So after being in Cusco for about eight weeks, I thought it might be usefel to share some general tips on surviving here. Most of you probably won’t find yourselves in the capital of the ancient Inca empire anytime soon, but on the off-chance that you do wind up in these parts sometime (which, by the way, I highly recommend), you might find these little nuggets of knowledge worthwhile. And hey, even if you have absolutely no intention on coming to Cusco, to Peru, or even to the continent of South America, you might just find my advice interesting, inspiring, ingenious, or, if nothing else, worth a good laugh at my expense. Anyway, here goes.
How to Survive in Cusco and the Surrounding Are
Eating well in Cusco is remarkably easy, even if you’re a stingy, not-particularly-wealthy student whose cooking abilities extend about as far as a bowl of buttered pasta, with meat sauce on a good day. Huge markets like San Pedro (below) have everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to entire pig heads, providing numerous options for the adventurous cook. For the more faint of heart, most markets have a section of small restaurant stalls where local women prepare a belly-busting menu for the equivalent of just over a dollar. So what do I do on an average day? I start by cooking something simple, which almost invariably consists of eggs. Fried eggs, scrambled eggs, eggs with fresh bread from the market, eggs without fresh bread from the market. It all works. For lunch, I eat for free at the SAE clubhouse, which is one of the perks of interning here. This ranges from delectable veggie burgers from a local place called Prasada to buying our own ingredients at the market and cooking for ourselves. In the evenings, having spent next-to-nothing on food, I tend to have a nice meal out on the town. Cusco’s international demographic and heavy focus on tourism means there’s an option for every taste. Indian cuisine at Korma Sutra is worth the higher prices; British-style pubs abound, offering stodgy, bland food as only the British do; and homey cafes serve up American breakfasts that will satisfy your heartache for a good stack of pancakes (hopefully not giving you a more literal heartache at the same time). Even the touristy restaurants are usually far cheaper than in the States, with a full steak dinner costing about ten dollars. It’s pretty nice being able to eat out almost every night without breaking the bank. And if you’re ever particularly low on funds, you can buy a couple of anticuchos (skewers of succulent meat with a potato on the end) from one of the numerous street vendors, and be completely satisfied. Aprovecha!
Staying Clean in Cusco can be a little more difficult. For some odd reason, the cost of doing laundry here is not proportional to other prices; in fact, it’s more expensive than in the U.S.! There’s really no way to wash your own clothes, short of filling up a sink and scrubbing away, so most tourists opt for the drop-off and pick-up services that line the street. Since they charge by the kilogram, I was unpleasantly surprised the first time I brought two weeks worth of soiled shirts and jeans to lady down the street. When I got my bulging bag back the next day, the clothes were expertly folded, and had that crisp sun-dried feeling. But when I unfolded a pair of jeans and put them on, I realized that they were just as dirty as the day before. It seemed that they had been dunked in water, hung out to dry, pressed, folded… everything except cleaned. After shopping around a little, I managed to find someone who could get my clothes reasonably clean, but due to the prices, I soon accepted that I’d be wearing my jeans a few more times between each wash (and by that I mean I’d never wash them). Showering here can be an adventure in itself. A terrible, ice-cold adventure. Sometimes you’ll get back from a long day of hiking, all too excited for your tepid, low-pressure shower, only to turn on the tap and… nothing. No water whatsoever. Even when it does work, the water switches from tolerably warm to freezing at will, making it necessary to jump in and out according to the shower’s mood. And on the off-chance that you get a nice hot shower, which can happen from time to time, the blast of Arctic air that greets you when you open the curtain is enough to freeze Satan’s nipples off. Needless to say, showering becomes much less attractive in this environment. So what’s my advice? Well, there’s really not a whole lot you can do, short of finding a luxury hotel that boasts an actual hot shower. If you’re planning on staying in Peru for a while, you’d better get used to not being as clean as you’re accustomed to. Just embrace the grime and move on.
