I’m back from 15 days of traveling throughout Peru and I am still reeling from what an incredibly diverse country it is. From breathtaking mountains to pristine lakes, from vibrant cities to a desert oasis…we experienced it all! While planning for this trip, I gathered lots of recos from friends and friends of friends who have either traveled or lived in Peru. I feel so lucky to have gleaned these gems from my team of Peruvian experts, so I thought it would only be right to pay it forward.
This guide includes travel tips, good places to stay, and of course, since all my itineraries in life typically center on what/where to eat, if you’re looking for eating recos, I’ve got you covered (claro)!
View Map: Lick My Spoon: Cusco
We spent 15 days in Peru, broken down in this order:
Flew into Lima and then immediately flew to Cusco. Spent 2 days in Cusco, 2 days in the Sacred Valley, 1 day Aguas Calientes, 2 days Cusco, 2 days Suasi, 1 day Lima, 1 day Ica, ended the trip with 4 days Lima.
We decided against the popular trekking into Machu Picchu option (which typically takes 4 days) in favor of spending the extra time exploring other parts of the country. So much to see! So little time.
We went in late December, which is summertime in Peru. It also happens to be the rainy season, which makes it a non-peak season for tourists. We lucked out and weather was sunny, with some showers at night.
There was a story I loved about how farmers in Cusco used to track the rainy season using a llama constellation. The Incas had their own constellations they followed. Just like how we have the Big Dipper and Orion, they had the Llama and the Puma, and other animals they honored. The Llama was particularly important because it signified the rainy season (critical for the agriculture-centric civilization). The people would watch the llama as it moved across the sky during the dry season. Around October, the llama would disappear into the underworld to drink from the sacred river that runs to Machu Picchu and cry tears of rain. So, the people knew, when they could no longer see the llama in the sky, rainy season was upon them.
- Get altitude sickness medication from your doctor before leaving (we were given acetazolamide). You won’t think you’ll need it, but you will. Pretty much every hotel will have complimentary coca leaves (for chewing) or coca tea to help with the altitude. It tastes like strong green tea. I particularly liked iced coca tea with lime. Yum! Just be careful not to drink too many cups before bed, it’ll keep you up. Otherwise, to help acclimate, just take it easy, drink lots of water and get some rest.
- Buy your tickets for Machu Picchu as soon as you can, especially if you are traveling during peak season since there are a limited number of tickets available per day. You can buy Machu Picchu tickets online here however, the site is often down. We bought ours as soon as we got to Cusco (more info on that below). When you buy your ticket for Machu Picchu you should buy the package that includes entry to Huayna Picchu as well. Huayna Picchu is an adjoining mountain that you can hike (~2 hr roundtrip) that gives you the most incredible aerial view of Machu Picchu. Worth the huffing and puffing, I promise. There are two scheduled entry times for Huayna Picchu: group 1 allows entry from 7-8am, group 2 is from 10-11am. I recommend group 2.
- Taxis. We were warned about taxi drivers ripping off tourists, especially from the Lima airport. To avoid any hassle, we had our hotel concierge arrange for a taxi driver to pick us up and confirmed the cost ahead of time so we knew what to expect. In general, we found it to be helpful to always ask a trusted source how much a ride should cost before hailing a cab. We also found that it was pretty common for regular people driving their own cars to act as “taxis” – think of it as an unofficial Lyft. Of course, use your good judgement, but we lucked out when we arrived in Cusco and took a chance on a local driver. Ludwin ended up being a great guy and became our personal driver/knowledgeable tour guide for the day.
- Get small bills and coins as soon as you can (having some S/5 and S/1 coins on hand is a good idea).
The perfect place to start your trip and get acclimated to the altitude before heading to Machu Picchu. We loved Cusco. Lots to see and do. A ton to eat. It was nice to have some leisure time here to explore the town, do some shopping, and get into vacation mode 🙂 We stumbled upon what I think was a Christmas processional our first night – lots of music, dancing, and colorful traditional costumes.
Hotel Andenes al Cielo (176 Calle Choquechaca, Cusco; Tel. 011 51 84 222237): We loved staying here. Super cute rooms with a fireplace. Helpful and friendly staff. Convenient, central location. Great value. FYI for larger groups, the owners of the hotel also rent out the penthouse apt on VRBO.
Jack’s Café (Choquechaka 509, Cusco): Gotta love a breakfast all day spot! I had a huge hummus and grilled veg sandwich that satisfied my veggie cravings. Hua had a great burger that satisfied his red meat cravings. Juices and smoothies are also amazing. Totally would’ve gone back for brunch if we had time. Also happened to be conveniently located down the street from our hotel.
Pachapapa (Plaza San Blas 120, Cusco; Tel. 51-84-241318): Nice outdoor patio. A great spot to try some traditional Peruvian food…it’s where we tried guinea pig (cuy) roasted in the large wood-fired pizza oven outside. Of all the places we could have tried cuy, I’m glad we had it here. If you’re adventurous enough to try this local dish, try it here – they still present the animal whole (teeth and all), but at least it’s prepared with care and is less scary than say, given to you on a stick at a roadside shack.
