A Guide to Wine, Food & the Good Life

PERU – THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED

Cary Feibleman • 9/6/12        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

 

 INTRODUCTION


Last year contributing editor Greg McCluney posted an article on Machu Picchu entitled “Pursuing Machu Picchu and the food and wine of Peru” (to read that article see the link at the end of this article). This year contributing editor Cary Feibleman and his family also took the road less traveled and Cary contributed yet another fascinating article on this ancient part of the world in the Americas. Following is his article.

Machu Picchu has captivated the imagination of world travelers since Hiram Bingham discovered it 100 years ago and declared it “The Lost City of the Incas” in an elaborately illustrated article in The National Geographic Magazine. The National Geographic Magazine was The Discovery Channel of its day.  Bingham’s find was in the waning moments of the great Era of Discovery.  In the 1860’s-1870’s Stanley and Livingstone and a few other European notables were completing the exploration of “Darkest Africa” and finding the source of the Nile.  Amundsen and Scott were in a race to reach the South Pole and other remote portions of the world were being explored for the first time by non-indigenous civilizations. Photography was in its infancy capturing wondrous structures like the Taj Mahal and beautiful sites in distant lands with images that could be viewed by millions through magazines and newspapers. These explorers captured the excitement of the population like the fanciful adventures of Indiana Jones do today.

 

 A SPECTACULAR TRIP BACK IN TIME AND A STUDY IN CONTRAST

This summer our family decided it was time for a little time travel back to the 13th and 14th century. We boarded a LAN Peru non-stop flight from LAX to Lima and within 24 hours of arriving in Peru were transported to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. This is a region where the timeless Urubamba River cuts through granite and limestone mountain valleys once filled with glaciers extending from distant peaks in the Andes. Here, the ruins of an ancient civilization from another millennium sit atop each hillside and every bend in the curving railway track takes you back further into time.

Peru has everything you would want in a vacation adventure–beautiful scenery, great archeological sites, terrific food, and Marxist guerillas—actually they are all now in jail.  We selected a Lima travel agency that organized a seamless trip with great guides, lovely hotels and delightful local restaurants.

 
      Peru  – Machu Picchu – Cusco

LIMA

Lima is a seaside city that is hot and humid most of the year, but paradoxically only gets half an inch of rain in twelve months! Our guide was a Peruvian-American artist and gallery owner with an encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s history and also seemingly related to every important Peruvian of the last 200 years.


Cathedral in Lima

We visited private homes dating back to the early colonial days, cathedrals and museums and even fit in time for lunch at restaurant Tanta where they prepared very delicious Peruvian tapas.


Tapas

Lima is known throughout South America as a fantastic restaurant city. Chinese were brought to help build the Peruvian railroad system and their restaurants have a world-class reputation.  Japanese came in the 20th century  and Nobu Matsuhisa whose Nobu restaurants are now in many of the world’s largest cities, spent years combining traditional Japanese sushi techniques with Peru’s famous raw fish ceviche and other seafood specialties.  The 19th century slave trade brought Creole food to Peru and there is a rich tradition of Andean cooking that is still delicious.  There is no shortage of interesting places to eat in Peru!

Lima is divided into 18 different districts, all of which have their own local governments and varying control and responsibility for services in their boundaries.  There is also a overlying layer of government dealing with issues that involve more than one district—utilities, transportation, maintenance of roads and services, etc.  Miraflores is the district that includes the seashore and contains the most plush hotels and visitor attractions—shopping, galleries and upscale restaurants.  Other districts feature a greater concentration of office and government buildings, and still others look like a typical barrio.  We chose to explore the old heart of the city rather than the South Beach like avenues of Miraflores. It was in this region that we found an interesting mix of shops that catered to the average Peruvian rather than the international traveller, rather than seeing outposts of international commerce found in every large city.  Andean indians walked the streets selling Alpaca and woolen knitwear and small stores sold all the other necessities needed for daily life. Some streets were on the seedy side, but just as we started to get bored our guide would steer us to an ice cream shop featuring frozen treats made from Amazonian fruit totally unknown in North America or a candy or bake shop displaying treats we had never seen before in Europe or the U.S. The highlight of the first day in Peru was lunch a T’ anta.  This is a casual restaurant by Peru’s most famous chef, Gastón Acurio. In this restaurant, Acurio reinterprets and tweaks traditional Peruvian tapas and dishes for the modern palate.  This was our first exposure to causas, the small, appetizer portioned cold mashed potato creations that are lightly spiced with local peppers and serve as a base for fresh seafood.  They were stunning and we now make our own versions at home. His empanadas were as feathers and filled with very interesting mixtures of meats and vegetables seasoned by Amazonian and Andean spices that we had never tasted before and gave an exotic twist to what looked ordinary and traditional.

