Matt walking down a back alley in Cusco

Free Walking Tour: Cusco

Tuesday September 3, 2013

Matt walking down a back alley in Cusco

It finally worked out that we were able to take one of the Free Walking Tours that was being held in Cusco.  It was by pure chance too, we hadn’t even been planning to go when we woke up in the morning.  We just happened to be sitting in one of the plazas playing a rousing game of Slug Bug when the tour commenced behind us.  It seemed much better than our plan of just sitting around, although our sore and aching muscles probably needed it.  Climbing Huayna Picchu = kicked our ass.

Sneaking into the back of the group like this had been our plan all along, fashionably late, right?, we missed the initial introduction but managed to slink in just in time for the big cheer to let the unsuspecting people passing by know how excited our group was to start this tour.  With our guide throwing some music on to a speaker that was attached to his belt, the 20 of us filed down the streets of Cusco while the latest Robin Thicke song blared out ahead of us.

If I thought this tour was going to be soley a history lesson in the Inca culture, or a spiel about the architectural design of the buildings here, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  This was a tour all about what you would want to see in a city, not what you felt you had to.  For most of the tour I was so intrigued in what was going on that I didn’t even remember to take out my camera most stops, only snapping a few photos at scenic overlooks where we stopped to take a break.  So half the photos posted today will be courtesy of Free Walking Tour Cusco.  Here’s one for you now.

FWT 1Our group circling for the introduction.  (Photo courtesy of FWT Cusco)


One of our first stops was at a restaurant that Matt and I had probably passed a dozen times during our previous stay here, but never thought to pop our heads in and check it out.  Inside, everyone was handed a Dixie cup and we sampled Chicha Morada while learning the history behind the beverage made from purple corn.  We also learned it’s a great natural hydrating source after a night of binge drinking.  See, you just don’t learn things like that on other formal tours.  Bottoms were up for me a little sooner than the rest of the group (oops, we were supposed to wait and toast?), and I enjoyed trying out the cinnamon flavored drink again that we had savored with our guinea pig back in Lima.


 (Photo courtesy of FWT Cusco)


Throughout the rest of the tour we stopped at a few more restaurants, and visited quiet yet beautiful plazas that were out of the way and therefore free of Peruvians trying to peddle their goods on you as you relaxed.  I swear, I couldn’t get through one chapter in my book without saying ‘No gracias’ five times when we were in any of the main plazas.

Parts of the tour were actually informative history lessons on the area, but without the dull monotone explanation that’s been given by a guide who’s severely underpaid and overworked.  It may have helped that the FWT guides work soley on tips (most of them are students who want to practice their English), but they made every aspect of what you were seeing fun and chic.  It also doesn’t hurt if you’re in a young and interactive group where if the guide is stumped for the an English word and asks as you’re standing in front of a church ‘What’s the name of the place where they kept all the women?’,  someone yells out something ludicrous like “Brothel!!”.  I was wrong, the word he was searching for was convent.

The only way I can think of to fairly describe the tour is to quote a line from a re-mix of Poe’s song, ‘Hey Pretty’.  “Taking me to parts of I city I rarely think of and never visit…”.  This is exactly what that tour was.  Almost all side streets and back alleys, places you would never think to go on your own, but end up being spectacular or authentic or just different and off the beaten path.  The places where you feel you really get to know the city instead of standing around the pretty fountains that your handy guide book told you to visit.  (Of course, those are still worth visiting too)

Other than a second visit back to the Choco Museum, and really, who’s going to be upset about trying mouth watering teas and treats again?, every thing was new and something we wish we would have known about when we first got to the city last week.  Like the sushi bar just up a back alley from the Plaza de Armas where we sampled salmon rolls.  Who would have known such a little gem was tucked back there?  Or that they offered an amazing lunch special too good to pass up, which is how we ended up back there just a few hours after the tour.  I’m so happy that we accidentally stumbled upon Cusco’s Free Walking Tour before leaving, it really did take me to parts of the city I had never seen.

panoramic of Cusco


Group shot from our tour.  (Photo courtesy of FWT Cusco)

P.S.  I totally won the round of Slug Bug today.

VW Bugs in Cusco

 Slug Bug blue, red, and silver!

sunset in the Plaza de Armas Cusco

Cusco Cool

Saturday August 31, 2013

streetlights of Cusco

Our past two days here in Cusco have flown by, and I feel like I don’t have any photos to show for it.  Because with what’s been going up lately, 14 is basically nothing, right?

We arrived in Cusco yesterday morning after taking another overnight bus, and grabbed a taxi just as the sun was coming up.  With no definite hostel in mind, but a list of three of them in our hand, we were dropped in the Plaza de Armas and started walking from there.  The first one we popped our heads into didn’t hold much interest, so we went to the next one down the list where, even though we were walking in at 7 am, still had many people milling about in the center courtyard.  Whether they were just early risers or were still up from the night before, I have no idea..  We checked into this place, and after being brought to our dorm room where there was no way we couldn’t have not woken up the four other people sleeping in there as we crammed our bags into the lockers and stumbled to our bunks in the dark, we once again passed out until noon.

Upon waking, we showered and changed out of the clothes that we had now been wearing for over 24 hours straight, before taking on this new city.  Cusco is town that lies about 50 miles outside of Machu Picchu, and where most people stop for a few days to acclimatize to the altitude before continuing on there.  This is also the jumping off point for the Inca Trail, or in our case, the departure spot for the train that will take us there.  Because there are so many gringos passing through here on their way to Machu Picchu, it is fully dedicated to tourist.  The center of town is full of upscale boutiques and shops, plus even a McDonald’s in the Plaza de Armas.  If you thought we’d be running in there as soon as we saw those golden arches, like we were seeing a long lost lover after months away, you would be wrong.  We actually went to a little bistro down Gringo Alley (as the guidebook calls it) where Matt got a club sandwich and I enjoyed banana crepes.  Besides, we had McDonald’s back in Arequipa.

