PJ and I sampled a lot of new foods in Peru, more than I, at least, ever had on other vacations. We had alpaca (very lean meat, a little like venison); ceviche (raw fish cured in citrus juice); and cuy (pronounced kwee), known in the U.S. as Fluffy, Squeaks, Homer, or whatever you may have called your pet guinea pig when you were a kid. Guinea pig is a delicacy in Peru, and no feast is complete without a nice, whole roasted one. It tasted a little like turkey, I thought. We had quinoa and corn prepared as soup and dessert and other ways I would never have thought of, and any dish with potatoes came with several varieties of the thousands that are available. Quinoa grows at high altitude and needs little moisture, and potatoes will grow at up to 14,000 feet, so of course they’re both very popular in a country where mountains and (in many areas) dry conditions abound. Chinese food, or perhaps more accurately, Chinese Peruvian fusion, is very popular, owing to the influx of Chinese laborers that came to work on the railroad in the mid-19th century. They were promised 700 grams of rice a day per person, which didn’t sound like very much to the Peruvians, but it takes a whole lot of people to build a railroad and before long, they were frantically scrambling to buy rice every place they could find it. They grew it themselves and persuaded several other South American countries to grow it as well. These days, chifas (Peruvian Chinese restaurants) are very common in the cities, and rice is frequently served as a side dish on a plate alongside potatoes. The fruit we had was mostly familiar but I did have a whole passion fruit for the first time. I had seen them in the grocery store but had no idea what to do with them so I never bought one. You cut open the outer skin (or break it with your fingers if you’re strong enough) and eat the guts with a spoon. You might not want to try your first one when you’re feeling fanciful because you could convince yourself it’s an alien pod. Also be careful because they’re really juicy.
As far as drinks go, I can say that I like chicha morada (a non-alcoholic juice drink made from corn) and pisco sours (sort of the national cocktail, made from a local brandy), and I heartily dislike chicha de jora, which is a beer made from corn. Coca tea is available everywhere at altitude (there’s an urn of it in almost every hotel lobby in the Andes): it’s a mild herbal tea with slight stimulant properties for both heart and lungs (you can’t get a buzz from it) that’s widely promoted as a remedy for altitude sickness.
In the interest of full disclosure and giving credit where credit is due, we didn’t find all this stuff on our own. We took a tour in Peru. In general, we don’t think of ourselves as tour people because we prefer to proceed at our own pace and accept distractions, opportunities and even the occasional setback as they come. Peru seemed on a different scale as far as logistics were concerned, though, aside from the fact that we simply didn’t know that much about the country and would have had to plan extensively, and we didn’t have time to do that. For example, you can fly from Lima to Cusco in about an hour, or, thanks to the Andes, you can rent a car and drive there in about 20 hours if you don’t stop for anything. So, to make a long story short, we took a tour with Trafalgar Tours and we were very pleased. It had its disadvantages, of course; we would have liked to have stayed much longer in the Larco Museum in Lima, for instance. On the other hand, if we had been on our own, we probably wouldn’t have gone to the Larco Museum at all and we would have missed out on a fascinating experience. It’s a tradeoff. It was rather restful to have everything arranged for us, especially on a trip that included four internal flights, two boats, and a round-trip train ride. And our guides were wonderful. They love their country and love talking about it, and they made its history come alive for us.
The Larco Museum is full of stuff I normally skip when I go to museums, that is, pre-Columbian artifacts, ranging in this case from about 7000 BC to the Spanish conquest in the early-16th century. (I suppose that shows how shallow I am but I don’t know anything about that period and I tend to shortcut it on my way to the Impressionists.) When learning about Peru, everybody hears about the Inca Empire, but it was only around for about a century, although the Inca people were there before the empire surfaced. A half dozen or so distinct cultures predated the Inca. We saw beautiful gold and silver jewelry and royal accoutrements, some of which were so huge that they must have been a terrible inconvenience to have to wear, but if you’re the king, you do what you have to. There were also textiles and pottery, and one section that I found particularly interesting, thousands of drinking vessels in the shape of heads, fruit and other objects. Those people really liked their chicha. One wonders how the vessel appeared to the drinker after he had tossed back a few. There’s also a room devoted to erotic pottery which covers the subject quite thoroughly and which, I can say, leaves nothing to the imagination.
The museum at the Convent of San Francisco in Lima also boasts some beautiful textiles, silver, gold and jewels in the form of vestments, monstrances and other valuable gifts to the church. Giving a really good gift could get you into the high rent district (under the altar) in the catacombs beneath the church when you died, which may have been why they were excavated so enthusiastically that the first building collapsed and they had to rebuild. As it turned out, all that money only bought you a 10-year rental, at which time you were dumped in a huge pit with the bones of the rabble in order to make room for somebody else. When you tour the catacombs now, the bones have been sorted and stacked into neat formations by people with too much time on their hands. The museum is also known for its painting of the Last Supper, which shows Jesus and the disciples feasting on potatoes, chili peppers and (what do they always have at a big feast?) roast guinea pig. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the museum but you can look it up online if you’re interested.
Lima has over eight million people and traffic is horrendous. It’s a coastal desert city that gets almost no rain (Pizarro moved the capital to Lima from Cusco to have easier access to ship mostly stolen treasure back to Spain), and as you drive south along the coast, the landscape becomes truly desolate. It’s rather disconcerting to look out one side of a vehicle and see the Pacific Ocean, and look out the other and see a desert with no vegetation at all. About three hours south of Lima is Paracas, where we stayed for a couple of nights to visit the Nazca lines and the Ballestas Islands.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the Nazca lines, whether you knew that’s what they were called or not. They’re huge geoglyphs drawn out in the desert by the Nazca people, a culture that predated the Inca by a thousand years or more. They’re only a few inches deep but have survived because the area is so dry. The only way to see them is in a small plane, and you can go up in a 10-passenger Cessna and fly over them. I wasn’t feeling well the day the group did the Nazca lines so I stayed at the hotel, but PJ went and said it was really interesting.
I did get to go on the cruise the next day to the Ballestas Islands, which would have been my preference if I had had to choose between the two. The islands have been described as a mini-Galapagos due to the abundance of wildlife. We saw mostly birds, lots of birds. The islands are covered with birds and subsequently, that extremely valuable commodity, guano (commercial bird poop). The Peruvians take great care of the islands as a result. They’re protected by law; the guano is harvested from each one in rotation so each island is only disturbed every five years or so. That way, the birds don’t leave in a huff, never to return, taking their poop with them. Our guide was calling out names too fast for me to catch them all, but we saw pelicans (them I recognized), black terns, lots of Peruvian boobies (it wasn’t until I looked at my pictures that I realized almost of all of them were in pairs), Humboldt penguins, and a pair of red-legged cormorants, whose status is near-threatened. There were only a few sea lions on the Ballestas Islands, but the captain of our little boat took us to another place where we saw hundreds.
I think this cruise was special because it was a complete change from all the history we had learned about over the last week or so. The history was truly fascinating, though, and in my next blog I’ll be talking about Machu Picchu and the Inca culture.