Cusco — A City Worth Living In

I’m adding Cusco to my list of Most Livable Cities. Peru’s historical capital is a gorgeous place, quaint with cobbled roads, Spanish architecture and amazing food. If you’re here for Cusco tips (where to stay, eat + go), scroll to the bottom! 

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Plaza de Armas, or Square of the Warrior, where the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro proclaimed the conquest of Cusco, and where Tupac Amaru II, the indigenous leader of the resistance, died

Cusco is a great base to acclimatize for one’s ascent to Machu Picchu, and a fantastic one to relax in after you’re done. In total, we spent three days here, chilling by the city’s various park-squares, getting massages and eating at its top-rated restaurants. We also bumped into several Americans — one whose daughter had just graduated from Penn the year before — who have made Cusco their new home. I must admit I was a little envious.

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What I like about Cusco is that you never really get the feeling you’re a tourist, but part of the city’s fabric. Maybe it’s because most of the sights people travel all the way for are on the outskirts, but I was never pushed around by visitors and their bulky cameras, or jarring tour groups shouting over megaphones. We did meet a Singaporean group who sat right next to us at a local KFC-equivalent joint, and it felt nice that there were people from our island sharing this amazing place with us.

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I suspect that knowing how to speak Spanish helped bridge that gap between tourist and townsman. While I haven’t yet had any of those meaningful, heart-to-heart conversations that spur the protagonist in movies to change his life, I haven’t felt different and out-of-place. I can order whatever food I want, tell my driver where I want to go, heck, if I have questions, I can ask the nice people around me. Like when I asked a vendor on 30 Dec why the entire Mercado Central de San Pedro seemed to be selling only yellow underwear. “Suerte para el nuevo ano,” she said. “Good luck for the new year.” (I didn’t do anything about it this year, but next time, I’ll wear both red and yellow underwear — maybe I’ll get double the blessings from the Chinese and Spanish side of things.)

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YELLOW UNDERWEAR!

Speaking of the Mercado… It was an interesting place. There were parts that were relatively tame, stores that had stacked tinned food sky-high, hawkers dishing out sopas (soup) and ceviche (think South American sashimi) amidst floors littered with papers and filled with stray dogs. Alan pointed to a ceviche stall and said, “That looks delicious.” I gave him one of my death stares, since both of us had suffered from really bad bouts of food poisoning before, both from eating street food. Even then, his suggestion was tolerable — then my stomach started to turn when we walked just one aisle down, to the raw meats section, where the dripping, bloody chunks stood sitting — maybe festering, who knows — in the sun, including this:

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What the heck is that? Horse or donkey or cow? WHO IS BUYING THIS AND FOR WHAT?

I tried Googling various combinations of  “peru horse mouth” and “cusco mercado donkey jaw” but to no avail — if anybody has any clue who is buying this and for what dish, please tell me. Looking at that picture I still feel strangely fascinated, but of course, a little sick. So I was surprised — and a tad disgusted, really — when as soon as I dragged Alan out of the sheltered mercado, Alan said, “I’m hungry.” My hands are tied when Alan says he’s hungry, so I just stood by giving judgmental looks as he approached a nice old lady selling chicharones, or deep fried pork rinds. I have to admit, they smelled really good, like bak kuh teh and KFC put together or something. Which made me all the more skeptical — the best tasting food is probably the grossest and unhealthiest, I told Alan, thinking about all the street snails I ate in Cambodia which promptly led to food poisoning. “Okay, I’m going to buy some,” came the reply.

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Alan thought it was one of the most delicious things he had eaten on the trip — also expensive, by Peruvian standards (6 soles, or $2.4 for two pieces). So he proceeded to hunt down more chicharones in the extensive market complex.

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Peruvian ladies selling fruits, veg and flowers. If you look closely at the inside of the store you can see a pig’s head hanging from a hook.

Armed with more chicharones from a vendor and snacks + drinks from the supermarket, Alan and I settled in Plaza de San Francisco, and watched a band play, mascots prance around, and people dance.

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It felt so nice just sitting on our bench, feeding the stray dogs who looked longingly at Alan’s food and a little girl who, ahem, lifted up her shirt while she asked us for chocolate. Everything was just so relaxed — at that moment we were glad that we had extended our Cusco stay one day more.

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The gate you go through from the Mercado just before you reach Plaza de San Francisco

Of course, nobody goes to Cusco and leaves out Plaza de Armas. There’s a picture of it in the daytime at the top of this entry, but it’s spectacular at night. And it’s not just because the Christmas / New Year decorations are blazing; seeing all the lit houses from a distance is pretty cool too.

