After traveling for nearly 24 hours, I finally set foot in Cusco, and the altitude welcomed me with open arms. The once capital of the Inca Empire, situated at 11,152 feet in the Peruvian Andes, Cusco has become a necessary a pit-stop for travelers seeking to visit the world-famous citadel. I researched substantially prior to my trip about avoiding altitude sickness, yet I found myself still vulnerable to the effects of the sudden change in elevation. For the next few hours upon my arrival, my breathing was labored. It was a conscious effort to inhale and exhale. My chest felt heavy, as if a person has pressed their foot on my lungs.
Nevertheless, the adrenaline of being in a new city, in a new country, in a new continent far exceeded the minor inconvenience caused by the high altitude. Shortness of breath is peanuts compared to the sensory overload I was yet to experience for the next 8 days.
PRO TIP: Local Peruvians swear by chewing on coca leaves or drinking coca tea to cure altitude sickness, but an alternative method I found effective with combating the altitude sickness was drinking plenty of water and pairing it with drops of liquid chlorophyll. It has surprisingly numerous benefits, including strengthening of blood making organs, prevention of anemia and abundance of oxygen in the body.
I arrived in Cusco early Sunday morning, and despite the exhaustion, I hit the ground running. After taking photos with a few cute baby goats, I managed to locate after asking around a few locals with my sub-par Spanish the bus stop for the colectivo (mini bus service) en route to Pisaq.
Best day to go: Sunday
Distance from Cusco to Pisaq: Approx. 92 km
Journey time: 45-50 minutes
Fare: S./3 (about USD $0.92)
Located just outside the main city of Cusco, Pisaq Market is one of the most famous markets in the Cuzco region. The Sunday market is the best time to explore Pisaq as indigenous communities from the local highlands set up shop and sell their products and goods. Be prepared for a kaleidoscope of colors!
SACRED VALLEY OF THE INCAS
When I was seven years old, I took a free trip to Hong Kong with my aunt and uncle to redeem a raffle prize my mother won at her previous job. The trip was short, and one of the most memorable parts of the trip was the tour group we joined. I don’t remember the exact details except the feeling of being bored and disappointed at the fact that the “cool stamp” we were promised at the end of the day for our passport was, in fact, a mere sticker. That day left a bitter taste in my tongue about tour groups and travel agencies, and it was then that promised myself never to expend more time, energy, and money on another tour group ever again.
In Cusco, I almost didn’t have a choice. The beautiful Inca ruins and archaeological sites of the Sacred Valley are wide spread and not easily accessible to visit on your own terms. Although it is possible to travel by local bus, it can be quite tiring and effort-consuming to individually track down each site as most are located in rural areas with no paved roads.
Most travelers opt for an organized one-day Sacred Valley Tour. I personally signed up for the Sacred Valley + Chinchero combination tour with America Expeditions. The tour I joined costs S/.100 which includes a visit at the Quechua village of Chinchero, the terraces of Moray, the salt fields of Maras, a stop for lunch in Urubumba, the fortress of Ollantaytambo, and the Pisaq Ruins.
Salinas de Maras was by far my favorite pit-stop. The salt fields are individually-owned by multiple families who all live in the town of Maras, and the ponds are passed down generation after generation. Each pool takes around 15-30 days to crystallize.
Once harvested, the salts are sold in various forms, mostly in pure crystallized form, but also added in chocolate! Decadent Peruvian dark chocolate mixed a hint of Maras salt are absolutely delicious, not to mention – they make unique souvenirs from friends and family back home!
When it comes to eating foreign cuisine, I have adopted an Andrew Zimmern-esque rule of thumb: “Don’t ask questions and just eat it.” I didn’t have any expectations of what types of foods I’ll be eating when I arrived in Peru, I just expected that I will consume nearly every breed, make, and model of potatoes.
In general, I found Peruvian cuisine to be mediocre, with the exception of three memorable meals: 1) lomo saltado, a popular Peruvian dish consisting of stir-fried marinated beef, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and french fries, 2) alpaca meat, and 3) el cuy al horno (baked guine pig).
Location: Morena Peruvian Kitchen
Address: 348-B Calle Plateros, Cusco, Peru
Hours: 12:00PM – 10:00PM
Considering myself an adventurous eater, I knew that I will not leave Peruvian soil until I sample their local delicacy, el cuy al horno (baked guinea pig). Contrary to popular belief, Peruvians do not consume el cuy regularly, but rather, the dish is served on special occasions and celebrations.
I had the opportunity to sample this unique delicacy when I arrived in Aguas Calientes the day before my visit to Machu Picchu. I was walking around town when a server in one of the restaurants approached me, luring me to sit and dine. I noticed that they served el cuy al horno at a decent price ($16-17) and also offered happy hour… 4 glasses pisco sours for S./20 (approx. $6.00!). #SOLD. Table for one, please!
The el cuy al horno took about an hour to prepare and cook. It’s a long time to be waiting on food, but that’s where the pisco sours come in. My body reached the right amount of happy buzz when my server walked out of the kitchen, the el cuy al horno in one hand and another glass of pisco sour in another. The guinea pig was served with potatoes, salad, and rice.
I dug in with my hands (that’s the only way to eat it, in my opinion) and went for it. The dish impressed the pants off me! I took my first bite and was met with juicy tender meat. It was extremely tender and surprisingly lean, considering you know, it’s a pig. It may sound comedic, but it tasted like chicken! The texture of the meat was more similar to dark meat/chicken thighs than it does with pork. There wasn’t a lot of meat to work with, so it’s safe to say that a whole guinea pig was one Adrielle-size serving. If I closed my eyes, it was almost as if I was eating and gnawing on chicken wings. Finger lickin’ good. I almost licked my plate clean.
What’s the most adventurous dish you’ve tasted?