Cusco will take you on a journey. From crumbling Incan ruins to eating rodents in restaurants, Michael Raffael explores everything Peru’s second city has to offer. Just be sure to take a break to acclimatise
Cusco is in the Peruvian Andes. Flights from the UK take about 17 hours and the time is five hours behind GMT. Currency is the Peruvian sol.
British Airways flies daily from London Gatwick to Lima Jorge Chávez International Airport from £653 return. britishairways.com
LATAM offers several flights each day from Lima to Cusco’s Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport from £240 return. latam.com
Promperú is the country’s official travel and tourism board. Its website is full of advice and information to help you plan your trip. peru.travel
The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (Penguin Modern Classics, £8.99) is the 1928 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that tells the story of locals affected by the collapse of an Inca rope bridge.
To offset your carbon emissions make a donation at climatecare.org and support environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London produce 2.98 tonnes CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £22.34.
One moment the Airbus A320’s wingtips almost touch the bare Andean peaks. The next, it banks steeply, flattens its approach and touches down on a bumpy airstrip. Welcome to Cusco, south-eastern Peru. This was once the centre of an Inca empire. Some 3,500m above sea level, it’s a city of thin air.
In the Plaza de Armas, a blonde backpacker collapses in front of the cathedral. After a minute, helped by her boyfriend, she gets up, has a gulp of water and slowly walks away. Altitude sickness is random. It pays to take it easy through the city: spend a little longer negotiating the alleys of Centro Historico; take a much-needed breather when climbing the steps that bind the colonial streets of San Blas barrio.
A tea urn in the lobby of Palacio del Inka hotel dispenses mate de coca (coca tea) to guests. It isn’t a panacea but it helps combat the sudden shock of less oxygen. Coca is more than an antidote; it’s a part of local culture. A packet of dried leaves costs 1 sol (25p). Sharing a few with an acquaintance is an act of friendship.
There are various ways to chew them. Cusqueñans like to put about four leaves in their mouths, one at a time. They chew them to a cud then store them for a few minutes between their gums and cheek. The perceptible effect is milder than a couple of espressos but it dilates the blood vessels. It also lessens the appetite (no bad thing for this writer). Bloating may sound like a vaguely humorous complaint but here it can be more than a joke. It’s why guides suggest a soup-only diet until the body adapts.
Australian Zac Lanham brews Zenith artisan beers, a short drive from the city centre. He advises caution when tackling his quinoa porter or Peruvian pale ale: ‘Basically, be careful the first day or two but give it a go. If you drink alcohol, back it up with lots of water.’
The policewoman directing traffic outside San Pedro Market looks like a member of the Village People. Woe betide the taxi driver who disregards her whistle. She and the other officers represent the thin, helmeted and tight-trousered line against gridlock in the heart of a city that continues growing around a nub that hasn’t changed since Peruvian independence from Spain in 1821.
In the central square, brightly-clad Quechua women sit on stools and sell eggs with rice or chargrilled chicharrón (pork belly that is boiled then cooked in its own fat). Inside the covered market, stalls are arranged in rows. One is dedicated to flowers, another to cheese, a third to fruit and vegetables, a fourth to potatoes, another to herbs. There’s muña, a type of mint and ruda (rue) a key ingredient used to make the local agua de Florida, a perfume touted by shamans as a charm.
Pan chuta de Oropesa is a unique Andean bread, made only on the outskirts of the town. Children prepare the sponge ferment, men knead the dough and women glaze and decorate the flat loaves, sometimes with images of the sun and chia seeds or sometimes with doll-like figures, before they go into the ovens.
The scent of cooking pervades the bustling market. Queues form to buy steaming chunks of Rosita’s lechón (roasted young pig). Next to her a stallholder does a brisk business in olive-stuffed tamalitos (a traditional dish made of dough that is wrapped in leaves and steamed). There are also several escabeche stands and tempting cevicherias.
The best way to get an understanding of how Cusqueñans live is to watch them tending their dead. San José de Huancaro cemetery straggles in an anarchic fashion up the slopes of a wooded hillside. At the arched entrance, a sign tells visitors not to bring food or drink inside. Nobody pays attention. People come here in their hundreds. They sit beside makeshift tombs, eating, drinking, chatting, singing and praying. Hawkers sell soft drinks and beer or umbrellas to protect them from sun and rain. If the dear departed loved a drop of Pisco, a little aguardiente (alcohol made from grape spirit) is poured on their grave.
When there’s a fiesta, the road leading up to Huancaro is closed off to vehicles. On one side of it, the smell of roasting, grilling and seething mingles. Anticuchos (skewered ox hearts), ají de gallina (spiced chicken), lomo saltado (stir-fried meat), soups, maize and fried huayro (potatoes) vie for customers. On the other side, private homes double as picanterías. It’s a portfolio word for any kind of unregulated eatery where a meal costs just a few soles. Each has its own speciality. In Peru, sazón describes the personal touch that every cook adds to a recipe. Chuño, a soup with dried potato, echoes Quechuan Incan food. Puchero is a simmered meat and vegetable stew. Queso kapchi combines cheese, fresh fava beans, onion, maybe sweet potato, coriander, chilli and annatto (natural red food colouring).
