There’s no denying that Peruvian food is the culinary superstar of South America. From ceviches to lomo saltado to the pisco sour, Peru’s tasty cuisine has seduced many fans. But Cusco, the more oft-visited Peruvian metropolis thanks to its proximity to the iconic Machu Picchu, rarely gets the foodie accolades of Lima. It’s not to say that there’s nothing there. In fact, Cusco has enough to satisfy the most discerning foodie and the hungriest backpacker.
The best way to get familiar with a foreign diet is to learn how to make it. For a culinary master class, head to the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, the newest luxury digs in the city. The hotel’s chefs will give you hands-on cooking lessons right in the very kitchen that creates the meals of the property. You’ll be chopping up Andean trout for your ceviche while room service orders are being prepared. It’s where the magic happens, and you’ll be a part of it. It’s best to come extremely hungry as there will be six dishes to make and eat: two appetizers, two main courses and two desserts that orbit around some of the indigenous fruits of the region, like chicha morada (large purple corn) and cherimoya, a velvety smooth fruit that tastes like a subtle medley of banana, strawberry, pineapple and a bit of mango.
If you’d prefer to leave the cooking to the professionals and focus instead on savoring what they’ve created, you won’t need to go far. The hotel’s Pirqa restaurant has been a big hit since opening in late 2012. The stylish interiors provide a great juxtaposition to the ancient architecture of the renovated convent; while the menu reinvents Peruvian recipes with more modern flourishes, including a pie made indulgent with local corn, crosscut ribs, mushrooms and foie gras, or a rich and surprisingly filling take on organic black quinoa served with eggs, Spanish serrano ham, crispy artisan bread and melted fontina cheese.
Don’t be fooled by the McDonald’s downstairs. Limo is a chic second-floor restaurant in the city’s main square. Ask for a seat right by a window so you can watch tourists and locals alike make their way around Cusco’s stunning Plaza de Armas. All sorts of Peruvian specialties are served here, but there might not be a better eatery to try fried cuy (guinea pig). It’s a delicacy in this part of Peru, and Limo does a more sophisticated take on the dish. Perfectly salted and tender, this dish is reminiscent of crispier, more flavorful pork. Wash it down with a flavored pisco sour—there are dozens on Limo’s drink menu.
Lima-based chef Gaston Acurio made a name for himself with La Mar, a chi-chi Peruvian restaurant in Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood with several international satellites, including outposts in Bogota and San Francisco. Unfortunately there’s no La Mar in Cusco, but Chef Acurio does have a few projects in town, including Papacho’s, another Lima transplant. A gourmet burger joint located in the city’s colonial center, Papacho’s juicy meat patties (sourced from nearby ranches) are topped with typical Peruvian salsas such as anticucho sauce, a savory combination of spices used to season various street food, and aji panca, a somewhat sweet and smoky pepper found in Peru.
To see how Andean food combines with foreign cooking, head to Incanto for a Mediterranean-Peruvian feast. Outfitted with an open kitchen, a massive wood-fired adobe oven for pizzas and original Incan walls, Incanto is a beautiful assault on the senses. Inventive, mix-and-match dishes are constantly coming out of the kitchen, including lightly charred thin-crust pizzas topped with slices of alpaca pepperoni and a vegetable risotto made with quinoa, which originated in Andean countries.