If you want your next travel destination to rival any place portrayed in an Indiana Jones movie and set in a culture with a contagious zest for life, ERICA ENRIQUEZ says Cusco, Peru is it.

Machu Piccu

Machu Piccu

The ancient city of Machu Piccu high in the Andes in Peru.

A city high in the Andes, with an altitude of 3,400 metres (to put it in context, Sydney is at a mere 42 metres, Mt. Kosiousko at 2,228 metres), it is definitely a head spin of a town. Cusco was once the capital of the Inca empire, a civilisation of people who ruled during the 13th and 14th century in what is now known as western South America. Their language, known as Quechua, is still spoken today by rural people in the area surrounding Cusco known as the Sacred Valley. The Inca reign ended in 1526 when Francisco Pizarro arrived with his conquistadors, changing Cusco and the history of the New World forever.

As a result of the Spanish conquest, the city was left with both Spanish and Inca influences evident in the Spanish and Quechua street signage, ancient buildings that abound in the city and even in the faces of the people living and working there.

Most people come to Cusco before hitting the famous Inca Trail that leads to Machu Picchu, but it’s worth acclimatising first with a few day’s rest and regular doses of coca tea (a local drink made from coca leaves, said to help with altitude sickness) or soroche. Besides, just soaking up the atmosphere in the city’s Plaza de Armas really does make you feel like you’re an adventurer.

The cathedral
The cathedral.

The Plaza de Armas is home to the cathedral, which was built in 1559 and rivals any European cathedral. It may also remind you of baroque-style churches built by the Spaniards in the Philippines. You can do a tour of the cathedral with a boleto turistico (a tourist ticket that grants entry to many attractions) or you can attend a Sunday mass, which is conducted in Spanish. Genuine church-goers attend, so pulling your camera out during a service is a no-no.

The San Blas area is also popular and it’s known as an artsy part of town filled with beautiful shops, galleries and restaurants, hence it attracts the tourists. So if you’ve got the time, money and energy (it’s up a steep hill) then it should be on your list of places to visit.

For a taste of Inca/Spanish architecture, don’t skip Qorikancha, just off the Avenida El Sol. Once a grand Inca temple covered in gold, it was turned into a church by the Spaniards, who stripped the gold and shipped it all back to Spain. An earthquake in the?1950s revealed the church’s strong ancient foundations and Qorikancha was again recognised as the important Inca site it once was and the Catholic church was left as a part of the structure. A tour of the site explains how important astronomy is in Inca culture.

If you’ve just returned from an epic trek and feel the need to unwind and let loose, there are bars and western-style clubs around the Plaza, particularly in Calle Procudores, nicknamed Gringo Alley due to the overwhelming amount of backpackers that flock there. You’ll find Western-style bars such as the Real McCoy, a British bar always crowded with travelers. For the hell of it, try Paddy Flaherty’s, diagonally opposite from Calle Procudores across the Plaza – it’s known as the highest Irish pub in the world!

A typical street near the centre of town
A typical street near the centre of town.

Part of travelling is eating the local cuisine and Cusco has enough restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets. Wander a little outside the main Plaza because the further you get from the main tourist areas, the cheaper and more authentic your meals become. The plaza right next to it, Plaza Regocijo, has lovely Peruvian restaurants such as Los Portales – reasonably priced good food and great staff too. If you feel like Western-style food, head to Muse in Calle Plateros. It’s funky, friendly and not surprisingly filled with tourists.

The high altitude means you need to keep two things in mind. Keep tabs on the weather before heading to Cusco because it can get quite warm during the day and then much cooler at night. Also, always wear sunscreen as the UV rays are a lot stronger there.

There’s accommodation here to suit all budgets. Backpackers head to Hostal Suecia I*, a charming little hostal right in the heart of the main tourist area. There’s also Misters Inkas*, which has cute little rooms and wonderful staff for those who can fork over a little more dinero. Getting to Cusco is muy fácil. LAN Airlines fly from Sydney to Santiago then to Lima. Star Peru fly regularly to Cusco. Check with your local travel agent when booking flights to ensure you nab a bargain. Prices go from around $1700 return.

* Hotel Suecia 1, www.hostalsuecia1.com; Misters Inkas, www.mistersinkas.com

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