Peru and food. It is increasingly difficult to speak of one without the other. Some would argue that the truest conduit to Peru’s modern heart and soul is through its culinary landscape.

The World Travel Awards organization seems to agree, having selected Peru as the World’s Leading Culinary Destination for the past 5 consecutive years beginning in 2012.

And so it seems that to skip out on the food while in Peru is to miss out on a large part of what makes the country and its culture so special.

Fortunately for foodie travelers, the classic route to Machu Picchu is peppered with luxury and boutique hotels that happen to have outstanding locavore kitchens.

In the southern Andes, this means menus full of ancient indigenous staples like quinoa, corn, and potatoes, alongside regional delicacies such as alpaca steaks, river trout, lamb, and cuy (guinea pig), all prepared by expert chefs trained in the latest gastronomic techniques. Now more than ever, travelers can enjoy fine dining while staying at upscale hotels in Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu.

Most itineraries begin or end in Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After wandering the city’s narrow cobblestoned streets and marveling at its magnificent colonial churches, the elegant Belmond Palacio Nazarenas offers splendid facilities for rest and relaxation.

Staff are happy to show you around the carefully restored property, which includes intriguing remnants of Inca walls and stone fountains and gorgeous cloistered courtyards. What makes Palacio Nazarenas truly exceptional is the fusion of historical elements with countless contemporary touches such as a heated outdoor swimming pool and a lounge with billiards table and 50” flatscreen TV.

Palacio Nazarenas’ Senzo Restaurant manages to translate the fusion of the traditional and the modern onto a truly delightful menu. Dining here becomes an invitation to dive into the world of contemporary Andean cuisine.

Chefs at Senzo use only the highest quality ingredients including herbs from the hotel’s patio gardens as well as fresh grains, meats, and vegetables foraged from local farms.

On the starter menu, the ceviche of quinoa and tarwi (lupin bean) provides a vegetarian twist on a Peruvian classic. Recommendable mains include the confit guinea pig accompanied by stuffed rocoto pepper, the grilled trout with arugula salad and root vegetable chips, and the crackling pork served with fried potatoes. Each of these plates is an artful version of traditional Cusquena specialties elevated to scrumptious heights.

Next stop on the epicurean route to Machu Picchu: the Sacred Valley.

Gourmands will appreciate the multifold significance of this historic valley. Spiritually, the Incas revered this place for its powerful apus (the Quechua word for towering ice-capped peaks) rising from the narrow valley carved by the Urubamba River. The Incas believed that the river’s course mirrored the Milky Way galaxy.

Photographer: Alicia Gonzalez

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Inca civilization flourished thanks to the Sacred Valley’s fertile soils. By adapting ancient terrace building techniques, Inca engineers were able to transform the steep mountain slopes into arable land. They experimented with growing different crops at different elevations to maximize quality and yields. Corn, legumes, and other sacred crops grew on the valley floor. Potatoes and quinoa at higher elevations. Today, agriculture continues to be the principal economic activity of the Sacred Valley.

History comes alive at the Belmond Rio Sagrado, situated among verdant fields where resident llamas graze. Towering mountains form the horizon and the rapids of the Urubamba River always within earshot if not eyesight.

The hotel’s dining areas fully integrate into this peaceful setting. At Restaurante El Huerto, the interior dining room boasts wide picture windows with outstanding views. Guests who sit on the terrace are warmed by blankets and a fire pit and awarded with the million-fold twinkling of the night sky.

Chefs at El Huerto use fresh produce, herbs, and spices from the hotel’s garden as inspiration for a menu of Andean and international delicacies. Starters and mains include typical regional dishes such as the fresh stew made of Paiche fish, which is flavored with ginger and scallion julienne, scented with sesame oil in shiitake broth, and served with fried rice and quinoa.

Also recommended are inspired renditions of classic Peruvian dishes including the “Seco de cordero,” lamb slow cooked in cilantro sauce and served with mashed potatoes flavored with Andean herbs; and the “Lomo saltado criollo,” sautéed beef strips served with potatoes and rice.

