Life at 3,499 Meters: Cusco

PUBLISHED ON DEC 9, 2017 — TRAVEL

cusco
The city of Cusco

The City of Cusco

      “Buenos Dias” huff.

      “Como estas?” huff.

      At 3,499 meters of elevation, Cusco is by far the greatest elevation I have ever stayed at for an extended period of time. An inconsequential walk uphill will leave you gasping for air as the red blood cells strain to deliver the muscles enough oxygen to do their magic. The streets are cobbled with bricks, and the ceramic tiling on the roofs make visitors feel almost as if they are going back in time to the colonial era. An occasional church gives a spiritual touch to the city. This city is beautiful, calm, and at peace with their way of life.

      Hills hug the city, gently providing protection to the residents (and incidentally its own microclimate). Daily average temperatures in Cusco hang consistently between 40 to 70 degrees over the year, and climate is mostly observed through changes in precipitation instead of temperature.

graph of temperature
Average Temperature Over The Year In Cusco

      This city is breathtakingly beautiful. The red houses propagated throughout the small hills provide an endless source of “Where’s Waldo” like entertainment. Tourism throughout the city is noticeable, but has not yet made the city bitter. Locals will generally exchange pleasantries with you, however I’ll admit my lack of spanish was a noticeable barrier for creating strong relations with the Peruvian population (I still made a few local friends through).

      On the ground-level, one of my favorite parts of the city is their proximity to animals. They have many, many animals in the streets and as an animal lover this tugged at me. I made many, many animal friends. I made friends with one brown dog that I walked by every morning. There was a kitten in the shop next door. The puppies randomly present in the street. Also, alpaca (which incidentally are far more “cute” than I thought). As someone who’s life goal is partly to own a dog, this city was like heaven on earth in regards to the animal population. Unfortunately, as with any large street population, I did come across some animals that were in poor health and occasionally dogs were aggressive with each-other.

Quick Animal Barrage (Sorry!!!)

animal pictures
Animals in Cusco were Amazing

Dining in Cusco

      Going on a long trip, I had to consider the frugality of which I ate. The Peruvian Sol is roughly 3 Sol per dollar making life affordable in the city. A “high quality” meal could cost only 6~10 US dollars. For the most part, I wanted to eat what the locals ate. Cheap, Efficient, and Authentic.

      How much would most of my meals cost? ~5 Sol (or $1.7). Combined with ~10$ a night in a hostel, I could live on ~15$ a day pretty easily. There were a few common meals that I tried to eat while in Peru. Lomo Saltado, Bisteck Saltado, Ceviche as well as some uncommon ones such as Guinea Pig and Alpaca. Dishes in Cusco were mainly some form of meat/vegetable soup or a plate with rice, meat, and some side like fries or salad.

      Meals at ~$1.7 dollars aren’t bad or small. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the meals.

pisco-sour
All meals shown here were 5 Sol or less

      The Guinea Pig and Alpaca (and Pisco Sour) night was by far the most expensive night, but still only cut the wallet by ~$30. What does guinea pig taste like? My closest comparison was “duck”, but with a less fatty taste. As for alpaca, it was delicious and tasted like a combination of beef and lamb.

guineapig
Guinea pig tasted like a mix between duck and pig

Hostels

      I stayed at 2 hostels for most of my stay. The two hostels were very different, but each enjoyable in their unique offerings. Each hostel ran me about ~10$ a night.

Pariwana Hostel

      The first hostel I stayed at was Pariwana hostel. If you want to go to a “party” hostel, this is the place. I mean…Pariwana’s wifi password is “party wanna”. My $10 a night stay was included with breakfast however I was only able to grab a room with 14 people at that price. In spite of the excess people to a single room, I very much enjoyed my stay at the hostel. Being around so many people gives you an opportunity to make some really close connections. The location of Pariwana was excellent, putting residents right in the middle of the city.

pariwana hostel
Pariwana Hostel

Sunset Hostel

      The second hostel I stayed at was Sunset hostel. Sunset hostel was about as far in the opposite direction as Pariwana. Secluded in the hills, it’s about a 10 to 15 minute walk to the city center. It’s quiet, and people generally went to bed pretty early there. Room was only 4 people this time…(a plus). The owners of the hostel (Maxi and Martin) were really cool and the seclusion gave me time to collect my thoughts. Overall, a better hostel to “get away”.

sunset hostel
Sunset Hostel
painting sunset hostel
Maxi and Martin Painting

Markets

      Markets in Cusco share many similarities with markets around the world with a few exceptions. Within the markets, there’s the traditional vegetable merchants with a variety of redundant assortments, the accessory dealer with an assortment of bags and wallets and the butchers. Markets here, in their presentation, were not particularly distinctive to me.

