Oh Cusco, you are such a quaint & beautiful city tucked away in the mountains at an elevation that damn near kills anybody who visits, but none the less you are so wonderful after acclimation. There are huge mountains surrounding the entire city with an almost European style city center, Plaza de Arms, with many beautiful back streets, and an incredible market. The summer like days and winter like nights make it an even more amazing place to visit. Flying into Cusco can be a little intense though, because of the mountains that surround the entire city its a pretty vertical dive down towards the landing strip. Not the most enjoyable of landings but since we survived the one thing I can say is the views while flying in were spectacular.
Natalie and I both did fine with the altitude after a few minutes and after checking into our hotel we were off to explore the city. We stayed in B&B Cusco, right next to Plaza de San Francisco and only a few minutes walk away from the Plaza de Arms. The main city market was right down the street which after spending so much time in Asia seemed like the best place to explore first. Walking around the market we could see the similarities between the two continents, spices, local vegetables, parts of animals we didn’t know were edible and of course the best food in town. We bought a bowl of chicken noodle soup for 5 soles ($1.50) that was packed full of potatoes, yuca, chicken, noodles, & Natalie’s favorite – the pickled carrots. We felt right at home eating in the market and were falling in love with Peru already. Our second market purchase was a bag of Coca leaves, the ultimate cure for all your jet lag and 14k ft. altitude woes. We still really haven’t mastered the art of chewing them correctly but we will get it in a few days I’m sure.
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That night after walking through some of the bustling Cusco streets we decided it was time to get a real taste of Peruvian flavor. Here’s our rule for finding the good places to eat. If its street food you should pretty much try anything that doesn’t look like it will immediately get you sick. If you want what the locals eat, go to the market. If you’re going to go out for a meal you better do your research and go to the place that is good quality for what you pay for. We went to a restaurant up from the main square called Morena, one of the best restaurants in Cusco. We both ordered a Peruvian Pisco Sour and an appetizer to split – Nikkei: Teriyaki beef skewer with roasted sesame seed, pickled carrots on a lime aioli sauce. The Pisco was amazing, a perfect drink to compliment the appetizer. Even Natalie who hates mayonnaise couldn’t get enough of this sauce. I ordered the Pork Belly for my entrée and Natalie ordered the limo salgado. First off, pork belly is going to be good in almost every scenario but this was just ridiculous. I haven’t had something with this much flavor in a really long time… Natalie’s dish, the Limo Salgado was a Peruvian specialty, Quinoa topped with a medley of sautéed vegetables and beef including potatoes, onion, tomatoes, peppers ,aji armadrillis, and a hint of pisco. Again I was just in awe at the flavor. I mean Quinoa, how in the world do you build that kind of flavor with such a simple grain. It was delicious. For dessert we ordered the affogato, vanilla ice-cream with a Peruvian coffee espresso and shot of kaluah poured over the top. The owner of the restaurant saw we were enjoying our meal so much he came over and indulged us with another desert and some great travel tips for Cusco. The second desert was the cacoa, a warm brownie topped with almond ice-cream and crushed peanuts. I highly recommend going to Morena if you are ever in Cusco, it was one of the best meals I’ve had in my life and with a total bill of $60 including tip its well worth it! It was an excellent meal, a great experience, and a perfect example of modern Peruvian cuisine.
The second day in Cusco we explored more of the side alleyways, visited some of the shops, and slowly made our way across the city to a local restaurant that the owner of Morena had recommended called La Quinta Lalia. He had asked us before he gave the recommendation if we had strong stomachs – we replied our first meal was in the market – he laughed and then told us this is a must try. Before heading to Peru we heard from everybody who had previously been that we needed to try guinea Pig and we thought what better place than the hole in the wall locals restaurant in Cusco. When we arrived a band was playing on the patio area where we had been seated. Over the next 20 minutes about 50 people in suites and dresses walked up to the level above us for a huge dinner party/celebration. We knew we were in the right place when the locals are renting out the top-level for their celebration. Our server recommended lechon (grilled pork ribs with the skin on) and cuy chactado (guinea pig with potatoes & chilli relleno). We placed our order and started to wait, but about 30 seconds into waiting Natalie saw a dish being brought out of huge corn kernels, cheese and large peas and had to order that too. I’m not sure how many pounds of meat they served us but was way to much for two people. Not that I’m complaining, I mean I ate it all.. it was just a lot. The Guinea pig was tender and way better than I assumed. Not what you expect from a cute little “pet” but these breeding machines make for a pretty sustainable meal for families all over Peru. Thanks for the recommendation that lead to this amazing local Peruvian meal.
