Cusco… and the altitude
Never had I thought one day I would be here, in Peru, getting ready and excited to see the magical Machu Picchu with my own eyes (For a full travel guide for Machu Picchu, check out: An Ultimate Travel Guide to the Machu Picchu That You Need). The legendary Inca heritage was abandoned in the 16th century, and then preserved and covered in the jungle until it was once again discovered by the American explorer, Hiram Bingham. The ruins left so many treasures and insights into the Inca’s way of life. Today, tourists from around the world are flooding the site, as a result, the authorities are required to set a daily visitor limit (and I heard they changed the rules for visiting time yet again this year, so please keep up with the news).
Cusco is the main hub for anyone heading to Machu Picchu – and the city is an average of 3,399 meters above sea level. This imposes a challenge to travelers and it may concern you (and me) is the altitude sickness. It was my first time traveling to a place located over 3,000 meters above sea level – the threshold for altitude sickness reaction (and yeah, I had even gone up to 5,000 above sea level when traveling across Chile’s border to the Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia the next year, but that’s another story). In fact, Machu Picchu was not the problem because the site is “only” 2,800 meters above sea level; and its nearby town, Agues Calientes, is a bit lower. You will be fine when you are there. The problem is, to get to Agues Calientes, you have to go through Cusco, the major hub that connects you to Machu Picchu from the outside world, this is the nearest city for flights, and almost all tours and train takes off from there. It’s basically impossible to avoid Cusco for your trip to Machu Picchu, plus, it is a major historical city in the country and it has quite a lot to see and do.
Luckily, I was prepared and didn’t suffer much from the altitude sickness symptoms. Let’s explore Cusco!
Something about… Cusco
Cusco, or Quechua in Peruvian dialect, means “belly button”. It is one of the oldest cities in the Americas with 3,000 years of history and continuously inhabited since its establishment. Evidence could be found (with what had left) in Sacsayhuamán, which was built around 1,100 A.D. by the Killke People. The city was the political center of the Inca Empire in the 13 to 16th centuries before it was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century.
Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley remained a major agricultural and religious hub under Spanish rule, and cathedrals were built on top of many Inca architectural foundations. The famous Inca trail also starts here, and it takes about 4 days through the Salkantay Mountains to reach Machu Picchu. It is ideal to visit there from April to September, the dry season offers a comfortable environment for tourists to explore the valleys, as well as a better chance to have a great view of Machu Picchu with a clear sky.
Today, Cusco welcomes 2 million visitors annually.
Plaza de Armas: Cusco’s focal point
The size of the city is not big. There are a few main streets and most of the historic attractions in the city could be reached on foot. While I recommend exploring the rest of the Inca heritage sites by joining a guided tour, which tourists may cover in a day. However, many tourists may end up spending more days in Cusco because there are so many more natural wonders to explore in the mountains and valleys. The Vinicunca “Rainbow” Mountain, for example, is a multi-colored rock formation a few hours away from the city (and it’s 5,000 meters above sea level).
The Plaza de Armas is the focal point of the city and where locals and tourists would hang out, or just chill. The plaza has a fountain and flower bed, and it is surrounded by cathedrals and elegant mansions with arches, and balconies.
Cusco Cathedral (La Catedral)
Cusco Cathedral is located in the heart of Plaza de Armas and if you look at the cathedral from above, it is shaped like a Latin cross. The Gothic-Renaissance/Baroque-style architecture, by the look of it, is my favorite building in the plaza (maybe because I had my favorite photo on the trip taken there).
Once I got to know some dark history about how brutal it was to get this built, it was heartening to fall in love with it wholeheartedly. The cathedral was built with the rocks taken from Sacsayhuamán (and the Incas were forced to do the moving and construction by their rulers), it was built on top of the foundations of an ancient Inca temple Kiswarkancha (oh no… not another one) and took almost one hundred years to complete.
The giant bell at the top of the cathedral was installed in the 17th century and the sound of the bell could allegedly be heard in places over 30 kilometers away. The blackened wooden crucifix statue was named the “Lord of the Earthquakes” (Señor de los Temblores), which turned black because of the soot of candles and oil lamps, smoke and dust, and the pigment and pollen from the flowers that were showered on the statue during ceremonies through centuries. Another notable artwork in the cathedral is Marco Zapata’s The Last Supper, depicting Jesus Christ and his disciples eating traditional Peruvian cuisines. There is a guinea pig, or an Andean chinchilla, lying in the center of the dining table.
