Snow, Stairs and Soroche; Heart of the Inca Empire

Cusco and its wealth of surrounding riches; the small, the big and the Guinea Pig.

The Hype, and Then Some

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Niiko on April 29, 2010

~ A Little Background ~

Originally built during the 15th century, Machu Picchu is unusual for the fact that the relentless Spanish conquistadors who sought to wipe out the Incas never discovered its location. However, with the passing of those who built it, the citadel was reclaimed by the jungle and lay hidden from the outside world until it was (officially, at least) discovered by American scholar Hiram Bingham in 1911. There is still no real consensus as to what Machu Picchu was used for - theories have seen it as a sun temple, a refuge for the 'Virgins of the Sun', the last city of the Incas and numerous other variations. The favourite modern conception of the site is a rather simpler one - that it was a winter retreat for the higher echelons of Incan society, favoured for its relatively warmer climate and fertile terraces.

Whatever its genesis, Machu Picchu is now one of the most celebrated man-made sights in the world; the iconic vista overlooking the site from the Funerary Rock adorns countless publications and advertisements, and almost sells Peru to tourists on its own.

~ Sights of the Site ~

Machu Picchu is celebrated for many reasons, but principal amongst them is its location. Constructed on a vertiginous ridge between two mountains – Machu and Huayna Picchu – five-hundred metres above a bend in the Urubamba River, and some 2,500 metres above sea level, views are quite sensational. With snow-capped peaks on your eyeline and sub-tropical jungle and white water below, the site hardly needs any great man-made attractions of its own to merit seeing – although that’s not to say it doesn’t have them.

The citadel rises and falls over the crest of its ridge, with clusters of buildings and plazas spilling over the sides across hundreds of carved terraces. Many of these buildings are well-preserved examples of skilled Incan architecture – of which plenty more can be seen in Cusco and surrounding sites – built using great blocks of stone which are believed to have been hauled up to the site by vast workforces when Machu Picchu was constructed.

For visitors, two of the most interesting parts of the complex are found just off the grassed-over main plaza, in the site’s urban sector – the Temple of the Sun, a rounded structure, protects a giant ceremonial stone and was designed to honour Inti (the Sun god), one of the most revered and important deities of the Incas. In common with other Latin American ruins, this temple is built with the solstices in mind; when the sun rises on the Winter Solstice, it is lined up perfectly with the narrow window in the structure’s walls, illuminating the great stone.

Across the plaza, a raised building, supposedly used as an Astronomical tower, is topped with another large stone of great significance; Intihuatana, the stone (meaning "hitching post of the sun") aligns itself with the March and September equinoxes, and resembles a large sundial in design, casting no shadow at midday of these two points of the year. Many of these stones, considered almost sacred by the Incas, were destroyed by the wave of Spanish conquest, but after their failure to find Machu Picchu, Intihuatana remains one of the few examples still standing.

The peak overlooking the site, Huayna Picchu – "young mountain" to Machu’s "old" – is climbable at the cost of dizzying effort. Only 400 visitors a day are allowed to do so, in two waves of 200, so it pays to visit early and get your (free) ticket if you plan on looking out across the exceptional vistas and getting a perspective on the site that relatively few see. It takes an hour or more to climb up, less coming down, and one can also follow the trail downwards towards the river to find the Moon Temple, a counterpoint to the Sun Temple which doesn’t, unfortunately, enjoy the same state of repair.

At the other side of the complex to Huayna Picchu, the Funerary Rock stands slightly above the site and offers the views that grace a thousand postcards and tourist brochures. It’s a clichéd photo, but there’s a good reason it’s so popular, offering a perspective which seems to pull together the entirety of the site and surroundings into a single, exquisite natural frame.

~ There and Away ~

Two routes access Machu Picchu; time and fitness determine which you’ll take. Two tourist trains run regularly from Cusco ($50 for the standard service, $80 for the panoramic, glass-walled option), taking around four hours to chug through the Sacred Valley. The other option, of course, is to walk the Inca Trail – places are strictly limited, though if you do want to hike it and can’t find availability, there are other Inca trails that cut through the mountains which are less hyped but equally spectacular – the Salcantay route is one of these.

