Saturday, March 28, 2009

PERU: WHEN YOU TRAVEL WITH BOB YOU EAT INTERESTING THINGS

Bob loves to eat. Bob LIVES to eat. This makes him a fun travel companion because we always make an effort to seek out the best of the local cuisine.

At LAX, the best local cuisine was found in the See's Candy store. (After all, it was Valentine's Day!)
We ate breakfast in our hotel in Lima the first morning. This is eggs benedict, made with salmon instead of ham. Oh. My. Goodness.

Our very first lunch in Lima was also absolutely incredible. It was a buffet of traditional Peruvian foods and we ate and ate and ate and ate and ate.

This is ceviche, the national dish of Peru. It is raw fish "cooked" in lemon juice. It was fabulous. Here's a sampling of the cold dishes. The green and yellow pinwheels at the very bottom of the plate are called causa, which is mashed potatoes rolled around a filling. The filling in the green one is octopus and spinach. The purple stuff on the left is octopus in a tasty sauce. There is ceviche in the mussel shell, and the pink meat at the top is a Peruvian specialty that became one of my favorites: trucha (raw red trout).
And here are some of the hot dishes: rocoto relleno (stuffed pepper), arroz con pollo (the green one), sangrecita (cooked blood--not found on MY plate pictured below, but on Bob's), chicharrones (a lot like spicy fried chicken), etc.
The other dish we saw on practically every menu in Peru was lomo saltado, strips of beef fried with vegetables and served over french fries:

We waddled out of that meal, but it was a good warm-up for what was yet to come in other fine dining establishments, including lobster thermidor . . .

. . . and rice-stuffed squid (which was actually much better than it looks here).
For a little background on our next two dishes, you need to know that month or so before our trip, Bob bought a book called Eating in Peru. He determined what were the MUST HAVES: cuy (guinea pig) and alpaca (an animal like a llama but smaller and with much finer wool).

We got especially excited to try cuy when we got to Cusco and saw this interesting painting of The Last Supper in one of the cathedrals: Note the dish in the foreground. That's cuy being served. If that's what was served for The Last Supper, it had to be good!

We found a great restaurant where the cuy was cooked in an enormous clay oven,

then served in two different ways:Cuy #1

Cuy #2

They did a pretty amazing job on the alpaca as well,
served here in a beautiful, tasty pool of quinoa. The meat was tender and flavorful, like an exceptionally good beef steak.

I think out of everything new I tried, my favorite was the trucha (trout filets), shown below as an appetizer.
A close runner-up would be this absolutely amazing rocoto relleno (stuffed pepper), stuffed with a whole egg, rice, and cheese and served in a quinoa sauce.

Everything we ate was served with great artistry, from main dishes to desserts.

At the end of our trip, when there was no more room anywhere in my body for more fattening food, I ate this delicious fruit plate (starfruit, watermelon, papaya, and passion fruit, which was a tart seed in a gelatinous base) served with a little dish of honey for sweetening.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, including our culinary quests in Peru.

This is one of our last meals together. Do we look fatter? I'm glad Bob and I are at the other end of the table...

Overall, I'd have to say the food in Peru far exceeded our expectations. We were blown away by the uniqueness and variety in the cuisine (no refried beans or tortillas--which is how we Norte Americanos stereotype all the food south us), as well as by the artistry with which it was served. Which of these delectable dishes would YOU like to try?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

PERU: IN THE LEAFY TREETOPS (It's a Jungle Out There, Part Two)

On our last day in the jungle, we took a canopy walk. We climbed a humongous wooden tower (more than 200 steps) to a platform that was connected by rope and board suspension bridges to observation platforms built 102 feet above the ground. Altogether there were seven bridges with a total length of 1,135 feet. The system was built by Inkaterra Ecological Reserve (our hosts) in partnership with National Geographic and World Bank.
On the observation platforms, we were on level with the tops of the trees. The Inkaterra literature says: "Inkaterra Canopy is considered to be one of the most modern and sophisticated in the world, both due to its camouflage design and because the specialists who built it used ecological materials to prevent negative impact on the environment. The canopy walk enables visitors to enjoy an in-depth look at one of the most productive ecosystems in the rainforest: an enormous food factory where key events for the development of life come together."

