I had no concept of Cusco as a place or city before we arrived. I only really knew I wanted to go because that's how you get to Machu Picchu. And who doesn't want to go there?
We left Nazca just after midnight, about an hour late, for our longest bus ride to date. The ride that was supposed to take 16 hours actually took closer to 18 with only one stop around noon the following morning. The bus ticket that we purchased promised food, air conditioning and a toilet on board and although first class was sold out, second class was quite comfortable. Since we'd started the journey late at night I wasn't expecting any food until morning. On previous shorter rides, with the same bus company, breakfast usually consisted of a pastry and a square of quiche-like food. On this ride we got a pastry and tea or coffee. Okaaaay...we hadn't eaten since 7 pm the night before so this breakfast was not very satisfying. Maybe lunch will be better...I thought to myself.
When we stopped at noon for 20 minutes everyone got off the bus and trotted off to the washrooms. I saw several people sucking on popsicles and a few munching on chips. Jason and I walked towards the hillside and took pictures of the luscious green mountains that surrounded us. This was the first inkling that I had that Cusco would be different than the desert-ish coast of the rest of our Peruvian experience. We bought some popsicles and hopped back on the bus thinking that lunch was just a few minutes from being served and Cusco only 4 hours away.
6 hours, 6 starving minutes later, we arrived in Cusco. One would think that after all the time we have spent on buses and after all the times we've been stuck with no food, one of those times would have taught us to be prepared...not to assume based on other experiences. And then the hunt for a place to stay started. The room that we had booked was no longer available even though we had confirmed via email but the owner had not confirmed back to us. When we arrived the receptionist was flustered and embarrassed but came through for us by finding us another room nearby.
As we walked from the second cab to the second hostel I remarked to Jay that I wasn't feeling the altitude. I was a bit short of breath but we were hauling our backpacks so that was pretty normal. For some reason the altitude didn't really hit either of us until later that night. As I was lying in bed on my back I couldn't breathe. I rolled to my side and still had a hard time getting air in. I didn't panic but it was a strange feeling. Eventually I fell asleep. Jay's altitude sickness hit him in the gut so I won't go into details there. We saw what we could walk to in town while battling fatigue and upset stomachs and once the altitude sickness passed we ventured out to see some of the Sacred Valley. We had 5 days in Cusco to explore before our bus and train trip to Machu Picchu.
Part of exploring any place for us has been taking photographs as we discover views, buildings, people and street scenes we find interesting. Somewhere between Huacachina and Nazca the lens on our Nikon D60 DSLR snapped off the body. Part of our discovering Cusco was trying to find a reputable repair shop. Luckily after a few attempts we found a place that was able to temporarily affix the necessary mount in place just in time for our Machu Picchu day. The photos in this post were all taken with our back up point and shoot camera.
We took a day tour that took us by minivan to three historic sites, which included Pisac (or Pisaq), Ollantaytambo and Chinchero. On our way we stopped at a small market at the side of the road where I met a woman weaving pieces of cloth from cotton. I purchased a piece from her and she agreed to pose for a few pictures for me. Pisac is well known for its Sunday market but we were there to see the ruins. The Pisac ruins are the remnants of a citadel that was once on an important Inca route. The views are spectacular as you look over the agricultural terraces and climb to the intricately built Sun Temple.
After hiking around the ruins for a couple of hours at Pisac we moved on to Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo looks like a really cute town but unfortunately, as it is with tours, we didn't get a chance to walk through it. The town is built on Inca foundations so much of the layout remains as in the times of the Incas. It is also the start of many of the Inca Trail expeditions so the town is quite tourist oriented. Our focus for the tour were the ruins that climbed the towering hillside next to the town's marketplace.
We quite enjoyed Cusco despite the altitude sickness, the camera fiasco and Jay's pocket being picked in the street market. There is definitely more to Cusco than Machu Picchu and I hope that one day I'll be back to discover it all over again.