As the seatbelt signs turned on and the captain announced over the intercom that we would be landing soon, I glanced out the window and was awestruck by what I saw. Tiny colorful dots representing homes and buildings were surrounded by some of the prettiest mountain ranges I’d seen. Late afternoon sun rays reflected off the Andes mountains, giving them a magnificent golden hue.
After landing we stepped directly onto the tarmac before walking over to a relatively tiny airport building. The car ride was similar to our ride in Lima – a cacophony of cars whizzed by, surrounded by older buildings. But unlike in Lima, slick modern buildings did not eventually emerge in Cusco, which had a more small-town vibe, filled with many structures, plazas, and streets that were built during colonial times and before.
That’s not to say Cusco wasn’t modern. I’d describe is as a place in the process of modernizing while holding dear to its rich history. After all, Cusco wasn’t the historic capital of the Inca Empire for nearly 400 years (and also the historic capital of Peru) for nothing.
After settling down at our Airbnb, we began to feel the effects of the altitude. Being 10,000 feet above sea level meant less oxygen and constantly feeling tired and sluggish. Still, we had to check in with our Inca Trail tour group that afternoon, so we slowly made our way to the office. That 20-minute walk felt like walking on the moon. Step after step we eventually made it to the office to take care of the paperwork and attend the hike orientation.
The next mission was dinner. Our host had recommended a great restaurant called Cicciolina close to the main square, Plaza de Armas. We gasped and stumbled through a maze-like system of roads and alleyways and finally found the restaurant tucked away in a corner. The search was worth it as we sampled some amazing tapas and medium-rare alpaca steak. The steak was delicious, and closer to beef than to lamb. To celebrate our first night in Cusco, we enjoyed some pisco sours at the upscale Museo del Pisco bar.
The next day, we caught a morning walking tour and met up with a giant group of travelers to learn more about the history of Cusco and to see some significant sights and buildings in the city. It was fascinating to hear about the Inca Empire’s power and influence before the Spanish conquest, and many of the changes and conflicts that came after. We admired the baroque architecture of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, which was built by the Spanish on the foundations of an Inca temple. Our guide mentioned that the cathedral contains a famous painting of the Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples feasting on a guinea pig (yep, the painting exists).
Continuing our tour, we walked up quite a few flights of steps through the alleyways leading to one of the best viewing points for the city. The sight was incredible – rows and rows of red rooftops contrasted with the blue sky and brown mountain ranges. We spent a good amount of time enjoying the view and even caught a musical performance from some locals dressed as Inca royalty.
The last leg of our tour included a bus ride up a winding hill to see White Jesus and Sexy Woman. Let me explain. Cristo Blanco is a giant white-colored statue of Christ that stands watch over the city. Sacsayhuaman, a giant stone citadel built by natives even before the Inca Empire, is close by and has been dubbed Sexy Woman to help visitors with their pronunciation. The pre-Columbian stone fort and the post-colonial stone Jesus was the perfect juxtaposition to describe the city and culture of Cusco.
After a stop at a local village selling alpaca clothing, we ended our tour and went back to our Airbnb for a much-needed nap. We quickly fell asleep from exhaustion, but tremors and shaking soon woke us up – we were experiencing an earthquake! The epicenter of the earthquake was quite far away so we were just feeling the aftershocks. We brushed it off and enjoyed a pizza dinner to celebrate our last night before the epic hiking and camping trip. Pizza and earthquakes, what a way to start the Inca Trail hike!