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Published: September 30th 2013
Cusco was the historic capital of the Inca empire and became the centre for the Spanish colonisation of the Andes when it was captured in the 1530s. The city centre features some impressive colonial and Inca architecture, such as the Spanish-built churches in the Plaza de Armas and the Stone of Twelve Angles in San Blas, which forms part of an Inca-built wall and is an example of the precise way in which the Inca carved stones such that they fitted together without the need for an adhesive. Inca walls were so well-built in fact that many have survived earthquakes which destroyed colonial buildings.
In addition to its beauty, Cusco is the closest city to Machu Picchu and as such it is very touristy. The downside of this is that you are constantly hassled to eat in restaurants, buy overpriced artesan goods or be massaged. Fortunately, I met up with Andrew, who I met previously in Argentina
(he looked a bit different, having shaved his bushy beard into a Fu Manchu style moustache) and who had spent several weeks in and around Cusco and knew where to walk to avoid the hassle. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city and its history and was
an excellent tour guide - most of the things I know about Cusco came from him and I saw an embarrassingly small number of the city's historical and cultural attractions myself (the only museum I visited was the Chocolate museum)!
I stayed at the Ecopackers hostel close to the main plaza, which had big comfortable beds and a bar. It was a good environment for socialising and Andrew and I made friends with cousins Diogo and Felipe, who were nice guys and fun loving like most other Brazillians I've met, Susan from Canada, whose enthusiasm was contagious, friends Monica and Amira from the south of Argentina, who were both really nice people although I could never understand anything Amira said, and Andrea from Denmark, who I enjoyed spending time with and made me laugh a lot.
My days were spent teaching and then jamming with Andrew on the guitar (he was a fast learner), eating at cheap "menu del dia" restaurants or Prasada, who make the best vegeburgers in town, and visiting the market for cheap fresh fruit juice. A couple of days after my arrival we had our first evening out as a group to the Temple
club, which was far too busy but good fun. On the next day it was Ecopackers' third anniversary celebrations and as friends of Andrew, who was basically a resident, we were given branded t-shirts. There was a live band, followed by a slightly unnerving home-made firework show. We took it in turns to wear funny Peruvian masks and Felipe's head warmer while Andrew impressed us with his repertoire of dance moves.
One of the plus sides of Cusco's tourism was that it was possible to find beer other than the typical Pilsner found everywhere in South America and one evening we went to the Norton Pub in the main plaza, which had a tasty pint of IPA, although Monica and Amira were not convinced. Some of the local cuisine was also good - I particularly enjoyed the Peruvian dish Aji de Gallina, which was kind of like a yellow curry.
Most tourists follow a particular route through South America (known as the Gringo trail) and I bumped into Mariano for the third time since we met in Argentina (the previous two being in Sucre and Copacabana). It seems amazing that you can be in such a huge continent
Jamming with Andrew
This could have been any day!
and keep meeting the same people!
Unfortunately I had another bout of food poisoning and spent a couple of days feeling delicate. To compound this, I watched as my South American team Olimpia, who I saw in Paraguay
lost on penalties in the final of the Copa Libertadores. On the plus side, Andrea returned after spending a few days in the nearby town of Pisac and my stomach was sorted out by antibiotics, which I got hold of at the pharmacy next door to the hostel.
The hostel had music playing most of the time, a particular favourite being the David Guetta track "Work Hard, Play Hard" which I heard many times each day, both on the stereo and through Andrew's singing. There was also regular live music in the bar - the lineup changed every evening but my favourite performer was like the Peruvian equivalent of Eddie Vedder, and he played some decent Pearl Jam covers. I also saw a real Peruvian band on my penultimate night in Cusco with Andrea and Susan. Unfortunately Andrew came down with a heavy cold toward the end of my stay and wasn't his normal self.
The few excursions I managed were climbing the hill
to the Cristo Blanco statue with Andrew, Monica and Amira (close to the pre-Inca fort, Saqsaywaman) and visiting the Convento de Santo Domingo, which contains an Inca wall. However, the excursion I specifically came to do (like most people) was visit Machu Picchu. I originally planned to stay in Cusco for about a week before embarking on a trek to the Inca citadel, however, almost two weeks had passed before I finally booked a place on the Salkantay Trail. The biggest downside of travelling is having to say goodbye to the people you meet, and having already bade heavyhearted farewells to Diogo and Felipe, and Monica and Amira, who were returning home after short vacations, the rest of the group parted ways. Susan went home to Canada while Andrea returned to Pisac, leaving Andrew and I. It felt like the end of an era and Ecopackers suddenly seemed a very strange place on the day before I started the trail. Although I didn't see a great deal of the cultural and historical attractions in Cusco, the people I spent time with there made it one of the high points of my trip.
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