You can find the recent capital of the Inca Empire on 3,399m high up in the Peruvian Andes. Cusco therefore even has a higher altitude than Machu Picchu and you can feel that. The first day I arrived I felt like an old lady wo had lost her walking stick and oxygen mask. Every few fast steps resulted in a heartbeat that took my breath away.
Taxi cost us 50 Sol and we were scammed. To compare the prices: Uber is between 10-15 Sol from the airport to the city center.
I am normally used to walk fast, but up here that was definitely not possible. First day I forgot something upstairs in the hostel and tried to quickly run back up the stairs … nope! This was definitely not working without leaving me breathing like a madman.
After a day or two you’ll get used to it and while you are acclimatizing you can chew on Coca leaves. They’re legal here and help with altitude sickness. Which leads me to the first thing you have to do in Cusco …
WHAT TO DO IN CUSCO
GET SOME COCA
Yeah you heard right. Grab a bunch of Coca leaves (around 10 Sol), roll them into a ball and start chewing on them. Keep that rolled up leaf ball tucked in your mouth for about 20 minutes. As soon as it mixes with your spit, it creates a bitter liquid, that will wake you up. Once your mouth is numbed you know it worked.
You can also make a tea with the leaves.
Did you know that it takes 5 tons of Coca leaves to make 1kg Cocain? Crazy right. On our jungle trek Inka tour we were told that there were some labs to be found in the mountains if you walk around 5 hours inland. We did not go, though I considered flying my drone out for a second.
CHECK OUT THE MARKET
From all kinds of different corn, fluffy plush toys, various food stands, herbs, alpaca sweaters and much more … you can find anything here. Walk over a non existing floor that is covered in sharp stones, step on small wooden planks that are scattered around and get some fresh cactus aloe juice after. Make sure to bargain and bring back some cheap souvenirs for your friends. I got an alpaca sweater for 30 Sol and probably overpaid heaps.
DRINK CACTUS ALOE JUICE
It’s weird, it’s slimy, it’s not really tasty. But healthy, they said! So why not drink a cactus?
TAKE A FREE CITY TOUR
Take a free walking tour around Cusco. It’s free and you’ll get a rad lama keychain for free. Do it.
Meeting point is at “Place de Armas” close to the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). There are 5 tours daily and the dude awaits you in a red shirt with “Free Walking Tour” printed on.
T O U R S 8:00 am (on request) 9:50 am 12:30 pm 3:30 pm -6:30 pm (on request)
Make sure to tip the dude (at least for the awesome lama key chain he’ll get you)
(It’s not the one on the picture below)
Qoricancha: TEMPLE OF SUN
The temple of sun is located in Cusco’s city center and was the most important temple in the Inka empire. The walls were once covered in gold, but to noone’s surprise nothing is left of that now anymore.
CHECK OUT THE MANNEQUINS
They are weird, they are funny, they are strange. Check them out!
If you want to read about what they would have said if they could have talked, click here.
DRINK A PISCO SOUR
Uh yeah! his drink is goooood! The base liquor is Pisco, the other ingredients are egg white and lemon juice and a hint of cinnamon.
Love it! Make sure not to get it in a dodgy bar as eggs can turn bad and we all know what that means.
Ingredients: 1 oz Lemon Juice, 1 Egg white, 1 1/2 oz Pisco, 3/4 oz Simple syrup
GO SHOPPING AT THE MAIN SQUARE
There are a lot of stores to buy hiking shoes, travel equipment, more alpaca sweaters and everything expensive your heart wishes for. There’s also a Starbucks on a second floor in a back alley. Make it a challenge to find it and go there right after returning from your hike to Machu Picchu, so you can swear at the damn stairs you have to walk up to get there.
WATCH THE CITY AT NIGHT (STARS)
Walk around the city and stare at the tiny lights on the hills surrounding Cusco. They look like tiny stars and while you imagine to float through space, get your iPhone stolen by some fucking bastards who probably live close to the tiny stars. I guess there are favelas and no – I do not have pictures on my phone anymore.
CAREFUL “PICKPOCKETING” !
This leads me to the next point, which probably explains my happy writing style. Cusco is dangerous. The people are extremely friendly and I love the city, but watch your stuff! I got robbed twice and lost my GoPro and then my iPhone the other day. They pushed me onto an old lady and whilst I was apologising I was robbed from behind.
SNEAK THROUGH THE SMUGGLER’S MARKET
Go to Baratillo market on a Saturday (near Santiago Bridge) to get your stuff back. Or at least try it. The whole market is an experience itself as you walk through huge piles of shoes, pass chicken feet and dead animals that take your breath away and wade through dog shit while it rains. The floors are covered with old cutlery, old clothes and heaps of (probably stolen) electronics. Watch your bags or don’t take any.
“Nathan is ready to get your stuff back,” Monet, a girl I’ve met on the Machu Picchu hike told me.
“He threw a chair at a guy once”.
Nice one! Loved these two already.
And there we were walking through the market, scanning piles of shit for an iPhone 6, ready to steal it back. One guy came up to us fumbling three Samsung mobiles around “Phone?” he shouted.
“No” Nathan said.
“NO?”, the dude angrily shouted back.
“NO.” Nathan replied.
This went on at least 6 times and made me smile heavily. Without getting into any fight we continued our phone search until the rain started pouring down. Everything was covered in plastic and there was no chance to find my stolen iPhone anymore.
At least we’ve tried, I thought and the fact that I had probably just made two new travel friends made me happy again.
The “Sexy Woman” Temple (Thanks Stephan- still laughing about that one! ) is located on a hilltop close to Cusco. I found this little gem accidentally while flying my drone over Cusco. There are day tours that will take you there and this is how it looks like from the sky:
GRAB A SNACK AT “LA VALERIANA”
It’s not Peruvian but it makes the European heart happy. Nice pastries, decorative muffins in cages and comfortable couches make you cringe with joy. Try a lemonade made out of Valeria, a plant grown in Cusco:
And yes. It’s as tasty and not as sweet as it looks.
Address: Portal Espinar 115, Cusco 08000, Peru (closes at 10pm)
WHERE TO STAY
There are SO many hostels to stay. I would recommend to choose the one you feel most comfortable with. I guess they are all similar. Make sure not to stay at a party hostel when you have to get up early the next day.
I stayed at “the Point”, but I can also sleep like a baby as soon as I lie down. The parties were great and the location was beautiful. It has a garden and a big area inside with a ping-pong table. Food is great and you will definitely meet a lot of other travellers when you go there.