I arrived in Cusco yesterday morning and went straight to the Hostal Qorichaska, recommended to me by my friend, Alison. I have my own room with two beds (perfect for when Cheryl gets here) for the bargain price of 15 soles per night, or just under $5 (including breakfast!). After sleeping for a couple of hours, I went out to take a look around. Cusco is the city that most tourists use as a base to explore Machu Picchu and the other villages and ruins of the Sacred Valley. It is a beautiful city with a population of about 250 000, but it feels a lot smaller than that. It is in a valley and the hills rise straight up on all sides. The streets are narrow and cobblestoned, and they become very steep away from the center. Some of them are so steep that the sidewalks are actually stairs. The colonial buildings don't look like much from the outside, but many of them have beautiful courtyards hidden behind gates.
I spent most of the afternoon sitting on a bench at the Plaza de Armas with a book and watching the people go by. Locals, mostly children, approach anyone who looks like a tourist to try to sell them postcards and souvenirs. I learned quickly that the best way to handle it is to firmly say "no, gracias" and look back at my book, otherwise they would sit down with me and keep talking.
Today I walked around the city some more and now feel fairly comfortable with the layout. I went to the Santa Catalina Convent and museum, the religious museum at the Archbishop's Palace, and the Museo Inka. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed at any of the museums. At the convent, a couple of older ladies from the US invited me to join a guided tour with them. The convent was more interesting than I expected. There are 15 nuns that still live there, mostly cloistered, and we saw them in their very old-fashioned habits, running around with flowers to decorate for the festival of the patron saint of the convent tomorrow. The churches in Cusco are very ornate, with elaborate alters of gold and silver and the convent was no exception. The Museo Inka was interesting also. There was a large model of Machu Picchu, which got me pretty excited for next week! There were also some mummies and skulls that showed cranial deformation.
Cusco is 3326 metres above sea level, or about 11 000 feet. Many people experience altitude sickness, which can involve headaches and nausea, and in the worst cases, high altitude pulmonary or cerebral edema, which can be life-threatening. I have been very lucky, I think... yesterday I felt a little out of breath and my heart was really pounding when I exerted myself, but that's about it. Right now, I have acclimatised and feel fine. And I didn't even need to drink any cocoa tea!
Other finds: a fantastic bakery with croissants for 15 cents and cheesecake for 60 cents, an italian ice cream shop (like Dio Mio) with scoops for 30 cents, and a cafe with tables on a balcony overlooking the Plaza de Armas. There were also children with baby llamas... so cute!... but they want you to pay to take a picture and I didn't feel like it.
Tomorrow Cheryl arrives... I think that I'll feel a little more adventurous with someone else around. Maybe I will even go out after dark!