Peru – Lima to Cusco

February 2019

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     We all know of the famous Machu Picchu and the Incan Trail. I decided to save all of that until the end of the trip for obvious super cliché reasons. My journey started one week before and it wasn’t in Peru, but in Canada. Why? As I currently am living in Seattle, I checked the airfare price and the flight from Vancouver, BC at $650 round trip ,was a far comparison from the lowest price of $1680 from Seattle. So, I booked a ticket on the Boltbus at $25 and a hotel for one night in Vancouver at $56 and enjoyed a fun night out before taking my 630am flight.

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     As there was no car share company that I currently was signed up within Canada, I hired a cab. The driver waited for me while I dropped my bags at the hotel and proceeded to take me to the best area in downtown Vancouver, Yaletown, for food and drinks. I walked by three spots and walked in Wildtail. Great smiling staff that exceeded my vague assumptions, were fun and exciting. I will not get into that much here, as this is supposed to be about Peru. But it felt like a great start. Send me a message for more info on Vancouver or Peru.

      My flight was at an early 630am, and I was up and ready despite, my late night. I connected through LAX and into Lima ready for the day (American Airlines). I could not say that I was as prepared for this trip as much as I would many past trips. I had just moved from Spain back to the USA, and acclimation took a little time. New job, new flat, different culture, different life. Not to worry, my friends, I took it on as I always do – one city at a time.

      Let’s start out with the cab ride which I booked and paid for at a legitimate cab kiosk. Nice driver, nice car, until the car broke down on what my mind told me was a sketchy part of town. My Airbnb was at the beach in a nice upscale area, but I had to venture through whatever was between. The driver was nice and had another car come to take me to my room. All worked out. It is well known that television and media can make the world seem worse than it truly is. This was that situation. Once I found my host flat and checked in, I slept well with the ocean breeze moving throughout my room. The host preferred keeping the windows open and on the 14th floor, plenty of sea air swept through the flat.

      My first day was something amazing. I had booked an Airbnb Experience with some local guests, born in Peru from different regions, both sharing their love for hospitality and education. Vanessa was a professor and tour guide. Her expertise – giving a historic short drive through notable areas of Lima close to the sea. Her husband Ricky was a chef and storyteller.

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     The small markets were filled with hundreds of fruits. Honestly, I lacked the knowledge of more than 80% of these delicious morsels of heaven. My taste buds were overwhelmed with the rewards they were givin. Peru is home to more than 4000 varieties of fruits and over 1000 potato types. This characterizes Peru’s new title of the gastronomy capital of South America. With influences from Asia, Europe and Africa.

     The tour was later in the afternoon and mid week so tourism was low. I also chose to visit in February when the Incan trail is closed for religious purposes and for restoration. I did not plan to take on any long, sweaty week trek through the jungle mountains known as the Andes. Maybe 20 years ago, but now my friends, I do enjoy some relaxation and a nice sweet pace.

     We arrived at their home which was located on the sea and near a fishing port.

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     Ricky was awaiting us and prepared. He had a spread setup on the dining room table and man, he wasn’t messing around. Lemons, sea salt, cilantro, onions, pisco, homemade simple syrup, egg whites… The guy was ready for a Peruvian culinary and cocktail experience like I had never seen, ever. I mean it, ever!

     First, we, at my request, started off with the pisco sour class. Ricky is a master at this as he has worked in the hospitality industry in Lima for many years. Simple – 1 yellow lime squeezed, 1 oz of simple syrup, 1 oz of egg white, 1.5 oz of pisco. To this day, I will take this drink over all others given the option. Hands down, no contest. A truly excellent beverage. Frothy, semi sweet, hint of moscatel grape and just damn tasty.

     While sipping on the drinks, we began the ceviche portion of this learning endeavor. Let’s do this!

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     After slicing, dicing and mixing, the end result was a pinnacle of my new experimentation in Peruvian cuisine. To sum it up, delicious. Juicy, fresh (fish from the market 3 blocks away
), tangy. The fish is a local sole. I now know how to make an authentic dish taught to me by true locals in their own country. There is nothing better.

     FYI, the limes in Peru are yellow. I have been told that green limes are a hybrid and the yellow limes are the original limes brought from Spain.

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     Vanessa took the photos as it was Ricky’s turn to champion his part of the day.

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     The large corn kernels were also something I have never seen. These were bigger than my pinky finger! We ate, we went to the old Lima center and we drank beers at local craft beer joints. And I have to say, the beers were quite tasty considering they have to import many of the ingredients, which surprisingly do not grow here. And this was not a part of the tour. This was amazing people, showing me why, Peruvians are great people.

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     The next day, I hopped on a bus and headed south to the town of Paracas located 3 hours south on the coast line. Here two things would happen – 1. Drive a dune buggy through the Paracas Nature Reserve. 2. Take a boat ride to the Ballestas Islands Reserve.