One of the preconceptions I had before this trip was that the Amazon jungle was teeming with visible life, that a visitor would be surrounded by birds, monkeys, and all kinds of other animals. After all, millions of species are found there, and many of the new species discoveries are made in the Amazon. Nowhere would this seem to be more true than in the canopy, where 35% of Peru's bird species are supposed to live. Strangely enough, we saw very few, possibly because we were there in the heat of the afternoon. In fact, we see more birds in our backyard in Redlands than we saw on this jaunt!

But while the lack of animal sightings disappointed, the experience as a whole did not. Again, we had the little-kid feeling. It was like Disneyland's Swiss Family Robinson Tree House (now replaced by Tarzan), only a hundred times better.
The bridges varied in length, from quite short (50 yards?) to very long. Only two of us at a time were allowed on a bridge. We heard another group who was also in the canopy while we were there, but the bridge system is so large that we only caught glimpses of them.
Pretty darn fun. Some day I'd like to be there at 5:00 a.m., or maybe even at midnight.
We returned to our cabanas for a rest, then went on one final excursion, a night cruise along the riverbank of the Madre de Dios River. Our expectations were high since the group that went out the previous night had seen a sloth, a capybara, a caiman, and some monkeys. However, the only thing we saw was near the end of the trip--a caiman hidden in the reeds. Still, the ride was refreshing with a cool breeze created by the motion of the boat and a wonderful view of a gorgeous night sky unimpeded by city lights.
We caught a plane to Lima via Cusco the next morning in the bustling Puerto Maldonado Airport, and from Lima we flew home to LAX.


STILL TO COME:

When You Travel with Bob You Eat Interesting Things
Bugs and Birds and Bats, Oh My!

Friday, March 20, 2009

PERU: IT'S A JUNGLE OUT THERE! (Part One)

The final destination of our Grand Peruvian Adventure was an ecological reserve on the Madre de Dios River, an Amazon tributary in the Amazon jungle. (It was pretty wide. I can't imagine what the Amazon itself is like!) We flew into Puerto Malonado, gateway to the Amazon rain forest. You know you are in trouble when the airport you land in has only one runway, two commercial flights a day, and a two-story, wooden air traffic control tower that looks like a prison watchtower. It's also bad when first things you are handed are forms to fill out releasing the tour company from liability in case of an accident, illness, death, etc.

It certainly primed us for adventure.

We left the bulk of our luggage at the airport and took only small bags to our destination, which required a 20-minute drive in an open-air bus and a 30-minute trip downriver in a boat.


Do we look hot? We were. It was 95 degrees and 95% humidity, but we had to wear long sleeves and long pants because of pesky little malaria-ridden mosquitos.

We were delighted with what we found on our arrival, however. Our rooms were cabanas built up on stilts. We had a hammock in the screened-in porch and beds with mosquito netting. It was definitely a kind of Meryl Streep in Out of Africa feel--very fun (only Meryl never looked quite as much like a drowned rat as I did during this portion of the trip). There was no AC and only one electric outlet, which didn't matter since we had electricity for only 2-3 hours a day and used kerosene lamps after dark. It reminded me somewhat of the makeshift clubhouses we used to construct in the hollow when I was growing up. As a matter of fact, the whole time we were in the jungle, I felt like either a) a little kid playing in the mud, or b) an actress in an old movie.

Our first activity was a stroll through the jungle with our guide, who pointed out various growing, creeping, swinging, and crawling things to us. Just after dark, we returned to the trails with our guide and our flashlights. Wearing tall rubber boots provided by the Reserve, we crept along wandering trails and slogged through swampy areas with our flashlights off, not speaking at all until our guide would whisper and point to something, and then we would turn our flashlights into spotlights. Truly, it was like playing hide-n-seek with the neighborhood, only in a far more exotic setting. I think it was Bobby's idea of heaven.
But the MOST fun we had was the next day. Our "wake up call" was a tap on our outside wall at 5:00 a.m. By 6:00 we were on a boat that took us 20 minutes upriver to a wide trail. It started raining about the time we hit the trail, and although we were somewhat protected by the jungle canopy, the rain's run-off turned the path into a river of mud. No worries--we were wearing our awesome rubber boots.

We walked for almost two miles in these conditions until we came to a dock where we boarded a canoe.

Our amazing guide powered the boat with single paddle, maneuvering us away from the dock, down a short river, and out from under the canopy and onto Lake Sandoval, a very large lake surrounded by heavy vegetation growing right up to, and sometimes into the water.

Remember, I said I FELT like Meryl Streep, not that I LOOKED like her.

