A Dream Trip to Peru & Ecuador: Cusco

Continued from
A Dream Trip to Peru & Ecuador: Machu Picchu

*A few Junes ago, my parents took their dream trip to Peru & Ecuador through a U.S. tour company, Adventure Life.

Cusco's Sacred Valley - by Suzan Wynne

Cusco's Sacred Valley - Photo by Suzan Wynne

My parents found Cusco, Peru a fascinating place to visit, an ancient city with a mixture of pre-Colonial and Colonial buildings.  One of the highest sites on Earth to have been settled by human beings, it’s located over 11,000 feet above sea level in the southeast Andes Mountains.

Here you can compare the seismically sound architecture of the Incas with far less sturdy Spanish churches, explore a sacred valley, and enjoy one of South America’s most adorable rodents…for dinner.

In collecting research for their Peru/Ecuador journey, my mom found that most pre-arranged tours allow only a day or two in Cusco, barely enough time to get acclimated to the high altitude, much less take full advantage of the many architectural, cultural and historic treasures hidden here.  After visiting, though, she and my dad concluded that time limits here are due to a high level of tourist harassment.

While tourism drives Cusco’s income, there are still many poor people in the city; a potentially depressing but largely unavoidable part of the Cusco tourist experience is being aggressively approached by large groups of children selling postcards, etc., particularly on and around the main tourist area, the Plaza Mayor.

Photo by Inca Trail

Photo by Inca Trail

If you manage to get through this emotional onslaught with an intact will to contribute to the local economy, know that many shops ringing the plaza offer fine silver jewelry, woolen fabric art objects and tapestries, and stunning clothing.  My mom, who has a very experienced eye for art and handicrafts, fell in love with the beauty, breadth and quality of local artisans’ work; she advises shopping around a bit before buying so that you can familiarize yourselves with the best prices and range of what’s available.

Once you’re done praying at the temple of commerce, you can visit a slew of churches and museums. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, Cusco features over a dozen religious institutions from the era of Spanish conquest (late 1500s-early 1600s).  A boleto integral (integral ticket) can be purchased at the Cathedral de Santo Domingo (situated on the Plaza de Armas) for a single-price (15 PEN/$5 US) entrance to the cathedral, churches of La Compañía and San Blas and the Museum of Religious Art/Archbishop’s Palace.  Another of Cusco’s star attractions is the relatively new and elegant Museo de Arte Precolombino, the only museum in Peru dedicated to pre-Colombian art (Plaza de las Nazarenas, entrance 20 PEN/$7 US; texts in English, French and Spanish).

Plaza de Armas, Cusco - Photo by James Preston

Plaza de Armas, Cusco - Photo by James Preston

Getting around the central city is best done on foot in comfortable, grippy-soled shoes because the streets are steep, cobblestoned and narrow. Taxis (like Aló Cusco) are available but the streets easily become clogged with long lines of traffic.  Couples walking alone at night should stay alert and keep valuables close/secure; as in any Third World city, robberies are an occasional threat.

Photo by Ivan Mlinaric

Photo by Ivan Mlinaric

Peruvian guinea pigs - Photo by James Preston

Peruvian guinea pigs - James Preston

Because Peru has experienced major waves of  conquest and immigration since the late 1500s, Peruvian cuisine represents four continents — South America, Asia, Africa and Europe; in Cusco, you can find dishes made with everything from corn to pasta to coconut milk.  However, a few things are specific to Peru, like the yellow olluco tuber; a mint sauce called huacatay; cured chalona, or alpaca meat; and the Andes’ finest, um, delicacy — guinea pig.

On my parents’ first evening in Cusco, their tour guide took their group to a restaurant with a large menu.  A few brave souls decided to order guinea pig; the little rodents were delivered grilled on a platter, looking very much like…guinea pigs. Some of the group (my parents included), used to viewing these cute critters as childhood pets, had to move to another part of the table just to get through dinner.

For day trips to the Sacred Valley and Inca ruins outside the city, you can each purchase a one- or two-day boleto turístico (40 PEN/$14 US); Fodor’s offers excellent instructions on how to find/purchase these.

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Continued in
A Dream Trip to Peru & Ecuador: The Galapagos
A Dream Trip to Peru & Ecuador: Quito

See also:
TWT Travel Binder: Peru


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