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One of the attractions you can’t miss when you’re at the plaza is La Catedral de Santo Domingo, a Gothic-Renaissance building commissioned by the Spanish, as a visual and instituional method of removing the Inca religion from Cusco. As I have written several times before, I’m experiencing major Catholic church-fatigue (they honestly all look the same to me), so I can’t tell you what’s inside. It does look beautiful whether at night or in the day.

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Night

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Day (different building)

Walking along a Cusco street transports you to a different time and era you can’t really put your finger on. I’m still learning things about architecture in my Art History class, so I can’t say for sure the inspiration behind everything, but it kinda evoked a South American version of Beijing’s hutongs, or alleyways. As in the Chinese capital, many of these tiny streets lead to homes, and some even open up to bigger “houses” or public spaces, much like the Chinese siheyuans (courtyards). Of course, there’re differences — and I don’t just mean architecturally. The hutongs are vanishing, giving way to some new skyscraper, while the entire city in Peru has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

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You know what else could be declared a national treasure? Peruvian kids. I don’t know if it’s the high altitude, but all of them seem to have rosy cheeks and are super-duper adorable.

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IMHO, the restaurants in Cusco as a whole are among some of the best I have been to. Maybe we lucked out, maybe it’s because we did our research on TripAdvisor, but every restaurant we went to was good. No, good would be an understatement; they were memorable.

We went to Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse on our first day. I think the pictures speak for themselves but I must draw attention to the hot stone combination of meats (upper-right photo) — alpaca, tenderloin and lamb, served with 4 different types of sauces. The alpaca and tenderloin were super juicy. Portions ran on the small side, but Alan and I also shared our food.

uchuThe company that runs Uchu also runs Marcelo Batata (they’re situated next to each other, on the same calle). Alan fell in love with the three-cheese lamb rib while I guzzled our amazing strawberry smoothie and nibbled at our delicious shrimp cocktail.

batataWe also visited the #1 restaurant on TripAdvisor, a fancy French restaurant by the name of Le Soleil. Thank goodness we got there early — turns out the restaurant is a tiny 10-table place, operated by a Parisian with the tiniest waist I have ever seen on a man, Arthur. We ordered the 5-course menu, the most pricey meal of our trip at $45, but we were glad we went. The cuello de pato confitado (duck confit) was a little disappointing — basically tasted like expensive ngor hiang — but our foie gras and especially our accompanying wine, the Sauternes Chateau de Mauvin 2009, were mouthwateringly good.

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lesoleil2So this “lowdown” is for my benefit as it is the random passers-by who come across this — it’s a place I don’t mind visiting again, hopefully at another time where my budget allows me to stay in some of the swanky-looking hotels we walked past 🙂

RACHEL’S CUSCO LOWDOWN

  • Where to stay: I really liked Milhouse ($17 per person for a double; $13 for a 4-bedder) because each room had its own decently decorated bedroom. Internet was spotty but the place has hammocks and giant bean bags to lounge in. We also stayed at Pariwana ($11-15), whose common area seems more lively (the courtyard is open so when it’s sunny the whole place just feels alive), but they don’t provide towels and bathrooms are shared (although plentiful). 
  • Where to eat: See the abovementioned but to recap – Le Soleil (#1 on TripAdvisor, French, call ahead, bring cash/Visa/Amex), Marcelo Batata and Uchu Peruvian. Also street snacks along the various calles, if you dare. Oh and how can I forget Bembo’s – the local McDonald’s, but super awesome and unique.
  • What to do: I do think Plaza de San Francisco is a chiller, quieter (but no less boring) alternative to Plaza de Armas, and the nearby Mercado Central is a must-see (if not for the donkey jaws and pig heads, then for the super-cheap and dubious ceviches which Matthias ate and survived)
  • Getting there: We paid ~$160 for a one-way flight from Lima to Cusco – it was pretty fast, but if we had the luxury of time we might have taken the 20-hour bus. WHO AM I KIDDING I’ll take the flight any time.

Alan also said this blog is kind of confusing in its recap of my stories so I’ll append a little itinerary here:

  • December 21 – Lima – Ica
  • December 22 – Ica (blog to come): sand-duning, which was awesome
  • December 23 – Ica – Lima – Cusco (this was a terribly tiring day)
  • December 24 – December 27 – Lares trek to Machu Picchu
  • December 28 – December 29 – Cusco
  • December 30 – Copacabana (blog to come)
  • December 31 – Copacabana – La Paz
  • January 1 – January 3 – La Paz
  • January 4 – January 5 –  Uyuni
  • January 6 – Uyuni – La Paz
  • January 7 – La Paz – Philadelphia

TADAH! I am psyched about how senior spring has been turning out so far, as long as you don’t ask me about schoolwork. But already there’s Sing, City! 4 (an original musical we write every two years) gearing into motion, Coachella to look forward to… And I’m leaving for Miami in two days’ time for an early Valentine’s Day getaway. I hate to use it, but… #YOLO!

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