In the evening we dined at the Acurio flagship restaurant, Astrid Y Gastón, a very serious wood paneled white tablecloth restaurant, think Taillevent Lima style.  The restaurant is named after the chef and his wife who is in charge of desserts.  There are sister restaurants bearing the same name in other major South American cities like Santiago, Chile and the chef is spreading his ideas throughout the major continental capitols. The food is very correct and well made with excellent service and a serious price to match, but for our tastes not as exciting or fun as the more casual restaurant, T’anta. This is a phenomenon that we have observed in other major “food cities” as well; take Paris, for instance, where many of the three star chefs now have one star and three fork establishments where their former sous chefs are given more freedom and the dining experiences are more relaxed and admittedly more fun than in the sacred halls of cuisine.  All through out Peru we found the “best in town” restaurants to serve cuisine that mimicked what one would see on menus in every major big city and that the restaurants that were considered one level below the top notch ones provided the most interesting and satisfying dining experiences.


Chilled Mashed Potato Terrine

 

PISAC AND CHINCERO

After a 90 minute flight from Lima you arrive at 10, 800 foot high Cusco, the capitol of the Andes and center of the Inca world. From there it is an hour and a half out into the Sacred Valley of the Incas.  For the next week our guide took us to fabulous ruins, many which would make the trip worthwhile without even seeing Machu Picchu.

The Inca Empire extended over a thousand miles along the coast from Ecuador into Northern Chile and then inland beyond the Andes into Northern Argentina and Western Brazil.  At its peak 8,000,000 to 10,000,000 populated its boundaries. The most impressive archeological ruins are in the mountains and it is amazing to see homes, buildings, temples and fortresses composed of millions of perfectly cut stones assembled snugly together without mortar. How they were cut, with what instruments and how the Incas transported the stones to their ultimate location remain a mystery as there is no evidence this civilization had a written language, nor horses or the wheel to move the stones . At ruins like Sacsayhuaman the bottom supporting blocks each weigh 50-100 tons!


Sacred Valley

The ruins at Pisac are the largest fortress city of the Incas and are located in the hills 40 miles from Cusco high above the 9,000 foot high Urubamba Sacred Valley floor.   Agricultural terraces extend far up the steep hillsides to the settlements where a narrow entry way protects from invaders. On top of the hill is an elaborately organized Inca city with houses and buildings, many with intact walls. As you walk through the passageways you see still functional Inca fresh water springs and drainage systems. This is a stunning site particularly as the afternoon shadows dramatize the architectural angles.

 


Ruins at Pesac

A highlight of any visit is the journey to the 12,500 foot high village of Chincero located in rolling hills near two large high mountain lakes.  Here a UNESCO backed institute has been organized in the last two decades by indigenous people to preserve the traditional techniques used to weave native garments.  In the 1980’s locals feared that the centuries old practices used to produce beautifully colored garments, bags and blankets might die with the current generation.  They appealed for international contributions to support a school to teach the next generation the knitting and weaving arts. We watched the entire process from the beginning stage of forming loose thread from Alpaca wool, to dyeing it in boiling vats of ground up natural coloring agents derived from herbs, seeds and even rare purple pink beetle shell.
 

                                                                 Display of Natural Dyes                                                          

Once dry, the yarn is wound into balls and then the elaborate knitting and weaving begins on traditional looms. After watching the women of the village working their craft, we went to another area of the center and observed very young girls learning the beginning techniques of weaving.  The garments, blankets made at this school are considered amongst the finest in the Andes and are highly sought.  They also have a store in Cusco.

