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Cusco, Peru

Boarding the plane for Cusco, we realized we wouldn’t see anyone we know for a year. What a strange feeling.

Just a couple of months earlier, we had quit our advertising jobs in New York. We were leaving status quo life to embark on a year-long backpacking trip around the world. This was our second long-term sabbatical – the first being a seven-month journey through Western and Eastern Europe. As our plane descended precipitously between the Andean Mountains, we looked out the window to see red-roofed Cusco below. A landscape that looked so foreign – unlike anything we’d seen before.

The lack of oxygen struck us the moment we stepped off the plane. At 11,000 feet above sea level, Cusco’s elevation takes some time to get used to. Soroche (altitude sickness) kicked in within hours. We drank coca tea, infused with coca leaves, to alleviate altitude-induced headaches. And slightly regretted booking Hostal Rebolosa at the top of a steep cobblestone street.

Cusco, the former capital of the Incan empire, is home to ancient historical sites, majestic cathedrals, and famous museums.

Tourists often pass through quickly en route to Machu Picchu. But we chose to stay several days to check out the scene and acclimate to our new vagabonding lifestyle. Like most of South America, the main square, Plaza del Armas, is the city’s primary gathering space. Throughout the week, it hosted a variety of celebrations. Our favorite included a charming parade with children in traditional dress carrying homemade lanterns.

During the day, hard sell tourism abounds in the main square. It can be difficult to simply sit on a park bench without a vendor approaching with knit hats or Peruvian-inspired tchotchkes. One enterprising ten-year old girl even offered up photo ops with her pet alpaca. Kids seem wired to work hard at a young age, often shining shoes for adults in exchange for a few Peruvian soles.

However, once off the beaten path, we discovered a fascinating, authentic working town to explore.

At San Pedro Market, friendly locals encouraged us to pull up a bench and join them for the $1.50 lunch special, lovingly prepared by an elderly couple. As the only tourists there, a young girl dressed in a pristine school uniform, watched us with curiosity.

Browsing past overflowing vegetable stands and colorful sewing booths, we followed the market outside. In the surrounding streets, we stumbled onto a back alley devoted exclusively to vendors butchering meat. With some unease, we watched a butcher haul a massive cow head onto a wooden block and hack away at it with an axe. One street over, we exchanged animal parts for oversized Winnie-the-Poohs in shops devoted exclusively to party supplies and decorations. We made it to Chicharroneria El Muñeco, a secret watering hole serving up cheap Cusqueña beers, just in time for happy hour. A group of rowdy, fun-loving men even invited us to be their token gringo guests for the afternoon.

Eventually, we found a rhythm during our week in Cusco. Every morning, we enjoyed a humble breakfast at nearby Victor Victoria. We got to know our good-natured waitress who helped us practice our Spanish and pronunciation. Afterwards, we enjoyed an obligatory sight like the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art or the Saint Dominic Priory, a 15th century church built on an Inca Sun Temple. In the afternoons, we wandered through different areas of town like San Blas, the traditional old quarter of Cusco, turned into a trendy, Bohemian area with quaint boutiques and artist studios.

One day, we took a local bus out to the countryside to immerse ourselves in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

Here, we visited archaeological site Tambomachay, the military ruins of Puca Pucara, and the amazing walled complex, Sacsayhuaman, an amazing feat of Incan engineering. We took in the views from the Cristo Blanco, a large statue of Jesus Christ atop Pukamuqu Mountain, then made the three-mile walk back into town. And promptly got lost. A llama herder spotted us and through our rudimentary Spanish and exaggerated gestures, helped guide us back into town. That night, we headed to the main square’s nightclub for salsa dancing.

On our last evening, we enjoyed Cusqueña beers on the balcony of our hostel. Overlooking the town and main square below, we no longer regretted our high vantage point. In reflecting on our week, we realized how important it would be for us to make connections with people during our year-long travels. We knew those interactions were key in warding off feelings of homesickness and isolation. More than anything, it would be our gateway to authentic, rewarding experiences. This was just the beginning.

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