First day in Cusco, Peru.

I step off the plane in Cusco, and immediately feel the affects of high altitude. 11,152 feet.

I can’t breathe.

The air is thick, my lungs are weak, and my heart is pounding in my chest.

It could just be anxiety. Fear of being in a foreign country on my own, fear of “catching” altitude sickness, fear of being in over my head.

Cusco, Peru airport

Cusco Airport

I am a worrier. But I’ve learned over time that the more I jump into unfamiliar territory and come out the end okay, the less afraid I am of the next new experience.

What’s the worst that could happen? I get lost? It takes extra time to get on my feet? People can’t understand me and I feel embarrassed for not making more of an effort to learn their language?

It’s not a big deal.

Cusco, Peru

The first time I traveled internationally on my own, I nearly had a panic attack in the first 15 minutes outside of the airport. I landed in Brussels without knowing a single fact about the city, or the languages they spoke.

I was meeting my college roommate at our AirBNB five hours later, and had to get there on my own. I knew I had to catch a train, but couldn’t figure out which one. I’m doomed to die in this train station. That, or I’ll take the wrong train and die wherever it takes me. 

The Smallest House in Brussels, Belgium 2014

The Smallest House in Brussels, Belgium 2014

Fortunately, I survived. Not only that, finding my way was easy. It turns out, people will help you if you ask – even in foreign countries.

In Cusco, I didn’t feel lost or hopeless not knowing Spanish. I had with me the Easy Spanish Phrasebook and three copies of my complete itinerary with maps and directions in Spanish. I was prepared.

My taxi driver was gracious. He stopped twice and got out of the car to search for my AirBNB building, and then helped me with my bags. Did I tip him? No. Tipping in foreign countries is for suckers.

My AirBNB hosts were great. A husband and wife – both English speakers – with a three year old daughter.

No judgement that my hosts had a large framed photo prominently displayed in their living room akin to this one:

I had my own bathroom, warm water, and a large bedroom with the coziest bed. I slept the afternoon away and woke up with a headache (altitude again). It was raining outside and I was thirsty.

I did some Trip Advisor “research” on restaurants, downloaded the Google map area to my phone, and walked toward the historic center, Plaza de Armas for food and drink.

A couple observations: Cusco has way too many stray dogs roaming the streets (I’d prefer to adopt them all), and the constant taxi horn beeps indicating “Hi! I’m here and available!”  are more annoying than babies crying on a plane.

Also, I ran into this amazing graffiti along the sidewalk fence:

Graffiti in Cusco, Peru
Somehow I ended up in a tiny market full of sweaters, llama embroidery, fake alpaca blankets, scarves, and keychains. I walked into one of dozens of tiny wooden coves to look at a scarf.

The woman inside began to tell me in passable English that she’d hand-made the scarf, that the color was beautiful on me, and that it was made from 100% alpaca. (ALL LIES.)

Then she gave me a price: 30 soles ($8.82 USD).

I said no thanks.

She said 28.

I said no thanks.

She asked how much I wanted to pay for it.

I hesitated. I really didn’t want the scarf that much.

She said go ahead and handed me a calculator, encouraging me to type in a number.

20.”

She shook her head no, and typed in a higher number.

We finally agreed at 22 soles ($6.47 USD) and made the exchange.

I felt oddly satisfied even though I wasn’t in love with the faux alpaca scarf. It was my first haggling experience, and I was okay with probably getting ripped off.

Back on the sidewalk, my stomach grumbled. Must eat! No more distractions! It was dark and the rain was spitting. I had to find Museo Del Café, my dining destination. Trip Advisor rated it five out of five stars.

I pulled out my phone to consult Google Maps. Five minutes away. Nothing could stop me now!

I beelined through Plaza de Armas (the main square) until I could see it. Google Maps’ little blue circle with the tiny triangle hat was telling me I was right there. Finally.

Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru

Plaza de Armas

And then….

“Would you like to see our menu?”

I stopped abruptly and gasped. I was standing in front of some restaurant.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m Jose. Would you like to see our menu?”

I did not.

“Sure,” I took the outstretched menu held by the young Peruvian man. I don’t know why I did this.

“Do you like coffee?”

“Yes!” I said, foolishly engaging him. “I love coffee!”

“We make the best Peruvian coffee here. Also we have a coffee museum right inside.”

Say no. Say no. Say no.

“Here, let me take you on a short tour while you decide about the menu…Get you out of the cold.”

Say no. Say no. Say NO.

“Ok.”

I followed him up a flight of stairs inside a large building, and endured the 10-minute coffee museum tour. I learned about cat poop coffee and Peruvian climate and that “women prefer to be coffee bean sifters because they are more detail-oriented than men.”

Uhhhhhh.

And – wouldn’t you know it – the end of the tour landed right in the restaurant, and there was an open table just waiting for me next to the bar. Jose sat me down with the menu I’d been clutching the entire time.

“Ok, take some time to look over the menu and someone will come by to take your order.” He smiled and walked away.

How did I get here?

I didn’t want to be there, but I didn’t want to be rude either. So I guess I had to stay? But did I? He’d tricked me! I don’t like to be tricked! No, I would not be the sucker white girl in a foreign country eating at an overpriced tourist restaurant because I was too polite. No siree Bob!

I stood up, handed my menu to the bartender and said, “Sorry, I changed my mind.” I walked outside feeling empowered.

Jose was standing outside with a fresh menu. He asked why I changed my mind, and I told him I had other plans, but would come back another day for coffee. And that was it. I walked away. I was so proud of myself!

Now… back to dinner. Museo Del Café should be right around here.

I looked back where Jose stood, and a large lit sign read above him: Museo Del Café. I had completely screwed myself. Figures.

Long story short, I found another recommended restaurant to eat at in the end, which worked out for the best. After taking a selfie with the Twelve Angled Stone, I ordered the Pachapapa after its namesake and enjoyed the best meal of my entire trip.

Cusco, Peru near Plaza de Armas

Twelve Angled Stone in Cusco, Peru

Selfie with the Twelve Angled Stone

Twelve Angled Stone in Cusco, Peru

Twelve Angled Stone

Food in Cusco, Peru
Alpaca brochettes, stuffed peppers, corn tamale, grilled potatoes with Andean cheese, and a salad I didn’t eat because the raw vegetables could have been washed in contaminated water.

I ordered coca tea with anis and oregano to help with the altitude symptoms, and decided against a pisco sour since I was already dehydrated.

Coca tea in Cusco, Peru

Coca Tea

Also, this sign:

Guinea pig, or cuy in Cusco, Peru
I walked back to the square happy, and stopped at Starbucks to pick up a Peru location mug and enjoy good free wifi for an hour.

f8fa50c2-c9c3-4825-bef3-7617366cdf58-4678-00000c9322663a2e_tmp

And then I walked home! It was 10:30pm and I felt surprisingly safe. Had I felt uncomfortable I would have grabbed a 5-sol taxi ($1.47) no problem.

And that concludes my first day in Peru. Stay tuned for more!