Entry to Machu Picchu is around $50, with a 50% student (ISIC) discount – buy tickets in Aguas Calientes, the town below the site if you’ve come by train. Open from 6:00-18:00, it pays to visit early to see the best of the site before the crowds and heat descend. Buses connect Aguas Calientes and the site, taking about 30 minutes to switchback up the hill.

There are plenty of places to stay in Aguas Calientes, plus if you're extremely well-off but intensely dislike being so, the Sanctuary Lodge inside the grounds of Machu Picchu is a great way to bankrupt yourself at $800 a night.

~ The Hype and Then Some ~

There's no end of superlatives appropriate to describe Machu Picchu, and they’ve all been snagged already by the reams of literature and promotional material urging you to visit. In the hundred years since its rediscovery, the ruins have become anything but a secret – however, this is one case where the hype only begins to evoke the genuine impression the site makes on you. I’ve been once, would love to go again, and will I’m sure be saying exactly the same thing if and when I do.

Machu Picchu Inca Archaeological Site
Above The Urubamba Valley
Cusco Region, Peru

On the Beaten Path

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Niiko on January 25, 2010

~ Tourism & Machu Picchu ~

As stoutly as the Inca Empire was able to resist the advancing Spaniards, the influx of tourism has proved rather more difficult to hold back. That's not to say Peru wants to discourage tourists, far from it - although there are a number of fairly strict safeguards in place to prevent Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail which reaches it from being overrun. Only 500 people a day are allowed to use the Trail, and development in and around the Unesco World Heritage site is minimal. This is for the most part a positive thing, and means the immensely popular site retains the ethereal splendour that people have come to see, untainted by the outside world.

While those wishing to trek the Inca Trail should book well in advance (it's officially obligatory, although you may strike lucky, and there are other less-celebrated Inca Trails, including Salcantay), entrance to Machu Picchu alone is easier to arrange. Trains - both local services and the tourist one, named after Hiram Bingham - depart Cusco daily, and take a couple of hours to reach Aguas Calientes (named after the slightly grubby thermal baths in the town) via a stunning route through the mountains. The site itself is only a short hop from here.

Although it is in fact only one of a vast pattern of paths criss-crossing this part of the Andes, "the Inca Trail" tends to denote only the one, heavily-hyped and oversubscribed route. Beginning at the Kilometre 82 waypoint, a network of Inca roads lead up, over and through the mountains, reaching Machu Picchu twenty-six miles, or three-to-four days' walk later.

~ The Inca Trail ~

The walk to Machu Picchu isn't an enormously difficult one, although it does demand a fair level of fitness, and is as comfortable as one would expect from four days and three nights camping at a reasonable altitude.

The trail is only open to those walking with a guide; passes need to be shown at a couple of checkpoints. Your company will provide all the basic sleeping and eating equipment; the most important things you'll need to take with you are a good, warm sleeping bag and a suitably sized rucksack - you needn't take too much with you, although plenty of layers and drinking water/purification tablets are crucial. A torch is also a good idea for those midnight toilet trips and the final day's 4am rise to reach Machu Picchu for sunrise. Otherwise, common sense should dictate what you will and won't need - you're unlikely to miss anything too much in four days, although sound planning will make things a little more comfortable.

Porters can be paid to carry your bags (you'll get used to seeing them sprint past you up an incline with half a kitchen on their backs), but if you're reasonably fit, this shouldn't be necessary. They will also set up camp prior to your arrival - a welcome sight after a long walk.

The first day's trekking, leaving from Km 82, provides a relatively easy introduction to the trail - the climb is gradual, with some promising lookout spots, and the distance of around eight miles is comfortable. Take advantage of a semi-decent night's sleep, with mostly clean, dry gear - it won't happen for another couple of days at least.

