Then, with some hesitation but a resolution to be daring, we ordered grilled alpaca steaks, produced next to a lovely vegetable ratatouille. The meat was a little tough to swallow (I mean that both literally and figuratively, as we observed several live alpaca walking the streets of Cusco during our stay) but well-spiced.
In broken Spanish and using hand gestures, I tried to ask the waitress about the restaurant’s piquant secret. The waitress gazed quizzically for a moment, then disappeared into the kitchen, reappearing with a colorful handful of aji peppers, in the ultimate “show, don’t tell” moment.
Those with foodie inclinations and some free time between visiting Machu Picchu, Sacsayhuamán (impressive Inca stonework overlooking the city), the Cathedral of Santo Domingo (a thought-provoking blend of Spanish-Catholic and Inca heritages, art and architecture) and Qorikancha (the former Inca sun temple ransacked by 16th century Spanish conquistadors) might consider a quick visit to the ChocoMuseo in Plaza Regocijo.
Peru is the world’s 13th largest exporter of cacao and its products, and the museum offers chocolate preparation classes, as well as more traditional cooking courses. There’s cacao tea to sample, a model cacao tree to study and, of course, cacao-based products to purchase. The museum has excellent English-language signs and a café should the hot chocolate cravings become unbearable.
Finally, for a knockout dinner, it’s worth the effort to huff and puff up to the trendy, artsy San Blas neighborhood for dinner at Pacha Papa. Here, you can take the plunge on sampling roasted cuy, or guinea pig (or chicken out, should you have fond memories of a childhood pet). So integral to the Peruvian culture is the guinea pig that The Last Supper painting in the city’s main cathedral depicts Jesus and his apostles feasting on some cuy of their own.
Ordering this delicacy can require planning ahead: Pacha Papa’s menu advises placing your order a day ahead of time, although a waiter notes that five hours is usually sufficient. At the very least, try to catch a glimpse of the rodent, dramatically served whole on an oversized platter, as it whisks past your table in the restaurant’s open-air courtyard.
The menu here impresses even beyond the guinea pig. There are several varieties of the pisco sour, Peru’s national drink, a grape brandy-based concoction made frothy with the addition of egg whites. The restaurant’s papa rellena stuffs a golden-fried cone of mashed potatoes with ground beef, peas, black olives, boiled egg and raisins, and a similar preparation fills a halved avocado with creamy chicken and vegetable salad.
For the less adventurous, there are wood-fired pizzas, and if you’ve left room for dessert, the restaurant’s alfajores — shortbread cookies with decadent dulce de leche pressed between the layers — are a dreamy confection.
On the way out of Pacha Papa, the manager approached, and was disappointed to hear it was our final evening in the city, as he has many other establishments to recommend. Food is central to Peruvian life, and happily, I learned, there was no need for perfect Spanish — nor bossy directives — to coax Peruvians into unveiling the secrets of their culinary heritage.