To celebrate our first Christmas as a married couple, we decided to fly to Peru, and eat and drink our way from Cusco to Machu Picchu to Lima. Here’s part one of our oral history of that trip: Christmas in Cusco.
Day 1: Views of Peru, Papachos, and Piscos
Megan: I slept through most of our flights to Peru. And when I woke up, I got to see breathtaking views of the green AF mountains of Cusco — mountains I’d soon be climbing on our trek to Machu Picchu!
Mike: But first, we had three nights to acclimatize in Cusco. It’s over 11k feet, and the altitude takes some getting used to. As Megan was a bit challenged by Bogota, which is closer to 8k feet up, I talked her into taking Diamox for this trip — and we planned to slowly ramp up our activities before the serious hiking began.
When I stayed in Cusco six years ago to go on a different Machu Picchu trek, I remember seeing the Palacio Del Inka and thinking it would be an amazing place to stay if I brought back my wife sometime for an almost honeymoon, or won the lottery. Luckily, the last eight months of working every day on ‘The Gifted’ made me feel just fine about spending a few ducats to relax — and this hotel was a perfect way to settle into Peru.
Megan: I’m so glad he went with “wife on an almost honeymoon” because the hotel is wonderful. The location is right next to what used to be an ancient Incan temple but got converted into a church. And I’m not mad at at all that it’s the view of from our tiny adorable balcony. The hotel used to be a museum in the ‘70s, so the layout is vast with almost endless hallways and rooms and it’s easy to get lost. Plus they have a constant supply of Coca tea which helps with altitude sickness side effects.
Mike: We fought off our exhaustion to venture over to Papacho’s for lunch. Getting burgers isn’t exactly the most Peruvian thing to do — but it’s the casual chain started by my favorite South American chef (Gaston Acurio) — and there were lots of tasty options.
Megan: I got my first sweeping view of Cusco from that burger joint, and I was instantly enamoured. I enjoyed the view of the town square (that was being set up for a giant Christmas market that would dominate the next few days) and realized that Cusco is nestled in a valley surrounded by rolling green hills. I could not stop staring out the window next to our table and just saying “Wow. WOW! This place is gorgeous.”
Mike: After a quick nap, we hit up a more straight-ahead Peruvian joint (Cafe Moreno) for lomo saltado, a nice causa (potato dish), and Megan’s favorite: fried bananas for dessert.
We grabbed some quality cocktails at Museo del Pisco (not actually a museum – just a good cocktail bar) — drinking our first Pisco Sour of the trip — and our first Chilcano (Pisco and ginger ale – their variation had a little Chili kick and a guava flavor. It was amazing).
It was a glorious first night in Cusco, followed by a tough night in the hotel room…
Megan: To say my first night in Cusco was rough would be an understatement. I woke up feeling like I had to go to the bathroom, and once it started it could not stop. Then at some point the realization that I was going to throw up washed over me in a cold sweat. Thankfully the timing on the top and bottom worked out. And, after a lot of bad things, my body finally felt like it was done doing… all the things. I crawled back into bed, fully expecting to keep experiencing that all night and into the next day. But thankfully that was it.
Day 2: Christmas Market, Choco Museo, and MAP Cafe
Megan: The next morning it was off to breakfast with our friends Jamie Chung (from The Gifted!) and her husband Bryan Greenberg — they just happened to be in Cusco as they finished up their Machu Picchu trip!
Mike: A total coincidence that an actor from my show was in town. We booked ours first. I had a quick work call with a producer, and his mind was blown when I said I was seeing Jamie on another continent.
Megan: Over breakfast we got the scoop on their Machu Picchu trek — they took a four day glamping trip with 12 porters. They had someone setting up their tent and yes they got massages every night, but they were still camping, and freezing in a tent at night with no bathrooms. We talked about the book we all read — Turn Right at Machu Picchu. And generally had a really fun hang.
Mike: Memo for my next trip to Cusco: just eat breakfast at Jack’s. Don’t be conned by the free hotel breakfast, however fancy.
