Friday, November 27, 2009

Peru, Day 1

Well, folks, I’m in Peru. In an airport. Stealing wi-fi from Starbucks, which is across the corridor from where I’m sitting. I just finished my first meal in Peru, though it didn’t strike me as particularly Peruvian in any real sense. As soon as I went through customs, picked up my bag, changed money, and got a boarding pass for my flight to Cuzco, I headed to Café Laderia, on the second floor of the recently refurbished airport in Lima.

Not exactly my image of Peru, but for an airport lounge this seems about par for the course.

After struggling with the Spanish menu, a waiter gave me one in English and I ordered a Kaslik sandwich. (What or who is Kaslik? I have no idea.)

Some real food after a long flight. Real food, that is, minus the candied pecans.

Hey, I needed sustenance for my five-hour layover following the eight-hour flight from LAX. The Kaslik was made with grilled chicken breast, bacon, organic spinach, artichoke, and candied pecans, all wrapped in a tortilla. It’s kind of absurd to recommend a single sandwich at an airport in Lima, but why not? It was good. It was also enormous. And while the bacon was a tad on the soggy side, the candied pecans, though strange, were surprisingly good -- nothing like a candied crunch with soft, salty ingredients. I’m not sure if this is a sign of what’s to come, but the regular black coffee I ordered ended up being espresso – and it really hit the spot, which is surprising, because espresso doesn’t usually do it for me.

Ahh, caffeine...

The entire meal cost me 24 Peruvian soles, which is just over US$8. Yes, airport prices are exorbitant the world over.

As for the food I had on the plane, LAN airlines served barely passable fare: beef stew, mashed potatoes, and cheesecake. Their snack was a half sandwich that could have contained very thin sliced chicken just as easily as it could have contained shoe glue. I had no idea what I was eating but I was hungry and trusting and it was gone in no time.


I arrived in Cuzco at 6 a.m. It was cool and wet out, and a thick swirling mist enshrouded most of the mountains that hem in the city. Homeless dogs roamed the sidewalks while locals were bundled up against the morning chill in colorful sweaters and wraps. In other words, it was exactly how I'd imagined Cuzco.

I'd heard a lot about altitude sickness, and I was told that since I was coming from sea level it would probably affect me in a big way. I felt it immediately upon exiting the plane -- mostly just shortness of breath and a little dizziness. As soon as I checked into my hostal, Casona Los Pleiades, I was given chamomile tea suffused with coco leaves, which are supposed to alleviate altitude sickness. I drank a cup, which tasted like I'd expect leaves in hot water to taste -- it actually resembled artichoke tea, or perhaps the water left over from boiled brussel sprouts -- and then decided to take a two-hour nap. When I woke up, I was still short of breath and was totally parched. Not only that, my muscles were strangely stiff and every time I stretched it felt like I was going to get a muscle cramp.

Coco tea grows on you after just a couple cups. Gee, I wonder why?

But I wanted to see something of the city, and I also thought I should eat something since I skipped the "breakfast" served on the flight from Lima to Cuzco. All I can say is that walking the hills of the city, I was pretty sure I might pass out.

Cuesta San Blas, separating me from the main drag of Cuzco

It wasn't uncomfortable, I was just lacking oxygen. Anyway, I didn't have to go far before I came across a really nice, if small, bakery on Cuesta San Blas called Buen Pastor. It's easy to miss this place, as it's not much more than a hole in the wall, though they do have a second floor with windows overlooking a steep cobbled alley.

Late morning selection of pastries at Buen Pastor

I orded a pañuelo de durasno, which is a pastry filled with something like a sweet cream cheese and two halves of a canned peach. I also got a black coffee, which was served to me in a way that surprised me.

Even with the diluted coffee, this was good stuff.

I was given a huge cup full of hot water, which made me think they'd mistaken my order and had brought me tea. In fact, there was coffee on the table as well, but the idea is to pour it into the water and drink the coffee diluted. It didn't really taste like coffee, but I knew I was getting my caffeine fix, so I didn't care. The pastry was fantastic, and I'll be sure to return there after tomorrow's trip to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. It's worth mentioning that the women running this place were incredibly friendly -- not in-your-face friendly, or friendly with ulterior motives, but just really sweet people who wanted me to enjoy my food and my time in Cuzco.

