Welcome to part 3 of my first ever trip to South America! This post is a continuation of part 1 at Machu Picchu and part 2 in the Amazon rainforest. In this post I go over my time in the city of Cusco, and me and Andrew’s exiting hike in the Rainbow Mountains.
If you want to read about all the delicious food Peru has to offer, and see photos of breathtakingly beautiful and colorful mountains, this post is for you!
Cusco: A Colorful City
Andrew and I stayed at two different hostels while in Cusco. The first one was called Hospedaje Turistico Recoleta. It was about a 10-15 minute walk from the main square, so I thought it was a good location. See below, Andrew and I got that huge room all to ourselves!
The second hostel was called Pisko & Soul. This one was located in the historic district, and again, about a 10 minute walk to the main square. Both hostels were clean, with friendly staff, provided towels (a rare luxury I wasn’t used to when it comes to hostels) and had good locations, so I recommend either.
If I had to choose, I think I liked Pisko & Soul slightly more. They provided a free breakfast each day of bread, jams, tea, coffee, and fresh fruit. It was also really colorful on the inside, with murals everywhere! I thought staying in the historic district was kind of neat too, as all the streets are cobblestone and super narrow.
Our first day exploring we wandered without a direction. I knew I wanted to see the main square, as there were some pretty old churches and cathedrals. Another fun fact about me: I’m kind of an architecture nerd! I really enjoy looking at the different architectural styles of cities, how buildings look like in different countries, the ornaments and stylistic elements used, the patterns, the colors, etc. I find it fascinating!
Cusco looked exactly what I expected a city in a Spanish-speaking country to look like. From the stucco walls, and curved orange clay roofs, the colorful painted exteriors, cobblestone streets, and iron railings.
I loved the arched doorways, and the super hilly nature of how the city was laid out in a valley, with tall mountains all around you. Well, I should say my eyes loved the hilly streets, but my legs did not. To learn more about why my calves were obliterated and super sore, check out my post on Machu Picchu!
For our “chill day” in Cusco we walked around and eventually got some tea and sat on a park bench for awhile. It was nice to just sit in the sun and people watch. As a tourist, we got approached countless times, from people trying to sell us things. We politely shook our head and tried our best to ignore them though. One other thing about Cusco, is that there were stray dogs EVERYWHERE. It reminded me very much of Asia actually, to see so many stray/feral dogs everywhere you look.
It was sad to me, that so many were abandoned, or growing up on the streets, surviving on trash or the kindness from people to get by. I hoped they were happy, but I’ve come to understand that in poorer countries stray cat and dog populations are a real problem. Something I’ve never experienced in an American city.
As far as things to do, there are a few neat landmarks to check out, like Cusco Cathedral, or San Blas Temple. We also walked by Iglesia De Santo Domingo, which was an old castle in the city. Most of these places you have to pay to go inside, but we enjoyed just walking around them from the outside. In the case of the castle, there were pretty gardens to observe in a courtyard below.
There are all sorts of shops to explore, murals, and colorful street markets as well (including a huge scary murder mural we stumbled upon).
Though I’m not one for buying souvenirs, I did enjoy the vibrant colors of all their textiles and pottery!
And speaking of colorful, we stopped in a grocery store at one point because I was curious to see what they had (tea was a potential souvenir I was considering too). I came across a huge crate of purple corn and had to take a quick photo! It was the corn used in the purple corn pudding we had in the rainforest, and I thought it was cool to see how they looked on the cob.
Cusco: A Vegan’s Paradise
The header above says it all – I ate VERY well while I was in Peru! I expected to be able to get by on staple food items like rice, beans, potatoes, and corn, etc. What I wasn’t expecting was to have so many options in the form of vegan and vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the city. Being a vegan in Cusco was extremely easy. It also helps that I had a nice friend with me who was willing to eat at vegan places too!
