Most tourists traveling to Peru’s Sacred Valley come to see its most famous attraction, Machu Picchu. While Machu Picchu rightfully deserves its place as one of the seven wonders of the world, Cusco and the Sacred Valley have so much more to offer in terms of history, nature, and culture, particularly when it comes to food. Cusco, the former capital of the Incan Empire, is a mecca of Andean cuisine, steeped in indigenous highland cooking traditions that are still in practice today.
What to Eat
Here’s my list of dishes to eat while visiting Cusco and the Sacred valley:
Cuy is what the Andean peoples call a guinea pig. You may have seen one being eaten by some traveling celebrity chef for shock value on the Travel Channel. Cuy derives from the Quechua word quwi. Cuy originated in the Andes, where it’s been bred for food for thousands of years. Cuy is eaten primarily in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Southern Colombia. It’s estimated that more than 65 million cuy are eaten in Peru yearly.
Whether you have or haven’t seen one being eaten, there are a few things you should know about them. First and foremost, these little guys are tasty. Secondly, cuy is very healthy, in fact, much healthier than chicken or turkey. Cuy are higher in good fats and HDL, and lower in bad fats and LDL than both chicken and turkey. Thirdly, cuy is a traditional Andean food based on celebration, and is considered a delicacy. It is not some freak show dish to be eaten for shock value, as American and European food shows make it out to be.
Another interesting fact about cuy is that it’s a highly sustainable meat that has the potential to drastically reduce the negative environmental impact of traditional livestock and poultry. Guinea pigs can be raised in rural, urban, and suburban environments. They require little space, and can be fed nothing more than grass and vegetable scraps, so long as they get the proper amount of vitamin C. In many traditional Andean homes, cuy are kept in a large pen underneath the house.
Guinea pigs reproduce quickly, and can begin breeding four to six weeks after birth. They cost significantly less to house and feed than traditional livestock and poultry, making them far more profitable. They don’t emit large quantities of greenhouse gases like methane, as ruminants such as cattle do. In fact, cuy produce far less emissions than chicken, or even plant-based fake meats, for that matter. They also require far less water. It’s no small wonder that the cuy is so highly revered in Peru.
There are several ways to prepare a Cuy in Peruvian cuisine: cuy al horno (fire-roasted), fricasé de cuy or cuy guisado (stewed), and cuy chactado (fried). They all taste great, but the most popular version in Cusco and the Sacred Valley is cuy al horno, grilled over wood fire.
If you’re going to eat Cuy while in the Sacred Valley, Tipón is the place to go, as it is considered the cuy capital of the region. Tipón is also home to an archaeological park with impressive ruins and stunning views. It’s truly picturesque, and has hardly any of the crowds that you would find at more popular places around the Sacred Valley, such as Machu Picchu, or even Saqsayhuaman, Tambomachay, and Q’enqo. Tipón is about 20 minutes East/Southeast of Cuzco via highway 3S.
I ate my cuy at a restaurant named Cuyería “La Escondida” in the small Tipón community of Choquepata. The restaurant looks like it’s in the middle of nowhere, hence the nickname “La Escondida,” which means “the hidden one” in Spanish. It has no street address. In fact, none of the buildings in tiny Choquepata do. The surrounding views of the countryside are beautiful, and the cuy al horno is great.
La Escondida is owned and operated by Eudocia Baca Quispe, the kind woman who prepared and served us our cuy al horno. It’s best to go earlier in the day for a slow roasted cuy. If you go too late, you may get a re-roasted cuy (which is still good, but nowhere near as tender). If you’re going to arrive late, it’s best to let the staff know in advance by calling or stopping by, so that you can have a cuy that’s slow roasted to perfection.
The cuy is marinated for an hour or two in a thick paste of garlic, onion, huacatay (a popular herb in Andean cuisine), ají amarillo (a yellow Peruvian chili pepper), peanuts, olive oil, cumin, salt, and pepper. After a thorough rubdown and some time marinating, the cuy is then placed on a spit and roasted to a golden brown color with a crispy exterior and a soft inside.
