As I often judge a place by its street food, I was pleased to find Cusco with a vibrant tradition of the latter. In addition to anticucho, grilled beef heart on a stick served with a potato; and chicharrones, fried pork rinds, which surprisingly boasted a greater ratio of meat to fat; I also found hard-boiled quail eggs, choclo (giant corn on the cob) smothered with white cheese; chili rellenos (a chili stuffed inside a deep fried potato croquette ); baked sweet potatoes and plantains; and enough exotic fruit to keep me happy for days.
Cusco’s central market also made a very favorable impression. This “Walmart” of the Andes is a one-stop shopping mecca that stocks everything from souvenirs to staples, which make up most of the huge mercado’s front section. But the back half is entirely dedicated to food–most of it prepared right in front of you. Two whole rows of vendors special in chicken noodle soup and escabeche topped with chopped cilantro and a spicy salsa picante. Other vendors specialize in lomo saltado, fried fish, beef ribs, ceviche, and more. You know everything is super fresh because the stalls selling meat and fish are right next door to all of these cheap eateries.
The market is pulsing with the sights, sounds, and smells of Andean Peru. Piles of vibrant textiles next to stacks of fruit, wheels of cheese, and the wafting aromas of dozens of food stalls serving lunch. Pork products occupy their own special aisle within the market, and Peruvians obviously go for the whole hog.
After a huge feed, you can relax with a cup of herba mate tea right outside the market. I also discovered a great cold drink called chicha morada, which is made from black corn. It’s sweet, hard to place taste lies somewhere between licorice and cinnamon, while it’s fermented cousin, chicha, made of regular corn, is known to pack quite a wallop.
Speaking of drinks, I was not about to leave Peru without trying their home-grown liquor, pisco, a type of grape brandy. The drink of choice, a pisco sour made with lime juice, sugar, and topped with a foam of egg whites, is certainly potent, but also very tasty, and it reminded me of one of my favorite cocktails, the Caipirinha ( a brazilian drink made from sugar cane liquor).
I feel like I got a good taste of Peru on my 10 day excursion, but I also feel like there’s much more to see and do here. As different as Lima and Cusco are to one another, I’m sure there are other corners of the country that are just as unique. I liked pretty much everything I tried except for one thing: coca leaves. In Cusco, especially, all the locals chew the leaf (or drink it in tea), from which the drug cocaine is distilled, as a means to deal with the effects of the high altitude. While the strong bitterness of the leaf is obviously an acquired taste, I would never have known that it actually does help with the altitude had I not tried it. I also credit it for giving me the energy to climb Machu Picchu in just under an hour.