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Culinary Lima

San Ysidro Market, Lima, Peru

San Ysidro Market, Lima, Peru

Lima boasts three of the world’s Top 100 restaurants, and for good reason.

Top chefs have discovered Perú’s wide and distinctive selection of native fruits and vegetables, and fresh seafood, and are whipping up stunning menus with them.

During my 13 days in Perú, I’ve run already run across some tasty and intriguing local delicacies, first among which is the ubiquitous quinoa, which appears in everything from soups and salads to crusted meats and even beer.

I’ve also had a chance to try alpaca steak, Andes mountain trout, and the refreshing chicha morada beverage.

Today, though, is a foodie fantasy that takes us through the markets and kitchens of Lima to see, make, and taste some of their most popular offerings.

The tour is operated by the Lima Gourmet Company, and its foodie tour groups are restricted size to no more than eight persons in order to afford ample time to chat with vendors and chefs.

Our Lima Gourmet guide for the day is David Candia, who’s also studying to be a sommelier

 

Latte masterpiece at Cafe Bisetti, Lima, Peru

Latte masterpiece at Cafe Bisetti, Lima, Peru

The day begins with coffee at Cafe Bisetti back in the Barranco District.

 

The dining room is done in a sleek Euro style, but there’s a quaint Spanish colonial courtyard out back, and on the way to it we pass the room where nothing but organic coffee beans are being hand-sorted.

 

The latte looks almost too good to drink.

 

This morning we’re drinking breakfast nearby at La Bodega Verde, which is well known for its lúcuma smoothies and shakes.  They may look like plain vanilla, but the flavor is a delicate blend often described as maple +sweet potato.

This nectar comes from Perú’s native lúcuma fruit, also known by the English name “eggfruit” because its flesh resembles a hard-boiled egg yolk in texture and color.  Its use in Perú pre-dates the Incas, and is today is so popular that Starbucks has added it to the menu here.  It turns out that lúcuma is not just about a great taste.  It also packs high levels of B-vitamins and carotene.

The San Ysidro Market is where the pickiest of chefs go each morning for the best and freshest  produce and seafood.

San Ysidro Market, Lima, Peru

San Ysidro Market, Lima, Peru

San Ysidro Market, Lima, Peru

San Ysidro Market, Lima, Peru

 

David walks us first through the stalls of the produce vendors, introducing us to tropical fruits and vegetables and giving us an opportunity to taste each one.

Lima Gourmet Company's guide David Candia

Lima Gourmet Company’s guide David Candia

San Ysidro Market, Lima, Peru

San Ysidro Market, Lima, Peru

Next we visit the fishmonger, who shows us fresh fish and shellfish, explaining what to look for in the best seafood.   A photo on the back wall of his stall shows him at the same work more than twenty years ago.

Fishmonger, San Ysidro Market, Lima. Peru

Fishmonger, San Ysidro Market, Lima. Peru

Scallops at the San Ysidro Market, Lima, Peru

Scallops at the San Ysidro Market, Lima, Peru

Fresh fish and shrimp, San Ysidro Market, Lima, Peru

Fresh fish and shrimp, San Ysidro Market, Lima, Peru

 

We arrive at the Embarcadero 41 restaurant well before the lunch so that the staff can give full attention to explaining and demonstrating their preparations, then guiding foodies through a hands-on preparation of their own.

Embarcadero 41, Lima, Peru

Embarcadero 41, Lima, Peru

 

 

First we stop by the bar and the restaurant’s cocktail artist for the secrets if Peru’s Pisco Sour.

 

 

Pisco is a grape brandy that reminds me a lot of grappa, but it’s made without the skin of the grape and packs a seductively smooth the punch.

 

 

We taste some aged and infused varieties of pisco, but it’s the crystal clear version that’s the star ingredient in Perú’s national drink, the Pisco Sour, which combines pisco, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, and egg white, shaken and chilled into a frothy concoction.

Making cevich at Embarcadero 41, Lima, Peru

Making cevich at Embarcadero 41, Lima, Peru

 

 

The star attraction at Embarcadero 41, though, is the ceviche.

 

This restaurant is so fanatic about the using the freshest fish in its ceviche that it closes after lunch rather than serve the morning’s catch for dinner!

 

The chef walks us through the preparation before we get to make our own.

 

 

Ceviceh at Embarcadero 41, Lima, Peru

Ceviceh at Embarcadero 41, Lima, Peru

 

 

 

I’ve had ceviche all up and down the Pacific coast, and Lima’s ceviche indisputably puts them all to shame.

 

They use only white fish, and it’s served along with Perúvian corn and yam, and garnished with red pepper.

 

 

 

 

 

Huaca Pucclana restaurant and ruins, Lima, Peru

Huaca Pucclana restaurant and ruins, Lima, Peru

 

 

 

Ceviche, though, is only the appetizer.

Today we return to the Huaca Pucclana ruins visited yesterday, but this time to the restaurant of the same name which sits at its doorstep, where the food is as incomparable as the setting.

 

 

Sampler, Huaca Pucclan restaurant, Lima, Peru

Sampler, Huaca Pucclan restaurant, Lima, Peru

The waiter presents us with sampler portions of more items than we could otherwise possibly eat.

It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite from among the entrees (although the Beef Heart may have been the first among equals!).

 

Pictured here, they are – clockwise from top left:

  • Causa Rolls, made of yellow mashed potato stuffed with avocado and salmon.
  • Beef heart with fried corn.
  • Broiled scallops with parmesan cheese and lemon butter.
  • Barbecued octopus on native potatoes, fava beans and corn.

 

Selections from Peru's Cumbres microbrewery.

Selections from Peru’s Cumbres microbrewery.

We chat with the sommelier about Perúvian wines, but I can’t resist asking about craft beers, and I’m glad I did.

I end up ordering one of each and inviting everyone at the table to join me in a beer tasting.

Two uniquely Perúvian twists on the brew were most memorable.  One is made from toasted quinoa, and the other is infused with the flavor of the chicha-morada which I had a chance to try in Ollantaytambo.

