Santurantikuy Christmas Market in Cusco, Peru: The Most Amazing Market I’ve Ever Seen!

I love handmade and love markets. So when we decided to visit Peru over Christmas break, I knew we absolutely had to visit the Santurantikuy Christmas Market in Cusco (Santurantikuy is a Quechua word, meaning “the selling of the saints”). We planned our trip accordingly.

Before we left for Lake Titicaca, we noticed booth markings all around Plaza de Armas. We checked them out, and I was super excited to realize there will be close to ONE THOUSAND booths!

We made sure to come back from the Lake just in time for the market on Christmas Eve (this market has been a Cusco tradition for over 500 years, ever since the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century). I expected something like Otavalo Market in Ecuador. The reality, however, surpassed all expectations!

Traditionally, the market drew vendors from the villages around the capital and from the Sacred Valley. Now, however, it draws artisans from all over Peru. One of the merchants we talked to said he traveled by bus for over 30 hours to get there!

When we approached the Plaza, the first thing we noticed were all the villagers on the side streets, many with large packs:

When we reached the square, it was crowded with locals, Peruvians from the countryside, and some tourists. There was a large police presence to keep the order.

Plaza de Armas was packed full of booths and people.

There were booths for every conceivable craft. Lots of unique, interesting things. Lots of handmade work. Textiles! A few booths had truly remarkable works of art. I was so excited I didn’t know what to look at first!

There was also a lot of food, of course.

They say that pictures speak more than a thousand words. For a change, I will talk less and let you see what I mean for yourselves. This will be a mostly picture-lead post ūüôā

Christian-Themed Offerings:

I’ve seen many Christmas markets around the world, but this one had more Christian-themed works than any of them. Traditionally, this market offered ONLY Christmas-related items (hence its name), but this has changed in recent years.

There was an entire area for grasses and moss, meant to decorate nativity scenes, which every house in Peru has:

There were lots of options for the actual Nativity figures:

(I thought the combination here was funny!):

There were also lots of angels:

Lots of candles:

And some crucifixions:

As Expected, There were Some Tourist Souvenir Booths:

Lots of Different Kinds of Toys:

Some Clothing:

Amazing Textiles!!

Home Decor:

And a Handful of Truly Amazing Work!

I loved everything I saw: the diversity, the ingenuity, the liveliness of it all. But a handful of things really stood out. I found the following truly exceptional:

A life-size jaguar, carved from one piece of wood.

Wooden flying horses that could move with gears.

And two booths with trolls. The first had small trolls, and an interesting-looking doll.

The second booth had truly-wonderful, large trolls. Each was nicer than the other. They were quite expensive, even for tourists, yet sold like hot cakes.

Many Peruvians bought them, and took them on a stroll in the market. We even saw one guy buying slippers for his troll!

We couldn’t resist them, either. My kids ended up adopting those two:

They later gave us a lot of trouble with airport security, but eventually made it home safe and sound.

PeruRail Titicaca-Cusco: A Magical, Surreal Ride on the Andean Explorer

Last time I wrote about our trip to Peru, I stopped in Lake Titicaca. But there is more! When we went to the lake, we took a day-long bus ride from Cusco. The tourist bus stopped several times along the way, offering mini-excursions. It was interesting, for a bus ride, but unremarkable. After our visit to the Floating Islands and our home stay on Amantani Island, we decided to take the train back instead. We didn’t expect much from the trip on the PeruRail Titicaca-Cusco, also known as The Andean Explorer.

Twenty-something years ago, I’ve ridden several “luxury” trains in China. I expected the train in Peru to be something similar: vinyl benches, crowded cars, a chicken or two roaming about, and a cart with unappetizing food passing along every couple of hours.

From the outside, the train was undistinguished, except that the crowds I was expecting didn’t materialize:

But when I got on, instead of a Chinese sleeper train, I found myself on the Orient Express!

Imagine my surprise and shock when we were lead into a beautiful, bright car, and seated in wide, comfortable armchairs set around white-tablecloth-covered tables! My kids got their own table, while my husband and I had our own. An unexpected mini-date that included a vase with fresh flowers on the table between us! My mood, which was pretty sour following an early wake-up call, improved drastically and instantaneously!

Let me give you a tour of the Orient Express of the Andeas:

The train had three passenger cars: A Dining Car, A Bar Car, and an Observation Car.

The dining car, in the above picture, was where we were originally seated. There were less than thirty five of us (the allowed maximum): tourists from all over the world. Throughout the ride it felt like staff members outnumbered us.