On the other side of the plaza, the Church of the Society of Jesus (Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús) is another perfect example of Spanish Baroque architecture in Peru; go inside, because if the façade of the church has yet to amaze you, the large paintings and altarpiece may impress you even more. The painting at the altar features a painting of Transfiguration.
Besides, The Wedding of Martín García Oñas de Loyola on the north wall and The Wedding of Beltrán García de Loyola with Teresa Idiáquez on the south wall are the other two valuable paintings in the church.
Qorikancha / Convent of Santo Domingo
Qorikancha / Convent of Santo Domingo is probably the holiest building in the Inca Empire – Qorikancha, the Inca Temple of the Sun, was torn to the ground when the Spanish conquistadores invaded Cusco; and then a convent was built on top of the Qorikancha foundations, while a lot of original temples remained.
Qorikancha was originally an old Temple of the Incas where they pay tribute to the Inca sun god, Punchao.
In the 16th century, the Spanish build a convent on top of the stonework of the temple. So here, you will see a surprising sight had you not know about the history of this place: it looks just like any Spanish church from the outside, but as you enter, you will find an Inca temple “hidden” underground.
Inti, or Punchao, was the most important Inca god. It is portrayed as a little boy and a gold statue of Inti was made and kept in Qorikancha by the Inca King. Inti was considered to have divine power to ensure the well-being of the king and the Empire; It was because of his blessing to a good harvest – and so the temples were taken care of by a high priest and his team, while a dedicated amount of harvests are dedicated to them for their service. One of the most important ceremonies to worship Inti was held in June (winter solstice), when sacrifices were made, libations of water and chicha beer were offered, and all priests sing and feast in a lavish festival ritual – marking the beginning of the plowing season.
Walking along the Calle Triunfo in the north of the Cusco Cathedral, I reached the wall of Hatunrumiyoc. Both sides of the street are stone walls that were built by the Incas. One piece of a giant stone, in particular, showcased the incredible architectural capability of the ancient Inca people – imagine how to chisel, cut, and measure a giant piece of stone so precisely that a twelve-angled shaped stone could fit the wall harmoniously with the others for centuries still not even a blade could penetrate the cracks? It’s waiting for you to find out.
The Twelve-angled stone is a mysterious architectural myth; when you look closely, there are many other stones next to it that are also cut in ways that go beyond your imagination.
Go further up the hill to the San Blas Temple, where handicraft shops, restaurants, galleries, and souvenir stores filled the allies, and you could enjoy a better view of the Plaza de Armas at a higher point (like we are not “high” enough).
Antisuyu was the eastern region of the Inca Empire and was located northwest of the Cusco in the high Andes. That is the modern-day Upper Amazon region, and the Anti lived in Antisuyu during the Inca period. Antis is a collective term for the many varied ethnic groups living in the Antisuyu such as the Asháninka or the Tsimané.
Now, you may find the signs on the cobblestone floor indicating the direction of the territories of these regions.
There are four key heritage sites around Cusco’s city center. I mentioned earlier, that it would be easier to explore these places on a guided tour, or hire a driver (because you are at risk of getting robbed walking up to these sites). The four sites are minutes away from each other and as we drove up, we are reaching higher and higher above sea level. If time is limited that you can’t visit all four places, go to Sacsayhuamán.
The citadel was here in Cusco way before the Incas. It was built by the Killke people in 1,100 A.D., however, it was often described as “Inca Ruin” since Inca expanded the complex after they took over in the 13th century. This is the most popular site that was built with an enormous amount of rocks by the Incas and acted as a citadel for defense.
Later, the Spanish removed the stones here for cathedrals, temples, and houses in colonial times – today, only one-fifth of its original scale remained, yet it was still impressive. I could still get a glimpse of the zig-zag-shaped stone walls, altars, and citadel and imagine what it was like in ancient times. At the top of the wall, standing almost 3,800 meters above sea level, I had a panoramic view of the entire ground of Cusco. That’s where I took the cover picture of this post.
Q’enQo, Puka Pukara, and Tambomachay
Q’enQo is a cluster of peculiar-shaped rocks and caves, while altars, amphitheaters, observatory, and other functional sites are filled in between. Puka Pukara is an ancient pit stop for travelers, and traders in ancient times. Tambomachay is related to water. The Incas worship water, as they believe water is the origin of life. At the entrance of Tambomachay, spring water keeps coming out from the altar which was used for cleansing in a religious ritual. The origin of the water is still unknown, and archaeologists couldn’t fully explain the sophisticated water transportation system that the Incas built.