Day Two sees a more difficult climb, the gradient increasing to rise through 2000 metres in a matter of hours. The first three or so miles are a tiring uphill slog, though the scenery begins to make up for the exertions - views back across the valley are impressive, growing even more so as you rise above lower cloud cover. However, the going really starts to get tough at the foot of Dead Woman's Pass - a narrow staircase leads to the apex of the highest pass faced on the trail, and the weather is cold at best - be prepared for snow and ice, making for a slightly hairy descent.

Heading down into the valley, the snow should fade about 600 metres down. A few miles later, the second night's campsite is pitched amongst scrubby bushes, with a basic toilet block and a stream. Shattered you may be, but it's encouraging to look back up at the mountain you just scaled, and the view across the valley to the dying sun clinging to the distant peaks is wonderful.

It is this night you will appreciate the warm, dry clothes that remain the most. Temperatures are likely to be sub-zero. The third day's hike is the longest, but is broken up by stunning sights, both scenery and ruins. Runkurukay lies half-an-hour or so up towards the second pass, an egg-shaped structure looking out over the valley. The other side of the pass, a couple of hours on, sits Sayacmarca, a daunting fortress shooting out from the rockface over the tropical forest.

Further on, through a narrow Incan tunnel, Payupatmarca (Quechua for 'Town above the clouds') affords the first view of Machu Picchu Mountain, marked by a lone flag flying on the Sacred Valley's winds. The citadel itself, though, remains hidden until the last day. From here it is a knee-jarring descent to the last campsite. The terraces of Winay Wayna are also near here, if one has the energy left to go and see them.

So to the final day, and the early rise to trek, and finally scramble up a vertiginous staircase to Intipunku, the Sun Gate - the view of Machu Picchu in profile is an unfamiliar one at first, but nonetheless stunning. The most familiar head-on photo waits to be taken half an hour's walk further on, and you'll have several hours' exploration of the site before the arrival of the bussed-up tourists crowds the terraces. There's a great wealth of things to see around the citadel, and plenty of information about this elsewhere.That said, there's enough enjoyment to be had simply exploring. When you're done with the ruins themselves, make your way to the rear of the site, beneath Huayna Picchu - here, two trails lead to the Moon Temple and the peak, the latter affording another refreshing perspective on Machu Picchu.

To return to Cusco, take the bus from outside the entrance or walk down to Aguas Calientes and take one of the trains heading back up the valley to the city. The flow of tourists coming in the other direction will point the way to the small town, which has a range of places to rest, wash or fill one's stomach.

~ Costs ~

I've quoted prices in US Dollars, as these are often accepted, and sometimes encouraged.

Inca Trail packages - $250-500.
Train to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) - $50-70
Bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu - $6
Entrance to Machu Picchu (opens at 6am) - $50

Guides, variously priced hotels and more luxurious/budget tours are also available.

~ So why go? ~

Visiting Machu Picchu is unlikely to be anything but an expensive business - air fares to Peru are not cheap, and the above costs can quickly mount up. Additionally, you'll want to allow time for both acclimatisation (altitude sickness is an unpleasant, occasionally dangerous affliction) and exploration of what else the region and country have to offer - which is an enormous amount. However, if extravagant expenditure is ever justified, it is for this;

Trying to summarise Machu Picchu in a sentence is as challenging as it would be misguided, as one would just be listing adjectives, and doing the site little justice. The most accurate description the no-longer Lost City deserves is that it exceeds its considerable hype.

As such, the Inca Trail also comes highly recommended. It's an incredible walk in its own right, without taking what lies at its end into consideration - for so many reasons, perhaps chief amongst them the chance to explore Machu Picchu at dawn before the rest of the world arrives, it is a wonderful experience that deserves to be enjoyed by anyone with a taste for the spectacular
Inca Trail
Andes Mountains
Cusco, Peru

In Hot Water

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Niiko on April 29, 2010

Where some places exist on their own merits and are destinations in themselves, others spring up out of necessity, serving a function and spreading out like a fungus. Or a flower, to go with a slightly more positive image.

