Cuzco: food, massages, markets and rainbow mountain

I’m not going to claim to have made the most of Cuzco because it became far too easy to just relax in this delightful city, but I do have some tips about how to spend your time there especially if you’re looking for some delicious food.

Our first few nights were spent in Wild Rover hostel which caters to backpackers seeking out a party. With an Irish theme, it’s certainly not an authentic experience, but it’s good fun in the evenings with a busy bar, free shots and young people wanting to blow off steam. There were a noticeable amount of Brits in Wild Rover – the most we’d seen throughout the entire trip. We’d been meeting and mixing with other nationalities until this point so we weren’t put out to run into so many of them and we’d actually planned to meet a couple of friends there so were looking forward to reuniting with them. We enjoyed a couple of parties whilst there and staggered to a club called Chango’s on ‘Monday funday’. It was average but seemed busy enough and is most definitely a stomping ground for gringos. Other than the parties, Wild Rover had very comfortable beds and the shower in our dorm room was great (not something to take for granted when you’re travelling). They don’t have a kitchen so they’ll certainly have your money, but the pub-esque food is good enough. 

We spent those first few days discovering cafe’s, wandering the Plaza de Armas and exploring the numerous markets. We soon decided on our favourite artesan market which is a large one leading off from Calle Triunfo. We felt it had a nice vibe and plenty of choice, laid out in an accessible way for you to sample and browse. The men and women owning the various stalls also weren’t as insistent as they often are in the markets so we felt we could wander without being as pressured to buy something. There’s plenty of alpaca (or part alpaca) knitwear including the classic round neck jumpers which half of the Cuzco tourists seem to own. It really is a souvenir and shopping mecca and it was hard not to blow the budget here.

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After Wild Rover, we relocated to a quieter hostel called VIP House. The aim was to rest up a bit before we embarked on the Salkantay trek. I don’t like to discourage people from places, but we didn’t have a good experience here. The dorm we stayed in was on the lower floor at the back of the building and was extremely dark and cold. Not helping the situation was the freezing cold showers and although they provided an electric heater for our room, it only gave temporary relief when standing directly next to it. What’s more, our clothes were noticeably shrunk when our laundry returned and this was extremely frustrating. The staff were okay but we wouldn’t recommend this place based on our experience, despite the cheap price tag. It is, however, located conveniently opposite an Orion supermarket .

After the Salkantay trek (see blog post) we collected our bags from VIP House – we’d left them in storage whilst on the trek – and went to Dragonfly Hostel. Yep, hostel number 3! We checked in and both collapsed into our beds. That next morning we enjoyed a deserved lie in before leisurely strolling into the Plaza de Armas to enjoying an espresso at Cava Mora: a cafe and restaurant on the corner of the Portal de Comercio. It boasts its own balcony like all the restaurants on the second floor of the attractive buildings which line the Plaza. We relished the view as the sun beamed down on us and discussed the plan for tomorrow.

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We decided to do Rainbow Mountain the following day with a company called Soncco Tours, giving ourselves only one day of rest post Salkantay. This was not a good idea. We were still exhausted and were celebrating a friend’s birthday that evening so ended up in bed at midnight, only to be up again at 02:30am for a 03:00am pick-up for the tour. The minibus journey was roughly 3 hours and we realised how absolutely freezing it can get at high altitudes when we stepped off the bus at 06:00am and were desperately cold. Our tour guide set up a table with chunks of bread, jam and hot drinks. It was okay but not really enough sustenance considering the walk we were about to do. On the walk up we passed fields filled with llamas and alpacas and small settlements with tiny houses. There were toilets set up on the way which were not for the squeamish, but if you gotta go you gotta go! Just bring your own toilet paper.

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The walk itself was actually quite difficult. We were gradually inclining to an altitude of over 5000m and it really affected our pace and capacity to breathe. Of course it didn’t help that we were physically exhausted prior to this, but it’s not easy. That’s not to put anyone off because it’s certainly doable, just take it at your own pace and drink plenty of water. The sun was also kindly shining for us which made for great views at the top, but the heat added to the overall difficulty. Rainbow Mountain is so unique and really spectacular. This was a bucket list item for me and I was a little taken aback seeing the multicolours for myself in real life that I’d previously only seen on blogs. It would have been nice to receive information on the geography behind the mountain but our guide was nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, we sat at the top of a slope, taking in the view and capturing photos. I got a bit snap happy! After 45 minutes up there, we then began to walk back down in the same direction we’d come from. It actually felt longer despite being downhill and we both began to feel ill at this point. We were 3rd and 4th back to the bus which meant waiting a while for the rest of the group, but they eventually arrived and we drove to our lunch spot. We were served a potato soup (typical for Peru), rice and vegetables for main and the Peruvian drink chicha morada. Once finished, it was time to head back to Cuzco. Tom felt unwell that night, as did I with what felt like a migraine. It was our bodies way of telling us we’d pushed it too hard and we shouldn’t have. Altitude sickness shouldn’t be toyed with so make sure you’re more careful than us!

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Now for the food part! If you’re staying central then these places are all within reach. Admittedly we didn’t stray far from the tourist trail in Cuzco, but there’s nothing wrong with appreciating some good food whether it’s directed at tourists or not. But before I dive into a dissection of my favourite restaurants and cafés, I’d encourage you to pay a visit to the San Pedro market. This is a locals hangout and where all sorts of meat, vegetables and fruit can be purchased at a very small cost. There’s also a section for people to order meals and I found plenty of Peruvians here eating their lunch. I got a plate of rice, avocado, fried egg and salad for 5 soles – incredible!

