Exploring Cusco City’s Streets

We decided that it would be fun to sign up for a city tour to learn, first hand, a little more about what we were seeing and experiencing as we walked around the city of Cusco. It is a city full of churches and ancient Inca walls. It is a city rich in colonial and ancient history. It is a city still coming to terms with Spanish and Catholic domination, even three centuries later. We wanted to learn more, to understand and heighten our experiences here.

In order to do the tour, we needed to go down into the city square and find the government office that sold the Boleto Turístico, sort of an all-city pass to the archaeological sites in and around Cusco.

On the way back we tested our altitude acclimatization by adding on an a walk to the neighbourhood of San Blas with its artist shops and then, thanks to the tip from a painting seller, a long hike up through the neighbourhood to take in the views of the city.

Here are some of the things we saw along the way that give a sense of the daily life in this part of town.

School children the world over have an insatiable sweet tooth and will rush to buy candy. Opportunistic vendors are here not just to satisfy the tourist trade, it seems. We happened to walk by just as recess was out. These elementary school children came from the playground on the other side of this metal fence at recess to make their hasty purchases from a school that was established in 1641.

These boys were not so lucky, it seems and were watching the girls make their purchases from inside the school’s fenced yard. Look at the looks on their faces!

The neat thing here is that so many of the buildings, or should I say city blocks, are built on ancient Inca foundations: great boulders of hard volcanic rock, carved so incredibly precisely that they fit together with no sand, no mud and no mortar. Ofttimes you can’t wedge a knife, let alone a fingernail or a piece of paper between them, despite the effects of erosion and the passage time. They have withstood many earthquakes. Here, men do a little repair work on a wall that holds up a large city bank. I think though, from what we learned later in the day, that these stones needed repair because these particular blocks were made out of limestone. Remnants of these walls are everywhere.

Traffic here is a little chaotic, and like it is in many countries in the world, developing or not, lanes are often only a suggestion, making for a strange sense of chaotic order amongst the locals that somehow works. Add in tourists, however, and the scene devolves. Around the high tourist traffic areas there is a very strong police and traffic police presence that tries to maintain some semblance of order.

By and large, most of the transit police, and the police keeping the beggars and trinket hawkers from pestering the tourists, are women. We asked at our hotel why this is so, given that it still seems to be a very male-dominated society that loves its regimented order (we are getting used to sounds like the daily gunshots that mark the raising of the flags at local schools and mark other celebrations that occur at sunset or random times throughout the day). The response? “Women are less… how do you say?… corruptible.” Such a fascinating, revealing answer.

The streets radiating away from the main square and up into the hillside are steep and narrow. The steps along the side of this street make it a bit easier for pedestrians to navigate because the cobblestone roads are made of highly polished, quite slippery stones. This is a street that leads to our destination: the Cuesta San Blas area, as it is a place where artists gather.

Heading up there, along the Hatun Rumiyoc, we passed countless artist shops, some so small they were like closets. We have this tradition of collecting small paintings by local artists, where we can, in the places we travel. We are always on the lookout for one that catches our eye, and that features something that reminds us of something we have seen or experienced while exploring.

This is the Plazoleta San Blas, the central square of the neighbourhood. It is home to several artisan families that have been selling their art here for decades. There is a gallery there that hosts their work, and there are other artists that walk the square with their leather portfolios bulging with works in acrylic, watercolour and oil that approach tourists to strike up conversation, and hopefully a sale.

This was an interesting gallery with some really lovely work. We poked around in there for a bit, and have our eye on a couple of paintings that we might revisit, and then we headed back outside.

One of the wandering artists approached us to sell us his wares. His paintings weren’t quite our thing (especially the horny alpaca painting! ha!), but he was an affable fellow and chatted to us for a while, telling us about the ancient church on the square that dated back to 1563. He gave us directions for a way to leave the square, enter the neighbourhood proper, and get up to some great views. It was an excellent tip.

This was the day that we really turned the corner in terms of our altitude acclimatization. Walking up this set of stairs, we had no idea what we were in for, but it went really well. The stairs went up and up and relentlessly up, past very small homes, very tiny doors and through the occasional ancient retaining wall. It reminded us a bit of the Plaka in Athens, only more run down.

