It’s a little difficult to comprehend that almost 20 years have passed since we were last in Cusco, and to be honest, I remember very little. I do remember struggling with the high altitude, thanks to flying direct from Lima, and I remember visiting the sacred site of Saqsaywaman.
The main reason we were in Cusco, back in 1999, was to trek to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail. So seeing that was already ticked off the list, we were in town to relax, eat and maybe take a day trip to Rainbow Mountain.
Home for us was the Andean South Inn in the San Blas neighbourhood, which can be reached by walking a few blocks from Plaza de Armas. This is one of the oldest and most picturesque neighbourhoods in Cusco, and its steep, cobbled streets are lined with galleries, artisan stores, restaurants, Incan stone walls and many places to stay.
The heart of San Blas is the plaza right by Iglesia de San Blas, built in the 1500s, then rebuilt and modified after an earthquake in 1650. Many exquisite paintings are on display and seeing its Baroque-style pulpit is not to be missed – intricately carved from one piece of cedar.
During the day on the plaza you can find a few vendors selling textiles, trinkets and handicrafts, and if you’re lucky enough to catch them open, a couple of cafes to sit and take a much-earned breather.
Calle Tandapata, just above the plaza, has many more eateries and bars to enjoy. The hardest part is which one to choose.
Mercado San Blas can be found a short walk from the little plaza, and while it may not match up to the much larger San Pedro Market in Centro Histórico, it still serves a purpose to the barrio.
Fresh produce, butchers, household goods, grains, dried herbs, cheese and cheap juice vendors. There are also a few inexpensive eateries offering local and vegan food.
Mercado San Blas, Calle Chihuampata
Peruvian hotel breakfasts, which typically consists of flat bread (pan chuta), margarine, jam & weak filter coffee, were beginning to wear a little thin, so the great thing about staying in San Blas is having Jack’s Cafe at your disposal. They open early, they cook up an epic plate of food, and even the espresso gets a thumbs-up.
The Gordo plate (22.5) challenges anyone that thinks they have a big morning appetite with its mountain of bacon, eggs, sausage, potatoes, tomato, beans and toast. I mean honestly, who can eat this much?
The French toast is fab as is the avo, tomato, basil and bacon (16.5). Anyone’s bound to ask for a doggy bag when ordering the bill. These meals are enormous.
Jack’s Cafe, Choquechaka 509
When a tapas bar opens its doors at breakfast time you kind of expect it to be more of an unconventional experience. Case in point with Cicciolina that’s located on the cusp of San Blas and Centro Histórico.
The regular lunch and dinner menus sat on the no-go side of our budget, but breakfast in this stylish place was good to go. Their homemade bread features throughout the deliciously innovative menu, and those creamy scrambled eggs with spiced Huanchana sausage, peppers, mushrooms and fiery uchucuta salsa are sure to wake anyone up in the morning.
Cicciolina, 2nd Floor, Triunfo 393
Is it a hotel, or is it a bakery and cafe? Well, it’s kinda all three. At the top of the plaza on Calle Tandapata is this friendly little joint that’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner snacks.
A variety of baked empanadas, sandwiches and breads don the top of the counter, and some rustic cakes tempt the dulce tooth in any of us. That passionfruit cake – oh my, what a winner.
The coffee is pretty good, and the made-to-order sandwiches are a very nice alternative to the usual meat and potatoes options on any local menu.
Pan…tástico, Carmen Bajo 226
When daylight fades and the need for happy hour arises, there are a few options in San Blas to keep that mood invigorated. Right on the plaza is a joint for those with a penchant for Rasta bars, or more to the point, rather nice mojitos.
Settle downstairs with a burger, sandwich, some seafood or Mexican, or nab a seat upstairs, light a cigarette (yes, they allow that) and sip away on cocktails.
La Cabra II, Carmen Alto 227
It’s the kind of place you’d look into and then possibly keep carrying on. Small room, some bespoke jewellery displayed in a corner and a mural on the wall to give it some life; not a great deal to entice potential clients, especially when it’s empty.
There is a set lunch and a menu of typical Peruvian staples and, what got our attention, happy hour offerings in the afternoon and evening. The guy that owns the restaurant speaks English and is impossibly friendly and helpful, and makes a mean mojito.
Sumaq Chaska, Suytu Qhatu
It may be gringo central and somewhere to butch-up and watch the football, but the formula at this Tex-Mex eatery run by a Peruvian/American couple is spot on.
The moment you enter Cuse Smokehouse your senses are hit with the smell of wood barbecue and a wall of heat from the open kitchen. Head to the small room out back and the temperature drops a tad, so get swilling on some craft beer and get chowing on burgers, wings, sandwiches and tacos.
Cuse Smokehouse, Carmen Alto 120
This dimly-lit bar has an eclectic playlist of tunes from Gypsy Kings mega-mixes, to Elvis and onto hardcore industrial techno.
