Cusco… and the Altitude
Never had I thought one day I would be here, in Peru, getting ready and excited to see the magical Machu Picchu with my own eyes. The legendary Inca heritage was abandoned in the 16th century, and then preserved and covered in the jungle until it was once again discovered by the American explorer, Hiram Bingham. The ruins left so many treasures and insights about the Inca’s way of life, and today tourist flooded into the site around the world that require the authorities to set a daily visitor’s limit (and I heard they changed the rules for visiting time yet again this year, so please keep up with the news).
One thing that may concern you (and me) is the altitude sickness. It was the first time that I traveled to a place located over 3,000 meters above sea level – the threshold for altitude sickness reaction (and yeah, I had even gone up to 5,000 above sea level when traveling across Chile’s border to the Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia, but that’s another story). In fact, Machu Picchu was not the problem because the site is “only” 2,800 meters above sea level; and its nearby town, Agues Calientes, is a bit lower. You will be fine when you are there. The problem is, to get to Agues Calientes, you have to go through Cusco, the major hub that connects you to Machu Picchu from the outside world, and Cusco is situated on 3,399 over sea level. It’s almost impossible to avoid Cusco during your trip to Machu Picchu, plus, the historic city has quite a lot to see as well.
Luckily, I was prepared and didn’t suffer much from the altitude sickness symptoms. Let’s explore Cusco!
Cusco, or Quechua in Peruvian dialect, means “belly button”. It has been the political center of the Inca Empire before it was conquered by the Spanish back in the 16th century. Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley remained a major agricultural and religion hub under the Spanish rule, and cathedrals were built on top of many Inca architectural foundations. The famous Inca trail also starts here, and it takes about 4 days through the Salkantay Mountains to reach Machu Picchu. It is ideal to visit there from April to September, the dry season offers a comfortable environment for tourist to explore the valleys, as well as a better chance to have a great view of the Machu Picchu with a clear sky.
1. Plaza de Armas
The size of the city is not big. There are a few main streets and most of the historic attractions in the city could be reached on foot. While I recommend exploring the rest of the Inca heritage sites by joining a guided tour, which tourists may cover them in a day. However, many tourists may end up spending more days in Cusco because there are so many more natural wonders to explore the mountains and valleys. The Vinicunca “Rainbow” Mountain, for example, is a multi-colored rock formation a few hours away from the city (and it’s 5,000 meters above sea level).
The Plaza de Armas is the focal point of the city and where locals and tourists would hang out, or just chill. The plaza has a fountain and flower bed, and it is surrounded by cathedrals and elegant mansions with arches, and balconies.
2. Cusco Cathedral (La Catedral)
The Baroque style architecture is my favorite building in the plaza (maybe because I had my favorite photo on the trip taken there). The cathedral was built with the rocks taken from Sacsayhuamán (which you will read more about this place below) and took a hundred years to complete.
3. Church of the Society of Jesus (Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús)
Another perfect example of Spanish Baroque architecture in Peru; go inside, because if the façade of the church has yet to amaze you, the altarpiece may impress you even more.
4. Qorikancha / Convent of Santo Domingo
Qorikancha / Convent of Santo Domingo is probably the holiest building in the Inca Empire – Qorikancha, the Inca Temple of the Sun, was torn to the ground when the Spanish conquistadores invaded Cusco; and then a convent was built on top of the Qorikancha foundations, while a lot of original temples remained.
5. Twelve-angled stone
Walking along the Calle Triunfo in the north of the Cusco Cathedral, I entered the Hatunrumiyoc. Both sides of the street are stone walls that were built by the Incas. One piece of giant stone, in particular, showcased the incredible architectural capability of the ancient Inca people – imagine how to chisel, cut, and measure a giant piece of stone so precisely that a twelve-angled shaped stone could fit the wall harmoniously with the others for centuries still not even a blade could penetrate the cracks? It’s waiting for you to find out.
Walk up, to the San Blas Temple, where handicraft shops, restaurants, galleries, and souvenir stores filled the allies, and you could enjoy a better view of the Plaza de Armas at a higher point (as if we were not high enough).
What is Antisuyu?
Antisuyu was the eastern region of the Inca Empire and was located northwest of the Cusco in the high Andes.
