They say when you first arrive at a new destination that sits at a high altitude – anything over about 2500 metres – you should rest immediately; lay down and do as little as possible. But when we arrive at Cusco, by plane, at an altitude of about 3390 metres, our guide Leo has other ideas.“We’ll drop our stuff at the hotel and then go for a walk,” he says. “I’ll give you about half an hour, meet in the lobby then.”
And so we’re off to explore the city centre. Leo believes this is the best way to ward off any potential altitude sickness. He’s been here a few times before, so we follow his lead. Though, secretly I suspect a few of us may have been looking forward to an excuse to relax for a while!
Cusco, in the Andean mountains in Peru, was once the capital of the Incan Empire and was the first Spanish capital of Peru. As such, it plays an important role in the country’s history. Today the influence of both the Incan and Spanish cultures can be seen throughout the city. It’s interesting, and a little disconcerting, to see Spanish buildings built on the foundations of Incan sites.
Our walk takes us through the beautiful Plaza de Armas – the main square – past the Cusco Cathedral and the Church la Campania de Jesus and up some rather steep local streets. We follow the Inca built wall along the Callejon de Loretto and stop in a couple of tourist shops to check out the Alpaca knits and traditional local dress.
We stop at the Coca museum – well this is Peru after all – and learn about uses of the leaf beyond cocaine. And in particular how it can be used to offset the effects of altitude. One or two of our Two’s a Crowd guests may or may not have stopped to buy some leaves (you know the saying, what happens of tour, stays on tour). Cusco is a charming city to walk around, but it is very hilly and the following day it is with some relief, or so we think, that we all load into a van to take us to explore a series of Inca ruins on the outskirts of town.
We move higher into the heavens, up to almost 4000 metres to explore the remains of this remarkable civilisation. The air is thin and we all struggle a little with any physical activity but we make our way through the ruins slowly. When we first clamboured out of the bus at Qenqo it was difficult to see that what we were looking at could have held any significance whatsoever. To the untrained eye it looked like a pile of rocks. But walk behind the pile and it was clear to see that this was no naturally formed construction. Cuts in the rock and a tunnel underneath leading down man-made steps to an altar revealed its true origin.
From Qenqo we travel to Pucapucara, a series of rooms set out between walls made of rock sitting high on a hill and overlooking the amazing Andes mountain range.
The following day we are up early and on our way again. Our first stop, Sacsayhuman, is a remarkable display of the sheer strength of the Inca people. The size of the rocks, carved straight and smooth, and pushed into position to build walls is remarkable. I shudder to think how this site would have been built. Today, the grounds are very tranquil; we even get to see a few llamas strolling around the site, but it’s difficult not to think about the massive effort and the number of people that would have been needed to get those rocks into place!
If you’re feeling a little ‘ruin-ed’ out in Cusco you can visit the Awana Kancha llama and alpaca reserve and the Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary. At both sites you can get up close to the wildlife (look out for the Peruvian hairless dog!). Oh, and that little trick to avoid altitude sickness? I’m pleased to say no one got sick from the altitude. We moved slower, were quicker to tire and some of us even got sun burnt a little more easily, but keeping moving seemed to work. Diane Squires is a tour host with Two’s a Crowd.
A version of this post first appeared on Allabroad.com.au