City in the Clouds, Cusco, Peru

My lungs were sort of on the verge of explosion, staging protest with each step. We were climbing stairs to San Blas, 15lb packs on our backs. It was day one, and despite the good advice given by everyone we had met thus far, we weren’t lying low. One twenty-two hour bus ride through winding mountain roads landed us in Cusco, a Peruvian town perched two miles high in the Andean sky. The city in the clouds was larger than I expected, stretching from La Plaza de Armas in ribbon arrangements of stacks on stacks of stairs through the surrounding mountainsides. Diamox doses devoured, we inched our way up the lifelines of the former Incan empire; breathing in the culture, the color, and every now and then, the thin mountain air.

The next morning, we woke up slow. Our faces, fingers and toes tingled from the altitude, and the cold forced us to bundle up in all sorts of local-crafted Alpaca stuff. We hadn't slept much, since our dorm room faced the street and a city parade had carried on for 18 hours until 3am in celebration of Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun). Note: Peruvians know how to party. I shuffled to the shower, and washed my hair in record time beneath a steady stream of ice water. Yay, hostel life.

The short two-block walk to my favorite coffee stop turned into two hours of navigating a massive crowd gathered for Inti Raymi, parade number two. We were unable to move for nearly an hour, held in place by a human carpet of sorts. With nowhere to go, we did our best to capture the chaos as it unfolded from the fifth or sixth row. Luckily, Justin is taller than the average Peruvian, and his arm made a great makeshift tripod over the crowd as the Incan king and his entourage came around.

At last, we reached coffee and sighed with relief upon discovering there were still muffins for purchase. We rested for a spot while stealing waves of sporadic wifi, then took to the streets in search of a San Blas café.

We eventually ducked into Green Point and traded ten soles ($3.59) for a terrific four-course meal of fresh salad, soup, pesto pasta and fixings with fresh fruit for dessert. On recommendation from a Venezuelan friend, we poked our way down to San Pedro market to pet Peruvian pima and woven wool, try on mittens, and resist the lure of cheap street eats (Thailand, you taught me well).

A woman sold toasted guinea pigs from a giant burlap bag and a whole row of butchers proudly displayed fresh kill, still in tact. San Pedro seemed a pocket of Cusco with a bit more bite, less unkept and catered to locals and tourists alike. We munched on Incan chocolate as we passed through the stone archway, through La Plaza de Armas, and back to our home away from home.