Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lucious Mountains to Dusty Seaside?

I've been trying to write about my visit to Lima for over a week and it's been killing me. The short and sweet is that I had wonderful hosts while in Lima (Vanessa & Carlos) who showed me amazing hospitality, whisking me off to the beach for the night, counseling me on where to go and how to get there, and driving me around town so as to avoid the corrupt taxi situation. They made the trip worthwhile and were obviously very proud of their hometown, a sentiment I've wanted to duplicate. However, when asked by others how my trip was, I avoided the topic saying, "I loved Cusco and Machu Picchu!" When a friend called me out and asked "What about Lima - worth it or kind of a sh*% hole?", I couldn't lie, I was under-impressed.


I arrived to a very foggy Miraflores, a beach side community, which according to the NY Times Travel section, is comparable to the Upper East Side and the adjacent area of Barranco is similar to Greenwich Village. Having visited Buenos Aires where that comparison legitimately could be be made of Recoleta and Palermo Soho respectively, I think the former parallel is a small stretch. Graffiti everywhere, garbage in the streets, buildings in disrepair, people leering, taxis honking after you even when you're walking in the opposite direction. Despite speaking the language fluently, this blond 5'8" woman is obviously no Peruvian. Detractors aside, the stroll around Miraflores and Barranco was pleasant and the highlight a stop at Dedalo, a former mansion that now houses a cafe and the wares of a variety of local artisans. While the website isn't that navigable nor does it do the space justice, I would highly recommend a visit. I left with a fabulous Peruvian Retablo of Cusquenan masks that I'm very excited about!

We escaped Lima for an overnight beach stay in Playa de Asia (80 miles south of Lima). Driving back the next day, the fog had finally lifted and I was confronted by a coastline engulfed in swirling dust, the purported "Costa Verde (Green)" that wasn't very verde. I forget that the coast of Southern California is also an arid desert abutting the ocean and if it weren't for an elaborate reservoir and river system forcefully bringing water from the Colorado River and the Inland Valley, the 80+ golf courses of San Diego County just wouldn't be the same. Lima apparently isn't as fortunate with it's infrastructure.

Driving is a sport in Lima - pedestrians are obstacles, forced to run for their lives, six lanes miraculously become ten due to sheer driver willpower, and public buses, "combis", reminded me of the Ghanaian tro-tros, filled to the brim with passengers, some hanging perilously from the windows and doors. The taxis, which appear to outnumber all other vehicles, are mostly gypsy cabs. Drivers simply stick a plastic "Taxi" sign on the roof of their car and go. No meters, few licenses, and a lot of danger. The best approach is to call official taxis, pricier but safer, instead of hailing them from the street, or walk as I did most of the time.

No good day, as no good trip, ends without some good food. After visiting the somewhat disappointing Gold Museum, I stumbled upon an amazing Peruvian Japanese restaurant, Hanzo, located in the upscale neighborhood of Surco. Having already dedicated a post to Gaston Acurio, the delights of Hanzo cannot be overlooked. The sushi was fresh and innovative, mixing the Peruvian love for fresh fish with traditional Japanese style. Heaven in my mouth - and a spectacular send off to my night flight back to NYC. While I may not return to Lima, the Amazon, Sacred Valley, Pisco and many other Peruvian adventures await.

Bon voyage Cusco!

Last notes on Cusco
Highlights from my last day in Cusco: The Pre-Colombian Archeological Museum, The Iglesia de la Compania, hiking up and down (and up and down) the hills of San Blas, lunch at Pacha Papa - try the Alpaca & Roleto Relleno, non-tourist shopping (Kuna - amazing alpaca sweaters, Sol Alpaca, and the jewelry store in front of Hotel Monasterio in Plaza de las Nazarenas). For an afternoon respite, I suggest cocktails at Hotel Monasterio. It was here that I discovered my new fave, the Chilcano, a mixture of Pisco, Ginger Ale, and fresh lime juice. Sounds suspiciously like a skinny margarita now that I think of it!

I was glad to have this last day in Cusco to simply see the city, watch the people and take photos. The Plaza de Armas was teeming with people with little kids scampering about delightfully throwing bird seeds to the pigeons. It was darling (even if the 100's of pigeons weren't). One thing I was glad to leave behind in Cusco was the altitude; despite the oxygenated room at Hotel Monasterio, sleep beyond 5 hours eluded me. I would wake up gasping for air even with the help of my inhaler. Slightly alarming.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I'm no food critic but....

