Journal 12 - December 6, 2002

Cusco » Go Back

Journal 12
Cusco, traveler's Mecca for South America. Backpacker's heaven. Internet cafes, restaurants, discos, trekking, hiking, biking, rafting, English, Irish, American, Aussie, Kiwi. Home for two weeks. Ancient Inca city destroyed and conquered by the Spanish, then rebuilt with colonial architecture on top of the Inca stones that remained as foundations for the new buildings. $3, $4 to $150 a night, you know where I stand on that.

Plaza de Armas extraordinaire, peddlers, beggars, hustlers. It's very easy to get comfortable in Cusco. Chris, one of the few American backpackers I've met, had been there for two months and hadn't seen one ruin, museum, or Inca stone, but he does know every pub, disco, doorman, barmaid and waitress in town.

Cusco has a very European feel, beyond the thousands of European tourists that populate the town year-round. The architecture, cuisine, and culture feel European. Endless arches in the walkways, sidewalk cafes, bakeries, restaurants, Coca tea, and no need for a car or taxi. Walk to the plaza, walk to the café, walk to the Inca ruins, for four days.

Upon first arriving in Cusco you stick out like the gringo you are. Extra large backpack, wide eyes, deer-in-the-headlights look on your face. First the hostal hustlers attack you, then the post-card peddlers, then the restaurateurs; "balcony, free pisco sour, free copa de vino, where are you from señor?" "No tengo hambre, no quiero, gracias," be polite first. "Maybe later senor, here, ticket for free drink." "No, gracias," you still haven't dumped your bag and it's 8 a.m.

First priority is to get settled, find a hostal and get rid of the oversized pack. Maybe rinse off in the suicide shower, then look for a bite to eat. As a newbie you're drawn to the Plaza de Armas, a beautiful Spanish style colonial plaza with terra cotta red roofs, arching walkways, and frenetic energy. The taxis buzz around the plaza like hornets from a disturbed nest. Where to eat? Was that one in the guidebook? Like hyenas to a carcass they crowd around offering free wine and drink, balcony view, the world. Eventually you give in, your hungry, tired, they all seem the same and you need food.

After a few days you grow immune to them. Don't look'em in the eye, like New York. After a while, if you're smart, you venture out of the Plaza, where only a few blocks away the prices drop and the quality increases because the venders need to offer a good product in lieu of a balcony view or guidebook recommendation. Three blocks away is my favorite, a pristine bakery that offers $0.60 empanadas and freshly baked pies and cakes, with real, good coffee. I began eating there twice a day because it was the best food in Cusco, and I got out of there for $1.85completely stuffed.

Like the post-card peddlers, the nightlife doesn't stop. Sunday, Monday, no matter, each day a new crop of gringos arrive ready to party down and dance till dawn. Don't bother going to the disco before midnight, better off starting at the pub, Paddy's Irish Pub is my favorite until twelve. Hang out, eat, and talk with travelers from around the world. Meet and talk to people from all over, trade information over an Inca Cola or two, then next door to Mama Africa to dance the night away.

Not just backpackers in Cusco, all sorts of people. Educators, expatriates, artists, scammers, cons, corporate dropouts, yuppies, five-star-hotel visitors (whatever that is). Machu Picchu is the main tourist attraction, with either a four-day hike to the Inca city, or a one-day train ride to Aguas Caliente, where you can catch a bus to the ruins. As I said though, it's possible, although not conceivable to me, to come here and just be comfortable, eat, drink, sleep, not bother with the ruins. The Plaza is beautiful, the food is great, especially when you're able to keep it down, and the nightlife is spectacular. Best to do in the plaza is sit on a balcony, drink a cup of tea or a cappuccino, read, write, people watch and relax. I got used to this very quickly. I have been known to frequent a coffee shop or two in the past.

Be careful while you're there, not of the pickpockets, but the food, water, and fruit. The lucky ones eat from street venders, brush their teeth with tap water, eat uncooked fruits and veggies and flaunt their steel guts. Others suffer, like I did, from Machcu Picchu's revenge. It's good to know though that I wasn't the only one to be welcomed this way. Some consider it an initiation to Cusco. English, Irish, Israeli and Palestinian alike, all are susceptible to the bugs. And the altitude too. I later learned that what I thought was food poisoning could have been altitude sickness, same symptoms apparently. Only the Inca gods know for sure.

There are thieves too, a lot, or so they say. It pays to be alert. It also pays to be six feet two inches tall. Either way, keep your head on a swivel when returning to your hostal late at night. Nobody I know had any problems, but from what I hear there is the risk. This is especially true for blonde girls from what I was told, apparently they're magnets. They do stick out, not many blonde Peruvians. Even I was mistaken, once, for a Peruvian, but if you're blonde forget it.

Base on my experiences Cusco is great, easily one of my favorite cities and easy to get comfortable in when you're there. It was so nice to be there, become familiar with the town, and not have to look at my guidebook for a few weeks. But despite the comfort I had to leave, I have a lot more to see here in South America. First Bolivia, then a country the size of the U.S. minus Alaska. As the guidebook says, "sex, surf and samba," I can't wait for Brazil and warm weather. Maybe I'll finally get to use the flip flops and board shorts I brought, they haven't seen much daylight during the past few weeks at 3000 meters plus. Couldn't stay forever. I left for Copacabana, Bolivia Sunday night, then La Paz, then Uyuni where I am now, killing time before my four-day trek around the world's largest salt flat.

Viva Cusco,

Justin