 

Dessert sampler, Huaca Pucclana, Lima, Peru

Dessert sampler, Huaca Pucclana, Lima, Peru

 

 

 

The dessert samplers are served up in shotglasses as “dessert shooters,” but if the portions were modest, the tastes were not.

 

 

 

Pictured here, they are, from left to right:

  • Warm rice pudding mille feuille and algarrobina ice cream.
  • Lucuma mousse, crunchy quinoa, double chocolate.
  • Suspiro de Limeña with port, cookies, and meringue.
  • “Doña Pepa” cheesecake with sweet molasses and honey

 

It’s been a food-filled day that may have trashed any appetite for dinner, but for anyone who experiences cravings later, here are four restaurants worth considering (see TripAdvisor for ratings and details):

  • Astrid y Gaston (plan ahead, the reservation wait list here is weeks long!)

 

Beer afficionados can find more on Peru’s craft brewers here:

  • Sierra Andina is another Perúvian microbrewery that produces a good product in more traditional flavor profiles.

 

Bohemian Barranco

Bajada de los Baños, Barranco, Lima

Bajada de los Baños, Barranco, Lima

Barranco is the Spanish word for “ravine”, and Lima’s Barranco District takes its name from a ravine that was once a riverbed, but is now the site of a pedestrian walkway – the Bajada de los Baños – a ramp that connects it to the beach below.

The forest of glittering high rises that has sprouted in neighboring Miraflores has not yet crept this far down the coast, and it still has the feeling of a village.

Bajada de los Baños, Barranco, Lima, Peru

Puente de los Suspiros Bridge of Sighs, Barranco, Lima, Peru

The ravine, though, is not the only unique feature of Barranco’s geography or its appeal.

Cliffs extending out from the shoreline to the south shield it from cold and damp southern winds to create a comfortable micro-climate.

Lima Barranco 05

La Ermita church, Barranco, Lima, Peru

On a side street, a hostel sign proclaims “backpackers welcome,” and through its open lobby door well-worn surfboards stand stacked against a wall.

Lima has been ranked Number 6 among the World’s 50 Best Surf Spots, and Barranco still boasts a marina and yacht club.

Barranco was originally a fishing village, and its maritime heritage is celebrated by the Eglesia de la Ermita.

Legend has it that a group of fishermen lost in the sea mist at last saw a distant light and rowed toward it.  When they came ashore, they found that in the spot where they had seen the light was nothing but a wooden cross in the sand, and built the church in thanksgiving.

Cupola of La Ermita church, Barranco, Lima, Peru

Cupola of La Ermita church, Barranco, Lima, Peru

La Ermita is now abandoned, its fractured ceiling a exposing earthquake-proof construction techniques that date back to pre-Columbian times that substitute light and flexible bamboo and stucco for heavy brick or stone.

Late 1800’s, the District became a fashionable beach resort where well-to-do  Limeños built casonas – their summer homes.

 

Electric trolley museum, Barranco, Lima, Peru

Electric trolley museum, Barranco, Lima, Peru

It was so popular that an electric trolley line once connected it to downtown Lima, and one of the trolley cars is now on display here as a permanent museum.

There’s more to Barranco, though, than its connection to the ocean

The District is also considered to be Lima’s most romantic and bohemian neighborhoods.

Cafe mural, Barranco, Lima, Peru

Cafe mural, Barranco, Lima, Peru

Peru’s leading writers, artists and musicians have lived and worked here for more than a century, and there are more than a dozen galleries here, including the first permanent exhibition of internationally known Peruvian fashion photographer Mario Testino.

Lima Barranco 08

Restaurants and gardens, Barranco, Lima, Peru

The heart of the District covers a dozen or so square blocks.

It’s easy to cover on foot and very secure to walk.

The central plaza retains its original Spanish colonial flavor, and parks and streets are flower-filled.

Shops sell artisan goods tapestries and ceramics.

Street art adorns walls and homes.  Facades of casonas built in the Republican style retain all of their elegance and charm.

 

 

Lima Barranco 03

Bajada de los Baños (Bridge of Sighs), Barranco, Lima, Peru

The walkway to the sea, the Bajada de los Baños, is spanned by the Puente de los Suspiros foot bridge.

Its name translates into Bridge of Sighs, so called because it is a frequent meeting place for lovers.

 

 

 

 

 

Dining car restaurant, Barranco, Lima, Peru

Dining car restaurant, Barranco, Lima, Peru

 

Here you’ll find no chain restaurants, but only owner-operated establishments, each brimming with its own unique charm.

Lima Barranco 10

Peruvian restaurant, Barranco, Lima, Peru

 

 

 

If Barranco is a pleasant way to pass the day, it comes even more alive in the evenings, when the bistros, bars, and cafes are crowded with young adults.

 

Restaurant at night, Barranco, Lima, Peru

Restaurant at night, Barranco, Lima, Peru

I settle over a latte to watch passers-by stop to play a piano that sits beneath an outdoor canopy.

"Play Me" piano, Barranco, Lima, Peru

“Play Me” piano, Barranco, Lima, Peru

It’s only one of dozens placed in city parks and other public spaces by the city, and I sit nearby as a young man plays a flawless rendition of a work by Debussy.

It’s a perfect end to a perfect day, but I’m still looking forward to tomorrow’s culinary tour of Lima!  Click here to come along!

Historic Lima

Evidence of pre-Inca cultures beneath Lima was unknown to Francisco Pizarro when he selected it as the capital of the Spanish viceroyalty of Perú, and the new capital barely survived its first year.

Archbishop's Palace, Plaza Mayor, Lima, Peru

Archbishop’s Palace, Plaza Mayor, Lima, Perú

In 1536, the army of Inca Emperor Manco II nearly wiped the city from the map during his 8-year insurrection.

Plaza Mayor, Lima, Peru

Plaza Mayor, Lima, Perú

 

The Plaza Mayor, focal point of is Lima’s Centro Historico, is one of Peru’s dozen UNESCO World Heritage sites.

It’s bordered by buildings constructed in the Spanish colonial style that include the Presidential Palace and Lima’s central Cathedral.

Government Palace, Peru's White House, on the Plaza Mayor, Lima

Government Palace, Perú’s White House, on the Plaza Mayor

 

Pizarro ordered the first Palace built shortly after the Conquest in 1535.

