Alpacas, Architecture and Other Lessons: Cusco, Peru (Part I)

Happy belated Thanksgiving to my fellow Americans! Here’s another throwback post, this time it’s about my trip to Peru in January. One thing (among many) that I’m thankful for this year is that I took my vacation days in January 2020 before the pandemic hit hard…

After visiting Brazil on my vacation pre-pandemic, I spent a week in Cusco, Peru! I visited Incan ruins throughout the city, hiked up Rainbow Mountain, hugged llamas and took a trip to Machu Picchu (I’ll have a separate post about these).

From Brasilia, I flew into Lima and then to Cusco. So far, landing in Cusco has beaten landing in NYC in terms of best passenger reactions trying to see the city from the sky. They say Cusco airport is one of the toughest airports to land in, and flights are often delayed or cancelled when there are only a few clouds.

Because of the elevation difference, my head ached instantly on landing. I knew to stay hydrated to avoid altitude sickness, and I can proudly say that this one headache was the worst symptom I had all trip! For reference, Cusco is a little over 11,000 feet (3,300 meters) above sea level and Lima (where I flew from) is about 5,000 feet. Machu Picchu is a little under 8,000 feet, and New York (home) is 33 feet above sea level.

Now, Cusco is a beautifully historic place to visit and I’ll talk about the good stuff soon. But I also want to include the not-so-good things because they’re part of my experience, too. I actually left Peru two days earlier than I planned because of how touristy it was.

The streets along Plaza de Armas, the main square, are mostly souvenir shops and restaurants. If you tell one solicitor “no” when they offer a massage or a tour or a menu, you’ll still be pestered by every other solicitor selling the same services in the vicinity. At least in touristy areas of NYC, if you ignore a solicitor or tell them “no,” those nearby will likely to take the hint and leave you be.

As a backpacker, my go-to travel look (actually my go-to look in general) is no makeup and simple. I keep my nails short so I don’t have to deal with cleaning dirt out so much. I dress for comfort and practicality before fashion. So when I was offered so many makeovers and manicures, it felt as if they were targeting me. As if they were telling me I don’t look nice enough, when my natural look is by choice. It was obvious they did this to every female, but nevertheless detracted from my experience.

Besides, I was quite sleep-deprived and knew I wouldn’t get the sleep I needed if I stayed in such a wonderous place. I’d be too tempted to ignore my needs and explore so much more. I also think it was extra tough for me considering I just came from areas of Brazil where nobody spoke English to a city where it felt as if everyone was an English-speaking tourist or local.

There’s truly something special about having conversations in languages I do not know. I pick up a few phrases in my short time visiting new places, that it’s easy to see how you could learn an entire language if you stay longer. I even got a haircut (it only cost $6 USD when converted) from a woman who only spoke Spanish while I only spoke English. We use a lot of hand motions and basics from each others’ language… But I still think knowing every language would be the greatest achievement (that would be my superpower if I could pick one).

The city is full of hills, so you’re walking up and down steep inclines often. I understood how easy it could be to get altitude sickness. I got out of breath every few minutes and drank three or more two liter waters each day. Because of the hills, nearly everywhere has a beautiful view, which kind of forces you to take your time to breathe it all in. I say this helped me acclimatize to the altitude easier.

I learned a lot on this trip, too! First, I learned the difference between alpacas and llamas: alpacas have a fluff of fur on top of their heads, llamas do not. Locals dress up in colorful clothing and walk baby alpacas around the city, chill on benches and pose for tourist photos. These alpacas are born and raised on farms in outer villages, then walked to Cusco where they earn tips from tourists. I like that they treat their alpacas well and that you know your money (which is worth more to them if you’re from a more developed country) helps a family.

I also learned why the buildings have a strange mix of architecture. Many buildings were originally constructed by the Incans and then left unfinished when the Spanish invaded. Incans built simple brown stone structures because they wanted their buildings to survive. They built in pyramid shapes for stability, likely influenced by a person being more stable when standing with their feet wider apart (I assume that’s why the Egyptian pyramids still stand, too). The Spanish conquerors later finished the buildings in their lavish style because they wanted their buildings to impress.

The Spanish kept some Incan stones in place and used them as foundations for their elaborate architecture. They transported other Incan stones elsewhere to build completely new structures. Other stones fell away during an earthquake in the 1950s, and were later brought together at the Qorikancha Incan temple near the city center.

Left wall: unfinished Incan building later finished by the Spanish (white wall on top); Right wall: Incan wall

I’ll share more about these ruins and others throughout the city of Cusco in a future post! And of course my Rainbow Mountain hike (my favorite Peruvian experience) and my indifferent visit to Machu Picchu…

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