Sacred Valley, Peru: Cusco

“…sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory”

Dr. Suess

Our road in the Sacred Valley ended in the ancient capitol city of Cusco.  Like the ruins at Machu Picchu, Cusco seems to be made up mostly of stairs. Just a step outside your door to go on any general errand, add in the elevation of 3,399 meters (aprox 11,150 ft) and you have the ultimate hike for your legs, heart and lungs.  Our hostel was located in a historic district a little downhill from the bottom of a long staircase that leads to the Saqsaywaman ruins.  We made the climb up that long staircase to the ruins one day and dangled the “carrot” of a special snack as motivation for the girls to keep them going.  Really, they didn’t need much encouragement; taking breaks and playing games like counting stairs on the way up is really all it took.  The snack was just the icing.  As you get higher and higher the view of the sprawling city of Cusco opens up and you can see the swath of monochromatic, brown adobe houses and buildings with the occasional pop of white and azure blue, sprawling down the valley and up the hillsides.

The Incan people designed the city in the shape of a puma with the ruins of Saqsaywaman forming the head. After the war with the Spaniards, the only thing left in tact of the once fortress are giant stone walls. Ruins at SaqsaywamanThe stones that make up these walls are incredible with some of them weighing up to 200 tons. It blows my mind how exactly these unfathomably huge stones were not only moved but set into place. There are vertical stones that form the walls and also giant stones that lay horizontally across a doorways.  The walls at the entrance of the ruins were made in such a way as to form the teeth of the Puma’s head and they jig jog back and forth for several hundred feet. For me, the most amazing thing about the ancient people of Peru was their ability to move mass quantities of huge stones up and down mountains and across valleys all at dizzying elevations.Cusco

On one of our first nights in Cusco, Jacob the girls and I set off in an exploration of the city and search for food. Our path took us by a wall that once belonged to an important Incan Palace that was later converted into a private residence when the Spaniards took control of the city.  There was a large group of people blocking the way in the already narrow street. I was bringing up the rear of the Davī Train and as I tried to make my way through the crowd, a friendly man, caught my ear and halted my forward movement by explaining the reason for all the fuss. He said they were all taking pictures of the 12-angled stone, a symbol of the 12 royal Incan families. Without that stone, the whole structure would collapse. He then causally asked where we had been in Peru and if we had seen Machu Picchu or “The Sleeping Incan” yet. “The Sleeping Incan?” I asked. This was just the opportunity he was waiting for, he whipped out his artists portfolio and explained that Mount Wayna Picchu forms the nose of the Sleeping Incan. P1020734He showed me his beautiful drawing that highlighted the entire face and then of course asked if I would like to buy any of his pieces.  “Ohhh, I get it”, I thought “You weren’t just a friendly local sharing some of your knowledge, you are out here with a purpose”.  I can’t begrudge him for asking, under other circumstances, I may have purchased his art but I had to turn him down. This experience was a lesson on so many levels. I learned about the twelve angled stone, all I see now when I look at pictures of Machu Picchu is the Sleeping Incan and the artist gave me a preview of the mass of much-more-pushy artists and other entrepreneurs we would encounter peddling their wares around the Plaza de Armas.

My favorite place in the historical part of Cusco is the Barrio de San Blas. It is the artist district near the Plaza de Armas. We happened upon the plaza here while a small market was underway. Artists were selling everything from handmade jewelry to paintings, pottery and of course colorful woven fabrics. The sounds from a large fountain built into the side of the hill and lovely Peruvian flute music provided the perfect backdrop to sit and feel the ambience while Jacob scouted out our top two restaurant choices for the evening.

San Blas fountain
San Blas fountain

Of the two, we chose the restaurant that seemed more authentic and rustic.  Boy did our choice ever work out in our favor. The food from this place would be the baseline from which we compared every meal hence forward for the remainder of our time in Peru. If you can’t tell by now, Jacob and I love to eat. We can’t eat out all the time but when we can, we tend to center our activities around the restaurants we want to try. Beautiful museums, eh; amazing cathedrals, peh! Delicious new cuisine? Sign me up!

The restaurant was called Seledonia’s Mesa. You know you are in a good spot when you see the majority of the patrons are locals. The small restaurant is also a cooking school and is down THE MOST DANGEROUSLY NARROW STREET I have ever seen. We literally had to side step with our backs against the walls of buildings when cars would drive up the street. Oh, how I wish we found it on day one instead of day three because I would have taken a class.  After opening the old wooden door from the street, the scene of a small courtyard surrounded by red adobe houses opens before you.  The houses have pops of pink and green from the bougainvillea that lazily hangs down the walls. It is my understanding that Seledonia and her family live in one of those houses.

She prepares all the classic Peruvian dishes with her own special flare. We ordered the Rocoto Relleno and Chupe de Andino as starters. Chupe de Andino is a common quinoa and vegetable soup found all over the country and it seems that no two are alike. This one had an amazing broth flavored with juniper berries (holy cow, I never knew the joy of juniper berries) and had all the lovely veggies like onion, tomato, cabbage, squash but also a big chunk of potato that you could dip your spoon into like ice cream.  I will never prepare vegetable soup the same again. No more cubed potatoes that begin to disintegrate when simmering, one big chunk of a quartered potato that sits in the middle of the bowl like an island is the only way for me from now on.  She topped the soup with a perfectly poached egg that gave the broth an added richness but not so rich that you wish you hadn’t indulged. Rocoto Relleno is also a classic dish with different preparations. It is a spicy, red Rocoto pepper stuffed with ground meat simmered with cumin, paprika and raisins, which normally would turn me off but they add the perfect sweetness to the spice. The most common preparation is the roasted and stuffed variety but Seledonia’s rellano was prepared with an egg batter sort of like a soft chili relleno that you might find at a Tex-Mex restaurant in the States but so much more refined.

We had a very frustrating dining experience in Cusco. The hostel’s hosts, where we stayed, did not seem very happy with us using their kitchen.  This barrier created a constant search for decent, affordable restaurants.  We learned the hard way that the really special restaurants are not found in the Plaza de Armas nor are they on Calle Plateros, a main street off the plaza that always seemed to pull us toward it which was not good when we didn’t have a plan and were starving. We wasted some precious meals on very bad pizza once and very bad service a second time. Instead, we found the restaurants that fit our criteria were tucked into side streets around the San Blas neighborhood.  I am sure there are great places in other neighborhoods and should we have had more time we may have uncovered the hidden gems along the other frighteningly narrow streets of Cusco.

Looking back on our time in Cusco, I am glad we saved the exploration of the city for the end of our trip. Some people fly in and stay here a few days before heading down the valley.  But for me, the elevation and extreme inclines throughout the city would have prohibited us from exploring all that we did within our timeframe. Cusco and the sacred valley are very dependent on the tourist industry.  This could result in a feeling of constantly being hustled rather than experience the authentic Peru.  Cusco in particular is a nexus for hustlers. The kind and honest people of Peru far outnumber the hustlers, you just have to look a little harder in some places to find them. Despite that, the city is a beautiful mixture of native Quechua (descendants of the Incans) influences and Spanish colonial heritage.  It is saturated with a thousand plus years of history and layers of architecture from the gothic cathedrals in the plazas, to the ruins that lay beneath and around them.