What I thought would be a pleasant trip to Peru turned out to be a wild roller-coaster ride of exhilarating highs and terrifying lows. The idea was for me and my friends to spend a day and a half in Cusco to explore the town and acclimate to the higher altitude before heading out on an intense trek to Machu Picchu via the majestic Salkantay mountain pass. But our meticulously planned itinerary soon unraveled in a way that none of us could have foreseen…
Day 1: Touchdown Cusco
After hours upon hours cooped up on planes, it was a welcome reprieve to step out into the arid, temperate air of Cusco, Peru in the late afternoon. Our cab drove through modern paved roads, occasionally halting at fairly sophisticated and surprisingly ornate stoplights, as my friends and I peered through the windows at the cityscape whizzing by. We spied walls adorned with vivid murals, impressive stone churches and municipal buildings, and awesome playgrounds equipped with climbable full-sized trains and gigantic, sky-high slides that never would have passed muster with U.S. safety regulations. Although we vowed to return to the playgrounds after our trek to experience the thrill of Peruvian childhood, alas, it was not mean to be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The cab soon left behind the more modern parts of the city; as we approached the heart of Cusco, the roads transformed from smooth pavement to charming cobblestones, and the urban scenery gave way to grand cathedrals, beautiful plazas, and cute little avenues of shops and restaurants. We couldn’t wait to explore! By the time the cab rolled up in front of EcoPackers Hostel, wanderlust had seized us full force. But first we had to check in.
Our hostel was not what I was expecting at all. To me, the word “hostel” evoked images of dreary, run-down sardine-tin spaces with an aura akin to an Oliver Twist-style boarding school. EcoPackers Hostel was more like a small, vibrant independent college campus set in a two-story Spanish colonial manor. The walls were painted a vivid tangerine, and the outdoor hallways were lined with yellow railings and arching stone architecture, green plants spilling over the sides of the framework. Atop the traditional stone flooring of the main courtyard stood new-fangled furnishings, including chic lounge chairs, tables made of doors, hammocks, a ping-pong table, and a DJ booth (which inexplicably blasted cheesy songs from the 80’s and 90’s). The secondary courtyard held long dining tables bedecked in colorful tablecloths and fresh flowers, and boasted a gorgeous three-dimensional textured mural of Machu Picchu engulfed in other live flora. The inner common area also included a dining room, bar, and TV room. The bedrooms and bathrooms were clean, relatively modern dorm-style spaces. Oh, and of course, there was free Wi-Fi.
After we’d settled in at what would soon feel like our home in Peru, we bundled up in warmer clothes that better suited the sudden drop in temperature that came with the twilight, and stepped out into the streets of Cusco with giddy hearts. The cobblestone roads gleamed golden beneath the lampposts that illuminated our path through town – a yellow-brick road of sorts.
Our rumbling tummies demanded to be fed – but how were we to choose from the dozens of restaurants around us? Especially when a representative of each restaurant ventured out into the streets and called out to us, attempting to lure us in, ensuring us his food was the best or the cheapest. That’s some pretty direct marketing.
After browsing a few options, we decided on Ama Lur. We were rewarded with delicious food and complimentary wine. I enjoyed a tasty fish dish and one of my friends had a great chicken and Andean cheese dish, while another played it safe with pasta. But my three guy friends were adventurous enough to try Alpaca. I had a bite – and it was actually quite sumptuous! The meat tasted like something between chicken and beef, with perhaps a hint of lambiness, and the sauce was rich and flavorful.
For dessert, we strolled a few blocks down to the adorable Café y Chocolate, which drew us in with its glass cases of gorgeous confections, cozy upholstered chairs, and walls painted with sly cherubs holding plates of cake. Unfortunately, although the passion-fruit cheesecake was quite good (just ok at first, but better with each bite), the other desserts were more disappointing for us. The hot chocolate in particular was very bitter and required manual sweetening.
Once our tummies were full, we wandered about Plaza de Arma for a bit. As soon as we approached the plaza, little old Peruvian ladies accosted us with their wares. Since the night had gotten colder, we all bought ourselves a reversible double-sided beanie (made of Alpaca wool and featuring Alpaca prints), to warm our heads. After that, more merchants suddenly appeared out of the woodwork, thrusting their gloves and jewelry and dolls in our faces until we had rejected their advances enough times. Sporting our hip new headwear, we took photographs near the grand Catedral de Cusco, as well as the golden statue of an Incan standing on a faux-stone platform and pointing toward the mountains. Amidst the dark backdrop of night, the mountainsides glittered with blue and yellow jewels of light. And at the apex, an illuminated white statue of Jesus (known as “Cristo Blanco”) overlooked the city with his arms spread wide like falcon wings.
As the hour grew late, our eyelids grew heavy, and we made our way back to the hostel to enjoy free pisco sours for first-night guests at the bar, a hot shower, and some shuteye before more thoroughly exploring the city the next day.