With its coastline hugging the South Pacific Ocean, Peru is a country of true, undiluted beauty, attracting tourists from every corner of the globe.
So what is it about this South American pearl that captures the imagination of those seeking a culturally rich and diverse adventure?
My Peruvian journey began in the vibrant city of Cusco. The main square – Plaza de Armas – is a warm hub of hustle and bustle. With beautiful gardens framed by the city’s most iconic buildings, Cusco Cathedral and the Church La Compañía de Jesús, the square is home to an array of cafés and restaurants where one can enjoy coffee and cake from one of the many the balconies overlooking the picturesque scene.
The city’s vibrant atmosphere is captured at its best in authentic Peruvian markets, such as San Pedro Market, where vendors sell everything from handcrafted Alpaca knitwear to tropical fruit.
Peru produces more organically grown coffee than any other country, and is the world’s ninth highest producer of the cocoa bean. With this in mind, I set out on a quest to find the best coffee and chocolate Cusco had to offer.
Museo del Café, just off Plaza de Armas, is a true coffee lover’s heaven. With a strong mission to create more socially responsible coffee consumers, the café has a warm and welcoming atmosphere and offers everything from iced white chocolate coffee to rich espressos.
Each grain of coffee is specially selected from the local harvest to create the most enriching experience. Next on my list was chocolate and my search brought me to Choco Museo, where tours of the museum are offered free of charge.
With a twinkle in his eye and a fantastic sense of humour, our guide, Oscar, taught us all about the chocolate making process, from harvesting the cocoa beans to the molding process. Of course, the tour would not be complete without a comprehensive taste testing session.
Chocolate of all strengths are available with both weird and wonderful flavours – mango, blueberry, mint, and even cocoa leaves. Imagination is not limited here. Chocolate jam, cocoa moisturiser, cocoa liqueur, cocoa butter and even cocoa tea are all on sale here. For the chocoholics out there, Choco Museo even offers the chance to learn how to make your very own chocolate!
Guinea pig and alpaca are considered the traditional delicacies in Cusco and can be found in most restaurants. Often served with rice and boiled vegetables, these dishes are an unmissable part of a true Peruvian experience.
Many restaurants serve guinea pig whole, but it is also available as part of a stew, which might be the preferable option for the less adventurous.
High in protein and low in fat, alpaca meat is mild and tender, and not unlike beef. Alpaca is served in a variety of ways throughout the city and is a key component of most traditional menus.
To get a real flavour for it, why not opt for grilled alpaca in Choros Grill or Inka Grill, and wash it down with a some freshly squeezed juice, or a lovely refreshing mint lemonade. For something a little stronger, try a pisco sour – a classical South American cocktail, or a light bubbly beer such as Cusqueña.
Hostel: Backpackers will enjoy a stay in Dragonfly Hostel. With a central location and pancakes for breakfast, the hostel hosts events every evening for their guests and even help coordinate day trips.
Hotel: The 5-star Palacio del Inka dates back nearly five centuries and maintains its beautiful Peruvian charm. Why not enjoy some fine Andean dining in the hotel’s Inti Raymi Restaurant and a luxury treatment in the Andes Spirit Spa.
Known as the archaeological capital of the Americas, there is much more to Cusco than the city itself. Perched on the edge of Sacred Valley, Cusco is the ideal base of anyone wishing to explore the heart of the Inca empire.
There are a myriad of day trips from Cusco to choose from, such as a visit to Moray terraces and Maras Salt Mines with Haku Travel, or climbing Rainbow Mountain with Rasgos Del Peru.
The surrounding areas of Cusco city are home to some of the most famous sites in the world, most notably the lost city of the Inca’s – Machu Picchu.
My pilgrimage to the ancient site began with a colectivo (a shared public taxi) from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, where I caught the train to Aguas Calientes. I travelled via Inca Rail on the 360˚ Machu Picchu train for 1hr 40mins on perhaps the most scenic train journey in the world.
Some hotels/hostels in Aguas Calientes offer packed lunches at an additional cost for those who are destined for Machu Picchu. The following morning, still shrouded in darkness under the pre-dawn moon, I began my trek from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu (a shuttle bus is available for those who do not wish to hike).
Two hours later, having adjusted to the altitude, I found myself bathed in the morning light as I waited, ticket in hand, to enter one of the most famous heritage sites in the world. Our guide, Maxx, was a true professional and provided a comprehensive view of Incan civilisation, while expertly leading us through the breathtaking city.
Standing in such a spectacular location, one could be forgiven for thinking it all a dream. The feeling of walking through history is palpable and the experience is almost transcendent.
Below in Aguas Calientes, the town boasts a range of restaurants to feed the thousands of hungry travellers that pass through daily. Everything from European dishes to classic Peruvian menus are readily available and I decided on a 2-course meal in Restaurant El Bambu.
My starter consisted of ham and cheese tequeños served with fresh guacamole. Light and crispy, these fried breaded ham and cheese sticks are essential party food in South America.
For my main course, I ordered another Peruvian classic – Aji de gallina. With the slightest hint of spice, this chicken dish is smoothed in a bright yellow cream sauce with black olives and yellow potatoes, all served next to a bed of white rice. This dish is readily available across Peru.
Hostel: Supertramp Hostel is an energetic, quirky spot for backpackers and offers a splendid packed lunch for guests visiting Machu Picchu. The attached restaurant serves delicious and reasonably priced meals.
Hotel: For those bound for Machu Picchu, there is no better location than Tierra Viva Cusco Machu Picchu. Facing the Urubamba River and surrounded by the Forest of Clouds, this hotel has a modern aesthetic and is decorated with Andean inspired graffiti.
My final destination brought me to Puno, a city on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest body of navigable water. The lake is, naturally, one of the city’s best resources and it is there that the famous floating islands of the Uros people can be found.
Made entirely from totora, a special reed grown in the lake, these islands are home to the indigenous people of Peru. Morning, afternoon, or full day island tours are available from Puno. Homestay options are also on offer for those who wish to fully immerse themselves.
With limited time left, I decided to take a full day tour with Lago Explorer. We were welcomed into the islander’s homes and were taught how the islands are constructed and how the people forge a life there. An optional ride on a reed boat costs an additional 10 soles, but is extremely worthwhile.
The latter half of the day consisted of a trip to the island of Taquile, where we got a chance to explore the island and experience the rich culture of the local community. Lunch options on the island are limited entirely to either trout or an omelette with quinoa soup as a precursor. Fresh mint tea in beautiful clay pottery finishes the meal nicely.
Hostel: Centrally located, Hotel Suites Antonio has an old-style charm. With a 24-hour reception and a buffet style breakfast, this hostel is ideal for those who are passing through Puno on a tight budget.
Hotel: Nestled on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the 4-star Casa Andina Puno offers a room with a view. The relaxed atmosphere allows for the chance to unwind and escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
There are no direct flights from Ireland to Cusco, but you can fly via London Heathrow and Bogota with Avianca Airlines. Flight prices average at €840.
An aspiring globetrotter, Emer caught the travel bug a number of years ago and has been unable to shake it since. With a love for exploring new cultures and meeting new people, she’s always planning her next adventure.
Having studied English literature and the Irish language in UCC, Emer has a deep appreciation for the arts and enjoys swapping stories over a good cup of tea.
From the green fields of West Cork, Emer loves the outdoors, whether it be hiking or simply watching the sunset. Now working as a tour leader, Emer spends her time travelling around Ireland with visiting cultural groups, all the while enjoying the best food this island has to offer.