By Lauren BarraganYou might think that to take a vacation is to lay around near sandy beaches and be spoon-fed a piña colada, only moving to even out your tan and turn over. If you are that vacation-goer then you may need to wait for the next edition of Travel Tuesday. This week we’re talking about Cusco, Peru, a place with a reputation for its historical place in archeological discoveries, jaw-dropping natural beauty and an endless list of outdoor activities. Cusco is for that ‘other’ group of travelers: the ones that like to sweat, be outdoors, and appreciate history and nature engulfing them, rather than get sucked into a modern world of technology and laying around lethargically. If you’re looking for a place to fall in love with your inner historian, cub scout, hippie or just nature lover, Cusco is where you should head for your next vacation.
How does one sift through the endless list of things to do in a city like Cusco? Well not to worry, just take a deep breath and revel in the fact that Cusco is not nearly as daunting as its large, congested, sister city Lima. The city, while relatively big, allows for people to sprawl out across its land and enjoy their own personal space.
For the purist, the number one go-to is of course, a visit to Machu Picchu. The sacred Incan city ruins await tourists, young and old, tame and adventurous alike in more than one fashion. One can opt for the PeruRail and train their way to the mysterious city, enjoying the view of being swallowed by mountains from every direction, sipping on coca tea and relaxing. Then, of course, for the adventurous traveler there is the Inca Trail. This trek is not for the faint-hearted. It is four days of pushing yourself up and down steep inclines, narrow pathways nearly a thousand years old, never letting Rocky Balboa and ‘Eye of the Tiger’ exit your mind. Either way you choose, both end with a day spent amongst the greenest of green backdrops and mind-blowing buildings constructed with such care and precision, showing all of the brilliant engineering skills that the Quechuan people possessed.While taking in the beautiful surroundings, the Sacred Valley has much to offer. You could stop to see Maras, where the salt beds are, bringing some back home for Sunday BBQs, possibly infused with rosemary or local chilies. Not far away from there is Moray, home of Incan ruins of agricultural experiments, where each level of the ruins holds a different climate, allowing Incans to play with their crops, growing in different conditions. It was enough to make me marvel at the skill held by this lost civilization and enough to make me bow my head down in shame, thinking about the sad vinegar/baking soda volcano I took to the science fair in fourth grade. These people were brilliant beyond words, and all without the ability to Google or find tutorials on YouTube. If you’re planning on staying in Cusco itself, you won’t run out of things to do. For the early risers, Mercado San Pedro is a great way to start the day. It’s an indoor market that showcases all of the natural riches and resources Cusco has to offer, such as beautiful purple ears of corn, whole pigs, alphaca jerky, local cheeses, made-to-order juices from passion fruit to papaya to watermelon, and of course local crafts such as hand woven blankets, purses and more! Walking the market is a great way to immerse yourself in the community, as it is a popular place for locals and tourists alike. While walking through the colorful and crowded aisles, you must plan to eat at least one meal here. There is an entire food area of the market, with over 20 different stands for buying as close to a “home cooked meal” as you can get while on vacation. Natives serve up all of the traditional fare such as lomo saltado, aji de gallina and ceviche. However, the must-have that simply cannot be ignored is simply “choclo con queso.” It’s simple, no hassle and probably one of the best things I’ve eaten while visiting, so much so that it had me smacking my forehead asking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Essentially there is one woman who sits on the steps inside the market selling something I like to refer to as “Honey I blew up the ear of corn”, boiled to perfection so the giant Peruvian kernals literally just fall right off into your mouth, accompanied by a generous wedge of soft, salty, locally made cheese. Your life begins when you have your first bite of choclo con queso…really! You could stroll Plaza de Armas and view the Cathedral and it’s eyebrow-raising painting of The Last Supper, showing Christ and his disciples about to dig into “cuy”, a roasted guinea pig on a platter. Near the church there is a bar (because yes, church often equates to “Where can I get a drink” shortly after) called Paddy’s Pub, which is recorded as the worlds’ highest Irish pub, due to