Clearly there are attempts to clean up this neighbourhood and keep it safe for the families that live there, as this sign at a popular lookout spot attests (“No more robberies, no more alcohol, no more drugs in our neighbourhood.”).

We did pass a beautiful scene on the way up, but I didn’t take a photo to respect the family’s privacy. A mother was sitting on a low stone wall outside her variety store (selling pop, water, chips, etc.) with her young (maybe 4 year old?) daughter, reading to her and getting her daughter to identify images in the book. It was clearly an alphabet book and the scene was just delightful as the two went back and forth, with the mom softly encouraging her daughter, with shy glances up at us, and the daughter learning her way through the experience. It was a beautiful moment.

These stairs just didn’t stop!

Some of the homes were really run down, and still very much occupied.

DSC_8507Some were under repair and construction. What do you think of the views from this work site!?

Here workers are constructing a second story on a house, high above the city centre. How’s that for workplace safety? Can you make out the worker walking along that resting plank? And how’d you like to tap your home into that jumble of wires? Yikes!

Here Bill is grinning. Despite going up and up and up, the effects of altitude are no longer wreaking havoc on our bodies. Trudging up this hillside felt like a regular slog!

Here are some of the views looking back down on the city, but you lose the sense of steepness and height with the way this panorama shot turned out. The steps Bill was on in the photo before this run beside the pink house, slightly to the left in the foreground of this photo.

From the top of the hillside we could see the city spreading out below and filling up the valley. The guidebooks say that the city is supposed to be shaped like a gigantic puma, but modern development and shanty sprawl has obliterated all trace of that from above.

At 30’ in height, and like a mini Rio’s Christ The Redeemer, Cusco has a huge Cristo Blanco statue that overlooks and blesses the town from high above its buildings. We walked up there to take it in and to see the views. It is a recent addition to the city, being built in 1949, but it is not exactly what you think it is. It was actually given to the city by Arabic Palestinians after World War II as a thanks for the refuge, relief and shelter they received in Cusco. Of course, like virtually all of the Catholic sites here, it is built on top of an ancient Inca holy site. Called Pukamoqo Hill, it is said to hold soil samples from each of the 4 quarters of the Inca Empire.

From that site a dirt trail led us to this archaeological site (Sacsayhuamán sounds like “Sexy Woman” ha ha!). It was a back way in! Oops… but we felt no guilt as we would be going there on our official city tour in the afternoon. Built like a huge amphitheatre and staging area, it had remnants of those incredible Inca walls.

We walked down one of the ancient stone roadways to head back to our hotel for a quick lunch. These cobblestone roadways are amazing. The Incas were known as the Romans of South America for the approximately 60,000 kilometres of road they built, connecting the 4 quarters of their kingdom, radiating out from Cusco to places as far away as Ecuador, western and south central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and central Chile and parts of Southern Colombia.

On the way down we stopped at this roadside stall where we bought some corn & cheese for a light lunch. This is a very typical Peruvian street food, called Choclo con Queso. The corn has very large, plump, almost white kernels and is slightly sweet, though nothing like our Peaches ’N Cream variety in Canada. It is topped by a slice of fresh cheese that is very mild, but quite salty (a little like halloumi or feta). The corn is served, piping hot, out of a big pot of boiling water, on a “plate” of a corn husk leaf, and topped with the cheese which softens, slightly.

The idea is that you take a nibble of cheese and then a bite of corn so that you mix the salty and the sweet together in your mouth. The fruit beside it here is called granadilla (aren-a-dee-ya). Similar to passion fruit, it’s like an orange on the outside. To eat it, you peel it, halfway, forming a rustic cup of sorts. Then you break open the white pith inside, enough to dip a spoon in. Then you scoop out the slimy coated, crunchy seeds inside. It’s super yummy… with a flavour like grapefruit-meets-papaya, it’s refeshing and delicious and the crunch of its seeds adds something really interesting to the effect in your mouth. I loved it.

Cusco City Tour Part One- Catedral de Cusco

The afternoon of our third day saw us taking a whirlwind city tour: 5 sights in 5 hours. While being shepherded around at a fast pace, through thick and intense crowds, up roads with long lines of tour busses all doing the same thing, and with orders of “vamos, vamos!” to get our group hustling a little faster while following flag #7 held high in the air wasn’t exactly our thing, we did learn a lot. I’ll share some of the more interesting stories & places with you here in the next couple of posts, starting with this one.

