Every year, millions of people from around the world flock to Cusco, Peru to travel back in time. It’s a daunting journey no matter where you’re coming from – one that requires ample preparation, an open mind, and, often times, several plane layovers that can leave one feeling exhausted upon arrival.
But once you get there, it’s so worth it. Here are a few tips for acclimating during your first few days in this historic Incan city high in the mountains.
Go to your accommodations. There are several ways to get from the small Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport to the main tourist zone. Start by exchanging euros, sterlings or U.S. dollars for Peruvian soles at the small booth in the airport. Before you even exit, you’ll be greeted by taxi drivers offering you a ride. Look for one that’s licensed – you’ll be able to tell by a sticker displayed in the front window – especially if you’re traveling late at night. The trip to the Plaza de Armas area should cost around 5 soles, but they’ll likely quote you 10 soles off the bat. If you don’t have cash or simply prefer it, Uber also operates in Cusco. We used Uber and were pleased to find that our friendly driver spoke some English and was able to give us pointers during the short drive.
Get some cash. If you didn’t exchange or withdraw money at the airport, there are several places to do so around town. Many cambios (“currency exchanges”), banks and ATMs are centered around the Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square. Ayacucho Street is a good place to start. Look for small, glass-enclosed cambios inside retail spaces, or a reputable bank like Scotiabank or Interbank. It’s easiest to just withdraw soles from an ATM, but if you’re exchanging money, keep in mind that they prefer larger bills that are crisp, without tears or damage of any kind. You should also have a credit card – Visa and Mastercard are most widely accepted – ideally, one that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees. But if you have to choose, cash is king. It’s as safe to carry cash in Peru as it is anywhere else, so don’t fret over larger amounts.
Soak in the plaza. Once your accommodations and money matters are squared away, it’s time to spend some time in the Plaza de Armas, which covers part of the area that was once the Great Inca Square. There is something truly magical about this main square in the afternoon, as the shifting sun washes over its Spanish colonial buildings, and locals and tourists alike saunter about. Choose a balcony seat at one of the many eateries, or simply park yourself on one of the benches surrounding the central fountain. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a show of traditional dancers. With its stone arcades, stunning cathedral and church, and kempt gardens – and surrounding backdrop of hillsides dotted with colorful residences – this center offers a breathtaking 360-degree view.
Grab a bite. If you’re from somewhere that embraces Peruvian food, you may have an idea of what you like, but if you’re not, here’s your chance to dive into this flavorful, intriguing cuisine. Sure, there’s the fresh, citrusy ceviche (ask a local for a recommendation), but we especially loved traditional lomo saltado, a stir-fry dish made with marinated strips of sirloin, onions, tomatoes, french fries and spices, and served with rice; sopa a la minuta, a simple, comforting soup made with stock, angel hair, meat, garlic, onion, tomato paste, oregano and aji panca, a Peruvian red chile that’s hot but not fiery; and, of course, flaky empanadas filled with tender beef, savory chicken, and ham and cheese.
Take it slow. At over 11,000 feet (3,399 meters, to be exact), the elevation in Cusco is beyond what most have experienced before. Not everyone falls victim to altitude sickness, but even the most resilient travelers are wise to take it easy at first. Avoid climbing more than 1,000 feet per day, and for every 3,000 feet you climb, rest for one day. If it’s not possible to ascend that slowly, try to sleep at a lower altitude. It’s also crucial to drink plenty of water – about a gallon a day – and up your carb intake to about 70% of your diet. You should also avoid alcohol as your body adjusts to the change in air pressure. This can be tough in Cusco, a city with a vibrant nightlife scene (hello, Pisco sours!), but abstaining for a couple of days can make all the difference.
Once you get your bearings, the next biggest challenge is choosing how to spend your precious days in the vast Sacred Valley. The possibilities are endless.