Cusco is a lovable tourist town. By far, it is the most “touristy” spot we have visited in the last six months as we are usually not attracted to locations that are overwhelmed by tourists.
There are people from everywhere here – including quite a number of Peruvian visitors. Most are stopping by before or after their visit to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, others are visiting from the countryside to spend time in the big city, and, during our visit, many were visiting the cathedrals and churches during the big Catholic holy week. And there is not an insignificant number of young and old backpackers, gypsies, and perhaps “dharma bums” wandering the world and stopping by Cusco and Machu Piccu to be energized by the alleged mystical powers of the sacred rocks and and ruins.
Yet, despite all the visitors, the relentless street vendors, and shop after shop of Peruvian kitsch, it drew us in. Maybe it was because Cusco was our first stop in Peru and we had our first opportunity to try a number of Peruvian dishes including lomo saltado (stir fried beef with vegetables sometimes served over quinoa), tacu tacu (peruvian refried beans and rice), alpaca , cuy (guinea pig), chicha morada (purple corn juice), coca tea, and so many more lomo and vegetable dishes.
Here are a few of our favorite Cusco restaurants that are somewhat off the radar.
- Morena – local Peruvian dishes at reasonable prices and the ladies here are super friendly.
- Mr. Soup – at altitude, sometimes you lose your appetite. This soup spot is just what the doctor ordered.
- Nuna Raymi – another good Peruvian spot that is relatively quick.
- Green Point – Veggies from the Sacred Valley.
- Carp Diem – run by Italians with great pizza, pasta….and limoncello!
- There are many more upscale restaurants where you can get some fine Peruvian dining. You can find these on Trip Advisor or other spots pretty easily. But the above spots are less known and were good to us.
Susan and I were both reading books about the history prior to and during our stay which may have made the visit more compelling as well. (Check out our reviews). Or maybe it was the opportunity to mingle with so many like-minded travelers that we found compelling. Or maybe it is the gorgeous architecture and fascinating history that the former capital of the Incas holds. Certainly both the Spanish and Inca ruins integrated into the very heart of the streets and buildings of the city and its dramatic setting at 11k ft surrounded by stunning green mountains had something to do with its appeal.
The cobblestone streets and countless squares very much have a colonial Spanish feel but the roaming llamas and alpacas remind you that you are in South America. The Inca ruins are also indication that you are not in Europe. Amazing, Inca foundations have outlasted earthquakes and thousands of years – their engineering was so good that the Spaniards used most of the original foundations when rebuilding the city and building new cathedrals (this, of course, was after they demolished and burned all the existing structures as they raped and pillaged the entire civilization).
It is quite a festive and lively city. During our short visit, we experienced Sunday and Saturday food markets, elaborate street celebrations for the Easter week, fireworks, crowd-control, and visiting government officials. Traffic and pedestrians were re-routed constantly.
Plaza de Armas, the main square with its cathedral, La Catedral del Cuzco, is a must see. A short trek up to Saqsaywaman (pronounced “sexy woman”) should also be on the list. And the San Pedro Market is a great place to sample the local food (walk to the back of the building to check out how the locals eat when in Cusco).
We really enjoyed Cusco and due to an incident that shut the airport down for 24 hours, we ended up spending two more days during their largest festivals of the year. If you are heading to the Inca Trail or Machu Piccu, make sure to spend some time here and don’t just pass through. Check out the Sacsayhuaman ruins, take a day trip to the Sacred Valley, check out the ruins within the city, or just simply check out the squares and local cuisine. Check out more of Peru travels and thoughts here.