 

As elsewhere in Perú, the Spaniards placed it on the site of an Indian burial ground and shrine.

 

The Palace and its successors were the residence of Spanish Viceroys for nearly three hundred years, and later as independent Perú’s seat of government.

 

The current structure, built in the French Baroque style, was constructed in 1921.

 

Basilica Cathedral of Lima, Plaza Mayor

Basilica Cathedral of Lima, Plaza Mayor

The Basilica Cathedral of Lima is the third church erected on its site.

Pizarro ordered the first one built in 1541, and it was constructed of wood and adobe.

He was assassinated within a year and buried within the Cathedral’s walls in an unmarked grave that went unidentified for nearly two hundred fifty years.

The Cathedral has been the seat of the Lima Archdiocese since 1546.

It contains more than a dozen chapels, and has survived partial destruction by at least three major earthquakes, most recently in 1940.

Hand-carved lattice work on the Archbishop's Palace

Hand-carved lattice work on the Archbishop’s Palace

Ornate balconies of hand-carved wood, a signature feature of Lima’s colonial architecture, are prominently featured on Plaza buildings, most notably on the Archbishop’s Palace.

The balconies’ design, of Moorish origin, reflects the contribution of yet another influence on Peru’s melting pot culture.

The Convento de San Francisco is only a two block walk from the Plaza Mayor, but the route passes by a picturesque cafe and bar that’s too irresistible to pass up.

Bar Cordano is one of many neightborhood bistros in Lima's Centro Historio

Bar Cordano is one of many neightborhood bistros in Lima’s Centro Historio

A peak inside of the Bar Cordano, Lima Centro Historico

A peak inside of the Bar Cordano, Lima Centro Historico

 

Front facade of the San Franciso Convent, Lima, Peru

Front facade of the San Franciso Convent, Lima, Perú

Two spectacular features of the Convento de San Francisco make it a must-see, and since interior photography is prohibited, it can only be experienced in the flesh.

 

One is a staircase cupola fashioned from Nicaraguan cedar in exquisite, Moorish-inspired patterns.

 

San Francisco Convent, Lima, Peru

San Francisco Convent, Lima, Peru

 

The other is its ossuary, an extensive catacomb from which archeologists have exhumed for display the bones of tens of thousands buried within the convent over the centuries.

Between the Centro Historico and Miraflores, foundations deeply dug for Lima’s new high rises have revealed ruins and relics of pre-Inca culture.

Pre-Inca ruins of Huaca Pucllana, Lima, Peru

Pre-Inca ruins of Huaca Pucllana, Lima, Peru

The Huaca Pucllana is a great adobe and clay pyramid of seven staggered platforms.

It first appears out of the surrounding mid-rises as a dusty mound enclosed by chain link fence and marked by the trails of dirt bikers who once used the site.

It covers an area nearly three city blocks wide and five long.  Excavation is ongoing.

Its name – which comes from Quechua word “pucllay,” meaning “game” – translates as “a place for ritual games.”

Huaca Pucllana was a major ceremonial and administrative center of the Lima Culture, a coastal society that flourished at the same time that Europe was descending into the Middle Ages.

One part of the complex contains pits where offerings of fish and other marine life were once made to curry the favor of the gods.

The other was an administrative area which contains adobe structures among which some walls are still standing.

Spaces between the bricks of Huaca Pucllana allow the structure to stretch during earthquakes

Spaces between the bricks of Huaca Pucllana allow the structure to stretch during earthquakes

Also uncovered here are relics of the earlier Wari Culture, including the first of their tombs to be discovered completely intact.

Its three burial shrouds held the remains of three adults – one of high station – and those of a sacrificed child.

With only two days of this trip remaining, I’ve begun searching for the threads that run through all that I’ve seen in Perú.

One of  the headlines is this:  A Perú visit which ends with Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas is like seeing the ruins of ancient Rome without its Greek predecessors or the European cultures subsequently built upon it.

Tomorrow’s plan is to visit Lima’s Barranco District, a Bohemian enclave tucked against the Pacific just south of Miraflores.  Read on

Lima renaissance

"Suicide Bridge" in Miraflores District, Lima

“Suicide Bridge” in Miraflores District, Lima. Fences later installed prevent future jumps.

Machu Picchu visitors who treat Lima as no more than an airline connection are missing an essential part of the Peruvian experience.

 

There is easily enough to see and do in Perú’s capital to warrant spending a couple of days.

 

Lima is the only capital city in the Americas that sits directly on the Pacific coast, and the distinction has markedly shaped its culture.

 

One of Lima's many boulevard sidewalks

One of Lima’s many boulevard sidewalks

Fresh seafood, meticulously prepared and served up in eye-popping presentations, is widely available, and here in the land of its origin, the ceviche is incomparable.

The Cantonese-Peruvian fusion cuisine known as “chifa” has its origin in Chinese immigrants who came as railroad builders and agricultural workers around the turn of the twentieth century.

Today the Chinese commercial influence is evident in everything from consumer goods to the maker’s mark on the city’s busses.

 

Lima oceanfront facing south from Larcomar

Lima oceanfront facing south

In the fifteen years since the government prevailed over the Sendero Luminoso and Túpac Amaru terrorists, Lima has enjoyed a stability and increasing prosperity that’s visible everywhere.

 

The Limeños I talked with not only shared the belief that their lives were better than ten years ago, but that they felt optimistic about their futures.

Homes in Miraflores District, LIma

Homes in Miraflores District, LIma

 

The new prosperity has spawned world-class restaurants and hotels clustered around charming residential neighborhoods that range in architectural styles from historic to contemporary.

The prosperity is also fueling highway improvements and flood control projects throughout Perú.

In Lima, improvements include a subway system on which ground is newly broken, and ongoing land reclamation that continues to extend a string of public beachfront parks already close to ten miles long.

Bicycle rental stand on the oceanfront

Bicycle rental stand on the oceanfront

Whether you choose to walk, job, cycle, or surf them, their pull is irresistible.

 

The Miraflores District, situated south of the city center along the coast, is home to some of the city’s most elegant and historic homes.