We felt the full strength of the rain out on the lake, but it wasn't so bad. I'd rather be wet and a bit chilled from rain than drenched in heat- and humidity-induced sweat.

We paddled around the lake a while, encountering a wide range of wildlife, from bats to birds to monkeys to caimans. The rain from our clothing began to fill up our boots, and by the time we got back under the canopy, we were seriously wet. Our journey back was even more of a 12-year-old boy's dream. What had been puddles on the trail that we walked around on our way in were now full blown lakes, and we didn't bother trying to go around them--we just hoped not to drown as we tramped through them, the water and mud coming to the very tops of our boots, and sometimes even into our boots. The rain was so heavy that the canopy ceased to be a protection, and our boots were almost conquered by the deep and sucking mud. Bob, in his khaki-colored clothing, could have been Teddy Roosevelt pressing relentlessly forward in River of Doubt. Heavenly, right Bob?
The most amazing thing of all was how JOLLY everyone was. There was not a single wimp, no whiners, no complainers. We laughed the whole time. I have new respect for Bob's four partners and each of their wonderful, wacky wives.
When we got back to our little cabana, we were able to rest for a bit, dry off somewhat, and enjoy the RAIN forest!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

PERU: MACHU PICCHU REVISITED AND CLIMBING THE STAIRS TO HEAVEN

I've been on a bit of a road trip (more about that tomorrow), so I'm getting behind in finishing our posts about our Peruvian adventures. I still have three or four more topics to cover, but so much of current life keeps interrupting my train of thought! Of course, my train has always been headed for a wreck anyway.

Enough of that.

After our first day at Machu Picchu, we spent the night in an exquisite hotel in the poverty-stricken city of Aguas Calientes. This is a town that exists solely on tourism, and the craft market was definitely the only happening thing in town. Still, what an amazing place to live, just down the hill from one of the Wonders of the Modern World, and in a river valley that is beautiful in and of itself.
Views from the bridge looking upriver . . .

. . . and downriver.

For our second day at MP, we decided to climb what I think is a fairly impressive peak rising behind the ruins: Huayna Picchu (which means "Young Peak" in the native language of Quechua). It's the mountains like this one that surround MP that give it its mystical quality.

Huayna Picchu, seen in the photo above, rises about 1,200 feet above MP and looks like a technical climb from this vantage point. However, the clever (and helpful) Incas built the longest, steepest, and most amazing stone staircase up the side of the mountain that you've ever seen, then somehow they hauled enough additional stone up there to build some temples and terraces. Can you find the trail in the two pictures below?
Only 400 hikers are allowed on Huayna Picchu each day, and during the heavy tourist season you have to get to MP very early to get a spot. However, we were lucky enough not to have to battle those kinds of crowds. Bob and I and Bill and Esme Tooke caught a bus that got us up the mountain by about 7:20 A.M., and we then made our way to the Huayna Picchu trail on the far side of the ruins. (As a side note, the signs pointing the way to the trailhead anglicize the name to Wayna Picchu to make it easier for us gringos to pronounce. Too bad. I hope this is one of the things that will change in the future.) We signed the hiking register at the gate at about 8:05 and were on our way.It was an exhausting climb. In some places the stairs were so narrow that our feet barely fit. Occasionally there was a steel cable running alongside the trail that we could hold on to and that made the climb a bit easier, at least psychologically. Looking back was a bit dizzying, but offered a great view of the Urubamba River, one of the headwaters of the Amazon.


There was an extremely narrow passage through a cave near the summit that would make the most anxiety-free person claustrophobic, and the final ascent was alongside some Inca-built terraces and up a tall wooden ladder.

The view from the top was amazing, astonishing, astounding, breathtaking, dazzling, dramatic, fabulous, fantastic, grand, magnfient, marvelous, miraculous, prodigious, remarkable, sensational, splendid, staggering, striking, stunning, stupendous, and thrilling. (Thank you, Mr. Roget.) When we first stepped onto the top of the rock fortress, the view of Machu Picchu was clouded over, but we had this view of the dirt road the buses drive to get there from Aguas Calientes:
About ten minutes after our arrival, however, the clouds simply parted, the mountaintop crowd gave a collective *GASP!*, and the cameras started clicking away. We had a bird's-eye view of the entire site.


STILL COMING: It's a Jungle Out There
When You Travel with Bob, You Eat Interesting Things
Bugs and Birds and Bats, Oh My!
AND A NON-PERU POST: The Girls Take a Road Trip
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