When I started researching destination for locations we should go to in the inaugural season of Four Sheets, Machu Picchu was one of the first locations on the list. But in order to justify going there, we needed to ensure it would make an amazing episode, and not just enable us to cross an item off of our bucket list.
Thankfully, the drinking culture in Cusco is one of the most historic, diverse, and unique of any I’ve come across. So, I was beyond pleased that I’d get to visit the world wonder for which Cusco serves as a gateway.
While in Cusco, we went to a bunch of places around town and tried some interesting and amazing new things both on and off camera. Check out the roundup below.
PLAZA DE ARMAS
Plaza Mayor, Centro de, Cusco 08000, Peru
The center of Cusco is the Plaza De Armas, a square that’s a bit larger than a soccer field (or football pitch, as the locals say). Around the plaza, you’ll find plenty of places to take your money (restaurants, bars, stores) and even a place that hands out money (okay, it’s an ATM). Generally, as a tourist, you’ll spend most of your time in the vicinity of the plaza. As you get toward the outskirts of the tourist center (old town), there are residences and business that cater to locals, and it’s not as developed as what you may be used to – an eye-opening sight if it’s your first time visiting a developing area.
SAN PEDRO MARKET
Cascaparo, Cusco 08000, Peru
The San Pedro Market is a seven-minute walk from the Plaza De Armas. Outside, there is a daily farmers market selling everything from alpaca scarves to fresh-squeezed orange juice. Inside, you’ll find the a spacious (albeit crowded) market that serves as the supermarket for the people of Cusco. Along with the typical meats, cheeses, (quail) eggs, fruits and vegetables, there are some interesting finds…
Aside from the grocery items offered at the market, there are plenty of trinkets for tourists. The prices are cheap, but some bargaining is expected. (I just paid what they were asking, figuring that people work hard, and I don’t mind paying a bit extra for the gifts I’m bringing home for family.) Even though we were there in July, my wife and I got ALL of our Christmas shopping done at the San Pedro Market. If you are a relative of mine who usually gets a gift from us at Christmas, enjoy your scarf! It’s made from baby alpaca (unharmed) and it was $8. But they are about $50 in the US, so that’s all you’re getting! XOXO
While I enjoyed strawberry chicha while shooting the show, I was also able to try regular chicha in the market. I went with Jose, a local chef, who suggested that I be careful drinking the chicha there, unsure of its cleanliness. But I had a glass, assuming the alcohol content of the drink was enough to kill off any harmful bacteria (like in Mexico, foreigners shouldn’t drink the tap water in Peru), and I was fine. Meaning I was right, or I was lucky. Either way, I survived!
Learn how to make your own chicha (warning: you’re gonna need a biiiiiig pot).
Giant Peruvian Corn
An ear of Peruvian corn is around the same size as the genetically modified corn we’ve become accustomed to in the States, but the kernels themselves are giant – about two to four times the size we typically eat. And it is delicious. You can also find corn nuts (dried and salted corn kernels) which I particularly enjoyed.
Giant Bread Rounds
It’s bread. It’s giant. It’s round. This local bread, called pan chuta, is made with a touch of sugar and cooked over the coals of fragrant trees like eucalyptus to give it a slightly sweet and unusual flavor.
Now regarded as a superfood around the world, quinoa was not in most of our vocabularies a decade ago. But quinoa, which is high in protein and gluten-free, has been a staple food for Peruvians for centuries. You can find red, black, and white varieties all over the market.
Potatoes (of all shapes and sizes)
The potato was discovered in Peru, high in the Andes Mountains. The original potato was the size of a pea! But through engineering (starting a thousand years ago) potatoes have branched off into a number of varieties, many of which you can compare and contrast at the market.
As featured in the show, coca leaves are a mainstay of Cuscanian herbs. While it may be more known for its use in making cocaine, it’s been a part of local culture for a millenia. Aside from it’s illicit form, coca leaves are used to treat altitude sickness for tourists as well as locals returning from the lowlands (Cusco sits over two miles above sea level). Coca is primarily consumed as a tea, which is available everywhere (including the airport) and is more popular with the locals than coffee. But, if coffee is your jam, you can rest easy knowing that there’s a Starbucks at the Plaza De Armas.