Catedral de Cusco

You enter the Cathedral through a side door.

We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, so you’ll try to imagine this… we entered through the arched stronghold doorway in the picture above, and stepped into a baroque-styled world full of gold, glitter, ornamentation and outstanding architecture. Think massive ornamental pillars supporting huge expanses of domed roofs, each roof connected to form an image of a gigantic, bubbly cross in the ceiling of the building. Paintings with incredibly elaborate, gold painted, carved frames covered every square inch of space. Each apse on the side of the cathedral had ornamental artifacts full of silver and gold iconography. We’re talking over the top glitter & glitz.

The cathedral was started in 1560 and took 98 years to build. It outlasted 2 serious earthquakes due to the strong  Inca foundations on which it is built. These foundations are made of huge blocks of very hard volcanic rock, polished smooth (how? no one really knows), and held together with no mortar. “Very antiseismic,” our guide repeated many times, with a sense of tremendous reverence and awe.

dsc_8654No photos were allowed in the cathedral, so bear with me as I try to create a few poignant mental pictures for you.

The overwhelming sense I got from our guide was the Peruvian pride she felt. She resolutely pointed out and repeated the ways in which Peruvian culture was, perhaps with a little guile, included in the Roman Catholicism practiced here. That might account for its popularity: Cusco and its surrounding area have 500,000 people, 91% of whom are practicing catholics. Here’s a few interesting ways in which that Peruvian culture snuck into this cross-shaped, incredibly Spanish-influenced, prominent cathedral:

1) Unlike most Spanish Cathedrals built through South America, the carved wood under the gold painted pillars was all from the Peruvian Amazon. Not Nicaraguan, not Costa Rican, not (insert a long list of other countries … she loved her lists!). It was Peruvian. She repeated this to make sure we understood its significance to her.

2) Throughout the cathedral, there are over 500 paintings, all done by a school of Peruvian and Italian painters between 1600 and 1800. All the paintings were done in varying shades of red, green and blue… all colours important in Incan iconography.

3) The most interesting painting to me was a gigantic painting of the last supper. It was about 20’ tall and 40’ wide. In it, and this might be a way of making Catholicism more palatable to the indigenous Peruvians, was such a clever inclusion of Peruvian foods, all of their local specialities. Dead centre, in the middle of the painting, was a platter with a skinned, roasted guinea pig! The disciples were all drinking non alcoholic purple corn drink called chicha morada (more to come about this in blogposts to follow). Judas had the face of Pizzaro, one of the prime conquerors of the city! Around the table were all the things the Runas (that’s the name for the indigenous Peruvians… the “Inca” is a name only given to the kings themselves) used in their temple worship: seeds, coca leaves, corn (maize), chocolate, tomatoes, hot chillies, quinoa grains, granadilla, and potatoes. Here’s an image of the painting (strangely, its been flipped so it’s a mirrored image), borrowed from the net…


4) These foods, once again, all things used historically in offerings in the temples, were usually burned in stone niches and walls, were carved into the pillars holding up all of the beautiful arched ceilings of the cathedral. You almost miss them if you don’t look carefully, but they are all there from the coca leaves right on through to the potatoes and corn and seeds like quinoa. Subversive. But a clever way of making Roman Catholicism incorporate elements of the old religion to become more easily accepted by the populace.

5) The statue that she was most proud of was what she called the Cinnamon Christ. Cinnamon is the descriptive word she used time and again to describe Peruvian skin colour. It had human hair, a body made of corn stalks, but covered in llama skin, leathered to look so real it was incredible. And ever so creepy. The crucified Cinnamon Christ was dressed with a crown of solid gold embedded with South African diamonds. It had a skirt that was carefully sewn and crafted to include 500 textile fibres, indigenous to Peru: everything from corn silk to alpaca wool, and llama hair to cotton. She said the Cinnamon Christ was their new god and people love him and respect him.

She related what she felt is perhaps the most important story about this Cinnamon Christ statue, and the way she told it, with a certain amount of reverence in her voice, made it sound almost like a fairy tale. In 1950 there was a large  earthquake (7.6 Richter on the scale) that rocked the city for two and a half minutes straight. People in the cathedral tore down the Cinnamon Christ and ran outside with him to the central square to save him. When they got to the centre of the square, the earthquake stopped. The cathedral remained standing. “And the Cinnamon Christ has been loved by the people ever since.”