In the process of preparing cuy al horno, the guinea pig is eviscerated. However, the organs aren’t left to waste. Eudocia makes a sausage out of the stomach (think a smaller, but spicier version of Scottish haggis) by stuffing it with potatoes, spices, and the ground intestines and entrails. It has a fantastic taste, and arrives alongside the cuy with sides of tallarines (pasta) and several types of potato.
The taste of cuy is similar to rabbit, but much more flavorful. It has a little bit more fat than rabbit, which makes it more forgiving to cook, whereas rabbit can be notoriously tough if cooked too long at a high temperature. Cuy browns rather nicely, the way slow roasted pork does. The taste of cuy is somewhere between rabbit (which tastes like a very lean chicken) and pork, or possibly rabbit and duck. If you can get over the cuteness of guinea pigs, something any rational adult should be able to do, you will savor eating cuy.
My meal of cuy al horno at Cuyería “La Escondida” came with a salsa called uchucuta, which is made with rocoto (a bright red Peruvian chili pepper), purple onion, huacatay, oregano, toasted peanuts, queso fresco (fresh, crumbly Peruvian cheese), olive oil, cumin, salt, and pepper. Some add evaporated milk as well. The huacatay, peanuts, cumin, and oregano give it a lovely herbal, nutty taste to go with the heat from the rocotos and the creaminess of the cheese. You can find this popular salsa at most restaurants in Cusco.
Chuño is freeze-dried potato, made using traditional Andean methods. The lengthy process of making chuño begins at the end of each fall. Potatoes are gathered and sorted by variety and size, with small potatoes being the preferred choice, as they’re easier to process. The potatoes are then laid out overnight for the the next three days to naturally freeze-dry.
Potatoes used in the production of white chuño are only freeze-dried at night, in order to protect them from the sun’s powerful UV rays. Potatoes that are left out day and night are used for black chuño, a different variety of chuño. After freeze-drying to a rock-solid state, the potatoes are cleaned by submerging them into an icy river in mesh cages for several weeks. They are then removed from water and left to freeze-dry again overnight.
The potatoes are then smashed by foot (in a similar manner to stomping wine grapes) in a chuñochinapampas (Aymara for “chuño making location”). The stomping removes any leftover water from the potatoes and helps naturally skin them. The stomped potatoes are then left to dry for up to a week more. Afterward, any potato skin is removed by hand, and the potatoes are washed again in an ice cold river. In the last step, the potatoes are freeze-dried yet again for several more days until completely dehydrated.
It sounds like an absurd amount of work for something as simple as freeze-dried potato, but the process of making chuño dates back to pre-Colombian times. Records of chuño production date back several hundred years. Chuño doesn’t need refrigeration or freezing, and can be stored for years, even decades, without spoiling. During the reign of the Incan Empire, chuño was packed and taken by soldiers on marches to distant locations. Historians list chuño as a contributing factor to the expansion of the Incan Empire across the Andes.
Chuño is an extremely versatile ingredient. It can be rehydrated and used in its stored form, or ground into potato flour. It’s an essential ingredient in several Peruvian dishes such as chairo and caldo de cabeza. In these dishes, it’s not used as a potato substitute, but rather cooked alongside potato as another ingredient with a different flavor and texture.
Caldo de Cabeza (de Cordero)
Caldo de Cabeza (de Cordero) is Peruvian sheep’s head soup. A sheep’s head is simmered for hours in a broth containing onion, garlic, the ubiquitous huacatay, ají amarillo, potatoes, chuño, scallions, cumin, coriander seeds, oregano, cilantro, black peppercorns, and salt. Some recipes include rice as well.
This is a hearty and flavorful lamb soup that will revitalize you on a cold Andean morning. The flavor of the broth is strong and aromatic due to the herbs and spices. The cheek meat is tender, and the starch from the chuño and potatoes (and sometimes rice) is filling. It’s a nourishing meal that will provide you with the energy you need to make it through a long day.
I ate caldo de cabeza at El Inter Caldos & Extras, in Mercado San Pedro, also known as Mercado Central. Mercado San Pedro is large central market filled to the brim with quality meat, produce, herbs, spices, and most importantly, food prepared in stalls. El Inter Caldos & Extras, run by Jaime Huachaca Sanchez, is the food stall all the way in the back of the market (#970). It’s great, wholesome, local food, and it’s dirt cheap (around $1.50 in U.S. dollars).