Starting off the restaurant recommendations with the seemingly very popular vegan cuisine is Green Point on Carmen Bajo in the San Blas area. The menu is varied and a main course will set you back between roughly 20 – 35 soles, so it’s a mid-range price point. But the portion sizes are generous and the food innovative and delicious. I tried the vegetable korma, pad thai and hot lasagne on different occasions and all dishes were really tasty and comforting. This is also where our friend had her birthday meal and the chocolate cake was really good.

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There is another Green Point in San Francisco Square which serves lunch at a very reasonable price. They do a menu of the day for only 15 soles usually consisting of access to the salad bar, a soup, main course and small dessert. They also have a varied menu which includes a choice of Mexican style food if the set course isn’t taking your fancy.

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Another vegan place we tried was The Vegan Temple where diners are expected to sit on small benches positioned close to the ground, with cushions added for comfort. This was a new eating style for us and although we tried to embrace it, we just didn’t find it particularly comfortable and wouldn’t be in a hurry to do it again. However, their signature burgers were great and I tucked into one which involved a lentil patty, roasted peppers, pineapple chutney and guacamole.

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On the final leg of the vegan trail is Qiwa Organic Store on Calle Choqechaka. It’s not solely a vegan restaurant with some meat dishes to choose from, but there are plenty of vegan options at very reasonable prices. I enjoyed pancakes, a fruit salad and mint tea for only 11 soles. Inside it’s very light and welcoming and I actually wrote this blog post from here as the WiFi was so great!

Café wise, I’ve enjoyed many a hot drink at Don Cafeone located on Calle Hatunrumiyoc. Their mocha is creative and the service here is brilliant – very attentive. What’s more, they have strong WiFi so if you’re looking for some quiet time to catch up on business or social media, this place is perfect. They also do a delicious carrot cake served with ice cream and strawberries for about 9 soles. And Tom loved coming here to watch the football.

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Café Valeriana on Av El Sol is a French style patisserie with a big selection of pastries, cakes and sandwiches. It has an intricate, clean and delicate interior and you can sit outside on a balcony area overlooking the small square which is quite romantic. Most of the pastries are under 10 soles and of course they serve drinks. Just don’t venture here if you’re seeking good WiFi!

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There is another fantastic French bakery called Le Buffet Frances which has recently been opened by a French couple and has a selection of set menus for a small price. Everything is homemade and we each got a savoury tart, sweet tart and fruit juice for 15 soles. We didn’t have an easy time choosing though as everything looked so tasty, especially the selection of pastries and freshly made baguettes.

There’s a quirky ice cream café on Calle Procuradores called Qucharitas that immediately appealed to me as I walked through the door. They only have four tables inside which can each seat around six people, but it’s not usually full because it’s on a quieter street, or at least hasn’t been the four times I’ve been there. The colourful neon interior is what makes it delightful and quirky, with umbrellas hanging from the ceiling, toys in boxes on the wall and the name Qucharitas printed all over the walls. They serve homemade artisinal ice cream of which you can add fruit and toppings to for a personal touch, plus waffles, crêpes, cakes and some savoury sandwiches and paninis. The WiFi here is also great and they have some power outlets, just don’t expect the toilet to always work! They seem to have a problem with water.

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You might be getting the impression that I have a sweet tooth and you’d be right. So you can only imagine my delight when I visited the Choco Museum café and ordered a Willy Wonka hot chocolate. I was presented with a bowl of melted chocolate, big marshmallows and a jug of hot milk. I mixed it all together and was in a dreamy chocolate daze. It may even have been just slightly too sickly! On the Choco Museum note, it’s located on Calle Garcilaso and you can get a great little tour for free.

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My favourite dining experience has to be at Cicciolina on Calle Triunfo. It’s clearly a very popular choice amongst tourists because we arrived without a reservation and the dining room was fully booked. Instead they seated us at the bar which was still fine; there was plenty of space and the atmosphere in the bar area actually had a nice buzz. We assessed the menu before a waiter soon approached us and asked if we would like a window seat, still in the bar area. We said yes and were led to a lovely table overlooking the cobbled street below; it was cosy and very romantic with the candle burning. We felt it was perhaps a little wasted on us seeing as we are just friends, but the guilt soon faded and we relished in the loveliness of it all. The food was heavenly. Tom had three cuts of beef in a blue cheese sauce and I had the walnut salad. His was around 42 soles and mine around 28. So although expensive in comparison to other restaurants in Cuzco, it’s very reasonable considering the quality of the food. We couldn’t resist desert and whilst Tom tucked in to the whisky brownie, I enjoyed the pastry squares with freshly cut mango and basil ice cream. We washed it all down with a glass of white wine and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

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I mentioned massages in the title of this blog post which you’ll soon understand if visiting Cuzco. There are ladies ushering you into their massage parlour from every angle, especially on the Plaza de Armas. After saying ‘no gracias’ over and over again, we finally approached a lady on the corner of Portal de Planes and Calle Plateros and asked for the price of a full body massage. She quoted us 38 soles each but we soon got it down to 20 each – I think she couldn’t believe we’d actually approached her! We were led down a side street, past kids playing and eating their lunch and into a room with massage beds set up. It wasn’t luxury or entirely relaxing, but good enough for what we’d paid and we enjoyed the massage. Tom returned a week later to get another one and received, let’s say, a more ‘aggressive’ service. He came out claiming he needed a massage for the massage! This goes to show how potentially hit and miss they can be and it might be worth doing your research beforehand.

Cuzco is a beautiful city and there’s so much to do. You can visit churches, museums, markets and eat great food. Not forgetting that it’s the starting point for Machu Picchu as well as tours into the Amazon jungle. It’s modest price tag also makes it a desirable destination and as a backpacker, it can feel like a little slice of luxury at times.

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