I knew very little about South America before our recent 14-day trip to Peru and Colombia. I had read two books to prepare for our four-day Inca Trail hike, but I basically went into the trip without expectation or much planning (by my standards, anyway). Our trek company required us to arrive in Cusco, Peru at least two nights before the start of our hike, to acclimate to the high altitude.
Cusco, once the capital of the Inca empire, is 11,152 feet above sea level and altitude sickness is no joke. Luckily we didn't get hit too hard—just a bad headache and some shortness of breath on the first day—but we had allocated three full days in Cusco just to be sure.
I am by no means an international traveler and if you don't count Canada, I'd only been out of the country once before this trip (to Italy in 2014). I'm not cool or adventurous enough to report that we did anything outside of the very basic tourist fare, but in a country where we couldn't drink the water or speak the language, that was exciting enough.
We mostly just meandered around the historic city center, observing the daily protests (there was a transit strike the day we got there), sucking on coca candies and trying to preserve our dwindling oxygen. The Cusco Cathedral, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco, was stunning and houses the famous Last Supper, painted by Marcos Zapata in 1753, which features a guinea pig as the main course (no photos allowed).
But the Iglesia San Francisco had the most wonderfully carved choir stalls, a delightfully creepy gold altar (with a live, sleeping kitten that startled me nearly to death), the strangest taxidermied cow I've ever seen and—most importantly—catacombs! There were just two small rooms filled with bones (a third was closed the day we visited), but they were so artfully arranged it was almost easy to forget you were looking at real human remains.
The New Yorker in me knows that all of the women walking around with alpacas in traditional garb are basically Peru's version of a Times Square Elmo, but I couldn't help but be charmed. It doesn't hurt that they were almost always carrying a baby alpaca as well, a creature so cute that it could probably help me warm up to even the most dingy of Time Square knock-off Minions.
But my favorite part about Cusco was undeniably the dogs. The very first thing I noticed was the street dogs—they're everywhere—and despite being very ordinary and a little mangy, I couldn't help but turn into an excited toddler every time I saw one. Some were a bit scrappier than others, but most just looked like they were going about their daily life as busy city dogs—I swear I even saw several of them carefully crossing the street at crosswalks.
Where we stayed: Hotel Rumi Punku (great for Inca Trail hikers, free transport from the airport)
Where we ate: Marcelo Batata (all-around delicious—opt for the pisco sour table demonstration) // Restaurant Sumaqcha (excellent alpaca) // La Bodega 138 (good pasta, beer)
What we ate/drank: Alpaca (just as delicious as it is adorable) // Pisco sours // Coca candy // Inca Kola (like a sweeter cream soda :P) // Guacamole (I'm new to the guac scene, but this was so good)
What we did: Cusco Cathedral // Iglesia San Francisco