Megan: We decided to hit up a tourist spot together — the Choco Museo — and learned all about the chocolate-making process in Peru. And then we ended it with a stroll through the marketplace. The square was GOING OFF, since it was days before Christmas. The entire town square had been turned into a GIANT Christmas market.
We went back to our hotel for drinks, where we introduced Bryan and Jamie to the Chilcanos — like a pisco sour, but with ginger ale. Jamie and Bryan left to pack with a proper buzz on, and then we headed to lunch…
Mike and I either have incredible luck when it comes to restaurants with amazing food and views, or Cusco is just running rife with that sort of thing. Our “light lunch” turned into me inhaling an entire chocolate and banana crepe while gazing out over a central courtyard surrounded by red tile roofs with the ubiquitous rolling verdant mountains in the near distance. Tomorrow we’d be hiking up one of them, but for now, I was pigging out (which so far has been a theme for me) on a lunch I wasn’t even hungry for and eavesdropping on a the conversation between some young volunteer/backpackers about investing in Bitcoin.
Mike: College age backpackers invest in bitcoin now? Is that a thing? I am lost.
Megan: Then it was a heart-pounding walk back to the hotel — heart pounding not in the sense that the walk is dangerous or hard (except for the constant threat of being hit by a car along their tiny cobblestone streets) but that at this altitude an 8 minute walk up and down the slightest of inclines will kick your heart into 130bpms. It’s fascinating.
We made a slight detour to check out Coricancha — the Sun Temple-turned church across from our hotel. It was half interesting, and half church. In true Incan style, it was built from perfectly interlocking rocks and used to be covered in massive walls of gold.
Mike: A quick visit was the perfect amount of time to find a milky way painting that Megan loved – and for me to track down the inspiration for the Torreon at Machu Picchu. Coricancha would have been much cooler in the 1520s, when it was plated with gold – before the Spanish conquistadors looted the joint.
Megan: That night we had a much-anticipated dinner at MAP Cafe. Which is this glowing glass box of a restaurant in the courtyard of the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art in Cusco. Weirdly, it looks cooler on the outside than the inside. But the dinner is as fun and slightly experimental as you would want from a fancy restaurant in a museum. Mike had a mushroom soup covered with a puff pastry and I got a dessert where they shattered a glass made of sugar into it.
Mike: Neither of us were completely blown away by the food, but we weren’t quick hungry enough (miscalculation with the crepes) — and our bodies haven’t quite adjusted. In any case, it was a great second day in Cusco.
Day 3: Sacsayhuaman and Cicciolina on Christmas Eve
Megan: We both woke up feeling good and ready to hike up to the nearby Incan ruins, Sacsayhuaman — hilariously pronounced “sexy woman.” I’ve been looking forward to doing something super goofy and Christmas-y, and this was going to give me the perfect way to pull it off. We grabbed my parents’ ugly Christmas sweaters (adorned with llamas) and made our way to the site.
We were already getting winded as we made our ascent, and I started to get worried that he wouldn’t be up for the harder hikes to come on our actual trek. But I had the wonderful realization that years of asthma had given me a super power… Most people at this altitude go to take a deep breath and find that they can’t fill their lungs enough. But when I start to feel out of breath, I suck in air and find that I can breathe MUCH MUCH deeper than when I’m having an asthma attack. So my Pavlovian response is that of relief and a sense of, “I’m fine! I’m going to live.”
Mike: I remember getting winded six years ago — the elevation is no joke. But I also think these hikes would have been easier at my wedding weight. Downhill and level terrain are just fine, but inclines over a certain angle are brutal…
Megan: Mike soldiered on. We made it up to the ticket booth, and then entered the site via a different route than he took the last time. And it turned out to be the best way to go! We walked through some maze-like rock walls, which lead us to the mouth of a small cave — which turned out to be a tunnel. About six steps in, I heard Mike gasp. “It gets REALLY dark in there really fast.”