Finishing our lunch, we went to take on the city ourselves after we realized we once more missed the damn Free Walking Tour after sleeping in past it’s noon start time.  It wasn’t very hard to find the major draws of this town though.  There were three plazas within two blocks of our hostel, each one with a nice fountain and benches surrounding it.  Wanting to get better views of the city as a whole though, we found winding stairs and streets that led up the foothills surrounding Cusco, and took in breathtaking views as we stood stories above everything.  I swear, the skies here are the sharpest blue I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

staircase in Cusco

overlooking Cusco

 On a quick side note, we found out as we were trekking up these streets made of stone, that neither of us were wearing shoes that had any kind of traction.  There were a few times that each of us went to put a foot down, and it would slide out from under us where you’re left doing that awkward thing where your arms flail out at your side, and there’s a half second where you’re pretty sure your ass is going to come into hard contact with the ground, before gaining your balance and righting yourself again.  I’m sure it was pretty good amusement for the locals that watched us from their doorsteps.  I’m feel fairly certain that buying new shoes, at least for Matt since he says I have too many pairs already, is going to be on our list of things to do while here.  Good thing that every other shop in the pedestrian mall is a shoe store.  You think I’m kidding.  I’m not.

Before we had the chance to kill ourselves or fall off a mountain before getting to Machu Picchu, since I think I could die happy after that and wouldn’t care, we sequestered ourselves back to the main plazas, going back to people watching and reading our books.  There was also an ever popular game of ‘Slug Bug’ going on, since there were more old VW bugs here than I’ve ever seen in my life.  Matt kind of kicked my ass at that one, but I like to pretend I was more into my book than watching cars.  When it came time for dinner, we found a really nice Chinese restaurant just down the road from our hostel.  We’re finding these things everywhere here in Peru, they’re almost as popular as shoe stores.  A plate of pork fried rice big enough to feed 2 will only set you back about $3, and add a liter of Coke to that for $1.50, and we were staying well below our meal budget.  We happily chomped away on our cheap food while wearing our llama gloves and hats, since Peru seems to have a policy of leaving all doors open, even when the temperature drops down to 45 degrees at night.

Plaza de Armas Cusco

Peruvian woman by fountain

 Today there was a little business to take care of before we could enjoy ourselves.  Since Matt is ever the planner, he wanted to make sure that we had our bus tickets booked and in our hand for our next few destinations.  The train will get us to Machu Picchu and back, but we’ve found that with the bus line we use, ticket prices jump up the day before and day of departure, so it’s best to buy them a little in advance.  Without a printer at our disposal, or even much trust of the websites used here, we first tried to walk back to the bus station before getting hopelessly lost and hailing a cab.  Once there we purchased tickets to and from Puno, where Lake Titicaca sits on the Peruvian side, and then back up to Lima so we can finally start heading north.  Back in town we had to hunt down the office for PeruRail to have our train tickets for tomorrow printed out as well, and with that, the rest of the afternoon was ours.

There was a little bit of shoe shopping to be had for Matt, and although he did find a style that he absolutely loved, he also found out that his American size 12 foot was too big for them to produce anything in his size here.  Hopefully Lima will cater to bigger men.  There was also a tour through a local Chocolate Factory, and we were given samples of so many delicious tasting things, including tea that tasted just as good as hot chocolate, and even a misting of Axe bodyspray for Men in chocolate for Matt.  Also on the list was to check out a large market that’s hosted a few blocks from the center of town.  Walking through the rows of goods, I had to remind myself that I don’t have the need or even the room for a llama sweater, but we did walk away with about a five pound wheel of cheddar, and also took a moment to sit down and try picarones, which are fried rings of squash and sweet potato drizzled with honey.  A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.


Having spent two days wandering the streets now, we spent the rest of our day hanging out in the Plaza de Armas until the sun went down.  This is supposed to be one of the most beautiful plazas in Peru at night, and I don’t disagree.  I have to say though, better than nighttime, I think sunset is the absolute best time here.

Church and fountain in Cusco

fountain in Cusco Peru

Avenida de Sol CuscoChurch, Cusco Peru

Traditional Peruvian attire in Cusco

sunset in the Plaza de Armas Cusco

Cusco Peru at night

 Back at the hostel for the night, we thought we’d hang out in the bar lounge area while enjoying a beer and getting some work done on our computers.  We’re quickly finding out that backpackers are not like cruisers, in the sense that we’re all drawn together, especially people in our age bracket.  We’re starting to find that, and not to pigeonhole backpackers as a group, but in the place we’re staying, if you’re into getting completely wasted or staying up until four in the morning or finding someone to hook up with for the night, you don’t fit in.  The people here don’t seem to be interested in talking about their travels, they seem to be more interested in getting wasted in different parts of the world, or talking about other parts of the world they got wasted in.  It’s like we’ve walked into a Frat House, 10 years too old.  We are literally the old farts of the group here, which is funny considering that I just wrote about us being in the young ones in the cruising world.  There happened to be a masquerade party going on at our hostel that night, and while actually being able to engage one of our roommates in a conversation while I was working, Matt was told by this guy that “Maybe you should put a mask on.  Then no one will know how old you are, and they might talk to you.”.  Thanks guy.  You just made us feel a loooot better about ourselves.  I think I’ll now drown my sorrows in that one liter bottle of beer in front of me.

masquerade party