Cuzco was once the capital city of the Incan Empire and is a popular tourist destination since most people start here to get to Machu Picchu. It’s a Unesco World Heritage Site and a beautiful city in it’s own right. The city’s 11,000 ft altitude can also make your first few days here pretty interesting. Anyone doing a high-altitude trek leaving Cuzco is recommended to stay at least 2-4 days to acclimate. We only stayed two full days before our trek and in hind-sight, another day or two would have been ideal.
You can get to Cuzco from Lima by either bus or plane, with LAN, StarPeru, and Taca all running daily flights. We didn’t have the time for a 24-hr bus adventure, so we booked tickets with StarPeru for about $200 RT, much cheaper than either LAN or Taca. We did wait quite a while to book our tickets so I think with some planning you could get a cheaper flight.
We were told flights are often canceled due to bad weather and there are no afternoon flights because of that reason. Getting an early morning flight is recommended: the weather is better and there is more time to recoup in case of cancellation or delay. After a 30-min delay, which I gathered was pretty normal, we had a smooth 1-hr flight with no weather and marveled at how quickly the scenery changes once you’re out of Lima. The Andes are just beautiful from the air!
The landing in Cuzco wasn’t quite the “fighter pilot descent” I’ve heard it described to be, but there’s definitely no long, steady descent here. Instead, the plane spirals tightly down into the city. If you have vertigo, hang on tight. Once off the plane we noticed the altitude immediately. We walked down the exit ramp and I was sure that if I were a bobble head doll, this is how I’d feel. My head felt huge.
The day we arrived was beautiful: 60 degrees, sunshine, blue skies, green hills. Our accommodation, the Amaru Hostel, provided free airport pickup so we met our taxi driver outside along with a young couple from Chihuahua, Mexico who were also staying at the Amaru and preparing for an Inca Trail trek. We enjoyed some laughs and good conservation on the 15-min winding drive into the city.
The Amaru Hostel was well reviewed and when we arrived we could easily see why. There are two Amarus (I and II). We stayed at the I, so I can’t speak to the II, but if you ever visit Cuzco, this place is a must. The rooms are all unique and beautiful, the grounds are immaculate, the staff incredibly friendly, the views spectacular, and the location superb: just a few blocks from The Plaza de Armas in the San Blas neighborhood. It’s considered slightly more pricey than other accommodations in the area, but we still only paid $48/night for a double room with a private bath and free breakfast. Unless you’re on a tight backpacker budget, it’s a great value.
Walking uphill a block to the hostel seriously winded us and trying to fill out our information cards was like a comedy skit. Diana complained her eyes couldn’t focus and she could barely read. I felt woozy and confused. Upon checking in the staff recommended we not walk too much and just take the day to simply relax, adjust to the altitude, and drink lots of Coca tea. Most places provide it free as it’s rumored to help with altitude sickness.
A little trivia about Coca tea: it is technically cocaine in a cup. Ok, not really, but sorta. The amount of cocaine in the tea is negligible. You’d need like 250 grams of Coca leaves to make 1 gram of cocaine. But, a drug test administered with 48 hours of consuming Coca tea can produce a false positive, so beware. Is it legal in the US? It’s controversial. Apparently some places sell it, but it’s generally hard to find. Don’t worry though, you can drink a lot of Coca tea and not feel like you’ve been doing cocaine, fortunately or unfortunately enough depending on your perspective. And it does seem to help with altitude symptoms.
As much as we wanted to explore we heeded the hostal’s advice and simply relaxed and drank lots of tea. The wooziness started to wear off after a few hours, though walking up and down stairs was still quite the production. The only item on our agenda for the day was checking in at the Quechuas Expeditions office for our Salkantay Trek. That turned out to be a trek in itself as the location that Google maps provided was out of date and everyone we asked pointed us in a new direction. Expecting a quick trip around the block we weren’t very well prepared, got hit by an afternoon monsoon, and were soaked in about 20 seconds. Wet, tired, frustrated, and woozy from the altitude, a shopkeeper took pity on us and called Quechuas.
A very friendly lady from Quechuas met us and walked us back to their offices. So incredibly nice of them! Wayra, the owner, excitedly greeted us, walked us through specifics of the trek, and answered all of our questions. Then Wayra told us we were currently a party of 2. Huh? Really? It was just Diana and me?
Now is probably a good time to mention that Diana had told me multiple times about her nightmare of us being the only two, completely alone in the middle of the Andes with a bunch of unknown men. Sure, laugh away. I suppose this isn’t something most guys think about. As a female traveler (often alone), it’s a survival thing to worry just a bit about this kind of situation. I had told her it was ridiculous, that there was no way we’d be alone. It was Easter weekend on a very busy 100th anniversary year for Machu Picchu. Guess I was wrong.
So here we were, a party of 2. I could only smile and see Diana looking at me hesitantly. Part of me was a bit disappointed as I was looking forward to meeting lots of other cool travelers on the trek. But most of me was pretty excited. We’re going to have our own private Salkantay Trek?! Can you believe it?
It’s almost as if Wayra sensed a bit of apprehension on our part. “Chicas”, he said. “We take good care of you!” He told us our guide would come by our hostel the next day with our trekking poles, sleeping bags, and duffel bags for our gear. We could meet him and ask him any final questions. We decided if he seemed sketchy in any way, we’d listen to our guts and make alternative trek arrangements. And maybe, we’d just send a picture of him to Diana’s son, a special forces Marine.
That evening we had a fabulous dinner at Granja Heidi (translation: Heidi’s Farm), recommended by the Amaru Hostel and conveniently, right next door. Fabulous isn’t even a good word – it was one of the best dinners I’ve ever had! There is a reason it has such fabulous online reviews and is listed as one of the top attractions in Cuzco. One quick note: refraining from alcohol your first day in Cuzco is probably a good idea. I had a glass of wine and it didn’t take long to feel like I had drunk an entire bottle or two. I went back to the hostel with a massive headache.
Sleeping that night also uncovered a few more interesting things about the affects of altitude on your body. Did you know that when sleeping at altitude, your body can actually forget to breathe? Yeah, no kidding. Just a minor annoyance, right? So you find yourself waking up from time to time out of breath because you just forgot to breathe for a while. It’s called “periodic breathing” and is usually the result of not being properly acclimated. Your body will take 3-5 rapid breaths, then cease breathing for a while. It’s not cool.
All in all though, we had a pretty restful night of sleep. The altitude affected us much less the next day and we were able to spend the entire day sightseeing. Because of Good Friday celebrations, the churches were elaborately decorated with flowers and were quite something to see. We met our trek guide Ruben that evening and he put us immediately at ease. He’s a super cool young guy who speaks decent English and seemed really excited to be taking us on the trek. We had no reservations whatsoever.
Granja Heidi was so incredible the previous night that we returned again and I had hands down, the best dinner I’ve ever had: locally grown beef with potatoes and steamed carrots. Simply amazing. Definitely check this place out if you’re in town. I’m happy to report a glass of wine went over much better tonight too! After dinner we got to work sorting out our stuff and packing our gear for the trek. We’re so excited we can hardly wait!