I had a bit of a scare arriving in Cusco. The bus was due to arrive in this infamous Peruvian town and I had already brushed up on the basic layout of the town centre, so when we drove through a town at arrival time I assumed we had arrived. This even extended to my perceived geography of the city, as we passed through a Plaza De Armas that I was expecting to see. What I was not expecting was how cruddy the town looked. All dirty buildings with rough looking eating places and even rougher looking drinking places. Well, this was going to be tough… and then as soon as we arrived, we left. Thankfully. Half an hour later we drove through opulent tree lined streets lined with modern technology stores, glossy billboards advertising expensive phones and people dressed to the nines. Surely this was Cusco. Actually no, it was the town just down the road, but still it was a great relief compared to what I had expected just a short time before. The bus station of Cusco is as rubbish as any you’ll find in South America, but it came with the added distaste of unscrupulous taxi drivers, who would charge double the going rate without any effort because if you don’t accept it, the next gringo will. Even worse, below a large board demonstrating the acceptable taxi fares, these guys still insisted on much higher rates for the ten minute journey in to the town itself. Cusco is like that, full of green gringos and all those who would gladly extort them. Come expecting it, and the taste is less sour.
Cusco is worth it. It’s a beautiful colonial city steeped in history that extends far prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The city was the capital of the Incan empire and even now, many of the buildings still incorporate the Incan foundations, far sturdier than the structure above. As was typical of the Spanish subjugation process, all the major Catholic buildings were placed on the sites of the most important religious Incan buildings, most of which are in the (correct) Plaza De Armas, previously called Huacaypata or Place of Tears, aptly named given how much the Spanish fucked over the Incans. The deeds of Francisco Pizzarro are quite unbelievable; one of the all time shits of history, but then the same could be said of most of the conquistadores.
Nowhere in South America have I seen quite so many gringos in one place. In the Old Centre of Cusco, there are probably three of four gringos to every Peruvian and many of the businesses here are so owned. Sad though it is to say, Peruvians don’t generally have a very good feeling of what makes a great business to appeal to westerners and so actual westerners have stepped in to fill the gap. Pubs, restaurants and cafes are often owned by Brits, Australians and assorted Europeans and these frequently often the most successful, but also the most expensive. Expensive is sometimes a relative term though – an invariably great lunch at Jack’s Cafe (in San Blas barrio for those who want to know – I had six of them or more, so you should definitely get to know it) is not likely to come to any more than 30 soles at the most frivolous of times – 30 soles is about £7. For those who are more financially cautious, there are plenty of places offering the menu del dia for less than 15 soles and if you are staying outside of the old centre, you can get a fantastic meal for the same price in a local joint so it’s not all expensive… but if you are prepared to spend money, my God you can live well.
Let me tell you about Green’s Organic restaurant off the Plaza de Armas. Medallions of pink Alpaca that melt in the mouth. Karma Sutra Indian Restaurant that has the best Lamb Rogan Josh I’ve ever had by a very wide margin. The Hotel De La Pisco, that served Pisco Sours with Pisco that has been rested with Limo Chiles. Blows your head off, but the limes and the cold temper the heat. Actually, the Pisco Sours all over this town are sensational. It’s definitely a drink I’ll be taking home with me.
A night out in Cusco is also to be attempted. The aforementioned Pisco Sours kick the whole thing off, and after that there are a variety of great bars and what not to visit. None of these are authentic Peruvian joints, but they are a lot of fun. Try pondering the merits of the appalling dance clubs at the top of the Plaza de Armas while a dozen promoters scream “FREE DRINK WITH OUR BAR” at your face. I’ve rarely felt so wanted. There are nice places in San Blas that surround you with “alternative” types, mostly painfully cool Argentinians with assorted ink and piercings and live music. Try the backpacker hostel bars and see what drinks you can sneak out the front door without the bouncer noticing (don’t do that… he’ll just chase you down the street). Wake up with a hangover and stumble downstairs to scrambled eggs and coca tea.
There are plenty of things do near the town also, and not all of them related to the Incan history of the place (the ruins of Sacsayhuaman are a walk away from the town centre). We did some mountain biking in the sacred valley, taking in a couple of (very underwhelming) archaeological sites. The ride itself ended up being far more technical than expected, and after falling off the bike five times (or was it six… I forget), my lower legs looked like I’d been given a going over by an IRA gang with an iron bar. Though Cusco is worth visiting for the merits of the town alone (although the street hawkers offering “massajes” and “tour tour – very cheap!!” get very tiring after a while), we were there for one main reason, and that was the trail to Machu Picchu. Which I will be writing about in the next entry as it deserves its own.