 


Dyeing Process

The present day Indians and people who live in the hills often dwell in the old, stone walled Inca structures as their homes.  In many villages Inca homes co-exist with newer, modern structures.  The newer homes are built out of dried mud bricks which the Indians set out in the sun to quickly dry in the arid, high mountain air.  Depending on their means, the roofs are made either of thatched tile or modern sheet metal.  There is a push by the government for the villagers to convert to the latter, but as these high mountain sites are prone to violent hailstorms during the rainy season. Our guide mentioned that the homes can sound like a kettle drum when hail pounds the roof.  Then, the virtue of a traditional Inca thatched roof becomes apparent.

In the Urubamba countryside there is a hotel complex called Sol y Luna that consists of individual round one and two bedroom casitas spread over several acres of lushly landscaped grounds.  One could easily be in Santa Barbara, for there is no way to know you are almost two miles high in the Andes judging by the lush flowers and greenery

One night our hotel chef cooked a special Andean feast known as a Pachamanca.  The staff dug a large pit and 5 hours heated 8 inch stones over a charcoal fire.  They then thrashed handfuls of herbs over the hot rocks to release their essential oils. Next, various meats (beef, lamb, port, chicken and, yes, guinea pig) whish had marinated in Andean beer and herbs for two days were placed directly on the hot rocks with potatoes, large tubers and carrots.  Next, layers of alfalfa, followed by wet burlap and freshly shoveled dirt were used to seal the pit. A flower decorated cross was then placed atop the dry earth and a bottle of beer ceremoniously poured over the mound as an appropriate prayer offering was made. Forty-five minutes later the site was dug up like a New England clambake.  The meats were perfectly roasted, cut up and served with local sauces. It was memorable, even the juicy guinea pig—when in Rome….

 

INCA HISTORY

A short history of the demise of the Incas is that after several centuries of ruling a thousand mile long empire, a Spaniard named Pizarro came with an army of 200 men in search of gold.  Initially welcomed by the indigenous people, the Spaniards captured their leader and after three warehouses were filled to the top with a ransom of gold, they double crossed the Incas and murdered their chief.


Villager in Traditional Peruvian Clothing

The Spaniards were greatly outnumbered by the Incas, but they had rifles, armor and horses.  It is said that when the Incas first saw the soldiers sitting atop their horses, both covered in armor, they thought they were a single animal, like a centaur. For 30-40 years various Spanish leaders fought battles with successive Inca rulers. The Inca Empire was eventually split into northern and southern branches, brother was set upon brother and each Inca stronghold was finally abandoned beginning with the nation’s capitol in Cusco. The Inca ruler retreated to the jungle sanctuary Vilcabamba, a town the Spaniards never managed to take. Small pox, measles and influenza further reduced the Inca population by 50%.  Once the Spanish conquered the Empire, they divided up the Inca lands into regions and sub-regions under the control of various Spanish conquerors, noblemen, church officials and even a few members of the Inca royal family who had agreed to convert to Christianity and accept Spanish rule.

When the Spanish arrived Lima did not really exist. Cusco was the capitol and located a couple hundred miles inland. The only way to get there was on the Inca Highway, an elaborate road system of paved stones several feet wide extending along river valleys and high into the mountains.  It probably extended thousands of miles in length, but now only a few hundred miles remain as local people took the stones to use for construction of their own homes and to maintain terraced walls.  Cusco was a magnificent Inca city of great temples decorated with gold and was the seat of the royal family.  The Inca king had his own palace as did each of his predecessors.  In fact, in  this patrimonial culture each king was mummified after his death and remained in his own palace replete with a set of attendants.  During Inca celebrations the mummies were brought out and paraded around the plaza by their attendants as if they were still active participants in the Inca culture.

The city had aqueducts bringing clean Andean spring water to the city and there was an elaborate drainage system removing waste from the city.  The Spanish had no appreciation for the local culture or its architecture.  The Catholic Church believed the pagan Indians should be baptized and converted to Christianity so the first thing the Spanish did after robbing the Incas of all their remaining gold was to knock down all of the Inca buildings and temples and erect colonial administrative buildings, churches and haciendas on top of the stone foundations left over from the Inca buildings. The aqueduct system of springs and sewage control was destroyed and supposedly within ten years the town was a fetid cesspool.  The state and church banned native celebrations, imposed Christianity as the sole religion and tried to replace the native language, Quechua, with Spanish.

