My family and I just returned from an amazing vacation to Cusco, Peru, the capital of the Inca empire. Cusco is a great place to visit, and is also a comfortable base for traveling to other, nearby attractions.
A rather large city, Cusco has many shops with pretty much anything you could need. But there are some things you might like to bring from home, just in case.
What to Pack
Cusco’s elevation is 3,400 meters above sea level (11,200 ft). Anyone coming from lower altitudes will feel the effects of this high elevation. Every hotel in the Cusco region offers free coca-leaf tea for guests. Peruvians believe that coca leaves reduce elevation sickness. Many chew on the leaves directly.
Numerous stores offer an array of other coca products as well, to the same end:
However, you might find that drinking coca tea or sucking on coca candy isn’t enough to make you feel better. Before coming, therefore, you might want to consult with your doctor and consider bringing pills to relieve altitude-sickness symptoms (we brought and took Acetazolamide).
Note: if you are vegan or vegetarian, these pills might not be enough. As I learned the hard way, your diet might not have enough iron to allow your body to create the additional red blood cells that high elevation requires. Bring iron and vitamin B12 pills, and take one of each every morning. This will speed up your acclimatization.
Your body is probably not used to the germs in Peru. It is possible, therefore, that you will suffer from an upset stomach even if you take all the necessary precautions (such as frequent hand-washing and avoiding uncooked foods). Make sure to bring some medications for upset stomach, or even some antibiotics.
There are pharmacies all over the city, but it’s always safer to bring whatever medicines you take regularly, or those you think you might need. If you are taking dietary supplements, bring those as well. We traveled with a portable pharmacy of our own, and ended up using much of it…
December is summer in Peru, but because of the high elevation weather in Cusco can be very unpredictable. Locals joke that one can experience four season in one day in this city, and they do not exaggerate! Prepare for layering, with clothes for all possible weather conditions! Rain gear is a must, although you can buy rain ponchos everywhere, for as low as 5 soles a pop (around $1.5).
If you plan to visit Cusco in winter, realize that temperatures will be frigid . Some (but not all) hotels have heaters, but no central heating. Hotels provide warm blankets, but the rooms can still be cold. Long underwear and warm pajamas will keep you happy.
Streets in the old city of Cusco are cobbled, and sidewalks can be very narrow. Nearby sites have a rugged terrain. Good shoes, preferably hiking boots, will serve you well.
If you are planning to do some hiking (even if only to the nearby fortress of Saksaywaman), walking sticks will make your life easier.
You need to keep hydrated at high elevation, and therefore need to drink a lot. Unless you want to keep buying bottled water (thus contributing to world pollution), bring your own refillable water bottle. We filled ours every morning with water we boiled at least three times (tap water is undrinkable). We still ended up buying bottled water, but a lot less than we would have had we didn’t have our own.
Remember: Use boiled (or bottled) water for teeth brushing as well!
Due to the altitude, you might get sun burnt even on overcast days. Bring sunscreen and put it on daily before you leave your hotel. If you peel layers after applying sunscreen, make sure to cover the newly-exposed areas as well. We’ve seen plenty of very pink tourists (and got a bit toasted ourselves as well…).
Not all public bathrooms have paper. Always carry your own toilet paper just in case. And remember not to flush any paper down the drain. The sewage system cannot handle it, and you don’t want to be responsible for a flood (or worse: get caught it it’s path!).
Advice on Luggage
Everyone has their own travel style, and every trip requires its own kind of luggage. While we usually carry suitcases, we chose to bring backpacks to Cusco. For one, as I mentioned earlier, the streets of old Cusco are cobbled and narrow, and not so suitable for dragging wheeled suitcases. Also, you will most likely need to carry your luggage up and down stairs. In addition, many people use Cusco as a base to explore other parts of Peru. You might find yourself changing hotels frequently, and lugging your stuff into trains, buses or boats. Light, small and carry-able luggage will therefore work best.
The last time I backpacked, some quarter of a century ago, I carried a regular backpack. I still remember how hard it was to find things or reach the very bottom. This time, at the advice of our frequent-travelling friend (thanks, Arturo!), we took eBags and loved them. The fact that we could expand the bags turned out to be a great plus, as we didn’t quite expect the amount of loot we ended up purchasing…
Finally, Some Interesting Things I Noticed
Last year, when we first arrived in Quito, Ecuador, I was struck by the abundance of graffiti. The thing that stood out to me in Cusco was the cleanliness of the streets. We hardly saw any graffiti, and hardly any littler.
The second thing that stood out was the abundance of dogs. Canines were everywhere, in front of every door and every house. Big dogs, small dogs, shaggy dogs and short-haired dogs. Dogs of every shape and color.
At first I mistook them to be feral dogs and found them intimidating. Soon, though, I realized they were all pets. Almost every household in Cusco and beyond owns one or more pets. People keep cats indoors, but let the dogs roam outside. The dogs in Cusco were the most mellow, well-behaved creatures I have ever encountered. They all minded their own business, and hardly ever glanced at passersby.
If you lift your eyes up to the rooftops, you will see that almost every house in Cusco has a pair of bulls on the roof. Sometimes there are just bulls. Sometimes there is a cross between the bulls, or some other decoration:
These are guardian bulls. They are protecting the house and the family within it, and also symbolize fertility. One of our tour guides told us that in pre-Spanish times, houses had lamas on the roofs. After the Spanish brought bulls to South America, their image pushed lamas aside. For a while I wondered why two (obviously male) bulls would symbolize fertility. I later realized that the fertility people were hoping for was the fertility of the fields, which bulls help plow.
Finally, when in Cusco you will notice the rainbow flag flying from poles and balconies.
You might think you know what it means, but you will most likely be wrong. “We are not gays,” all of our tour guides insisted. They explained that the gay-pride flag has six colors, whereas the Cusco flag has seven. Also, the colors on both flags are in the opposite order. Locals believe that the Cusco rainbow flag was the old flag of the Inca Empire, symbolizing its seven parts. Whether true or not, people take great pride in it.