Some of my most memorable travels have been excursions to South America. There is such a diversity of terrain, climate, culture and customs that each locale offers a unique experience. In particular, stories I heard about Cuzco, Peru piqued my curiosity. At 11,152 feet above sea level, the high altitude of Cuzco – often spelled Cusco – challenges even intrepid travelers.
The city of Cuzco is a prime destination in the Andes Mountains of South America, the longest mountain range in the world. There was always a mystique about going there because of the altitude. I had a certain amount of trepidation regarding altitude sickness.
Imagine my surprise when I realized I’ve already been to places in Colorado almost as high or higher. Pike’s Peak is 14,110 feet and nearby Leadville, Colorado is 10,152 feet. Cuzco should be a piece of cake!
I did feel a little lightheaded on my arrival, but I was greeted with complimentary “coca tea” in the hotel lobby. This tea infusion, made from coca leaves, is the common Peruvian remedy for altitude sickness. Since the leaves are the source of cocaine, it’s illegal in the United States.
The main thoroughfare from the airport into the city is Avenida El Sol. This avenue terminates near the central plaza, called the Plaza de Armas. Everything in the city seems to be referenced from these two landmarks.
In the center of the Plaza de Armas is a golden statue of the Inca Warrior and leader, Pachacuti. Overlooking the Plaza is the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin. Known as the Cuzco Cathedral, its construction, spanning several years, includes architectural styles of Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic. I enjoyed this UNESCO World Heritage Site, completed in 1654, and the works of art displayed inside. The Cathedral is still an active church.
Another prominent site just a few blocks away is the Pre-Columbian Art Museum. I have to admit, it was not as interesting as the Cathedral. I appreciated the collections there, but found it hard to get excited about fragments of stone implements, no matter how old they are. Other nearby featured attractions are the Church of San Francisco and the Temple of the Sun.
The people in Cuzco are very friendly and I felt safe exploring the busy streets alone. One afternoon, I was walking near the Plaza Regocijo and came upon a festival in progress. I had no idea what they were celebrating, but it was a joy to watch. Streets were blocked and there was an ominous police presence assuring safety for everyone. Dancers were entertaining a huge audience. All of the performers wore bright, happy colors — a staple of Peruvian fashion.
Probably the most famous attraction at Cuzco is Sacsayhuaman. The name is difficult for English speakers to pronounce and folks who have been there said it sounds like “sexy woman.” I tried this phonetic approach on a few locals and they didn’t appreciate it – a word to the wise.
Construction of the Sacsayhuaman citadel dates back to the 1100’s. Even by today’s standards it would be considered an engineering marvel. The giant stones, carved entirely by hand, fit so tightly together that even a piece of paper doesn’t fit into the cracks.
I also visited other ruins in the hills and made a stop at a huge statue of Christ that overlooks the city below. This high vantage point reminded me of my concerns about altitude sickness. I was doing just fine.
Now, on to Machu Picchu, an adventure for a future column.