During Inca times Cusco was the principle city and in the 1500’s was home to up to 150,000 people. Cusco is a delightful UNESCO city with several squares, historical buildings and Spanish influenced architecture. Cusco’s main square is called the ‘Plaza De Armas’ which contains many great restaurants and shops selling traditional souvenirs.
Cusco is located in the Peruvian Andes and has a high elevation of 3400 meters. As a result the evenings were chilly at around 6 or 7 degrees although warmed up to around 20 degrees during the daytime.
We stayed in Cusco (above) both before and after our Inca trek to Machu Picchu. Because of it’s high altitude many people suffer from altitude sickness. To try to reduce the effects of the high altitude it’s best to acclimatise slowly and carefully especially for the first 24 hours. The key pieces of advice we followed:
- Stay hydrated
- Limit alcohol intake
- Take lots of rest
- Drink coca tea
Some people prefer to travel more slowly and arrive from Lima by bus which helps you to acclimatise. However we chose to fly and flew straight from Lima at sea level up to Cusco where within an hour we were suddenly at altitude.
Altitude sickness is serious and can lead to death. There is no way of knowing who might be affected as young fit people can suffer as much as older people. Most hotels have oxygen available and if anyone does suffer with any altitude symptoms they are advised to relocate themselves to a lower level such as Ollantaytambo or Pisaq.
Fortunately we suffered no ill effects whatsoever, not even a headache! Although it might have been due to an over consumption of coca tea!
Coca tea is native to South America and particularly the Andes where it has been an intrinsic part of Andean culture for many centuries. As mentioned above it is used to alleviate symptoms of altitude sickness as it is said to dilate the bronchials which results in an increase of oxygen into the body.
Wikipedia mentions that coca tea has a similar taste to green tea which is what we found.
Coca….Cocaine? There is a massive difference between the raw coca leaf and the drug. The coca leaf contains alkaloids which when extracted and mixed with other chemicals forms the basis of cocaine. This process requires many steps and chemicals to produce the finished product. The raw leaves when drunk as coca tea however just provide a mild stimulant similar to coffee.
Coca leaves are also still used as an ingredient of coca-cola along with caffeine providing the stimulant you get when drinking Coke (and the 7 teaspoons of sugar of course).
As well as llama and alpaca which are seen on every Peruvian restaurant menu, most Peruvian people also eat guinea pig which is called ‘cuy‘. These are a staple diet and are eaten in a similar way that British people may eat chicken or maybe rabbit. As we associate these cute little fluffy animals as pets, neither of us (especially Chris being a pescetarian) could quite bring ourselves to taste them but really, to a non-vegetarian what is the difference between eating a chicken, a rabbit or a guinea pig….
Many Peruvian houses have little ceramic bulls on their roofs as a symbol of good fortune. This tradition dates from Inca times where alpaca images were used although this was changed to bulls as a result of the arrival of the Spanish.
Cusco Museo Inka
The day after visiting Machu Picchu we visited the Cusco Inca Museum which we both found most interesting, consolidating and bringing to life what we had seen at the ancient site.
We were not allowed to take photographs in the museum so here is a small description of some of its contents…
As mentioned in our Machu Picchu blog post, the lost city was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham on 24th July 1911.
The original letter from Abercrombie and Fitch, dated 8th April 1911 was on display as the company who provided outfits, food and equipment for Bingham’s expedition.
The museum had a large number of ceramics such as bowls, jars and plates. There were also metal objects such as knives which were found during Bingham’s early excavations. Some of the jars were huge and were used for storing Chicha beer made from maize. Most were in superb condition with intricate patterns and hardly any cracks.
Bingham was a keen photographer and took hundreds of photos of his work. Many of these were exhibited in the museum and it was fascinating to see Machu Picchu in 1911 when it was covered in foliage. We also learned that it took Bingham and his team 6 days of walking to reach the site.
There was information on current and ongoing excavation work and explanations of modern analytical techniques such as the use of lasers to give us an increasing understanding of the past Inca civilisation.
The museum contained an interesting exhibition on ‘archaeoastronomy‘ describing the interlinking of Inca astronomy, architecture and ceremony. Indeed Inca farming methods were based on the yearly cycle of the sun and of the moon and stars which was quite incredible and apparently not fully understood by the Spanish at the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.
While in Cusco we stayed in the Hotel Garcilaso I which we recommend. The location was excellent, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the centre of Cusco. Our room was comfortable with lovely thick blankets and a heater. Breakfast was delicious and was available from 5 am (ideal for our early starts) and hot drinks, drinking water and coca tea were readily available next to the reception. The staff were friendly and helpful and kindly allowed us to store our luggage for 3 days while we participated in the Sacred Valley tour and trekked to Machu Picchu.
Another little favourite while in Cusco was the delightful Shaman’s Vegan Restaurant a short walk from our hotel. While neither of us are vegans we had a couple of delicious and healthy meals in there.