Cusco, Peru
3° 16' S 72° 25' W
Sep 15, 2009 09:37
Distance 1102km

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Blog 33 - Cusco (first time)


Taking off from Lima, it was funny to think that reaching the cruising altitude of 35000 feet, we would only be descending to about 11000 feet (3400m) when we landed.


Cusco is by far the highest airport we’ll be landing at and having read some worrying reports of people suffering from altitude sickness in the town, we’re approaching the place with some trepidation.


Getting off the plane, the first thing we noticed is the dry heat. After picking up our luggage, we looked for the free transport to the hotel we’ve checked into and begin to notice a shortness of breath.


Sharing a minibus with some Americans down to see Machu Picchu, we head into the relatively small town and suddenly I feel as though we have arrived in the south America I visualised from films.


After being dropped off near our hotel, we struggle up about forty steps to virtually collapse in a heap at the reception desk, realising just how little oxygen is actually available. Checking into our room we feel as though we truly have stepped back in time. The hostel is terraced into the hillside with Inca-period cobbled streets and pathways around it and the rear wall of the bedroom is a stone built retaining wall for the small street above.


After catching our breath, we set out to explore the town and head towards the ubiquitous Plaza de Armas. My first impression is that I have walked into Trumpton. The town square is like something out of the children’s TV programme, with a cathedral, clock tower, fountain, village green and several restaurants with balconies overlooking the cobbled streets. The image was later enhanced by the local volunteer fire brigade trundling around the square in their ancient fire engine.


The town is a curious mix of old world charm and bustling tourist destination, combined with a touch of south American ‘tin pot dictator country’ feel about it. The fairly heavy police presence is probably for tourist protection but when the central square is regularly and suddenly closed for police marching bands or fully armed military displays, thoughts of military coups tend to run high.


Having booked both an Amazonian rainforest stay and a trek to Machu Pichu through a company we had paid nearly two thousand dollars to over the internet, we made it a priority to find their office and check exactly what we were getting for our money.


Having spent the best part of a day trying to track them down we inadvertently had quite a good exploration of the city which is a stunning piece of city planning. Designed by the 9th Inca, the original city was set out to look like a puma and when compared to European cities of the same era, was a work of genius.


Not only was the entire town served by fresh water brought by aqueduct from mountain springs, but a complete town drainage system (still in use today) predates the best efforts of Britain by hundreds of years.


The street network may also have been constructed before the Incas had even heard of the wheel, much less the car, yet despite some narrow roads and tight corner, the town continues to operate efficiently. One significant result of the narrow streets is the use of what must be the world’s smallest taxis.


Small battered cars similar to Fiat Seicentos amazingly manage to transport up to five passengers plus luggage around the labyrinthian lanes. Despite the introduction of what appear to be random (and vaguely acknowledged) traffic lights, cross roads do not appear to have any form of priority and only with a bit of pushing, tooting of horns and flashing of lights, do any vehicles ever manage to emerge from side streets.


Despite this however, we only witnessed one minor bump and the ‘Policia Transito’, with much whistling and ineffective gesturing, remarkably manage to keep traffic flowing without major event.


Both around the square and on the numerous side streets, we have been enormously impressed by both the quality and prices of the numerous restaurants which serve a massive choice of dishes, from the ubiquitous cheeseburger to Alpaca (very tasty) and guinea pig (still to try).


Cusco by itself has much to offer the tourist yet it is known best as a base for visiting the world famous Machu Pichu and the upper reaches of the Amazon, both of which we have booked up for so, pairing our kit to the absolute minimum, we left some baggage at our hostel and headed back to the airport for a flight to Puerto Maldonado on the other side of the Andes.

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