Cusco, Peru travel guide – The YEH, MEH, NAHs

Cusco, Peru is a town teetering on a precipice of unpalatablility. Touts interrupting private moments, taxis careening through small streets, tourists drinking to excess, smutty air pollution, and slutty corporatization threaten to bury this otherwise charming town.

And the charm factor is high. If you ever tire of grand Incan ruins, museums, churches, and panoramic views, there’s always people watching and getting lost in Cusco’s stone alleys.

I do recognize the irony of complaining about the negative effects of a town’s tourism popularity while still recommending it as a place to visit. The town itself is hanging on to its overall YEH, but headed toward a MEH.

[one_third]YEH Good to great, though sometimes only relative to the other options in town. ! = we wanted more.[/one_third]
[one_third]MEH An intense level of indifference. It probably won’t suck, but it won’t impress either.[/one_third]
[one_third_last]NAH Likely to cause sadness, frustration, wallet-emptying, or a raging need for Cipro. Avoid.[/one_third_last]

Happiness Tea and quark cheesecake, Granja Heidi restaurant, Cusco, Peru photo

Happiness Tea and quark cheesecake at Granja Heidi restaurant


What to do and see in Cusco, Peru

  • Mercado Central San Pedro (Central Market), on Tupac Amaru – The meat section of this market is of the most interesting and memorable attractions in Cusco. You can also get fresh, safe-to-drink juice and a cheap meal here if you still have any appetite after perusing the animal bits. Vegetarians beware – YEH
  • Mirador de San Blas, intersection of Kiskapata and Pasnapacana, San Blas – Take in the panorama of Cusco valley below from this newly refurbished park at the top of the San Blas neighborhood. If you like, hop over to the adjacent hostel, The Blue House, for a beer on their small patio (or sneak it over to the park). If our altitude-battered lungs could have taken it, we would have stayed in this chill part of town – YEH
  • Sacsayhuamán Incan Ruins – The ruins were fine and dandy, but the larger grounds (which your tour guide might refuse to show you) is equally worth exploring. Don’t miss the secret Incan slideYEH!
  • Museums included in the boleto de turistico – If you’ve paid for them you might as well enjoy them, unless your heart is hardened to kitsch. Delightfully dinky – YEH
  • Plaza de Armas – The invasive toutus interruptus, massage girls, and Starbucks makes it difficult to chillax in Cusco’s main square, but if you can find a quiet spot, you’ll be rewarded with views of Cusco’s charming colonial churches and excellent people watchingMEH

Where to eat and drink in Cusco, Peru

  • Chicha – We’d been told that we couldn’t leave Peru without going to at least one of Gastón Acurio’s army of Peruvian restaurants. Our waiter had split personalities, either rude or charming on each visit to the table. The risotto costa y sierra (risotto with yellow pepper and mixed seafood) was spicy comfort food. Wonderful juices and chicha morada. And it was easy to fill up fast with their fresh bread and dessert bites, all gratis. Though it was admirable they offered it, their chicha de jora was so sweet it was hard to drink. Service aside, Chicha’s worth the splurge – YEH
Risotto costa y sierra, Chicha por Gastón Acurio, Cusco, Peru photo

Risotto costa y sierra

  • Greens Organic – Though we respect the eco-intentions of this casually comfortable self-proclaimed “gourmet” restaurant, the execution wasn’t on par with the high prices. Dishes featuring locally-sourced produce — such as duo-toned beet and sweet potato gnocchi in pesto sauce, a salad with tomatoes as tiny as pinkie nails, or the grilled asparagus with local cheese — were quite good, if not sublime. The more traditionally Peruvian it got — like the quinoa soup, which tasted overwhelmingly of packaged bullion powder, and a maracuya-doused pisco sour — the more it failed. Order under that guidance and with a generous budget and – YEH

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Quinoa soup and farm salad, Greens Organic Restaurant, Cusco, Peru photo

Quinoa soup and farm salad at Greens Organic Restaurant

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Beet and sweet potato gnocchi, Greens Organic Restaurant, Cusco, Peru photo

Beet and sweet potato gnocchi; Grilled asparagus

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  • Los Mundalistas su Chicharroneria, Calle Pampa del Castillo 371 – A simple place popular with  desk-jockeys on lunch break, it has served fried pork with fixin’s for over three decades. We enjoyed gnawing on our shared portion of chicharones de chancho, large hunks of jerky-like fried pork, which were not as awesome as we’d learned to expect of Peruvian pig parts, but still greasily satisfying. The traditional sides of potatoes, corn, pickled onions, and a plain tamale filled the large plate — and our bellies. We were thwarted by low appetite or we would have tried the other two (yes, just two) menu choices, adobo de chancho and chupe de gallinasYEH
Entrance to Los Mundalistas, Cusco, Peru photo

