This past July 4th weekend instead of hanging out on my rooftop sipping rosé and enjoying the fireworks, my boyfriend and I decided to hike the Classic Inca Trail to visit Machu Picchu in Peru. I completed one of the most physically hardest obstacles in my life thus far and am proud to say I survived! I found myself hiking trails of endless jagged stone steps fondly known as the “Gringo Killer,” while my body adjusted to a multitude of altitudes ranging from 8,000 feet to 14,000 feet above sea level. Oh, did I mention there’s camping involved? Four-days-of-it.
Although it may seem like it was all work and no play, I did manage to sneak some Taste and Style to my adventurous excursion. Before our trek, we descended to Cusco (about two hours from the start of our trail) to catch our breath while acclimating to the elevation of roughly 11,000 feet.
Here is a long weekend guide filled with eats, sight-seeing and a little shopping to making the most of out this charming city which was once the capital of the Inca Empire…
Day 1 –Friday: Take an overnight flight on Thursday so you do not miss a whole day. Land in CUZ by 10am where you will be greeted with coca tea– which is available for purchase once you deplane. This herbal tea is believed to help combat altitude sickness. Not sure if it’s 100 percent true, but I personally like the taste of the tea and drank it morning to evening throughout my stay in Peru.
After checking in to your hotel, grab a snack at a local street food vendor. I recommend the “skewer lady” situated outside the Museo de Arte de Precolombino serving slabs of Chicken, Beef and Alpaca topped with a Grilled Potato and slathered with her homemade sauce. While enjoying your snack, soak in the atmosphere with locals dressed in the traditional Quechan garb of intricate embroidered skirts, colorful alpaca sweaters and wool hats. There are many locals with baby Alpacas ready for “turistas” (that mean tourists, aka you) to take their picture for a handful of Peruvian soles. Afterwards, walk two minutes west to the Museo Inka to retrace the history of the Peruvians with artifacts, mummies and dioramas of the Inca civilization.
After the museum, head east to the Belmond Palacio Nazarenas and enjoy a cocktail poolside. Try the country’s classic cocktail which is a Pisco Sour or my personal favorite, Chilcano de Pisco (made with Pisco, ginger, club soda and lime) all whilst the hotel preps your “Afternoon Tea.” Here you will explore the hotel’s garden with various indigenous herbs that you personally handpick to make your own tea while you savor bites of mini sandwiches, quinoa ceviche, hummus and assorted pastries with an Andean twist. It’s best to make reservations in advance and make sure you ask for Daniel– he enhanced our experience exponentially!
Once you are pleasantly filled, bask in one of Cusco’s perks– an Andean massage at Andina Spa or Ying Yang Spa (minutes away from Afternoon Tea). These no-frills massage spots will give you exactly what you need: a good rubdown to ease your red-eye flight tension right away. Due to the altitude adjustment, the locals recommend that you do not overeat before bedtime. If you are still hungry, head to Museo del Pisco— a tapas style dinner of light, trendy Peruvian snacks paired with a bevy of Pisco cocktails ranging from classics to the Museum’s signature twists. The cocktail portions are pretty substantial so trust when I say just one cocktail is all you need to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Day 2-Saturday: Get a jump start on the day and take an early AM hike after breakfast through the picturesque San Blas District where you’ll find narrow, steep, cobbled streets that lead up to the Cristo Blanco Statue. This vantage point gives a panoramic view of Cusco’s cityscape (see below.) Take a minute to soak it all in before you head back down to town. f you have more time and 70 soles to spare, check out Sacsayhuaman, a nearby Incan Ruin.
The trek down is easier than up so you will soon find yourself back at the town’s main square Plaza de Aramas. From there, head west on Calle Santa Clara to Mercado Central de San Pedro, an open market with various food vendors and food stalls. Enjoy some local culinary fare for lunch with some fresh fruit juices, chicken soup, and Peruvian sweets & breads all for under $10!
