Tips for Visiting Cusco – ‘Bellybutton’ of the Inca Empire
The name Cusco actually means “bellybutton” in Quechua, the language of the Incas. They named their capital city aptly, as it sat in the dead center of their former Empire, which stretched from Ecuador down to Chile. You would think that the city itself would be filled with Incan ruins, but it’s not the case. When the Spanish took over, they decided to get rid of all of the indigenous architecture. Wherever there was an Incan temple, they built a church. They also tore down most of the regular buildings because the streets between them were too narrow. And the reason for that still gets me – the Incas never had the wheel! They build their entire civilization without horses or carts – they had a system of runners to carry messages, walking was their main means of transportation, and they moved heavy stones via rolling logs that were moved by a large team of men.
Despite that incredible handicap, they were able to build Machu Picchu on a mountainside! And yet, they were absolutely no match for the Spanish when they came with their horses, carts, guns and diseases. Now, the only visible sign of their former capital is the foundation of a palace on the southern side of the city. The massive stones were cut so exactly – via other stones, mind you, as the Incas didn’t have metal tools either – that they are fit together without any cement whatsoever. The Spanish built a bit on top of these stones, and you can clearly see the difference. Apparently, Che Guevera in the movie The Motorcycle Diaries referred to this difference as between the “Incas and the Incapables.”
Adapting to Cusco’s Altitude
After 4 days in Lima, enjoying the benefits of civilization, sun and ceviche, it was time to head up, up up – time for altitude! Cusco, the former capital city of the Incan Empire and gateway to Machu Picchu, sits 3000m above sea level – quite a change from Lima-by-the-Sea. For that reason, coupled with cost, we decided to take an overnight bus from Lima to Cusco in order to adjust to the altitude change more slowly.*
Despite having done so, we felt the altitude as soon as we stepped off the bus the next morning. Cusco is a bit hilly, and we felt every footstep as we carried our bags up the incline to our hostel. We decided to stay three days in the city just to get our bearings before heading to Machu Picchu. I had started taking altitude pills (Diamox) whilst still in Lima, and I was glad I did as I’m certain that it eased the transition. (It also made my face buzz and made soft drinks taste flat, but that’s another story.)
Shopping and Eating in Cusco
Downtown Cusco today is pretty much a backpacker’s city. Hostels abound, and most of the local commerce caters to tourists. You see women walking down the street with the stereotypically Peruvian two braids down their backs and a fedora-style hat perched on their heads, and they are definitely authentic. But there are others who have dressed themselves – and their alpacas (a furrier cousin of the llama) – up even more colourfully in the hopes that tourists will pay to have their picture taken with them. (We fell for it. It was worth it.)
Local knitted handicrafts are everywhere, and most vendors will tell you that theirs are ‘hand-knitted’ of the finest ‘alpaca wool’. However, dear reader, please note that you can identical handicrafts across the border in Bolivia, so please don’t be taken in. Bargaining is the name of the game, and you’re probably only going to find actual alpaca wool in the fancy (if overpriced) shops like Sol.
Kelly’s Top Tips for Visiting Cusco
- *If you are interested in taking a night bus from Lima to Cusco (or vice versa), I highly recommend going with the company Excluciva. They have lie-flat beds like in business class on an airplane, they feed you meals, and you have in-seat entertainment with a decent selection of movies. Despite it being a 22-hour ride, the time passed quickly and we arrived feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep. The price isn’t bad either compared to a flight and night of hotel! Flights are often cancelled due to weather events, and they tag on a tax at the airport that isn’t included in your ticket price, so there can be some after-the-fact sticker shock that further makes the bus the better option.
- Visit the Inca Museum – for a very cheap entrance price, you get a good overview of the Incan culture and get to see some actual mummies!
- Go to the local covered market (Mercado Central de San Pedro) for lunch – you will get fresh fruit juices and a good meal for local prices, and you can see various curiosities like dried baby llamas (can’t make this stuff up), which are used instead of human sacrifice these days to appease the local gods.
- Take the free local walking tour to learn more about the city – probably best after you’ve had a day to acclimate.
- Take Diamox if you’re even remotely susceptible to altitude sickness like I am – and definitely keep on taking it if you plan to head to Bolivia afterwards! You’ll need to drink a lot of water and avoid alcohol, but since you’ll be on a natural high anyway, it’s not a biggie.
- Take lots of tissue / baby wipes. Countries in Latin America on the whole, and Peru in particular, often makes you pay to use the loo, and they often don’t provide paper. Also, you will soon learn that you have to put it in the waste bin instead of flushing – a habit that can be surprisingly hard to shake once you get back to normal plumbing capacity.