The Bar Car had more armchairs, arranged two by two around little round tables.

In the corner it had a fully-equipped bar:

The Observation Car had long benches in the middle. It was only half covered, with big windows all around allowing a panoramic view. Since it was Christmas, it also featured a tree in one corner.

I don’t usually show you pictures of bathrooms, but even the toilet on this train felt luxurious:

The looks and ambiance of the train greatly lifted my spirits, but it turned out to be only the beginning. Without knowing it, we were about to embark on the train-ride of a lifetime!

On-Board Experiences:

Shortly after the train started moving, the stuff distributed snacks and drinks. Alcohol in the morning does wonders to your mood! Needless to say, the ice between us passengers was broken fairly quickly. Tourists intermingled, chatted and became friends.

A couple of hours into the ride, a live band began playing Peruvian music in the Bar Car. Soon, we got to see some Peruvian dances as well:

This was followed by a fashion show, with a male and a female models showing us some high-end Peruvian alpaca fashion:

In the meantime, while we were greatly enjoying ourselves on the most luxurious train I’ve ever been on, the real Peru passed by outside our windows: arid grasslands sparkled with mud huts:

Small mud-built villages:

Little towns:

And the most remarkable of all: a bustling urban market set along the train tracks! Since there are only two trains a day, with predictable schedules, people had booths and merchandise set on the tracks. They removed everything when the train approached, then put it back up the second it passed:

The three-course lunch felt like a visit to a five-star restaurant:

In the afternoon, the guys at the bar demonstrated how to mix pisco sour, the Peruvian national coctail. All the adults got to taste it, as well as other alcoholic beverages. The band played again. By then everyone was happy enough to rattle along, clap, sing, and even dance!

The band, in fact, was quite amazing! At first they played hours of Peruvian/Latin music. Later, per the audience’s request, they moved on to Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and even Pink Floyd!

It was a truly surreal experience: riding a luxury train, complete with white table cloths, drinks, live music and fun entertainment, while dressed in unwashed hiking clothes and hiking boots. It felt rather odd to pass through a poor countryside full of friendly people, many of whom, both old and young, waved at us, while listening to “The Wall:”

Yes, there was even an afternoon tea service!

I truly hoped the ride would never end! I was actually sad when we arrived at our destination…

Only many weeks later, after I was already home, did I learn that The Society of International Railway voted this train as one of the 25 most luxurious in the world! Ready to go?

Peruvian Textiles and Tourism

About a year ago I was casually scrolling through my Facebook feed, when a post from TAFA List made me pause. The post advertised textile tours to Peru, and featured a beautiful picture of amazing textiles in vivid, bright colors. I clicked on it and started drooling.

For a while I considered taking one of the tours, but the dates didn’t work out for me, and I also didn’t want to leave my family for too long. Hence was born the idea of dragging my kids, yet again, to South America.

Luckily for me, everyone enjoyed our Ecuador trip so much, that they were eager to explore the region further. And so, this past December, my family and I found ourselves in the Cusco province of Peru, the Mecca of textiles.

After we arrived, my kids got one day to rest and acclimatize in Cusco city. The very next morning a bus belonging to the tour company Apus Peru came by to take us down to the Sacred Valley and some weaving communities.

Apus Peru is a relatively small tour company specializing in cultural tours. This was the company that operated the textile tours I saw on Facebook. They employ knowledgeable, English-speaking guides, and engage in culturally-responsible tourism. Apus Peru actively give back to the communities they take tourists to, not only through financial support, but also by providing training and education to local groups.

Our original plan was to go to Pizaq Market and ruins, and then up the Andes to the weaving community of¬†Chayhautire. The trip down to the valley took about an hour, however, and involved some windy roads. My daughter started suffering from motion-sickness, and I myself felt the unpleasant effects of elevation. The thought of an hour or more of driving up a narrow, windy dirt road suddenly didn’t seem that appealing, even if it was leading to a remote weaving community…

So we changed plans. We went to the ruins first and the market later (Pizaq Market, supposedly the Otavalo of Peru, turned out to be a little disappointing). Then, instead of up to Chayhautire, we drove on a relatively straight road to Chinchero, another weaving community.

This change of plans turned out to be a lucky stroke, as on the way we came across a local procession in honor of the Conception Virgin. This involved costumes, music and dance, and turned out to be very interesting:

Chinchero is a small town with several weaving centers. Our guide took us to Balcon Del Inka Centro Artesanal, which, he claimed, was the best one.

