Finding a city’s secret spots can only really happen at human speed. In this series, World Running Guide, we’ll provide information to help you discover your next destination through the eyes (or rather, feet) of a runner.
The ancient, Incan empire is intoxicating. For centuries, the beginnings of a civilized world has remained nestled in the Andes mountains. Cusco is the headquarters for that civilization, with archeological sites on every turn. The only way to see southeastern Peru’s greatest treasures is where technology dare not go—on foot. Welcome to Cusco.
Photo courtesy of ShashiBellamkonda, CC-BY
If you’re a daredevil who likes going against the grain, even to the annoyance and fear of your family and friends, then you should definitely run in Cusco. While the sport is gaining traction here, it still has a long way to go before it’s considered a running mecca of any sort. The major concern is altitude, considering Cusco is over 11,000 feet in elevation. If you look at running or travel forums and people are asking for Cusco running recommendations, the two most common answers seem to be: “You’re crazy” or “Don’t do it.”
Even with the major hills and lack of oxygen in this area of Peru, Dan Rowe, the co-founder of Peru Fitness Holidays, has seen a recent increase in the Cusco running scene and thinks it’s an area worth exploring, no matter how challenging.
“The altitude is definitely a challenge, but it goes hand-in-hand with the scenery, as with more mountain running you get incredible views,” Rowe said. “Running in Peru and Cusco is definitely on the rise. For the general public, more and more are running in the mornings and on the weekends, especially on top of Cusco where you have so many trails.”
Rowe’s recommendation is to stay in Cusco for a couple of days to get acclimated to the altitude before running or partaking in one of his company’s holidays. Either start in Cusco, or in the Sacred Valley where elevation is lower (around 9,500 feet) and then work your way up. The Sacred Valley is only one hour from the city, so it won’t deplete too much of your trip.
While the city center is relatively safe, Cusco can also have difficulty with muggings. Just to be safe, take a buddy with you before hitting the trails, and avoid solo nighttime runs. Take precaution, prepare for any altitude sickness you may experience, pack for a slightly cooler climate (it doesn’t usually get past 70 degrees), and take the plunge.
Photo courtesy of Frank_am_Main, CC-BY-SA
Once your courage is in tow, then you can decide where exactly to run in the Incan capital of the world. Some archaeological sites to watch out for are Sacsayhuaman, Qenco, and Tambomachay, all within 20 minutes of the city center.
Steve Smythe, an avid runner from the UK who has run twelve marathons averaging under three hours, ran in Cusco several years ago. He ran out of the city towards Sacsayhuaman and back, which totaled to about ten miles. He remembered that run as “probably the most exhausting run I have ever done.” But, the views were worth it.
“The air was very fresh, and I got lovely views I ran through the hills,” Smythe said. “I didn’t have any other problems.”
To ease your time in Cusco and accustom you to the heights, try the Lares Trek in the Sacred Valley first. It’s a shorter but higher trail that leads to Machu Picchu, and one that does not require a permit. Unless you’re Superman, you’ll need to pack some gear, since the hike usually takes two to three for hikers.
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous and your lungs are ready for the challenge, try the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu Running Adventure with Andes Adventures. This company has lots of gnarly trips to choose from, but this particularly program is for runners of all abilities, and will take about nine days.
If you haven’t caught on, Cusco is not for the faint of heart or those under tight time constraints. If you want to run in Peru, be ready to stay for a longer haul.
Photo courtesy of Peru Fitness Holidays
Since Cusco is still stretching its running legs, it’s harder to find running clubs in Peru’s ancient city. There are companies, however, that hope to kick adventure running off the ground. One of which is Andes Adventures, mentioned above. Based out of Southern California, the group has been recognized by National Geographic and aims to give visitors an unforgettable adventure throughout all parts of South America.
Another group to help you with your first Cusco trek is Rowe’s, Peru Fitness Holidays. They offer runs on Rainbow Mountain, next to the Sacred River, or on the way to Machu Picchu. The group of not only provides off-beaten paths for travelers, but also gives back to support local athletes who hope to become professional runners.
When it comes to running in Cusco, the pathway is fresh and the tracks are light. As it becomes more and more prevalent throughout the years, you could be one to leave a permanent mark. Pack your gear, let your tenacity fly free, and hit the Peruvian trails.
Andes Race: The Chaski Challenge 13K
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu Marathon
Ultra Trail Cordillera Blanca
Machu Picchu, of course. Oh, and Rainbow Mountain is pretty sweet, too.
Main image: Photo courtesy of Bill Damon, CC-BY; lead image: Photo courtesy of Flashpacker TravelGuide, CC-BY-SA
McGee Nall is a freelance writer based out of Athens, Georgia. She was probably eating Nilla wafers and Nutella while writing this.