City Experiences: Cusco, Peru

I won’t lie; I was relieved to be leaving Lima.  It was a lackluster stay on the whole and I was really itching to get out of a crowded city environment to see some nature.  When I arrived in Cusco, I was immediately charmed, even though I was fully aware that I was one of the more picturesque barrios, San Blas.  Maybe I’ve become a bit of a Euro snob, but I’ll always love my plazas, piazzas, pleins and squares with fountains and monuments honoring national heroes or city patrons.  Along with the glorious mountainous scenery, the Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Francisco captivated me so much I actually decided to stay longer than I originally intended.  I’m quite glad I did too because the altitude sickness sidelined me for the first two days.

Before I get to the particulars of Cusco, I must first discuss the bus ride to Cusco if only because this was something that was eventful for me.  I was very excited about taking my first long distance bus ride.  I’ve always loved long train rides as a way to take in some scenery and to make you appreciate how enormous the world is, so it’s a natural extension for me to love long bus rides.  However, the 22 hour bus ride from Lima to Cusco was quickly losing its appeal after my seatmate sat down.  I feel bad speaking negatively about him now because he was a decent enough fellow, but he was also a space invader with sub-optimal hygiene.  It started out with the butt cheeks-on-thigh maneuver.  He went straight to sleep after we left Lima and turned in his seat in such a way that his butthole was comfortably resting on my left thigh.  As I thought about the inch of clothing that separated our two body parts, I prayed to the gods of sympathy that he also didn’t have a problem with flatulence.  Luckily, this only lasted for a half-hour.  Then he turned over on his back and for some odd reason, his elbow came up and rested directly on my left boob.  Now I was beside myself.  The guy was completely passed out and now I was running through the decision of do I wiggle out of this or let him be?  As I was trying to maneuver out of this, I noticed the woman behind me staring over my head rest which freaked me out, so I gave up and accepted my fate as an armrest.

Plaza de Armas

My arrival at Ecopackers Hostel the next afternoon made up for the uncomfortable bus ride.  It was located in a Spanish-style villa with an inner courtyard.  Upon entering my dormitory of 18 beds, I was immediately adopted by two Argentinian men who became my first travel buddies.  I was so happy.  I’m generally bad at inserting myself into conversations so when someone else does it for me, I’m much relieved.  With a few others, we all went to the Plaza de Armas and shared some beers and maté, an interesting blend of herbs and hot water served in a wooden cup.  Then we made our way back to the hostel where the men cooked homemade pizza on the grill and I learned a new way to cook a onion – in its skin straight on the grill.  I was skeptical, but the whole onion cooked all the way through and there was the added bonus of not crying while cutting it.  All in all, it was a great night that left me feeling more positive about the days to come, altitude sickness aside.

 

After the Argentinians left, I met a fellow solo traveler, Jonathan from Israel, who also happened to be as obsessed with food as I was.

Just like going to the pet store!

I don’t actually remember the last time I heard or made the statement, “Me too!”, so many times in one conversation.  This is when he told me about the local delicacy cuy (guinea pig) and that there’s a small town called Tipón one can go to experience the culinary delight.  It sounded so “Anthony Bourdain” I couldn’t say no.  We headed out to Tipón the next afternoon and made our way to a little casita off the main road where we would feast on what in the U.S. would be someone’s pet.  After choosing which rodent we would eat, the lady of the house chopped it up and served us our plates.  Along with my half of animal carcass, I got the head and no, I was not daring enough to eat parts of it.  I’m really all about trying new foods, but I have a “no heads” policy when it comes to eating.  So now to answer the question that a lot of people are thinking, “Does it taste like chicken?”  Yes and no.  I could definitely taste some chicken notes in the meat, but it was still distinct enough to not live up to the Matrix-esque prophecy.  One thing I was disappointed with was how little meat a single pig yielded.  I knew they were little creatures, but I was expecting a little more substance.  Aside from the lack of meat, my only other complaint was that it took five minutes to masticate a small bit of skin.  I would normally be fine not eating the skin, but in this case it was so damn flavorful, I couldn’t ignore it.  In summary, it was a good experience and I’m glad my new travel friend informed me about it.

Now that I’ve acquainted myself with the city, I’m very much looking forward to returning in early April to hike the Inca Trail and see what all this fuss is about Machu Pichu.