Being at the top of the hill overlooking the town, it certainly had the best view!

Women form several local families run the Artisan Center. The Center has two areas designed to show tourists how wool is prepared. It also has a small outside market. Women don’t actually weave on the premises. Everything is nicely set, however, and the English explanations are clear.

The Making of a Peruvian Tapestry:

Women gather wool from the desired animal. This could be a sheep, or one of the four camelid animals of Peru: ilama, alpaca, guanaco or vicu√Īaa. Ilama wool is rather course. Alpaca is softer, and baby alpaca is even softer than that. But the softest wool of them all comes for the undomesticated vicu√Īa. This wool is hard to gather, and is therefore the most expensive on the planet.

When sheered, any wool is rather dirty:

To clean it, the local women grind a jabonera¬†plant root that, with water,¬†froths like soap. Local nickname it “Andean Soap.”

Women then wash and scrub the wool:

Once washed, the wool is clean and ready to work with:

Women spin the wool into thread. During our stay in Peru, we’ve seen women walking and spinning, working and spinning, cooking and spinning, caring for children and spinning. Women, in fact, seem to always multitask…

After it is spinned, the wool is ready for dyeing. Many women in Chichero and the vicinity still use natural dyes, made from local plants. In the picture below, you can see the different colors and the plants that make them. I especially loved the purple wool, dyed with purple corn:

The biggest magic, though, involves the color red. Red is made from cochineal,  a parasite that dines on one of the more common cactus species in the area:

When collected, this parasite appears white, as it is cocooned in a web-like fluffy substance:

But here is where the fun begins, and our hostess delighted in showing us some magic: when squished, you see, a vivid, blood-like red fluid appears:

Mixed with a bit of lime, this fluid gets an orange tint:

Mixed with salt, it becomes more purple:

Playing around with these various shades, the weavers can tweak the colors to whatever shade they like. The number of times a piece of wool is dipped in the dyeing pot, and the length of time it stays there, determine the final color:

The result is beautiful, vividly-colored wool:

Women then pull the wool onto looms. Looms are easily portable, allowing women to weave in their homes or outside in the fields.

Here are some finished pieces, at the market part of the Center:

Of course, we couldn’t leave without buying something. This is our new table runner, with the artist who claimed to make it:

How Tourism Complicates Things

Textiles are historically an integral part of the Peruvian culture. However, after a few days in the country, I realized that the locals don’t actually wear traditional textiles, nor do they use them. In fact, tourists are the only ones walking around with vividly-woven fabrics. The locals wear jeans, t-shirts and the like, like the rest of us.

The few women and kids who roam about the old city of Cusco dressed in traditional clothes, often carry sheep or alpacas, and are there to take photos with tourists for money. Even in the more remote areas, the people wearing traditional clothes are mostly doing so for tourists (and wear synthetics). People told me that in really remote villages people still dress like that for real, but I haven’t been to any of those. The few houses I visited in different parts of the region didn’t have traditional textiles as home decor. If they had any textiles at all, they had the cheaper, industrial/synthetic kind, most likely imported from China.

The beautiful, traditional textiles, it seems, are made for tourists these days. They are also sold at tourist prices. These textiles are not cheap, even in American standards. Tourists have to splurge on them. The locals can’t afford them at all.

In fact, it seems that the art of weaving in Peru, like many traditional arts around the world, began to disappear. Even natural dyeing almost gave way to the easier, industrial kind. That is why several local and international organizations, The Center for Traditional Textile of Cusco and Apus Peru being some of them, intervened in an effort to save the craft.

Weaving is a very time-consuming task. Even when selling their work at tourist prices, weavers still make little per hour. It is not surprising, therefore, that many try to cut corners, by using cheaper, synthetic fibers, for example, or by selling sub-standard products. Many tourists can’t tell the difference anyway. The money that textiles bring, therefore, leads to all kinds of gray areas and dishonesty. Read this post to get an idea about some of those problematic issues.

So, as much as I enjoyed learning about textiles in the¬†Centro Artesanal, I couldn’t but also realize that the entire place was a nicely-set illusion. The ancient craft shown was artificially kept alive. The entire display was a myth that tourist companies and the fashion industry spread, and which tourists, myself included, really want to buy into. The¬† tourist industry in a way re-invented the old traditions. This includes the descriptions given to explain the different designs, that often have very little connection to the actual historical origin of those designs.

