Sunday, we had a flight from Lima to Cusco at 10:50am, the airline had advised us to arrive 2 hours prior to departure which we thought was excessive, but heeded the advice nonetheless. So Katie and I woke up, had a quick bite of breakfast – some bread and fruit that Tess had left out for us at Casa Nuestra, and then packed our backpacks and hopped in the taxi around 8:15am. When we got to Jorge Chavez International Airport it was total chaos. The lines at the airline ticket counters were all REALLY long and twisting around each other so that it was impossible to understand where the tail of each line actually led. Luckily we saw an Avianca computer kiosk and quickly printed our boarding passes, thank goodness we didn’t have to check a bag because those lines were insane.
This airport was NOT clearly labeled in any way so we had to ask an attendant where to proceed for security and gates; it was through a roped off area, up an escalator and around a few corners. There was a large retail area with souvenirs, a food court and some luggage shops; this whole area was swarming with people and another SUPER long chaotic line snaking for 200+ yards through the middle of the swarm. We came to realize that the airport experience in Lima is a family affair, this massive line and congested retail area contained travelers along with most of their immediate and extended families hugging and crying and waiting with them until the very last second that they entered the security check. SO the line moved very quickly as 1 person would enter security and their 10 surrounding family members would exit the line. We were through security and at the gate with over an hour to spare. Lesson learned – you don’t actually need to be intimidated by the really long lines at Lima airport, the families would seemingly not be upset if you hopped into the front of the security line because that just means they get a few extra moments with their traveler.
After we boarded and pulled away from the gate, we waited over an hour on the runway before takeoff. The assumption among passengers was that we were waiting our turn for the runway, but we were never given any kind of update as to what was delaying us. Once in the air, the flight was a brief, hour long affair with some wicked turbulence as we approached Cusco airport. Some frequent visitors on board alerted us that this can be common due to the wind between the mountains in Cusco, but it was certainly unsettling; there was a full plane standing ovation when we landed safely if that lends any insight into the tension on board for the final 10 minutes.
Two of our fellow travelers – Leslie and Sutton – were on this flight as well so the 4 of us easily grabbed a taxi at the airport and were dropped at their accommodation. Katie and I walked the 0.8 miles to our accommodation which, with our backpacks and 11,000 ft altitude of Cusco, turned out to be more of a challenge than anticipated. But we arrived safely to Hotel Taypikala Cusco and were greeted with coca tea. They had upgraded us to a jacuzzi suite with the bathtub right out in the middle of the room, could’ve been quite romantic but obviously wasted on me and Katie. The room was nice, with a large and clean bathroom (though there was no hot water in the shower), we were right off the courtyard with a great view of the garden. Weirdly enough the window also had a direct view into the lobby, so not recommended to jacuzzi with the curtains open in this particular room. It was really cold at night and the windows didn’t seem to have a proper seal, there was only a small portable heater which didn’t provide much relief. We didn’t spend much time in the room though, just dropped the bags and headed out to explore Cusco.
First stop, food. We went to Nuna Raymi which Katie had read about in the Fodor’s Peru guide, it was touted as fresh, local cuisine. The restaurant was located a half a block from Plaza de Armas (Cusco main square) on Calle Triunfo. The restaurant was on the second level with large windows overlooking the street, there was a lot of rustic, wood decor and a mural on the wall. They brought out bread which was really fresh and delicious. We got an order of causitas which is a traditional Peruvian dish consisting of a ball of mashed potatoes with some type of topping, this version had avocado and trout on top and was pretty good. I was ready to try alpaca and opted for the appetizer version of alpaca skewers which also came with potatoes and I added a quinoa tabouli salad type dish. The alpaca was excellent, very lean and perfectly medium rare with a tasty sauce on it, would definitely eat again; I’m not much of a potato person and we had already had causitas, but I gave these a try since it was Peru, they were okay but still not much of a potato person. The quinoa tabouli was really fresh tasting and also came with some mango slices. Katie opted for the chicharrones fried pork chops which were really too greasy and tough to enjoy. This meal was quite filling for around 35 soles each ($10.50 USD).
After lunch we hit the markets, just below Nuna Raymi was a large market with many stalls. It is interesting that some markets aren’t very clearly marked or advertised, you would just peer through a doorway and there would be a narrow hallway with a few vendors and just past that it might open up into a large courtyard with 50 or so stalls. A few markets that we encountered didn’t even have proper entrances that we could tell, instead you had to enter a shop and pass through the back of it to find a dozen stalls in a smaller courtyard. This first market we entered was very large and there were many vendors selling similar products – hats, scarves, gloves, sweaters, leg warmers and other trinkets. It is really difficult to differentiate between the products and know what is quality. In addition, the prices are always inflated so that you negotiate down to a comfortable price for both seller and buyer – I’m not a haggler so this is not fun for me. Katie and I both left with a pair of gloves, she got a scarf and I got a sweater to keep us warm on our trek the following day. I paid asking price for both items, Katie successfully negotiated some discounts on her items. We also learned very quickly that photos of locals or their products are not acceptable without providing compensation. I took a photo of Katie with a cute little fluffy stuffed llama and the stall owner was insistent that she should have to purchase the item, it was unexpected; if you find yourself in a similar situation be prepared to provide a tip to the stall owner, or be more discrete with your photography, or refrain from photos.
After perusing the markets for a while it was time to scoot over to Plaza de Armas to meet up with our 3 Texan counterparts (Leslie, Sutton, and Christian – who had arrived later in the afternoon from Lima by bus) in addition to our Flashpacker Connect tour guides for the 2 day Rainbow Mountain trek. The guides showed us a map of where we would be heading, described the distance, incline and elevation information, provided a small duffel bag for our overnight items (which would be carried by a mule, thank God), and then advised us to get plenty of rest before the 4:30AM pickup time.
Plaza de Armas is the Cusco main square, it has a church, a central fountain and plenty of shops and restaurants surrounding all sides. I would recommend to snag a seat on a bench or on an outdoor patio for some great people watching in this area. This is also a great spot to marvel over all the little lights from the homes on the surrounding mountainside as it gets dark at night. As we passed back through the plaza later in the night, there was a parade going on where men were dressed in white masks covering their whole face, brightly/rainbow colored clothing, and had small, stuffed alpacas hanging from their backs; they were playing instruments and dancing around. Unclear what the particular celebration was but we saw many such parades and festivals throughout the week. The Peruvians seemed like a very celebratory group, their Independence day is July 28th and we’d been told there were week long festivities so it is possible that this why we saw so much joy and festivity but can’t be certain. Whatever it was for, it was entertaining to watch!
We left the Plaza all together to find an ice cream shop that Leslie and Katie had been eyeing on TripAdvisor, we wandered leisurely to the area but couldn’t seem to find the exact location, we thought it might be closed for the holiday still so we gave up and went to a bakery that the others had seen earlier in the day. We ended up at La Valeriana which had plenty of cakes, tortes, empanadas and the works. This spot was crowded at 8pm on a Sunday evening but we managed to snag a few seats and order some hot teas (they had some awesome herbal concoctions, highly recommend) and we each picked a treat or two to enjoy. The treats were tasty and the atmosphere was cozy and homey within the bakery, I think we all really enjoyed this spot. After the sweets we went to our respective hotels and readied for the next day.