 

More recently built  high rises and townhomes reflect the new prosperity.

The neighborhood is clean, secure, and eminently walkable.  It’s also home to some of the city’s best restaurants and hotels.  English is spoken in most of these. and staff is consistently friendly and helpful.

 

Contemporary home in Miraflores District, LIma

Contemporary home in Miraflores District, LIma

Classic home in Miraflores District, LIma

Classic home in Miraflores District, LIma

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surfers brave the waves in the height of winter

Surfers brave the waves in the height of winter

Lima is 800 miles south of the equator, so it’s autumn during this May visit.

 

While skies are often overcast, evenings require only a light jacket or sweater.

 

Not so for ocean temperatures, and the surfers are all wet-suited.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surfers suit up only feet away from a tsunami escape route sign.

Surfers suit up only feet away from a tsunami escape route sign.

 

Tsunami escape route signs all along the beach below remind all of the ever-present danger.

 

Lima hasn’t experienced a tsunami since the 8.2 magnitude earthquake of 1940.

Mosaic wall along the ocean front

Mosaic wall along the ocean front

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Miraflores, the beachfront parks are mirrored by parks strung along the cliffs above.

Visitors will be wowed not only by Larcomar Mall‘s selection of eateries and chic shops, but by its stunning ocean overlook.

 

Lima ocean view facing south

Lima ocean view facing south

"The Kiss", by sculptor Victor Delfin, in the Parque Del Amor on Lima's oceanfront.

“The Kiss”, by sculptor Victor Delfin, in the Parque Del Amor on Lima’s oceanfront.

 

Not far down the beach, the centerpiece of the Parque del Amor, opened on Valentine’s day in 1993, is a Victor Delfin sculpture of lovers in passionate embrace titled “El Beso”.

Posted nearby is a quote by poet Antonio Cilloniz in which he laments that cities build monuments to warriors, but never to lovers.

Peace and love – paz y amor – is a recurrent theme throughout Peru.

In the San Miguel District, a statue of John Lennon holding a guitar stands in his namesake park, and tiles in a mosaic circle at his feet spell out the work “Imagine”.

Next to Miraflores’ municipal park at Larco and Diagonal Residents is Kennedy Park, known in the city for it stray cat population.

Here, neighborhood cat lovers “sponsor” a cat by paying for spaying, neutering, and vaccinations.  Residents have also been known to adopt strays long enough to give them a bath and a few square meals before returning them to the park for adoption by others.

Classic homes in Miraflores District, LIma

Classic home in Miraflores District, LIma

Lima traffic is a robustly chaotic affair in which any intersection not marked with a traffic light is a free-for-all.

It’s all the more challenging because horn-honking was forbidden by a former mayor who considered Lima’s ear-splitting street noise off-putting to tourists.

It’s best to rely on local drivers to navigate its formidable currents.

Be forewarned, though, that with curbside parking space at a premium there are no taxi stands –  and because the government does not license or regulate taxis –  it’s best to arrange transportation through your hotel, restaurant, or tour operator.

It’s taken a full day to explore Miraflores, but there’s plenty of Lima yet ahead, beginning with a visit to Lima’s Centro Historico.  Click here to come along!

Taquile tradition

One of Taquile's two points of entry

One of Taquile’s two points of entry

As the boat approaches Taquile Island, the mountains of Bolivia rise out of the distant lake horizon, a reminder that the coast road can deliver us to La Paz in under four hours.

Barely a mile wide and three miles long, Taquile is home to little more than a couple thousand people.

Everything from the color and position of the tassel and threads in the sash has a meaning.

Everything from the color and position of the tassel and threads in the sash has a meaning.

 

This is one of the last places taken by the Spaniards during their Conquest of the New World.

When its lands were granted to Count Rodrigo of Taquile, a Catalán Spaniard, the islanders adopted Catalán dress that they wear to this day.

Visitors have been coming here since the 1970’s, but outsider access is controlled a collective of the islanders.  Two piers at opposite sides of the island are connected by stone staircases to the central plaza and village.

Local wearing a Catalán barretina

Local wearing a Catalán barretina

A villager in a Catalán barretina passes through the hilltop gates just as I begin my climb.

If walking on the reeds of the Uros Islands feels like floating on a raft at the top of the world, then Taquile feels like climbing the ridgepole of the celestial tent.

View across the island to Lake TIticaca.

View across the island to Lake TIticaca.

The thin air – we’re still well above 13,000 feet – makes for breathless stops along the way, but the view from the top is worth it.

The lake is an endless reflection of the most startlingly blue sky I’ve ever seen.  Clouds that have always towered far above me seem here to be within arm’s reach, and they’re blindingly brilliant in the unfiltered sunlight.

Woman in Catalán garb herds her sheep

Woman in Catalán garb herds her sheep

 

Even though I’ve been tiped off  about local dress, it’s still a bit of a cultural disconnect to see centuries-old Catalán clothing on the backs of indigenous people halfway around the world five centuries after they were first in fashion.

A woman driving her sheep looks like a snapshot from the foothills of the Pyrenees.

 

 

 

A brass band announces the ceremony

A brass band announces the ceremony

 

 

 

Fortune has smiled on this day, for there’s a harvest celebration just beginning on the plaza.

A brass band plays at the foot of a flagpole.

 

 

 

 

Bystanders look on from staircases and doorways, most of the men wearing signature Catalan sashes.

Local residents ring the plaza for a view of the pageantry

Local residents ring the plaza for a view of the pageantry

 

Two boys watch from a staircase vantage point

Two boys watch from a staircase vantage point

Here, as among the Uros, the colored tassels on caps or  women’s pigtails all have significance  depending upon their color and the side of the face on which they are worn.

A mix of Catalán and native dress is often evident

A mix of Catalán and native dress is often evident

It’s probably no accident that the Taquileños use their dress as a sort of language and an important part of ceremony.

The islanders are known for the quality of their hand-woven fabrics and clothing.  Knitted fabrics are produced only by men and woven fabrics and yarns produced only by women.

Smoldering incense fills the air

Smoldering incense fills the air

 

At the center of the plaza kneel men and women in native dress, cloth bundles on the stones before them filled with  dried blossoms and herbs and barks.