The guinea pig was seasoned with a local Andean herb called huacatay, and aji panca, a sweet chile pepper. The flavor of huacatay is pretty overpowering, the locals call it Andean mint, but I find the flavor more pungent, a bit licorice-like, a little cloying. I’m not a fan, but Peruvians seem to love it because it is everywhere. As far as the texture goes, the guinea pig reminded me a lot of duck meat! It appeared to be all dark meat, and was overall pretty good. There isn’t much of it, guinea pigs are small…but I have to admit, I went for the cheeks and it was quite the succulent bite 😉
MAP Café (Plazoleta Nazarenas 231, Museo de Arte Precolombino, Cusco; Tel. 51-84-242476): This was probably the fanciest place we dined at on the trip, but if you’re looking to celebrate/splurge, this is a nice spot to do it. The location is cool, the restaurant is essentially a glass shipping container located in the courtyard of one of the best museums in town (the Museo de Arte Precolombino). The food matches the ambiance – a modern, fine dining perspective on Peruvian classics.
Favorite dishes: Seared foie gras over brioche served with a creamy onion puree, green apple ravioli filled with Andean strawberry compote, and a Pisco and elderberry sauce; Quinoa canelones bathed in fontina fonduta and perfumed with truffles, filled with fresh goat cheese, served with a ragu of tomato pesto and arugula, over sautéed veggies, chard stems, and baby fennel sprouts. Tasting menu only.
Cicciolina (Calle Triunfo 393 2nd floor, Cusco; Tel. 51-84-239-510): Cicciolina, yes, like the Italian porn star. Food is just as…um, accessible? Literally, every person we talked to recommended this spot. Peruvian classics with lots of Italian influence. We tried the alpaca tartare (which was prepared well, but we decided we’d rather cuddle alpacas than eat them). Standout dish: Andean mushroom risotto. In a place where wild local mushrooms and rice abound, we figured this dish would be good, and we were right!
Cafe Loco (Calle Tandapata 645, San Blas, Cusco; Tel. +51-940-645-206): Cute little coffee shop in the artsy San Blas neighborhood. Get a refreshing coffee frappe, fresh juice, or a bite to eat. Nice mid-shopping pick-me-up.
If we had more time/stomach space, we would have tried these other recos:
Limo (Portal de Carnes 236, piso 2, Plaza de Armas, Cusco; Tel. +51 84 240668)
Greens Organic (Santa Catalina Angosta, 135, Cusco; Tel. +51 84 25 4753)
El Tupay (Inside the Hotel Monasterio, Calle Palacio 136 | Plazoleta Nazarenas, Cusco; Tel. +51 1 6108300)
Mercado Central de San Pedro (Tupac Amaru, Cusco): Favorite market we went to. Hit up the jugos aisle and get a freshly squeezed juice! There is a ton to marvel at here. Check out the Andean cheeses, huge rounds of bread, wild Andean mushrooms, an incredible variety of corn, potatoes, grains, even stacks of alpaca jerky. Warning: there is also an aisle devoted to offal…way in the back. You’ll smell it.
Free Walking Tour (Regocijo Square; 11:50 am, rain or shine): We did this on our first full day in Cusco and thought it was a great way to get a lay of the land. Informative, entertaining, and free! You also get a good map that comes in handy.
Jatum Maqui (Teqsecocha Street 432, Cusco; Tel. + 084 25 1744): I fell in love with the hand-painted pottery I spied at Hotel Andenes al Cielo. Colorful and quirky, with Incan-inspired geometric designs and animal totems (llamas!). When I saw the same serving ware being used at Café Loco, I had to inquire about the artist. The talented and super sweet Norka Luza Mellado handcrafts each and every piece herself. Her workshop/boutique is worth a visit if you’re looking for some one-of-a-kind gifts.
Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu tickets: If you haven’t already purchased these, go to the Direccion Regional de Cultura office with your passport (Avenida de la Cultura 238, Condominio Huáscar, Cusco; Opening hours: Monday – Saturday 07.15 – 18.30. Closed on Sundays and Public Holidays).
Stuff we didn’t get to do but you might:
Sacsayhuaman: We drove by this, but didn’t have time to go in. If you do, it’s also right by the huge Cristo Blanco statue, which as a great view overlooking Cusco. While you’re in this area, there is also a trout farm where you can supposedly go fishing for your own lunch. You catch a big one, you get a big lunch. You catch a small one..sorry fo ya. We also heard that around here, there are often kids hanging around with horses. For something like S/20 you can go on a little horseback riding tour of the surrounding area.
San Blas Market (Plaza San Blas, Saturdays): handicrafts, jewelry, art, alpaca goods, also live music.
Phew! Hope you enjoyed this first peek into my Peruvian adventure! Lots more to come…