Land of Mystery and Gastronomy : Peru

When one thinks of Peru they often think of the awe-inspiring steep mountains of the Andes, Incan ruins such as Machu Picchu and the indigenous local women in colorful traditional garb and bowler hats leading Llamas through the streets. Well, all of that is still a HUGE part of Perus identity but it is so much more than that now as our journey there would soon show us. Our first taste of this “New Peru” would come as we entered the impressive, modern, capital city of Lima. While still hosting an impressive old center, the skyscrapers and conveniences of other current metropolises of the world were hard to miss. We decided to travel back in time by first visiting the historic center which was certainly a sight to see with its gorgeous plazas surrounded by hundred year old buildings embellished with incredible architectural details. Among them was the Gran Hotel Bolivar, constructed in the 1920’s, with its stained glass dome and classic brass detail work. A walk through the hotel and you could almost imagine seeing some of its frequent 40’s & 50’s guests like Orson Welles, Ava Gardner and John Wayne walking its carpeted hallways 80 years ago. Very cool. Old town certainly gave us a taste of what Lima WAS 50-100 years ago, but to take a look at the NEW Lima we needed to visit the modern and beautifully developed neighborhood of Miraflores. It was almost like taking a step into a modern US or European city and was a stark contrast to old town. They even had a Starbucks which was quite the oddity for us after five Starbucks free months. I admit we got a latte. It tasted a bit like home which was both good and bad 🙂 Lima is also widely considered the gastronomic capital of South America with Miraflores being it’s epicenter and we set about exploring all the new amazing food options we had available to us. In Ecuador and Colombia food is not at all part of their culture whatsoever, so we would not be disappointed AT ALL with what Lima had to offer. From cevicherias to high end (still cheap by US standards) restaurants to Kennedy Park sandwich stalls, everything , and I mean EVERYTHING we ate in Lima was absolutely delicious and light years ahead of anything we’d had the previous 4 months. As self proclaimed foodies from San Francisco, Lima really gives the city by the Bay and New York a run for their money food wise and should be a destination for anyone who truly loves food. After several gut busting days exploring culinary and historic Lima, we headed south and up (in elevation) to the former Incan capital in the mountains, beautiful Cusco.

Words cannot describe the beauty and charm of Cusco. With a main plaza surrounded by giant stone Spanish churches and colonial homes with wooden balconies, a walk through central Cusco gives you chills with its stunning setting amid the surrounding hillsides. Walking the cobblestone streets it is immediately apparent as well that many buildings were constructed incorporating actual carved stone walls from previous Incan structures. The Inca (the name Inca actually only applied to the kings and upper educated class) were the dominant civilization in the area for a mere 300 hundred years before the Spanish arrival around 1500 but are known for their incredibly developed architecture and sciences for the time. Unlike the Maya, the Inca didn’t themselves develop many of the ingenious scientific innovations they are often credited with but rather consolidated the collective knowledge of the many tribes they incorporated in a highly organized way. The city of Cusco is still surrounded by spectacular Incan ruins such as Saqsaywaman (pronounced “Sexy Woman”) which include walls made of giant car sized granite stones carved into spectacular puzzle like pieces that fit together exactly. It was positively mind blowing to behold the intricacy and enormity of them. It is believed through oral history (the Incans had no written language) that the stones were carved using straps of llama leather with a little sand and water and a whooooole lot of time. How they were able to move the immense multi-ton boulders in place so precisely remains a mystery, although help from aliens is a popular new age “theory”. Our exploration into the amazing Inca culture began by hiking a gorgeous section of the “Inca Trail” from Cusco to the Sacred Valley. The more well known and commercial “Inca Trail” is a heavily traveled path to Machu Picchu that takes 4 days and is traversed by more than a thousand people daily. Avoiding the crowds, the section we hiked was a wide stone kings path that wound elaborately through spectacular mountains and valleys and crossed a series of amazing stone Incan aquaducts that led creeks and rivers tiering down the mountainside to their farmlands in the Sacred Valley. Absolutely ingenious. The Sacred Valley as it’s known now was actually called the Sacred River by the Inca as the large river that still winds through the valley makes the whole area so fertile that the land could provide for all of Cusco and the heart of the Incan empire. As we made our way through the grandiose mountains, alone except for our guide, on this very important piece of a historic path, the Sacred Valley came in to view aglow with green, red and yellow crops and we knew immediately why this valley was so important to the Inca. Oddly enough, corn was one of the crops we noticed being farmed in abundance along the way which we found out was used largely to make “Chicha” a Quechua corn beer very popular with indigenous peoples of Peru. As we wandered past small mud brick villages our guide pointed out certain houses with a tree branch extended out above the front door with a red bag or piece of fabric on the end. These were Chicha “bars” he explained! We stopped at one where an old lady in traditional clothing (and bowler hat of course) sat beside some barrels filled with a mysterious liquid and topped by a foot of brownish white foam and hundreds of flies. Our guide said something to her and she picked a cup up off the dirt ground and dunked it (and her arm) through the thick foam (flies scattering) and pulled out a cup of brownish liquid and handed it to us. This was Chicha. Oh boy. We were hardly in a situation to turn down the gifted brew outright so we took the cup and had a few pulls of the liquid that smells (and tastes) like rotten corn out of courtesy. Ug.  I’ll try anything once but that is definitely something I will never try again, an acquired taste I’m sure. Following the theme of trying new local things (a common one on this trip with both many hits and misses), that night back in Cusco we decided to try Alpaca steak, a common food for the area. When in Rome right? The meat we had was cooked and served on a hot volcanic stone and seasoned and cooked to absolute perfection. Unbelievably good. God Peruvians make incredible food! (and incredibly disgusting drinks!). So much love goes into everything they cook it’s obvious, and very much appreciated.

