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Cusco: The land of art, architecture, and guinea pigs

A large church in a plaza with people walking around.

Discover the vibrant and beautiful city of Cusco, Peru, in this trip recap from Contiki’s first South America trip!

Cusco Peru

Contrary to popular belief, the city of Cusco lies at a higher elevation point than the peaks of Machu Picchu, prompting the likely possibility of suffering from altitude sickness at a whopping 12,000 feet elevation above sea level.  As a person who didn’t get sick on this particular trip, the only advice I can really dish out would be:  drink lots of fluids – mostly water.  I had packets of Airborne to drink with my water before we boarded every flight or bus, which made the mundane task of drinking water a bit more enjoyable since it’s fizzy and berry flavored.  Will that work for everyone? Probably not, but it’s worth a shot.

Inca temple hotel

Our hotel was a gorgeous restored Inca temple.  Most rooms overlooked a courtyard where sunlight (or rain) would pour in and it was just a stone throw’s away the Plaza de Armas and the city center.

Alleys of Cusco

We reconvened with Gaby, our wonderful local guide, for a city tour of Cusco, which transported me through the world of skilled artisans selling their wares in traditional garb and amazing architecture and innovation for such an ancient culture.  I loved walking down the cobblestone streets, and seeing how the buildings had been restored from ancient Inca temples to modern day masterpieces.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a sucker for long alleyway shots (you’ve been warned), and in those small alleyways, I began to really discover Cusco’s beauty.

We came across a beautiful cathedral, where we entered and came upon a beautiful courtyard and stunning view of the city.

Cathedral Cusco

We tucked ourselves away down another alleyway toward the Plaza de Armas, the main hub in Cusco.  The Quechua people make the trek from their mountainous region homes to sell their wares in Cusco, and many of the women dress in their traditional clothing – including large skirts, wide rim hats, and braids.  I caught a picture of this woman, pensive and in a candid moment when she wasn’t hawking her goods to the masses.  It is one of my favorite of the trip.

Quechua woman

I love how the sun is shining below and casting a nice walking path in this alleyway. Everything is illuminated:

Alleyway cusco

We made it to the plaza, where we toured the main cathedral, but photos were prohibited inside. Check out how cool the sky looks!

The sky is cloudy.

Afterwards we made it to the Ima Sumaq restaurant and we were in for a surprise:  Not only were we going to have a delicious lunch, we were also going to get up close and personal with the national dish of Peru, “cuy” aka guinea pig.

Cuy guinea pig

We were given a behind-the-scenes look of the kitchen to see how the guinea pig was prepared.  Since this is Contiki and not Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods, I’ll spare you some of the more graphic photos of the guinea pig’s preparation – but many people had to leave the kitchen area after capturing a few images.  A fresh-faced, 20-year-old chef explained the step-by-step process of preparing the guinea pig for consumption, down to the seasonings and the special sauce that was created for the dish.  I also snapped some fun photos of the chefs plating our lunch for the day, which included local delicacies like lomo saltado (stir-fried beef served with potato wedges).

A white plate with meat and peppers on it.

As we were dining on our delicious meal, the moment of truth came out – the guinea pig had been plated and served for all to see.  Who would be brave enough to try it?  The sauce that was drizzled on top consisted of a red and white wine, some salt, pepper, a regional chili pepper, and a type of mint that they had let me get a whiff of while I watched the meals being prepped.  It was very fragrant and when they set down the guinea pig, I decided, I was going to give it a shot.  Many others tried it as well, and one of my tour mates caught it on video.

The mint that made up the sauce was the overwhelming taste when I tried the guinea pig, so I’m not quite sure that what I ate was an accurate first impression of guinea pig.  There isn’t much meat on the dish, so it can’t be enjoyed the way you would have a chicken wing.  Yet I conquered my fear and I ate the cuy – and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.

A large indoor market with lots of people walking around.

After lunch, many of the group parted ways and I followed the group to a local food market in search for coffee.  Afterwards, we headed to the handicraft market to gather up some souvenirs and then headed back to my hotel.

pisco sour tayta inti

We ended the evening with a dinner and show at the Cusco Tayta Inti restaurant, known for creating their very own version of Pisco (the Peruvian brandy featured previously in my Pisco Sour!).

I toasted to a very good night and a beautiful day exploring the city of Cusco!