The sugar and caffeine gave me the energy I needed to hoof it down to the Plaza de Armas, where I wanted to buy an entrance ticket to Machu Picchu. However, the government office started their siesta at 11 and I arrived at 11:10, so I decided to explore the environs and look around for someplace I might want to have a Peruvian lunch.

A view across Plaza de Armas of Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús

I ended up killing time by entering that impressive building in the photo above -- Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, a Spanish church built in the 17th century -- and then wandering around the street until I couldn't catch my breath any longer. Eventually I decided I was hungry enough for lunch, so I hit a restaurant called Los Candiles that supposedly offers traditional Peruvian fare.

Entrance to Los Candiles

I'd already decided that I was going to have alpaca for my first real meal in Peru, and their menu didn't disappoint. There were at least a half dozen alpaca dishes to choose from, along with guinea pig, which I also figure I ought to try since I'm here. But guinea pig is more of a leap than I'm willing to make on my first day here, and my feeling is that if I can get through an entire dish of alpaca then I'll be ready to try guinea pig in a few more days.

The interior of the restaurant is somewhat small. The walls are filled with local paintings of Cuzco.

I arrived at the tail end of the lunch rush, which was fine with me. I took a seat in the back, and a very attentive waiter with excellent English took my order: alpaca with bacon in mushroom sauce, with french fries and a small tomato and cucumber salad. I also ordered my first pisco sour, which was amazingly good.
Not the greatest photo, but wow, this was tasty.

The pisco sour is basically the national alcoholic beverage of Peru, and it's featured on every menu I've seen thus far. The waiter made mine with pisco alcohol (a kind of brandy made from muscat grapes), lime juice, sugar, cinnamon, ice, and egg whites to make it frothy. If it hadn't cost 10 soles ($3.50), I would have tossed more back than just the one.

Bread with string, anyone?

Lunch came with complementary bread, which was very soft and reminded me of pita bread due to its thinness and also its hollow center. The only problem with the bread was that I found a string baked into the dough. Had it been dental floss, I probably would have cared more. As it was, I finished the bread and it was fine.

This was a lot of alpaca...

I really didn't know what to expect from the alpaca, but I decided that if I didn't really like it then the bacon would save the day. I was partly right. What surprised me wasn't just the piece of match that I found wedged between the bacon and alpaca -- what's with the surprise ingredients -- but that it was served rare. Perhaps the meat is naturally pink, but it seemed undercooked, and that gave the meat a somewhat mealy texture that I didn't much like. The taste was pretty mild, which is about right for a cholesterol-free meat, but there was a slight gaminess to it that had me chasing it down with the french fries, the mushroom sauce (very salty), the salad, the bread, and the pisco sour. I ate about 90% of it, stopping when I ran out of chasers. It would be hard for me to recommend this, but let's face it, one meal of alpaca doesn't make me an expert on it.

The entire meal cost me 38 soles ($13.15), which was more than it was worth. But Cuzco is a relatively pricey destination, and food costs here are generally rather high. There were a few items on the menu that I would have liked to try: "Andean's Appetizer" (crackling pig with cusquenian tamales, stuffed yucca, filler chili [?], brochette, and creole sauce) and various kinds of ceviche would have been better choices, I think.

On my way back to the hostal, I came across a giant dessert put together with a face at one end of it. The face gave the gigantic dessert character, but it also made it really bizarre. When I asked one of the workers at the hostal what it was for, she told me it was for a small weekend festival.
Seemed he was practicing for a Guinness World Record...

Once I climbed up to the general area where my hostal is located, I came across a number of indigenous women trying to sell small crafts while little girls tried to convince tourists to take photos of them and their llamas for 1 sole (35 cents).

I'm not sure why the llamas are here. I guess it's a way for people to make money. Photo, anyone?

The girl in the photo below is obviously a pro at this. She has a practiced smile and knew exactly how to hold her skirt for the photo. Even the llama stuck his teeth out for me. You can see that its ears are back, so maybe it had an inkling of what I had for lunch. Sorry, bud. Rest assured that I won't be eating more of your cousins anytime soon.