 

Like a shaman, one of the figures lights fragrant wood splints and their smoke drifts upward as their scent settles into the crowd.

A masked devil is poised to rope

A masked devil is poised to rope

Only a few feet away, a masked figure bearing a rope advances on a pair of cattle.

The cattle are readied for their part in the procession

The cattle are readied for their part in the procession

 

The design of this plowshare has remained almost unchanged for thousands of years

Traditional wooden plowshare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image of paired cattle is a motif appears widely in Peru as clay miniatures that are perched on rooftops for good luck, fertility, and prosperity.

 

The design of this plowshare has remained almost unchanged for thousands of years

 

Identically dressed women join the procession

Identically dressed women join the procession

The ceremony escalates into processions which circle the plaza, each with its own impeccably costumed players, costumes, and props.

 

Just as elsewhere in Latin America, the Catholic presence undeniably threaded through the proceedings is mixed with a strong dose of local tradition and dress.

 

At times the Christian connection seems to fade into invisibility.

 

 

In the final circuit of the plaza, somber women dressed identically in bright red and black move in a double line.

A spectacular finale

A moving finale

 

Altar boys carry the wreathed image of paired bulls.

Altar boys carry the wreathed image of paired bulls.

At the head of the procession a wreathed image of paired bulls is hand carried by altar boys.

 

As I reflect on the visit during the descent to the boat dock, the Taquile experience seems hard to top, but Lima – and yet a whole other flavor of Peru – is still ahead.  Read on.

Untouched Uros

Figurehead on the prow of a Uro reed catamaran.

Figurehead on the prow of a Uro reed catamaran.

Part of Ollantaytambo’s appeal is that Inca descendants living in the shadow of monumental Inca architecture bring the visitor one step closer to the feel of these ruins when they were still occupied by their builders.

 

On Lake Titicaca, two indigenous cultures are alive and well in their ancestral environments, unchanged in centuries and accessible to the curious.

 

There are too few opportunities to experience such “living legacy” cultures, and with the cultural integrity of  many indigenous communities  threatened by the impact of Western civilization, many such opportunities are fading all too fast.

Uros Island village

Uros Island village

The first of the two cultures is the Uro people, after whom the floating Uros Islands are named.

The Uros moved into the lake for the same reason that ancient Venetians first settled in a swampy lagoon:  They were more defensible.

Looking back on Puno, Peru.

Looking back on Puno, Peru.

 

Their islands sit not five miles offshore from the Puno harbor, and the route is via a boat channel that has been cleared through the reed-covered lagoon.

 

The morning sun is still low in the sky and a chill in the air as the boat departs.

 

The islands soon appear as clusters of huts, watchtowers, and catamarans all made of reeds.

 

Uro men head out for day of fishing on Lake Titicaca

Uro men head out for day of fishing on Lake Titicaca

 

 

 

 

 

The men typically are out fishing during the day, but two pass by in a small motorboat as we approach.

Every island seems to have a watchtower

Every island seems to have a watchtower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another man looks out over the water from the vantage point of a watchtower.

 

Walking about on one of these islands is not unlike walking around on a very firm water-bed, and the sensation takes a bit of getting used to.

 

Any qualms that I may have about the safety of this floating bird’s nest, however, are quickly laid to rest by an explanation that uses 3-D miniatures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The foundations of these islands are the root beds of totora reeds which have grown so far from shore that they detach from the lakebed and float along the surface like lily pads.

Uro women show how root blocks of floating reeds are lashed together.

Uro women show how root blocks of floating reeds are lashed together.

Layers of reeds are cross-thatched over the floating block before home construction.

Layers of reeds are cross-thatched over the floating block before home construction.

 

 

The Uros corral enough of these floating beds to house a group of four or five families, trim them close to their roots, and corral them by lashing them to stakes driven into the lake bed.  Alternating layers of cut reeds are laid atop the floating root system, and structures are then built upon it.

The Uros value the totora reed not only for construction, but also as an essential part of diet and medicine.  The iodine-rich, white bottom of the reed is chewed or brewed – as with coca leaves – for relief from climate, hunger, and hangover. It also is wrapped around wounds to relieve pain.

Because the reeds are continuously decaying, the islanders have to re-create new island homes – as well as replace their catamarans – every few years.

Traditional clay pot cooking stove

Traditional clay pot cooking stove

 

 

 

 

There is no electricity here except for solar panels which now power electric lights and radios, and which have reduced the risk of fire.  Traditional cooking stoves, however, still remain a fire risk.

 

 

 

 

The lake is not only the islanders’ home, but their highway.  A grocery boat – a sort of floating convenience store – makes a stop at the island on its appointed rounds.

The grocery store boat makes a stop

The grocery store boat makes a stop

The school "bus" arrives.

The school “bus” arrives.

 

 

 

 

A school boat drops by to take one of the island’s children to class.

On Sundays, worshipers travel by boat not only to the Catholic church, but also to services for the Seventh Day Adventists, who have been gaining acceptance in this part of Peru.

 

Uro women

Uro women

 

 

 

 

The Uro population now numbers only a few thousand, but the greatest threat to their way of life may not be their numbers, but negative environmental impact.

Introduction of non-native fish has driven species long fished by the Uros into endangerment or to extinction.

Uro woman with child

Uro woman with child

 

 

 

 

Global warming is shrinking Andes ice caps and altering mountain runoff.  A thinning ozone layer reduces the scant sun protection afforded by thin air and cloudless skies; it’s no surprise that skin cancer is epidemic here.

Islanders benefit from tourism through sale of their hand-woven work

Islanders benefit from tourism through sale of their hand-woven work

 

These threats have compelled the Uros to turn increasingly to tourism in order to preserve their distinctive settlements and culture.

There are no admission fees to these islands, so visitors’ purchase of handicrafts fashioned by Uro women are the only way that the families benefit from tourism.  Be forewarned that the Uros will adamantly refuse anything resembling a handout.

The launch awaits at a nearby floating island which serves as a sort of marina, affording the opportunity to make the trip there on one of the reed  catamarans, rowed – traditionally – by the women.  As we part at the end of the crossing, I grasp their hands in thanks.  They are small as a child’s, the skin a rich, warm brown.  Their palms and fingers are as dry and calloused as a farmhand’s.  They smile and nods as if the ferry ride was all in a day’s work.

