Cusco, the starting point for the famed Machu Picchu. The center of the universe, according to the Incas, and certainly the center of tourism in Peru. This city is both wonderful and exhausting, as almost everything in the downtown area is catered to tourism, and the exploitation thereof.
Despite the constant calls of “Masaje!”, aggressive street painters all curiously named Pablo Picasso, and the mind-numbingly numerous tour operators hawking the same tours, we came to love our extended stay in Cusco. Below you will find some of our favorite activities to pass the time until you visit Machu Picchu!
Channel your inner Alice Waters at Organika
Look, we are from San Francisco so, we love organic, local, farm-to-table establishments. Big, juicy, multicolored beets? Edible Flowers? Towering beds of lettuce? Ya, that’s our jam. So when we headed to South America, we had more than a few friends and family laughing about how we were going to struggle in the land of Lomo Saltado and roasted Cuye. Fortunately for us, we found Organika.
This farm-to-table establishment serves some of the best salads, period. Their vegetable lasagna will melt your heart (and your mouth if you’re not careful). They made a dessert dish using tomatoes as their main ingredient, tomatoes! This place was so good we ate there three times. However, don’t just think this place is for the vegetable obsessed, this establishment offers some fantastic meat dishes as well, such as an Alpaca steak that will have you viewing those little guys in a different light.
Tucked away in an alley about 2 blocks away from the Plaza de Armas, do yourself and your body a favor, and give Organika a try.
Take in the view at Mirador San Blas
If you intend to hike to Machu Picchu than consider your time in Cusco as a pre-hike training experience. At the very least, it will help you cope with the fact that walking up a short flight of stairs feels like you just PR’d a 10k. We spent two weeks in Peru, slowly making our way to Cusco, and still, we were floored by the altitude and the abundance of stairs in every direction. If you can embrace the no pain, no gain attitude, consider a walk up to the Mirador San Blas to soak up an amazing view of old town Cusco.
Don’t worry, I wouldn’t make this suggestion if there wasn’t a delicious alcoholic beverage waiting for you at the end. Conveniently located immediately next to Mirador San Blas is Limbus, with a covered, outdoor bar providing the same, wonderful panoramic of the city, but with the added benefit of Pisco Sours.
After recovering your breath, explore this beautiful neighborhood of colorful doors and artisan shops, filled with hand-crafted jewelry, beautiful maps, and a ton of hippie travelers.
Cooking the Andean Way
There is no better way to experience a country’s cuisine than taking a cooking class. You not only get to enjoy your creation, you get to take it with you on your travels. We booked what ended up being a private cooking class with Natural Terra at the end of Calle Choquechacca. Proprietor and chef Pierre Castillo offered a menu of traditional dishes, as well as vegetarian variants, with a focus on high-quality, local ingredients.
His class consisted of a guided tour through two markets, the famous San Pedro Market and the locals only Mercado Cascaparo Chico, where you buy ingredients to cook a two-course meal. We spent about four hours in total between the tour and cooking our lunch, which gave us a ton of time to work up a huge appetite. If you are in the market for a cooking class, we highly recommend giving this one a try!
Please note, due to an issue with TripAdvisor, Natural Terra is designated as Permanently Closed. As of July 1st, 2017, Natural Terra is open for business. For that reason, we recommend trying Pierre by e-mail to reserve your class.
Learn how chocolate is made at the ChocoMuseo
We love chocolate, we love free, and we definitely love discounts, so when we found out the ChocoMuseo, located next to the Plaza Regocijo, offered all three, we knew we had to stop by.
The museum is small, the tour is short, but the payoff is big. Free chocolate samples, a tasting of 4 different chocolate liquors made in-house, plus a discount on all the amazing chocolate items located in the shop, make this a must do during a spare hour in Cusco.
Keep an eye out, as different promoters offer different discounts. We used a discount through PeruHop for 15% off our purchase, while the promoters on the street were offering a 5%-10% discount card.
Dance atop the Rainbow at 17,000 feet
I’ll be honest with you, this is not the hidden gem it is made out to be, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it! Flex your photo-editing skills and crop your fellow tourists out of the shot to get your instgram-ready photo with the mountain.
The hike isn’t hard, but the altitude means you will be stopping every few minutes to catch your breath. There are alpaca grazing all around to keep you occupied as you rest, and if need be, you can hire a horse to ride for most of the hike. If you decide to get a horse, get it early, as everyone has to hike the final leg of the journey, and you should get the most bang for your buck.
Feel free to shop around, and try to find an operator that leaves early. It sucks waking up at 3 AM, but it will be worth it. Our departure was at 5 AM, and when we arrived about 300-400 people were waiting at the base of the mountain.