Saturday, September 22, 2012

Musings on Peru

It's been a week since we returned from Peru. I've been unpacking my many thoughts about the trip over that time. It certainly lived up to the "adventure" billing that I crave in a vacation. I am grateful for the experience and opportunity to go. It was epic in many ways. It was also exciting and at the same time uncomfortable (mentally challenging). Here are some of my high-level impressions, stream of consciousness style (full diary and photo set forthcoming).

Machu Picchu
This archeological site is a logistical nightmare to get to, and also quite expensive. But, it is worth the trouble. It is really quite amazing in many ways. Go while you are young. It is on top of a mountain, and if you are really going to enjoy it, you need to be able to walk deep, uneven granite steps all day long. The most spectacular thing that is hard to capture in photos is the symmetry of the place. The Andean builders valued a reflection of the surrounding landscape in their construction, and you can see peaks inside peaks inside peaks when you look down on the city and its surroundings. You will be amazed with what these people created without wheels, iron or steel.

Driving (or riding in a car) in Peru is quite "adventurous". Double yellow lines are merely a suggestion.  We witnessed a fatal head-on on a highway between a milk truck and a taxi. After that, I noted a memorial on every blind curve. A taxi driver will take you on a 100 kmh weave through a city if they can. A taxi driver will try to charge you more than a fare in NYC if they can. The standard response to this suggestion is "Eres loco". Much like in Rome, if your car can fit, it is a lane. The lane markings are merely for decoration. You can turn from any lane on the road in any direction. This seems to be cooperative during busy times in the city where everyone wants to do the same thing. You haven't lived until you've ridden in a bus over a 16,000 foot pass on a less-than one lane dirt road with no guard rails and significant vertical exposure. The locals do this standing in an open-air truck. Sometimes you've got to appreciate our litigious society in the USA.

The food really is good in Peru. Don't eat lettuce from the local market. You will puke. I don't know any Spanish colloquialisms for this, but let's just say I was "calling the vicunas" all night in the mountains. And, I didn't exactly get the tent open every time. So, there were 6 loads of laundry when we got home. Other than that, I was astonished at the variety and deliciousness of the food. Inka cola is pretty gross, but I did try it once. It looks like Mountain Dew, but does not taste even close. Rick reports it is available at Target if you want to try it. I also had the cuy (guinea pig). It tasted like chicken. Really. I doubt I'll order it again. The skin was crispy, but there wasn't a lot of meat. Stuffed rocoto pepper with alpaca meat is brilliant. I ate that several times. Just remember the red pepper looks like a bell pepper, but is muy picante! It is not mild-mannered. They have mastered quinoa, potatoes, corn and cream soups. They are all good. Sometimes you get rice and potatoes on your plate. That seems a little starch-tastic. The guacamole will blow your mind. The produce is great. Mangos taste like nothing I have ever eaten in the States. The tomatoes and asparagus are great. Get the suckling pig, and the Peking-style duck. They are both great. Also, the seafood soups (chupe) in Lima are fantastic and the trout (trucha) in the mountains is fantastic. Ceviche is not to be missed when in Peru. We had a few of them...all great.

We had 4 world-class meals in Peru, 2 of which had a world-class price tag. The food on our trek was also consistently gourmet-quality and amazing - especially given the cooking facilities. Here are the world-class spots to try:
$$ El Punto Azul in Lima (Miraflores) - can you eat a plate of ceviche as big as your head? Why yes, you can!
$$ Chi-Cha in Arequipa - fresh, fresh, fresh. Cutting edge.
$$$ Brujas de Cachiche in Lima (several locations) - best meal of the trip.
$$$ Sonccollay Pre-Inka Cuisine in Arequipa - don't miss the passion-fruit ceviche.

We sampled pretty much all the beer. Cusquena malt and regular, Arequipena, Pilsen, and Cristal. I think I liked Arequipena and Cristal the best. The malt Cusquena is a lot like Guiness, but sweeter. If you order sparkling water at altitude, open it slowly. You have been warned. Chicha (corn beer) is an acquired taste.

I had mixed impressions of the cities in Peru. I'm not really a big-city gal...add to that the slums and other sub-standard housing, tons of traffic, and a "thriving nightlife", and well, there you have it. The center of Arequipa and Cusco are both charming if you can dodge the street vendors and keep your head about you. The Miraflores neighborhood in Lima is the same, though walking around at night isn't great. There are fabulous restaurants in all 3 cities, and some pretty interesting museums and archeological sites. Downtown Lima is a zoo. I could only take a couple hours of the chaos. Though, we did get a cheap and tasty lunch there. Staying and eating in a good neighborhood in a city will cost you about the same in the U.S. The nuevo sole is pretty strong against the dollar and the economy of Peru is outpacing ours.

It seemed all the tours (other than our trek) were focused more on shopping than on historical sites. This was the most true for the Sacred Valley tour. The others at least struck more of a balance. They are cheap, so I suspect a kickback system is in place. If you really want to focus on the archeological sites, hire a private driver and guide.

The Andes
The Andes are truly spectacular. They are not to be missed. The only bummer is that you have to get above 14,000 feet to really see the stars. This is due to a lot of burning in the air - the fields are burned, the ovens are all wood-burning, and there are not a lot of trees on the leeward side of the mountains to freshen the air. They are also a bit overrun with camping trekkers. I feel that Peru could benefit from a refugio system like in the Alps and Dolomites - permanent structures to house trekkers and provide a meal would help keep human waste contained and provide a clean cooking source and an income source for the local villagers. The smaller cities in the mountains are quite charming - like Chivay. They are big enough to have services and a nice community feel, but small enough to lack crime. And, while still impoverished, the locals seem to have a nice rhythm and quality of life in these towns. The mountains also have a bit of a technological paradox - you can be at 16,000 feet in between villages of stone houses without electricity or running water - and you can talk on your cell phone. There seems to be coverage everywhere. Don't miss the exquisite beauty of the ladies' hats. Every drainage/village you enter in the Andes has a different style of hat, and they are all stunningly beautiful.

Most of the people in the Andes speak Quechua as their first language and Spanish as their second. My name means "maize" in Quechua. My Spanish understanding remains quite good, while my speaking is  a bit rusty. But, I got along OK. We had two tours in Spanish + English and I understood both equally well - it was like hearing an echo the whole way. Let's just say I can't speak any Quechua other than "chicha" and "sara". So, I can order corn and corn beer. I have a ways to go.

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