Once your belly is full from exploring the food-market, walk it off with a little power shopping at the Artesanal Market on the corner of Avenida del Sol, 15 minutes from Mercado Central de San Pedro. Here you will find an assortment of handmade treasures including Alpaca hats, shawls, throws along with silver and hand-beaded trinkets. Make sure to learn your numbers in Spanish. Never settle for the first price… practice your haggling skills now!
Shopping always results in hunger so grab a little protein from a street vendor along the way– make sure you pick up a hard boiled quail egg flavored with lime and salt as you make your way back to the main square & end up at the Choco Museo del Chocolate. Nab a seat at one of the three balconies while you enjoy some spicy Andean chocolate and fondue. Once refueled, walk downstairs to Plaza Regocijo where you will meet your prearranged plans early evening, the Planetarium Cusco.
After a short ride from the main square to the planetarium, we learn about the Inca’s view on astronomy and the Southern hemisphere from Professor Erwin Salaza and his niece, Anna Maria. Half an hour later when the sun goes down, we get to meet the real “stars” of the evening by playing with Professor Salaza’s telescope. The excursion to the planetarium lasts about two hours before they transport you back to the main square. Once you’re back, there are numerous restaurants you can choose from. Two suggestions include LIMO, a Japanese-Peruvian fusion ceviche spot and Inka Grill, an Andean Cuisine restaurant. Depending on your mood, you cannot go wrong with either a classic ceviche dish at LIMO or a local specialty, the Alpaca Steak at Inka Grill.
Day 3-Sunday: Take advantage of being accessible to the most beautiful Inca Ruins in the world with a day-tour to Sacred Valley, about 2 hours away from Cusco. Once you arrived at the first stop, the Pisac Ruins, you will be amazed by its intricate stone work and terraces where blocks of stone (weighing a few hundred TONS) were cut with precision in 1440! After visiting the ruins, go shop at the famous Pisac Market– it’s like San Pedro’s Market and the Artesanal Market combined and on a grander scale. Remember: never settle for the first price and learn how to haggle.
Lunch is usually on your own so do your homework in advance to see which restaurant you would like your guide to take you to in Urubamba. Try El Huacatay, tucked in a tiny house down a narrow side street. Here you will be greeted with a beautiful outdoor garden and an Andean menu that has a mix of traditional Peruvian dishes and familiar dishes you would see back home like Penne alla Vodka. Try one of their specialty juices– my favorite is the Chicha Morada made of sweet purple corn– or opt for Peru’s go-to beer, Cusqueña.
After lunch, head to Ollantaytambo– an impressive archaeological site where picture taking is a must– followed by Chinchero, a charming colonial village located high in the Andean plains. End the tour with beautiful views– head to the Sacred Valley of the Incas full and check out the snow-capped mountain peaks while you frolic with the locals in the massive green lawn.
You will be ushered back in to Cusco City by around 6pm and after all that sight seeing a good meal and an early bedtime will be in order. By this time, you may be over the local cuisine so check out La Bodega 138. Get your carb fix at this laid back rustic Italian joint with thin crusted pizzas, large organic salads and the best spaghetti Bolognese ever. Wash it all down with a glass of house red and then stumble back to your hotel to prepare for your big hike or on to your next travel destination wherever that may be…
Belmond Palacio Nazarenas: This former convent is now a luxurious 55-room hotel outfitted with an outdoor tranquil pool (perfect for cocktail sipping or watching the sunset.) Their multiple gardens and top service makes for the perfect home during your travels.
Casa Cartagena Cusco: This 16-suite piazza that once belonged to the cities’ mayor is steps from the main square of Cusco. Here you’ll find one of the most luxurious spas in the city along with a trendy Andean Cuisine restaurant.
Casa Andina Properties (various locations around the city): This budget friendly Peruvian based hotel group has up to 5 properties in Cusco. I personally recommend the Casa Andina Private Collection Property which is a little pricier but worth the splurge. It has in- room massages options and is the closest in distance to Qorikanchal, one of the most important temples in the Inca Empire that was then converted into a church after the Spanish conquest.
All photos from Brandon T. Kaiser and James Mizell III