Later in the night the local musos emerge and jam downstairs, whilst upstairs punters tuck into the likes of lomo saltado (26), Thai food and bocatas – hearty and very generous sandwiches. It’s cosy, it’s lively and it’s a top choice for drinks with atmosphere.
Km 0, Calle Tandapata 260
Cushioned banquettes, rich, colourful decor and some of the best Indian food we’ve eaten for a long time. There’s no holding back on the spices in this curry house, so you can expect robust dishes no matter where you look on the menu.
Kick things off with the complimentary nibbles, then it’s a pick from an excellent selection of Indian mainstays that also include a couple of local critters – alpaca and guinea pig.
The lamb rogan josh (32) gets a big tick, as does the alpaca chilli (35) which is tenderly cooked in a rich tomato sauce with mango. Our favourite, the crispy tandoori cuy (24); half a free range guinea pig coated in stunning spices. It’s just like quail, really, and nowhere near as confronting as the tortured-looking whole fried cuy you see on the streets.
Korma Sutra, Calle Tandapata 909
If you’re lucky, on the opposite corner to Korma Sutra there’s a lady that sets up a cooking station in the evenings, selling freshly made papas dulce, also known as picarones.
Made with a potato dough, these ‘donuts’ are doused in a syrup made from panela, or unrefined sugar. They’re piping hot, sweet, crispy on the outside and soft inside.
Papas dulce lady, corner Tandapata & Suytu Qhatu
Any visitor to Cusco is bound to spend a good chunk of their time in its UNESCO listed Centro Histórico, possibly even stay there. It’s jammed with stunning old buildings, enormous stone cathedrals, open plazas and beautiful trickling fountains.
It’s difficult to miss Plaza de Armas in the middle of the historic district, a wonderful public space with manicured garden beds, lawns and ample seating. Two of the city’s cathedrals flank it’s northeast corner – Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús and Catedral del Cusco – with colonnades of shops, cafes, restaurants and tour operators all around it.
Five minutes from Plaza de Armas is the city’s premier market, a mammoth set-up that occupies a large city block. The streets around the market bustle with a multitude of roaming vendors selling a variety of foods and goods from boxes, bags and carts – some you recognise and others that have you questioning what they may be.
Frittatas, churros, chicharron with corn and potato, fried cuy, drinks carts, ice cream, grilled sweet plantain, cakes, and much more.
Pastries – cachito (top right), pastel de manzana (2nd right), alfajores (3d & 4th right), lengua de suegra (2nd left), mil hojas (3d & 4th left).
Head into the market building and you quickly notice the chaos inside has a certain order to it. All the handicraft sellers are crammed into one area, fresh produce is in another, and so on.
If you’re there in the morning, for instance, you can join throngs of locals at many food stations for a steaming bowl of sopa – a very common meal at breakfast. Some meaty broth with chunks of potato, corn, maybe some vegetables, quinoa and some kind of bone to chew on.
Trays upon trays of colourful fruits tempt you with their sweet smells, as do buckets of cut flowers that form a virtual forest in one corner of the market.
Fresh chicken and quail eggs, piles of fish roe, moulded cheese stamped with its origin, dried herbs, spices, potions and dried llama fetuses for witchcraft. You name it, and they have it at San Pedro Market.
About one third of the market is a dedicated food hall where you can come at any time of the day and choose from local, inexpensive dishes. None of it is fancy. There are a few stands that specialise in lechón – or whole roast pork with crackling. A chunk is torn off, it’s plated and it even comes with a sweet tamale, if you want it.
If roast pork isn’t to your liking, how about a whole deep-fried cuy?
Can’t forget about the juice vendors, either. These ladies vie for your pesos as soon as they spot you, so go with whom you want, order your concoction, take a seat and enjoy.
San Pedro Market, Calle Cascaparo; 6am-6pm
If the need for coffee arises when you’re at San Pedro Market, there’s a tiny joint one block away that roasts and sells just that; plus a few sandwiches and tamales to nibble on.
Cafe Ricchary does an Italian-style roast, so you can expect a very tight and robust flavour in its brew. Not a great deal of room to move in there, so those two wooden stalls and one table are coveted spots.
Cafe Ricchary, Calle Concebidayoc 116
Once home to the most important temple in the Incan Empire, the foundations of Quricancha now lay within Iglesia de Santo Domingo, a church built by the Spanish after they virtually destroyed the former temple.
Wandering through the church and its adjoining convent cloisters, stunningly adorned rooms and still-perfect Incan walls demonstrates how the Spaniards tried to win over the locals by incorporating native elements into their newly created iglesia.
Parts of the site are used for art displays, and the beautiful garden terraces on the west side of the complex are not to be missed.
Quricancha, entry on Calle Mut’uchaka; cost 15 soles
The cost for this four-leg trip was US$49 per person. More details on their website.