Peru was beautiful. We still haven’t spent much time in South America, but Peru felt very quintessential - bright, woven textiles being sold in the streets, cobbled town squares, grand cathedrals, not to mention some breathtaking mountains. We spent most of our time taking day trips from Cusco and hiking to Machu Picchu - here are some of our favorite foods and experiences from our time there.
Places to go
Outside of trekking, we only stayed in Cusco - but luckily for us there’s so much to do in the city, and in the rest of Sacred Valley.
• Chinchero. Chinchero is a little district about an hour outside Cusco, and most of the inhabitants there are indigenous people of Quechua descent. The architecture and vibe of the village felt much more traditional compared to bustling Cusco, and there were beautiful views overlooking the Sacred Valley. While we were there we toured a textile shop, where we learned the history behind natural dyes and some of the traditional elements involved in making those beautiful cloths you’ll see draped around the city.
• San Pedro Market in Cusco. A well-known, vibrant market, for locals and tourists alike. Come here if you’re looking for textiles, handicrafts, or just to see what a Peruvian market is like. This place was recommended by the guy who rented us our hotel room, he said to go for the fruit juices (which were delicious), but not to eat a meal there because it was “way too dirty”. Once we saw all the stalls and street vendors filled with authentic foods though, we couldn’t resist - so if you think your stomach can handle it too then I’d say go for lunch as well!
• Humantay Lake. You’ll see this lake if you hike the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu (which I highly recommend - see below!), but even if you don’t you can still visit on a day trip/hike from Cusco. The lake is situated a few hours outside Cusco and almost 14,000ft above sea level, nestled into some of the most beautiful mountains and historical regions of the ancient Incans. The hike is short, but steep, and at that altitude it’s difficult. But at the top you will see absolutely breathtaking views of the bright turquoise lake and snow-capped peaks, making the trek well worth it.
• Rainbow Mountain, a beautiful hike to a very unique landscape. The Rainbow Mountain (or, La Montaña de Siete Colores) gets its signature striped colors from mineral deposits that have formed a striated pattern across the peaks. Getting there is an easy day-trip from Cusco, although the tours tend to leave very early in the morning (think 3-4am). The mountain is at over 17,000ft elevation, so try to spend a few days acclimatizing to the altitude before hiking, and be sure to take it slow! (Worst case, there are horses available for hire that will take you most of the way there). My main tip for booking a tour is to book it at the last minute - one or two days before you’d like to go. We saw that booking online beforehand can run around fifty to one-hundred dollars, or even more; booking the day beforehand should be closer to twenty-five.
• The salt flats of Maras and the terraces at Moray. These two attractions easily fit into a single, inexpensive (~10 USD) half-day trip from Cusco. The salt ponds in Maras date back to pre-Incan times, as a way for them to mine salt from the natural spring nearby (you can even taste the water to experience the extreme salinity for yourself!) Seeing the various shades of white and beige flats cascading into the mountains of Sacred Valley is truly a sight to behold. Not too far outside there, you’ll see Moray, which is an ancient Incan archeological site. It consists of several circular terraces - what exactly the Incans used these for is still unknown today.
• Ollaytantambo, Písac, and Sacsayhuamán are three historic Incan sites/villages within a day trip from Cusco. Ollaytantambo is an archaeological site with famous ruins, Písac is well-known for its large Sunday market, and Sacsayhuamán is a citadel on the northern outskirts of Cusco.
•Machu Picchu, of course, was our favorite thing we did in Peru. We hiked the Salkantay Trek there, which is one of the most popular ways to visit the site (the other one being the Inca Trail). The trek was five days and four nights long, and gave us some of the best views we’ve had on this trip: from the dramatic, mountainous terrain to lush tropical forest. It’s a challenging trail but so worth it, plus the satisfaction you feel when you finally reach Machu Picchu is only made greater after trekking five days to get there! If you don’t want to or cannot hike, you can still get to Machu Picchu easily - take a train to Aguas Calientes, the nearest city, and from there you can take a bus up the mountain to the citadel.
