Much of Peru is at altitude as the Andes mountain range takes up a considerable part of its land mass. This can be a problem for visitors as a visit to this marvellous country can result in altitude sickness when staying at height. While the amazing Inca ruins at Machu Picchu are at an altitude of around 2400m, the city of Cusco, from where most trips to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail begin, is at an altitude of around 3400m and that is a bit of a shock to the system.
When arriving in Cusco, especially if you fly in from Lima, the coast or the jungle, it is advisable to take things easy for a couple of days.
It’s a lovely city to wander around – gently – with a variety of good restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets, and some interesting museums.
Cusco’s Centro Historico is a UNESCO world heritage site and sees colonial architecture sit alongside Inca ruins in a fusion of cultures and history. Plaza de Armas is right at the heart of the city centre, a large square with the city’s cathedral located in the north-east corner. There are various shops and restaurants lining the perimeter of the square and it is frequently used for bands, who play concerts, and dance troupes – a lively place where locals and tourists intermingle. As with most central squares across the world the restaurant prices are likely to be higher than if you wander through the back streets and discover some of the less prominent, although no less quality, dining options. And there are likely to be vendors wanting to sell their wares to tourists.
There are some sites to visit close to the city, the most notable of which is Sacsayhuaman, a dramatic citadel initiated by the Killke and expanded by the Inca, located on a hillside about Cusco. The construction is remarkable, notably the enormous stones that form the terrace wall which is adjacent to the plaza. The tallest parts of the wall reach over 6m in height and the huge stones are apparently packed so tightly that it’s impossible to slip even a single sheet of paper between them. If you’re lucky you might even get an impromptu concert from a visiting band.
There’s a lovely view of Cusco from the site as well.
There are also some fascinating day trips to take around the Inca Valley. And, of course, Cusco is the main city from which to access the railway stations that run the trains to Aguas Calientes for access to Machu Picchu or to head out for the Inca Trail.
At altitude you really notice the thinner air and the lack of oxygen. You don’t feel it initially but climbing a seemingly innocuous flight of stairs, even a single storey, can leave you puffing and panting and wondering if you need to be working out more. More serious reactions include headaches, nausea, tiredness and dizziness. If you do feel poorly, stop and rest. Make sure you are well hydrated, avoid consuming alcohol and smoking. And acute mountain sickness can be fatal – if symptoms get worse, seek medical advice immediately.
One local remedy that is reputed to help with mild symptoms is coca tea. It won’t cure altitude sickness but is apparently helps alleviate the headaches. (It’s not recommended for those with high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes.)
Our hotel had free coca tea available all the time and this is the case with most accommodation in the city. A nice cup of hot tea after a morning or afternoon’s sightseeing was always welcome. The tea is brewed from the leaves of the Coca plant, which the Incas considered to be sacred. It’s not tannic and has a pleasing flavour, a mild, refreshing taste that is a bit like green tea.
You can buy coca tea bags in Peru to bring home. They last ages and can still be enjoyed at altitudes much closer to sea level.
Just brew them as you would any cup of tea: teabag in a cup, add boiling water, steep to the strength you like, sit back, put your feet up and quaff.