Peru: Land of the Inca

As my plane took off from Lima Jorge Chavez International Airport, the night was clear, house lights were lit up and I could see mini fireworks throughout the entire city of Lima being sprung to the sky. It was midnight, on December 24th. It was something that I had never come across; coming from Hong Kong where fireworks are restricted to governmental purposes, I was taken aback by the multitude of fireworks that were being propelled from the locals’ houses. It wasn’t an organized event, youngsters were celebrating Christmas from their homes which just influenced others from neighboring houses to do the same. I guess the word I’m looking for is: unpredictable; which I think pretty much sums up my trip to Peru.

When my mother was in her late 20s, she went to Lima for business but left a couple of days after; leaving her no chance to soak up the city, the culture, the food. Until a couple of  months ago, she kept talking about how she wanted to go back to experience Peru and climb  the worldly famous Machu Picchu; it had been a dream of hers for many years. And, I thought to myself, why not for Christmas? What better way to celebrate the holiday with a beautiful gift! I rang the idea past my mother who was immediately ‘sold’ and once we went through the list of tour guides and cities we wanted to visit, it was all booked. Simple, right? Not really.

I’m usually the kind of person who reads up on the history, culture and food of the country I’m visiting but with recent work, I really didn’t get to spend the quality time I needed to introduce myself to Peru, or Peru to myself. So, to be honest, I didn’t really know what I was expecting. What were the people like? How did history affect them? Did it change at all from what it was 30 years ago? Is it dangerous? Will I like it? Will my mother like it? All the questions ran through my mind as I boarded my flight from Miami to Lima about a week ago.

From what I had scrambled through my sources was a vibrant country, continuously growing while keeping its roots in its pre-Columbian as well as colonial times, as both shaped the country to what it is now. The food, apparently, amazing. One of the best in South America. This, at first, made me a bit doubtful, I had traveled extensively throughout the region and I must say that I have tried pretty much everything that was of excellent quality and taste so this was a pretty confident argument. Nevertheless, I went with a clear mind and hungry spirit.

First stop: LIMA

Lima is pretty much your average city. With 8 million people, it bustles day by day, holds traffic jams during the rush hour, has pollution and just has tons and tons of people; whether on the street, in their cars, what have you. Founded in 1535 by famed Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, the modern city borders with slums and colonial architecture. For 300 years, it was the seat of Spanish rule, evident from the architecture of its churches and historical monuments.

Barranco district – bohemian neighborhood filled with bars with great views of the ocean

Lima, as I heard from locals is also the best place to try Peruvian cuisine. It sits on the coast, with the mountains to its east and the Amazon region to the northeast. The city is rich in fish and seafood and surprisingly not expensive. Similarly, during the last few years, Lima’s dining reputation has reach a level high since it was formally declared to be the “Gastronomy Capital of the Americas” in the Fourth International Summit of Gastronomy Madrid Fusión in 2006.

The first dish I knew I had to try was Peruvians’ national dish due to its freshness and unparalleled taste; Ceviche. To put it simply, it is raw fish and some seafood ‘cooked’ in lime juice and mixed with certain condiments ranging from your typical onion and tomatoes to more modern ways of making it like nori.

To try Ceviche, you have to be pretty darn sure that it is fresh, and I knew only 1 place in which I could count on (only opened for lunch and takes no reservations): Cebicheria La Mar.

Famed Chef Gaston Acurio who is on TV, wrote 2 cookbooks and has opened more than 30 restaurants worldwide, heads this joint. He’s not actually there, but you can see his influence. Acurio is known for using traditional Peruvian ingredients (red chiles, sweet potatoes, fat choclo corn kernels) in his recipes and tossing them together in inventively rustic, modern/Batali-esque ways. The menu was long and extensive but we just opted for something simple just to get the taste buds flowing.

Rice, Potato and Corn are staple foods in Peru, so it is not surprising to get some little snacks of roasted corn. Huge pieces!

With some banana and yucca (potato-like root, another local favorite) chips

Don’t forget your accompanying salsa: mild, spicy and super spicy!

We ordered the Ceviche sampler, which comes with 5 different ceviches in martini glasses. All different, all with their own strengths and attitudes. Loved it.

Classic: Fish of the day with lime and onion

Mix: Fish and seafood of the day with lime and onion

Chalaco: Fish and seafood of the day with fried calamari

Nikei: Tuna with Miso, fish sauce and Nori

Chifa Chifa: Fish of the day with ‘Chifa’ peruvian taste [to be explained later]

Can’t pass up my old-time favorite: Chicharron de calamar. Well it is a seafood joint. And yes, I know, I know, I came all the way to Peru and had this, it’s my favorite, what can I say? It was darn good though.

Digest it with a Pisco Sour in hand and you’re ready to go. Enjoy the ride. The national drink of Peru is made with Pisco, a brandy made from grapes. Just be careful with it; the fresh and sweet flavour makes easy to drink too much, and you can get drunk so easily.

