Cusco couldn’t be more different from Lima. I arrived on Christmas morning and walked on Cobblestone streets that were hugged by mountains.
Cusco, or Cosco as it was originally called by the Incas because it means bellybutton in Quechua, felt cozy with it’s maze of streets that merged into terrible staircases I had to climb. One unassuming turn, and I would find myself at the corner of a wide plaza with a picture-perfect cathedral nearby. Or I’d follow a lonely street until it slowly morphed into a crowded mercado, wild with sights and smells. Best part was that anywhere I could lower my gaze and find the Inca’s slanted walls; the symmetrical cuts and thoughtful design always outshone the Spanish architecture that was violently built on top of them.
Gone was also Lima’s salty humidity. Instead, cold breezes lurked under the sun, which combined with the high altitude made breathing very difficult for me. I drank lots of mate de coca, had light meals, and didn’t exert myself too much on the first day as was recommended by my Airbnb host Vanessa. Aside from experiencing a sharp and foreign pressure on my chest that first night, I experienced no altitude sickness.
On most days, I went searching for mercados of course! Everyone online recommended Pisac, so I took an early van on my second day there. I initially missed my stop but made it back without a sweat — after six months of travel, I no longer panic when I get lost or hesitate to get on public transportation even if I’m not sure where it’s going. Pisac’s market was divided in two: a small vegetable side lively with Cusqueños and a large maze of colorful stands inhabited only by gringos. I didn’t dare try to haggle for potentially real alpaca sweaters, so instead I went a little crazy over all of the woven bags and purses.
Before leaving I had lunch over at the vegetable side and bought a lunch plate from a Quechua woman sitting on the floor who was surrounded by other women. I got a large piece of the best fish I’ve ever had, a salad with some sort of stretchy algae, and lots of small little black potatoes that I later found out were chuño. Chuño are freeze-dried potatoes (they are buried underground) that when cooked are incredibly suaves, similar to biting into a banana. The food confusion continued when the sweet strawberry juice I thought I bought from another woman turned out to be a sour and spiky chicha de frutilla, a fermented corn-based strawberry drink. I finished the gigantic cup as I listened to the man sitting next to me tell me about his plans to tour Mexico.
Upon my return to Cusco, I began planning my trip to Machu Picchu. The entire process was very stressful and took about a day and a half. There is no direct route to Machu Picchu but there are various ways that I could have pieced together my journey there. After stopping by at over a dozen tour agencies and reading an excessive amount of articles online, I decided on a 2-day tour by car.
At 8am I got on a van that rode for 6 hours on the edge of what felt like an endless mountain. Outside my window, bushy green landscapes morphed into snow-covered mountain peaks with a terrifying freezing gray mist that surrounded our van, and back to a green jungle where we splashed over waterfalls before finding ourselves on dusty winding roads. All the while, Sandra Ciseros was telling me stories through my headphones.
A little after 2pm I was dropped off at Hidroelectrica Station. I planned on walking the 3 hours to the city of Aguascalientes and saving me the $28 dollar train cost, but I was feeling extra lonely like I tend to on tourist trips, and not very confident that I could survive the walk in the jungle with my backpack, so I let the Watson pay or that one. Once I was at the hostel, I went to the Aguas Termales with my Swedish roommate, had a quick dinner, and went to bed. At 4am the next morning, I slathered myself in sunblock and got in line for the bus that took me all the way up to Machu Picchu (I also let Watson pay for that one because climbing stairs carved on the side of a mountain for an hour and a half would have made my lungs explode).
As I walked into Machu Picchu, I thought of a conversation I had with a guy at my hostel in Cusco, who told me he feared Machu Picchu would not be as spectacular in person due to the proliferation of images. He couldn’t be more wrong. To see the perfectly cut stones up close and the water passages that are still working, or simply looking at the mountains and blue sky surrounding you and realizing the city was carved out at that altitude in a century, is undeniably incredible.
To get the traditional photo I had to climb up a hefty amount of stairs in the hot sun. Luckily I ran into some guys from my tour who not only cheered me on as I climbed but also gladly took many pictures of me. At the very top there were also a bunch of llamas lounging or being followed by tourists with selfie sticks. A butt shot was the best I could get.
One of my favorite shots was taken by an older man who felt bad about walking into one of my selfies.
The travel back to Cusco was long and terrifying. Zigzagging on the edge of a mountain during the day while splashing on the occasional waterfall is one thing, but doing so at night, while it’s foggy and raining for 7 hours is totally different. Also choosing to switch hostels that night might have not been the best decision since I was tired and my phone battery was running low, but I made it to Le Boheme where I had a wonderful night’s sleep and the best complementary breakfast of my hostel stays the next day: fruit smoothie, cup of coffee, buttery bread, and crepe of my choice.