Aguas Calientes is one of these places – although when I was there, there seemed to be something of an official resistance to calling it this, pushing the moniker "Machu Picchu Town" instead. Which just sounds like an extension of Disneyland. So I’ll stick with Aguas Calientes. The place, which exists largely to cater for the influx of tourists coming to and descending from the world-famous Inca Citadel, has a kind of end-of-the-worldly, last-stop feel about it, like a dusty border town that sees thousands of visitors, none of whom linger. However, people do stay here, and as a base for visiting its raison-d’être, it’s not too shabby.

Avenue Pachacutec is the main street, and is also pretty much the only one in town, connecting the rail terminal (four hours to Cusco, $50-70 on the tourist trains) and the hot baths which give the town its name ("Hot Waters"). Along here, or on one of the minor streets running off or parallel to it, you’ll find no lack of tourist staples; pizza restaurants abound, hostels and cheap hotels are easy to find, Internet cafes are cheap and slow, the Machu Picchu Culture Centre sells tickets to the ruins ($50) and the buses to the site leave the other side of the market from the station.

Amongst the cluster of hostels, Joe’s Hostel and the Wiracocha Inn seem to be well-thought of amongst those who’ve stayed, while up at Machu Picchu itself, the Sanctuary Lodge is a luxurious, beautifully-situated and none-too-intrusive shortcut to financial ruin at $800 a night. The eating options in Aguas Calientes are much of a muchness, but it’s worth trying the Alpaca or Cuy (Guinea Pig) if you haven’t already.

With no roads in or out of Aguas Calientes, you’re here until the train comes – which, if you’ve planned ahead, may coincide neatly with your descent from Machu Picchu. However, if you are staying a little longer, or have arrived latish and are leaving exploration of the site until the following day (recommended, as the ruins are at their best in the early morning), it’s worth checking out the thermal baths. Head uphill to the end of the road, and pay 10 Soles/£2 to enter. You can leave your things in the lockers to the right, and change in the adjacent ramshackle changing rooms. A variety of pools offer baths of differing temperatures, the largest and busiest the warm one, with hotter and colder options. The whole place has a pretty rustic feel to it, and with the crowds, isn’t supremely relaxing, but it’s a good way to ease away the aches and pains of a long walk, and the sub-tropical surroundings, rising jungle-covered mountain slopes and isolated location make it worth your while.

The buses to Machu Picchu depart regualarly, costing $7 one-way and taking half an hour to switchback up the mountainside to the site. You can also walk the same route, taking shortcuts where the bus goes the long, flat(ter) path, which should take around an hour and a half to reach the entrance to the complex.

Aguas Calientes, then, is no destination in itself, but makes no pretences to be. Existing in its current form to cater for the tourist hordes, it does what it does well, and offers all you need to fill your time or recharge your batteries pre- or post-Machu Picchu.

My Giddy Air

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Niiko on January 21, 2010

Though it is often viewed foremost as the gateway to Machu Picchu, Cusco is a beguiling, fascinating city, rich in history and modern-day delights, and is overlooked at the traveller's peril. Understandably, the Inca Trail and the famous citadel at its end are the major reasons many people will come to Peru, and an eagerness to get straight onto the trail is inevitable - however, spending a week or so in Cusco itself is something to be strongly recommended – for wellbeing of body and mind.

~ A breath of fresh, if giddy, air ~

If only to acclimatise, one should spend a few leisurely days in the city before exerting themselves; the altitude is well-noted, and is unlikely to come as a surprise in itself, but the extent to which it affects you may do. At 3000 metres, what should be a relatively comfortable stroll up the half-kilometre or so from the Plaza de Armas to San Blas – a quiet square with a number of neat restaurants and hotels in residence – becomes a great exertion as you puff upwards, wheezing like a dying locomotive. However, this does subside, and after a couple of days you should be able to explore the city and its surroundings with ease.

