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Chilly mountain air and a warm Andean welcome.
Nosh on some traditional aji de gallina and wash it all down with some Inca Cola at Los Candiles Restaurant in central Cusco before exploring all that this gorgeous mountain city has to offer. In the evening, weave your way through the maze of cobblestone streets that overflow with people out for a good deal with the local vendors. Don't forget a hat made from alpaca wool--it will keep you cool once the sun goes down--and an artists' rendition of the cityscape tightly rolled into a cardboard tube for easy transport back home. Watching the tourists walking alongside the locals was quite a site to see and many were all too eager for a photograph and some soles (Peruvian currency) in return. Charming, captivating, and unforgettable, Cusco is a place I'd gladly return.

The Sacred Valley, Peru
The route to Machu Picchu has gotten smoother, thanks to two hotels outside Cuzco. Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel and Wellness = resort is built on a 17th-century hacienda and has one of Peru’s largest spas. Treatments feature coca leaves and camu camu, a fruit from the Amazon. To prepare for a trek, check into the Hotel Rio Sagrado and book an altitude acclimatizer massage at Spa Mayu Wilka.

Passing two local girls in route to the market
Ollantaytambo, Peru is a historic site, with both ruins and an ancient main town founded in the 15th century. The town boasts some of the oldest still-inhabited buildings in South America, and its cobbled alleyways are inviting little passages that beg you to get happily lost. I especially loved my momentary encounters with locals around each turn. This girl's slight smile let me know she was happy to be photographed, although we never exchanged a single word.

While riding the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes to visit Machu Picchu, I was charmed by this little dog's ingenuity. It was a chilly, rainy morning and I guess the dog wanted to be a little warmer and thought his cow friend would make a fine bed. The cow didn't seem to mind a bit - I like to think the dog made as good a blanket as he did a bed.

Salty Pre-Dinner Treat In Peru
Cancha is the toasted corn that is often served at Peruvian restaurants, as something to nibble on prior, and during, your meal. It's roasted un-popped corn and is normally prepared in a clay pot, on a low heat, with a bit of lard and ground salt.

Shop (or stop) and smell the flowers
Apologies for the corny title, but I'm a sucker for flowers and I love flower markets. Despite the other shopping temptations when I travel, I always make time to admire and photograph the flowers. But don't flower bouquets all look the same no matter what part of the world you are in? No, not in my humble opinion, but even if they did, I'll still be seeking out the flower section of every market to gaze at the sublime combinations of colors and inhale the sweet scents. I just can't help it!

Loki Lookout
Anyone heading to Cusco, Peru will discover that there are tons of hostels to choose from. A lot of them tout the fact that they are 'steps from city center,' or 'right downtown where the excitement is.' But there is only ONE that is literally above all the rest, and that's the Loki Backpackers Hostel. Now to be honest, it's a bit of a party scene and the crowd that stays here is definitely on the younger side, students enjoying their gap year and things like that. However, while the clientele likes to carouse, this hostel does boast the premier view of Cusco. The photo above is from my seat at the bar in this hostel. Cusco was glowing in the distance, and a huge fireworks display went off a few moments after I snapped this. Even if you don't necessarily stay at this place, I'd suggest you make the trek up the hill just to take in a brew and the view.

Festival in Cuscu
While exploring downtown Cusco in late August, I was surprised by this rather interesting festival. After inquiring with some locals, I was only able to find out that: 1) it's a celebration by the Catholic church, 2) it happens three times a year, and 3) they take a giant statue of Mary and parade her around the town square. Nobody could explain to me why everyone was in funky Stanley Kubrick Eyes Wide Shut kind of masks, or why there were four individuals dressed as (wait for it) giant gorillas! It was a jovial, carnival-like vibe, and reminded me of a mini Mardi Gras, in Peru.

Sacsayhuaman Wall
Standing beside the amazing Sacsayhuaman wall outside the Peruvian city of Cusco, the former capital of the great Inca Empire. "Scientists" believe hundreds of men dragged each of these stones to the site with rope but we all know it was aliens who built this. One of the most impressive things I've seen in my life, maybe more impressive than Machu Picchu itself.

The Heart of the Inca Empire
Cusco is one of the most amazing city's in South America. Hidden squares, restaurants, markets and cafes around every corner.

Be sure to check the weather before you head there and pack accordingly. We went in November where we had sun and nice cloud cover; but the evening brought intense downpours for a few hours each night.

Obsessed with doors in Cusco
My mission was the 4 day hike to Macchu Picchu. It was my first day in Cusco, getting used to the altitude etc.

My parents had also decided to attempt the hike and had been hiking trails for a few months before their departure for this trip.

We checked into our hostel and my dad and I decided to explore the town and wandered into a side street off the main plaza when we spotted this door. I"m always obsessed about narrow alleys and doors with cracked walls, maybe because of the character they exude and the stories they hide. But after I took this shot where my dad gamely agreed to pose, I realized the real story behind this pic came not so much from the blue door and the walls as it did from my dad and his jovial nature - always young at heart and game for exploring.

Cusco in the rain at sunset
Cusco is much more than a jumping off point for Machu Picchu. The cities cobbled streets and sidewalks wind through architecturally impressive cityscapes complete with colorful inhabitants. The cities many plazas, often punctuated by impressive fountains give Cusco a community feel even though the city is most often overrun by tourists. Even in the rain Cusco is special and romantic and is best enjoyed with a glass of vino caliente!

Unique food presentation
Before going to Peru I had heard that guinea pig was a common food item, so I decided to at least give it a try. I was not prepared for how it was presented. As for taste? There really wasn't much flavor. After breaking through the brittle skin the meat was slightly greasy with little taste. While I wouldn't have it again, it was worth the experience.

Pleasant afternoon in Cusco
Because of a tight work schedule I only had two hours to explore some of Cusco. It is definitely a place to which I want to return with more time available.

The women of Cusco
On the steps of the Spanish Colonial church in the main square of Cusco, these women were resting and watching the world go by.

Peruvian children
Local Cusco children

discover new colors, mountians, and llamas in Cusco
I spent about two weeks in Peru and traveled through a lot of different cities/towns. i can honestly say that Cusco was my favorite. I was traveling solo but always felt very safe and welcomed by the people i encountered there. it is a beautiful city with lots to explore. i wish i had planed more days to stay in Cusco- but now i know for the next time I find myself in Peru I am going to plan more time in and around Cusco.
note: I traveled there in November and stumbled upon two different parades/festivals. The festival watching was definitely a highlight of the experience! I got lucky- but it may be worth looking into in advance.

Inti Raymi - "Festival of the Sun" in Cusco
We were lucky to be in Cusco on June 24th, where we got to see the city's dazzling festivities for Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun). This Incan festival is held annually to worship the Sun God and is one of the biggest events in Cusco that draws a huge number of locals as well as travelers from all around the world.

The performances and grand procession start at Qorikancha (Temple of Gold), proceeding to the main Plaza de Armas (Parade Square) and conclude amongst the splendid ruins of Sacsayhuaman. The theatrical presentation involves performers in gaily decorated costumes who dance to the rhythmic and mesmerizing music, as the royal Inca King and beautiful Coya (his queen) wave to the gathered crowds.

Inti Raymi introduces travelers to the history of Cusco and the Incan civilization. It is the experience of a lifetime and should not be missed!

Cusco, Peru