Roasted Guinea Pigs
I had a guinea pig as a child, so this one gave me the heebeegeebees. Pass.
I’m not really sure who’s buying these or how they’re prepared, but it’s another hard pass from me.
A Full-Sized Donkey Head(!)
Quite simply, WTF? Photo not included. You’re welcome.
Calle Pasñapakana 133, Cusco 08000, Peru
Located an easy walk from the city center and just above the Plaza San Blas, Limbus overlooks the city of Cusco, making one of the best places to eat, drink, and enjoy the view. Jo, the restaurant’s owner, is doing some amazing and delicious things with gastro-style cuisine and craft cocktails. The menu is a blend of Peruvian foods with influences from all over the world, while the cocktails are unique, patiently made, and delicious.
What to Drink: Cocaine! (It’s the name of their signature cocktail.)
***TIP: The Plaza San Blas (near Limbus Restobar) has several locals selling tourist souvenirs, but their prices are higher than at the San Pedro Market.
Santa Catalina Ancha 398, Cusco 08000, Peru
This “Pisco Museum” is more of a cocktail bar than a museum (not that I’m complaining). And I certainly appreciate that they consider the cocktails their canvas and Pisco their paint. The curators (bartenders) at this museum (bar) make fantastic art (cocktails) and boy are they passionate about Pisco! Aside from the delicious national cocktail, the pisco sour, the museum makes a wide variety of Pisco cocktails that worth a taste too.
What to Drink: The Pisco Sour (learn how to make one.)
Pisco Porton is the variety of pisco that we featured in the Four Sheets Peru episode, showcased by master distiller and good friend of mine, Johnny Schuler. (I have never met a man as passionate and educated about pisco, plus he’s as smart and charming as they come.)
However, if you’re looking for Pisco Porton in the United States, you’ll have to search by a different name. Because Patron (the tequila) felt that Porton and Patron were too similar, Porton was forced to change its name in the US to Caravedo Pisco (after the distillery it’s made in: Hacienda La Caravedo).
In Spanish, porton means “gate” (after the large and handsome front gate of the Hacienda La Caravedo distillery), while Patron means “boss.” So while the two words mean entirely different things in Spanish, they sound pretty close in English, so the US “powers that be” told Pisco Porton to change it up.
Calle Inca Roca, Cusco 08000, Peru
For a great selection of alpaca scarves and sweaters, check out Artesanías Asunta. If you want to swing by when leaving the Pisco Museum, it’s just a couple blocks away – from the museum, cross the street and head one block north on Calle Palacio, then make the first right on Calle Inca Roca and follow the street as it makes a left turn. Halfway up this block you’ll find Artesanías Asunta on your right. The shop has good prices, but if you’re buying a few items or more, it’s okay to haggle the total price down by 10 to 20 percent.
339 Av Tullumayo, Cusco, Peru
While chicharias (the name for locations with the chicha drink for sale) are traditionally marked only with red bag tied to the end of a stick over the entrance, it was recommended to me that I try a chicharia that’s a bit more mainstream. So, I ended up at La Chombra.
While there wasn’t a soul in the place that spoke a word of English, I was able to get by with my limited Spanish along with pointing and handing over money. While La Chombra is more of a local family hangout, visitors are certainly welcome there. Please note that if you ask for the cuy on the menu, you will get a roasted guinea pig, complete with feet, ears, and even teeth (though devoid of hair).
What to drink: Chicha! If you saw the Four Sheets episode in Peru, you heard Chakira mention that I should take it easy with the chicha, because it may lead to some “digestive issues.” I had three glasses of the stuff and I was absolutely fine. I’d say the buzz from one tall glass was like drinking half a light beer. If you’d like to take a stab at making your own chicha, check out our recipe!
CERVECERIA ZENITH (Zenith Brewing)
Av. Collasuyo 3407, Cusco 08000, Peru
This little brewery takes up just 900 square feet of space (which includes the taproom) but it’s doing some big things with beer. While Zenith is not the first craft brewery to open in Cusco, it’s the first one to stay open. Like the handful of breweries that came before it, Zenith has faced quite a few challenges:
- Locals were accustomed to macro-lagers like Cusqueña, so introducing people to beers of different styles and flavors took some educating.
