Here's the difference between Lima and Cusco
If Banos was the Reno of South America, then Lima was Vegas.
We arrived on a night bus from Cuenca.
The traffic was backed up and the bus crawled along slowly, passing vertical signs with flashing neon lights shouting VACANCY.
I was sleepy after waking up from a long night on the bus. The fact that the bright lights were in English dazzled me so that for a moment, I forgot where I was, and my brain struggled to catch up to the hours that had slipped by.
We were high up on the second floor of the bus. (Having pre-booked, as usual, the front seat of the bus to avoid getting stuck at the back by the toilet).
Below us, rows of cars honked their horns and flashed their lights while drivers yelled out the windows. We pulled into the bus station half an hour later, to the background beat of the eighties music that seemed to follow us around South America.
We had heard Lima had the best food South of Miami. Sticking to our theme of dining in style our first night of arrival, we went out in Miraflores for dinner. The food at the Raw Cafe was that good, we eschewed the included breakfast at the hostel the next morning to return for more.
I found traveling South America on the whole, food wise, to be not as bad as people had warned.
Loaded with horror stories of bloated bellies and runaway bowels, my terror had led me to research cafes and restaurants before I arrived. I then created a vegetarian constellation by starring everything I could find on google maps.
If you need to stick to a vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free or otherwise-free diet while travelling, I recommend doing this.
It’s helpful to look at your maps wherever you are and already have food options mapped out in advance. We even found overpriced jars of natural peanut butter this way.
Miraflores and its neighbour Barranco are packed with all the great city stuff.
They're both full of amazing restaurants - vegetarian, traditional, vegan and sushi.
There's an array of funky bars for afternoon, sunset or anywhere in between drinks. Most of them are nestled between cute boutique stores and Boho art stalls selling off beat, one of a kind purchases.
At night we joined the queues to enter Circuito Magico del Agua, a magical water fountain park that dances with lights to timed music, cementing Limas' Vegas feel.
By the time we left Lima both our bellies and our backpacks were full.
Almost everyone had highlighted (pun intended) the importance of acclimatising to the altitude.
We had more reasons than most for this, so we left the bright lights of Lima and headed to the sleepy wee town of Pisac.
At 2,972m high, Pisac is a stepping stone towards the breathtaking (yep, I went there) 3,399m height in Cusco.
Compared to Lima, Pisac is an indigenous town. It comes alive when The Sacred Valley Markets opens with grand elaboration in the main square.
The old ladies there wear dresses of the brightest colours. They are woven together to form the most beautiful, intricate patterns. Each one would flesh out the wooden frames of her stall with hand knitted blankets, jumpers, beanies and socks.
In another section, old men with either a gold, or a missing, front tooth sold hand made gemstone jewellery and carved wooden objects.
It was like being in Aladdin, but cold.
We stayed in Pisac for a few days before heading up to Cusco. If your ever in Cusco, I highly recommend pre booking your stay at Nino’s. It’s everything you want a boutique hotel to be. Smooth white walls and two levels of rooms, entered by a ceremonious opening of the tall, high wooden doors that swung wide open to reveal a bed piled high with thick woolly blankets and plush pillows. Cusco is a fairytale of a city. The thick high blankets and small wooden bed had me feeling like I was in the Peruvian version of The Princess and the Pea.
We loved Ninos’. The restaurant served the best home-made pumpkin soup at night. The morning spread rivalled the farm fresh delicacies at Alberto’s casa. Having been given jobs to get them off the cobbled streets of Cusco, children of varying ages work throughout the entire place, and into the second Nino’s that has opened down the road.
It's rather hard to go back to dorm life after a place like that.
The acclimatisation process is different for everyone. Walking through Cusco, down the hill from Nino’s and towards Plaza de Armas (Cuscos' main square), we could feel the altitude hovering round stealing the oxygen right out from under our noses (yep, went there again). It would always unleash its full force when we were walking up the bumpy hill back home, leaving us near breathless by the time we made it back to Ninos'.
Plaza de Armas is old world beautiful. Grand statues with well kept gardens are surrounded on all sides by restaurants, bars shops and the mighty Cusco Cathedral. At night, the whole place is lit up with soft lights that throw shadows over the square and the faces of the people walking through it.
There is a lot to do in and around Cusco.
For me, the excursions of choice were hiking.
Before The Inca Trail, I'd never done an overnight hike before.
With Nikes for walking boots and no concept of hiking sticks, I was about to use Rainbow Mountain as my warm up.
In retrospect, it wasn't exactly a pre-game stretch.