Starbucks generally sucks the air out of local markets for coffee houses. Now that it has opened in Cusco, one might expect the same thing. But Cusco has its own strong culture and maybe its own establishments will survive. Some certainly have already faced severe adversity and made it through. In the honor of Starbucks opening let us look at some of the other places in Cuzco where one can have a cup of coffee and sit for a while.
But first, a note of sadness. Trotamundos closed its doors yesterday. For more than a decade it has been a place of refuge for people from all over the world, and especially for those of us who keep returning to Cuzco. I have spent countless hours there reading or writing over a cup of warmth.
It joins several other coffee houses, such as Varayoq and Cafe Ayllu that have been forced from the environs of the plaza. Unlike the others, it has not found a new location and that is a loss.
For some, such as the long term visitor to Cusco with whom I spoke the other day, that may not seem a loss. About the opening of Starbucks he said “for eleven years I have not had a good cup of coffee in Cuzco. Now at least I can get one.”
Good and bad in coffee is, like so many other things, a matter of culture. Traditionally coffee is made here by adding hot water or milk to “esencia de cafe,” a thick dark syrup made by letting hot water slowly percolate over packed grounds. Served in a small pitcher on the table with a cup of hot water or milk, one can choose how dark or light one wants the coffee.
Furthermore, Peruvian beans generally take a medium roast, unlike the dark–almost burned–roast of Starbucks which imparts a different flavor regime.
To be sure, though Peru may be one of the world’s most important exporters of organic coffees, the quality of the beans until recently was not always the highest. That is changing rapidly, with Peruvian beans winning international accolades.
Cafe Ayllu, which is still here and which fills with locals every morning and afternoon, still serves coffee in the old way, as coffee essence. Besides being a locale with lots of color and history, it is just a great place to go and sit.
If Trotamundos won my loyalty over many years, El Ayllu did too. It is an important Cuzco institution.
Varayoc was another fun place, on the corner of the Plaza Regocijo. It continues now, in the Casa Qoriquente on San Juan de Dios, number 250. There they brew the coffee in European-style machines which imparts a very different flavor profile than the traditional Peruvian way. The building they are in is fun, and if you are ordering food the umbrella covered tables in the cobble-stoned patio are fun. But their main tables in an almost windowless room are cold and uninviting, though the staff is warm and friendly. They still serve Swiss specialties along with a mean apple cake.
Another old Cuzco standard thrives just down the street from where Varayoc once was. Cafe Extra, Espaderos 116, with its pictures of Che Guevara on the walls, is an old tradition for Cuzco intellectuals. I have not had their coffee, because everyone says their hot chocolate is great.
This is not an international hot chocolate, cloyingly sweet and loaded with whipped cream. Instead it is made from local chocolate and is meatily rich and served without sugar. You get to add the sweetener to your own taste.
If you like modern splash and a glass case filled with pastries and ice creams then you will enjoy La Bondiet, with its two locations–one on Plazoleta Espinar 363 and the other on Plateros 363. Both emphasize clean lines with lots of gleaming glass and metal. Their coffee is served in small, white cups which emphasize the economy of their modernity. Nevertheless, in both one can sit and enjoy a good book or conversation while watching Cuzco pass by.
Above the Plaza de Armas, Capuccino continues, Portal Comerico 141. Their coffee is also brewed in Espresso machines and they offer a menu of breakfasts, sandwiches and deserts. However their greatest claim to fame may be their views of the plaza from their balconies and broad windows. Although service is sometimes spotty and the coffee is fairly generic, though not without taste, they are the last coffee house, besides Starbucks, to be on the Plaza and are worth the visit.
Finally, on Plazoleta Santa Catalina 207 the Cusco coffee house whose main cafe is off the tourist center, Cafe Perla, has opened a venue which tries to be good. They are a local roaster of Peruvian beans and the coffee has some distinction as a result. However their locale, though colorful and interesting, does not invite you to just come and sit a spell. In addition, they have yet to invest in WiFi, hoping instead to focus on location, a bar, sandwiches, and coffee.
There are other places in Cuzco where you can go and relax, such as Le Nomade (Choquechaca 207,) Cafe Punchay (Choquechaca 229,) Lechuzo’s Coffee (Av El Sol 761,) or The Meeting Place (Plazoleta San Blas 630.)
Nevertheless, Starbucks will shake the local coffee house scene. Hopefully, the best of the local houses will continue. They may not be able to compete with the Chain in terms of marketing or international flair. But they offer so much more in different coffee house cultures and local color. May they thrive too.