I’d hardly say that Neil and I are on a strict budget though most people would wonder how we’ll manage traveling for 2 years without one. But what most don’t realize is that we’re both very sensible people. We weigh out our wants versus our needs and pace ourselves throughout the day based on this simple principle. Lunch should only be $4, a room $25-30. Why take taxis when we can walk? And souvenirs are a thing of our novice backpacker pasts. We prefer pictures especially after the mammoth investment in a Canon 60D and Sony TX10. And why have a S/. 8 (US$3) glass of wine in a restaurant when we can split a $3 box of Chile’s finest vino in our homestay? Our budget is not about restrictions but rather about shifting our priorities. I’d rather eat set meals every day for a month, spending only a few dollars a day on meals, than skimp out on clean accommodations. 99% of the time, this is how we function. But then again, life is short and the Gringo Trail is long. So once in a while we splurge.
Indulging with French Cuisine in Cusco
“We just had a culinary orgasm!” Our friend Anouk scuttled into a chair, reaching for my hand like she must make me believe that she’s telling the truth. “It was amazing!” Her boyfriend Hans threw his hands out in newfound enlightenment. Our friends are very punctual people. When they make a commitment, they stick to it whether it entails a cross town cambi-bus through Lima traffic or getting up early to buy groceries for a ceviche cooking class. They are always on time but one night in Cusco, they didn’t come to the trivia quiz at a local pub. Instead they had a “culinary epiphany” at a French restaurant called El Soleil.
“Today they didn’t have any duck. So, tomorrow we are going back for dinner again. You should come!” Hans kept rolling his eyes at the thought of duck and delicate sauces while Anouk couldn’t stop smiling. “But it is very expensive, so…”
I always believe in considering the source of any advice. Our Belgian friends were in their mid-twenties on a 6-month break from work and studies to travel South America. Their daily budget was a strict S/.140 (US$51) combined. One time in Huacachina, Hans was hungry and wanted a burger. Anouk referred to the budget and Hans relented, purchasing a banana for 50 cents Peruvian in the market. They are the strictest travelers that we’ve met. So when they recommended El Soliel…well, we were willing to dish out a few hundred Soles for the “culinary orgasm” special.
Fine Dining in Cusco at El Soleil
A four-block walk from the Plaza de Armas, El Soleil Restaurant is a spacious eatery with white walls and glass entry. Each table is set with tall drinking glasses and shiny cutlery. The owner welcomes guests, suggesting entrée selections and insuring that every detail is perfect. For two Belgians, this was heaven. For two New Yorkers, we were receiving an accelerated course in haute cuisine. When we first sat down and opened the menus, I thought: this place is very quiet. Restaurants in New York are lively with the melodious click of silverware and light banter of friends. El Soleil was very quiet as if anything above a whisper would shatter the battalion of stemware standing on the tabletops.
So I dove into the menu, attempting to settle into the high-ceiling, brightly lit room. The owner was helpful, adding cheerful chatter as we decided. And Hans reached out a congenial hand, saying: “Everything looks good. But I am having the duck.”
The initial iciness of the place melted and I suppose that part of me that was a little uptight about haute cuisine melted away. Our meal was fabulous with a tastebud tempting entrada and a hearty segundo. From the proper wine list (a beautiful thing in Cusco) we ordered a bottle of French wine and toasted to our friendship. When Hans’ duck appeared, along with other entrees, I understood their excitement. The plate was a richly sauced and decadently prepared dish with both an array and depth of flavors. My salmon was flaky and succulent with a skin seared to a chip-like crispiness. Neil’s pork medallions were steeped in a hearty sauce. Anouk and Hans shared bites of their succulent dishes.
At meal’s end, we complimented the chef and paid our bill willingly. While eating is always a big part of travel for me, I usually favor meals that are simply prepared and affordably priced. But our dinner at El Soleil was a great chance to see the other side of culinary travel. And once in a while, your budget should encompass these experiences too.