Within a few decades the vast majority of Incas became serfs,vassals and had to turn over 80% of their annual production from mining, coca production and general farming to the land owners before they were able to keep any for themselves.  Abuse of this agreement was rampant and the health and spirit of the native people was broken by these onerous terms. It is not surprising that many of the Incas gradually retreated from their former lands and moved to more remote areas higher in the mountains and also to the jungle so they could practice their traditional customs, language and religion and escape Spanish tyranny.

At one time the Inca highway of trails paved with flattened stone extended thousands of mile throughout the empire.  Today little of that remains, but one of the great experiences for backpackers is to take the four day, 26 mile Inca Trail hike through many different micro-climates and venturing through passes almost twice as high as Machu Picchu, ultimately arriving at this incredible architectural site at sunrise on the fourth day of your hike.  Most hikers employ quite a few bearers to take provisions, cooking equipment, camping gear, etc.  The scenery is spectacular and one passes through ruins that are remote for those who do not venture on the trail.  Access is now limited by the Peruvian government in an effort to maintain the integrity of the trail and environment.

Coca leaves have been a crop for the indigenous people in Andes for thousands of years.  Benefits attributed to the leaf vary from helping with altitude sickness, to increasing stamina to a wide variety of herbal medicinal qualities.  It is available through out Peru as a tea. Prepared tea bags are found in any selection along with herbal and blacks teas.  It has a medicinal herbal taste and definitely does not confer a “high” to the consumer.  Chewing the leaves extracts more of the chemical essence of the plant, but one would probably have to chew pounds of them to experience a narcotic effect.  The leaves are available both dried and fresh through out the Andes. Coca is even used as a minty herb in sweet confections.


Coca Candy


AGUA CALIENTES, MACHU PICCHU, AND WAYNA PICCHU


Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu

The village of Agua Calientes, gateway to  Machu Picchu, was formerly a forgotten dot on the map with only a building or two.  Now it is a tourist destination, entry way to the ruins considered one of the wonders of the world. From the center of town one takes a 20 minute bus ride up the hill to the site of the famous ruins.  It is a 2,000 foot gain from this town  surrounded by steep jungle to the spectacularly positioned hilltop  Machu Picchu and its companion mountain, Wayna Picchu.

Machu Picchu is VERY impressive. It was “rediscovered” by Hiram Bingham in 1911 on a Yale supported investigation of Inca territory.  A local guide led him to this hilltop region that was being farmed by locals, but overgrown with vines and vegetation.  When Bingham grasped the size of the community at this remote site, he thought he had discovered “The Lost City of the Incas—Vilcabamba.” He hired locals to clear the vegetation and extensively photographed the site for an article that appeared soon afterward in The National Geographic.  The beauty and majesty of the site and its buildings captured the imagination of the people of America and Europe.  Yale and the Geographical Society quickly financed several more treks by Bingham as he explored other sites formerly unknown outside of local circles.  The photo above shows the ruins on the left and Wayna Picchu in the immediate background on the right.  If you look carefully you can make out the trail that circles Wayna Picchu and leads you to the top.

The claim that Machu Picchu was the storied Lost City was disputed by other scholars and ultimately it was agreed that it was a very important Inca community, probably under the rule of one of the court’s highest officials.  It was named after the nearby towering mountain, Machu Picchu.  The site consists of an amazing emerald colored settlement whose well maintained buildings have been cleaned of vines and trees.  They stand on a promontory surrounded by steep walls falling to the jungle thousands of feet below.  It is a Shangri-La setting worthy of a movie and its steep nearby sister mountain, Wayna Picchu, acts as a backdrop in every picture every taken of Machu Picchu.


  Two story Macchu Picchu Structure with Window and Storage Shelves

On our second day we climbed Wayna Picchu. It is described as a one-hour strenuous climb up a narrow trail that hugs the sides of the rocky mountain.  In some places steps are cut into the granite and in other locations there is a dirt trail.  When the climb becomes precarious, steel cable and ropes have been bolted into the mountain side for extra support, but on the other side of those steps there is often a thousand foot drop. Our whole party made it to the top, but it can be challenging for those with a fear of heights.


