I originally wrote this series in 2012.  As it has turned out to be quite popular, I am in the process of updating it to reflect current information for 2016.

“Top 10 Things to Do, See, and Eat in Peru” Series Index

7. Wander the Inca Streets of Cuzco

cuzco

Almost every visitor to Peru will come to Cuzco because it’s the only way to get to Machu Picchu (#1) and the Sacred Valley (#3), but the city itself is worth your time.

The most important thing to know about Cuzco is that it is over two miles above sea level. You must prepare in advance to avoid altitude sickness. If you know that you don’t handle altitude well, it may be worth your while to purchase acetazolamide (Diamox) and take it for a few days before flying from Lima–at sea level–to Cuzco on a one hour flight. (Now’s as good a time as any to tell you not to take legal, financial, or medical advice from this blog.)

My brother had a severe negative reaction to the altitude in Cuzco that manifested over several days and caused us to visit the emergency room and fly back to Lima before we had planned. I’ve never had a problem in Cuzco with the altitude. Here are the steps I take to mitigate the effects.

  1. Take an early morning flight from Lima, and check into a hotel that allows you to check in whenever you arrive.
  2. Drink some coca tea in the lobby while checking in. Every hotel and restaurant in Cuzco has coca tea. Why not deal with the altitude the same way as the inhabitants of the region have dealt with it for centuries? Coca can also be chewed. You may notice that coca is the base of the substance and word “cocaine.” Coca itself though is not a harmful drug, just a mild stimulant, less stimulating than caffeine.
  3. Take a nap. Resting is crucial to acclimating. Getting up too early for the flight ensures I can fall right to sleep. After waking up, I have half the day left to explore, and I’m pretty acclimated.
  4. Continue to walk slowly and avoid alcohol for at least the first 24 hours.
  5. Hydrate.

Once you’re acclimated, it’s time to explore the city. For me the main highlights are around the Plaza, Qorikancha, and Sachsayhuaman.

The plaza itself is my second favorite in Peru behind Arequipa’s. It’s a beautiful place to while away hours reading or people watching. Make sure you see it by day and by night; it’s like two different worlds. Surrounding the plaza are several churches, the largest and most interesting being La Catedral.

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Walking distance from the Plaza–everything in tiny Cuzco is walking distance–is Qorikancha, which I think is the most interesting ruin within Cuzco. These Inca ruins were once a temple literally completely covered in gold. Pose outside with entrepreneurial locals in customary dress and their llamas for a small tip.

Included in any package tour is Sachsayhuaman, an incredible fortress made of massive stones. I enjoy tour guide humor, and here you’re sure to get a joke about the similarity the pronunciation bears to “sexy woman.”

sexySachsayhuaman will cause you to marvel at the sheer size and wonder how much sweat had to go into its construction. Then consider that what you see is one fifth of its original size!

Cuzco has the best backpacker nightlife in Peru; you’ll find the clubs and young people clustered around the plaza at night.

Cuzco is also the best place in Peru to try anticucho and cuy. Anticucho is beef heart on a stick, preferably grilled on the street. Pay your 50 cents, and try it with whatever sauce they offer! Cuy is guinea pig. Tourists seem to think gross foods are less gross if they’re referred to as a delicacy, and cuy is the ultimate delicacy. Try to find a restaurant that lets you pick your own guinea pig.

Getting there: 4,500 Avios and a few dollars tax each way on LATAM from Lima

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 4.24.43 PMHotels: There are tons of options, indie as well as major hotel brands. Pick your hotel by its proximity to the plaza.

Time needed to visit: 2 days (not including the Sacred Valley or Machu Picchu)

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The Food in Cuzco by Sarah Page

Eating well is important to me. There are few things in life I value more than a good meal.

Possibly my favorite traditional dish from Cuzco, and maybe even the best thing I ate in all of Peru (especially considering it was dirt cheap), was a spicy pork stew-like dish called adobo. The adobo I sampled was delicious but in a nondescript location a block off the Plaza de Armas, near the intersection of Mantas and Avenida del Sol. It was a sort of convenience store in the front and a very basic restaurant in the back. Order the adobo de cerdo, and be warned that it will make your nose run.

Adobo de cerdo
Adobo de cerdo

I also thoroughly enjoyed Cuzco’s central food market, Mercado San Pedro. You can browse interesting and weird ingredients, sip on fresh juices and smoothies from one of the many vendors near the entrance, or head towards the back to get a cheap and authentic meal.
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Here are a few restaurants I recommend in Cuzco:

6. Stroll the Cliff Parks in Lima

Everyone hates Lima but me. So let me evangelize for a few paragraphs. Lima is a bustling, traffic snarled, dirty, gray, ugly 9 million person mega-city. You can’t avoid it since you’ll be flying in and out of Lima, and you shouldn’t try to avoid it.

