South America – Peru – Cusco

Casa Andina Private Collection CuscoAfter the entertainment of the train trip from Machu Picchu back to Ollantaytambo, the coach connection on to Cusco was rather boring and tiring in comparison. So it was that, along with our fellow intrepid co-travellers, we arrived in Cusco in the late afternoon for three nights at our hotel, the Casa Andina Private Collection. Having stayed at their hotels in Lima and Urubamba, we had high hopes; but this hotel is a conversion of an old manor house and not purpose-built like the others. This means that although it has more character, it also offers less comfort.

Casa Andina Private Collection Cusco courtyard On the good side, the staff are friendly and helpful, the location is excellent, breakfasts were fine and it has the most welcoming bar, complete with a roaring fire which you really need for late winter/early spring in Cusco. On the other hand, our meal in the restaurant on the first night wasn’t cooked very well and was cold – considering the menu was 95% the same as the restaurant in Urubamba which was top quality – the food just didn’t taste that nice. Also our bedroom only has one window, which looks out into the central corridor. So the room is dark, claustrophobic and airless – which doesn’t help when you’re trying to combat altitude sickness, as you need as much oxygen as possible! Also the soundproofing is virtually non-existent, so it’s important to keep your bedroom activities as silent as possible when you’re on a group tour.

Cusco balconyMrs C had altitude sickness on the first night which surfaced as a severe stomach upset; and I had it on the last night in the form of nausea, headache, extreme tiredness and lack of appetite. I found breathing was very difficult on that last night so we asked for some oxygen to be sent to the room. Very helpfully they brought it as soon as possible; but the cylinder they supplied was virtually empty. I puffed on it for about ten minutes till it gave up the ghost.

Grand doorsFortunately, on day two, Mrs C had recovered and I wasn’t affected yet, so we managed to have a good day in the town. An organised tour was arranged for the afternoon, so in the morning we took our little map and went on a general wander round the backstreets and into the squares, trying not to see too much of the sights we had been promised for later. Great knockersCusco is a very picturesque city, with charming Peruvian architecture – the classic colourful balconies that we saw in Lima are here in abundance, as are grand doors on the streets that imply the presence of untold beauty inside. Gargoyle-type faces stare out at you, daring you to rap at the door with their elegant knockers; this is all very imposing stuff.

Plaza de Armas fountainAt the heart of the city is the Plaza de Armas. Lined on four sides by balconied shops and restaurants as well as the Cathedral, this is where Pizarro claimed Cusco for Spain. It’s delightfully green, has an elegant fountain, and is an obvious meeting place for friends, colleagues and lovers. It’s also quite expansively large; Cusco’s other streets and squares seem cosy and bijou in comparison. PlaygroundWe observed the daily activities of the ordinary people of Cusco town: the children in their smart bright blue uniforms played in the school playground; an old car lolloped along a bumpy road and then went up in a fizz of steam as its radiator burst, its driver getting out, his head in his hands in despair; Police transport we saw the municipal police getting about the place at speed on their little scooter jobs with two chunky tyres; and we saw dozens of people patiently lining up outside a government building, we suspect to receive some kind of benefit payment.

Bar Cusco We stopped for an early lunch at the Bar Cusco, in Plaza de Regocijo. We only wanted something light and easy to digest – and everything we ordered turned out to be a massive portion. I can recommend it for a very good value, very tasty lunch; friendly staff, clean toilets and a spectacular Coca Tea.

Coca Tea Our gentle wander round the town had been in pleasant sunshine, and whilst not really warm, it was good enough to consider ourselves “lucky with the weather”. Come the afternoon, as we left the hotel on our organised tour, the heavens opened, the temperatures plummeted and we dashed to the Santo Domingo convent as quickly as we could.

Santo Domingo It’s a really interesting place as it’s a church and convent built on top of an Inca shrine. A lot of the original Incan architecture is still plain to see, and it makes a fascinating contrast with more modern Spanish colonial designs. There’s a lovely central courtyard with cloisters all around, and everywhere there are notices saying no photos allowed – but everyone was ignoring those notices so I thought I wouldn’t be the only one not to take the opportunity. As I was photographing the courtyard, the rain struck up a gear and turned to hail. Completely underdressed for the afternoon, we couldn’t believe how freezing cold we were.

CathedralWe also spent a good time in the Cathedral, which is very beautiful; has an extremely ornate reredos; a couple of black Christs on the Crosses, and Zapata’s splendid painting of the Last Supper, Cusco style, where the main course consists of roast Guinea Pig, they’re drinking Corn Beer and Judas’s face resembles Pizarro. We took the short coach journey to the San Blas district to visit the San Blas church, which has a wonderful ornate pulpit that is an homage to Baroque woodcarving. And as a payback for all that religious sightseeing, we ended up at a llama/alpaca clothes outfitters, where most of our travel companions found themselves in gift shopping heaven, and we picked up a couple of pairs of cheap gloves as it was proper perishing.

Atmospheric CuscoBack to the hotel for a much needed power nap. Then it was dinnertime. Feeling distinctly once bitten twice shy, we saw no reason to give the hotel restaurant a second chance, so decided to forage on the streets in the hope of finding a decent eatery. And we did. It didn’t take us long to chance upon Sara, The Organic Café Bistro at Santa Catalina Ancha, 370. Service and food were both excellent, and the wine list looked yummy but we were still being good and not having any. It was only a few minutes’ walk from the hotel, so we got back, not too late, with contented tummies and sleepy heads.

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