Not cha cha…only the name of the restaurant that offered the best meal I’ve eaten in legitimately several years. Only had to fly from New York City to Cusco, Peru to enjoy the culinary legitimacy of Gaston Acurio. Not new to the scene, Acurio has restaurants around South America, Mexico D.F., Madrid, San Francisco and soon will grace us in NYC! (Thank God!)

I’ve never felt so compelled to share with the world the flavors of any food artisan. Literally I wanted to lick my plate. To begin, I ordered (per my waiters suggestion) the Ceviche del Sur that had pulpo (squid), calamares (calamari), choclo (sweet corn), & maiz tostado (toasted kernels of corn) in a vegetable cream sauce and served with fresh onion on top. The image to the left is courtesy of the Chi Cha Facebook page and close to the dish I ordered. Not one morsel was left unattended on my plate. A-ma-zing. I knew I’d hit the jackpot on this restaurant.

In ordering, I had wanted to do some traditional plates and my second dish was their house empanada, a dish I’m quite particular about after becoming acquainted with El Sanjuanino in Buenos Aires. No disappointment – simply elation, pure enjoyment. Filled with beef, mushrooms, and peppers and adorned with a fantastically spicy chopped chili pepper, fresh lime juice and salad of chopped onion and red pepper, it was to die for. My dad had been telling me how disappointed he’d been in the empanadas he’d tried in his travels from Santiago, Chile until our meeting in Cusco. Too bad he left this morning and didn’t get to experience this empanada. He’d have gone way long.

To round out the experience, my waiter suggested a digestive of a special anise from Arequipa served alongside two petit fours – a delicate little alfajor (whoever painstakingly made it, well done) and a sugared chicha (black maize) treat.

After dinner I struck up a conversation with the couple next to me from El Salvador. Their meal was equally as enjoyable – pulpo a la brisa (grilled octopus), recoto relleno (the stuffed peppers I had at lunch but better), a green pepper soup and chicken curry-type dish.

You better be salivating at this point. If not, run to your nearest Gaston Acurio restaurant immediately. No website…check on Facebook and you can see evidence of his greatness. Yum and Yum.

Add To Your Bucket List: Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Disclaimer: There are not enough inventive words to effectively describe the experience of visiting Machu Picchu. Breathtaking, Impressive, Overwhelming….none of these can properly pay homage to the trip. With that, I will give you my best articulation of the adventure we had yesterday.

Early Saturday morning we rose in preparation for a 14-hour adventure to Machu Picchu. Due to the rainy season, we couldn’t take the train the entire distance to Aguas Calientes so we took buses two hours to Olayantambo where we boarded the Hiram Bingham train. The bus ride through the winding countryside was slightly perilous at times (think of looking over the side of the mountain with no guard rail while racing at breakneck speed along the road.) Slightly harrowing. But the scenery was absolutely phenomenal. Green pastures and fields of corn and potatoes, farmers cultivating the crops by hand, and cows, pigs, llamas and alpaca roaming seemingly free (they were staked to long ropes since fences appeared scare) about the land.

Hiram Bingham, an American Senator, archeologist and explorer brought Machu Picchu into the limelight in 1911 when he introduced the Quechua citadel, a site largely forgotten by most save for those living in the immediate valley, to the rest of the world. Thanks to the effort initiated by Hiram and supported by National Geographic, among others, Machu Picchu is now recognized globally as one of the most notable attractions in South America.

Now there are a variety of ways to reach Machu Picchu – trekking on the Inca Trail (a 7 day trek), driving to Aguas Calientes, or taking one of the three levels of trains. The Hiram Bingham is run by Orient-Express and is the pinnacle of luxury and stately experience (thank you parents). As opposed to the commoner train where you bring your own food and the trip is merely a means to an end, the Hiram Bingham provides a three-course lunch en route and four-course dinner on the return along with wine and, of course, pisco sours. We enjoyed fantastic service, beautifully maintained train cars, two bar cars and an observatory car where you could stand outside and feel the wind on your face and hear the roar of the river rapids alongside the train. The trip to Aguas Calientes is relatively brief (about an hour) but picturesque as we winded through the lush mountains and along the chocolate colored river.