Highlights

  • I’m crazy for plazas; Cusco was definitely not short of them.  Hanging out in the main square while drinking beers and watching time pass is one of my favorite hobbies, if that can be called a hobby.  Oh and the cobblestone streets!  I’m also a sucker for uneven walking surfaces!
  • In Cusco, I do love the architecture!  I’m a fan of portals and balconies.  Here, a few buildings featured some magnificent carved wooden balconies.
  • After our cuy lunch, Jonathan and I went on a nature hike through the small village and took in the beauty of the landscapes while sidestepping lots of dog shit.  I even came face to face at one point with an adorable little bacon maker.  This was a very welcome change from sidestepping dog shit in a polluted city atmosphere.

Lowlights

  • Cusco, as a shooting off point for the Machu Pichu going crowd is inevitably littered with a plethora of tourist-friendly conveniences.  My least favorite of these is the tourist menu, which features Western friendly cuisine at twice the cost of local places and are usually of lower quality.  When traveling with my roommate Elisabete, it’s always been our rule of thumb to never eat at any place that has pictures on the menus.  This is a clear sign, you’re at a tourist trap.
  • I had to pay to get into one of the cathedrals.  I generally subscribe to the British ABC (Another Bloody Cathedral) frustration and as such, don’t usually enjoy going to cathedrals, but I feel obligated as an American to see one every now and then (as most of you know, we don’t have many beautiful cathedrals in the U.S.).  So the annoyance factor is upped when I have to actually pay to get in.

Food & Drink Review

  • Lomo saltado – I finally tried this Peruvian dish at the hostel.  It consists of strips of beef in some type of soy sauce blend served over a bed of rice and with chips/french fries.  I wasn’t sold.  The meat was a bit tough for my liking, but again, as it was my first try, I’ll give it a few more chances.
  • Dinner at Brava Grill – This is another Foodspotting find and I’m very happy that I found this place.  It’s a bit more upscale than the average tourist in haunt but surprisingly comes with a more budget friendly price tag than the more popular places.  I also decided that I could splurge on a dinner because I was celebrating my six month anniversary of the day I left my job in search of greener pastures.  It was well worth the extra expense.  I had the lomo de alpaca with rosemary potatoes and a glass of red wine.  Everything was sublime and cooked perfectly.  Feeling so good about the main course, I then sprung for dessert, a chocolate mousse cake with almonds.  Sometimes I hear people complain that their chocolate desserts are just too rich and they can’t finish them, but I didn’t find that at all with this one.  Nothing but velvety goodness.
  • Ají de Gallina – This is another Peruvian dish and is a basic dish of sliced chicken in a semi-spicy yellow curry type sauce over rice.  I’m starting to notice a lot of Asian influences in the cuisine here.  I preferred this one over the lomo saltado.

Backpacker Logistics

  • Ecopackers Hostel – This isn’t really a necessary tip but I’m putting it here anyway.  Ecopackers is a Mecca for hot backpacker men in all of their facial hair festooned glory.   If you’re a woman or a gay man who likes to appreciate the human scenery at your local hostel, stay here.
  • Altitude sickness – A friend and fellow backpacker brought up a good point.  At higher altitudes the whole adjustment process means waiting for your body to produce more red blood cells to deliver more oxygen to your body.  This got me thinking that it would have been wise to have eaten a healthy amount of meat or other foods high in iron before coming, so my body would have more iron and thus produce red blood cells faster.  I’m not a medical professional nor do I completely understand the process but that seems like a logical thought to me.  I just hope I remember to test out the hypothesis next time I ascend.  One other tip, if you’re like me and have bad circulation, try to not cross your legs too much when sitting down.  Every time I uncrossed, I got the worst sensation of pins and needles all throughout my legs and feet.

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6 thoughts on “City Experiences: Cusco, Peru

  1. I’m really enjoying your blog. I will travel thru central and south american later this year so I’m book marking a lot of these entries to steer my path. I like how real your posts are! Thank you! Trish

    1. Hi Trish! Thank you and glad you’re finding them helpful. What countries are you planning to hit? I was in Costa Rica for the summer in 2004 and had a stellar time! I wanted to go back to Central America but decided to focus more on South America for this leg of the trip.

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