Structure Built on Shaped Granite Boulders

As we reached the very top we saw a 17 year old Frenchman lying on the ground complaining of chest pain.  A Boston University nursing student was attending to him while the natives were administering oxygen.  His pulse  was regular and one could see that he had good color in his hands and feet, a sign that his heart was working despite his discomfort.  A doctor had been called and was running up the mountain. He arrived dressed in slacks, dress shoes and a white coat five minutes later and was followed by four native Indians with a stretcher upon which  they took him down.  The Frenchman’s friends told me had a history of a bad heart and that it had been his dream to climb Wayna Picchu.   The doctor ended up spending the entire day with him and when we arrived at the train station in Ollantaytambo, they whisked him away in an ambulance.  This man may always be happy that he fulfilled his wish, but he potentially put himself and a lot of people in danger.  The trail up the mountain is only wide enough for one person to pass in most places.  Had he been in a particularly steep stretch of the trail and fainted or lost his footing, his body could have hit others just below him and all would have fallen off the mountain and perished.  Realizing how narrow the path is in places makes one hold in awe the sure footedness of the native “sherpas” who were able to evacuate this man down the mountain.

 

CUSCO

Cusco is full of sites worth a day or two touring.  The remnants of all the greatest Inca shrines and temples are there.  Sadly, only the foundations and a few walls are left, because the Spanish tore them down, but were smart enough to leave the bottom layers as the foundations for their own churches and colonial buildings.  The very finest Inca stone work was reserved for these important buildings and the narrow seams between very large stone blocks is amazing.  Not all blocks are perfectly square, but when there is an angle or a curved line in a block the opposing block is curved or angled to exactly fit its neighbor.  Within the city there are some stone blocks with as many as 18 different flat surfaces and angles, each of which has an opposing block similarly fashioned to fit very securely.  In addition, many Inca stone blocks have inner ridges fitting a comparably sized depression in the block above or below it for reinforcement.  Cusco and Peru in general are in a very seismically active zone.  The earthquake in 1746 flattened Lima and many major tremblers have been felt in the last few centuries, but while the Spanish buildings always fall down, little damage happens to the Inca walls!

Cusco and the surrounding countryside are full of beautifully decorated churches that are worth a visit to admire the colonial frescoes and paintings, gilded interiors and massive silver ornamentation from the nearby mines.  There are some unique Peruvian takes on Catholic ritual.  There is a famously reproduced image of The Last Supper with Jesus and his circle of followers gathered around a large table for their final meal of—-guinea pig!  In many of the churches there is a celebration of the earthquake saint, and finally there is a dark skinned Jesus who appears quite frequently in paintings and is an attempt by early church artists to make indigenous people feel that they could relate to this new religion.

 


Last Supper Scene with Cuy (Guinea Pig)  Main Course

Another fascinating site worth visiting in Cusco is the San Pedro Market, a large sprawling central city market containing hundreds of stalls offerings all varieties of foods as well as cheap clothing and jewelry.  Besides the requisite meat, fish and fruit stands, there are potato stands where every imaginable size, shape, color and textured potato can be purchased.  This is the nation from which all potatoes arose and there are thought to be over 800 varieties.  The same can be said for the wide spectrum of beautifully colored ears of dried maize—corn.  What is interesting is the size of the kernels easily double and trip the size of our corn. You have never seen popcorn, until you see the giant kernels as big as a half dollar that these assume once popped.  When eaten fresh, they are starchy and not as sweet as what we are used to.  Potatoes are also used in manners with which we are not familiar.  A favorite preparation is to take mashed yellow potatoes and mix them with olive oil, lime juice and a subtly spicy yellow pepper puree. Once cold they are rolled out into layers and form a sandwich terrine enclosing a seafood or cold meat salad.  They are then served sliced in wedges or rectangles like a Napoleon.  They are stunning looking and delicious.

 

PIKILLACTA

Many tours are limited to Cusco and Machu Picchu, but there is so much to see that it is a shame to schedule less than a week out in the countryside.  One day we visited Pikillacta. This is a huge pre-Inca settlement of the Wari people 20-30 miles outside of Cusco.  These people reached their peak around 1000 AD and were perhaps eventually conquered by the Incas. The remaining ruins consist of one and two story high rock walled houses arranged in a full mile grid of smaller squares.  It is out in the countryside, but strategically guards the entrance to the Cusco Valley.  The stonework is cruder than the Incas, but undoudtedly each successive culture built on the experimentation and successes of the one preceding them.

