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Cuzco turned out to be one of those cities where we skipped most of the sightseeing and spent our time just living. One reason for this is that would-be sightseers are forced to purchase an expensive pass called the boleto turistico. All of the worthwhile tourist sites are on the pass, so if you want to see only one or two museums, churches, Inca ruin sites, etc., you have to buy the whole pass. It costs 130 soles for the whole thing, or 70 soles for either the sites in Cusco city or just the sites in the Sacred Valley. The city site were mostly museums and churches, which we've now seen dozens of, and the Sacred Valley sites were Inca ruins, which we'd see tons of on the Inca Trail. So, rebellious tourists that we are, we didn’t purchase the pass.
Anyway, for me, just living means eating, shopping, wandering new neighborhoods and sitting in plazas watching the world go by. Cuzco is a paradise of food, with so many good restaurants that we never made it to all of the places we’d highlighted in our guidebooks.
A few of the places we were able to make it to included:
Victor Victoria: A café located directly across the street from our hostel. They had the usual menu, but what sucked us in were the giant breakfasts. These are common in Cusco. They’re like the large, multi-course set dinner menus you see elsewhere in Peru, but it’s all delicious breakfast food. There’s so much food that you end up saving even more money because you can skip lunch. At V/V, my set breakfast included French toast, cheesy scrambled eggs, fresh fruit juice and a latte, all for 12 soles (like $4.50 USD). V/V was also the only place in the city where I found vanilla caramel lattes. Most places only serve the plain ones.
Cafe Amaru: Same breakfast options as Victor Victoria, but with a few tables out on the balcony boasting partial views of the Plaza de Armas and the mountains. Their "buffet," which wasn't a buffet so much as endless plates, also included bottomless coffee and tea.
Jack’s: A café/bar in the San Blas neighborhood, full of narrow, winding streets, artists’ workshops and boutiques. It’s co-run by an Australian and an Irish guy, and super popular with tourists. I was there during a multi-day bout of traveler’s tummy, so all I could have were pancakes, and they were pretty good. The girls had salads and said they were great.
Chez Maggy’s: First, you have to figure out the slightly weird setup, with two buildings across the pedestrian alley from each other, and a third door on a different street that was never open. Once you figure out that they’re all the same restaurant, you’re good! Chez Magy’s is famous for it’s wood-oven pizza, which was definitely good, but not fantastic. The three meat pizza was best, and the desert pizza with cheese and fruit was interesting, in a good way. Another night, we tried the set Mexican menus. My favorite part of the menu was the chips and guacamole. The "chips" were actually more like fried wontons with cheese melted on top, and the guac was delicious! They also had free wifi.
Vegetarian Place: I’m blanking on the name, but there’s a yummy and inexpensive vegetarian place around the corner from our hostel, the Hostal Suecia 2. If you walk out of the door and make a right, then walk just a few steps to the first right turn, it’s dead ahead. I had a great meal here of sweet, fresh carrot juice and taquenos (rolls of fried dough with cheese inside) that was served with a huge mound of oniony guacamole.
Bembos: Ok, so it's not gourmet, but who cares? Bemobs is the McDonalds of Cusco, and I always say you can learn a lot about a country based on its fast food. The options were pretty typical here (the location on the Plaza), but very cheap. The best part - fantastic Happy Meal toys! They had a selection of eight stuffed animals and you could pick the one you wanted. It was a tough call between the giraffe and the donkey, but "Alvarito" (the donkey) won because we'd seen more of those in the area than giraffes and we wanted him to feel at home. Bembos also has free wifi and desktop computers upstairs. Also upstairs was a more gourmet cafe, sort of like McCafe is to McDonalds, with yummy-looking frozen coffee drinks, pastries, etc. I wanted an iced green tea, but, upon asking, learned the ice was made from tap water, so I had to skip it.
The historic (aka: touristy) part of Cusco, where we spent most of our time (aside from San Blas), was really cute, with lots of colonial architecture and mountain views all around. It rained a bit while we there, and rainbows appeared next to the church in the Plaza de Armas.
As much as I loved the scenery, the Plaza de Armas (and surrounding blocks) is the worst area I’ve encountered in South America in terms of people trying to sell us stuff. Paintings, woolen hats, massages (regular massages, “free” massages - EW! - and “Inca massages,” whatever those were), set menus at restaurants and more. You name it; they were selling it. They wouldn’t even wait for each other to finish a sales pitch before a second person would start in on us. Heaven help us when we stopped to look at a menu. The restaurant greeters swarmed us like vultures on a dead body. During a one-block walk from our hostel to a restaurant, I counted no fewer than NINE people soliciting us.
Someone had unfortunately taught all of these people that it’s polite to call English-speaking women, “lady.” As a result, every sales pitch began with or included the word, “lady.”
“No, I just ate.”
“Then drinks! Or dessert, lady?”
I knew they meant it politely, but the word instantly irritated me. It made me think of screaming taxi drivers in New York, who yell things like, “Get out of my way, lady!”
Finally, I started to have a little fun with these people. It was either that, or walk around feeling annoyed and frustrated at the way they looked at me as a walking wallet. For example, when someone shouted, “Laaadddyyy massage,” I answered, “But is it an Inca massage? Because I don't accept regular ones.”
Another time, I turned down one massage lady, and was still in mid-sentence when a second massage lady approached to offer me another one. “Didn’t she hear me JUST turn down that other lady?” I said in exasperation to Patty, purposely loud enough for her to overhear. The second lady giggled. She had indeed heard me say no to the first lady and complain to Patty. Which of course, made me laugh, too.
Besides wandering the boutiques of San Blas and getting harassed by the overzealous sellers at the Plaza, we didn't do much else besides exploring the Mercado Central. My guidebooks said this market was a mecca for pickpockets, but we kept our bags close and didn't have any problems. The market was huge, probably the size of an un-super Wal-Mart, with labeled aisles for all of the goods sold inside. The fruit juice looked great, but I was scared of getting sick, so we had some excellent juice at Yajuu!, a juice joint with a couple of locations near the Plaza.
Our hostel in Cusco was called the Hostal Suecia 2 and only cost us about $5 each per night. It was located just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Armas and had a cute central courtyard; plus, they stored our luggage for free while we hiked the Inca Trail.. On the downside, there was no breakfast and the staff was hit or miss. Some of them were friendly, but the old guy who ran the night shift freaked out at us the morning we left for the Inca Trail. He owed me 12 soles change and didn't have it, but said he would give it to me when we spent our final night at the hostel, after we'd finished the Inca Trail. I said that was fine, and asked for a receipt. In a very agitated tumult of Spanish, he fired back, "You don't trust me! You think I'm a rat!" etc. for about five minutes. In the end, he gave me the receipt and the change when I came back, but his rant made me suspicious.
There are more pics below!