Colonial Cusco - simply stunning


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South America » Peru » Cusco
August 7th 2015
Published: July 28th 2017
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Geo: -13.52, -71.99

Following an incredibly early start, we devoured breakfast and whizzed through the nearly empty streets back to Lima airport, where, after a truly efficient boarding process, we took off for the short hop to Cusco. The bumpy plane journey flew us over incredible mountain scenery as we skimmed the top of the Andes. The sun was climbing higher in the sky as we began to descend through the pillow-soft cloud into Cusco airport - jagged peaks undulating for miles to either side of the plane, coloured into gorgeous shades by the ever shifting sun.

After the damp cold of Lima, it was a welcome relief to step of the plane into beautiful sunshine and temperatures requiring more t-shirt and shorts than the thick winter jacket we had been wearing on the streets of Lima. Our tour guide met us at the airport and gave us a quick insight into the city of Cusco itself, all the while informing us of the different ways to combat the dreaded altitude sickness. Cusco nestles into the mountains at 11000 ft above sea level and this can bring on symptoms ranging from mild nausea and headaches to severe palpitations, breathlessness and digestive difficulties. There is no way of knowing who this will strike and there's no concrete way of avoiding it - it takes no account of age or fitness level. There are some proven tips to combat any symptoms you might encounter however, and so we have been drinking water like, well, water, and have had some of the cocoa leaf tea, an acquired taste which could incidentally make us fail a narcotics test on arrival into the UK, due to its high cocaine derivative.

We have found one of the symptoms that has afflicted us, which is the inability to take on physical activities that we would have normally found quite achievable. For example, carrying our backpacks (around 15kg) up two flights of stairs has us gasping for breath like a 90 year old with emphysema! However, as we met the guide and headed out into the steep streets of Cusco, everything seemed ok - no headache, no floating and no nausea. We slowly ambled though the incredible cobbles streets, taking our time to acclimatise to the altitude. All around us, locals dressed in a combination of modern and traditional clothes hawked their wares - a mesmerising collection of mysterious potions, vegetables and herbs - while babies gazed around them, strapped into brightly woven cloth expertly tied around their mothers' backs. The scents and aromas filling the air were an eclectic mix of the familiar and the unknown - zesty citrus mingled with mint, maize and indecipherable heady mixes of smoky flavours.

Our first stop was to meet some of the local ladies who were producing traditional snacks and drinks at the side of the road. Crouched over their pots, they were bubbling up a brew of purple corn juice and feasting on tamales cooked in banana leaves. We have been told not to indulge in street food here, but as it's one of my travel passions, I couldn't resist when one of the ladies offered me a gnarled hand proffering one of the sweet corn breads she had just unwrapped. I took a small chunk and it was... Ok. Very very sweet and tasting of corn, that's all I could say about it really. It wasn't a patch on the Louisiana corn bread we had enjoyed in New Orleans last year!

Our second stop was at the "Inca pharmacy" - three women with row upon row of herbs and plants pulled into roughly hewn bunches. Here our guide, a native Inca, talked us through all of the herbs and their uses, passing round different varieties of mint, Rosemary, chamomile and rose - each one with a different healing or preventative quality. We were told which herbs were best for altitude sickness and given lessons in how to apply each herb - crushing, rubbing and sniffing our way to perfect health. From there, we were led into the bustling market where locals crammed onto packed benches enjoying the hearty food on offer. As we wandered around the market, we were given an introduction to the local produce that Peru has to offer, including 3000 different varieties of potato - a staple food here in the Andes. We saw chicken feet being boiled up, leathery guinea pig being roasted over hot coals, fish being marinaded for ceviche, frogs leaping over one another in large tanks of water - the gastronomic variety was vast.

Our guide stopped at different stalls, each time explaining the medicinal and traditional uses for each food item and allowing us to sample, among the many delicacies: salted alpaca - like a very salty pastrami; 3 varieties of passions fruit (all delicious and surprisingly different from one another) sour physalis, quinoa, corn and strawberry juices and huge hunks of sweet bread. Our favourite stop, and the one where we were easily parted from our soles nuevos was the chocolate stand. Here 8 different varieties of pure Peruvian chocolate were ours for the taking - milk, corn, almond, chilli, quinoa, salt and the intriguing deep and intense flavours. Upon placing one tiny square in our mouths, the whole group was in ecstasy - all thoughts of altitude sickness vanquished. One girl in the group, however, did suddenly feel the effects moments after entering the market - I've not seen such a rapid change in anyone's appearance as we did today. Within seconds, she was white as a ghost and clammy, her eyes unfocused and rheumy. She did not look good, and it reinforced how quick and serious altitude sickness can be. Fortunately, between the 13 of us, we had a mobile pharmacy, and along with herbal remedies expertly whipped up by our guide, within about 20 minutes, she was ready to face the rest of the tour.

We emerged from the market, our belts straining and our bellies full of the local delicacies, and were then were guided through the narrow streets of Cusco. Bustling with tourists and locals alike, there was a wonderful juxtaposition of traditional Inca mixed with colonial splendour. Our guide explained how the conquistadors had destroyed the local culture, forcing their religion and customs onto the native inhabitants and destroying all evidence of their history and prowess. However, excavations and the ravages of time have uncovered the incredible stone masonry of the Inca - their sturdy and ingenious architecture forming the solid bases for the colonial buildings, and ultimately preventing them from damage from the regular devastating earthquakes in the area.

The steep streets led us to the main square, where the imposing catholic cathedrals looked over us on two sides, backed by the stunning mountain scenery. Painted in pastel colours with beautiful carvings and facades, and surrounded by jagged peaks, this is one of the most beautiful cities I have visited. Of course, the ubiquitous McDonalds and KfC are present, yet their usually gaudy facades are noticeably absent - hidden and camouflaged into the traditionally buildings of the main square, making them almost attractive. From here, we meandered down further streets to find the famous 12 angled stone - many Inca stones were carved with multiple angles to prevent them from slipping during earthquakes - added to the leaning walls which provided more stability than straight ones, the Inca were an incredible forward thinking group with superb architectural knowledge.

Lunch was at the stunning Aguaymanto restaurant, where the food was delectable. Stacey enjoyed an alpaca burger which was juicy, hearty and full of flavour, while I enjoyed their aji de gallina - a spicy chicken stew made with peppers, chilli, peanuts and cheese, served with (you've guessed it - potatoes!) and brown rice. It was divine, we also indulged in some quinoa croquettes, the thought of which is making my mouth water as I type. They were light, flavoursome and generally perfect in every way! Peruvian food is fast becoming a favourite! I also indulged in an Inca Cola - an intensely sweet fizzy drink which is luminous yellow in colour and packs a real punch. With hints of bubblegum to its flavour, it certainly helped to keep the sickness at bay - there are 50g of sugar in one bottle, putting regular cola to shame! It's not one I'll be try again, but it's something that has to be tried once to be believed. I am sure I am giving to slip into some kind of sugar coma before I leave Peru!

Following a short tour of the rest of the city, and its incredible Inca history, we meandered back in the last rays of the sunshine to the hotel. Stacey had begun to feel quite headachy and weak by this point, so we decided that a rest and an early night was in order. Tomorrow will be a long day driving thorough the scared valley and we need to be in tip top condition to appreciate the incredible sights we are going to witness for the next couple of days. If the stunning city of Cusco is anything to go by on what beauty and wonder we are about to embark upon, I can't wait!

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