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It is an irony that Machu Picchu should cast a shadow over nearly all else in Peru; yet the ruins, situated at nearly 8,000 feet above sea-level, fall shy of Cuzco, looking down from over 11,000. The ancient Inca capital, and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cuzco, still thrives today, and provides a dynamic base from which tourists can visit Machu Picchu and other sites.
The name ‘Cuzco’ comes from the Inca language, Quechua; it means ‘navel.’ The Incas saw their capital as the centre of their empire, as the navel is at the centre of the body. This language survives today, and is spoken by many Peruvian highlanders. Most Peruvians have spoken Spanish since the conquest of the Incas in the 16th century.
There are three ways of reaching Cuzco (or Cusco). It has its own airport, attainable from neighbouring countries; there are also bus and train services. Transport in Peru is an adventure in itself, sometimes misadventure: flying can be a dangerous proposition, as the quick ascent can lead to health problems.
The region’s altitude can cause severe illness, known locally as “soroche,” which, on rare occasions, can be fatal. Even the slower approach by land does not guarantee an easy time. It is strongly recommended that visitors take a couple of days to acclimatise. Relaxed meandering through the town is a good way to explore the many sites, and to plan excursions.
There are various ways of fighting altitude sickness, the most interesting of which is the use of coca leaves. Coca tea is legal and widely available. The leaves can be chewed or steeped, and are often recommended for energy lost due to altitude fatigue, as well as for many other problems.
Lest one become afraid of “soroche” or of becoming a coca-junkie, the former is rarely more than a feeling of growing pains, the latter is only an acquired taste for the tea – few enjoy chewing. The slight risk is well worth the visit: the city offers a range of attractions for most everyone.
Cuzco has museums and architecture promoting the rich history. The culinary scene is as high in quality as the city’s elevation: Peruvian cuisine is award-winning, world-class and exotic (Guinea-pig is beyond the fortitude of most, but unlikely as the origin of the term ‘living high on the hog’). Horse trails provide beautiful scenery; the night-life keeps many dancing, eating, shopping and wandering quite late.
The city is also surrounded by other sites of interest. Higher still than Cuzco, the ruins of Sacsayhuaman (tour-guides resign themselves to the inevitability of its pronunciation as “sexy woman”) are mostly walls of colossal stone. Artisanal shopping is abundant in nearby towns, such as Pisac –again, travel can be an adventure when the steering-wheel comes off on the lazy bus-ride. Rafting is also popular, in the Urubamba and Apurimac rivers. The train ride to Lake Titicaca is breathtaking as well.
Of course, Machu Picchu is the most famous site, and always leaves an impression. Tourists can reach it easily by train or, less easily, by hiking on the Inca Trail over several days. One might meet pleasant tourists, see parrots flying in flocks, and have the reward of seeing Peru’s most famous (of eleven) UNESCO World Heritage Sites, especially rewarding if up early to see the sun rise over it.
Cuzco is one of the most interesting and dynamic cities in this culturally rich country.