By 2 pm, the place was packed and a line had formed around the corner. A definite must-try and a favorite among the locals.

In the evening, I decided to have a second buzz of pisco; this time Coca Sour with a coca leaf to adorn the drink. Yes, coca leaves, the ones that make cocaine but they each comprise 0.5% of cocaine in each so no affect at all. Gives a big kick though.

It helped me digest anticucho (small pieces of grilled skewered meat). Anticuchos can be readily found on street-carts and street food stalls (anticucheras). The meat may be marinated in vinegar and spices (such as cumin, aji pepper and garlic), and while anticuchos can be made of any type of meat, the most popular are made of beef heart (anticuchos de corazon).

Beautiful view of the historical site of Huaca Pucllana


A second must goes to Asian cuisine, both Chinese and Japanese, which predictably, have a strong Peruvian influence. Surprisingly, when I walked through the streets of Peru, I thought I was seeing Asian people, but no, these people were fully Peruvian. Amazing….Anyways, let’s get back to the story. Chifas -that is, Chinese restaurants; literally translates to chi fan which means to eat rice in mandarin-, which can be counted by the thousands. You will find at least fifty or so in each neighborhood offering the ‘Peruvian-Chinese’ version of seafood, chicken, and meats.

Chifa is a term used in Peru to refer to a style of Chinese cooking in which ingredients which are available in Peru have been substituted for those originally used in China. Chinese immigrants came to Peru mainly from the southern province of Guangdong and particularly its capital city Guangzhou in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They settled for the most part in the city of Lima. Due to a lack of Chinese ingredients in Peru, the Chinese were forced to adapt their cuisine to those items available in Peru. The term Chifa is also used to define a restaurant where this type of food is served. Chifa has become one of the most popular types of food in Peru.

Of course, we tried what the locals said was the best in town: Wa Lok. Amazingly enough, the restaurant looked like your typical Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong fully adorned with sculptures and calligraphy writings and even a huge red banner at the back of the restaurant for good luck.

The menu? Everything was written in what I call Peruvian pingying – the Peruvian way of sounding like the Chinese character, followed by the Chinese character itself; except that we were the only Chinese people. And where were the Chinese people? In the kitchen? No way, they owned all the joints, taught Peruvian chefs how to cook up authentic, local Chinese food and sit back and relax.

Traditional chinese snacks to start: pickled vegetables and peanuts

Peking Duck in 2 services

Duck skin on a bed of crispy rice noodles

Duck meat with bean sprouts (which can be wrapped in a lettuce)

Fried Rice

Crispy pork chop

Tofupot with Fish

Good night Lima!

If Lima wasn’t interesting enough, we headed southeast to Lima’s Sacred Valley, onwards and getting closer to Machu Picchu and Cusco city.

SECOND STOP: PISAC (2,970 m)

Coca tea; another custom here to go give you energy and help acclimatize to the higher altitude

The highlight of the town of Pisac is the market. Pisa is a small village along the road of the Sacred Valley, a vital Inca means of transportation through the canyons of the Urubamba valley.

Villagers from around the village gather here to barter and sell their produce, from clothing, jewelry to food.

One place to visit while shopping around is Horno Tipico, a restaurant right off the main square of Pisac.

It serves a delicious Empanada with tomato and onion but also introduces the traveller to local fares such as Cuy – guinea pig. Yes, the pet. It is an Andean delicacy.

THIRD STOP: URUBAMBA, RIO SAGRADO (2,900 m)

Our hotel was nestled on the Rio Sagrado in the Urubamba Valley of Peru. A peaceful and quiet place, it gave us time to relax, reflect and rest up from the high altitude. An animal that you can frequent here is the Alpaca.

Kind of looks like a Llama but cuter, the Alpaca graze on level heights of the Andes. Their fiber (or hair) is used for making knitted and woven items including blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, etc…They are the cutest little thing and I became friends with the brown one.

However, at the restaurant, they also served an Andean delicacy, Alpaca meat. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity though it felt extremely weird and uncomfortable, slicing through my Alpaca steak (that tasted like meat but with a tangy almost gamey taste at the end of it) while looking at my cute alpaca friend grazing through the hotel lawn.

FOURTH STOP: OLLANTAYTAMBO (2,800)

Ollantaytambo, like Pisac, is a small town located at the West of the Sacred Valley but features original Inca foundations and is the best surviving example of Inca town planning. The town is divided in canchas which are intact, holding 1 entrain (usually a huge stone doorway) leading into a central courtyard.

FIFTH STOP: CHINCHERO (3,762m)

Corn fields cover the mountain top

Another Andean village located in the windswept plains of Anta, Chinchero holds beautiful views of the Sacred Valley alongside the snow-capped peak of Salkantay in the West.

It is believed to be the birthplace of the rainbow. It also boasts a beautiful Sunday market. Locals go about their day in traditional dress and the main trade here is weaving.

