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Cusco was once the Incan capital and has hundreds of churches, ruins and museums to visit, but we did none of it. We chose to spend our time wandering the streets of this beautiful, historic city and enjoying some surprisingly good vegetarian food. It took us a few days to learn to love Cusco as we were initially put off by the crowds of tourists and high prices (compared to Bolivia at least). But we were soon captivated by its ancient beauty and the many hidden plazas that make it easy to escape the tour groups.
Most of the tourist attractions require the expensive boleto turístico ($45) which allows entrance to sites in Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley. To make it worth your while you need to visit a lot of the sites, so if you are on a tight budget and aren’t a major history buff than we recommend exploring Cusco the simple way: walk the streets aimlessly without a map.
Plaza de Armas at the heart of the city is likely to be your starting point. This is also the focal point for touts trying to sell you tours or souvenirs, but we found Sunday was the best day to visit. There seemed to be less tourists and touts around and more locals sitting on benches and enjoying the flowers, fountain and two cathedrals of this grand plaza with views of the hills encompassing the city.
From the Plaza you can head south through Plazas Regocijo and San Francisco, past numerous churches until you get to the chaotic market where you’ll find cheap juices and hot meals (not vegetarian friendly, but there’s plenty of fruit, bread, cheese and olives).
Or head north via Plaza Tricentenario and Plazoleta de las Nazarenas and up the steep steps to San Blas. We chose to stay in this hilltop area with its narrow cobbled streets, crumbling white buildings and beautiful views of the city.
There are plenty of cafes and artisan shops to explore, and although it’s a popular area for tourists it is still possible to find quiet alleys to yourself. As the city is at an altitude of 3326 metres you’ll want to take it slowly on these steep climbs.
Eating in San Blas (and beyond)
After all this walking you’ll be in need of some sustenance and we found some great places to eat, all with excellent choices for vegetarians. Unfortunately none of these serve Peruvian food, but other than potatoes the meat-free options are limited in this country, so we took the opportunity to indulge in Western cravings.
All of these except one are in the barrio San Blas, which has better eating options than the tourist streets around the Plaza de Armas and some of the best vegetarian friendly restaurants in Cusco.
Choquechaka 509, San Blas
We were told we had to visit Jack’s and we are glad we did. If only all gringo restaurants could be like this. The international comfort food is delicious with interesting options and huge portions. It’s the first place we have found proper nachos: a plate piled high with chips, cheese, beans, guacamole and salsa.
The gourmet toasted sandwiches, roast vegetable salad, chocolate cake and coffee are all excellent and there’s a big range of all day breakfasts. There are so many veggie options we didn’t get to try them all. It’s a busy place so be prepared to wait. Meals are 12-20 soles (US$4-7).
Choquechaka 152, San Blas
Not far from Jack’s is this fantastic little vegetarian take away. There are a few stools at the counter where you can enjoy cheap but generously portioned snacks such as falafel sandwiches, veggie burgers, tacos, quesadillas, pizza and lasagna. We were so happy to find a vegetarian place that wasn’t afraid of making food flavourful. Best of all everything is only 4-6 soles (US$1.40-2).
Tandapata 909, San Blas
Surprisingly good spicy curry in this classy little restaurant on one of San Blas’s narrow streets. For 20 soles (US$7) you get two samosas or bhajis, a curry of your choice and ice-cream.
Carmen Alto 115, San Blas
A wonderful chocolate shop with a friendly owner who is very generous with the free samples so you can try all the interesting flavours including coca, chilli, cinnamon, maca (an Andean plant) and lúcuma (a Peruvian fruit). 10 soles (US$3.50) for 100 grams.
Cuesta Santa Ana 528 (few doors down from Loki hostel).
Our only listing outside of San Blas is located 5 blocks from Plaza de Armas in the Santa Ana neighbourhood. This simple take away has a few tables and focuses on what it does best: huge pita stuffed with falafel, hummus, spicy sauce, salad, roast peppers, french fries and who knows what else.
While we waited for these mighty creations we were treated to an array of complementary snacks: pita bread, dip, olives, roasted peppers and marinated vegetables. A falafel pita costs 12 soles (US$4.25) and will keep you full for quite some time.
Thanks to Vegan Backpacker for providing many of these restaurant tips.