In fact, in order to appeal to tourists, even the traditional patterns have been changing. Many of the fancy boutiques sell items with patterns and colors that appeal to Westerners, as do fashion houses selling Peruvian clothes in the West. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, and the textiles are still beautiful. I just found it interesting how the economy surrounding tourism preserves old traditions while, at the same time, profoundly changes them.

Cusco, Peru with Kids: Things to Do in the Capital of the Incas

Thinking of visiting Cusco, Peru with kids? I would strongly urge you to do so! The city itself can easily entertain families for a few days, and it can also serve as a comfortable base for traveling to other, nearby attractions. The following list is but a selection of what the city has to offer, and can serve as a starting point for your own explorations.

**If you plan to go and would like some tips about packing, click here.**

Things to Do

Walk Around, Get Lost, Explore

Most tourists visit the old city of Cusco, and this is the part of town I will concentrate on. This area consists of narrow lanes built around several squares. The biggest of these squares is Plaza de Armas, which once housed the palace of the Inca, as well as the palaces of the nobility and a few important temples. 

I was surprised by how similar this square was to the the one in Quito, Ecuador, which we visited last year. Except in Cusco the main square has not one, but TWO cathedrals. It is also more up-scale and tourist-oriented than the one in Quito.

As in Quito, many of the plain-looking facades along the city’s alleys hide rich and interesting interiors. There are numerous inner courtyards, now hosting boutiques, stores and restaurants. Make sure to walk into some–you never know what you might find!

As you walk down the streets, take a moment to lift your eyes from the cobblestones (only when it is safe to do so!) and look at the walls, doors and windows. They all have character, and probably many stories to tell, too! There are numerous naturally-occurring works of Arte Poverta / abstract art..

Visit Museums

There are several small museums in Cusco. They are fairly modest, but are a good place to start if you’re interested in local history. Before you visit, make sure to buy a¬†Boleto Turistico, a pre-paid ticket which gives you access to the most popular sites in Cusco and surroundings, and which is valid for ten days (plan accordingly). Children under 12 get in for free.

Museum-visiting is a great, slow activity for your first few days in the region, when your body still acclimatizes to the elevation. On our first day we stopped by Museo de Historia Regional, which has some pre-Incan as well as Incan artifacts.

The Inca Museum is not included in the Boleto, but is worth a visit. It has mummies that might impress (or scare) your kids, interesting artifacts, and a video presentation showing the fate of the last Inca (hint: it wasn’t pretty). For the textile lovers among you, the museum also has a room dedicated to Incan weaving:

There are also live weavers working in the courtyard for you to watch. You can buy their work on the spot, too.

Finally, the museum has a store with some beautiful, unique woven textiles that replicate pre-Inca designs. No cheap finds here, though, but some really amazing stuff.

The Chocolate Museum is a fun place to visit when you need a break from all the other museums. It is not really a museum, but rather a fancy tourist trap where you can learn about chocolate-making, as well as taste different chocolates and chocolate jams (!). You can also take classes, and buy pricey chocolate bars and other products. The museum also has a small cafe, where you can sip hot chocolate and dine on chocolaty comfort foods. As you might imagine, my kids loved it, and I bet yours will, too!

Climb Up Saksaywaman

High above Cusco lies the impressive fortress of¬†Saksaywaman, fondly known to tourists as “Sexy Woman.” A pre-Incan culture built it around 1100 AD, but the Inca expanded and rebuilt it. Reaching the site required a steep climb, so give yourself a couple of days to acclimatize before you try it. Once there, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the city, as well as with an introduction to some impressive Inca architecture.

If your legs haven’t turned into jello by the time you are done visiting this site, you might wish to go to¬† the nearby hill to get a closer look at the White Jesus statue overlooking the city:

Visit Convento Santo Domingo

After you learned a bit about Inca architecture and seen a few ruins, go visit the Church of Santo Domingo. The Spanish Conquistadors built this church on top of and around Qurikancha, the most prominent Inca temple complex. By doing so they wanted to both benefit from the spiritual power of the place and erase/symbolically suppress the earlier Inca legacy. Nowadays the structure is a strange mash of Inca, Spanish and modern architecture.

Ignore the later two, and concentrate on the Inca structures. The reason I suggest going there only after you’ve seen other Inca ruins is that you will not be able to appreciate the finesse of the temples otherwise. The complex housed the Temples of the Sun, Moon, Thunder and Rainbow. The Inca-period builders built them with stones so closely put together, that some of the seams are hardly noticeable (even a sheet of paper will not fit between the stones). The walls are very smooth, and were once completely covered with gold and silver (which the Spaniards stole).

