The Culinary Tour Continues – Spotlight on Peru

Peruvian food is simply divine, from ceviche to Peruvian chicken to cuy (guinea pig). Cheap and diverse, there is a reason why you see so many Peruvian restaurants (and consequently not as much Burkina Faso-ian restaurants). We tried to eat it all in our 24 days there, which we unlikely accomplished – but we did consume the following:


Our fish dish in Peru was a winner right off the bat. Recoto relleno (stuffed pepper) and cheesy-lasanga type potatoes. Alas we didn’t find it again on the trip, which would’ve been extremely sad if not for . . .



Ceviche! Its unbelievable, but I had never had ceviche before coming to Peru. The $20/plate price tag likely scared me off, in addition to 26 years of seafood-free living. Those were both silly decisions, as I would eat it everyday if I could (and nearly did in Peru). Various fish marinated but not cooked (trout was the best), usually  comes with some tubers, onions, & popped corn. Other countries do ceviche as well, but not like Peru.


Apparently coca is good for many things other than tea and cocaine. Unfortunately cookies are not one of them.


Cheese & corn on the cob combo – a satisfying combo snack.

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Cuy, or guinea pig, is a regional specialty. It sounds gross and doesn’t look any less appealing as often cooked whole, but really doesn’t taste bad.


Llama in burger form – for our 3rd time consuming the animal. Unfortunately this sounded & looked better than it tasted, but I can now say I’ve eaten a llama burger and be honest, rather than the lies I’ve spurted the past 31 years (unbeknownst to many, that was my first complete sentence at the age of two).


A delightful little plate of chicken necks. I’ll prolly never write that again.


Some sort of soup – I am not a fan of soup(es), but such sentiments have not been incorporated by Christine, who insists on eating soup at an ungodly rate of approximately once every eight days.

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Every now and then we splurge (more then for me, more now if Christine had her way). These alpaca kabobs broke our daily food budget, but were so worth it. If you’re ever in Cuzco, check out the restaurant Uchu and you will not be disappointed (a rare uncommissioned restaurant recommendation from me)!


Cheese ice cream –less pure cheese and more like a sweet ricotta or cottage cheese, topped with cinnamon. No less delicious, but its an Arequipa specialty, and we unfortunately did not find it on a regular basis outside the southern Peruvian city (those this was a rare find in Cuzco). Maybe it was for the best, as I’d be pushing 230 right now if we had more regular access.


Peru has all sorts of grains, potatoes, and corns you’ve never heard of. This lady sells so many types of popped corn that I had to stop counting because it was more than I could do on one hand (my typical limit).


Case in point – Ponche, a warm drink made of some sort of grain you and I have both never heard of.


Chicha of a sort, made from purple corn. Also known in some circles as purple drank.


Did I mention how happy sublimes make me?

Ruins, Ruins, and More Ruins!

Note: We’ve (or really I’ve) fallen quite behind in the blogging aspect of life recently, but will attempt to make up for it with a veritable modern-day literary blitzkrieg over the next few days. Stay tuned (or if I was you, don’t)!

At the start of this trip, I knew very little of pre-Columbia societies (as they are often referred to). We learn about the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas in grade school, and also occasionally in the news when one of their calendars runs out, thereby inadvertently fulfilling many a doomsday prophecies. That’s about it though, the rest of the lands & history prior to 1492 is a large blank space deemed not worthy of fourth-grade American history textbooks.

Given this limited educational background, we did not expect to see too many ruins outside of the vaunted Machu Picchu. Part of the fun of traveling though, is to finding out what things 4th grade history books teach in other countries (the other part being to avoid the reality of a daily commute to an office-based environment as long as possible). (oh, and the other part is the food – as made clear here and here). (actually, there are probably other parts as well, such as discovering new dinosaurs, but I can’t name them all right now).

Rightly or wrongly, past civilizations are immortalized in the ruins of the structures they build, especially for societies that did not develop a writing system to record their history (even doubly so for those that did not have ability to edit their own Wikipedia pages). Thus we did not focus as much on pre-Columbian societies in the southern cone, simply because there did not exist much of anything to look at (we are that shallow). But by the time we rounded Bolivia and entered Peru, that completely changed. Peru in particular serves as a veritable cradle of civilization on the level of Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, future Mars, and the like – just about every city has ruins in the vicinity that would otherwise be considered legendary if Machu Picchu did not exist, stemming from all sorts of different societies from all sorts of different time periods, extending back thousands of years.

The diversity of structures is staggering, even in societies located just kilometers from each other, ostensibly operating under the same environmental influences and limitations. Such was the case in the northern Peruvian deserts around Trujillo, where the Moches built two large pyramid structures or worship, while the Chan Chan just a few kilometers away (so close its just a 30 minute drive these days) constructed the largest adobe city known to man (or platypuses for that matter as well).

The crazy part is that so much is still being uncovered! Chooquequirao is a five-day treacherous hike that serves as an intrepid-man’s alternative to Machu Picchu – something we considered before wussing out once we heard that it will be a 15-minute cable car ride away within a few years time. The prospect of future discovery is so high that we met an Italian student who specifically came to Peru to pursue his Master’s degree in archaeology, given the high likelihood that he might be able to completely discover or study new aspects of the myriad of ancient civilizations that flourished here. A sort of archaeological wild west prospecting scene, if you will (please do).

