4 fantastic days in Cusco, Peru
How often do you fall in love with a city and can't stop gushing about it? How often does your heart melt upon first sight? I felt that special something in my gut even before we landed in the city of Cusco in Peru, as I gasped at the neatly arranged bright orange rooftops tucked between the Andes mountain ranges, from my window seat in the airplane. It then slowly took the shape of a smile on my face and let's just say - it stayed right there the whole time I was there :)
We spent 4 days in the city, the first 3 days to acclimatize to the altitude before we embarked on our 4-day Inca trail and another day to get some rest after we got back from the trail. And how I fell in love with Cusco in those 4 days - the kind of dazzling love where you are swept off your feet when you are least expecting it, the kind of enchanting love that mesmerizes you and keeps you wanting more, the kind of spellbinding love where you can't stop smiling the whole time! Now, that doesn't happen often, so I want to make sure I pen this down for posterity, before the blandness of everyday life makes me forget what it is that I live for and what makes me tick.
Cusco is a city that aesthetically blends art, architecture, craft, beauty, mystery and magic with the warmth and hospitality of its people and enlivens all your senses at once. It has charming Spanish architecture with exquisite balconies and elegant details (ah, those beautiful fonts used for the shop names), cobbled alleys with hidden cafes, colorful markets dotting its landscape, vibrant restaurants serving foods that delight more than your taste buds and super cute Alpacas strutting along the streets, spreading joy to the passersby. It is one of those magical places where you walk into an unassuming café in a tiny alley and be completely blown away by the artistic interiors and the expansive city views, where you peek into an innocent looking blue door in the pathway and you are transported into a different world inside, where the ambience in the restaurants is as alluring as the food, where the boutiques are as beautiful as the museums and where the art on the street is as captivating as those in the galleries.
Cusco was once the capital of the Inca Empire and they say that every corner here tells a story. We spent a lot of time walking along the alleys absorbing its vibe but we also spent a lot of time in its central square, known as Plaza de Armas, which is designed to draw people from everywhere. It had some of the best restaurants and was always lively with several ongoing parades.
After that lovely introduction, now let's get to the itinerary.
On Day 1, we headed to the Plaza de Armas and started our day with a coffee and a beautiful view. I hugged some super cute Alpacas on the way too :) After exploring the Central Square, we then visited the bustling San Pedro market and sampled their food and fruit juices. It was a huge lively market where the locals buy their produce and there were a lot of souvenirs too. We then chanced upon a colorful market on the way back and bought a traditional Peruvian poncho made of Alpaca wool.
In the evening, we attended our Inca trail orientation in advance and then headed to the 'Morena Kitchen' for dinner. We had a wonderful meal that satisfied more than our taste buds. I was really impressed by the zest with which each dish is artfully and tastefully presented and later realized that's par for Peru. They take their food and art seriously and it showed in every meal we ate in the country :)
We spent the morning exploring the artistic San Blas neighborhood, which truly was like a treasure hunt. There were cafés, museums, restaurants, boutiques along cobbled alleys - each one more charming than the previous one.
I walked into many doors, just to be mesmerized by what's indoors. One that truly stands out is when I randomly walked into the door on the left that said "Kaldi Coffee", not knowing what to expect from this tiny café.
Up the stairs we went and were amazed to find a lovely space with these expansive city views through tall glass windows. How fancy! Who could tell!!
Here's another cute café I found when I peeked into another door in another cobbled alley. The possibilities are truly endless and I wished I would get lost here :)
We then went to the 'Green Point' vegan restaurant for lunch, which is rated as the world's best hidden gem restaurant in 2022 by TripAdvisor. Both the ambience and the food were green, fresh and lovely.
We then took a 4-hr Peruvian cooking class with Chef Cristina of Marcelo Batata Cooking classes in Cusco and loved it. She had us taste a variety of local fruits, showed us different varieties of local produce, explained their methods of storage, taught us how to prepare some of the most popular Peruvian dishes and drinks (Ceviche, Lomo Saltado, Pisco Sour and Chilcano) and also explained how the different immigrant populations had an impact on local culture and cuisine. It was very engaging and I was amazed at how skillfully she connected the dots across the centuries and discussed the evolution of Peruvian cuisine quite tastefully. It definitely helped us appreciate the complexity and the global flavors of their local cuisine. More about it later.
The plan was to visit the beautiful 'Humantay Lake', a turquoise green glacial lake in the Salkantay mountains. It was a 3 hour drive from Cusco and we booked a private taxi (instead of a group tour), so we can get a late start but ended up having to leave at 5 am anyways due to road closure timings. It was a ~4.5 mile RT hike to the lake at ~14,000 ft. elevation. It was rough hiking at that altitude but the views were pretty and it was a good preparation for what to expect at the Inca trail that we were about to begin the next day.
On our way back, we got stuck in a small village called "Mollepata" for a couple of hours due to road closure. Our taxi driver only speaks Spanish and after exhausting all the Spanish we knew (which was like 20 words by then), in trying to understand his lifestyle, we headed to the village center. It was in the afternoon when the kids were just let out of the schools and people started slowly gathering under the tree. We settled under the tree in one corner to silently observe one evening in the life of this village and thoroughly enjoyed soaking in its slow pace.
After reaching Cusco, we headed to a Peruvian-Japanese fusion (nikkei) restaurant called 'Limo' and loved the views of the city at night from the restaurant. I couldn't help but think about how great a proposal spot this place would be - that city, that view, those lights, that night :) The food was great, as usual.
We got back to the same hotel in Cusco after the 4-day Inca trail hike. It was a Sunday and I wanted to explore the local market in Pisac, a town in the Sacred Valley which is an hour away from Cusco. I took a local collectivo (mini-bus) from a bus-stop and enjoyed shopping for local fruits and souvenirs in their colorful Sunday market.
In the afternoon, we took an ATV tour to the Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley of Moray. These terraces are believed to be agricultural experimentation sites to understand the techniques for crop production at different altitudes.
We then visited the salt mines at Maras which were a fascinating sight. There are over 3000 individual salt ponds owned by the 600 local families, which are filled with salt water coming from an unknown source through an underground network of canals. As the sun was setting and its yellowish-pinkish-orange glow reflecting in the white salt ponds, it was a mesmerizing sight to watch!
We were dropped back in the Central Square of Cusco after the tour. We headed to a restaurant called 'Organika' near the Central Square and were a bit skeptical as we weren't in the most presentable attire after the dusty ATV ride. But we were blown away by their hospitality and how graciously they welcomed us in. Loved the food, service and the ambience.
Needless to say, we had a fantastic time in the city and I know I am going back. We also really enjoyed our stay at 'Amaru Colonial', a beautiful hotel tucked in the San Blas neighborhood. It is at a walking distance from the 'Plaza de Armas' and definitely recommend it.
I loved the traditional Spanish look and feel of the hotel and the night view of the city from our balcony.
The one popular attraction that we skipped during this visit was the 'Rainbow Mountain', which is a full day trip from Cusco and a high elevation hike that you can add to your itinerary, if you have another day.
Have fun if you happen to visit Cusco and let me know if you fell in love too!