For lunch one day I had a quinoa meal with fried mushrooms and potatoes (it was really good). We had papas fritas on top of papas fritas. But my FAVORITE meal, by far, was the meal we had at a restaurant called Green Point near the historic district.
We ordered this lime and ginger “infused tea” which came in a little personal tea pot to our table. I think it was just ginger root that had been boiled with fresh squeezed lime juice. When we looked in the pot we saw a HUGE chunk of fresh ginger root. We ordered it in hopes it would sooth our sore throats (we were both battling colds) and I think it did the job! Since that trip I actually tried to make that “infused tea” myself with moderate success. I just boiled ginger root with lime juice and it tasted pretty similar! I think I need to use a lot more ginger next time though…
We got complimentary toasted bread with kalamata olives and a tomato sauce (amazingly good). We also ordered two appetizers in the “large” size of each (our waitress kindly tried to talk us out of this decision, saying it was a lot of food for just two people, but we were hungry hungry Americans and knew what we were about). The appetizers we ordered were bruscetta and these cucumber rolls stuffed with potato and drizzled in a dragon fruit syrup. Both were really good! I think the bruscetta was my favorite though. You can tell by the photos that the presentation of each plate was very pretty too.
Finally, the main dish arrived – a huge plate of tacos to share. They came wrapped in hand-made corn tortillas, with simmered white beans/onions and grilled vegetables inside them. They were drizzled with a vegan queso sauce, and came with a side selection of 3 toppings to choose from: pickled red cabbage, guacamole, and pico de gallo.
These tacos were probably the best tacos I’ve ever had! Seriously, I still think about them to this day. I’d love to try and recreate them sometime, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make those hand-made corn tortillas that they used. The flavors were so unique, savory, and just, amazing!
I’m pretty sure this meal was Andrew’s favorite of the trip as well. So to summarize: if you’re ever in Cusco you should really go to the restaurant Green Point!
We also made our way to a Loving Hut while we were in Cusco. For those that don’t know, Loving Hut is a vegan chain restaurant with locations all over the world. This was actually my first time trying one in a different country! We ordered a huge amount of food: a large salad and two giant entrees with faux-meats to try and share. It was all good – no regrets!
The Rainbow Mountains
It was time for our last main adventure of the trip: the Rainbow Mountains. Out of all the activities we planned this was the one that both Andrew and I were the most worried about. We both really wanted to go to this mountain range, but we had heard many stories about how difficult of a climb this hike was. We were determined though! And in the end, I’m so glad we went.
It was a whole-day activity. We were picked up at our hostel bright an early (around 4am) to start the drive to the Rainbow Mountains. It took us about 3-4 hours to get there I believe. On the way we passed through some beautiful scenery though. At times, it was hard for my brain to realize I was seeing what my eyes were actually seeing. Meaning – everything out the window on our drive looked so cool, so massive, so vast, so wild – from the looming green mountains above us, to the sprawling valleys and winding rivers below us. Peru really is a beautiful country.
Our drive was a little nerve-wracking at times. We rode along tiny winding dirt roads on the edge of the mountains, with no railings separating our rickety bus from the cliff face below. We made it safely to a tiny little farm at one point though. It was a little more than half-way. We stopped and our group was given tea and bread as breakfast. The bread was round, puffy, and huge! Like a deep-dish pizza, but instead just a huge round wheel of fluffy warm bread. It was simple, but a really good breakfast.
We drove on and finally made it to the base of the hiking path for the Rainbow Mountains. At the starting point, we were at about 14,000 ft. of elevation. When Andrew and I climbed Huayna Picchu we were at around 8,000 ft., and you may remember from that post that it was pretty difficult for us mainly because of how hard it was to breathe.
Well, we were really in for it with this hike! At the base locals were selling oxygen tanks and trying to convince tourists to pay for a horse ride to the top. I thought to myself, no way! Why would I pay to have a horse do my work for me, AND a local who would lead the horse by rope the whole way up? So instead of me just going up by myself, I’ll make 2 other individuals go up in my place and exert all that energy?! No! My muscles will take me up there by myself!
