Heads bow and lift as people whip thick conversation in Cuzco’s classic Cafe Extra (Espaderos 116.) Cups of local coffee or tea, mugs of rich hot chocolate, glasses of fresh-made juice, and plates of pastries or sandwiches listen in as they beat the themes of Cuzco’s intellectual life and politics.
Behind old fashioned wooden and glass doors festooned with flyers and posters of upcoming artistic and political events in the city, as if a swinging translucent, billboard, a long and narrow cafe opens up. The last time we were there, the signs on the door announced a lecture on the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, the Third International Conference on the Periodic Table, and theatre for children, the usual smorgasbord of random themes as if in a surrealist poem.
The walls are retro wood paneling, though not really retro since they had the paneling under a textured white stucco ceiling since the sixties turned to seventies.
Old, framed photos of Cuzco along with a few colored pictures of flowers zig zag over the wooden walls with a sign announcing they are for sale, along with another sign in Spanish, no Yankee English here. “Watch your belongings. The establishment is not responsible for their loss.”
The sign would be retro itself, in remembrance of the days when pickpockets were almost as numerous as tourists in Cuzco’s streets and cafes, if it were not weathered and belonging to the wall like the tacks that hold the panels in place.
A band of tocapu-like squares of figures dances across the wall just about table top. They bring the Inca heritage in, with their reminder of the woven designs of the Incas’ noble clothing.
An immortalized, forever young, Che with a stogie stretching from his lips completes the pantheon. At his side is a letter to his children meant to be read after his death. “Study hard to learn the techniques that permit us to master nature. Remember, it is the revolution that is important; each of us alone is not worth much.”
A waiter quietly hustles among the tables clearing used dishes, taking orders and bringing food and drinks.
Cafe Extra’s food is good, in the old style that used to predominate in Cuzco and yet now seems quaint as if something from another time. An omelet can fold across a plate, next to a sandwich mixto of ham and cheese, and Armstrong made a great step for mankind.
Oh wait. Armstrong recently died. Che is long gone, and most photos are for sale. But Cafe Extra with its almost retro food continues. Every day and every night it fills. The gleaming tourist establishments nearby may have only a few tables occupied, but Cafe Extra has people waiting for a chair or table.
Ok, there is more than the ground floor. You can go to the back and take a narrow staircase to an upstairs. Watch your head, this was built for smaller people than the Gringo norm, but if you can negotiate the stairs while bent, another room with tables opens up, replete with a creaky, wooden floor.
Few foreigners go to Cafe Extra. It is not shiny, corporate, or new. But it is Cuzco, a core part of the real Cuzco, and is only a few steps from the Plaza de Armas on Espaderos street. Its decor and tables with people flinging ideas like darts don’t entice the suburban, modern set. It could be a movie set, or a portal to another time, except there is so much contemporary gravitas.
Really though, the color, the period decor, is all just background, while the food and white cups are props. At Cafe Extra the foreground is always ideas in conversation. And they, like the chocolate that can separate from the milk, need constant stirring.
They seem to never grow old. Cafe Extra, though aging, never grows old either. Sure people who have come here from the beginning, near the middle of the last century, still sit at tables and talk, but next to them is the latest crop of university students, and people of every age, all needing to whip ideas into a meringue of thought, fresh like the pastry on the table.