      I will remember Cusco markets mainly for 2 reasons: Music and Avocados

sample food market
Food Market

      Within the cusco markets, there’s a few unique types of food that really stood out in my mind. For one, there are the largest avocados I have ever seen (at at prices that put California avocados to shame). Of course, there was other unique fruits and vegetables there, but the size and volume of avocados stood out to me more than anything else in the markets.

Music in the cities
This was one of the many displays of music in the city

      The second reason to remember Cusco markets is the music. The city is alive with music and the markets are frequent hosts to a demonstration. I believe the city of Cusco shares its spirit through its music, and I saw many displays over the time I was there. It wasn’t the skill of the music that amazed me, but it was obvious that the Peruvians were putting their energy into it

Work/Friends?!

      Making connections is the #1 reason I travel. Coming into Cusco I directly knew nobody. Leaving Cusco, I will have made many friends. Some of the friends I made are from my hosteling experience, and many of my friends are second hand connections I made through people I knew from the states! It’s incredible what happens when you just ASK about whether someone can introduce you to someone in the country.

      I’m going to give a quick shout out to Reuben Bailon, one of my former colleagues, who connected me to number of people in Cusco that I am so grateful for. The owners of the hostel, Martin and Maxi, as well as an entire gang of people only a few houses away from Sunset Hostel. If you ever go to Cusco, check out pie-experiences.com to plan your trip.

fiends in cusco
Meeting people in Cusco is the best part!

      I even did some work! Meeting the team, I was just stopping to say “hello” and meet one of the heads of the program, Frederic. Instead, I ended up helping them with some of their website development. In exchange, I ended up being able to mooch off their internet (one of the fastest in the city), got some auxiliary benefits such as a pisco tasting tour, and was always greeted by warm coffee and a welcoming environment. I am so glad I was able to meet the crew and be introduced to a wonderful family.

Site Seeing

      Tourists mainly go to Cusco for one reason: Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is a few hour train ride or a 6 hour bus ride from the city. I’ll be posting a separate blog post on Machu Picchu.

      Additionally, another popular attraction is the Rainbow Mountain. I will also post more information a separate post as I will be doing both next week.

I will post more about site seeing near/in Cusco in a future post

NightLife/Alcohol

      OK. Going into Cusco I thought nightlife would get pretty “sketch”. After all, I thought middle of Peru at ~12am is a recipe for disaster. I was totally wrong.

difference between night and day
A view of cusco night/day

      Cusco felt safe and the city at night is stunning. As the sun leaves the city and the night darkens, the hills of Cusco are peppered with light.

      Cusco’s speciality drink is a Pisco sour. Luckily, I was able to go on a pisco sour lesson and a pisco tasting. Pisco, is built on fermented grape, and lies between 76* to 96* proof. The taste of pisco can vary widely, from a hard alcohol similar to vodka to a subtle aromatic version.

      The recipe for a pisco sour is simple:

3 parts pisco
1 part lemon
1 part simple sugar
3 part egg white

      The drink is light, refreshing, and absolutely delicious. Here’s a pic of the finished product.

pisco-sour
Pisco Sour

Conclusion

      I’m still in Cusco now, but so far this has been an overwhelming success. I got my prototype tracker working, managed to cross off my third continent for getting a haircut (incidentally I have a 6 continent haircut challenge), made a ton of friends, and avoided the stresses of usual travel in urban cities.

The final consensus. Go to Cusco if:

  • You want to have avocado
  • You want to visit Machu Picchu
  • You want relaxation
  • You like seeing animals on the street.
  • You like hiking
  • You want to drink Pisco Sours
  • You like alpaca

Cheers,
Andor