A pole with a pink plastic bag attached hangs outside a house. It’s there to indicate that the owner is selling chicha de jora (corn beer). To call a chicharia a bar is something of an overstatement. It’s more of a room with a table and a couple of benches. At the back are tubs, pans and a ceramic amphora. One contains fermenting ears of maize and water. The second is for boiling it with a little coarse sugar. Next step is to let the liquor sour and ferment again, forming a frothy cap on the surface. After four days the cloudy, mildly alcoholic brew is ready.
Served in 500ml glasses, it has an acquired, sweetish flavour. The wisened lady who makes and serves the drink may also drop in a strawberry, which adds a faint perfume. Our guide gruesomely confirmed what we had initially been led to believe was an urban myth in which traditional chichamakers were once known to add a foetus’s hand to the brewing process to ‘improve’ the taste.
Chicha Por Gastón Acurio restaurant in the Plaza San Francisco dishes up the novoandina (new Andean) cooking that has taken hold in the capital, Lima. It may have started as a kind of Franco-South American fusion but it’s evolved into a distinct style that draws on the palette of fresh, raw materials that emanate from the regions. Trout in its ceviche comes from the Urubamba River which flows through the Valle Sagrado (Sacred Valley), part of Cusco Province. An alpaca tartare is seasoned with turnip flowers and wild mushroom vinaigrette. A purple cornmeal tortilla is wrapped around cuy (guinea pig) that has been glazed with rocoto chilli and hoisin. For dessert, strawberries and kiwicha, a kind of fine-grained quinoa, accompany a delicious tumbo (banana passion fruit) mousse.
Cusqueñans love their guinea pigs. Of course they make cute and furry pets. Here, though, they can be served as anything from a gourmet delicacy to street food. The township of Lamay, a short drive from Cusco, has turned itself into a guinea pig-farming capital and painted statues of the rodents line its high street.
At her roadside cuyeria stall, Inti stuffs them with herbs, pushes a wooden spike through them end to end and roasts them over charcoal. ‘I’m one of the small-time farmers,’ she claims. ‘I only have about 500. I feed them wheat, barley and alfalfa and they are ready to eat when they’re about four months old.’
Inti prefers the smaller varieties, offering them at 25 soles (about £6) each or 20 soles for the hind quarters. Most Cusqueñans prefer these for their dining tables, however, some can grow to weigh about 2kg if they can escape the fire. Quechuans, who retain many Incan superstitions, believe that rubbing the chest with a black guinea pig cures heart diseases It is possible to stay in Cusco without moving outside its Centro district. Clean, safe and beautiful, Spanish colonial opulence has been built on the exquisite stone foundations of an Inca city. Guests at the trio of Plaza Nazarenas hotels – Inkaterra La Casona (only open to those who can afford its excellent suites), the Palacio Nazarenas or its twin and neighbour Monasterio (whose Belmond owner runs the luxury Hiram Bingham train to Machu Picchu) – can live like pampered hidalgos (gentlemen).
It might not occur to them to cross the threshold of Santa Catalina convent on their way to salubrious Museo del Pisco, where the national drink is celebrated and sampled. But even if they did, they probably wouldn’t see the cubbyhole through which nuns, protected by a screen, pass galletas de naranja (orange-flavoured biscuits) or mazepàn (puppy-shaped marzipan figurines).
In the next-door barrio San Blas, where backpackers and globetrotters hang out, the shopfronts selling ponchos, handmade costume jewellery, cafés advertising Wi-Fi and ostals or budget hotels give the impression of a hip Latin quarter. This also conceals a surprise or two. Next door to La Casa de Cheesecake in Carmen Bajo, a battered sign advertises ‘Horno caliente 24 horas’. Few notice it. Even less follow it into a cul-de-sac of overhanging tenements. At the end of this is a clay oven, topped by sooty, tarred rafters. The baker reckons it’s been here since the 16th century but he isn’t sure. All he knows is that he bakes for his community. When the bread is done, he roasts the pigs that they bring him. How many has he done that day? About 15 he thinks but it’s a public holiday and he’s not sure.
Judging Cusco only by the piles that have earned it a World Heritage Site status is an injustice. Around 6pm, at the shortest of dusks as people’s lights start to flicker on, the precipitous hills blink open and it becomes clear that a city several hundred thousand- strong surrounds the historic kernel.
Cusco is so much more than just a gateway to the Valle Sagrado and Machu Picchu. As the capital of an Incan empire it lasted about three centuries. Then as a colony won by Pizarro’s conquistadors it lasted three more. After gaining independence it started growing, slowly at first then accelerating with an orgy of unregulated construction.
The mestizo (mixed-race) population has more Incan blood in it than Spanish. Incomers, born in Quechuan-speaking villages within the province, haven’t only brought their language with them. They also arrived with a rich culinary heritage. They treat white and yellow quinoa as staples. The red keeps its shape better when cooked and they value the black for its medicinal properties.