- Most bars in town weren’t equipped with tap systems to serve kegged beers like Zenith’s. Since it would have cost a lot more money for the brewery to build a bottling or canning line, they solved the problem from the other side and set up draft systems for Cusco bars serving Zenith.
- None of the ingredients for making beer (hops, barley, yeast strains) grow in Cusco. So everything needs to be imported, except for the water.
- The water doesn’t work. Cuscanian water is very high in certain minerals, including calcium. So they have to use reverse osmosis to remove nearly every trace of minerals from the water. But, some beer styles require that certain amounts of minerals be present in the water, so Zenith has to rebuild the water to proper mineral content.
- If that’s not enough, they also face challenges with the altitude. Water at sea level (as in New York City) boils at 212°F (100°C) while at 11,200 feet above sea level, where the brewery sits, water boils at 191°F (88°C). This means that in existing recipes, everything from the mash temperatures to the timing of the hops needs to be completely rewritten.
In spite of all these challenges, Zenith Brewing is going strong. I was incredibly impressed with their beers, all wonderfully balanced and delicious. If you get the chance to take a 10-minute cab ride to the brewery, I certainly recommend doing it.
While you’re there, tell Zenith owner Zac that Zane says “Hi!” And if you can convince him to sell you a bottle of this Imperial Porter made with Peruvian cacao, you will not be disappointed.
Calle Tecsecocha 429, Cusco 08002, Peru
A duende (dew-EN-day) is a mythical being from traditional Peruvian folklore, similar to an elf. It’s basically who you blame if one of your socks goes missing, or if a bottle of your friend’s fine wine that he was saving for a more important occasion than you crashing on his couch is suddenly found empty one morning. If you don’t want to take the blame for something, a duende did it…
El Duende is also the name of an interesting bar a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas. Adorned with duende figurines, the pub has a laid back atmosphere and nice food and cocktails. If you’ve seen the Cusco episode of Four Sheets, then you know that my experience way anything but laid back. As we were about to start shooting, Jose (who we call “Daddy Duende”) walked in with two guys dressed as Duende. It was amazing. We spent time lighting the place, were all wearing lav microphones, and had our production cameras ready to roll, and Jose walked in talking to his cellphone as he recorded a self-video. I couldn’t have been happier with that. The show is about entertainment, having a good time, and embracing the spontaneousness of what happens when people have a few drinks. It was truly a magical experience that I’m glad we captured on camera… and Jose’s camera phone.
What to drink: Te Macho – a blend of tea, fruits, spices, and pisco… lots and lots of pisco. Here’s how to make some at home.
To get from Cusco to Machu Picchu, you can take a train or walk. The train takes three hours and the hike takes three days. As we were on a production schedule and carrying a lot of heavy video equipment, the hike was not a realistic option.
That left us to choose from three trains, with the difference being price and “comfort.” The “most comfortable” option was the Hiram Bingham train, which I thought would look the best in the show. While it did look great, it was a bit opulent and most certainly expensive.
The VIP experience (for all passengers) kept you pampered for your entire journey, from champagne upon arrival, breakfast and lunch on the train, an open bar, transportation to and from the train station up to Machu Picchu (a 25-minute bus trip on switchbacks), entrance to Machu Picchu, a guided tour of the site, and a tea service at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge (Hotel) at the entrance to Machu Picchu (which was enough food to qualify as a meal), plus a four-course dinner on the journey home. All this for the bargain-basement price of around $800 per person (he says, reaching for the Tums).
I hate to build things up. “Oh, my God! You have got to go see Mission Impossible 6! It’s amazing!” It can often build people’s expectations too high and end up making their experience not as amazing as yours. So, I’ll say this about Machu Picchu… It’s fucking amazing!
Hiram Bingham III, an American explorer, “rediscovered” Machu Picchu and made public the existence of the ancient Incan city in 1911. I read his well-written book before my trip and it made the experience even more impactful.
I suggest getting a guided tour to take you around the citadel to encourage your imagination to bring the city to life. I have less to say about one of the seven wonders of the world than I do about the Kambo ceremony that made me barf. That’s because I’m fine with you reliving the Kambo ceremony through my experiences, but Machu Picchu is something you need to experience yourself.