When still a working temple, the complex housed the mummies of several Incas, as well as life-sized gold statues of lamas and other animals and plants. An onsite model helps you understand what the complex looked like at the peak of its glory.

Visit the Textile Museum

When you’re done visiting Convento Santo Domingo, walk a couple of blocks down Avenue El Sol. This will bring you to the Center of Traditional Textiles of Cusco. You don’t need to be a textile lover to enjoy this little museum. A few days in Cusco will be enough to convince you of just how central textiles are to the local culture. The museum will give you a deeper understanding of what making Peruvian textiles involves.

The Center has a nice showroom showcasing the process of spinning, dyeing and weaving. It also displays examples of weaving from different regions (sadly, picture-taking was not allowed). The museum is attached to a store piled high with beautiful pieces of woven cloth from all over the Cusco area. Several weavers work inside the store, allowing you to glimpse the process at work. Prices are very reasonable.

Shop

Cusco is full of shops and boutiques selling Peruvian handicrafts in all price ranges. High-end boutiques surround Plaza de Armas, selling alpaca clothing and silver jewelry. Lower-end shops loaded with many kinds of colorful items fill every alley and courtyard. You and your kids might enjoy browsing this huge array of shops. San Blas, another city square, is known for its artisan workshops, and is a fun place to look around.

It is true that after a while many stores start looking alike. It’s also true that not everything is handmade, or even made in Peru (think China). But every now and then you might come across something special. One day, for example, I found a beautiful, unique piece of tapestry in a store hidden inside an out-of-the-way courtyard:

On our last day, we delighted in finding Ceremonias Ayahuasca San Pedro at the back of a courtyard¬†on 338 Triunfo St. This store was filled to the brim with what appeared to be genuine, locally-made handicrafts of various kinds. Prices were pretty high and no bargaining was tolerated, but many of the items on display were high quality and truly unique. We couldn’t afford the stone dragon, carved from one piece of stone, with each link of its chain moving separately:

But we absolutely loved the huge array of unique masks, and were able to buy one of the smallest ones for our collection:

Go to Mercado Central de San Pedro (San Pedro Market)

This covered market, located a couple of blocks from the central square, is a bustling center of commerce. It caters mostly to local shoppers, and has anything you can think of. A visit there will stimulate all your senses. There are food stalls of all conceivable kinds, flower stalls, chocolate stalls, household-goods stalls and souvenir stalls, to name some.

There are also aisles filled with fresh juice stalls, and aisles dedicated to mom-and-pop stalls cooking fresh food on the spot. Here you could get an entire meal for less than 5 soles ($1.5). And if you want to shorten your pants while you eat, or alter your skirt while you shop, local tailors are waiting right there to accommodate to your needs:

Eat

Cusco is bustling with restaurants of all kinds. Numerous eateries serve tasty, fresh food in huge portions. You can easily find tourist-oriented restaurants that will cook familiar foods from home, but it will be more fun for you to try some local dishes.

Pachapapa Restaurant on San Blas Square offers some genuine Peruvian foods alongside Western staples such as pasta (in case some family members are not in an adventurous mood). This is a good place to try cui, the local specialty:

This is what it looks like when actually tried (no, I didn’t eat it. I’m vegetarian!):

It’s also a good place to sip pisco sour, the Peruvian national drink. I did try that ūüėČ

For vegetarians, Greens–right off plaza de Armas–is a culinary heaven (though not so much for local dishes).

Finally, Know About Local Clinics

Clinics and hospitals are not places you want to see while on vacation. If you’re travelling with kids, however, you should at least know about them.

Rest assured that Cusco has at least a couple of medical centers whose mission it is to help tourists. These centers are open 24/7, every day of the year, and provide good, Western-standard medical care. Their doctors speak English for those of us whose Spanish is not up to par.

As it happened, all three of my kids ended up using those medical services. And on the two least-convenient days of the year at that: Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Local doctors treated them for an ear infection, a sever travelers’ diarrhea, and a laceration that required stitches. They all returned home safely.

Your hotel is most likely to be able to help in case of a medical emergency, but keep the number of Oxigen Medical Network handy just in case:084-221213 / 225407.

Visiting Cusco, Peru? What to Pack and Things to Notice

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

Medicines

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…

Clothes

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.

Other Items

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.