Sunday, May 8, 2016

10 Things Not To Eat and Drink in Peru

1.  Coca Tea

Coca tea is a staple of the Peruvian culture and  huge bags of the leaves are obtainable just about anywhere for a pittance.  Nothing is simpler than grabbing a handful of the unrefined leaves, popping them in a mug, and filling up with water. You are left with a soothing, mildly flavoured cuppa with about twice the stimulant properties of a good cup of coffee. I really should have emptied my case of useless clothes and whatnot, upon my return, and filled up with bags of this stuff. I ran out about two weeks after my return and am reduced to drinking a refined, processed brand of this wonderful concoction!

2.  Coffee

I'm not much of a coffee drinker but I couldn't resist trying out one of the great south American staples during my visit and now I'm pretty much addicted. I'm not sure what beans they use but I had the most delicious, nutty, smooth tasting cups of Java everywhere I went. Now that I'm back home, I keep chasing the dragon, and am eternally disappointed at my failure to find that perfect cup of black gold!

3.  Ceviche

Classic ceviche dish.

Never had it before and the whole idea of chowing down on some raw fish wasn't exactly appealing to me but as they say, "When in Rome..." We were advised at numerous establishments that ceviche is only eaten for the mid day meal and never at night. This is because the fish should be fresh from the sea and on your plate in a matter of hours. You will dream of the amazing citrusy, fresh flavours of this classic Peruvian dish for months after returning home (at least I have) knowing you have no chance in your landlocked province of Ontario to re-experience this little dish of succulence!

4.  Causa Reilena

Another light tasting, cold classic Peruvian item that we were introduced to by the hosts of our hostel in Ollantaytambo. A layered potato dish with chicken or tuna, this is an item that has many variations and twists so that you are constantly surprised when ordering in various establishments. Sadly, I will need to add this to my repertoire of culinary creations from my own kitchen if I hope to re-experience!

Causa Reilena

5.  Pisco Sour

Pisco Sour
You may not be a cocktail aficionado but once you taste your first classic Pisco Sour in Peru, you will pretty much make this the staple drink for the rest of your trip. Made with Pisco (a white brandy), raw egg white, lime juice, syrup and Angostura bitters this is a refreshing and very morish beverage for any time of day! You will be greeted at many establishments by a small free sample just to hook you in but be warned, the regular size can be a little more in the range of fish bowl size and a few of these bad boys can certainly pack a punch!

6.  Roasted Cuy

Guinea Pig...yes, I know that we think of the furry little darlings as pets but in South America this is standard fare said to taste a little like gamey chicken (doesn't everything taste like chicken!). The guinea pig is typically skinned, skewered and roasted over a barbeque. It may not look appetizing to our uninitiated northern eyes but millions of South Americans can't all be wrong. And get ready because reportedly the trend is moving North...a gentleman was recently approached in a park in New York after someone reported he was roasting squirrels...turned out to be guinea pig!

7.  Clay Oven Pizza

I know it doesn't sound very Peruvian but when we travelled through the Sacred Valley you couldn't enter a restaurant that didn't have a central clay oven in which made to order pizzas were being slowly baked to perfection. We were in danger of just eating pizza for the first few days of our trip because of the delicious aromas emanating from these ovens!

Best pizza ever!

8.  Alpaca

Alpacas are ornery creatures hailing from the same biological family as camels. They are bred and raised in the higher altitudes of the Andes and although their hair fibre is a major source of material for the famous textile industry, they can also be a tasty delight on the plate. Alpaca burgers, braised alpaca, alpaca steak and other fares for the meat lover are found throughout Peru. You may just end up giving up beef for this tender, flavourful alternative!

9. Potatoes 0r Papas

Fun Fact - Peru has over 4000 varieties of potato.  If you aren't concerned with putting on a few pounds while visiting Peru try eating your way through a few dozen different types. I feel a bit traitorous to my Irish forefathers when I say that I have never had better tasting chips anywhere in the world!

10. Squid, Octopus, and Other Delicacies of the Sea

I've never been much of a seafood lover in general but Peru has changed me for ever. This is a paradise for some of the most delectable, mouth watering tidbits of sea life prepared in countless manners. I will now be searching for that delicate piece of perfectly seasoned octopus where-ever I go in the world!

...and don't forget the beer by the pool!

Monday, May 2, 2016

How I Survived the Two Day Hike to Machu Picchu

Coca leaves...

That's pretty much how I think I survived this hike. It sounds a little more nefarious than it actually is though. Coca leaves are the raw substance from which cocaine is derived but there is a whole series of drug like making stuff that has to happen before it becomes the white snow that is the bane of drug enforcement everywhere. In Peru, Coca leaves are commonly used to make tea, of which we drank copious amounts, and to roll up into wads of chewable little lumps that are given out by the bagful by guides on the Inca Trail. Our guide, who had a mouth full of pearly whites, also bragged about how good they are for your teeth!

Contrast of what Machu Picchu looked like
for Hiram Bingham and for us!
Despite my romantic notions of hiking in the path of the ancient and proud Incan peoples for my visit to Machu Picchu, I have a realistic view of my physical fitness level, or lack thereof, so I thought the safe and sensible thing to do was opt for the less strenuous or heart attack inducing option of train and bus. Unfortunately, my more adventurous companions felt that this was a bit of a cop out and that only those who actually hike the trail to reach this glorious location would have full bragging rights. We negotiated and instead of the usual four day trek we managed to book a two day hike which really involved one, very long day of hiking, overnight at Aguas Calientes, and a day of traipsing around the famous ruins.

