By: Esilda Buxbaum
According to everyone we met in Lima, it never rains there, though the city is quite green with many lush gardens. At the end of August, winter in Peru, it was cloudy, misty, and cool during the day, 60-65 degrees, perfect weather for walking. Our private guide, Mariela, took us to the historical center of Lima, the Plaza de Armas, to see its colonial buildings and to the San Francisco Monastery, which boasts intriguing catacombs that date to the early 1800s. We had lunch at the Cala Restaurant, high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, specializing in contemporary seafood dishes, and watched the surfers and hang gliders during our meal.
The national drink, the Pisco Sour, and dish, ceviche, are for those with a strong stomach: both depend on a lot of lime juice. Pisco, the liquor, is similar to Italian Grappa, an eau-de-vie made from grapes, and the drink mixes it and lime juice with sugar and egg white to make a frothy, sweet-and-sour concoction.
Ourhotel, a typical businessman’s Hilton in the Miraflores neighborhood, was well located, within walking distance of a shopping are and the sea. And walk we did, even at night, because we felt so safe. Overall people are friendly and helpful.
After a short flight to Cusco, we were driven to the Valle Sagrado (Sacred Valley), the traditional first stop en route to Machu Pichu (11,000 feet above sea level) where travelers can start to acclimate to the altitude gradually. There we met up with our knowledgeable guide, Fredy Conde, who spoke English, Spanish, and Quechua. We visited an Amaru community where only Quechua is spoken, a village where they are trying to keep alive old traditions including weaving. To make scarves, blankets, and garments, the Amaru first harvest the sheep, or alpaca wool and then dye it by boiling it with various herbs and fruits. We were invited to have lunch in the village: an infusion of different herbs (including coca leaves, which help stave off altitude sickness) served in a bowl, followed by mashed potatoes mixed with herbs and roast chicken, and a quince sauce (like applesauce) for dessert.
The Sacsayhuaman archeological site is the largest and most impressive set of ruins on the outskirts of Cusco, built by the Incas in 1536 to fight the Spaniards. What impresses most is the massiveness of the stones, their smoothness, and the fact that everything is held together simply by the weight of the stones themselves. To give a sense of scale, the picture, below, was taken in front of the rocks: I am 5’1” tall.
The circular terraces of Moray are so impressive that you want to sit down on the ground and take in the peacefulness of the area for hours. The terraces helped the Incas to follow the sun throughout the day and plant accordingly. Crops that needed more shade or more sun were placed on different terraces. After Moray, we drove to the town of Maras to see the 17th century “salineras” or saltpans. Each area is owned by a different person who tends to it and reaps profits by selling the salt.
We had a pleasant surprise for lunch in a valley surrounded by the Urubamba mountain range. A Shaman, joined by a flutist, guided us through a “purification rite,” burning sacred medicinal herbs, essences, and incenses. Afterwards, there was a tepee set up with cushions and a low table for our lunch, which was cooked on site. We had some fresh salads, grilled beef, and, of course, potatoes.
We stayed at the Aranwa Sacred Valley hotel, a peaceful oasis. http://www.aranwahotels.com/en/sacred-valley/
The next morning we took a Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes, where we took a hair-raising bus drive up to the sacred Incan citadel of Machu Pichu. The area is as awe-inspiring as we had anticipated, especially as we arrived early in the morning and there were not yet many other tourists. Travelers should know that the stairs are steep and well worn and lack any sort of handrails or barriers, making them a bit precarious at times. But the view is indeed spectacular.
The next day, not wanting to experience the hair-raising bus drive again to get up to the ruins, we opted instead for a guided tour of the orchid farm on the hotel grounds and then a trip to the enormous market in the center of the city (tip: pack light or bring an extra bag to carry back the beautiful rugs and weavings) before boarding the Hiram Bingham train back to Cusco. The sun had gone down by the time our train departed so unfortunately there was no view to admire. A bit like the Orient Express, the train is luxurious—and all about the three-plus hours spent in the dining room for a four-course meal. Under seasoned and over cooked, dinner did not live up to expectations. The only saving grace was the Argentinian wine (which was not included; we ordered and paid for it separately).
Centrally located, a few blocks from the main plaza close to the Cathedral, the Belmond Hotel Monasterio in Cusco is dazzling. Every room in the converted old monastery circles the interior garden.
The next morning we visited the Cathedral and San Pedro Market before watching a cooking demonstration on making Pisco Sours and ceviche as well as another ever-present dish called “causa,” an appetizer made of mashed potatoes with a small piece of fish and some cucumber. The name is from the colonial days when the young men came back from fighting the enemy and the women greeted them with small plates of food and said they sympathized with their cause (causa, in Spanish).
Lima has wonderful restaurants with incredible food and the best meal of the entire trip came on our last day in town at Rafael’s near our hotel in Miraflores. We could not get a table for dinner, so we made a lunch reservation instead. As we sat and were perusing the menu, I noticed a nearby table was being served their first course of the most delicious looking scallops in their shell with the coral still attached. So we too ordered those and were not disappointed; they were sweet and delicious. My traveling companion, Esty, continued in the seafood tasting and had the black rice with cockles, which was superb; my dish of rice with duck was equally delicious. When planning dinner reservations, be sure to reserve several weeks in advance; the concierge at your hotel can be helpful with this, too.
Our private tour was organized by Enigma Travel and included the two unexpected and delightful outings to the Quechua village and the mountainside lunch with the Shaman. I highly recommend their services.