Gasp! Cough! Try and get some air! Put your hand on your chest (hoping that will help). Bend at the waist and try to find Oxygen. Steady yourself – place your hand onto the giant stone walls and begin panting and almost laughing (but not too much, you don’t have much air in your lungs). Look around. You are are somewhere special. The navel of the world, as they say, is all around you. It just happens to be very high up.
11,172 feet to be exact.
Flying into Cusco, you start to see a valley come into view and your plane descends down between two ridges – the sun is bright and the land is all shades of brown, orange, and green. The clay-tile roofs everywhere. Unmistakably, you are about to enter the sacred valley of Cusco, Peru.
When we landed, the idea of finding such an interesting city was the farthest thing from our minds. Rather, we had a simple plan: get to our hotel, get some food, rest up.
Our adventure was calling. In 3 days, we’d pack everything we could imagine needing, and begin the famed four day trek along the Inca Trail. We would hike 10 to 11 hours per day, camp each night, and on the final day, ascend up to Machu Picchu and (hopefully) beat the hordes of tourists taking the bus. We were doing it the real way. We were doing it the way.
Our adventure crew had 3 principal members:
- Tim, a pacific northwester, was the chief architect of the entire trip, he raised the idea for the trip nearly a year in advance – his continuous excitement turned real when he sent us a screenshot of a $900 PayPal deposit.
- Tom, a Bay Area native, was our technology expert, he created a Whatsapp group for us all to stay in communication, and a Google Sheet for us to track our purchases and to-do’s
- Paul, that’s me, and I suppose my role was to serve as partial travel agent and Spanish translator.
Now the night before arrival, we’d each only managed a few hours of sleep – flying from Seattle or San Francisco, stopping in Bogota, Colombia, and then flying out at 6am and arriving in Cusco.
After going through customs we found an ATM, stuffed our wallets with the local currency, Soles, and found our driver, waiting for us.
While we had decidedly chosen to go “no-frills” – I believe an email correspondence early in the planning phase clearly proclaimed: we aren’t bringing any girlfriends, we don’t need fancy – our Lonely Planet recommended hostel had warmly offered to send us a driver and fetch us from the airport. Not too bad for $8 bucks a night for a bed.
We drove through these new streets, inching along at times in traffic, admiring the architecture, watching locals stroll the streets, and taking it all in. The air was crisp and dry. Distinguishably, we were far from the coast. It felt like Denver or Yosemite. The sun warm on your skin, but the air cool.
Like a ski town – corner stores all had worn signs for Patagonia or North Face gear, sleeping bags and Nalgene bottles dangled all around the door frame like strings of garlic to keep a Vampire at bay.
After checking in, we were shown our four person dorm room. Bunkbeds! I lunged forward and hurled my backpack onto the bottom bunk. (You always take a bottom bunk).
Tim and Tom claimed theirs and we noticed one bed was already drowning in maps, notepads, flyers, and unpacked duffle bags. Clearly we had a seasoned traveler. I made a mental note to inquire later if our mystery bunkmate had any tips or suggestions for Cusco.
We sipped tea, unpacked, and eventually gathered ourselves and headed out to stroll around Cusco and get our bearings – see what was what.
Immediately, you start to notice the people, the buildings, and it all seems to give you a window back into history. I wasn’t able to fully appreciate it all until after the trip and I read, Last City of the Incas. As the author recounts the collision that took place, I felt like I could see hints at it, while taking it all in and looking onto the faces of the local people:
“Nearly five hundred years ago, roughly one hundred and sixty-eight Spaniards and a handful of their African and Indian slaves arrived in what is now Peru. They soon collided with an Inca empire ten million strong, smashing into it like a giant meteor and leaving remnants of that collision scattered all over the continent. The modern-day visitor to Peru, in fact, can still see the results of that collision almost everywhere…” — Kim MacQuarrie
Feeling the cobblestone and cracked streets beneath our hiking shoes and the fresh Cusco air, we wandered about in a bit of a daze. Part sleep deprivation, part wanderlust, and most of all, the altitude!
We were so high up – when you compare to Seattle or San Francisco sitting down at sea-level.
The air just wasn’t getting into our lungs and up into our brains. I’m sure there is a far more scientific and technical description of what happens and how the process works. But in Lehman’s terms: we were walking up a staircase and our chests felt funny, we were gasping for air, and we almost all rolled back and tumbled down the steps. We laughed, or tried laughing, but no air could come out. Gasping and exhaling, bent over at the waist with hands on our knees, someone pointed at a sign that stated the restaurant served beer and food.
The thought of a cold beer and a salty snack heightened our spirits and propelled us onward. Yes, medicine was close.
After we tried various soups, plates of roasted meat, and a bit of salad, while fortifying with a few cold Cuzquena beers, we all felt better and waddled back out into the city.
A few minutes later, we turned a corner and found the main deal. We had found the central square and arguable crux of Cusco. Yes, the Plaza.
We were standing in the Plaza de Armas.
Gazing out across the square you would be mesmerized by the architecture. The two churches – the Compania and the Cathedral – require an unobstructed gaze and plenty of time just staring, looking around, people watching, and contemplating, what it must have been like during the clash between Spaniards and the Incas.
From our historical perspective we then decided to do what any good tourist will likely do on their first night in a new city: find the local watering hole and get rip-roaring drunk!
Tom had spotted an Irish Pub that claimed to be the highest Pub on the planet and that was all the selling we needed.
Later that night, we found ourselves seated at a table yelling across a mix of American Pop and classic rock tunes. We talked of past travels, imagined what we may find on the Inca Trail, and met a mix of Aussie travelers and local Peruvians that liked to hang with the english speakers.
The next couple of days were spent stocking up on snacks and supplies, sampling the local food, and going on two “warm-up” hikes, including the historic Saksaywaman.
Perhaps the best way to give you a feel for Cusco is with a few snapshots I took with my iPhone 6S. More to come on Cusco and the Inca Trail hike in the next blog post…
Until next time,
Photos from Cusco