Upon arrival in Aguas Calientes (a pit stop not really worth mentioning in my opinion), we boarded another bus and were whisked up the mountain along a vexing switchback route for a 25-minute escapade to the entrance of Machu Picchu. Happy to have arrived (and not fallen off the mountain side – again, no guard rails and simple stone and dirt roads with countless gaps along the margin), we set off in our group to visit the famous Incan ruins. Now for the faint of heart (or those who don’t work out), this is not a walk in the park. There is two hours of climbing up and down and several opportunities where vertigo might get the best of you. But if you can get beyond those limitations, this is a singular spot in the world. Despite 300 photos of the site, I don’t have one picture that can adequately describe the beauty that surrounds you.

Machu Picchu was built by the Incans on top of a mountain at 9,000 feet above sea level with huge stones they traipsed in from surrounding mountainsides and carved with rudimentary tools into an intricate and expansive city on top of the world. From the guardhouse to the sun temple and the open terraces to the sundial, there are so many elements to see and appreciate in this village. 800 years later, the integrity of the stone city is still in tact when we live in a society where we’re happy if a house stays standing for 40 years without warranting major renovation.

Our companions on our tour were lounging alpacas and chinchillas! The conejo peruano, a.k.a. the chinchilla, looks like a huge rabbit with a long bushy tail. They perched themselves up in the crevices of the rocks and simply hung out while we explored around the monuments. The alpacas silently grazed about not bothered at all by the visitors snapping their photos.

The ingenuity of the Incans is obvious in the way they set up their terraced fields for growing food and flowers and the irrigation system they set up to sustain those fields as well as supply water to the city. Additionally, they created a moat around the city with a two-fold purpose – to separate the fields from encroaching upon the city walls and also to keep out unwanted visitors. Within the city there were areas for the upper class & royalty with large, multi-room homes and distinct areas for the lower class with single room family homes. There was also an area where select upper class women were bred to be good mothers and wives learning how to cook, sew, raise children, etc. These women were the concubines in waiting for the King, and their education was thought to ensure strong offspring and capable heirs to the throne.

My writing confidence eludes me – there is no way to really transport you to Machu Picchu through words or pictures. It is an experience everyone should put on his or her bucket list. Period. While it was a long and tiring day filled with taxis, buses and trains bumping and winding along, seeing Machu Picchu was one of the greatest experiences ever.

Many more photos to come when it doesn't take an hour to upload six at a time. 

Los Detallitos

Los Detalles
Altitude – Cusco sits at approximately 11,000 feet above sea level. For anyone who has ever been with me to Mammoth you know how hard it is for me to breath at that height. Even with inhaler in hand and an oxygenated hotel room my lungs certainly got a workout hiking up and down the hills of the city of Cusco. Machu Picchu is actually slightly lower (9,000 feet) and with a slightly more mature crowd and 2 ½ hours of climbing there was a lot of huffing and puffing. Today I spent the day exploring Cusco and going up and down a lot of stairs like those in the picture above. I'd hustle to the top and find myself gasping for air with my heart pounding in my chest. Quite an experience! 

Pisco – The Pisco sour is a typical beverage found in Peru made with Pisco, sugar syrup, lime juice, bitters and egg white foam. I’d tried this margarita-like drink in the US but had never had the liquor on its own. On our way back from Machu Picchu, my dad and I sidled up to the train bar and asked for a Pisco lesson. There are 5 varietals of Pisco, all made with distinct grapes and they range from sweet to aromatic. The grapes are harvested along the coast of Peru from Lima south towards the border and are treated similar to wine – crushed, barreled in aluminum, heated and then chilled and then only the middle portion (el cuerpo) is bottled as clarity and lack of impurities is what constitutes a quality Pisco. To me it tasted like a good white Tequila with a sharper edge; the illustrious Scandinavian Aquavit also came to mind when it hit the back of my throat. 

Food – Usually I talk a lot more about our culinary experiences but until today we’ve been on a pretty generic food routine. Today I ate at Pacha Papa, a restaurant in the San Blas area of Cusco and ate two amazing Quechuan dishes – Roleto Relleno y Alpaca a la parilla. The first is a pepper grilled and filled with meat, corn and peas and topped with melted cheese; the second is marinated and grilled Alpaca meat. Both were succulent. Toasted corn kernels is a customary snack as well and quite tasty. Quinoa is also a prevalent component on the menu; we had cannelloni’s filled with spinach quinoa on the Hiram Bingham train returning from Machu Picchu.