With prior arrangement, El Huerto organizes a traditional Pachamanca meal for up to 8 guests. Pachamanca is an ancient cooking method whose origins date to before the Inca Empire. A pit is dug into the soil and lined with hot stones. Marinated meats and vegetables are placed in the cavity, covered up, and allowed to cook for hours. It is a symbolic returning of goods back to Mother Earth before the feast begins.

A few kilometers down the road, Hotel Sol y Luna, a Relais & Chateau property, accommodates guests in cozy “casita” houses made of local stones. These private sanctuaries are nestled amid gardens filled with native flora, and all boast stunning views of Sacred Valley mountains.

Harvest-driven and seasonal, the menu at the hotel’s Killa Wasi blends innovative Peruvian cuisine with the time honored traditions of Andean cooking. Chefs work directly with neighboring organic farmers and also travel into the nearby jungle to source ingredients.

It is hard to choose among the many delectable mains, but you can’t go wrong with the grilled duck breast with cocoa sauce and potato stew flavored with peanuts, the local lamb loin with corn chicha sauce accompanied by potatoes and baby spinach, or the local pumpkin lasagna with Yucay farm cheese and dried morel mushrooms sauce.

Wayra is the more casual eatery at Hotel Sol y Luna, where cooking is done on a grill over hot coals or in traditional wood-burning ovens. It’s the perfect place to sample grilled suckling pig, chicken, rainbow trout, anticuchos (marinated beef heart skewers) and a whole range of native potatoes served with a variety of aji sauces.

Finally, we arrive at Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the majestic Machu Picchu ruins.

At Inkaterra Machu Picchu El Pueblo Hotel, sustainability is integral to the company’s concept of hospitality. While the rest of Aguas Calientes is an example of unregulated concrete sprawl, the grounds and facilities at El Pueblo Machu Picchu align closely with the mystical setting that surrounds Machu Picchu. Shrouded in exuberant greenery, stone pathways link whitewashed adobe buildings and trails branch into the surrounding cloud forest.

Photographer: Alicia Gonzalez

The private dining room at Inkaterra occupies a large glass house with views to the roaring Vilcanota River and gardens filled with avocado, coffee, guava, and orchid plants. To keep the venue intimate, groups are limited to 4 people. Reservations are a must. The separate Cafe Inkaterra accommodates larger groups.

The a la carte dining menu showcases updated Peruvian fare. The options are many and all equally scrumptious. Starters include a salad of organic greens from the restaurant’s farm, with amazing flavors from dehydrated apples with cinnamon, caramelized sunflower seeds, and avocado slices with passion fruit vinaigrette.

Photographer: Alicia Gonzalez

Mains include the chicken breast stuffed with Andean cheese, nuts, native potatoes served with sautéed green beans, Andean herbs and mushroom sauce as well as the seared tuna served with mixed sweet peppers, cassava with Serrano ham, and an arugula, mango and onion salad with vongole sauce. Note that the menu changes regularly to reflect the availability of seasonal ingredients grown at Inkaterra’s organic homestead.

Where to eat & stay

Belmond Palacio Nazarenas – Senza Restaurant | belmond.com/palacio-nazarenas.com

Belmond Rio Sagrado – El Huerto | belmond.com/hotel-rio-sagrado.com

Hotel Sol y Luna – Killa Wasi & Wayra | hotelsolyluna.com

Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel | inkaterra.com/machu-picchu-pueblo-hotel.com

Of course, if you travel for the food, you would be remiss not to stop in Lima for a few belly-busting days. Lima is South America’s culinary capital and home to award-winning kitchens such as Astrid y Gaston, Central, and Amaz.

Published as a feature on our online magazine #SensePeru, our full Lima Restaurant Guide will get you ready for a gastronomic exploration of Peru.

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Written by Anabel
Anabel is Incas Expert’s nomadic wordsmith. After 5 years on the road, she's developed a knack for making impromptu workplaces out of cozy cafes across South America. When not writing, she's probably out searching for the best food, coffee, and bookstores in town.