This vacation in Peru has not been without its challenges- the luggage that went on its own separate trip to Madrid, the freezing cold of Colca Canyon and the subsequent flu, not to mention the ‘Great South American Bus Journey‘. And these are just the headline events of the last few weeks. As a result of all of the above, I decided to base myself in Cuzco to brush up my Spanish, which was nowhere near the level of last year, and to use the city as a base from which to plan the rest of the travels. Needless to say, pains and aches caused by the flu, particularly when coupled with near freezing temperatures at night, have meant that I have not been rushing out to buy my ‘I Love Cuzco’ T-shirt. However, slowly but surely, I am realizing that the positives outweigh the negatives and that this is city of many charms, as long as you have realistic expectations.
1. In Peruvian terms, this is ‘Tourist Central’.
The ‘Inka’ stands attentively waiting for passing tourists to take their picture with him. Sales tactics in some shops can be strong, to say the least. Service in other places, notably those recommended in Lonely Planet such as El Museo del Chocolate, can be decidedly hit and miss, while The Meeting Place Café (also recommended by Lonely Planet) can sometimes make you feel as if you have just arrived in ‘Gringo Central’. In short, if you follow the guidebook, you may feel as if you have arrived twenty years too late to experience anything remotely authentic.
2. Tours, tours, tours…
For better or for worse, there are tours for every budget and there are agencies just about everywhere, selling some form of tour. Again, if you don’t like your vacation packaged, Cuzco may give you an allergic reaction.
3. Plaza de Armas
If there were one area that personifies the downsides of Cuzco, this would have to be it! Do not expect to be left alone if you sit on a bench here because there will always be someone trying to sell you something, arrange the massage that you don’t want or shine your shoes. Marlene Dietrich types, this is not the place if you ‘vant to be alone’.
1. Hippie vibe and great vegan food.
Maybe it’s the positive energy of Pachamama, but for some reason Cuzco seems to attract as many hippies as hipsters. However, the upside of this is a culinary scene with an emphasis on organic food that also caters to vegans. The top of Calle Choquechaca is home to two vegan restaurants that serve such delicious food that you might soon find yourself questioning your meat-eating habits- La Prasada and The Vegan Temple by Prasada.
La Prasada, located up some steps near as you go up the hill on Choquechaca, sells some great vegetarian burgers with a wide variety of sauces. As tasty as the mains are, you are sure to love their cacao tea, with its distinct chocolate taste (a great accompaniment for the veggie burgers).
The Vegan Temple by Prasada is a cousin of the original. Take your shoes off, go upstairs and eat under the watchful gaze of the Buddha. The ‘burgers’ are served with delicious sauces. Although they don’t sell coffee (even organic), their range of juices, shakes and teas almost makes up for this.
2. Cool cafés
Peru is one of the world’s biggest producers of organic coffees and Cuzco is a great place to drink coffee and to stock up on your beans for home. In fact, the coffee scene here deserves and will receive a post of its own. In the meantime, here are some cool haunts to get started.
Café Loco, Calle Tandapata
Located between Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Francisco, this neat little place attracts more locals than tourists, always a good sign. Apart from the the frothy cafe latte, it is a good place to stop for a bite to eat as it sells a wide choice of empanadas, quiches, tarts and cakes. The mushroom empanada is particularly good and the dough has a soft, moist texture. This place gets busy on cooler Cuzco evenings, so you may need to sit outside on the terrace, all the better to see the beautiful illumination of the church opposite. If you do manage to get a table inside, the cavernous design amplifies the sound of conversation, lending it a certain vibrancy.
La Valeriana, Plazoleta Espinar #180-184
3. A great place to learn Spanish
Apart from organizing your tour to Machu Picchu, there are plenty of other reasons to come here. There are of course the vegan restaurants mentioned above, but there are also yoga and spiritual centres, shops and markets to stock up on your alpaca wardrobe and plenty of sights in Cuzco and around. Like Sucre in Bolivia, this is a place people come to for a few days and stay for months on end.
San Blas is a great place to be based and the whole barrio brims over with all of the above. Located opposite The Green Point, yet another cool vegan restaurant, San Blas Spanish School has a pleasant and laid back atmosphere. They offer both private and group classes, as well as accommodation in the area. Spend your morning studying and your afternoon exploring.
The truth is that, given enough time, Cuzco will eventually seduce you.
PS: I may not be in a hurry to buy the ‘I Love Cuzco’ T-shirt, but I have bought my a
Warm alpaca top. Did I mention the great markets?
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