 


Inca and Wari Ruins

   

RECENT POLITICAL HISTORY

In the 1980’s and 90’s the Maoist guerilla group The Shining Path terrorized the countryside of Peru and at times brazenly entered the heart of Lima unsettling the Capitol and made certain that no one in the country felt safe.  President Fujimori was elected on a pledge to end the guerilla movement.  Our guide was a college student at the time and told us that he was constantly in fear for his life. He was certain there were both undercover police as well as Marxist guerillas in his classes, both eyeing each other.

Those who ventured out into the country were at constant risk of being stopped by armed men and asked for money.   Villagers were forced to give food.  If either refused they ran the risk of being shot.  This unrest essentially eliminated the tourist industry for more than a decade. Upwards of 68,000 people lost their lives during this period and it is uncertain if the army or the guerillas caused the most deaths.  The Peruvian army finally captured the guerillas’ leader and decimated his army.  By ridding the country of the guerillas Peruvians breathed more easily and the economy began to grow again.  Fujimori; however, was a corrupt leader and both he, his internal affairs minister and the Shining Path leader all ended up in prison.

The New York Times recently reported on the current status of Peruvian national politics and commented that it seems right out of the TV show “Dallas.” In 2000 current President Ollanta Humala, then an army officer, led a revolt against corrupt President Fujimori.  In 2006 he ran unsuccessfully for President as a Hugo Chavez styled leftist. One of his opponents that year was his brother, Ulises. Both lost. Last year he ran as a centrist populist. This time he won. This success has not helped his other brother, Anauro, who has been in prison since 2005 for leading a failed rebellion.  Another brother has run off to Europe claiming to represent the country in negotiations—Peru says he is acting on his own. The President’s sister claims her imprisoned brother is being beaten and tortured.  The mother blames her son, the President, for not freeing his brother and the father has taken her side against his son.  And on and on it goes.

President Humala was elected with the help of trade unions, but reversed his polices the first year and took the side of the mining interests, the nation’s primary economic driver. As we arrived in Peru the national teachers union was well into a several week national strike.  This has been particularly harmful to Peru’s young people as the quality of education its students receive is already considered one of the worst in South America.  Classes are conducted only 5 hours a day and teachers’ wages are so low, $300-400 per month that almost all of them need a second job to live on.  This seriously impacts their ability to correct student work or do lesson planning.  Our guide said many students he  knows complain that their teachers fall asleep during school because they might have spent the night before driving a truck or doing some other form of work.

To make their point the teachers were having mass demonstrations in the streets the week we visited, and in case the public missed the point, the union leaders threatened to disrupt the tourist industry by closing down Lima airport and placing large boulders and burning tree trunks in the streets and on the main tourist roads in the countryside.  This affected us on our return from Machu Picchu to Ollantaytambo.  During the course of the day drivers and local villagers helped to move the rocks to one side of the road, but  traffic was reduced to one lane.

As the national holiday of Independence approached there were rumors that the teachers would affect traffic through out Peru. At 4 am on our last night in Cuzco, we were awakened by loud explosions and I figured, “The revolution is on,” but when I looked out the window into the dark I could see fireworks and  hear a band playing.  They were starting their Independence Day celebration  early.  We thought it odd to wake everyone up in the dark three hours before daylight, but it is apparently traditional.

At 8 am I walked down to the main city plaza which was full of various members of the army, defense, squad, anti-terrorist units, many in their dress uniforms while others appeared in fatigues, ready for action with AK-47s machine guns and rifle launched rocket grenades I may have seen too many action films or spy thrillers, but there is something very chilling about looking at a fully armed South American army unit in tight formation and all wearing reflective sunglasses, all bearing a “no nonsense” look on their faces, and when they started goose stepping around the Plaza the image was complete.  All was peaceful, of course, and there were uniformed children from private schools also marching and patriotic speeches by local dignitaries.  At the perimeter of the parade native women were selling skewers of alpaca and local potatoes roasted on the spot.  Many women had huge plastic cartons full of homemade guacamole that they had prepared on the spot and were slathering on soft white bread for sale.

