Holiday packages, South America, Tours

The Latin America experts at Cox & Kings, who organise Peru holidays, give their recommendations for spending a few days in Cuzco.

What to do

Reputedly built in the shape of a giant puma, a sacred animal in Incan times, Cuzco sprawls across a mountain-side basin. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, there are the remains of Inca walls, arches and doorways alongside the grand Spanish colonial architecture. At the heart of Cuzco is the Plaza de Armas, a relaxed pedestrianised area with a grassy-seated centre and home to the cathedral, church and multitude of shops, restaurants, bars and cafes. Try the Baghdad Café – with its lovely balcony, just a few shops to the left of the cathedral – a perfect place for a spot of people watching while drinking a herbal coca tea or delicious hot chocolate!

The archaeological site of Sacsayhuaman on the outskirts of the city, and the head of the city’s puma shape, was an ancient sanctuary and temple to the Sun, with walls formed from massive carved rocks. The Conquistadors also stamped their presence, building cathedrals and monasteries on top of Inca buildings. The 17th-century Santo Domingo Monastery was built on the foundations of the Qoricancha Temple of the Sun.

The vast Cathedral of Santo Domingo cathedral, actually three churches-in-one, on the site of the Inca Palace of Viracocha, is home to Van Dyck’s painting of the Last Supper, which shows Jesus and his disciples getting stuck in to a feast of guinea pig and Andean fruits, whilst drinking a local fruit beer and chewing coca leaves (the Incan combater of altitude sickness). It also contains the venerated crucifix of El Senor de los Temblores who guards against earthquakes.

Wander around San Blas, with its beautiful colonial church, dipping into the handicraft shops and art galleries holding traditional earthenware, paintings, ceramics, sculptures, wood carvings and textiles.

Where to stay

Palacio Nazarenas, a chic, all-suite, boutique retreat, took four years to create from a former palace and 16th-century convent near Cuzco’s main square. It has 55 oxygenated suites – each with its own pisco sour-making kit – Cuzco’s first outdoor pool, the deluxe Hypnose spa and its own fruit, vegetable and herb gardens.

Other luxury options include the Monasterio Hotel, the sister property to Palacio Nazarenas and located just next door; La Casona, a very small and intimate boutique hotel on the opposite side of the square; the Libertador, in a converted colonial building next to Qoricancha Temple.

Alternatively, try the Casa Andina chain. They have a couple of top-end ‘Private Collection’ hotels near the main square, or their regular hotels a few blocks further away.

What to eat and drink

Peru’s food is very regional and can be roughly divided into three large areas: coastal, Andean and Amazonian. Each is as distinct from the other, focussing on the freshest ingredients, sourced locally from the region. For instance, Alpaca meat, an incredibly lean meat with very low cholesterol, is a popular dish in the Andes. But it would never be seen on a menu in Lima, where fresh seafood is much more common.

Try some freshwater trout, which comes from the Sacred Valley. It’s delicious grilled, but also popular in ceviche, a tasty dish made of chunks of raw fish, marinated in freshly squeezed lime juice, with sliced onions, chili peppers, salt and pepper. Peruvian avocados (palta) are delicious, as are the array of fruits on offer in the markets: granadilla, cherimoya, camu camu and tuna fruit (cactus fruit – not fish!)

Driving through the villages surrounding Cuzco, you’ll come across red and blue bags on poles attached to front doors. A red bag means the house sells chicha, a local brew of fermented corn, and a blue bag means they sell fruitila, similar to chicha but with strawberries for added flavour, and supposedly the women’s version.

No trip to Peru is complete without a Pisco sour. It is disputed between Peruvians and Chileans as to who invented the grape-based liqueur, with both countries producing their own brands. The Pisco sour can be found in both and is made with lime juice, sugar, egg white and a dash of angostura bitters. In Cuzco, you can find a coca sour – an added kick of coca leaf to alleviate altitude sickness too!