A non-profit organization in Chinchero promotes traditional weaving so that women may work and help support their families.

Here, the coloring of the wool

Using traditional products to color

STEP 1

Made from lady bug

 

STEP 2

STEP 3:


Ready to knit

All this was making me hungry…And in the very same town, I was able to sample some local delights including….

Corn soup with Andean cheese

Causa; mashed yellow potato dumpling mixed with key lime, onion, chili and oil. Varieties can have avocado, chicken, tuna (typically canned) or even shellfish added to the mixture.  

For a local drink, try Inca Kola. It is a soft drink created in Peru in 1935 by British immigrant José Robinson Lindle using lemon verbena. The soda has an unusual sweet fruity flavor sometimes compared to liquid bubble gum. It has been described as “an acquired taste” whose “intense colour alone is enough to drive away the uninitiated”. Still trying to like it. Worth a try.

SIXTH STOP: MACHU PICCHU

Our trip to the Sacred Valley, ended with the icing on the cake; Machu Picchu. Waiting for this moment for days and months, even years for my mother, it encapsulates you leaving you speechless as you look at its magnificence. The “lost city” is one of the world’s archaeological jewels as it lays hidden from the world in dense and heavy jungle covered mountains.

The ruins almost cling to a steep hillside overlooking the Vilcanota River valley.

As many pictures, postcards, movies and documentaries I have seen about this place, you can never fail to be impressed by this awe-inspiring place. It’s almost magical, it takes your breath away. I pinched myself asking if I was really here. It’s just absolutely beautiful.

The more I walked through the lost city’s walls, the more I wanted to explore. The next morning, I got up early to climb the very mountain you see in those famous pictures, Huayna Picchu (Young mountain).


As I climbed up those steep steps clinging onto ropes, I felt my heart wanting to jump out of my chest, but what a view. What. A View.

After resting during lunch, I trekked up to Sun Gate to get a glimpse of the site in another view with a completely different look. Believe me, every single minute counts as the weather changes rapidly. It can be sunny at first then pouring with rain a couple of minutes later. Unpredictable.

As Pablo Neruda wrote “Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul, to the eternal fusion with the cosmos; where we feel our fragility. It is one of the greatest marvels of South America. A resting place of butterflies in the epicenter of the great circle of life. One more miracle”.

My way back to Cusco

FINAL STOP: CUSCO (3,360 m)

Cusco was the Inca capital (dating back to 1200 AD) before the Spanish came in 1534 and took all its glory. Often referred to as the ‘Archaeological Capital of the Americas’, the city is much older than Lima and holds many indigenous and western styles in its architecture; making this contrast given Cusco a unique and rare beauty.

Cusco portrays the best Inca architecture you can find anywhere in the world. Enormous blocks of granite and limestone are carved to fit together perfectly without the air of mortar. But when the Spanish arrived, many walls were built on top of Inca walls.

Cuzco holds one of the most famous markets in the Andes; the Market of San Pedro where you will find locals buying, selling, trading with each other. This is not a tourist trap, rather it is a way to see how locals live.

Steamed quail eggs

From the fruits, vegetables and nuts area…

Gooseberry

Peruvian corns

Fresh pecan

In the fish area…

Flying fish eggs

In the meat area..

Salted and cured alpaca meat


To end the trip, we specifically asked for a local cuzquenian restaurant. Here they served the traditional fare, but boy was it awesome…

Chairo: A traditional soup of the Puno and Arequipa regions. The soup consists of black chuño, aji panca (red chili pepper), sweet potatoes, and meat (beef brisket, beef stomach lining).  It consists of boiled and sliced yellow potatoes covered with a sauce of made of aji (chili pepper), the Peruvian herb huatacay , and fresh or white cheese, sided with lettuce, boiled eggs and olives. 

Chicharron – salted pork deep-fried in its own fat. There are at least two kinds of chicharrones: pork skins, and country style ribs that are first boiled, then rendered in their own fat until they brown into chicharrones. Other types of chicharrones including deep fried squid, and other seafoods. My dream came true!

Lechon (suckling pig) served with tamale (boiled corn with meat or cheese and wrapped in a banana leaf), potatoes and stuffed pepper with ground pork meat. AWESOME

Sadly, I didn’t have the guts to eat cuy (guinea pig); here they serve it whole with the head and teeth and the whole 9 yards and I just wanted to try. Better luck next time!

The people here are generous, warm and kind. The food is fresh, pure, of the land and rooted in tradition. The sights, well, you can’t beat the sights. They are breathtaking, both natural and man-made. What more can I say? I was surprised and taken back. My experience was unexpected, unpredictable but worth the while.


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Comments
One Response to “Peru: Land of the Inca”
  1. Angiolina says:

    I didn’t see this…. XD it’s beautiful! Hope to come to my place again, you always are so welcome!…. it is to much to know and of course to eat like cuy. I wish u the best luck…kisses Jade… miss u!!!!!! when ever u want u have a house in my place and a friend waiting for u!

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