The Other White Meat
|Written by Jared on September 27, 2012|
Start: September 9, Huaraz
Everybody who has met us learns after a day or two that we like food. Even though we spend most of our nights in tents, we cook fancy meals and spend quite a bit of time talking about food. I know it's bad when we haven't even finished dinner and we're already discussing what's on the menu for the next night.
To be fair, we are in Peru, one of the culinary capitals of the world. And we happen to be in Lima, the foodie paradise of South America, during its annual food festival that draws tens of thousands of visitors daily. However, food is not all we've indulged in the past ten days. We also manage to visit two pre-Colombian cities, one of which is the most ancient city in the Americas.
From our last layover in Hauraz, in the heart of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, we head farther inland, crossing the highest pass of our trip thus far at nearly 14,000 feet. Our destination is the town of Chavin on the other side of the Cordillera Blanca where the rivers drain into the Amazon.
Chavin is home to ruins dating from 1200 BC that are still being excavated. The hotel we camped at in town also hosted the archaeologists, who would show up covered in dirt just before sunset, giving Jessica flashbacks to her time spent taking pictures of rocks in Croatia.
Unlike the coastal ruins we visited, these are made of granite and are still in relatively decent shape given their age and the amount of reconstruction that has been done. There is also a museum in Chavin that hosts many of the relics found at the site and in others throughout the region. Many of the carvings and statues that were originally found in the ruins have recently been moved to the museum, so there isn't much to see much on site aside from very old buildings.
The coolest part about the ruins in Chavin de Huantar was being able to crawl through several tunnel complexes that have been excavated and restored. Very creepy, and also very head-trauma-inducing given the low doorways, staircases and lack of light.
From Chavin we drove back over the Cordillera Blanca to the coastal town of Barranca. There's not much to see in the city, and it's definitely not the safest place to walk around at night. However, we had a recommendation from a backpacker we met up north who told us to visit a local restaurant to sample cuy.
Cuy is guinea pig. It's eaten throughout the Andes, usually grilled or deep fried, as we had it. It might look nasty, but it tasted just like fried chicken, except with smaller bones and delicious skin that's ten times crispier than anything you could buy at KFC. Cute and delicious. How could you possibly go wrong?
After a night in the noisy and dirty town of Barranca we drove an hour out to the ruins of Caral, the most ancient city in the Americas. Like all civilization on the coast of Peru, Caral is situated in a green river valley sandwiched between desert hills and sand dunes.
Caral was inhabited beginning in 2600BC, around the same time the Great Pyramid of Giza was being constructed. As our guide told us, the Caral civilization was pre-ceramic, meaning there was no metal or pottery to be found in the city so the list of recovered artifacts is fairly short.
We enjoyed the hour we spent wondering through the granite pyramides. Learning that civilizations in the Americas were also building sophisticated cities around the same time the Egyptians were at their prime was an eye-opening piece of information.
A short hop through the desert farther south on the Pan Am brought us to the micro-environment known as Lomas de Lachay. Weird is perhaps the best word to describe this place. Followed by wet. In the picture above you can see the barren desert towards the top of the photo, taken from an incredibly green hillside a couple miles inside the park.
In a part of the world where sand dunes stretch as far as the eye can see in every direction, it's strange to find a place so incredibly green and full of life. It rarely rains in Lomas de Lachay, the entire area gets its water from dense fog that builds in the hills above the coast. I was digging it, Jessica was ready to go back to the desert.
For dinner that night Jess cooked up an authentic Peruvian dish that consisted of a pepper sauce and stir fried steak and potatoes. We bought the ingredients at a local market, and received more than one odd look and a comment along the lines of "What's a gringo gonna do with that?!"
After waking up to wet tents, shrouded in fog, we quickly packed up camp and drove the remaining two hours to Lima, the capitol of Peru. Lima is perpetually covered in clouds most months out of the year. It's said the Spanish built the city in January, during the best weather, and were unhappily surprised when winter rolled around. It reminded us a great deal of Seattle.
Our second afternoon in the city we had lunch with Stevie of Sprinter Life. Stevie and her husband have spent nearly three years on the road in between the US and Peru. Their blog has been an inspiration to us, especially while we were planning our trip those many months ago. It was great to finally meet up! After a delicious high-class lunch, Stevie emphatically told us that we had to extend our stay in Lima to visit Mistura, a food festival happening twenty minutes from our base camp in the affluent neighborhood of Miraflores.