Catamaran crew of two rowing the ferry across the channel

Catamaran crew of two rowing the ferry across the channel

It’s been an unforgettable experience, but the day is only half over.

From here the route continues further into the lake to Taquile, where yet another distinctive culture has evolved in island isolation.  It promises to be a great afternoon.  Click here to come along!

 

 

Andes by rail

Andes Explorer passenger car

Andes Explorer passenger car

Train travel affords an opportunity to see a side of the landscape not to be otherwise seen, and by that measure Peru Rail’s Andean Express is over the top.

The train covers the 240 miles between Cusco and Puno – the jump-off point for Lake Titicaca – at a leisurely pace which allows passengers plenty of time to soak up the scenery.

Villager seen from the Andean Explorer

Villager seen from the Andean Explorer

The train pulls out of the Cusco station at 8AM, and as it passes through the city, locals are eating breakfast under the canopies of sidewalk kitchens or making their way to work.

Children and adults alike wave at the train as it passes, evoking a childhood memory.

It’s no surprise that the Andean Explorer has been named one of the world’s Top 25 Trains.

It  serves up the day-long trip with a level of comfort and service that recalls the golden age of train travel.

Mealtime is an event on the Andean Explorer

Mealtime is an event on the Andean Explorer

Armchairs and white tablecloths lend the feel of a drawing room to the passenger cars , and uniformed stewards seem ever-present.

Cocktails and high tea are served in a club car tacked onto the end of the train, but it’s the view from the car’s open-air gallery that’s truly intoxicating.

For those who are so inclined, a Happy Hour and made-in-Peru fashion show help to break up the trip.

 

Freshly made bricks and roof tiles

Freshly made bricks and roof tiles

The outskirts of Cusco dissolve into small villages where all manner of enterprises have been drawn to the rails.

In some places the tracks pass through the dowdy underside of towns and in others run alongside their main streets.

Wives work side by side with their husbands in every type of endeavor from tending fields to brick making.

The train passes through the Rio Urubamba canyon and continues climbing away from the river’s headwaters.

Behind us, mountains loom over river and villages tucked into lush, terraced valleys, and pare the sky into slivers.  Ahead of us, the landscape unfolds into a vast, arid altiplano – high plain – framed by mountains that ring the horizon as if propping up the endless sky.

Church at La Raya, Peru

Church at La Raya, Peru

 

 

Near the halfway point, the train begins to brake in what seems to be the middle of nowhere.

 

A small church appears as we pull to a stop in front of a bazaar that stretches alongside the track for nearly the length of the train.

 

 

 

Artisan vendor at La Raya, Peru

Artisan vendor at La Raya, Peru

This is La Raya, and at more than 14,000 feet above sea level it’s the highest point on the route, and  the divide beyond which water no longer flows toward the Urubamba and Amazon, but instead toward the Pacific Ocean.  To the north are mostly Quechua-speaking peoples and to the south – and into Bolivia – the native tongue is Aymara.

Artisan vendor at La Raya, Peru

Artisan vendor at La Raya, Peru

 

Artisan market and Andean Explorer, La Raya, Peru

Artisan market and Andean Explorer, La Raya, Peru

As I step off the train and begin wandering among the artisans, Cusco’s 11,000 foot altitude suddenly feels like child’s play.

 

 

The stopover is brief, and it’s a bit like watching a speed-dating event as everyone tries to strike a deal.

 

 

The quality and variety of the work – mostly textiles – is good, and since only one train passes through each day, the vendors are highly motivated.

Couple working their fields near La Raya, Peru

Couple working their fields near La Raya, Peru

 

 

 

 

Beyond La Raya, the route passes through agricultural villages separated by grazing animals and the stubble of recently harvested fields.  Couples labor together on their land.

Motorcycle taxi waits at a railroad crossing.

Motorcycle taxi waits at a railroad crossing.

Motorcycle taxis wait at crossings for the train to pass.

Bicyclist alongside the tracks of the Andean Explorer

Bicyclist alongside the tracks of the Andean Explorer

 

A bicyclist paces the train for a while before falling behind.

 

 

About an hour before its arrival, the train passes through Juliaca, home of the airport nearest to Lake Titicaca.  It’s about 10 blocks to the harbor from the Puno train station, and the hotel zone and central plaza are even closer.

Tomorrow begins with a boat trip to the floating Uros Islands.  Click here to come along!

 

Tip:  The view from seats on the west side of the train is significantly more interesting, particularly on the segment through the Urubamba canyon.

Contemplating Cusco

For the Incas, all roads led to Cusco.  The city’s name is a corruption of the Inca word for “center,” and it was for them the “navel of the world”, the place from which roads to the four compass points linked the capital with the four regions through which it administered the empire. The Incas’ mark on the city was largely erased by the Spaniards’ campaign of cultural genocide, but in the old city – as in Ollantaytambo – the conqueror’s architecture sits atop original Inca walls.

Cusco 01 2014-05-12

Cusco’s Plaza de Armas as seen from Saksaywaman

Those walls rise, man-high, around narrow, tourist-packed streets that feel at times like walking through Florence. The old city comes alive at night, and there are easily enough good restaurants in Cusco to suit every taste and budget. Plan to stay no less than a couple of days and at least as many nights here to take in the essentials.

Cusco 07 2014-05-12

Cusco’s historic center street view

The Spaniards were intent not just upon conquering the Inca, but upon obliterating the symbols and practices through which Inca society had been bound together.

Their obsession with building Catholic churches upon the ruins of Inca palaces and temples created two of the city’s most prominent attractions – the Qorikancha and the Cathedral de Santo Domingo.

The vast Plaza de Armas is Cusco’s center and a great place to people-watch, but it’s also the address of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and older, adjacent Iglesia del Triunfo.

The cathedral is constructed of stone scavenged from Saksaywaman, the great archeological site in the hills above the city.

This UNESCO world heritage site was once occupied by the Inca’s palace and armory.  Work on the cathedral was finished more than a century after the church was completed.

