Food Trekking: Cusco and the Sacred Valley of Peru

Causas, ceviche, and pisco sours reign in the land of the Incas
Machu Picchu
Courtesy of Nicole Campoy-Leffler

Machu Picchu

Peru is well known for a rich history filled with Incan architecture, Spanish conquistadors, and American explorers. Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, and Cusco, are visited each year by throngs of adventurous travelers searching for the heights of Huayna Picchu and the bounty of the Urubamba River. And while few make the pilgrimage for the food alone, it’s good enough to be worthy of a trip on its own.

We started in Cusco and ignored every piece of advice we got about altitude sickness (we’d skied at higher altitudes!), and suffered for it. Arriving midday, we set out to get a lay of the land around our lovely hotel, the Casa Andina Private Collection, which was mere moments from the Plaza de Armas. All of the natural beauty of the Sacred Valley is present (and for sale) in Cusco, which serves largely as a landing pad for people coming to and from Machu Picchu. Groups of young people walk the streets in brightly colored traditional costumes carrying small animals (baby goats, llamas) hoping for

tourists to stop and snap photos with them, their hands outstretched for tips. Hand-woven alpaca scarves and gloves come in every imaginable color and are sold in every nook and cranny, and everyone from taxi drivers to bell hops wants  to stop and talk with you about what you’ve eaten and what you liked best.

We ate extremely well everywhere, which sounds impossible. But even our first lunch, at Greens in Cusco, was an incredible surprise of flavors. It's not a hole-in-the-wall discovery, it doesn't have a well-known Peruvian chef, and its menu is in English, but we stopped there short of breath and starving. It had also been recommended. We ordered ceviche, flatbreads with cheese from the Sacred Valley, a salad with local corn, and the “Carrot Cake French Toast.” Every last bite was delectable and, despite catering almost entirely to tourists, really showcased the local ingredients.

The next morning we set our sights on Machu Picchu, taking the Vistadome train from Cusco, with its oversized windows and bright blue design. It’s a 57-mile journey that takes 3 ½ hours. Our train had only two cars and was filled at 7 a.m. with energetic, camera-toting climbers. Having suffered through cup after cup of undrinkable airplane coffee, I was hesitant to order a cup on the train. But it was phenomenal — and I ordered round two as I drained the first. It was sweet without sugar, dark, and strong; it was an unexpected Peruvian gem, really, that was consistent no matter where we went.

But the feeling you get when the train pulls into Aguas Calientes — or Machu Picchu Pueblo depending who you talk to — is electric. No one knows quite what to expect, no matter how much research you do or how many pictures you look at. The town itself should not be passed over, even though it is really nothing more than a one- or two-night stay for most. It’s a backpacker’s village,

with cafés, shops hawking sunblock and other forgotten trekker needs, and a main square that fills up with revelers almost every night.

One of the girls in our hotel, the La Cabaña Machu Picchu, which seemed nondescript at first but within a night almost felt like home, recommended lunch at Indio Feliz, just off the main drag with a kitschy-cute design and an incredibly kind and multilingual hostess. Wary of how the place looked, we sat and browsed the menu, settling on the homemade bread; trout salmon with tomatoes, onions, and home-baked potato chips; and the beef broquettes. It was an enormous lunch, with little side dishes littering the table filled with various dipping sauces and homemade treats, and everything was lip-smackingly good. Frankly, I could have subsisted on the homemade bread and the salty yellow butter alone, but then there were the potato chips to polish off and the sauce on the fish. It was indulgent. That was one of the things that threw me off in Peru — even the cheesy places that you’d avoid back home or that seem too touristy serve unforgettable food.