She's good at this.

Still struggling with the altitude. I had my third coco tea right before dinner, and while it helps with my headache, which isn't that bad to begin with, it doesn't seem to help with my shortness of breath. Just heading a block and a half away for dinner left me winded. Ah, but it was nice to arrive at Pacha Papa and get a seat outside as dusk filled the sky. It was rather chilly, and while it was good to see they had heat lamps everywhere, for some reason they never turned them on.

Turn those heat lamps on, amigos!

I really liked Pacha Papa's menu and thought I did a good job of ordering. I went right to their "Clay Pot Stews" section (guisos en olla de barro) and chose aji de gallina (24 soles), which is shredded chicken in a creamy yellow chili sauce, ostensibly with nuts and parmesan cheese. However, my dish came with potatoes and a very potent olive, but no nuts or parmesan cheese that I could detect. In fact, although the sauce was spicy, there was virtually no flavor to the dish -- not even the chicken tasted like anything, and on top of that it was dry. I really wanted to like this dish. I really did. But it didn't work out.

It looks better than it tasted.

What impressed me the most was what came to my table first: a glass of chica morada (4 soles), which is so purple it's almost black. It is the most beautiful drink I've probably ever seen. When I asked about it, the waiter went into the kitchen and brought out a piece of purple maize and told me that it gets boiled down for hours before it's used in this drink. The purple maize is mixed with cinnamon, spices, fresh fruit, and pineapple and apple skins. Given the color, I was sure I'd taste corn in the drink, but there wasn't a trace. It was very smooth and clean and rather sweet. It took me a while to realize what it reminded me of; the cinnamon helps give it a slightly cider-like aftertaste. I was going to order a coco sour (coco leaves infused in pisco, lemon juice, and sugar), but I'm glad I went with this.

A beautiful drink. And it tasted good, too.

And then, because I don't understand the concept of overkill, I ended up getting maize morada (10 soles) for dessert. I was told that it's similar to chica morada but that it's a pudding. Well that sold me. This, too, was an extremely dark purple color. It was a hot pudding with fresh-dried fruit (apple and raisins were all that I detected). That's right, hot pudding. I've never had anything like it, but the consistency was somewhere between jello and cough syrup, though the taste was pretty good.

I'm sure my tongue was purple after the meal...

Tomorrow I wake up at 5 am and will take a train to Aguas Calientes. I don't know if I'll have such easy Internet access from there, but if not, I'll catch up on my trip posts later.

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  1. Although this doesn't seem like an auspicious start (food-wise) to your Peruvian adventures, I can't wait to read more! Peru (heck, South America!) is THE dream destination for me and my husband - he's been there already and came home with such glowing stories of the food, people, and landscape. Now, I'm chomping at the bit for my chance!

    Good to hear you made it there safe and sound; I hope the rest of your trip goes smoothly and we look forward to your posts!

  2. These photos looks great! I love the looks of that Kaslik sandwich!

  3. Tangled Noodle: I hope you get to South America soon. I can almost hear the bit-chomping from Peru. I haven’t been here long at all, but what sticks with me so far is how friendly everyone is. Which is kind of strange, because I also hear lots of stories about how careful one has to be in Peru. My Spanish is terrible (though it’s gotten a LOT better in just 24 hours), but no one seems to mind. What’s keeping you from getting here? Come on! :)

    Catherine: Thank you! I was actually pretty embarrassed to post photos of airport food, but luckily I had more time today to upload some better ones. And yes, that Kaslik sandwich was surprisingly good!

  4. A lovely post, Sapuche!

    Thanks for sharing it with us! The food looks quite lovely!!

    I can't wait for the next days! It is like we are travelling with you!!

  5. Sophie: Thank you! I hope to put up many more food and travel photos soon!

  6. Hello Sophie we are LIMA ROUTE, a Tourism company from Peru, congratulations for your blog. We love all that you have written.
    Check out to our facebook site to know about more from Peru!
    Hope you enjoyed it!
    And if you want to come back let us know ;)
    Bye for now !

  7. Hi Lima Route: Thanks, but my name's not Sophie...