Food to eat
Food in Cusco was a mix of surprisingly hip yet affordable restaurants, and amazing, traditional street foods. Here’s a couple of our favorites of each.
• Trout ceviche. Ceviche has become a staple all through South America, and there are so many different variations on it. But the type we saw almost exclusively in Peru was trucha - trout ceviche. Various ingredients like mango, red onion, corn, sweet potato, and chilis, are marinated together with raw trout - ideally caught fresh from the Andean rivers and lakes nearby.
• Drinks - we discovered so many fascinating and delicious drinks in Cusco, some favorites being: chicha morada, a sweet, dark purple beverage made from a type of Peruvian corn; muña tea, also known as Andean mint, a strong mint tea with a unique flavor; aguaymanto juice, made with a type of gooseberry native to the Andes; and Inca Kola, a bright, sickly-yellow soft drink with a taste similar to cream soda.
• Lomo saltado (and other street foods). Lomo saltado is a type of stir-fry, made with beef, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, sometimes even french fries too, and usually served over rice. It’s an extremely popular, traditional Peruvian dish, we actually had this in restaurants and street-stalls alike. The best ones we had, though, were from vendors along the roads, usually with locals crowded around, and for $2-$3 USD a person too. There are also plenty of other street foods you’ll see around that are worth a try, like arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), choclo con queso (corn with cheese), churros, and more.
• Guinea pig/alpaca. These are just sort of for the experience, so you can say you’ve tried them, at least that’s how I feel. Alpaca tasted pretty much indistinguishable from venison, and eating a guinea pig to be honest was just sort of a bummer.
• Chicharrones. You might think of chicharrones as those deep-fried rinds you see sold in packs next to potato chips, but that’s not what they’re like in Peru, I promise. Instead, in Peru the meat is boiled instead of or along with the rind, then once dry, it’s fried in its own fat. We usually saw chicharrones served as a quick lunch or dinner, on a plate alongside a boiled potato, corn, and a handful of mint. They’re also commonly sold in a bun with a red onion and lime relish (sanguche de chicharrón).
• Coca. It would hardly be a trip to Peru without coca, in fact we were greeted with a big bowl of these green leaves right when we stepped off the airplane into Cusco. It’s known (and illegal) throughout most of the world due its psychoactive alkaloid - cocaine. (Tip: check your pockets before leaving Peru, you definitely don’t want to be caught leaving the country with any on your person). However in Peru, coca is just a staple, part of the culture, walking around Cusco you’ll see dozens of people holding a thick wad of the leaves in their mouth. We chewed it often along the trek to Machu Picchu, mixed with a pinch of hashish, as it’s supposed to help with altitude sickness. Outside of chewing the leaves, we also had coca tea, coca candies, once I ordered “Andean pesto” at a sit-down restaurant and received a pale-green pasta covered in coca sauce (not my favorite). You can’t have coca in many places in the world, so definitely give it a try while you’re in Peru - don’t worry, losing the feeling in your tongue is normal.
• Potatoes! There are over three thousand different varieties of potato that are native to the Andean highlands in Peru, which was pretty mind-blowing considering I can name like four. Apparently the varied climates and soil types are perfect for growing these tubers, and though I’ll probably never taste them all, I tried to eat as many as I could because I thought this was a fun fact.
• If you’re looking to go out for a sit-down meal in Cusco - Limbus Restobar was recommended to us by a local, a trendy bar/restaurant at the top of a hill. We went for for dinner at sunset as it boasts a sprawling panoramic view of the city. We also enjoyed Organika, recommended to us by a friend - another, hip, contemporary restaurant that focuses on farm-to-table - so it has a great selection of local/traditional ingredients like potatoes, corn, alpaca, quinoa, trout, et cetera.
I’ll always have a soft spot for anywhere we got to hike such beautiful mountains, and Peru was no exception. I’m hoping next time we’ll get ourselves a little further outside Cusco, but this trip - exploring the Sacred Valley, trekking to Machu Picchu, and in general learning a bit more about the ancient Incas in Peru - was an unforgettable experience.