Chicha de Jora
Chicha de jora is indigenous corn beer. The tradition of brewing chicha has existed for thousands of years, predating the arrival of the Spaniards. Several Incan ruins have been found containing large mills, likely used for chicha processing. Chicha is brewed by fermenting maize with wild yeast in earthenware vessels. Chicha has a low alcohol content, ranging between 1 and 3%, and tastes surprisingly tangy (due to the wild yeast) and refreshing, despite its somewhat frothy, beige-yellow appearance.
An absurdly large 32 ounce cup of chicha costs half a Peruvian sol (50 céntimos), which is the equivalent of 15 cents in U.S. dollars (yes, you read that right, 15 cents!). To find your nearest chichería, just look for the little red flags on bamboo or wooden poles posted outside of the many buildings in the blocks surrounding Mercado San Pedro.
Many of the chicherías are small, unlicensed, informal business operations, often run from a spare room, office, or patio of a house. Inside you will likely find an older, Quechua speaking clientele, enjoying a tall glass of chicha. Don’t be shy though, order a glass and enjoy a truly unique experience. Chicha is refreshing, flavorful, and nutrient rich. You’re unlikely to get too inebriated on it either, due to its low alcohol content.
Cabrito al horno
Cabrito al horno is a roasted kid (baby goat). A milk-fed goat is marinated inside and out with a paste of garlic, huacatay, olive oil, vinegar, cumin, achiote, turmeric (known as palillo in Peru), oregano, salt, and pepper for several hours. It’s then slow roasted until the meat inside is spoon tender and the skin outside is crispy and red-brown.
I ate cabrito al horno at La Chomba Ajha Wasi, colloquially known as La Chomba. This is widely known as one of the best restaurants in Cusco for traditional Andean cuisine. It’s been around for over thirty years. Our waiter, Juan Carlos, was extremely friendly and opened our beer bottles in signature “La Chomba” fashion, by popping them off sky high like a champagne cork.
All of the dishes there are excellent, however, cabrito al horno was easily my favorite. My order came with a heaping portion of tallarines (pasta) and several types of potatoes. Peru is home to nearly 3,000 types of potato, so the varieties are endless. This is very filling meal, with a heavy dose of starch, which I happen to love. Cabrito al horno is one of the best things you can eat while in Cusco, or anywhere in Peru, for that matter.
Anisado is a local anise flavored liquor that’s a favorite in the Andean communities of Peru. Made from sugar cane, it’s similar to Colombian aguardiente (such as Crystal and Antioqueño), but with a less forceful anise taste. Anisado is said to aid digestion, which is noticeably slower at high altitude. After consuming such a heavy, starch-laden meal at La Chomba Ajha Wasi, we opted to order some anisado, per Juan Carlos’ recommendation.
I’m not normally a fan of flavors resembling licorice or anise, but the shots of anisado went down quite smoothly, with little noticeable burn. The taste is not overpowering, and it did seem to make me feel a little less bloated in Cusco’s high altitude. However, this was more than likely due to the relaxing effect of being mildly drunk, as there’s little to no evidence to support alcohol actually improving digestion after a meal. Regardless, I would highly recommend anisado to those wanting to try a local liquor in the Sacred Valley.
More Than Just Ancient History
Cusco and the Sacred Valley are highly esteemed for their many historical sites that enable us to take a look into the past. However, the true beauty of Cusco and the Sacred Valley lies in the fact that native Quechua culture is alive and well in this region, in the present day. Many of the items that you’ll eat or drink from this list have been around for hundreds of years, and in some cases, millennia. Though cuisine naturally adapts with time, and influences from outside cultures are inevitable, Peruvian highland cuisine is based strongly in traditional roots that will continue to amaze eaters like me for years to come.
Cuyería “La Escondida” is open from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM, 7 days a week.
El Inter Caldos & Extras is open from 6:00 AM to 7:00 PM Monday through Wednesday, 6:00 AM to 7:30 PM Thursday, 6:00 AM to 7:00 PM Friday and Saturday, and 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM Sunday.
La Chomba Ajha Wasi is open from 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM, 7 days a week.