I’m not going to lie. After seeing the wonder of the world that is Machu Picchu, anything that I saw and experienced after that didn’t quite feel the same; nothing could possibly compare. Okay, so that’s a bit of a dramatic statement but how can anything else truly live up to a place like Machu Picchu? Well, the short answer is that they don’t. They can, however, offer their own unique charms and appeal if you go in with an open mind. This is what I did with Cusco, one of Peru’s most popular tourist destinations, a place that I visited AFTER Machu Picchu. Here are my first impressions I had of it:
Don’t judge a city prematurely
After flying into Cusco, we immediately traveled to the Sacred Valley town of Ollantaytambo. Although I saw a bit of Cusco during the drive from the airport to Ollanta, I saw “local” Cusco, a side of it that not many tourists probably ever see. It was a side I was familiar with having lived and traveled in other Latin American countries but it’s a harsh, somewhat unpleasant one too-insane amounts of traffic with drivers driving any damn way they want, nauseating amounts of gas and diesel permeating the air, large amounts of trash just everywhere, stray dogs rummaging through said trash, chaotic looking open air markets that spilled out onto the streets. While I had hoped to be able to glimpse the side of Cusco that graces the insides of guide books and features prominently on travel websites, that didn’t happen. However, on our return trip to Cusco, the one where we would be staying a few days, when our driver suddenly turned onto a steep, cobble stoned lined street, I knew we were basically close to the historic section, the one that gives Cusco its reputation as being THE place for ambiance, history, and beauty. And of course seeing the Plaza de Armas (the famous square) for the first time, well, it’s the equivalent of spotting the Eiffel Tower. You get so excited you almost can’t speak.
Cusco is high…literally
While I had been taking diamox, a prescription drug used to stave off any of the ill effects of altitude sickness prior to coming to Cusco, I still noticed a shortness of breath that I hadn’t in Ollantaytambo. Thankfully, diamox prevented me from having any horrible symptoms altitude sickness tends to induce like vomiting and crippling headaches. The shortness of breath I suppose couldn’t be helped. Cusco’s altitude is over 11,000 feet so even when just walking, I could feel it. We didn’t do any hardcore touring while in Cusco, but even just walking short distances, you will most likely notice it. Just take it easy.
Be prepared to say “no gracias” at every turn
I had read this before, but Cusco seems to have nothing but hawkers-people wanting to sell you things, people wanting you to dine at their restaurant, people wanting to give you a manicure, and the best (considering this wasn’t Asia where they’re a bit more famous), people wanting to give you a massage. Especially in the Plaza de Armas area, you couldn’t go five feet without someone coming up to you because as a tourist, no matter your skin, hair color, or dress, you stood out. Thankfully, when I said no they left us alone, unlike in other countries I’ve been to where they continue to harass you. I know some travelers have been put off by this, their opinions of Cusco souring because of it. This wasn’t the case for me since yes, I have Latin America experience where this is the norm. I certainly could have done without the constant hawking, but it was just annoying behavior more than anything else.
It won’t always feel “authentic”
I’ve traveled to many areas of Latin America where tourists are far and few (some sections in Costa Rica, but in Nicaragua and central Mexico especially). As such, being in those places has always felt like more of an “authentic” experience. Obviously Machu Picchu aside, where there are a TON of tourists, but Cusco’s tourist area was overrun with them. Not a bad thing because I know that tourism is one of the best things for any nation but especially a developing one, and yet when you see the streets just filled with tourists, when the food spots in the Plaza de Armas are nothing but fast food establishments or places serving pizza and burgers, it’s a bit lackluster. But this to me just reinforces the notion that you need to make the effort to “get” that degree of authenticity.
It’s like any other major city
Many guidebooks say to be careful in Cusco after dark, even in the popular touristy areas. They write how robberies are a problem and that you should take a taxi once it is dark, but more importantly, don’t show off anything (i.e. a fancy and expensive DSLR camera). Due to being on the go continuously (which is my travel style anywhere in the world), we often just relax and chill in the evenings in the hotel room. However, on our final night there I wanted to take some pictures of the Plaza de Armas illuminated. While our hotel was less than a 10 minute walk from it, I still was the least bit leery about going out with my camera that doesn’t really “blend” in. However, my fears were unfounded. Now granted, we didn’t go out at midnight (it was around 8 PM), but with it being winter while we were in Peru, it got dark by 6 PM. But the streets from our hotel to the Plaza de Armas were still crowded with people (both locals and tourists it seemed), and the Plaza de Armas was even more bustling. I’m not saying you still shouldn’t exercise caution and be aware of your surroundings, but at least at a normal evening hour in a popular tourist-filled area, I sometimes feel that warnings are overembellished.
There’s a lot more to come on Cusco, but those were at least my initial impressions of this very beautiful and quite high city.