Most seasoned adventurers (or seasoned adventure readers) know Cusco as the small mountain city in the Sacred Valley where both short day trips and week-long adventures to Machu Picchu start from. In the excitement of hitting the trail or catching the train further into la valle sagrado, it would be easy to write off Cusco as a place to sleep, eat, acclimatize, and take a few pictures. But by the time I joined up with my Alpaca Expeditions group for a 4 night Inca Trail trek, I was sad to say goodbye to this most charming and colorful corner of South America.
I had no idea what to expect as a solo female traveler in Peru. I’ll preface this part by explaining that I did not even leave the airport in Lima…most travel blogs that I worshipped said that Lima was best explored while accompanied by someone else. I enjoy a good bold adventure, but with this being my first solo international trip, I was willing to let Lima wait until another day.
What I Did That Worked:
- I scheduled a pick-up service to bring me from the airport to my hotel. Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport is just over 5 kilometers from the center of Cusco, and with the city being at almost 4,000 meters of altitude, no way was I lugging my 45L backpack and large carry-on bag that whole way. Some taxis are regulated, but more taxis aren’t. Reviews in aforementioned travel blogs were mixed regarding their trustworthiness. Upon arrival to baggage claim, an army of willing drivers is waiting to get business from weary travelers, so what I’m sure was a deer-in-the-headlights gaze was very thankful to land on a sign with my name on it, held by a driver from Cusco Transport and Tours. The prices are extremely reasonable, (like “cheaper than most USA Ubers” reasonable), and the peace of mind was well worth it.
- I got a hotel that was just perfectly off the beaten path. Hotel Taypikala, which has four locations throughout Peru, was perfectly situated about 5 blocks from the Plaza de Armas (Cusco’s central square). Accessible only by foot or small car, my street-side room on the second floor felt quiet and secluded. The large number of boutique hotels and hostels are charming and comfortable, so look for “cheap and quaint” before trying to go upscale. The surrounding streets felt quite safe, even at night, so don’t be afraid of hoofing it back home after dinner in the Plaza.
- I started exploring early in the day. The locals rise and shine, so most places were open early, and I packed enough into my morning to feel comfortable taking a post-lunch acclimatization nap before hitting the streets again around 3:00. It was a Sunday, and I had the pleasure of witnessing both a massive military procession and a vivacious cultural parade through the Plaza. Q’oyoriti is a festival held on the full moon weekend before the Corpus Christi in May, when Quechua villagers from many Sacred Valley towns make a pilgrimage to the glacial peak Ausangante. What I saw was one of the early celebrations signifying the start of this traditional Andean ceremony, which was easily one of the most fascinating and beautiful moments of the whole trip. Get up and get out; you never know what you’ll see at 8:30 AM.
- I didn’t drink alcohol prior to my hike. If you’re taking a train to Machu Picchu for the day, pound as many cervezas as you want. I was about to embark on a 4 day, 45 kilometer backpacking trip with massive climbs and a 4:45 AM wakeup call. I’ll keep this one short: booze and altitude don’t mix. And yes, I absolutely celebrated upon completion of the trail…I recommend Cusqueña and anything with pisco. When in pre-hike mode, though, drink as much water as you can afford, since the tap water is NOT safe for consumption. Most bottles sold are at least a liter or a liter and a half big, and are always the cheapest option.
What I Could Have Done Differently:
- I could have taken bigger dietary risks. So much of the food on the menus sounded absolutely delicious, but I was trying so hard to keep a healthy stomach prior to the hike that I didn’t take proper advantage of the opportunities I was presented with. Good thing the food on the trail was so authentic and delicious, because I allowed myself a less-than-adventurous diet when in Cusco. Next time, I’ll try something that isn’t a grain, a cooked vegetable, or chocolate. Maybe I’ll even venture out to get cuy, which is the Peruvian delicacy of guinea pig, served either deep fried or grilled.
- I could have packed more layers. Being that close to the sun means that once it goes down, the cold air starts to bite. They do have outdoor equipment stores in the Plaza where a cheap base layer can be acquired in an emergency, which I ended up needing to do. Thank goodness I did…nights on the trail were absolutely bitter and would have been even more so without my purchase. I certainly needed to utilize the extra blankets in my hotel closet.
- I could have stayed another day. With the cheap cost of living down there, hotels and food were not detrimental to my bank account, and one more day of acclimatization and some extra sleep would have done some serious good once we hit the trail. There were a lot of museums that I didn’t have time to visit, out of want for time to wander and meander the cobblestone streets. I did visit the Museo del Cafe, which is more a small restaurant and coffee shop than a real museum, but the exhibition did a good job of explaining the history of the Peruvian coffee trade. I quickly thereafter enjoyed an espresso and un alfajore de maicena, a traditional sandwich cookie made with cornstarch and dulce de leche. The second-story private balcony seating gave me a beautiful place to get a few thoughts down on paper, flip through my hundreds of photos, and look out over the small vibrant city that I could have used another 24 hours in.
Dive into Cusco with gusto and an open mind. Try to speak Spanish with locals whenever possible, and ask questions. Even in extremely broken English, they will provide better insight into local culture than any guidebook could ever hope to offer. Don’t just let this special place be a quick stop-over on your way to the Inca Trail.