 

FOOD, WINE AND SPIRITS, AND LODGING

One of the lovely traditions of Peru is offering guests a Pisco Sour, the traditional drink.  In many of the hotels we stayed at an invitation to come to the bar for a welcoming Pisco was part of the experience.  Pisco is a clear alcohol distilled from first run grape juice.  It is often a blend of different white grapes, but sometimes is vintage dated and given special treatment like an aged tequila or cognac.  Peruvians pride themselves on the fact that the first run juice contains all the aromas and essence of the grape without the harshness that second crushing of skins and stems produces and from which many brandies and grappas are made.  A Pisco Sour is made from three parts Pisco, one part lime juice, one part sugar syrup and one part egg white all vigorously shaken  with ice for 30 seconds and then poured minus the ice.  It is strong, refreshing and delicious, particularly at 9,000 feet!

Wine is increasingly drunk with meals in Peru.  Argentine and Chilean varieties dominate all wine lists and are by far the most affordable and complement the local cuisine.. Malbec, Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay are usually available with many other varietals supplementing restaurant offerings.  Sol Y Luna in Urubamba has a serious wine program at its restaurant with a beautiful subterranean wine cellar and a large table set up for special wine tasting dinners.  The sommelier proudly showed off a set of at least a hundred different vials of unique scents that he employs to help tasters identify individual aromas and fragrances.  I am not certain if they raise the room temperature from its 58 -60 degree range for diners, but I am certain they remember the experience one way or the other.  The most expensive restaurants also offer a selection of French wines, but at prices much higher that we see in the U.S.  The local Peruvian wine industry is starting to grow and can be very pleasant, but as yet not a challenge to the more established South American vineyard regions.

The Casa Cartagena in Cusco is a beautiful, recently restored structure composed of two adjoining colonial haciendas which an Italian investor bought and combined their properties and renovated in a very beautiful, modern and traditional fusion style of decorating.  The hotel features a beautiful intimate dining room where breakfasts and dinners are served.

 


Trout Ceviche at Map Restaurant

The chef makes his own cheeses, four of which are variable every morning as well as homemade elderberry and gooseberry jams that are terrific.  Fortunately Peruvians love bacon, eggs, and bread, and they are available in many styles of preparation.  We found the breads particularly good and very Parisian-like.  The Casa Cartagena make miniature breakfast tamales filled with meat that are smoked and then steamed.  The smoking elevates this normally banal food to a whole other level.  What makes this lovely place most worth staying at is their very, very friendly staff.  Most of the people working at the hotel are in their 20’s and 30’s and they could not be sweeter or more helpful.  They were the nicest people we have come across in any hotel we have stayed at anywhere in the world.  Nearby is a very fine restaurant for lunch and dinner simply called Map.  The trout ceviche pictured above is one of the chef’s specialties.

Two doors down the street is the famous Monasterio hotel.  This is a large hotel leased by the Orient Express Company for 40 years from the Catholic Church and consists of a renovated monastery.  It has two large central squares around which the rooms are centered.  This is a very formal place with an equally formal dining room.  In fact the dining room might have been once used for religious services, because there is a second story pulpit like perch from which two opera singers entertained us with arias and old Spanish songs all through out dinner while black tie dressed waiters served the meals.  Almost everyone in the dining room seemed to be from the U.S.  Both Monasterio and Casa Cartagena are top rated hotels, but the Casa is a little over half the price of the Monasterio.  We would suggest staying in the Casa and having a Pisco in the bar of The Monasterio.


Seafood Soup

CONCLUSION

Peru is a country whose size and population are comparable to the state of California and it is one of amazing contrasts. Its capitol, Lima, while sitting on the western seashore gets the rainfall of America’s Death Valley and its eastern boundary is filled with the Amazon, possesses some of the highest mountains in the world outside of the Himalayas, and vast areas are in tropical jungle. South American travel is still not very high on the radar of most Americans, but we found this country to be a spectacular location to visit with beautiful scenery, world class architectural ruins, surprisingly good food, and proud people eager to share their history with the rest of the world.

We have Cécile Fabrice of Aracari.com travel agency in Lima to thank for arranging everything for this trip.  Should you be interested in a Peruvian trip, we cannot recommend her highly enough.  She was patient and responsive to many, many back and forth e-mails.  Our guides were terrific and every aspect of the trip exceeded our expectations.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY CARY, CELINE AND ALEX FEIBLEMAN

 

TO READ GREG McCLUNEY’S ARTICLE ON MACHU PICCHU AND THE FOOD AND WINE OF PERU CLICK HERE   

 

 

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  1. Dear Monte,

    Many thanks for the kind comments on this article

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    Posted by cary feibleman | February 5, 2015, 8:53 pm

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