Navigating Cusco and the surrounding area is not too difficult, once you get used to the dangerously-narrow streets, the taxi drivers who want to scam you, and the colectivo mini-vans which leave for nearby towns from completely random streets scattered across the city. As beautiful as Cusco’s historic center might be, half the people you see are gringos sporting hiking boots and North Face fleeces, while the other half are locals trying to sell you something. It can get kind of frustrating having to say “No, gracias” to every picture-toting Peruvian who crosses your path, so I eventually started ignoring them. This might seem a little rude, but it’s really more a matter of not losing my voice when I walk across the city. It’s honestly absurd how many girls you’ll pass on one street, trying to sell you a massage. “Masajes, amigo?” they’ll say, shoving a little brochure in your face. Sometimes I get the urge to turn to one and explain that, 1) I’m not her amigo, and 2) If she just saw me turn down the other ten girls in the street offering the exact same massage, I might just not be interested in hers. A particular lady who works for a restaurant named Cafe La Paz has become a standing joke among my friends and me. She wears a funny purple dress and lacy hat, and whenever any of us pass by, she says the same thing, without fail: “Excuse me mister, are you looking for good refreshments? Cafe La Paz.” She says this in a droning, robotic voice, and finishes by mechanically extending her arm in the direction of her beloved restaurant, which, frankly, looks rather overpriced and forgettable. My friend Alli and I have discussed the possibility that the Cafe La Paz lady is actually a robot who has been built by the establishment, and programed not to offer anyone in Cusco any paz until they come inside for a meal. More recently, there’s been a much more human-like man outside. It seems that the management realized their employee was scaring off more customers than she was bringing in, and decided to have her sacked. But where was I going with this? Oh yeah, advice. Stick to the sidewalks if you don’t want to become gringo road-kill, always agree on your taxi fare before getting in (unless you’re confident enough to say nothing and then insist on the standard 3 soles at the end), and whatever you do, don’t touch Cafe La Paz with a ten-foot pole. The place always weirded me out, and now that their robot employee is in the scrap pile, it’s lost its redeeming comedic value.
Trekking around Cusco can be superb, provided you prepare adequately and take the necessary precautions. Being an experienced backpacker could be a plus if you plan on hiking independently. After doing the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu (see previous post), I decided that made me an experienced enough backpacker to do a trek without a group. So I persuaded my friend Tony to join me for a three-day trek through the Lares Valley. We rented a small gas stove and some sleeping mats, and borrowed a tent from our friend, Killian. Our next project was food. I had never packed for a three-day camping trip before, so I let Tony make the list. I did have a general idea that lightweight, high-calorie food was the best stuff to bring on a trek like this, so when Tony handed me his list, I was more than a little concerned. 4 carrots, 4 tomatoes, a tree of broccoli, 2 beats… the list went on. I tried to argue that vegetables were mostly water, and therefore rather poor on the weight-to-calorie ratio, but my friend would hear nothing of it. We needed something to go with the quinoa, he insisted. So I dutifully walked to San Pedro Market and bought the supplies, being sure to buy extra nuts and to “accidentally” forget the beats. When we got off the colectivo at Yanahuara, the starting point of our trek, our packs were choc-a-bloc with Cusco’s finest produce, with a few nuts and and Snickers thrown into the mix. As you can see in the picture, I was excited to begin my first independent trek. Twenty minutes later, I was panting and sweating in the beating sun, my shoulders already aching from weight. The going was slow, and the two of us soon realized that, based on a prior miscalculation and our failure to start trekking four hours earlier, that we would probably reach the first camp site at around 9 PM. Given how cold it can get up in the mountains, we were lucky to happen upon a tour group that had just finished coming the other way. This meant that a host of arrieros, or horsemen, complete with their trusty steeds, had just finished their gig and were heading back towards Lares anyway. It wasn’t too hard to negotiate a price for their services, and pretty soon we were hiking up the trail behind a line of horses, our packs
securely fastened to two of their backs. It was the best twenty soles I ever spent. The rest of the trek was not easy, but it was doable. We made sure to eat a huge dinner that incorporated plenty of vegetables so as to cut down on weight, and even though the second day was the steepest, we did okay. One of the horsemen had invited us to his house in the community of Huacahuasi. Seeing the family dress Tony up in their traditional colorful garb, and listening as he tried to persuade them to kill and prepare him one of the twenty guinea pigs that scampered about on the floor, was one of the priceless moments of the trip. We reached Lares exhausted, soar, and, in my case, with some serious bowel discomfort, but the important part is that we made it. So, to offer some advice on trekking, I would go independently and just let your adventure unfold. You might encounter things you would have never seen on a guided tour, and there’s nothing like getting lost in walled-off vegetable patches remarkably reminiscent of the Shire to satisfy your need for excitement. Just don’t pack too many damned vegetables.
Well, that just about concludes my Cusco Survival Tips. If you want any advice on other matters (or if you actually want some real tips instead of a bunch of poorly-disguised ramblings), feel free to drop me a line. Adios!