The next day we began our journey to Machu Picchu, the “lost city” of the Inca, via a glass domed train through the mountains to Agua Calientes, a small town deep in the Andes unreachable by car. The train ride itself through the mountains was spectacular but then reaching the riverside village in the middle of the mountains was a moment I’ll never forget. We were actually here, at the base of the mountain crowned by Machu Picchu. A place I’ve dreamed about visiting since I was a little boy and saw pictures of in National Geographic Magazine. Daniel & Laura had arrived. It was hard to fall asleep that night knowing what awaited us in the morning but when the alarm went off at 4:30 am it was up and at em’! Making our way through the early morning rain we arrived at the Machu Picchu area at sunrise in a dense fog and headed to the base of Huayna Picchu, the towering mountain above the ruins of Machu Picchu we would climb that morning. We hiked up the original hundreds of carved Incan stone stairs (at this altitude it was fairly brutal) and made it to the top amongst the first four or five people to summit. The mountain top around us had a few structures built on it where the high priest of the city lived as a hermit overlooking the city and only coming down to impart wisdom from the gods to the city dwellers. All you could see though at this early hour was white all around us and the boulders we sat atop. We were in the clouds now. A few birds would fly out of the nothing and sit beside us nibbling fallen crumbs from our breakfast granola bars before flying back out and disappearing in to the whiteness. After an hour or so though… giant green Andean peaks began emerging out of the clouds all around and above us. It was breathtaking and the grandiosity of it can’t possibly be conveyed in words. Then… almost at once… the fog below us separated and the mountain top ruins of the city of Maachuu Piccu came in to view about a kilometer below us. I’ll never forget that moment as the small group of us sat there in silence from our perch high above. From that vantage point we could not only see the city below us but the sides of the mountain it was perched atop covered with stone tiers all the way down the steep slopes where crops were grown for the village. The spectacular construction of this city in the clouds was all laid out before us. After a while, as we made our way down the mountainside we saw a series of aquaducts channelling water from mountain top springs down to the city and throughout the farming tiers. The whole city is mindblowing in its ingenious construction. Though only 1000 or so people lived there full time, it was estimated that 20,000 people a year visited the city doing a 3 month stint helping build the city as a way of paying taxes. The rest of our day was spent in awe, touring the complexes solar calendars, temples aligned to the solstices and equinoxes and the amazing craftmanship of a city that existed …seemingly…exactly where a city shouldnt be. It’s a place I recommend everyone visit at some point in their lives, my visit certainly changed mine.

Returning to Cusco we prepared for our next great journey… to Lake Titicaca. The next morning we hopped a bus 10 hours south to the highest altitude, navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. Believed to be the beating heart of the Inca people, it was a major figure, almost godlike in their history and lore. Spending a night in the rough lakeside town of Puno, we departed early in the morning to the fascinating “reed islands”. Built by the Uru people as a way to escape the Inca and other encroaching tribes, the reed islands are literally that, islands made entirely of millions of crosshatched reeds cut from the lakeshore and stacked 10 feet thick into floating islands for the people to live on. The “Uros” as the islands are called feel like sponge as you walk across them and it’s amazing to see how the Uru people build everything out of the reeds. Their huts, their canoes, everything. Learning from some locals about their history and craftsmanship was one of those eye opening experiences where you truly see how different and unique other cultures can truly be. After visiting several reed islands on our first day we made our way to a real island on the lake, Amantani. With several indigenous villages on the small island (different from the Uru), the islands village elders placed us with a host family which we would be living with for the next few days. Having lunch in their small home we ate delicious quinoa soup (it was freezing on the island so soup is part of every meal) in their small dirt floored kitchen with the whole family and got a taste (pun intended) of what their daily life was like. That evening we set out to hike around the island to see the remnants of the two remaining ancient temples at the two highest points on the island. The ruins Pachatata (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth) were a sight to see and we followed the traditional ritual of walking three times around each temple counterclockwise and throwing leaves of the Muno plant over the stone wall into the temple for respect and good luck. After a night of traditional music and dance with our family and the local villagers we arose the next morning with sad goodbyes to our new local friends. We spent our final day on the lake visiting a few other islands before making our way back to Puno and then on back to Cusco. A couple more days of enjoying delicious Peruvian food high in the chilly and mystical Andes and we were off to Bolivia to begin our next adventure. More than any other place we’ve visited, I know we’ll go back to Peru. The warm people, the incredible food, the beautiful surroundings and the rich history make it one of the more complete countries to visit and I cant wait to go back.

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