Well, at least that’s the “go hard or die trying” attitude I gave myself as a pep-talk when we first started walking.
Right off the bat, breathing was difficult. Breathing was difficult as soon as I stepped out of the bus. But once we actually started walking at a slight incline? Oh man, my lungs were burning! There was so little air, we stopped every few feet it seemed to catch our breath. But I told myself, I don’t care how long it takes me, or how ungracefully I do it, I just want to get to the top. I knew I would be so proud of myself once I did.
The guides we were with were great cheerleaders for us too. “CHAMPIONSSSS!!!!” – he would yell at us every so often to keep us moving. He really, really loved screaming the word ‘champions.’
I did have one major thing to take my mind off my breathing. The scenery.
The landscape was BEAUTIFUL. Simply beautiful. Huge mountains loomed before us, with snow-capped peaks and lush green grass below. A glacier was pointed out to us in the distance, and all around us the hillsides were dotted with alpaca grazing.
Again, my eyes had a hard time believing what they were seeing. But the beauty of the climb up was nothing compared to the view from the top.
Finally, at over 17,060 ft of elevation, we made it to the top.
It was one of my favorite moments on the trip – looking out over the valley and seeing how the colors on the mountain range spread out in a brilliant rainbow gradient. Seeing the clouds, grass, snow, rock, and clay paint a stunning picture before me.
I do admit, I was saddened to hear that just 10 years ago, these Rainbow Mountains were not visible. They were below ice and snow. Due to global warning everything had melted to reveal the beautiful colors of the mountain beneath. While beautiful, a part of me wishes that the melting hadn’t happened. Regardless, I was very grateful to be where I was, at that point in time. I was grateful I got the chance to experience this incredible site for myself. It was truly beautiful.
We stayed up there for awhile, taking photos, and looking out.
Finally, the time had come when our guide called our group to begin descending. We bought a small bag of freshly popped popcorn on the way down from a lady with a small stand of food to sell. With each step down, I could feel myself breathing slightly easier.
I felt so accomplished. I did it! We did it! We had conquered the Rainbow Mountains. I was proud of it all.
This concludes the final adventure that me and Andrew had in Peru! I hope you enjoyed reading about it, and all the stories there were to share.
I have one final post to write about for our time in South America – and it’s about our 2 short days in Quito, Ecuador.
I’ll end this post with some closing thoughts about Peru though.
- Should you visit Peru? Absolutely! I loved my time there, and all of the activities we did.
- Peru’s landscape is amazingly beautiful. There are mountains everywhere (which I love).
- The food is incredible! And as I mentioned in this post, it’s great if you’re vegan or vegetarian.
- They really love their coca leaves here (*cough*cocaine*cough*). They were sold at every market, every corner, and in almost every restaurant it seemed! I learned during our hike in the Rainbow Mountains, that chewing on coca leaves is actually a natural altitude-sickness remedy. Our local guide was chewing them as he climbed. I even tried some coca tea on this trip (you take the leaves and just soak them in hot water). Served this way, you don’t actually experience any high, it’s really just regular tea. But I thought it would be funny to be able to say I tried “cocaine tea” on this trip, haha.
- The tea in Peru, in general, was pretty mild and weak in flavor. I think I favor Asian teas more!
- The people are VERY friendly. Every local I met was happy to see us it seemed, and very welcoming.
- I really surprised myself with my Spanish on this trip! I took two years of Spanish in high school, and two years in college. Before this trip, I felt as though I didn’t retain it at all though. I was pleasantly surprised to see it coming out more and more on this trip though. I was able to express myself in simple ways, ask questions, and understand basic things, which I thought was awesome!
- They love their flute music, let me tell you. One entertaining thing I noticed throughout Peru was their various forms of art depicting “men playing flutes in deep angst.” See the images below for humor.
- Note: some city “parks” that show up on a map of Cusco are not parks at all, but stadiums. You’ve been warned.