Quechuan Women – Bouncy skirts, knee high socks, sweaters, colorful blankets tied to their backs, long dark hair braided down their backs, and a variety of hats resting atop their heads. Spanning all ages, these ladies walked the streets with their colorful blankets tied to their backs typically filled with small children, bringing images of Strega Nonna to my mind. Their hats were a curious adornment, ranging from Panama style caps to small bowler hats, hardly seeming to have any utilitarian purpose.

 J.C. – Visiting another church in the Plaza de Armas this afternoon, I was reminded of another unique element we learned. In several of the churches in Cusco, the scene of the crucifixion was depicted with a very dark skinned Jesus. As I mentioned in my last post, the Incans were the primary artisans in the churches and the theory is they depicted Jesus in the image of an Incan - with dark black hair and dark skin.


I arrived at the Hotel Monasterio mid-morning on Friday and was overwhelmed by the charm and beauty of this former monastery. Built in 1595, the hotel has two large open courtyards with perfectly manicured lawns and flowerbeds and a gorgeous stone fountain in the middle. The courtyards are surrounded by two story structures with the hotel rooms above and hotel amenities below. I’m sitting in the courtyard post breakfast (on Sunday) listening to the fall of the water and the chanting of monks playing discreetly over the sound system. Not a bad way to start my morning alone in Cusco. But I digress.

On Friday I met up with my family and after lunch at the hotel we went on a city tour of Cusco, the capital of the short-lived Incan Empire. The weather in Cusco is unpredictable to say the least. Sunny and blue skies transitions to downpour in a flash. We discovered this upon arrival at Saqsayhuaman, an Incan fortress and UNESCO archeological site overlooking the city of Cusco. Dressed in sandals, shorts and a windbreaker with my “durable” New York City umbrella, I shortly became the owner of a fabulously chic purple poncho. While not the ideal conditions, we trudged through the mud admiring the monolithic structures of this famous fortress. How the Incans were able to move these gigantic boulders and then shape them to fit seamlessly is a mystery to most. Given that the Incan history is predominantly oral, the hypotheses of historians are the base for our contemporary understanding of their history and culture.

From Saqsayhuaman, we went back to Cusco to visit the Templo of San Blas (the original church of the city), the Cathedral, and Qorikancha (the Convento de Santo Domingo). The Killke (900 AD) and Incan (13th century – 1532) people, the original settlers of Cusco, were later joined by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1530’s. In the architecture and paintings inside the churches a unique blend of the Incan religion and the Spanish Catholic influence is present. The Incans were great artisans and were commissioned by the less artistically adept Spaniards to paint the murals and carve the ornate baroque altars in the churches. Unbeknownst to the Spaniards, the Incans incorporated images of the sun, moon, stars, mountains and other elements that are representative of their own religious beliefs into these works. The Spaniards, seeing the Incans openly worshiping in their newly constructed churches, ironically thought they had successfully converted the Incans to Catholicism.

In order to build these new churches and convents, the Spaniards tore down existing Incan temples and buildings and built on top of their foundations. The most impressive of these new constructions was the Cathedral. Built in stages (the first Cathedral wasn’t substantial enough so they tore down an adjacent Incan palace to build a larger principal Cathedral – the first attempt relegated to an ancillary chapel), the final product contains the main Cathedral, the chapel of Our Lord of the Tremors (theorized to have minimized damage to the Cathedral in a disastrous earthquake in 1650), the Royal Chapel, and the Iglesia del Triunfo. Having lived in Spain and traveled extensively, I have seen a LOT of churches, but this is by far one of the most spectacular. The baroque church has an extravagant altar of carved silver and gold plated cedar wood, an ornately carved cedar choir with rows of saints and religious figures, and a multitude of chapels with distinct saints. The most comical was the patron saint of amorous affairs – stacks of papers were left at the foot of the saint and supposedly if you put in a request for love it would likely come true. As our guide explained this supposed phenomenon, I could see my mom getting out her pen and paper on my behalf. Still waiting.

