid those touristy restaurants with a menu of the day and simply dig in with your fingers into a juicy piece of chicken.
How to order chicken in a Polleria
Find a place which looks crowded. Ask if you can share a table with a local. When the waiter comes to ask him for a ‘Quarto’, a quarter if you are a solo traveler like me. With your chicken you would get at least two sauces, I love the white garlic, and lots of fries, in some places they also give you a cole slaw.
The cobblestone streets of Cusco, are a joy to walk on especially late at night when you can only hear your footsteps. Even though the main square is a delight to be in, there are other plaza’s or squares in the old district of Cusco which might be good to be away from the action. When you have had enough of the outdoors and you have been good with the altitude, then perhaps its time to ‘go in’ for a drink.
Pisco sour the national cocktail of Peru is served everywhere but with varying degrees of finesse and skill poured into the glass. I started off with lime which is used for the sour in the Pisco along with the egg white, but then over the years, the Marracuja scored over lime for me.
The trick in asking for a Pisco Sour
There is a classic pour in a regular glass, called Pisco Sour classic. There is also a Pisco Cathedral, which is double but doesn’t cost that. If you are sure you will take two then get the cathedral.
Also, make sure you ask the bartender to handshake the cocktail and not to put it through the blender with ice. The froth of the egg white takes up all the space in your glass when the cocktail is poured and you might ask for the next one sooner than you think, which is what most bars want, right?
Cusco, is not your love at first sight city. In fact for many Cusco is just a transit point for Machu Picchu as Lima is for Peru. Give it some time, and the next time when you come to Peru, coz you will come, the narrow, cobbled stone lanes of Cuzco will feel like a perfect company on an evening walk.