It’s now a major repository of Cusco’s colonial art, archeological artifacts, and religious relics.  They’re all so fragile that photos are no long permitted… so this attraction has to be seen firsthand to be experienced, and it’s not to be missed.

Cusco 21 2014-05-12

Convent & Church of Santo Domingo; site of the Qorikancha

 

The sprawling Convent of Santo Domingo is built upon the site of the Inca Qorikancha, a religious complex of five temples that was the spiritual heart of the empire.

Cloistered courtyard at the Convent of Santo Domingo

Cloistered courtyard at the Convent of Santo Domingo

 

Above ground, the only hint of its origins is the curved wall of perfectly fitted stones upon which the convent church now sits.

 

 

 

 

The cloistered courtyard within gives no further clues as to what lies beneath.

Inca chamber beneath the convent

Inca chamber beneath the convent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In two places, though, precise construction of the original Inca chambers is laid bare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earthquake-proof, trapezoidal windows align perfectly

Into the perfectly formed chambers are set windows and doors that narrow from bottom to top in earthquake-resistant design.

The Inca technique for mortarless walls used stone pins and catches to bind the blocks together.

It has survived dozens of earthquakes, including the massive quake of 1650 that leveled most of the Spanish construction above it.

Inca mortarless block

 

On a gold plaque is transcribed a copy of an earlier map showing the location of all structures in the original complex.

 

Inca map of the Qorinkancha before the conquest.

Inca map of the Qorinkancha before the conquest.

The short walk to the Qorikancha from the city center is already halfway to Cusco’s artisan market, located at the intersection of the Avenidas del Sol and Tullumayo.

Welcoming statue at the Cusco artisans' market.

Welcoming statue at the Cusco artisans’ market.

Mosaic mural at the Cusco artisans' market.

Mosaic mural at the Cusco artisans’ market.

While there’s been no lack of opportunity to shop the work of local artisans elsewhere, this market houses stalls of more than 100 artisans under one roof.

It showcases work in media including textiles, leather, wood, and stone.  Many can be seeing creating new works while minding their stalls.

The vendors are very engaging and the prices quite competitive.  An afternoon visit is recommended, as some stalls are closed mornings.

Statue of Christ overlooking Cusco at Saksaywaman.

Statue of Christ overlooking Cusco at Saksaywaman.

 

 

A giant statue of Christ with arms extended looks out over Cusco from the hills above.

 

 

Behind it are the ruins of Saksaywaman, sitting astride the compass-point entrance to the Cusco which it once controlled.

Ruins at Saksawywaman

Ruins at Saksawywaman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About half an hour’s drive from the city center, this site is draped across the hills.

 

 

Significant portions remain unexcavated, so it’s not as comprehensive as archeological sites  seen earlier.

 

 

This Inca cave used the elements to cure corpses into mummies.

This Inca cave used the elements to cure corpses into mummies.

It does, however, boast one particularly unusual feature:  An open-ended cave through which mountain breezes create a natural freeze-drying effect which the Inca found well-suited to the task of mummification.

Days in Cusco  may be filled with museums and monuments, but evenings are for walking the, narrow, warmly lit  streets of the old town, and for checking out the great dining scene.

(There’s still plenty of time this evening to try an alpaca steak and a quinoa beer.)

Time spent in Cusco flies by, but in Peru all good things seem to lead only to more good things.

Tomorrow morning, Peru Rail’s Andean Explorer heads south on a day-long trip that follows the Urubamba River valley to its headwaters before it emerges onto the high plains.  On its way to Lake Titicaca, it passes through the highest point of the trip – 14,170 feet.  (The scenery will take your breath away, too!)  Click here to come along for the ride.

Magnificent Machu Picchu

The air is cool and a weak dawn filters through the clouds as I rub sleep from my eyes and hope that there’s someplace to buy coffee at this early hour. The heavy clouds seem to bode ill for a Machu Picchu sunrise, but visitors are undeterred as they queue up on a street corner waiting to board one of the busses that ferry everyone but Inca Trail hikers up the mountain and back.

The dirt road on which it ascends is full of switchback curves and narrow enough that the bus often has to back up a few yards to allow returning vehicles to pass.

Machu Picchu’s altitude is nearly a quarter of a mile higher than Aguascalientes’, and for the better part of a half hour the bus passes through the changing vegetation of several microclimates.

Machu Picchu 03

 

The entrance gate sits above most of the archeological site, but the famous panoramic view can only be seen from the hillside above.

 

The lookout seems like a good place to gain bearings before diving into the ruins below.

 

Machu Picchu 02

 

Wisps of clouds hang over the site and hover around the backdrop mountains, lending an otherworldly quality to the scene.

It would take an Ansel Adams to do justice to this stunning landscape.

Even at this hour, the overlook is crowded with earlier arrivals, including backpackers who’ve just hiked in on the Inca Trail.  Everyone seems to want a selfie with the ruins in the background.

The complex below doesn’t at first seem so big until I begin to measure heights and distances against the antlike streams of people passing through it.Machu Picchu 04

 

Machu Picchu 01I’m surprised to see the Urubamba River passing within hundreds of yards more than a thousand feet below, for it rarely appears in  photos.

In hindsight, though, it comes as no surprise that this inaccessible place was nevertheless built close to the Sacred Valley’s heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

At Machu Picchu, everything seen earlier in bits and pieces at Pisac and Ollantaytambo – the rounded temple walls with immaculately fitted stones, the terraces and homes, and the granaries and cemetery – are all pulled together in one incredible design.Machu Picchu 05

Machu Picchu 06

Machu Picchu 07

 

Machu Picchu 08Less than half of the ruins have been restored, but even in its unfinished state it is just as unquestionably original as it is a masterpiece.

The sun at last stabs through the clouds in a single beam that cuts all the way to the valley floor.

In less than twenty minutes the veil of clouds completely lifts and the ruins are bathed in sunlight.

Machu Picchu 09On the mountainside above, the Inca Trail winds its way down nearly 6,000 feet from its peak to pass through what was once the city’s main gate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Machu Picchu 10A family of alpaca grazes on a meadow amidst the ruins, eyeing the photographers that surround them, but otherwise as indifferent as sacred cows.

