Cusco

During my trip to Peru we spent six days in Cusco.  We arrived Friday morning and left the next Thursday morning, and had plenty of time to see the city and go to Machu Picchu.

We stayed at the Flying Dog Hostel, which was located close to both the San Blas area and Plaza de las Armas.  The rooms were comfortable and cute, there was internet available 24/7, a great kitchen and community areas for hanging out and watching movies.

San Blas is up the hill from the historic center of Cusco, around the Plaza de las Armas.  In San Blas, one can find the coca museum, lots of restaurants and hostels, and shops selling anything from art, coca goodies like chocolate and cookies, and alpaca fur sweaters and hats.   The area is a maze of tiny streets, we spent a good amount of time exploring and finding new shops to stop in.

Cusco could easily be called the city of churches.  Founded by the Spanish, there are a dozen or more churches in the historic center alone.  Plaza de las Armas is the main plaza of historic Cusco, and there are two giant cathedrals flanking one corner.  In the middle is a fountain, flower gardens and benches to sit- a great place to people (or tourist) watch.  Immediately adjacent to Plaza de las Armas is a smaller plaza, also with a church.  Further down from this plaza, is a gorgeous arch leading to a third plaza which naturally has its own church but also is the location of a great market.

The market has a small section for artisanal goods like sweaters, hats and purses, but the food is the main attraction.  There are hundreds of stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, eggs and cheese, nuts and spices, and baked goods.  My favorite part was the almuerzo and juice stalls.  For 3 soles (about $1) one can get a full almuerzo- soup and main dish, or a great bowl of food.

For example, there is arroz cubano: rice, fried banana, and a fried egg.  Or salchipapas, hot dog and fried, potatoes over rice.  There are also typical Peruvian dishes such as lomo saltado: alpaca meat with red onion and red peppers, over rice, with or without a fried egg.  My favorite dish was what I affectionately like to call a heart attack in a bowl: rice, onion-cucumber-tomato salad marinated in vinegar, fried potatoes, fried banana, hot dog (which had basically been deep-fried), and a fried egg. I covered the entire thing in aji salsas (plural) and it. Was. Delicious.

There is a lot to see in Cusco, and the way we tackled the city was by riding bikes.  We rented them from a place off of the Plaza de las Armas which usually caters to mountain bikers going into the Sacred Valley for 30 soles for the entire day.  I would not recommend this method, but it was pretty fun.  Traffic in South America is crazy, and there are not bike lanes or sidewalks, so saying that cars are not friendly toward bikers would be an understatement.

Cusco has its own soccer stadium, which we discovered on our self-guided bike tour of the city.  We were lucky enough that there was a soccer game on Easter Sunday between Cienciano Cusco and Leon de Huanuco, two Peruvian teams.  We were even luckier to get to go with two of the guys who ran our hostel, die-hard Peruvian soccer fans who got really into the game.

While we didn’t try out the night life to its full potential, there are a lot of bars and discos surrounding the Plaza de las Armas and lots of smaller hole-in-the wall places with live music in San Blas.

Cusco is a city full of history, gorgeous scenery, and great food.  Six days was a perfect amount of time for us to enjoy the city and see Machu Picchu at our own pace, but more motivated tourists could probably fit in more adventures than we did.

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Lima

Lima blew my mind.  I really didn’t know what to expect from Peru’s capital city, and discovered a TON.  The coast of Peru is basically a desert and the city is covered in palm trees and gorgeous tropical flowers.  It is a lot cleaner and less crowded than Quito, and even has skyscrapers; it reminded me more of San Diego than the other places I’ve seen in Ecuador.

We stayed at Backpacker’s 151 Hostel in the Miravalle sector of the city.  The hostel was all dorm-style rooms but Becca and I had our room to ourselves the first night we were in Lima.  The final four days of our trip we shared with a friendly Australian girl who was on a break from doing ecological work in the jungle in Ecuador (small world, huh?).

Miravalle is the tourist center of Lima, close to Barranco, which is the bar and night life center of Lima.  It’s really nice and safe, which worked well for two girls traveling alone.

Lima has lots of parks- some large, some small, but all really well-kept.  In Miravalle and not too far from our hostel was Parque Kennedy, where there was an outdoor photo exhibition and one night there was salsa music and dancing.  In the historic center we found the Parque de Museos, a huge park with fountains and as promised, museums.  We visited both the Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI for short, and Art Museum of Lima for the Spanish-challenged) and the Italian museum.  Both were small but had really interesting exhibits.

The historic center of Lima has two main plazas, the Plaza de San Martin and Plaza Mayor.  Plaza de San Martin has a central statue commissioned by the city and completed by a Spanish artist, who, misunderstanding the word “llama” which is ‘flame’ in some countries and an animal in others, placed the animal version of a llama on top of the woman’s head.  It’s pretty funny.  The plaza is surrounded by gorgeous white buildings, which I believe are government buildings, but don’t hold me to that.  Plaza Mayor, in contrast, has a fountain in the middle and is surrounded by yellow buildings.  The two are connected by a pedestrian street with tons of restaurants and stores and plenty of opportunities to get D’onofrio, a Peruvian brand of ice cream bars which became my addiction in Peru.

Since the city is on the ocean, we spent two of our five days in Lima on the beach.  The beaches in the city aren’t the best for spending a day in the sun, so we headed to the south.  We ended up at Punta Hermosa, a little beach town an hour south by bus.  April is the end of summer and therefore the beach season, so the town was basically deserted and the beaches weren’t mobbed with people.  There were still some surfers and beach-goers, but not enough to make it crowded.  Peruvian waters are freezing so we didn’t get in the water, but the surfing is great up and down the Peruvian coast.  Maybe next time I’ll rent a wetsuit and bring someone to teach me to surf.

Lima is both what one would expect of a large city in South America and much nicer than what one might expect of a city in South America.  The city was a nice counterpoint to Cusco’s natural beauty and perfect weather- not too hot and cool at night, made for a great trip.