I shopped around quite a bit and finally decided to book with a smaller, new company called Eco Path Trek. I was taking a bit of a chance because the communication was sketchy and I could only pay with PayPal. When I had them send me a scan of our Inca Trail passes a couple of weeks before we left I started to become even more doubtful as they had my age as 28.

Flattered but a bit dubious!

Although I was flattered, I became a little concerned when my oldest daughter commented that they probably did this because they didn't want old people like me dropping dead on the trail. Honestly, I think she has a very inflated sense of my actual age!  Since the price with this company was about half of all the others I researched, I decided to throw caution to the wind and hope for the best!

Ready to start at KM 104
Our guide, Elmer, showed up at our hostel two hours earlier than expected at 4am and I'm pretty sure the rest of the guests weren't too impressed with the doorbell ringing away while I frantically pulled on clothes and ran down to the front. It turned out Elmer was just dropping off our train tickets since tourists need to take a touristy train and Peruvians are required to take a different one. A little inconvenient but I don't make the rules. Elmer told us to be at the train for 6am and to get off at a spot called KM 104 where he would meet us. Constantly trying to save a buck, we opted to walk to the train (as if we wouldn't be walking enough that day) and realized that wasn't the wisest choice since we were facing a very long day of hiking carrying our backpacks and ended up running to get on our train (at the behest of the uniformed guard). We then proceeded to sit on a non moving vehicle for a good thirty minutes!

First stop - Chachabamba Ruins

Since I had only met Elmer once, and that was when I was half asleep and it was the middle of the night, I was a bit skeptical about this whole plan and when the train stopped in basically the middle of nowhere to deposit us at the side of the tracks I was even a bit more nervous. We literally jumped from the train and were overjoyed to see Elmer, our trusty guide, waiting for us! We headed to the check in where our papers were examined and stamped, we had our last use of an indoor lavatory, and received some last minute warnings instructions from our guide!

Just starting out!
Now I don't want to give the impression that hiking the Inka Trail is difficult, but I really did have some doubts at several points about my ability to do this and began to wonder what possessed me to agree to such an excursion. The majority of the people doing the trail, at least when we were on it were definitely in their twenties or thirties, but there were a few hearty individuals that probably had a decade or so on me. The thing is, I'm pretty sure that these people were the real earthy types that eat nothing but nuts and quinoa and whose idea of fun is to hike 10 km every morning before breakfast!

The physical exertion is one issue but the narrowness of the trail
Beautiful views but narrow trails.
itself along sections that overlook some really precipitous ledges definitely can cause panic in anyone who is a bit nervous about heights or suffers from various panic issues such as vertigo. One member of our party became a bit unduly concerned about the abilities of her companions to avoid a death fall into the canyons below and stopped at several points to express her fears quite vociferously. Unfortunately, at this point in the trail we really had no options but to move forward so with some gentle coaxing from the every patient Elmer we manage to carry on. Luckily, our group consisted of just the four of us, and Elmer, so we avoided having to keep up with a large party.

Heading Down

Being Cautious

Heading Up

And Up!

The hike itself took us up two different mountain peaks with glorious vistas and scenery. We made it to the first set of ruins, Winay Wayna and were forced to walk to the top of a very long staircase where Elmer gave us a bit of a lesson about the ancient
culture. Now, I'm not saying Elmer deceived us but I'm pretty sure he had promised lunch at this stop so I was rather disappointed when he made us continue walking. We passed the campsite where the four day campers hang out before heading on to Machu Picchu in the wee hours of the morning and still continued walking. At this point, I was definitely having a few issues breathing (goodness knows what I would have been like without the altitude meds I took prophylactically and my trusty coca leaves which I was chomping as if my life depended on them) and I should note that my trusty companions, anxious to reach the lunch site I suppose, abandoned me as they trekked ahead. So much for looking out for the weak one in the group!

View of Winay Wayna from a distance

View from Winay Wayna

We did finally stop for lunch and believe me, empanadas and passion fruit have never tasted so good! With assurances from Elmer that it wasn't much further (but who could believe Elmer at this point) we donned our backpacks and carried on. At one particularly steep section Elmer told us that three years previously, a young Argentinian girl was so engrossed with snapping photos that she fell over the edge and sadly died. Point more selfies. I asked if some hikers just gave up and couldn't do the hike. We had seen a couple of women earlier who definitely were
Just taking a little rest.
struggling and their poor guide was carrying his own pack, both of their's, all while bravely helping them along. Apparently, there are Rangers that need to hike in for some of these cases but Elmer said that sometimes guides actually need to carry some of their more unfit clients! I puffed up my chest a little and felt somewhat proud that although I was panting away, out of breath, and probably looked like a bright red tomato, at least I was still moving forward on my on two feet!

Not too impressed right now.
Eventually we came to a section of rocky outcroppings fondly known as the Monkey stairs. Clambering up this very steep section was exciting because Elmer assured me that the Sun Gate was just at the top so I mustered all of my strength and hurried up where I saw...more trail. I nearly sat down in defeat as Elmer said we needed to descend into one more valley and climb another hill before reaching the Incan entrance to Machu Picchu. Instead, I turned off my GoPro in disgust and continued hiking. Elmer has a very bad sense of humour as about five minutes later I turned a corner where I passed through a stone archway and there it was! Machu Picchu lay before me in the Valley below. I am not exaggerating when I say that I was overjoyed and loudly, to the embarrassment of my offspring, exclaimed my joy for all to hear!

This was probably one of the most difficult things, physically, I had ever done in my life, but that also made it the most rewarding. So if you are somewhat cardio challenged, like me, and doubt that you can hike the trail...just go for it. It is most definitely worth the effort!