A number of remedies will be suggested, amongst them chewing on Coca leaves to alleviate the symptoms. This may have some effect, but few cures are as good as taking things slowly and having plenty of rest - a good reason to leave a fair amount of time in the city when planning the timing of a visit.

It should be noted that the Soroche (the most serious manifestation of altitude sickness) is a dangerous affliction, and should be given the respect it deserves. It can affect anyone, regardless of fitness or health, so take care. For some of course, there will be no perceptible effects, and for most it will be little more than a brief irritation.

Most travellers are likely to have flown into Cusco from Lima, and will quickly appreciate the enormous differences between this place and not just the capital, but almost all major cities. Built into a secluded valley high in the Andes, the city is a remedy to every flaw that Lima has; the pollution is replaced by fresh, crispy air, the streets are not adorned by fast-food restaurants and miles of concrete, but charming cobbles underfoot and edifaces which fit into their surroundings, and the endless drone of assorted noise is replaced by … well, a lesser drone, at least. This is still a Hispanic country.

The sky is noticeably nearer here, too - the close, soft blue above offering a physical aspect to the notion that this is a city which exists in a bubble, an apartness that perhaps stems from its choice as the seat of the Inca Empire.

~ Orientation, and filling one's stomach ~

It's likely you'll be staying somewhere in the vicinity of the Plaza de Armas, very much the hub of the city – at least as far as tourism is concerned – and providing a point around which most of the principal attractions can be reached by foot, even though the city extends for several miles out in various directions. We stayed in San Blas, a quieter square to the north-west of here, still within five to ten minute's walk. Around this area, a number of museums and imposing cathedrals can be explored, and the majority of shops, restaurants and bars are to found amongst these streets. Avenida Sol leads away from the Plaza torwards the less romantic extremities of the city and provides a variety of more practical, everyday shops - Pharmacies and suchlike - as opposed to the arts & crafts outlets / Internet cafes elsewhere around the centre.

Taxis tend to be easy to find at all hours of the day and night, circling the Plaza de Armas and surrounding areas, and are rather cheaper than those of Lima - three or four Soles (nearly a pound) will take you most places within a couple of miles. Name your price as you get in, or ask the driver and be prepared to negotiate.

Centred around the Plaza de Armas, a wealth of eateries compete fiercely for attention, all offering a good array of soups (Sopa Criolla stood out for me), salads and meat-based main courses, plus the nation's most infamous dish, Cuy (Guinea Pig), for a very reasonable sum. Another of the region's most popular dishes, Rocoto Relleno, is also to be found across the city. The battered red pepper, filled with meat and vegetables, is delicious and filling, if a little on the spicy side for many.

Cuy and Alpaca both merit sampling at least once, especially the former, tasting like a richer, darker descendant of lamb. The city is also particularly strong on Mexican-Andean fused dishes, with the majority of the establishments hiding away down the narrow streets heading north-west away from the Plaza de Armas, especially Procurado, Teqseqocha and Plateros. Also around here lies Mia Pizza, which unsurprisingly offers a large and decent menu of Italian meals, as well as the beef/chicken/lamb numbers found elsewhere (about 100 yards up Procurado, on the right).

The area around San Blas also houses a number of fine establishments, such as Pacha Papa, on the south-west side of the square, facing the church, although these tend to be a little pricier than those around the Plaza de Armas.

Post-feeding, the nightlife of Cusco is as lively and enjoyable as, if less varied than, that in Lima - once again, the Plaza de Armas is the place to be; the square is lined with drinking houses, from the Irish pub, Paddy O'Flaherty's, on the eastern corner, or the English-ran Cross Keys roughly opposite, to the twin bars, Mythology and X'ess, on the north-eastern side. The latter two are notably cheap, often offering free drinks if you grab one of the many flyers being touted around outside. Even without these, three Cuba Libres (exceptionally skilfully poured) for 10 Soles doesn't represent shoddy value. Mama Africa's is a similarly lively, if slightly pricier, alternative next to Procurado - one should note that the thin air at this altitude does seem to help alcohol go to your head that bit quicker, so one circuit of the Plaza should be enough for anyone.