Our 1st Day Spent at Altitude in Cusco

Cusco (Cuzco in Spanish; Qosqo, pronounced, “cos-co” in Quechua, its indigenous name) is a city in southeastern Peru near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes Mountain Range. It is the capital city of the Cusco region and province and has a population of about 400,000.

The city of Cusco is situated at an elevation of 3,399 m (11,152’), so it is higher than anything we have climbed to in the Canadian Rockies. The air is a bit thinner. The sun is a bit stronger. The daylight is a LOT brighter. And despite daytime highs of around 23C, I wasn’t getting down to a t-shirt anytime soon.

The light here is really bright. The fire in this picture was a garbage fire that got out of control! It caught a house on fire, but was put out quickly.

Acclimatization is a tricky thing. The catch is that you fly to Cusco, this super high city, from Lima, which is essentially at sea level. It isn’t so much the height of Cusco that gets to you, but the rapid nature with which you ascend and fling yourself there.

Bill and Tatiana, our host.

As our hotel host, Tatiana, says, Acclimatizing to elevation is a little like roulette. You never know who will get hit. Bill seems to be doing fine, but I’m getting wicked headaches. They are lessening, which is good. Our legs also have not as much juice, that’s for sure! And sudden movements get our hearts pounding a bit. I’m so glad we built in a bit of relaxing time before setting out on the trekking adventure! We’re going for small walks, getting used to the sights and sounds of Cusco. We’re doing a few hills and stairs (they can’t be avoided here!). We’re drinking lots of coca tea. And we’re taking our altitude meds.

Taking it easy and drinking coca tea helps with altitude acclimatization.

Cusco was the historical capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th century to 1532 when the the Spanish conquest, helped along by the small pox virus, decimated the population. Our hotel shares some of that ancient history and is truly an amazing place to stay.

Our room is the door basking in sunlight, on the right.

Consisting of 5 guest rooms, it is a lovingly restored 1800s Peruvian Republican Mansion built on the ruins of the old Manco Capac Palace in the San Cristóbal neighbourhood of Cusco. Its site is up on the terraced slopes of the city, a 7 minute walk from its central square.

The doors to all of the rooms at our hotel are amazing! They are ornately carved, incredibly thick slabs of wood that add such beauty, character and historic charm to the place.

The door to our room, as seen from the terrace.

They’ve incorporated some of the original palace walls into the gardens here (see the pic below), and they’ve added artifacts (like mortar stones and ancient doors) and furniture found in the rooms of the old palace and scattered them throughout the hotel.

What’s left of the original Manco Capac Palace wall.

It is such a beautiful spot, high on the hillside overlooking the city with ancient agricultural terraces built up and behind it. There are Eucalyptus trees growing on some of the terraces, providing welcome shade. The terraces are as they once were: still holding up narrow, level plots of soil, they now host vegetable gardens or tree plots with their original mud bricks and carved stones.

The terrace wall outside our window.

Our bed is amazing, and this photo doesn’t do it justice. The headboard was found in the basement of the residence, saved from the original palace. It looks small here, but it is king sized and full of ornate filigree and a quirky, folksy painting of a cupid, pan flute-playing-Spaniard-courting-a -ady pastoral scene on it.

Our filigreed bed headboard.
A close up of the headboard’s pastoral scene.

We took a gentle walk into the Plaza de Armas (every Spanish-inspired city seems to have a big, paving stoned, central city square). On a Sunday, it is a popular place and holds military demonstrations. They really like their gunfire and parades here! Sunday marks an evening military parade with lots of gunfire. And we woke up to the sound of gunfire  and firecrackers this morning, too, as Monday represents the raising of the flag ceremony complete with, you guessed it, lots of gunfire!

Here are a few pics from our jaunt and some observations.

The cobblestoned streets are very steep here and full of packs of roving dogs.

The streets are cobblestoned, often quite steep and worn very smooth by the passage of time & use. They are all narrow, ancient, and as a result, one way streets. There are stray dogs everywhere! They roam in packs but are friendly, non-assertive and seem well fed. It might be like the dogs in Santiago, Chile that were seen as communal property, allowed to roam free, and fed by the community.

Plaza De Armas is the central square of the city.