Sure enough, we were plunged into disconcerting darkness right away, and, if it wasn’t for my iPhone’s flashlight there’s no way we would have made it all the way through — I mean, even with the flashlight, Mike bonked his head against the rocks twice. But when we did come out, we were on one end of a giant field. What the Incas did with this field beats me, as there was no handy dandy signage anywhere at Sacsayhuamán. But I couldn’t help but have a Sound of Music moment as I whirled around with my arms spread wide — that’s what *I* used that field for.
Traipsing across the field, we discovered rocks that had been clearly chipped away at by Incans, and we overheard a passing tour guide say that area was used as a quarry.
We followed the tour closely enough to learn that another area with these cool stripe-y hills was actually a slide! Some research I did afterwards said that it was even a slide in Incan times, used by the children. Mike and I each took a turn sliding down the well-worn grooves that created the two slides.
Mike: If all of this talk of slides and caves makes it sound like Sacsayhuamán was some kind of Incan playground, that is not the case. It was a giant fortress and site of some insanely bloody Incan/Spanish battles back in the 1530s. We were walking around areas that at one time were covered with Incan bodies – and the only reason the current walls remain is that these rocks were too giant for the Spanish to completely destroy.
Megan: Moving on, we walked up a slight hill to find a bunch of llamas chilling and munching on the lush hilltop grass. I knew THIS was the perfect time to put my ugly sweater plan into action!
With only the mildest of groans from my ever-supportive husband, we slipped on our synthetic llama sweaters under the glowing Peruvian sun, and we took an epic ugly Christmas llama sweater photo next to some gorgeous real llamas, Incan ruins, and Cusco in the background.
I tried to continue the Christmas spirit by keeping my llama sweater on, but I could feel myself breaking out in hives with each step, so it came off after 15 minutes.
After Mike showed me a spot he remembered checking out before — a scenic overlook of Cusco, we had (maybe?) seen all there was to be seen. Sacsayhuamán was my first real experience with Incan ruins and it totally blew my mind. I had one of my ear-to-ear face-hurting smiles on the whole time as I just oohed and ahh-ed over every stone wall and archway.
Mike: We walked back into town, getting pretty hungry. Our first option had a wait – as it was Christmas Day and there were thousands of folks packed into the central square – but we headed for Marcelo Batata, which was highly-recommended. We sat on their rooftop terrace for a great meal of chicken and golden berries, salted avocado, and quinoa and veggie soup.
Then we headed over to Hotel El Mercado for our orientation for our Mountain Lodges of Peru trek to Machu Picchu.
Side note: we didn’t see look inside any of the rooms, but El Mercado looked like a nice spot to stay. Boutique hotel with a decent location and nice patio.
Our dinner at Cicciolina was just… good. It’s a well-loved spot in Cusco – and I’ve never heard of anyone disappointed – but our alpaca steak, pasta, and causa topped with cuy (guinea pig!) confit didn’t blow our hair back. Maybe next time.
We finished the night with a delightful couple of hours reading in the hotel bar, sipping on Pisco Sours, and eating Christmas cookies. Outside, we heard bells ringing for Christmas Eve…
Megan: Even though we went to bed early, at midnight on Christmas in Cusco, the city goes off with citizens shooting off their own fireworks. For hours and hours, they boom across the valley. At one point, I got up to go to the bathroom and decided to sneak a peek of the chaos. I opened our balcony door and slipped outside, cold and groggy, and the sight was incredible. Everywhere you looked, fireworks were exploding — from right down the street to high up in the mountains. White, red, yellow, and green explosions popped and glittered against the night sky. At some point, Mike joined me and wrapped his body around mine and we gazed in wonder at the scene together. And then we slipped back into our room and passed out to the sounds of booms.
This could perhaps one of my favorite memories of the trip — or even my life — even though it’s a hazy one, because I was tired and under the effects of sleeping pills.
But that’s how our time in Cusco ended. The next morning we started our journey to Machu Picchu.
To be continued…