Why? Because Lima is also the most exciting and beautiful city in all of Peru. To not enjoy Lima is to not enjoy Peru. All parts of Peru, good and bad, are present in the city, along with one third of the people.

While other places have things to see or to do, Lima is just a place to be. Enjoy the street vendors, the taxi bargaining, the combis (public big vans or small buses), and the residential areas with their spiked fences and security guard on every block.

If that doesn’t sound as charming to you as it does to me, then I’ll tell you about the gem of Lima, it’s mile-long stretch of verdant parks on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

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The stretch starts at Larcomar in Miraflores. Miraflores is one of two dozen districts in Lima, and it has the highest concentration of nice restaurants and hotels, so you’ll probably spend most of your time there. Larcomar is a shopping mall in Miraflores overlooking the Pacific Ocean, featuring a movie theater, two night clubs, an arcade, international chain restaurants, and local restaurants. Stop in for a pisco sour at sunset.

From Larcomar there is a string of parks heading northwest. The highlights include:

  • Parque del Amor, with its love poems on the tiles around the park and a gigantic statue of a couple making out in the middle
  • El Faro, an old lighthouse looking out over the Pacific
  • paragliding, every afternoon, just southeast of El Faro, paragliders line up to take you on tandem flights; a few years back it was $40 for a 15 minute flight over Miraflores

Take a book and your walking shoes, and spend a day traversing the parks. At sunset on clear days, watch the sun dip into the water over the horizon.

Other things to consider in Lima are the museums (in particular, the Larco Herrera Museum), the nightlife (the two clubs at Larcomar), and the casinos. I highly recommend Casino Atlantic City and Majestic, both in Miraflores. They have games with favorable rules and very low limits in dollars or soles.

Lima is the gastronomic capital of Peru. Ask at your hotel for the hottest restaurants. But don’t leave without trying Bembo’s, Peru’s answer to McDonald’s. The spicy aji sauce is a must-haves. And I highly recommend trying out a restaurant with a menú priced at five or six soles ($2).

In Peru, a menú is a set meal or small selection of options. For instance, you might get to choose one of the three appetizer choices and one of the three main courses. If you leave the main tourist streets in Miraflores, you’ll find a ton of hole-in-the-wall places with a blackboard scribbled with a few choices. In addition to dishes I’ve already recommended, I highly encourage you to try:

  • Aji de gallina- shredded chicken in a mild (or occasionally spicy) and creamy yellow pepper sauce served over potatoes and rice; my favorite Peruvian dish
  • Lomo saltado- strips of steak fried together with vegetables and french fries

Five or six soles is a good price point. It’s not too cheap that you’ll get low quality, but it’s not so expensive that you’re at a touristy place.

There’s so much I haven’t mentioned in Lima, like the historic center and its shanty-town outskirts. Lima is a place that can be skipped over in a day, or it can reward you for weeks.

How to get there: To learn more about how to get to Lima, the gateway to the rest of Peru, read the Prologue to this series.

Hotels: The best located hotel is the Marriott in front of Larcomar. In general, I would strongly recommend staying in Miraflores, and not in the center where some major brands have their hotels. There is nothing to do in the center after dark.

Time needed to visit: 1+ days

The Food in Lima by Sarah Page

Lima has a thriving gastronomy scene, with options for every budget spanning from street and market food to famous establishments like Central, ranked in the top 5 restaurants in the entire world.

Whatever you do don’t leave Lima without sampling your fair share of ceviche, the city’s signature dish. There are many different types of ceviche, but essentially it always involves a type of seafood cured in lime juice with raw onions, cilantro, hot peppers, corn, and sweet potato.

I also recommend trying Nikkei style food, a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian that is taking South America by storm. I did a tasting menu at Maido, one of Lima’s top restaurants that specializes in Nikkei and is also a sushi bar. It was and will probably always remain amongst the top five dining experiences of my life.

One of the many courses of a tasting menu at Maido
One of the many courses of a tasting menu at Maido
More from Maido
More from Maido

Here are some more pictures from other eating adventures in Lima.

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The dessert course of the tasting menu at IK
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Bam Bam’s ceviche sampler
With the Chef from Bam Bam
With the Chef from Bam Bam
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Concentrado de cangrejo, a type of crab soup

Restaurants I recommend in Lima:

An important thing to note about the cebicherías of Lima (restaurants that sell ceviche) is that many are only open for lunch, so be sure to check the hours beforehand.

Bottom Line

Lima is the gateway to the rest of Peru, so one way or the other you will pass through the city. As the pulse of the nation, I think Lima is worth spending time in apart from just flying through. Stroll along the cliff parks and eat in one of it’s many acclaimed restaurants.

Cuzco is the gateway to Machu Picchu, so again you will have the choice to either spend some extra time there or just pass through. I recommend spending extra time. As the ancient Incan capital, it’s a culturally and historically rich place. The food isn’t too shabby either.

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