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      I rented a room at an Airbnb which reminded me of some neighborhood in coastal Mediterranean towns or even the Middle East; flat, dry lands with cement two story homes. I embraced it. Quick walk to the beach and small town. When I arrived, I wandered a bit though the town checking it out before calling my host. Small stalls for food and a few restaurants and stands for souvenirs were open.

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A tsunami, here? I hope it doesn’t wash away all of the delicious sole fish or pisco!

     I did walk around, eat more ceviche and relax on the beach during the sunset. Sorry my friends, no photos of the sunset. Sometimes the photographer has to immerse into the moment and not care about the photo. All of this crap or whatever you all think of this blog, is secondary. I hope I didn’t offend any of you overly sensitive Americans. Or wait a minute, maybe one? Hey, we all can make fun at times.

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     The next day was a jam packed day. As I only spent two nights in Lima which included the first night that I arrived at 11pm, I also had two nights in Paracas and thus booked the boat trip and the dune buggy tour for the same day, but I did space them apart as to allow for the best time of day and of course, pisco sours and ceviche.

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     The weather was amazing; sunny, warm and on the sea. One word – heaven. I booked the double excursions with the Airbnb. Always book with locals my friends and most of the time you may get a private trip as I did on the dune buggy ride.

     I have never seen penguins in there natural habitat thus far. I mean, come one, I work for a freakin exploration cruise company. I don’t care if I only see one little Humboldt Penguin. The Humboldt current runs from the Antarctic up along the west coast of South America with an abundance of food for the sea life and so the penguins hop along for the ride north and chill here on the Ballestas islands.

     The boat was swift and fast. The wind blowing through my hair felt as refreshing as a cold beer. Wish I had one then. The scenery was unreal. Had know idea what I would see on the way out.

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     We are here and so are the droves of birds. Unreal.

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     The feeling I had was – are we in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie? The rock islands shot up out of the water in fashion to the Gods themselves, screaming “Hear me roar!”

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     Be sure to watch the entire video as you see the mating seals toward the half way mark. Hear them loudly.

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     The 50 species of birds and the mating seals were not expected by myself which made this little boat trip awesome. Once I returned back to the town, it was time for, you guessed it, food.

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     Belly is full and now I embark on my first dune buggy ride through the Paracas Reserve; where the desert meets the sea. Literally.

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     My guide, road a quad but I wanted to see what this little beast was all about. And man it was something. The shocks and struts rattled a lot as I hit bumps, holes and rocks. The speed was decent which wasn’t an issue with the limits the government here has while driving in the reserve.

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Check out the video above

     We stopped at several beach areas. There is even a beach to camp at with an inexpensive permit. Truly breathtaking. Yes my friends, this was epic.

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     Thank you Peru for showing me something I never knew existed. But I must head back, for tomorrow I fly to Cusco.

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     My guide was nice enough to drop me off at a nice restaurant afterward.

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     The next morning, I checked out and headed for the bus. I needed to take the bus back to Lima to then take a flight to Cusco. As Cusco is at 11k feet above sea level, I wanted to acclimate slowly, so I had a hotel room in Aguas Calientes (6600ft) – a small town at the bottom of Machu Picchu. 

     Now, I must note really quick, that I had a private driver who would drive me from the airport in Cusco to the bus station which I would then take to the train station and then on to Aguas. Well, the bus from Paracas to Lima was late getting to the station and traffic sucked, as apparently, it always does which means, yes, I missed my flight. I was put on another flight and notified my driver. As the bus to Cusco was leaving before I arrived, there served a problem.

     On the flight, I met two guys from the UK and we had some drinks while chatting about the upcoming days. They were going to Machu Picchu but did not have a hotel booked. I thought that was a little crazy considering the location but they were coming off two weeks traveling South America without having many plans. It reminded me, of well, me, at least when I was younger and went with the flow. Now, I am responsible and give a damn about my future. Careless travel isn’t in my wheel house like it used to be. I am not a hostel guy, or at least not now. I like a comfy bed and a nice bar. I have earned it.

     The UK guys decided after my excellent salesmanship while telling them of the high end hotel I was embarking to, they would find a room there and we would make the 4 hour trek up Machu Picchu. My ambivalence on the matter of the two strangers was overcome after our adventurous drive through canyons and spires zooming by cattle on the road and just arriving to the train station in time to buy 6 beers from the gift shop and hop on. The ride was smooth and the beer chilled.

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     After days of ceviche, I needed beef. Actually, it was pork. Braised and cooked in a fruit reduction. The bartender made some special pisco drinks. Not a pisco sour? Is that allowed?

     The next, was the trek. We met up and ate lunch and then hit it. Now the scenery dramatically changes from all other parts of the trip thus far.

