Travelling to Cusco, Peru

Throwing caution to the wind is recommended in quirky Cusco, Peru

Credit: Susan Hollis

Travelling to Peru: Cusco is the artisanal
stronghold for the country.

Throwing caution to the wind is recommended on travels to quirky Cusco, Peru.

A STEEP 800-YEAR-OLD CITY built by Inca rulers and Spanish conquistadors, Cusco is hard to navigate when you’re running behind a tiny 80-year-old Peruvian lady with legs like a mountain goat. I am lost and tailing her through the narrow streets of the Andean city to the San Pedro Market, a place the tour book strongly cautions against visiting.
After reading about the shadowy pickpockets and deviants who frequent the block-long covered bazaar, I decided to chance it, figuring (correctly) it would be bankrupt of tourists. Here among the towers of wooden kitchen utensils, sacks of handwoven cloth and rows of dangling chicken feet, traditional Cusco operates unfettered by foreign niceties.

WEATHER  Cusco’s climate is dry and temperate, though the wet season lasts from November to March (average temperature: 12 degrees Celsius). 

CAN’T MISS Watch Cusco’s soccer darlings, Club Cienciano del Cusco, play a game at Estadio Garcilaso de la Vega.

COOL EATS  Casa Andina Private Collection (Plazoleta de Limacpampa Chico 473), where you’ll be plied with coca tea and complimentary water to help ease any altitude sickness.

BEST BEDS  Cusco has a number of high-end restaurants, but for a solid three-course meal ($1.50) in a quaint, traditional atmosphere, go to Kukuly Biblio Café at Nuaynapata 318.

The other markets I had seen around the city were charming – some even accepted Visa – but San Pedro, with its floor puddles of mystery juice and “mixto” fruit shakes made with raw egg and beer, is something of a movable feast. There is nary a thief in sight and not once does anyone motion for a donation when I snap their picture – a rarity in Cusco. Making ends meet is difficult for many of the indigenous people of the region, and they wisely draw extra income from tourists attracted to their brightly coloured garb and fuzzy, doe-eyed alpacas.

Set in the Huatanay Valley of the southeastern Andes, Cusco was once a stronghold for the Incan empire and so brilliantly designed that even the Spanish Euro-snob explorer Francisco Pizarro, who officially found it, thought it worthy of lavish praise. Originally mapped out in the shape of a puma (now long dissipated by urban sprawl), the city of 350,000 is divided into quadrants, with the main commercial areas focused around the Plaza de Armas, a wide public square hemmed by the towering colonial Santo Domingo Cathedral and the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus. Ringing the square are a number of good second-storey cafés and restaurants with tiny balconies overlooking the central fountain and park benches. Here I rest, filled to the brim with the genius of the beer-and-fruit shake (not for the faint of stomach) before pottering back across the plaza, where people and pigeons scatter with equally startled profusion.

Drawn by a slightly perverse agnostic curiosity to the giant white statue of Jesus that hovers over the city from its perch on a nearby mountaintop, I aim north and start the journey up the long stone staircase that runs along Cuesta Sta Ana (a brick and stone opus of civil engineering disguised as a city street). As Cusco lies 3,300 metres above sea level, stairs of any sort become a Herculean feat for those who have flown straight from seaside Lima. My rhythm – step, step, pause, step, step, pause – is broken only by the occasional fascinated gander at the Cusco natives who breeze by without so much as a bead of sweat on their brows. Near the top, the shops and courtyards give way to hilly fields dotted with llamas and the Sacsayhuaman ruins, girdled by massive slabs of granite that stay warm after dark and cool during the day.

Cusco is the artisanal stronghold for the country, with almost everything sold elsewhere made better and cheaper here. Handmade alpaca sweaters, toques, boots and mittens can be found for prices that make you question the sanity of their purveyors. So at the top, I buy a beer and an owl belt from a girl with a one-week-old alpaca sleeping in her lap, remove my shoes and sip a cold Cusqueñan ale above the city with Jesus at my back.

Fred Warriner, Far Point Marine Ltd.My Secret Place
Who: Fred Warriner, owner, Far Point Marine Ltd.
: West Coast Wilderness Lodge, Egmont Why: As a lifetime boater, one of my favourite things to do is show clients impressive boating destinations in unexpected locations. West Coast Wilderness Lodge is a great place for a romantic evening of tapas on their terrace – with panoramic views of ocean, mountain and forest – or to enjoy breakfast before starting a day cruise to Princess Louisa Inlet. A pleasant 45-minute walk from the lodge (don’t miss the takeout bakery nestled beside the trail along the way) brings you to a rock outcropping adjacent to the breathtaking Skookumchuck rapids.