Before heading for the Valle Sagrado or setting out on the Inca Trail, take more than a break to acclimatise. Breathe in the scents and savour every part of the cuisine, right down to the pink salts
from the Incan mine of Maras that still flourishes to this day.
Michael Raffael and Ulf Svane travelled to Cusco courtesy of Promperú, British Airways and LATAM
Where to Stay
Inkaterra La Casona Suites-only lodgings that are decorated in the grand Spanish colonial manner. Its cloistered design and sense of calm suits the exclusivity it aspires to. Suites from £334. Plaza Las Nazarenas 211, Plazoleta Nazarenas, 00 51 610 0400, inkaterra.com
Manco Capac This boutique hideaway is designed with plenty of charm on a hill close to the Sacsayhuamán ruins. There are great views of the city and the rooms are furnished with antiques. Doubles from £130. San Cristóbal, 00 51 84 255 703, ananay-hotels.com
Monasterio This former monastery, close to Cusco’s lively central square, dates back to 1592 and has all the trappings of an international hotel. Doubles from £275. Calle Palacio 140, Plazoleta Nazarenas,
00 51 84 604 000, belmond.com/hotel-monasterio-cusco
Palacio del Inka Right in the middle of Cusco, this is a safe bet for well-heeled travellers. Everything runs smoothly and the breakfasts are so lavish you can skip lunch. Doubles from £112. Plazoleta Santo Domingo 259, 00 51 84 231 961, palaciodelinkahotel.com
Palacio Nazarenas One of the Plazoleta Nazarenas trio, it was built as a cross between convent and hacienda, with arched arcades surrounding a verdant garden and a beautiful rococo-style private chapel. Doubles from £440. Calle Palacio 140, Plazoleta Nazarenas, 00 51 84 582 222, belmond.com/palacio-nazarenas-cusco
Where to Eat
Prices are for per person for three courses, including a beer or soft drinks, unless otherwise stated.
Chicha Por Gastón Acurio This is easily the best restaurant in Cusco. Choice Andean ingredients are handled with skill and imagination. The English menu translation is accurate and helpful. Try the alpaca tartare or a trout ceviche served with artichokes and toasted corn. From £20. Plaza Regocijo 261, 00 51 84 240 520, chicha.com.pe
El Parador de Moray Around an hour from the city, it overlooks the iconic Inca fields of Moray. Chef Juan Carlos Valencia Abarca sets out a buffet of Cusqueña specialities (things you can eat on the street but may not have the guts to try) including tripe stew. The solteritos de habas (fava bean and cheese salad) is excellent. From £35. Portal de Carnes 23, Valle Sagrado, 00 51 84 402 213, cuscorestaurants.com
Hiram Bingham One of the world’s great luxury trains, it shuttles once a day between Cusco and Machu Picchu. The onboard food and service is perfectly judged for global travellers accustomed to the high life.
From £263pp each way including four-course meal and entrance to Machu Picchu. 00 51 84 581 414, belmond.com/hiram-bingham-train
Kion Peruvian Chinese The decor is inspired by 1950s Hong Kong and the food combines Cantonese elements with Peruvian traditions. It has become one of the country’s most popular types of cuisine. From £15. Trionfo 370, 00 51 84 431 862
La Casa de Lechón This street food stall is where locals queue for finger-licking chunks of crisp-skinned young pig. From £2.50.
San Pedro Market, Cascaparo
Map Café Within the Pre-Columbian Art Museum, it dishes up ambitious fusion food in large portions. Chupe de Lisas (a pastry-domed soup with slow-cooked egg) echoes a classic Paul Bocuse consommé. From £25. Plaza Nazarenas 231, 00 51 84 242 476, map.museolarco.org
Pachapapa Part of the same stable as El Parador, it gives cautious eaters a chance to sample the cuisine dished up in picanterías without qualms about the hygiene. On a warm day, sit outside in the courtyard and treat yourself to roast guinea pig. From £15. Plaza San Blas 120, 00 51 084 254753, cuscorestaurants.com
- Aji: Umbrella term for piquant sauces used for dipping
- Alpaca: Reared as food as well as for their wool
- Anticuchos: Barbecued ox heart served on skewers
- Ceviche: The national dish of marinated raw fish. The marinade ingredients vary but always contains lemon or lime juice
- Chicha: A mildly alcoholic maize drink not to be confused with alcohol-free chicha morada which is made from purple maize
- Chicherones: Cheaper pork cuts that are often braised before frying
- Chuño: Soup or stew prepared from a special dried potato
- Cuy: Guinea pig, eaten as a delicacy or street food
- Huacatay: Mint-like herb that is used to make sauces or as a rub
- Huayro: This mealy potato is popular for frying
- Lechón: Roast young pig
- Lomo Saltado: Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian fusion) dish of stir-fried whole or chopped beef with yellow chilli, soy, a little vinegar and herbs
- Muña: A fragrant minty herb with small oregano-like leaves
- Oca: Torpedo-shaped sweet potato
- Rocoto: A hot yellow to red chilli
This article was published on 13th March 2017 so certain details may not be up to date.