~ A little culture ~

As with any city that sees such a steady and considerable influx of tourists, Cusco is not short on places to go and things to do. Numerous options exist just outside the urban limits – Sacsayhuaman, Pisac Market, the Urubamba River, Ollantaytambo and some place called Machu something amongst them – but there are also plenty of places to check out within walking distance.

Many of these are located around the Plaza de Armas, and if you’re planning to spend a day exploring the city’s museums and sites of interest, the Cusco Tourist Ticket saves time and money, covering entrance to all the principal attractions (130 Soles/£25). The largest structure on the square is the Cathedral, built on top of an Incan palace by the Spanish in the 16th century, and fascinating for its architecture and artwork (including a reworking of the Last Supper with Guinea Pig on the menu). A host of other churches are also worth visiting on the square, alongside a couple of Cusco’s many museums (with the Museo Inka especially noteworthy).

Leaving the square, head uphill towards San Blas and you’ll pass some fantastic examples of Inca stonemanship as you head into the artisan’s quarter of the city. If you had any appetite for knitwear, llamas and any conceivable combination of the two, consider it sated.

To gain a little perspective of the tight-knit weave that is Cusco, head for the Cristo Blanco statue, a scaled-down version of Rio’s Redeemer who overlooks the city from a nearby hill, and is lit up at night. Head north from either the Plaza de Armas or San Blas for impressive views of the city. The intriguing fortress of Sacsayhuaman is also up here, but that’s another story …

~ Ultimately ... ~

This is a city, and an area, which really deserves to be visited. It is like few other cities in its atmosphere, and although it is tourist-oriented in many ways, this is never too heavy or offensive a presence - rather, the people are simply very friendly and accommodating. The basics of your stay will all be impressively cheap given the amount of trade that passes through here, as well - food is likely to be the most pricey element of your stay, but a bit of searching and varying can get round this (and it tends to be worth it, anyway). By all means, experience Machu Picchu - but try to find as many free days as possible to first take in Cusco.
Exploring Cusco
Cusco, Peru
Cusco, Peru, 00 51
0051 84 273693

Kings of the Stone Age

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Niiko on April 6, 2010

Straying a little from the centre of Cusco, the ruins of Sacsayhuaman lie to the north of the city, around two miles' walk from the Plaza de Armas. Buses and taxis will take you up into the hills for a modest fee, dropping you outside the entrance, but we chose to walk up around the back of San Blas (5-10 minutes north-east of the main square), following the stairs and narrow streets cut into the hillside to the top. Going a little off-track does remind you of the vast number of people living in considerable poverty, even in a fantastic place such as this - a fact that one can lose sight of when surrounded by such lush and delightful scenery. Taking this route also runs you past the Cristo Blanco as you wind your way west along the crest of the hill towards the ruins, which is worth a look, although is sadly fenced off. The impressive statue, strongly reminiscent of Rio's Christ the Redeemer, overlooks the city and can be seen still dazzling brightly when all else is dark at night.

Sacsayhuaman itself is a must if you have any time in Cusco - the stone defences are superbly preserved, the remnants of the fortress overlooking a great, flat plain below. When we were there in 2004, there was more archaeological work being done behind the main tiers of the ruins, so there may be even more to see in future.

There is a tourist card available from a variety of places around Cusco which grants access to many sites, including museums, the Cathedral and Sacsayhuaman (around £6 for ten days, which represents fair value if you get decent use from it). However, we coped without one; wandering into the fortress unaware of any payment being required - one bonus of going there by foot, I guess – and ignorance really is occasionally bliss.