Machu Picchu 11The Inca are so often presented as shapers of land that it’s interesting to see how they also integrated natural formations into their architecture.  Only the Roman ruins at Ephesus compare with the scope and sophistication of Machu Picchu, but there’s a different feel to this place.

Machu Picchu 12Clustered around temples set within a natural cathedral, it’s a place that impresses the visitor even more with its spirituality than with its construction.  It’s a feeling that recurs often in the Sacred Valley.

This site was abandoned less than 100 years after its completion as a consequence of the Conquest, which lends a particular sadness to its majesty.

Like Pompeii, it cannot help but evoke the sorrow of leaving home unwillingly and in haste, and it leaves forever open the question of what might have been.

The train departs  tomorrow afternoon, retracing the tracks to Ollantaytambo and then turning into the mountains before arriving at Cusco.  Come  along for a walk about the Inca capital.

Aguascalientes… by rail!

PeruRail station at Ollantaytambo

PeruRail station at Ollantaytambo

River, road, and rails often run together through this part of the Valle Sagrada – the Sacred Valley – but the river road turns east into the mountains beyond Ollantaytambo , and anyone not trekking the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu must arrive by train.

The good news is that Peru Rail cars are clean and up to date, the seats are spacious and comfortable, and the ride takes little more than an hour.

Aguascalientes 02 2014-05-10

Inca platform on a cliff

The Urubamba River descends steadily from its headwaters on the far side of Cusco.  By the time it reaches Ollantaytambo, it has already dropped by nearly 2,000 feet on its way to the Amazon.  It drops by nearly 3,000 feet more as the train follows it to Aguascalientes through twenty miles of changing microclimates.

 

Inca terraces overlooking a footbridge

Inca terraces overlooking a footbridge

After three days in the Valley, the visitor’s eyes become attuned to  flyspecks of Inca terraces and buildings anchored in the vast landscape, or half-hidden by foliage.

 

 

They appear with amazing frequency along this route, which drives home the point that there was far acreage under cultivation in Inca times than there is today.

 

 

The views are spectacular, and peaks of nearby mountains are sometimes only visible through the train’s vista dome.

 

 

From time to time there’s a wait on a siding for a returning train to pass through a one-lane mountain tunnel.

 

 

 

Riverside homes connected only by footbridge

Riverside homes connected only by footbridge

 

 

The road has long ago veered away from river and rails, and the scattered hamlets along the river are now connected to the opposite bank only by footbridges.

 

 

 

 

 

Boulders worn smooth by rainy season current.

Boulders worn smooth by rainy season current.

 

 

 

The river grows increasingly turbulent as it plunges ever downward.

The rainy season is still months away and boulders above the low water mark have been worn smooth its raging currents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aguascalientes has the look of a Colorado ski village crossed with a Colorado mining town.  It’s nestled in a gorge at the foot of Machu Picchu and anyone can walk along every street of its twenty-five square blocks in little more than an hour.

The railroad runs down Aguascaliente's riverfront street

The railroad runs down Aguascaliente’s riverfront street

 

 

The riverfront street is split down the middle by the Peru Rail tracks, and although there’s little rail traffic beyond the village, it’s possible to dine at an outdoor table within its reach.

Pedestrian bridges knit the two halves of Aguascalientes together.

Pedestrian bridges knit the two halves of Aguascalientes together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The village is divided by a tributary of the Urubamba, and the halves are connected by several bridges from which much of the town is readily visible.

Walking in Aguascalientes almost always involves climbing.

Walking in Aguascalientes almost always involves climbing.

Aguascalientes is a pedestrian delight.

Connected to the rest of the world only by rail, the streets of Aguascalientes are free of any automobiles.

Trash collection without the garbage truck.

Trash collection without the garbage truck.

 

Construction materials, restaurant deliveries, and even trash collection rely on porters and hand trucks.

There is no lack of good restaurants here, but there are far more pizzerias, wi-fi coffee houses, and Peruvian restaurants with menus barely distinguishable from each other.

The "Inca Cross"

The “Inca Cross”

A walk through the village turns up dozens of images of the Chacana, popularly known as the “Inca cross”.

It’s a square superimposed upon a cross with arms marking the four compass points.  It symbolizes the Incas’ view of a three-level world:

Hana Pacha, the upper world in which the gods reside.

Kay Pacha, the world of living people.

Urin Pacha, the underworld inhabited by spirits of the dead.

Aguascalientes takes its name from the therapeutic hot spring at its upper end which can be a welcome stop for anyone who’s overdone a day of hiking.

There are also massage therapists on almost every street corner, and in combination bath and massage makes for a great wind-down after a day on the mountain

A dark-skinned Christ wears an Inca robe.

A dark-skinned Christ wears an Inca robe.

A peek into a church on the main plaza turns up the recurrent image of a crucified Christ robed in an Inca tunic.

Unlike most of the Christ images in Peruvian churches, this one is dark-skinned.

Young women in traditional garb are gathered in anticipation of the Mother’s Day celebration which is just beginning to crank up.

 

Girls in traditional garb in advance of the Mother's Day celebration.

Girls in traditional garb in advance of the Mother’s Day celebration.

Tonight’s a night to turn in early, though, because the plan for tomorrow is to beat the crowds and catch the sunrise over Machu Picchu.  Come along.

 

Some  tips:

  • Only a limited number of Machu Picchu tickets are issued for each day, which will require you to also have round trip reservations for the train and bus shuttle tickets to and from the site.
  • You may encounter baggage restrictions if boarding the train at Ollantaytambo, so consider taking with you only enough baggage for a couple of days and leaving excess baggage at the station checkroom.
  • You’ll also want to have room reservations in Aguascalientes for at least the night before or after your Machu Picchu visit… or maybe both. 

While some Machu Picchu aficionados spend every minute of a full day on the site, even a casual tourist accompanied by a knowledgeable guide should plan on spending no less that 2-3 hours there. 

The crowds are at their lightest at opening, and on Sundays.

  • I used the services of GoToPeru for all of my in-country travel, for reservations and ticketing to cultural sites.  Their guides are excellent and I highly recommend their service.
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