7 Things You Need To Know Before Going To Cuzco, Peru

By Jessie Robinson

Nestled in the Andes, Cuzco is a gorgeous cobblestone-street city filled with locals, trekkers and all around hippie travellers. The vibrant textiles, South American culture and the mountains are what caught my interest in going, but what makes people fall in love with Cuzco is the overall experience and atmosphere. And the food, the food is really good too. Most people go to Cuzco as a stopover city before or after visiting Machu Picchu but for whatever reason you have for visiting – here are some tips you should know before flying out and up into the mountains.

Walkable footwear

One thing you’ll definitely notice, but maybe didn’t consider before going is that typically when cities are in the mountains, they are far from flat. Cuzco may as well be one big staircase and you’ll feel like you just did leg day at the gym after a single afternoon of wandering. Also, not unlike Europe, the streets are mostly cobblestone, which means your best heels probably won’t make the trip. May I suggest Birkenstock sandals or even running shoes for the daytime and a good flat for the evening?

Altitude sickness

Imagine yourself walking up a few flights of stairs; even if you’re fit you may have to pause at the top to catch your breath. Now imagine doing this with much less oxygen to breathe, that’s something you will have to get used to in Cuzco. Because the altitude is so high, close to 3,400 meters above sea level, there is less oxygen and many people feel symptoms of altitude sickness. This will affect your appetite, sleeping pattern and possibly give you headaches, as I dealt with. To combat this you need to rest up, make sure you eat regularly and drink lots of water. There are also multiple prescriptions you can ask your doctor about or even try the infamous coca tea.

Coca tea

This stuff is everywhere and it’s great! It tastes like green tea, gives you that wake up kick and is used by travelers to counteract altitude sickness. However, locals don’t drink the tea as often and there’s a good reason for that. I hadn’t found out what the ingredients were until after my 4th day of drinking it at every meal, when a Texan traveler told me it was making her blood pressure skyrocket. I was confused as to why this was and so she told me (with her southern drawl): “Honey, coca leaves are from the cocaine plant…” And I just told my mum how great this stuff was – whoops! Now it’s not crazy addictive, and won’t make you turn into Tony Montana, but Peru has a rich history involving the production of cocaine – there’s even a little museum in the city about it. So although it’s perfectly safe to drink, be mindful if you have issues with your blood pressure or heart rate.

Mountain climate

Even if you haven’t done extensive research on South America you can assume one thing for sure: it’s hot. Does this mean you should pack shorts and tank tops for Peru? Yes, but also depending on the time of year pack long sleeves, pants and a warm jacket for the evening. Especially if you’re travelling around the country the climate changes a lot, from mountains to beaches to the jungle. I went in the spring and made the mistake of bringing too many dresses I didn’t touch. During the day it can get hot in the sun, but then quite chilly when the clouds go over, so always have a scarf or light jacket on hand during the day. If not, there are alpaca wool sweaters, mittens and scarfs everywhere. I filled my backpack and bought an extra bag to bring home all the alpaca goods I bought there, because they’re just fantastic.

Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail Permits

If you have not heard about this yet, listen up! To trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu you need a permit, roughly 6 months in advance. I went and expected I would just get a permit in town for that same month – not the case. These permits are highly sought after because the 4-day walk is incredible and some even say better than the actual destination. However, if you did not get a permit in time, all is not lost. There are other options to get to Machu Picchu from Cuzco including taking the train there and staying overnight in Aguas Caliente, doing a jungle trek tour or taking another trail that’s not the famous Inca Trail. There are a ton of treks and trips to do in Peru so don’t be too disappointed if you don’t get to do everything.

Women, Children and Their Alpacas

Another thing you will notice once you get into the main square, Plaza de Armas, is a bunch of women and children dressed in traditional Quechuan clothing with alpacas dressed the same. These people are completely for show and want tourists to take pictures with them. This costs money. You only need to give them one American dollar or roughly three Peruvian soles, but it is expected as these families depend on this as their livelihood. Therefore as common courtesy do not try to sneak a photo of them. It’s the tourist thing to do but how many of you have ever held a baby alpaca in a bonnet?

Protests, Politics and Parades

Cuzco is made up of several squares of markets, shops and travel businesses. These squares are often full of people, especially on the weekends. It’s such an exciting place and Peruvians have so much to celebrate that every weekend I was there, there was some kind of local parade and traditional dance display to go with it. Peruvians are very celebratory people, with that being said they also have a lot to fight for. There would be massive protests in the street, and although they are not violent I recommend staying clear of these. There was an election soon after I was leaving the city so it was a lot to do with that, but just as a heads up this is something that is good to know.

So to those of you who decide to go to Cuzco – you’ll have the most fun ever! Brush up on your Spanish, meet interesting people, drink some coca tea and if you’re adventurous enough (and not vegetarian) try an alpaca steak or guinea pig! Get into the mountains and enjoy the views, I promise it will be memorable.

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