cusco, peru unabridged

I was already out of breath when we landed in Cusco.

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Hauling our luggage and struggling with blurred vision and a pounding headache to rival any hangover, we hailed a taxi from the street rather than one sitting outside the airport for about half the price.

Winding up tiny streets and battling crazy Peruvian drivers, we arrived at Hotel Rumi Punku in the San Blas neighborhood on Calle Choquechaca.

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Specs: Highly recommend this hotel for atmospheric tranquility, large breakfast with wide variety of fruits, juices and made to order eggs, and the friendly service of everyone who works here.

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Adjusting to the altitude, we sipped coca tea in the quiet courtyards of our hotel surrounded by intricately carved wooden balconies and beautiful flower gardens.

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Mustering up the energy for lunch, we made our way to the highly recommended restaurant Greens Organic, just off Plaza de Armas, through a  small door on the second floor.

DSC_0272Perched over the street with prime people watching, we ate lightly (as recommend) and split between three people an appetizer and two main dishes.

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The quinoa crusted fried Andean cheese with mango chimichurri chutney was a hit and quickly devoured.

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As were the beetroot and sweet potato gnocchi in a basil cream sauce

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and the grilled and perfectly seasoned local Andean trout on bed of zucchini noodles.

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We also started our tradition of sipping fresh tropical juices in flavors such as pineapple, papaya, maracuya, naranja, platano or fresa.

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Starting our marathon through Cusco we looked for the offical tourist information center. Tip: it closes early and is not obvious at first.  In fact, the directions in Fodors are wrong, a common thread in Cusco we discovered.

Without a doubt, our favorite Cusco church was La Compania de Jesus, right off the Plaza de Armas but not included in the religious ticket.  This Jesuit church with a beautiful lookout across both the plaza and the city features paintings of Quechua princesses marrying nephews of a Jesuit priest, to me, symbolizing the beginning of the destruction of the Quechua culture by Spaniards and Catholicism.

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Wandered through weaving streets to quiet plazas we quickly became overwhlemed with the quality and quantity of alpaca, or non-alpaca, goods.

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Specs:

  • baby alpaca- highest quality msot expensive, don’t trust on street
  • alpaca- less expensive but not as soft, can be found on street but be careful
  • blends- not usually in natural colors, can be blended with silk for soft or with cotton for some sweaters and blankets or with acrylic usually the low quality, rough and widely stitched products sold on street or in overcrowded markets filled with every tourist item imaginable

Dinner was at Cicciolina, a high end tapas bar and restaurant thought to be some of the best food in Cusco.  Tables have a long wait and must be reserved ahead of time but it is possible to sit at the bar and watch the cooks and friendly bar tender whip up master pieces.

We devoured tapas (about 10 soles) of mini cuasas of shrimp, cuy, tuna tartar and octopus,

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grilled scallop kabob tapa with avocado (palta), qunioa crusted shrimp tapa with grilled sweet potato, a bean and cheese salad tapa,

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local river trout dish with deep fried sweet potato gnocchi on wasbi mayo,

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a local specialty of alpaca steak with Andean potato fritters,

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and for dessert, crispy dough wafers with chocolate flakes layered with mango, ginger cream and served with basil ice cream.

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Day two begins with Cathedral complete with a thorough and brief audio guide which describes a lot more about the church than one would have absorbed without the audio tour. The path was also very easy to follow and strategically had seating placed at many of the stops.

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Notes on religion: The Spaniards who arrived in Cusco integrated Quechua symbolism and local religion into the designs and construction of local churches to facilitate the adoption of Christianity.  Certain animals and plants were included in paintings, altar designs and carvings.  For example, mirrors were included in many designs because they symbolized the sun which was very important to the Quecha people.  Many of the images or icons of the Virgin in her many forms are dressed in capes that spread out wide in a triangle-shape to represent the Andes mountains.  The Cathedral also includes a very interesting painting of Jesus’s last supper featuring cuy, or guinea pig, an essential element of the Quechua diet in Peru.  We also visited the Templo de San Cristobal on our way out to the Sacred Valley (an upcoming blog) but beyond the view overlooking the city, and the fact that it is included in the Religious ticket with the above mentioned churches, it wasn’t worth noting.

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This photo of Catedral del Cuzco o Catedral Basilica de la Virgen de la Asuncion is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Notes on art: The Cusco school of art,  many examples of which can be seen throughout the other churches that we visited such as Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Templo de San Blas, Museo Arzobispal, and Templo del Triunfo and Templo de la Sagrada Famlia (the later two which are part of the Cathedral complex) is unique for the use of gold leaf and the integration of Quechua elements into the art.

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Our next stop was Qorikancha, highly recommended by Fodors for a visit to the Incan ruins located beneath the Iglesia de Santo Domingo,  We found it to be rather unimpressive as the ruins are reconstructed and littered with tourists.

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Lunch was at Bodega 138, for a pizza and pasta with plenty of veggies and cheese to sooth the stomach that craves a little taste of home or maybe is simply struggling to adapt to Peruvian cooking.

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We dashed into Museo de Arzobispal, a note worthy bit of architecture and a helpful hideout from the afternoon storms but again, if it wasn’t included in the religious ticket, we wouldn’t have gone.  More religious art from the Cusco school fills the walls of the rooms surrounding a pretty courtyard.

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We made our way up to the San Blas neighborhood for a bit more culture, quiet and art.

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Our coffee break was at Granja Heidi, a second story cafe just  a bit up Cuesta San Blas, the steep narrow street that leads to the Templo de San Blas, offered delicious hot chocolate with real whipped cream and German cheesecake, a legacy of the German transplant owner.

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The shopping in San Blas is of notably higher quality, and also price.  Pop into a few of the galleries and higher end stores to witness beautiful weaving, sculpture and fashion.

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Climb to the top of the Templo de San Blas and over look the entire city and the Andes.

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For a high end cocktail, Limo, situated on the second floor around Plaza de Armas, offers oodles of flavorful drinks with pisco such as a maracuya pisco sour, or La Cuzquenita, crushed strawberry pulp with fresh mint and lime.  The seafood fried rice is also quiet tasty!

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After our leg through the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, we returned to Cusco for a bit more shopping and higher end food.  For those craving a burger, Papachos, one of the many gourmet restaurants by Chef Gaston Acurio, a leader in the Peruvian culinary revolution, located right off Plaza de Armas serves up amazing and massive burgers.

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Don’t fear vegetarians, there are four different patties with their own unique toppings or if you want, you can make any burger “veggie” like I did with the Portena burger: a beet, quinoa and lentil patty topped with cheese, lettuce and tomato (safe to eat because washed with purified water!), sauteed onions and my addition of a fried egg!

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The regular fries are delicious but the sweet potato make for a slightly healthier alternative with the trio of housemade sauces.  Try the Andean mint lemonade or a Cuzquena Red Lager to wash it all down.

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