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Travel Talk – Cusco blends Quechua with Spanish culture (Jan. 21, 2015 issue)

This week, I will finish the series about Machu Picchu. To recap, if you’ve read all three articles, you should now have an idea of how to reach the sacred Inca site, whether by train or by trail, individually or with a tour group (as mentioned before, I highly recommend going with a group).
From last week, you should now have an idea of what to expect when you get there, and I gave a crash course in the history. However, people have written many in-depth books about Machu Picchu’s history and architecture, so if you go, you should hire a guide so that you will learn more than I can possibly fit in an article.
No trip to Machu Picchu would be complete without a stay in Cusco, Peru. Cusco is the perfect place to start your adventure. As the capital city of the short-lived Inca Empire, there are a number of Inca ruins, which are open to tourists. To reflect the strength and power of their empire, the Incas designed their most important city in the shape of a puma, a sacred animal that is the king of the Peruvian jungles.
The city was the physical center of the empire and all Inca roads connected in Cusco. When the Spanish conquered the Incas, Cusco became the center of Spanish colonial power and much of the architecture blends Spanish and Inca influences, particularly in the downtown area and in the old Spanish churches. Today, Cusco is the home of descendants of Spanish colonists and Quechua natives (the descendants of the Incas) which creates a truly unique city.
The first thing visitors need to prepare for is the altitude. Altitude was the greatest enemy of Spanish conquistadors and continues to be a challenge for tourists. Cusco was built at about 11,000 feet in altitude. Many of the treks to Machu Picchu go to peaks of 15,000 feet, but Machu Picchu is closer to 9,000 feet. If you hike to Machu Picchu, you will want to stay in Cusco for at least 48 hours while your body adjusts.
During that time, you will need to take it easy. Even seasoned Appalachian Trail hikers will not immediately be able to take long hikes. Be careful with rich foods and alcohol consumption while you adjust. While in Cusco, coca tea is readily available and helps with the altitude.
The city itself is a popular haven for tourists of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities. The historical center, called the Plaza de Armas, is the perfect place to start your tour of Cusco. Here, you will see a beautiful statue dedicated to the first Inca emperor, Pachacutec, two Spanish churches, and many old Spanish buildings.
You will also be confronted with just about everything you could possibly want from Cusco. Every few feet, someone will try to sell you massages, earrings, paintings, or tours of Cusco and Machu Picchu. Tourist-friendly shops restaurants, and bars surround this area. However, for a more genuine shopping experience, visit the open-air San Pedro’s market where you can buy llama-themed souvenirs, coca candy, or groceries.
One of the most difficult decisions you may make in Cusco is which Inca sites to visit. Some people like to buy a boleto touristic, or tourist ticket. It costs about $40 and covers entrance for multiple sites and is valid for 5 days. While this is a good option, you should also decide what you want to visit before you purchase a ticket because it does not include all sites.
However, it includes entrance to Sacsayhuaman (usually pronounced like “sexy woman”). Sacsayhuaman is located outside the city and overlooks Cusco. It was an Inca fortress as can be seen in the massive walls. This is one of the most important sites in Cusco and is now the location of Inti Raymi, a festival to celebrate the Incan sun god. You will probably want a guide to this site.
Qorikancha is another must-see. It was the sun temple, dedicated to the god Inti, and was the most important Incan temple. If Cusco was at the center of the Empire, Qorikancha was at the center of Cusco. The Incas, therefore, covered the building in gold. The Spanish built a church and monastery on top of the temple by incorporating the walls of the temple into the Spanish building. Today, parts of the temple have been restored while the church is also preserved. At Qorikancha, you will find an example of how Spanish religious life now blends with Quechua culture since the two are equally important for the Cusco region.
As an introduction to Peruvian life, Cusco offers more than just museums and ancient temples. There are restaurants throughout the historic downtown, but the farther you walk, the cheaper food will be. Lunch is usually the largest meal. For about $5, you will get a main plate and soup with quinoa. If you’re feeling more adventurous, try the local cuy, or guinea pig.
For local beverages, chicha is a syrupy drink made from corn and is usually alcoholic, but chicha morena is usually the nonalcoholic version. Inca Cola, a bubblegum-flavored soda, is Peru’s favorite soft drink while the frothy and light pisco sour is the native alcoholic beverage.
For lodging, I suggest staying in a hostel. Most hostels have private rooms, serve breakfast, and are located within easy walking distance of the historic center. This is also a great way to meet other international travelers. All lodging options will offer free coca tea. Cusco provides a fascinating introduction to Incan culture and modern Peruvian life. While it’s a great place to start and finish a Machu Picchu adventure, Cusco is also a destination in its own worth, and it’s easy to fall for the beautiful blend of Quechua and Spanish culture.