I literally can’t read Cusco without singing it in my head exactly as it is sung in the Emperor’s New Groove. ( In fact I quotes/ sung a lot of parts from that movie throughout this trip) Peru has been on my bucketlist for quite some time- specifically to do the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, but due to cost of flights and time off needed, this was the first year I was able to make this trip happen! And it all started when a coworker told me how he and his wife booked the Salkantay Trek. – Obviously I couldn’t let them have all the fun. So after researching a bit more, I found a SUPER reasonable tour and decided the flight prices were good enough to go ahead and book it. And here we are.
After a 13 hour layover in Fort Lauderdale, and another couple hours in Lima- We literally had the earliest flight we could get of the day from Lima to Cusco getting in at 5:45 in the morning. Let me start off by warning everyone that the Cusco airport is NOT heated and keeps their windows open so it is QUITE cold getting in that early. As soon as our bags came off the carousel we were layering up- hitting up the ATM- and then looking for a taxi. We paid more than we needed to I’m sure but overall, the cost of the $20 cab ride for 30 minutes to our Airbnb didn’t phase us at that point. We just wanted to settle in.
We got to our Airbnb MUCH quicker than anticipated at 6:15 AM (thanks lack of traffic) and luckily our host was already on their way to meet us to let us into the apartment at 6:30! What a super host. He showed us around, pointing out how to use the electric heater for the shower as well as the mobile propane heater to warm the place up. We had an entire apartment to ourselves and it was awesome! There were 2 rooms, 1 with 3 twin beds, 1 with a double bed, a living room, kitchen, and my favorite: This terrace.
It had awesome views out to the cathedrals in Plaza de Armas and the hillsides of Cusco. The place also had a washing machine so we could hang our clothes to dry in this little area.
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We thought about napping but looking out at the morning light convinced us we’d rather explore the main square (5 minutes by walking from the Airbnb) before the heat and crowds of the day.
Details along the street our apartment was on
The sun coming up over the Plaza de Armas in view from our street
A view from our terrace
More apartment views 🙂
Walking down the street to the main plaza with the early morning light
We walked around the square peaking in at the cathedrals hoping to explore them a bit more: but always seemed to have the worst timing as we’d be there during Mass.
We did luckily get a glimpse into the Cusco Cathedral as the main front doors were thrown open in preparation for said mass- as well as getting ready for the big parade. (more on that later)
About The Cusco Cathedral
As far as cathedrals go- this one has QUITE the history in stone work. While we never made it inside, it’s important to meander to it in Plaza de Armas to appreciate the stone work and get your first sense of how the Spanish conquered the Incas. Finished in 1654- it took almost 100 years to construct and is a prime example of the Spaniards dominating the Incan culture. The smaller adjacent church, Iglesia del Triunfo (Chuch of Triumph) was the first church built in the Andes. The location for the cathedral was specifically chosen as it was started only 26 years after the conquistadores entered Cusco and is built directly on the foundation of the Inca palace Kiswarkancha (the ruler’s palace). The majority of the stones for the building were taken from nearby Inca temple Sascayhuaman which remains largely in tact from its massive size.
*Important to note : the cathedral is not open to tourists during Mass, no photos are allowed to be taken inside, and it costs 10 soles ($3) to enter. *
An impressive facade!
After meandering around the plaza, we grabbed breakfast from a hotel/café on the corner of the main square- enjoying the buffet of options and the view of the main square from the balcony. After breakfast and purchasing some paintings from a street hawker, we headed back for that nap
Unbeknownst to us, that Saturday was the first day in a month long celebration of Cusco! Every morning on the weekends, a cannon was fired on the hour and a parade with performances graced the streets. We watched for a minute before heading back thinking to catch it another day when we would be less tired. (sadly not to be with our tour schedule the way it was)
We spent a few hours resting at the apartment (and by a few, I mean the afternoon haha) and by the time we got up it was time for an early dinner/ late lunch. We found a restaurant 2 seconds from our front door that served traditional Peruvian fare and had good reviews.
Wasting absolutely NO time on getting into the cultural foods- we celebrated our first day in Peru with Cuy – guinea pig as well as alpaca! The cuy was most similar to duck or rabbit- thin slivers of dark/ greasy meat with a very crunchy skin. (I wasn’t a huge fan but then, I’m not a fan of the other 2 either) The alpaca I ordered was good- most similar to a flank of very tender steak and with a yummy creamed quinoa sauce. I also started a trend of ordering banana milkshakes with my meal as for some reason- that always helped tame the headache I had from altitude during the dinner.
After learning about the traditions of eating guinea pigs, something they have done in the Andes for over 5,000 years, I wasn’t as shocked as I thought I would be. I was glad I didn’t order it- I just sampled some, but understanding that it is something they have ate for so long, eat at celebrations like Christmas and the like, made it easier for me to compartmentalize and not condone a culture that is not my own. Yes I’ve had guinea pigs as pets, and NO if I’d held one earlier in the day, I’d likely not have been able to eat one. BUT that being said- if you can try it, I recommend you do. It was quite the cultural experience.
** Also it’s so ingrained in the culture, the cathedrals in Peru literally placed Cuy as the main dish in the Last Supper paintings. Not kidding –
The alpaca and creamed quinoa I had for my dinner
After dinner, we headed up the stairs to get a great view over Cusco before meandering down through little streets to shop. We revisited the Plaza de Armas which under lamp light was so beautiful! We posed for a photo with some baby alpacas which I was absolutely obsessed with. *Warning it cost us 10s ($3) each to take the photo/ hold the alpaca. The women in charge of it were not playing around. We meandered down near the massive San Pedro market which appeared to be closing up at the time, and visited a grocery market for next day’s breakfast before heading back to the apartment to try and get another night’s sleep.
Overall it was a solid first day trying Peruvian cuisine, admiring the architecture in the Plaza de Armas, shopping, and getting caught up on some sleep after 31 hours. It also would turn into a good day to acclimatize before further adventures the next couple of days.
Exploring Cusco’s narrow streets
Sunset on the city’s hillsides
Cusco by lamplight
A Note on Altitude Sickness
Everyone reacts to high altitude differently- you can be in seriously amazing shape and suffer from it- or (such as myself) in decent hiking shape and still experience it. From experience I know that I can breathe fine at 11,000+ feet and don’t really feel nausea, but can experience headaches…
WELL headaches it was. Cusco sits right around 11,000 feet and only a few hours into our stay my headaches started flaring up. I did try to drink water (which I’m normally terrible at when travelling) and also tried the tea (which I liked) but neither of those things really helped. Sadly advil/ ibuprofen only dulled the ache without ever really getting rid of it. SO with that being said- unless you are taking Diamox (high altitude sickness medicine) you really SHOULD plan a few days to chill/ explore Cusco BEFORE your trek – JUST IN CASE to acclimate. It definitely would’ve sucked having to hike with my head feeling ready to explode- especially considering our first camp was around 12000 feet. The other unexpected part of altitude sickness was inability to sleep. I’m already a terrible/ picky sleeper but the altitude wreaked havoc for me as well. So moral of the story: plan a couple days pre-trek or take Diamox if you don’t have enough PTO to make an 8 day trip like we did.
Luckily after 3 days- the headache evaporated just as we began our trek. (Though I still struggled to get more than 4 or 5 hours of sleep)
Costs for the day
Taxi from Airport to Airbnb $22 – $5.5 pp
Breakfast at Cusco Plaza Hostel Buffet $10
Water jug and laundry soap $4.75 – $1.7 pp
Dinner at Kusikuy Restaurant $15