the altitude of where it sits (I can now cross that off my bucket list!) And if Irish Pub is too close to home for you, there is a great local bar, just caddy corner to Paddy’s, called Norton’s. It makes you wonder what kind of one-named tourists were walking around drunk before staking their piece of the colonial city and slaughtering the business with a gringo name, rather than something more kitchy like “Quechuan Sechwan” or “Cerveceria de los Incas”. Plane Jane name aside, Norton’s is all that you want in a bar: billiards, balcony seating and an amazing beer selection, both bottle and draught, including Cusco’s very own Zenith brewery, occupying most of the taps in the bar. If you’re a chocolate lover, there is no excuse to not stop by Museo de Choco, one of Peru’s three locations. Here you can see the history of chocolate, bridging the gap between the perspective of both consumer and farmer. Enjoy a tempting cup of Mayan hot chocolate from the café, where you play barista and blend ingredients to your liking, from thick dark chocolate, freshly steamed cream, local honey and of course red chili flake for that Mayan heat. If you want to deepen your experience and awaken your inner chocolatier, you can take one of the three workshops offered each day. Here you make your own chocolate from stage one of roasting the cacao bean, to mashing in in your own personal molcajete (mortar and pestle) and eventually adding your own natural ingredients to your chocolate for take away, ranging from coca leaves, to Maras salt, to chili and so on. It’s a great museum experience for hands-on people, rather that just staring and reading. This museum gives full reign to those of us who can’t sit still without touching things around us.
You may find, as I did, that you work up an appetite quite easily when in Cusco. I’d like to take a moment to simply blame it on the altitude! When this happens to you, there are two suggestions to scratch your hunger itch, both of which are actually not typical Peruvian fare, but so good they’re worth going to. For a quick and dirty stop, like oh, say after too many chilcanos at Paddy’s epically high Irish pub, you could swing by La Casa de Kebab near Plaza de Armas. It’s a tiny hole in the wall spot that always has a line out the door and is open until the wee hours of the morning for the intoxicated to sober up on. It is, without a doubt, one of the best shawarma and falafel places in Peru, and possibly further than that. Avoid take-out for the sake of getting to sit at a table and take full advantage of the endless house made tzatziki sauce. Your other “must experience” option is to eat one square meal at La Bodega. This place is the topic of conversation for food lovers in Cusco. They serve an array of wood fired pizzas with fresh local ingredients ranging from corn, to gooseberry. It’s their pastas, however, that keep guests coming back. The Bolognese lasagna is not to be missed, with layers of cheesy, meaty goodness, swimming in a personal crock of béchamel sauce. La Bodega features two of Lima’s hottest beers from Cumbres brewery, a Maiz Morada beer made from the local purple corn, as well as a Quinoa Kolsch, that captures the fruity aroma of the very air you breathe while walking through the Sacred Valley. If you’re looking for a more fine dining experience, there are still plenty of options for the foodie in you. You could take a stroll to Palacio Nazarenas to experience Senzo, the restaurant of Lima superstar chef Virgilio Martínez. Or you could go the other direction towards Plaza de Regocijo and visit renowned chef Gastón Acurio’s Chicha, both for getting the best interpretations of Peruvian fare fused in a non-conventional way.
All full and nowhere to go? Burn off some of the eats with an after dinner cocktail at Museo del Pisco, which houses over 100 types of Pisco, including 32 house infused bottles, with flavors like wasabi, eucalyptus and gooseberry. Still need to burn some of that food off? Walk uphill to Plaza San Blas and you will immediately see the door where everyone is crowding around. Km.0 is a local bar with live music every night, playing the best of reggae and Latin beats, allowing you to dance the night away. This is a great place to have fun, meet other free spirited people and of course have a drink, as their happy hour is from 9 to midnight every day.
Rest assured, there are still mountains of things to do and places to see that are not listed above. With a mere week in Cusco, there just isn’t enough time to see it all. You will need more than that or the works to planning your next trip back so you can get in as much as possible. Cusco, with all of its natural beauty and deeply rooted history, still manages to keep up with the modern traveler and slows down for no one. You may need a vacation upon returning from your vacation.