Our evening culminated with pisco sours and cocoa sours in the former chapel at the Hotel Monasterio. Seemed slightly incongruous to be imbibing in the former house of God, but we made it work. Classical Peruvian dancers entertained us during dinner, the perfect end to our first day in Peru and a solid preparation for our full day trip to Machu Picchu the next day. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bienvenidos a Peru!

11 hours and 60 degrees later I’m flying over the peaks of the Andes from Lima to Cusco. I arrived safe and sound in a slightly overcast and rather humid Lima this morning, dusted off my Spanish and negotiated my way through customs and another security check to my boarding gate for the quick flight to Cusco.

As I’m way too exhausted to read I decided to make a play list entitled Cusquena (T/V – you’ll get a copy when I get home), a Peruvian beer, to inaugurate my Peruvian adventure. There’s no theme to the selections – just a few recent favorites. As I listen to my new mix I’m snapping shots of the blankets of clouds outside of my window intermittently interrupted by still snow-covered peaks of the Andes Mountains and glimpses of rivers and valleys below. I’m reminded of the harrowing story of Argentine Futbol team that was memorialized in the movie, “Alive”. Witnessing the expanse of this mountain range commands respect for Mother Nature and the duality of her magnificence and peril.

Once I arrive in Cusco, I’ll be heading to the Hotel Monasterio, showering and meeting my parents and pseudo-aunt for lunch and a tour of the city. Ambitious as I am, I brought shorts to wear this week – apparently it is 47 degrees currently in Cusco. Oops. Oh well, beats the 17 degrees it was when I left New York last night.

A brilliant surprise on the plane – they served snack boxes, which included Alfajores! For anyone who has never tasted this Argentine delight, it’s a must. In a past life I attempted to make them and it’s truly a process…and they certainly didn’t taste as good as this one!

Cusquena playlist:
Name - Artist
Young Blood - Single The Naked and Famous
Shake Me - Single Taddy Porter
Modern Lover - Black Cherry
Rich Girl - The Bird and the Bee
F**k You - Cee Lo Green
Get Some - Lykke Li
All My Days - Alexi Murdoch
I Hate Camera - The Bird and the Bee
Reasons to Sing - The Crash
Lights Out -  Santigold
Crazy - Jem
Little Lion Man - Mumford & Sons
Raise Your Glass - P!nk
Ambling Alp -  Yeasayer
Ghosts - Swim Laura Marling
Ooh - Scissor Sisters
Happy -  Brandi Carlile
Honky Tonk Badonkadonk - Trace Adkins
New In Town - EP Little Boots

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Photo Wall

As I've mentioned, my penchant for traveling was bred in me by my parents. My whole life my parents have been heading off to the far reaches of the globe for weeks at a time and would bring me back unique trinkets - a tiger from Seoul Korea (donned with the Olympics apparel from that year), Chinese dolls from their visit across the border into China (when visiting was still exceptional), a piece of the Berlin Wall from my dad's trip in 1989, etc. Once I turned 9 years old, I was invited to join them - the first trip was to Hawaii (quite exotic when you're growing up in Minnesota). The following year was Monaco, France, Switzerland & Italy....and there began my love affair with travel!

Next week I leave for Peru to meet my parents and my mom's best friend in Cuzco - we'll be visiting Machu Picchu together and then they'll continue on their trip from Santiago up the coast of South America, through the Panama Canal and ending in Fort Lauderdale. My trip is slightly abbreviated - 5 days in Peru with 3 in Cuzco and 2 in Lima. Whirlwind! But given the weather we've had on the East Coast this winter, I'd go even for 3 days! Snow, slush, freezing rain, ice (skating to work), hail, mist, black sludge, you name it. Being originally from Minnesota I know I've seen WAY worse but 20 years away have certainly diminished the memories! But don't worry, I still LOVE NYC despite the weather...it so beats elbow sweat in the summer.

More to come on the Peru trip next week. In the meantime, a few years back my mom and I collaborated on a wall of photos in the stairwell of their house. As we were working with 20 foot ceilings we had a lot of free wall space to work with! We picked a selection of photos from both of our travels and had a blast editing and arranging them. Below is a selection of our final product - they include photos from China, Australia, India, Thailand, The Philippines, Ghana, Egypt, Germany, Jordan, Bali & Burma ...enjoy!