Not being ones to turn down a trip to such delicious-sounding events as food festivals, we decided to stay another night and check it out. Mike, a Californian who's riding his motorcycle to Argentina, happened to be crashing at the same hostel as us and decided to tag along. We've met up a few times since we crossed into Peru, and have shared plenty of stories, usually involving delicious Mexican food.
The three of us hoped in a cab at around 10am and headed to the show. The (slightly blurry) photo above is a result of us realizing that we unknowingly skipped a three-block-long line of people waiting to buy tickets. One nice aspect of being a gringo in a tourist town is being able to get away with doing stupid things like cutting in front of a line of several thousand people.
Mistura is the largest food festival in Latin America, hundreds of stands, stalls and marketplaces selling everything edible under the sun. Fancy restaurants from Lima, local delicacies from the surrounding regions, and popular Peruvian favorites are all represented. There's a tent dedicated to coffee and chocolate, a pavilion full of bread, and few dozen stalls selling the local drink of choice, pisco - a grape brandy.
The immediate winner, and first stop on our trek through this olfactory wonderland was a booth selling chancho al palo. It is what you see above: slow roasted pork on metal racks surrounding an open fire pit. I've died and gone to heaven. Or as I like to call it, Porkopolis.
While Mike and I were waiting in line for PorkFest 2012, Jessica and Kobus ran off to grab us a bite to eat to hold us over. They returned with two rolls of sushi from one of Peru's most famous Asian fusion restaurants - Osaka.
If you're a sushi aficionado and you see the photo above, you may wonder: what the hell is going on with the blow torches? Allow me to explain. Layered on top of the sushi roll are pieces of raw thinly-sliced beef tenderloin covered in a Korean-esque BBQ sauce. The flambe torches are both cooking the meat and caramelizing the sauce. It was unbelievably delicious, especially considering it's the first sushi we've had in a year.
After an hour and a half in line we finally had the grub. For $6 we got a plastic bucket of the tastiest pork I've ever had - and as you may know, I eat a lot of pork. Crispy skin, fall-off-the-bones ribs, greasy bits of unidentifiable and delicious piggy goodness. Needless to say the pork sweats ensued, and we needed to take a breather and down a few cold beers before heading out in search of the next bite to eat.
Also on display was miscellaneous meat (mostly pork and chicken) al cilindro. Which is Spanish for: cooked on hooks hanging in a 50 gallon drum over a wood fire. More or less like a smoker, except with more heat. After the aforementioned pork feast we weren't in the mood to wait in another 1-2 hour line, but nobody had qualms about snapping a few delicious photos for later.
Kobus, ever on the lookout for disgusting food none of us will eat, zeros in on this salad of dried/smoked/rotten/zombified anchovies. The rest of us pass and shake our heads in disgust.
Another popular spot was the tenderloin tent. Big skewers of filet mignon slow cooked over a gas grill with a spicy Peruvian BBQ sauce. The line for this one stretched out of sight.
Pisco is the hooch of choice in Peru. It's made from grapes, and is usually classified as a brandy. There were over 400 types on display, all of which could be sampled in thimble-shaped cups or sniffed in gigantic brandy glasses.
Pisco sour is the mixed drink most commonly served in Peru, it consists of blended lime juice, egg white, sugar and egg white. It's delicious, and tastes similar to a whiskey sours, except with foam on top. Unfortunately they cost $6 a drink, so we made the wise decision to head towards home, stop by the grocery store and buy the ingredients for a night of pisco sours for a fraction of the price.
After sleeping off the pork sweats, we reluctantly leave the foodie mecca of Lima and head back into the desert to a nature reserve in Paracas, about three hours south of Lima. We arrive to spectacular desert scenery, cold winds and a severe lack of camping facilities. We spend the night huddled next to the ranger station, hoping our tents won't blow away while we sleep.
The coast line of the park is very different. Were we were camped the beach is dark red and surrounded by fifty-foot cliffs. There were plenty of dive-bombing sea birds to watch, and reportedly there are penguins in the area. We've officially driven to where penguins live! Cross another one off the list.
Up Next: The Nazca lines, and we head to Cuzco and the famous ruins of Machu Picchu.