Climb Every Mountain: The Salkantay Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Part 2–Cusco

We flew into Lima on Air Canada Rouge  and stayed at the airport hotel (Costa del Sol Wyndham) as we had arrived at about 1 a.m. and most flights to Cusco leave later in the morning. Then, after a good sleep and breakfast, we caught a short flight to Cusco, where, on good advice, we planned to spend five days acclimatizing to the high altitude.

Upon arrival at Cusco airport,

Cusco airport
Val at Cusco airport

we were met by a representative from Mountain Lodges of Peru and driven to our hotel. We stayed at the beautiful Palacio del Inka.

The first few days were a little taxing for us while we got used to the distinct lack of oxygen and the accompanying shortness of breath, fatigue and headaches, but it wasn’t as dramatic as we had feared. We had prescriptions for Diamox, which we dutifully took. The Diamox didn’t seem to help with Steve’s headaches, so he switched to a herbal remedy with ginger and coca leaves in it. The package had a picture of a decidedly peaky looking llama on it, so we took to calling them ‘The Sick Llama Pills’.

At our welcome briefing at the hotel, the MLP rep told us ‘no booze’ for the first few days as alcohol makes altitude acclimatization more difficult. Here are Steve and I being good and drinking water with dinner on our first night in Cusco, which made acclimatization more difficult  😉

We drank tons of water, and drank coca leaf tea as recommended to ward off altitude sickness. In spite of the claims that it was caffeinated,  it seemed to make us quite tired. We were in the same time zone so we couldn’t attribute our fatigue to jet lag. Our afternoons often consisted of a cup of coca tea in the lobby, followed by a (long) nap.  This was a small price to pay for our massive street cred back home from trying coca leaf tea.

When we weren’t napping, we did get some sightseeing in. We visited Cusco’s Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption:

Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption Cusco
Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption

We learned on the tour that the Cathedral had been built on the site of sacred Inca ruins, which did not please the local people who had been subjugated by the Spanish. As a subtle means of rebellion, the artists who had been commissioned to create works for the cathedral added items of significance from their own culture to the Christian paintings. Which is why Jesus and the Apostles are eating Guinea pig at the Last Supper.


We also randomly happened upon a couple of parades: one, of children in colourful costumes showcasing local traditional dance schools; and another, in celebration of higher education showcasing all the university faculties (with a military escort), and a couple getting wedding photos taken.  We loved seeing the joy and pride on the faces of the participants in the parade.  The children were unselfconsciously showing off their moves, whirling and dancing with abandon. And the procession of university faculties was a real demonstration of national pride that was very special to see.

We visited a number of busy and labyrinthine local markets, a treasure trove of soft alpaca sweaters and socks, and even found a chessboard where the pieces were the Inca vs. the Spanish, which we had to pick up.

A few good restaurants included Cicciolina for fantastic tapas (our favourite); Inka Grill on the Main Square for traditional Peruvian dishes, and Chicha for hip Peruvian fusion cuisine.

Cusco was colour and light:


symmetry and patterns:



and incongruous juxtapositions:

But the most incongruous juxtaposition of all may be this one, which I like to call “Still Life With Guinea Pig.”

Steve and Val and…Guinea Pig! (it tasted like pork, by the way)

We found a restaurant called KusiKuy that was noted for its Guinea pig specialties.  It was located near the top of a steep set of stairs not far from San Blas. The climb and the altitude made us ready to sit down for awhile and made me worry anew about the trek to come. Although the Guinea pig looks like it would be a small portion, we found that, with the accompanying side dishes, one Guinea pig was enough for two people.  It was served with stuffed peppers, potatoes and a tamale and it was all delicious. The Guinea pig tasted much like roast pork. We also ordered a side dish of Papa a la Huancaina, which is potatoes in cheese sauce.  If scalloped potatoes and macaroni and cheese had a love child, it would taste like this.

Peruvian potato cheese dish
Peruvian potato cheese dish

So don’t be squeamish! We’ve discovered that trying unfamiliar food is a great way to learn about a culture–and often a way to discover that we aren’t so different after all.

Alas, our time in Cusco grew short and we had to repack and prepare for the trek to come. But we will have to go back, if only to eat Guinea pig again.

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