Friday, December 30, 2011

A Taste of Peru

I just returned from a week in Peru with my extended family. (Photos here.) The Andean scenery is incredible, the blend of Incan and Spanish history is fascinating (short summary: the Spanish stuck crosses on top of everything), and its mixed-race population has a beautiful, distinctive look. Wireless internet is surprisingly ubiquitous--a phenomenon perhaps explained by tourism being Peru's most rapidly growing industry (see Wikipedia).

It is important to show up to Peru with an appetite: food is central to Peruvian culture. Peruvian cuisine seems similar to, if a bit lighter than, Mexican cuisine. Peru's main crop is corn: they have a large-kernel corn that was quite novel and delicious. Tomatoes and cereals such as quinoa feature prominently in Peruvian cuisine. Peru is also known for its ceviche, which is raw fish marinated in lime. Dishes I have never seen elsewhere include alpaca meat and guinea pig meat. Peruvians also have great desserts, including a tres leches cake, rice pudding, and a purple corn pudding.

We spent three days in the highland city of Cuzco, former Incan cultural center and a major Peruvian tourist destination. We saw the archaeological ruins of Saqsayhuaman, a stone fortress complex that provides an incredible view of the city. We took a day trip (3.5 hours each way by train, as an alternative to the four-day Inca Trail hike) to Machu Picchu, the 15th century Incan city in the clouds never conquered by the Spanish and famously "discovered" by Yale professor Hiram Bingham in 1911. (See photo.) Back in Cuzco, we toured the Cathedral of San Domingo, which was formerly an Inca temple: the combination of the Inca stonework foundation and the 16th-century Spanish religious oil paintings was fascinating. Finally, we made a trip to the Sacred Valley, where we visited the market in the town of Pisaq and toured the archaeological ruins of Ollantaytambo, which had a valley village surrounded by stone-lined terraces and stone structures in the surrounding Andean slopes. Ollantaytambo was my favorite site because of its breathtaking scale: the hills surrounding the village are completely covered with beautiful stone structures (and they rolled the stones up the mountains themselves!). (See photo.) Travel tip for those visiting the Cuzco area: bring a warm jacket and drink lots of water to combat the effects of high altitude.

During our day in Lima, our expert half-Chinese, half-Peruvian tour guide Tino showed us the Incan remnants and Chinese restaurants in the district of Miraflores. (Lima has many Chinese immigrants and, according to Tino, over 3,000 Chinese restaurants. Peruvians even have a term chifa--based on the Chinese 酒饭, "food and drink"--that refers to Chinese Peruvian cuisine.) Lima is a modern city that reminds me of Los Angeles with its smog and abundant palm trees and of Brussels with its large neoclassical urban monuments and wide roads. The two most prominent themes of tour were the Pacific Ocean (see photo of the view from dinner) and the Catholic cross (see photo of Pizarro's initial cross). We visited El Parque del Amor, Lima's main square, a random gastronomical museum, and the beautiful Monastery of San Francisco, which has incredible 17th century Sevillan tiles and incredibly creepy catacombs (with human remains sorted by bone!) below. I would love to spend more time in Lima seeing more of the architecture and getting to know its fusion of Incan and Spanish cultures.

For those of you considering such a vacation, the actual travel to Peru is not so bad. It is about a 9-hour flight to and from Los Angeles. We flew red-eye both ways; nine hours is actually an ideal length of time for a red-eye because you can comfortably fit in two meals and a semi-decent night's sleep.

As we were traveling in a large group (with many teenagers) for a short time, our trip consisted of going from site to site via various modes of transportation. I would love to return to Peru to spend more time engaging with the culture and terrain (for instance, eating at local restaurants and hiking the Inca Trail). And with a better camera!

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