Food, why do we always have to talk about food. Well because food is great, and when in a new country the different cuisines opens up so many possibilities for flavor, for taste and also for cooking when you get back home. In Asia Natalie fell in love with the bahn Mi, a street stall sandwich made with cucumber, pickled vegetables, butter, eggs(if we were lucky) chilli, jalapeno and more. After we got back from our trip in Vietnam Natalie is always on the hunt for a good Vietnamese Bahn Mi. I don’t know how but she does it but she always manages to find the best wherever we are. She’s found the best in San Francisco, she found the best in Asia and now she found the best in Peru… The guinea pig was a first for both of us but there was something else we had heard about and were very interested in trying. The Alpaca, fluffy, not so friendly but photogenic, long eyelashes, weird hooves, really stinky, and damn tasty, Alpaca. We went to an all organic locally sourced restaurant called Greens Organic in the heart of Cusco. The restaurant prides itself off organic locally sourced produce and meat. Natalie ordered the Alpaca Vietnamese style bahn Mi sandwich. I ordered the alpaca medallions with blue cheese, mashed potatoes and asparagus. That bahn Mi pretty much blew both of us away. I always wondered why the bahn mi’s in Asia didn’t come with meat (probably because they were 25 cents) but seriously… all those wonderful ingredients mixed together in a sandwich makes a great meal, but then you put some tender alpaca on it and its a total game changer. I have a pretty embarrassing photo of Natalie going to town on this bahn mi… i mean you really can tell its tasty from this photo…
Ok, no more food talk… We’re moving on to talk about the wonders of the Inca civilization and the beautiful monuments that are scattered all across the Sacred Valley of Peru. We had looked into a few locations outside of Cusco that we wanted to visit, one of them being an archeological sight called Moray. The Incas build huge circular terraces between a big valley area of two hills. It’s said to had been used for the experiments on different crops and such but it looks like a huge amphitheater where meetings were held. *do not site this on your highschool papers* I mean seriously don’t quote me on that, I just think that’s what it looked like. It was a pretty amazing site though, the man power that went into creating these structures is just mind-blowing. There was no machinery to help lift boulders or trucks to move rocks and dirt or even saws to cut the stone. Just muscle and the power of the mind. It’s a crazy site to see and an amazing step in human culture, architecture, and society. That bahn mi though. I mean, Incan ruins… Yeah… um, so next we traveled to a still active salt mines just north of the city of Maras. The salt is harvested in a grid of terraces that is fed by one underground spring which spews out never-ending water with very high salinity levels. The water is diverted into separate pools and then left to evaporate as the salt crystallized and hardens. It is then broken up, packed and hiked out to be transported to different locations to be ionized. The drive to these remote places through the Andes mountains was beautiful. This whole area of Peru is at a very high elevation and surrounded with amazing peaks packed with snow. The Sacred Valley splits the mountain ranges in two and supplies the people with good land for crops.
That night when we arrived back in Cusco we went out for a beer. We stumbled upon a huge celebration of fireworks with burning man like statues fixed with explosives, flares, sparklers and more in a competition to see who had built the best and most amazing structure. one by one the square was ignited into a crazy spinning inferno as the structures fuses were ignited. Parts of the structures would start spinning in circles from the fireworks while the sparklers colors flew into the air. Sometimes though parts of the structures would blow off and shoot into the crowd of tourists sending people scattering in all directions. Overall Cusco has been one of my favorite cities and Peru one of my favorite countries! As we finish our last day in Cusco we look forward to the trek up to Machu Picchu and our stay in the small town of Ollantaytambo. Thank you Cusco Peru, I hope you treat everybody how you have treated us!