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     Aguas Calientes was a spectacular settlement with influences from not only Peru but also French and Asian foods. Little French brasseries and pastry shops were popular and always recommended by locals. The weather was perfect with slight humidity but I’m not dripping yet but I would be on the hike. After lunch, I changed clothes and we started the exhausting and insane 5000ft walk.

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     The Incans and Peruvians chew coca leaves to assist with climbs in high altitudes. I will tell you, it drastically lowers and regulates your breathing. Glad I bought two bags.

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     There was a road that twisted and turned all the way up and then there was the original trail.

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     We took the original trail most of the way. Until we were out of breath.

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     After the grueling and humid walk up, with my legs feeling like gumby himself, we found a café and had a coca tea.

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     This was it my friends, I had made it to another sought after place on my list of world wonders. This trip was not like the usual suspects as I did not plan this far in advance by any means. So far, I wasn’t disappointed.

     I wiped the sweat off my face and proceeded to the mecca.

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Machu picchu

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     While up there, the air was thin and I tried to take it all in with the little time we had. It is not always easy for me to ingest so much, so quickly and have an emotional feeling about it. I have always been this way though, with travel. I do not feel anyone can experience that emotional connection without spending some time to understand why it all is. Slow travel is the way to go, but it wasn’t an option on this trip and I will say the views on the walk up distinctively enough, did give me a sense of connection. For the 4 hours trekking and running out of breathe allowed me to understand what the Incans went through. I would never have felt that on a tour bus.

     The next morning I was off to the train and to Cusco. But at the train station, I see this insanely grotesque and post-apocalyptic rabid beast that funny enough just sat there as hoards of Asian tourist groups walked by. Damn, I was hoping it would leap up and chew someone’s arm off. Not this time. On the train I went.

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     I took a short cab ride to my palace. And a palace it was, at least to me.

     I noticed right away upon entering my room, the altitude had started to affect my mind and the feeling of floating took over. Felt like oxygen was not present and I started to adjust my breathing. I knew I had to chew some coca leaves and, damn, that helped within 10 minutes. I was now starving and needed food. I had been setup with a guide through a travel company that I do business with. He informed me of a good pizza joint and so I headed that way.

     I ordered my pizza and sipped a pisco sour before taking the pizza back to my room. The humidity was now mild to me after acclimating. I ate and slept.

     In the morning I felt like a trillion bucks. The feeling of altitude awareness had completely passed. I was ready to experience Cusco from a local. My personal guide, Mauricio was the friendliest, funniest guide I had ever known. He is local from Cusco and speaks the local Peruvian language Quechua as well Spanish. Quechua is the language of the Incans.

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   The weather was perfect and he was excited to show me the old walls of the Incan city, and wow, the walls are impeccable. Talk about precision. This was the real deal. Machu Picchu is so famous because it is so remote, but honestly, engineering wise, it is not impressive. This was.

     When the Spanish arrived, they built on top of many Incan walls and temples but they did not destroy as much as one would think. In history, the Spanish did not want to kill the Incans, but to assimilate them. Similar to the natives in the USA. But they did want all of the gold and there is a lot here.

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Spanish architecture with the original grounds.

     Mauricio is super knowledgeable with descriptions of every detail. He explained that due to earthquakes in the area, the Incans built the walls with wiggle room to give in tiny gaps between certain stones.

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Each stone was precision. No gaps at all unless the calculation called for it.

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Notice above – the wall on the right is Incan, on the left, not.

     We then went to visit  the Sun Temple.

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     Notice the precision.

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     The slanted walls are part of the earthquake proofing.

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     I felt this was so interesting and unique. This ancient empire knew how to build unlike, well, us today with our collapsing bridges and dams.

Amazing! But my mouth is now dry and I am needing something refreshing and local. Hmm. Mauricio then asks, “Want to drink pisco sours?”. Let me think, hell yes!

     He takes us to a local pisco tasting room, the day is only getting better.

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     We tasted several concoctions for which I chose my favorites. For a little background, pisco is made from the moscatel grape which was brought over by the Spanish. The grape is distilled into this delicious spirit. This is by far, night and day from grappa which is basically made with the leftovers from wine production. Pisco is made from grapes with that intent, not from the corpses of grapes.

     It was now time to eat as I was leaving today for the airport in a few hours. Mauricio already planned out a spot to eat local Cusco food and I was down.

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     My friends, the Guinea pig was tasty. Always try new foods and drinks no matter the location you travel to.

    We ate, laughed and talked about random travels. It turned out that my ride to the airport was the same driver I had from Cusco airport to the train station – Mauricio’s uncle.

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     I was sad to leave as this felt like a European city to me and did remind me of Spain in a way. In many ways.

     In all, Peru is more than just a culinary haven comprised of chefs and influences from every part of the globe, it is the warm smiles and unwavering hospitality that has defined a country that has been trying to define itself for hundreds of years. Peruvians have exceeded the expectations of the neighboring countries and maybe, one day, their own.

I will return. Until then, salud!

 

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