Many Peruvian cuisines that one could be found in Lima (Check out: Peru Food Guide: Visit The World’s Best Restaurants in the Culinary Capital), could be found in Cusco as well. If you are tired of the local cuisines, there are many cafes and restaurants in the city that offers Italian, American, or even Chinese dishes. I had some nice Buffalo wings one night at the local bistro with some iced tea, and there was a small café in the city center with a spectacular quinoa soup and I kept going back for more. The soup is made with quinoa, potatoes, wheat, and moraya – it was so comforting and I went there three times during my stay in Cusco.
Exploring Cusco’s local markets
Apart from the numerous landmarks in town, San Pedro Market is a place where I love to explore and experience local lives. Luckily, the high altitude didn’t bother me so much, and the market is about a 15 to 20-minute walk from Plaza de Armas and my hostel. There, the locals were running their daily chores in traditional Andean Clothing – the vibrant colors, capes, and hats were inspiring. It is a special moment to do some people watching, shopping, and photo-taking.
If you are a healthy superfood fan, stock up! Chia seeds, maca, quinoa, kiwicha… which usually cost much higher in an organic food market or supermarket, are basically on a crazy sale in Cusco. I bought three bags of Chia seed for less than US$10 and these are wonderful ingredients to be added to your morning shakes, salad, or oatmeal.
How to beat altitude sickness?
There are no clear rules (or logic) to tell who will or will not have a reaction to high altitude. It may have something to do with your body condition or physique (some say regular runners may have a higher chance of reacting badly due to their high blood oxygen content, and smokers may somehow adapt to the height better, but these are not scientifically or medically confirmed), but still, there is no guarantee of how you may react each time you ascend to a certain level. For example, the locals in Cusco would pretty much accustomed to the height and don’t feel a thing, I met travelers on the tour or at the hostel who suffered badly, and I met people who were just… completely fine. Furthermore, even if you have been to a place at a high altitude and you were fine, it doesn’t mean that you will also be fine the second time around. In the end, it’s all about how you cope with the environment.
There isn’t really a “cure” for altitude sickness except descending to a lower elevation. Don’t exert yourself just because you feel fine stepping out of the plane, syndromes might appear a few hours after you landed, and it’s always important to be safe and sorry, especially when you are traveling to a foreign country.
There are a few symptoms of altitude sickness – dizziness, lightheadedness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, and heart racing. There are a few tips (and yes, I did them too) to help you accustomed to the altitude.
- Ascend slowly. Altitude is something that you could get used to. Most people usually travel to Cusco by flight, but give yourself a day or so to accustom to the altitude before reaching the higher ground. Acclimate at a lower altitude and ascend slowly. If you travel on road, you will probably get used to the altitude better.
- Take it slow. Don’t move vigorously, walk fast, or exercise once you get there. Plan for easy hiking, move at a glacial pace, or rest on the first day.
- Eat Smart. I was told the body takes more oxygen to burn fat than carbs. There’s no absolute answer, but your stomach would contract at a high altitude that you might lose appetite or even throw up. Pace yourself and get more calories before you board your flight to Cusco.
- Stay hydrated. Fluids make sure your body functions well to regulate internal temperature and acidity. Bring bottled water with you and make sure you have a drinking routine. Hotels or restaurants sometimes serve cocoa tea – the locals believe the herb could relieve the altitude reaction. However, cocoa leaves are illegal in many countries around the world (because it is the source of cocaine), so leave them in Peru if you get your hands on any.
- Skip alcohol. Yes, alcohol is a respiratory suppressant, and it dehydrates your body (which works against dealing with altitude sickness). Better to avoid it, or pace yourself.
- Take pills. For me, I find it the most effective – but of course, talk to your doctor before getting any medication from the pharmacy. You may need to start taking the medicine a day or two earlier.
- Oxygen tanks. I put it last because I don’t very much recommend it. I think it should be the last resort and no one should rely on this. They are Oxyshot (small tubes of oxygen) available in pharmacies but some people claim that it’s a gimmick! Even if the tubes are real, the small amount of oxygen probably won’t help much to alleviate your symptoms. If the symptoms are getting too intense, seek medical help or descend immediately.