When I first set my sights on South America, Machu Picchu felt like the pinnacle that had to be reached. My initial plan was to start in the South of Patagonia, and finish 4 months later in Cusco, the launching point for visitors from around the globe visiting the wondrous Inca ruins. That is not what happened. After 4 months, I hadn’t even reached Peru. So I returned to South America a second time, this time with 6 months to spare. The second time around, I still had my heart set on visiting Machu Picchu, but I no longer envisioned it as the climax of my journey. After being awestruck by so many unexpected things along my way, Machu Picchu became another exciting stop along a journey that would continue well beyond.
Having spent a full month just in Cusco, 1 blog post doesn’t seem like fair attention to this fascinating place. So I am going to break this up into 3 posts. This post is dedicated to the City of Cusco, as well as the Inti Raymi festival that I was lucky to be able to celebrate there. My following post will be about the historical ruins around the city and the Sacred Valley. And my last post will be all about Machu Picchu, which certainly, as the star of South America, deserves it’s own post.
Of course people do not visit Cusco because of Cusco. People visit, mainly for Machu Picchu, but also to experience and learn about the fascinating history of the ancient Inca people. With that said, people tend to love the city of Cusco too.
I quickly discovered that Cusco attracted a different breed of tourists than other places I have visited throughout my South American journey. For the most part, my travels have taken me along the famous (but derogatorily named) “Gringo Trail”. This is the famous route throughout Latin America with lots of stops and amazing places that is followed, partially or in completion, by backpackers wandering this part of the world. And although Cusco is an important landmark of the Gringo Trail, there were clear differences in its visitors.
Alongside with backpackers who save their precious pennies to be able to experience this costly place, there were tourists of all different social classes and ages. Many families wandered the streets of Cusco together during their kid’s summer vacations. Travelers up to their late 60’s are all flocking to this place that many dream of seeing for a lifetime. This is also the place where I encountered more American tourists than anywhere else I’ve been in South America. English speakers surrounded me with their obvious American accents and little to no knowledge of the Spanish language (almost everyone working in tourism or tourist-catered restaurants speak english here, so you can get away with it).
Cusco is not a destination for backpackers alone. Actually, to do it properly, it’s the type of place you should visit with the expectation of expense. With that said, there are ways to do it on a budget too. But the majority of tourists in Cusco come with the main purpose of seeing Machu Picchu. Their trip is typically a more “normal” vacation of a week or two. However, I am not convinced that you can fully explore and appreciate all that this region has to offer in that amount of time. And for this, I am truly fortunate that I had the chance to spend a full month exploring the streets, colors, food, music and culture of Cusco.
Immediately upon arrival I was taken by the people marching and dancing in colorful costumes in the street. I had no idea that I was arriving during an important ancient holiday for this region. The cheerful festival took over the city for more than a week. Although, after the festival ended, I came to see that the people of Cusco find reasons to celebrate publicly, proudly and colorfully, often and for any reason imaginable. This, I believe, is part of the beauty of the people here.
The food!!! You may or may not know that Peru is famous for its food. Lima in particular, is known world-wide amongst foodies as one of the top food cities in the world. This tradition has been carried across the country to Cusco. While the traditional cuisine in Cusco is very different from the famed sea-food of Lima, the flavor, quality and service in Cusco is undeniably a pleasant rival to Peru’s largest city.
VEGETARIANS: As a vegetarian I was incredibly happy with the many options for me. Restaurants in Cusco tended to have options that would please vegetarians. But beyond that, there were more vegetarian restaurants to try out than I had time for in my month as a visitor. Many of the veg food I enjoyed in Cusco could even compete with some of my favorite vegetarian options in New York City. And it’s hard to compete with NYC food.
The negative… So let’s be real. Not everything about every place is likable. Cusco, as much as I loved it, had its side that was less appealing to me as well. I will preface this by saying that I am not one of those tourists who is opposed to “touristy” places. I am a strong believer that touristy places usually became “touristy” for a reason. There is typically something special and worth going well out of your way to see and do in these places. In fact, people world-wide agree. With that said, Cusco took this idea a little bit too far, even for me.
It is impossible to ignore the tour companies, travel agencies, hotels or hostels, and souvenir shops every 20 steps apart. If you are like me, and don’t have it all planned out before you get there, this can seem good and helpful. At first. I visited many different tour companies to figure out who could offer me the best experience within my price range. What I actually learned is that the majority of these agencies are selling the same tours and it doesn’t really matter where you book it. But I will get deeper into that in my upcoming posts about visiting the main attractions.
Another impossibility is walking along any of the main streets or plazas (as a blanca – white girl) without having restaurant hosts and hostesses chase you down the street with a menu in hand to convince you to eat in their restaurant. I wish this was an exaggeration, but honestly, it may not even fully paint the obnoxious picture with enough umph to convey the level of aggression these salespeople approached me with. Sometimes I would have to get audibly rude to get them to leave me alone. Other times they were rude to me if I walked past without listening to their schpiel. I often felt bad for tourists that didn’t have the New Yorker’s mentality of, “it’s ok to ignore and just walk on”, as I saw them fall into the trap. I absolutely despised this side of Cusco. I hated feeling like people were trying to sell me things with every step I took. And while this is common practice all over the world in touristic places, I had never experienced it with the level of intensity that I experienced in Cusco. I was very turned off, and actively avoided shopping and dining in places that barraged me in this way. So at least with me, their advertising plan was a backfire.
I did get a chance to explore the city beyond the major tourist streets. These areas don’t have the same refined feeling that the designated tourist areas have. They are a bit more rugged. These are the areas where local people really live, go to school and shop apart from the world of tourism. If you have the time to venture off the gringo path of Cusco, you may find it interesting to see the other side of the city. This is the local and more authentic side of the city. Also, much like in Arequipa there is a large and fantastic main market in the city that is a little bit separated from the main plaza (where the tourism industry sprouts from). These market places of Peru are always worth a visit for the local authentism that many travelers want to experience.
Below is my first of two sets of images in this post – all taken around the city center, or from above for a great view of the city landscape. Feel free to click on the images to see them larger! And if you aren’t ready to hop on a plane and head to Cusco… Scroll below the first set of photos and read about the Inti Raymi festival and see more great photos from around Cusco!
Immediately upon arriving in Cusco it was evident that something special was happening. All over the main plaza and surrounding streets people were dressed in incredible costumes and dancing together in the streets. It was a parade of bright colors, and bold musical beats to compliment the native-style dancing snaking its way along the streets.
A friend of mine from my travels, who is originally from the region, met up with me on my first day in Cusco. I asked him what holiday was being celebrated. “Inti Raymi”. I had never heard of that before. “But today”, he explained, “is not the holiday. Inti Raymi is actually next weekend. Next Saturday is when the real festival happens”. Wow. So this means that this bright eye-candy of a celebration was going to happen all over Cusco for the entire week leading up to the main event! Without knowing anything about this holiday, I was already so excited for my good fortune of being in Cusco to witness this vibrant holiday.
Inti Raymi is one of the most important holidays for the native people of Cusco. The holiday comes from the Inca empire, and the indigenous culture with Inca roots is still very much alive today with the modern day Quechua people. Although the culture has changed and adapted over the centuries, many traditions like Inti Raymi, have survived. Inti Raymi celebrates the winter solstice (this year it fell on June 24th). It is the shortest day of the year in mid-winter in the southern hemisphere. This holiday is considered to be the Inca New Year.
Here is just a handful of the many photos I shot of the incredible costumes and colors that painted the city of Cusco for the Inti Raymi celebration.