The Plaza De Armas was a large city square, mostly inundated by tourists and Peruvians in traditional costumes, hawking their trinkets (mostly weaved bracelets, blankets and scarves, and knitted woolen hats), often with a baby alpaca or a small child dressed in traditional costume to lure people in.

We grabbed an empañada con pollo (with chicken) for a light sack. It was quite yummy & we returned to this spot a few times during our stays in Cusco.

It was a busy place and a beautiful day. So we worked those non-acclimatized legs, hearts & lungs, wandering the streets of the downtown city centre. Today we will go on a historical tour to learn about what we were seeing, but for yesterday, it was all about moving about, and moving slowly.

Days One & Two Peru: Our Airline Travel to Cusco


After a lovely send-off from our daughter, Emily, at the airport, we set out on our adventure to Peru. We’d been training long and hard for this, working on our fitness, our elevation exposures, and the distance and steepness of our hikes. Many thanks to those who have helped us with their support through our training this summer, accompanying us on mountain hikes, giving us advice and encouraging us along the way! Our spirits were high as we left, knowing we’d done all we could to be ready for this “Fit at 50 Adventure” we’d planned.

Our journey to get to Peru from Edmonton to Lima, via Toronto, was a long one, leaving the house at 7am, Edmonton time, and arriving in Lima just after 1:45am (there’s only a one hour time difference). We had a wee sleep at the airport hotel and headed out early-ish in the morning to fly from Lima up into the highlands of Cusco, arriving just around noon. It takes a while to travel from fall to spring on this big planet of ours!

The customs forms we had to fill out as we landed in Peru had something on them that our guide-book didn’t warn us about… look at the list of electronic items you are restricted to bringing in. Bring in more than this exemption list, and you are subject to a steep fine/tax. Now, no one checked our bags, but this could be a problem for some people!

Ack! You’re only allowed 2 cameras! And one musical instrument!


Leaving Lima was, as Em loves to put things, a bit of a “gong show.” In hindsight, it was quite funny… even though we’d been warned about the inefficient lineups here and built in lots of time. The line-up for domestic departures filled the cattle-call area of the concourse, where they switchback you through a series of barriers, and then all the way out that, and down to the far side of the airport… so the entire airport concourse length, and at times 5 people deep or so!

It reminded me a lot of Chile, when we flew down to the northern tip of Patagonia on a Monday morning from Santiago. We had no idea that, like many of our Fort McMurray workers, that many of the miners flew into their job sites from their homes in the big city. The lineups were insane! Just like today. And there must not have been carry on restrictions there as they all had their headlamps, helmets and toolboxes with them. It was a great slice of life moment, like many we would be having on this trip.

I wish I had photos to show you of the crowds there, but there were policia all over, and signs with “no fotos” messages and I just couldn’t risk it. I actually begged the guard at security to let me take a picture of their plexiglass box filled with confiscated items… it was hilarious! There were machetes, box cutters, a giant hammer, folding knives, hunting knives, etc. But he emphatically denied me that thrill, wagging his fingers at me as he said, “no tourismo!” with a cross, impatient (exasperated) look on his face.

There was still one glitch (thank goodness we left lots of time), where despite having our boarding passes printed and seats selected before leaving Canada, we still weren’t “in the system” when we got to the baggage check-in desk. They tried to fit us on an earlier flight, but to no avail. Then the flight check-in attendant disappeared for about 20 minutes, all told, and fixed it, “no problemo” and sent us to the gate with a ticket with no ticket number (which got rejected with a loud beep as we went to board the plane!!), but no one seemed concerned and it really went quite smoothly (and no one tried to sit on our laps to Cusco!).

Mount Allan & Centennial Ridge

Hiking Centennial Ridge with Heidi & Pat marks the last stage of our Peru training: a long, high ridge with some scrambling-climbing and some definite inclement weather. It was the final test, and a wonderful day out with great friends. This ridge marks the most elevation gain we’ve done so far in a hike, with close to 1,500m (or 4,921 feet) straight up.

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Cirque Peak, Banff National Park

Wanting to test our elevation limits before leaving for Peru, we did this hike, high in Banff National Park. Situated across the valley from Bow Lake, Bow Glacier, Crowfoot Glacier and Iceberg Lake, it was a hike with breathtaking views! Seriously, it was stunning… one of my all time favourite hikes! Read More