Entrance to Los Mundalistas

  • El Pisquerito – The site of our favorite blackout conversation, when the lights are on this pisco-prioritizing bar was lacking. While the large menu of pisco-based cocktails challenged us to taste beyond the sours, the bar’s too open layout feels dismally cave-like when it’s not packed, which it wasn’t – MEH
  • Sara: The Organic Café – After a glimmer of hope at Greens, we were determined to give Cusco’s “gourmet organic” scene another chance. The corn soup with cheese, fava, and huacatay (a.k.a. Peruvian black mint) — was one of the best soups I’ve ever had. A lomo, mushroom, and plantain sandwich was just the right dose of indulgent comfort food. But the flaccid and flavorless chard-filled ravioli were topped with a sickly sweet carrot sauce that left a sticky memory even after a thorough scraping off. A bit of a crap shoot, so just barelyYEH

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Huacatay, corn, and fava soup, Sara Organic Cafe, Cusco, Peru

The good: This huacatay, corn, and fava soup

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Ravioli with corn sauce, Sara Organic Cafe, Cusco, Peru photo

The ungood: ravioli with corn sauce

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  • Street anticuchos, at intersection of Pampa de Castillo and Afligidos Maruri – If you see a crowd gathered around a smoking street grill, insist on anticuchos carne de corazón or if you’re feeling heartless, any meat will do. At just 3 soles (~$1.10 US) for each huge skewer, you have nothing to lose – YEH!
  • Kushka fe – It isn’t worth a schlep, but if you’re staying in the area, it was a comfortable, pleasant place for decently made if typical tourist breakfasts like fruit with yogurt and waffles. We sought it out when our budget traveler bellies were broken by two weeks of hostel Tang and fried eggs breakfasts – YEH
Tourist breakfast, Kushka fe, Cusco, Peru photo

Tourist breakfast at Kushka fe

  • Los Perros Couch Bar – Satisfying pisco sour de coca, dim lighting, and soft sofas on which to take it easy while acclimating to Cusco’s heady elevation. We nibbled on some dry yucca fries, saved by a trio of cultural mish-mash dips, and rock star potato croquettes. The Canadians we bar-hopped with declared Los Perros’ BaconLettuceTomatoAvocado sandwich, a.k.a. “The Cure,” the best they’d ever eaten. And Canadians know their bacon – YEH
  • Pachapapa – We so wanted to like Pachapapa. The outdoor patio, though darker than a San Francisco Sunset district in-law apartment, was a heat-lamp-studded retreat from Cusco’s honking-filled streets. But they were out of every dish we wanted, and it wasn’t even late. What we settled for — their “famous” pizza topped with the most frugal of “alpaca ham,” a fine if basic tallerin saltado (essentially Peruvian lo mein), and a watery mazamorra morada dessert (purple corn pudding) was just – MEH
Alpaca pizza, Pachapapa restaurant, Cusco, Peru photo

Miserly alpaca topping at Cusco’s Pachapapa restaurant

  • Granja Heidi, Cuesta San Blas 525 – If you want an atmosphere for taking a break from Peru, this is the place. If you want a predictable, as-advertised schedule, not so much. Forks and Jets turned us on to this bright, light German-owned café-restaurant with their recommendation of the cheesecake made with quark, a local country cream cheese with savory, grassy notes. And the “Happiness Tea,” made with a garden’s worth of herbs and flowers tortured me with its magnificent tea steam while it steeped. We tried to come back for one of their set menu lunches, but they were never open again – YEH
  • Toqokachi, Carmen Alto 244 – The only set menu place we tried (yes, truly lame of us), costing a bargain 10 to 25 soles for your entire meal, drink included. The cozy, simple basement space is decorated with wood and warm tones. The food was ample and decently made. We kept to the Peruvian half of the menu over the Italian. We ate well of aji de gallina, chicken quinoa soup, and alpaca steak (though its gluey rosemary sauce was a miss) – YEH

Where to stay in Cusco, Peru

  • Hostel Haltun Wasi, Cuesta San Blas 619-B – Important to note this is the HoSTel not the HoTel. What compelled us to stay here was the sweet spot right on Plaza de San Blas and the surprising, stunning view from the undersold and under-furnitured third floor roof deck. The breakfast of reheated old coffee, Tang, and stale rolls was embarrassingly wasteful. The rooms were blah but clean enough. We tried to ignore that our room’s window looked into the neighboring building’s top floor living room (Walls? Who needs walls?) We probably wouldn’t have stayed here if our room wasn’t on the top floor – YEH
  • Hostel Jacaranda Inn – We quickly nicknamed this Cusco hostel “Jenky Jacaranda” for reasons ranging from moldy spots on walls covered with oddly placed paintings, to room doors that didn’t lock, to waterlogged common area furniture, to the Nescafe and Tang heavy breakfast, to uselessly unhelpful staff, to some of our toiletries getting stolen from our “private” bathroom that was accessible to anyone via a dead-end hallway. Big ol’ – NAH
Jenkiness at Jacaranda Hostel, Cusco, Peru photo

Jenkiness at Jacaranda Hostel