There are 4 key heritage sites around Cusco’s city center. I mentioned earlier, it would be easier to explore these places in a guided tour, or hire a driver (because you are at risk of getting rob walking up to these sites). The fours sites are minutes away from each other and as we drove up, we are reaching higher and higher above sea level. If time is limited that you can’t visit all four places, go to Sacsayhuamán. This is the most popular site that was built by an enormous amount of rocks by the Incas, acted as a citadel for defense. The Spanish removed the stones here for cathedrals, temples, and houses in the colonial times – today, only one-fifth of its original scale remained, yet it was still impressive. I could still get a glimpse of the zig-zag shaped stone walls, altars, and citadel and imagine what it was like in the ancient time. At the top of the wall, standing on almost 3,800 meters above sea level, I had a panoramic view of the entire ground of Cusco. That’s where I took the cover picture of this post.
Q’enQo is a cluster of peculiar shaped rocks and caves, while altars, amphitheater, observatory, and other functional sites filled in between.
8. Puka Pukara
Puka Pukara is an ancient pit stop for travelers, and traders in ancient times.
Tambomachay is related to water. The Incas worship water, as they believe water is the origin of life. At the entrance of Tambomachay, spring water keeps coming out from the altar which was used for cleansing in a religious ritual. The origin of the water is still unknown, and archaeologists couldn’t fully explain the sophisticated water transportation system that Incas built.
10. The Market and Shopping!
Apart from the heritage sites (and sights). San Pedro Market is a great place to experience the local lives. Luckily, the high altitude didn’t bother me so much, and the market is about 15 to 20-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas. There, the locals were running their daily chores in traditional Andean Clothing – the vibrant colors, capes, and hats were inspiring. If you are a healthy superfood fan, stock up! Chia seeds, maca, quinoa, kiwicha… which usually cost much higher in the supermarket, are on their ultimate sale in the Cusco market. I bought three bags of Chia seed for less than US$10 and they are great mixing in the morning shakes or oatmeal.
So, How to Beat the Altitude Sickness?
There are no clear rules (or logic) that who might have a reaction to high altitude. I met people suffered badly, and I met people who were just… completely fine. There are no clear rules that one will have a reaction or not; on the other hand, there isn’t really a “cure” for the sickness other than descending to a lower elevation. Having said that, don’t exert yourself just because you feel fine stepping out of the plane, syndromes might appear a few hours after you landed, and it’s always important to be safe and sorry, especially when you are traveling to a foreign country. There are a few symptoms of altitude sickness – dizziness, lightheadedness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, and heart racing. There are a few tips (and yes, I did them too) to help you accustom to the altitude.
- Ascend slowly. Altitude is something that you could get used to. Most people usually travel to Cusco by flight, but give yourself a day or so to accustom to the altitude before reaching to the higher ground. Acclimate at a lower altitude and ascend slowly.
- Take it slow. Don’t move vigorously, walk fast, or exercise once you get there. Plan for easy hiking or rest on the first day.
- Eat Smart. I was told the body takes more oxygen to burn fat than carbs. There’s no absolute answer, but your stomach would contract in high altitude that you might lose appetite or even throw up. Pace yourself and get more calories before you board your flight to Cusco.
- Stay hydrated. Fluids make sure your body functions well to regulate internal temperature and acidity. Bring bottled water with you and make sure you have a drinking routine. Hotels or restaurants sometimes serve cocoa tea – the locals believe the herb could relieve the altitude reaction. However, cocoa leaves are illegal in many countries around the world (because it is the source of cocaine), so leave them in Peru if you get your hands on any.
- Skip alcohol. Yes, alcohol is a respiratory suppressant, and it dehydrates your body (which work against dealing with the altitude sickness). Better to avoid it.
- Take pills. For me, I find it the most effective – but of course, talk to your doctor before getting any medication from the pharmacy. You may need to start taking the medicine a day or two earlier.
- Oxygen tanks. I put it last because I don’t recommend it, and I think it should be the last resort and no one should rely on this. They are Oxyshot (small tubes of oxygen) available in pharmacies but some people claim that it’s a gimmick! Even if the tubes are real, the small amount of oxygen probably won’t help much to alleviate your symptoms. If the symptoms are getting too intense, seek medical help or descend immediately.