The fortress, despite suffering at the hands of time and conquistadores, remains an imposing, impressive spectacle today. Constructed with the mind-boggling skill shown in Incan stonework elsewhere in Cusco, three tiers of enormous stones (some weighing over 100 tonnes) form an interlocking series of walls rising up from the levelled-off grass plain. These walls, the foundations of the fortress, are constructed in a serrated, zigzag pattern with the appearance of rows of teeth facing outwards from above. Built without the use of mortar, it almost defies logic that the site’s creators were able to manipulate such enormous stones into such a perfectly-fitting, impenetrable pattern that has aged incredibly well.

Sacsayhuaman was a key part of the conflict between the Incas and the Conquistadores, and following the Spaniards’ eventual triumph was partially demolished, much of the stonework used in the rebuilding of Cusco to the newcomers’ likings – many of the imposing cathedrals that surround the Plaza de Armas and occupy the centre of the city are constructed from the site’s stones.

In truth, there’s not that much to see at Sacsayhuaman today except the skill of the stonemasons; rather the attraction is the ability of the remaining stonework to help you imagine the site’s past glories – additionally, the views over Cusco and the walks to and from the city are well worth the trip. Once a year, the festival of the winter solstice, Inti Raymi ("Sun Festival") is held here, drawing enormous crowds to watch the celebrations. Needless to say, the altitude, as in Cusco (with Sacsayhuaman at 3500 metres above sea level) can be taxing – take your time in the climb (or let four wheels take the strain) and enjoy the views.
Sacsayhuaman Archaeological Park
Located On A Steep Hill That Overlooks Cusco
Cusco, Peru

Mama Knows Best

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Niiko on May 8, 2010

As my beloved mother repeatedly told me, breakfast is the most important meal of the day – and at Yakumama’s, a wonderfully-situated eaterie on Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, it’s also the best. The restaurant’s open all day, but it’s the fantastic morning spreads and reasonable prices that’ll keep you coming back.

The Plaza de Armas is oriented like a diamond, each of its corners seeking out a cardinal point. Yakumama Grill is at the southern apex, on the south-west side. A relatively inconspicuous entrance is tucked away under the arches that line the square, leading up a switchbacking flight of stairs to the restaurant. The food is certainly one part of the appeal of the place, but the atmosphere is equally appealing; an airy, unfussy dining room is filled with wooden tables, although there’s no lack of room and you never feel hemmed in. On one side of the room, the kitchen is visible and audible through a window, whilst on the other, a small balcony has space for two tables – premier spots with wonderful views of the Cathedral and lively, leafy square.

Unpretentious and unhurried, the breakfast options are also simple; a range of set menus are on offer, starting at around 10 Soles (£2) and heading upwards to around twice this. Although you can also order items individually, there’s enough choice and variety amongst the set options that it never felt necessary. The lightest breakfast consists of a hot drink, fruit juice (fresh and delicious) and a selection of rolls, jams and marmalades, while other options add muesli, some delectable piping-hot porridge, fruit salads, pancakes and – somewhat curiously – fried tomatoes with chips.

The food’s all good, straightforward, homely stuff. You could pay more and eat more fancily – and doubtless can in many of the hotels around the Plaza de Armas – but why would you want to? Yakumama offers a chilled, easy-going place to eat decent, filling food with great views, doubly so if you’re fortunate enough to grab a balcony seat. The staff are friendly and welcoming, and there’s never any sense of pressure to finish up. Many a lazy coffee has been enjoyed here.

The place stays open until latish, offering a range of reasonable, unsurprising meals for lunch and dinner – mostly based around simple meat/something combinations. The ambience and fare is at its best in the morning, however.

Cusco’s a fine place to discover the pleasant surprise that is Peruvian cuisine, and Yakumama’s a great place to start the day. For evening meals, check out some of the restaurants and bars along Calles Procurado and Plateros, in the maze of streets just to the north of the square – and make sure you try the Cuy (Guinea Pig) at least once. However, it’s this lazily atmospheric café/restaurant which, between its food, vibe and views, gets the breakfast vote in the city.
Yaku Mama Grill
Plaza de Armas
Cusco, Peru

© LP 2000-2009