Are three days in Cusco, Peru enough? Of course! The ancient Inca capital of cobbled streets, plazas and a dramatic central square is a popular base to acclimatize, with plenty of attractions
Story and Photos by Desiree Anstey
Soprano high whistles direct traffic from narrow, stone-slabbed streets. There’s screeching of brakes and honking of horns, but our taxi driver is undeterred. After all, it’s just another hectic mess of organized chaos for him in the ancient Incan capital of Cusco.
Through the rolled-down window, he motions to “the crown jewel” of the city on our right called Coricancha. Before the Spaniards “discovered” (conquered) Cusco in the early 16th century, there were sections of this temple painted in sheets of pure gold. The temple is believed to be the holiest structure in the Incan Empire. Known as the Golden Enclosure, it was dedicated to some of the most important Incan gods, including Viracocha, the creator, Quilla, the moon goddess, and the most significant and powerful of them all Inti, God of the Sun.
I envision the golden courtyard in all its former glory, bathed by the sun and aligned with the mountains. The construction is attributed to Pachacutec, the ninth Inca ruler—from 1438 to 1471, who started conquering land beyond Cusco and turned the Incas into an empire—but little remains except sections of its stone walls and legendary stories of gold. In the picture above, the stonework at the base of the structure (the large stones that fit together by cut, with no sealing agent) is the remnant of an Inca temple the Spaniards built the cathedral over, in a symbol of domination. Cusco, and Peru, is peppered with this distinctive Inca stonework.
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The Spanish stripped and melted the gold in the temple so it could be sent back to their homeland, then constructed a cathedral on top of the Inca site as metaphor of its conquering the people and their culture. The stones show where the Inca handiwork ends and the Spanish begins.
Cusco is said to be designed in the shape of a puma, with Coricancha located in the animal’s tail. The puma, the condor and the snake are important religious symbols that represent the three stages of Inca life: the snake represents the lower or underworld; the puma, the middle world of earth; the condor is for the heavens. The puma was a symbol of power and strength, the greatest predator to emulate. It’s amazing to study a map of Cusco, with the archaeological site of Saqsayhuaman (pronounced like “sexy woman” in English) as the head of the animal overlooking the city on a high hill in a Andes valley. But my concentration is stolen from the stonemason ingenuity of Coricancha, by the pounding heartbeat gathering in my head.
We’re at an elevation of 3,399 meters, the highest I’ve ever been. Our driver locks eyes with us from the center mirror and boldly asks if we feel the effects of the thin, harsh air. My husband Terry and I gulp shallow breaths, crack a smile and nod with the unspoken words of an agreement while lost in surrealism.
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To the left, there’s a traditionally dressed Quechuan woman pushing her fluffy-white alpaca onto a narrow ledge and out of the way of oncoming traffic. Alpacas are raised to provide clothing, food, transport, companionship, and an opportunity for tourists to take pictures for a small fee. I watch the two slowly move, until out of sight. The final leg of our ride takes us through the main square, the Plaza de Armas. It’s the central nucleus of the city, which is nestled on a former marsh. I notice there are two landmarks that tower this space: the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, and the Church De La Compania De Jesus.
The square, thick with crowds, is lined with a combination of Andean and Hispanic architecture, and home to travel agencies, restaurants, cafes and stores that sell everything from alpaca clothing to trinkets. It’s a lively kaleidoscope of colour, combining both the traditional and tourist.
Terry and I are staying at the Aranwa Cusco Boutique Hotel, located on the outskirts of this square, before the four-day/three-night trek we’re here to take through the Andes and to the masterpiece of Machu Picchu. On arrival, we’re transported to the 16th century. “Aranwa” in Quechua means “legend,” which seems fitting for this hotel-museum. The walls are decorated with more than 300 pieces of art, including carefully placed sculptures and exquisite colonial furniture.
The hotel-museum offers tours for a small fee to those not accommodated. We settle into our room and rest for a moment while sipping freshly boiled coca tea to help acclimatize, before setting out on foot to explore this bustling city. At the top of our things-to-do is discovering San Pedro Market (Mercado Central de San Pedro). This sprawling authentic maze is the hub where the locals flock to catch up on the gossip, stock up on groceries and clothing, or have lunch or a freshly-made smoothie (minus the ice).
Inside this market, Terry and I are greeted by thick buttery fumes from an aisle laden with baked goods. Bread, buns and pastries cover every square inch. Down another aisle, fruit of every shape and size you can imagine, and equally as pleasant to inhale all the citrus scents. All stalls seem manned by women on stools that sell everything from vegetables, coca leaves, overflowing sacks of beans, purple, white and gold corn, herbs, spices, potatoes, including cheese, meat, and eggs. There are no rigid health and safety standards here like you would expect to find in Western countries. I stroll past the carcasses of chicken lying dormant in the warm sun while gathering hungry flies. Guinea pigs (and not the pet kind, it’s considered a delicacy in Peru), chicken feet, lamb, pork and other organs laid out on display.
Families gather for lunch in one section where piping-hot soups are spooned onto plates with rice and served with a cold Cusquena beer, coca tea or Inca Kola. There’s a stream of vendors nearby selling a variety of fresh-fruit smoothies. I question Terry if we should get a smoothie, but he still feels the altitude, and food is the last thing on his mind.
We weave our way to another section of textiles, ceramics, jewellery, ponchos, rugs, hats and gloves, including Andean instruments, and souvenirs for tourists. It’s a tapestry of colour from the ground to the ceiling. What an incredible market, a whole sensory experience.
There are smaller markets tucked behind Incan walls and steep cobbled streets. San Blas Market (Mercado San Blas) is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Cusco. The market is in the plaza that faces the Church of San Blas every Saturday. I find alpaca toys, contemporary and traditional textiles, art that highlights the top historic landmarks in Peru, including jewelry, clothing, and even live music with a group playing traditional Andean pan flutes. The day passes too quickly.
In the evening, we meet with our tour operator to go over the itinerary for our Lares trek. The next few days are going to be difficult. Hiking in the remote wilderness will test us to our limits in perseverance, resilience and optimism. But thanks to the vibrant market culture we soaked in earlier today, Terry and I are ready for the next leg of our journey. We sign a waiver with the tour operator, and then conclude the day with the “clink” of our glasses filled to the rim with Pisco sours, Peru’s signature drink.