Anyways, we were surprised by the abundance and quickly realized we couldn’t visit them all. A few of the more stunning non-Incan ones we were able to hit on the Bolivia to Colombia route, with the majority located in Peru, include:

The Moches

  • These northern Peruvians had such friendly decorated paintings (in addition to two large pyramids) that I’ve already inquired about copyrighting a new “Meet the Moches” sitcom, which will debut on ESPN 14.5 in the year 2023.

decorated walls of one of the pyramids


Meet the Moches!


  • Did you know the Incan Empire only lasted 100 years until the Spanish obliterated it with their Manchego cheese and siesta time? Kind of amazing that so much was built from Middle Chile all the way up to southern Colombia in such short a time span, but clearly the Incans also evolved from the success of others. The Waris were one of those, preceding the Incans in around 1100AD. The Incan Empire drew from Wari knowledge and building techniques, allowing the Wari to enjoy the unfortunate reality of being a mere footnote to the Incans in even the best of history books.

Wari lands


Chan Chan

  • These guys loved mud so much that they built an entire city out of it! Just a few kilometers down from the Moches, they Chan Chan are sure to have a recurring cameo in the ‘Meet the Moches’ sitcom.

The quirky neighbor next door perhaps?

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  • On the highest lake in the world shared between Peru & Bolivia, many a cultures lived. The Incas were everywhere, including there and built some stuff on Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun).

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Huaca Pucllana

  • These people built a pyramid right in downtown Lima! Or rather, other people built a city right around the ruins of the Huaca Pucllana pyramid, dating back1,500 years ago.

downtown Lima, just as the Haucas predicted it would be


San Agustin

  • One of the more “fun” civilizations (I keep a detailed ranking list, with the Mongols being both simultaneously at the very bottom and top), these mysterious guys built tons of statues scattered around the verdant hills of southern Colombia in early AD’s and even BC’s. More tomb guardians are still being discovered, although no one really knows what happened to the people who made them – not even this bird man guy would talk.

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Of course, there are plenty of other seemingly amazing sights from hitherto unknown civilizations that we couldn’t visit – such as Ciudad Perida in Colombia and Kuelap in Peru (for some reason Ecuador was left off the non-Inca ruins-building surge found in its neighbors – but hey, that’s why they get the Galapagos). Always something for next time!

Chasing Rebels in Southern Peru

Ayacucho is a place most travelers to Peru don’t wind up visiting. It served as the epicenter of Peru’s battle with domestic terrorism in the 1980s and 90s, and the home of the Shinning Path. It is also reportedly one of Peru’s poorest and more indigenous regions, an oft-cited incubator for the insurgency. It was for these reasons that despite the looming prospect of a 16-hour non-direct, decrepit night bus along windy mountain roads, I insisted we make our way to the town in between the journey from Cusco to Lima. I wasn’t sure what we’d find or even what I was looking for, perhaps I was just curious to set foot in a place I had remembered from childhood time spent watching the news (Saudi Arabia often lacked for viable young-people entertainment in the early 90s – or maybe I was just a dork. Both perhaps?).

Upon arrival, the city itself did not appear to us to be struggling, but rather sufficiently recovered from whatever transpired 20-30 years ago. A few decades can make a huge difference, I surmised, while some public works projects were active. In fact, the vertigo-inducing 16-hour journey to get there from Cusco was actually an improvement, as a new road and repaired bridges last year cut down the travel time from 28 hours. In addition, the roads of the entire town were under construction, part of a project to provide better drainage during rainy periods. Perhaps just part of Peru’s larger road-specific development aspirations – or perhaps more due to a special focus on this region to deter support for Shinning Path remnants now largely involved in the cocaine trade along the Brazilian border? Who’s to say (well someone probably, but not me nor anyone I met during our 72-hours in the town).

People feel save enough to put on seemingly daily parades, as everywhere in Peru!

People feel safe enough to put on seemingly daily parades, as everywhere in Peru!

Roads under repair

Roads under repair

Nonetheless, we did notice some evidence of gloomier times. We came across a large poster advertising a new political party by the name of Movadef, a coalition grouping which may or may not be linked to the Shinning Path’s continuing political arm. The Peruvian Government has previously rejected the party’s registration, ostensibly for that reason, but volunteers were still there collecting signatures for another attempt. An old man approached us and explained, “the United States thinks we’re a bunch of terrorists, but we just want our rights – people are working 10-hour days and still not making any money.” A seemingly legitimate demand, we bid him good luck and made on our way. One of our next stops was the Museo de la Memoria, or a memorial museum set up by the family members of some of the victims of the violence, both those killed by the Shinning Path and the government. The museum, small but brimming with information, served as the most vivid reminder of what used to transpire in Ayacucho and the surrounding region. The lady running the show there explained to us that the new political party “is somehow linked to the Shining Path’s ideas but different,” without delving further specifics before essentially shutting that conversation down. Perhaps some things are still best left for a more discrete conversation.

Victims of the violence from both sides

Victims of the violence from both sides

From the museum, it’s just a short walk to the Universidad Nacional de San Cristóbal de Huamanga (UNSCH). It was here where the Shinning Path had its origins, stemming from the teachings of philosophy professor turned guerilla leader, Abimael Guzmán. A normal looking university, we walked through its grounds surrounded by hoards of fashionable young students occasionally looking up from their smart-phone technology to register a non-Internet related thought. I was curious to ask to see the philosophy department specifically, but we (re: Christine) decided against it.

the thiriving students of San Cristobal University

the thiriving students of San Cristobal University

The story of the struggle is not confined to Ayacucho despite the Shinning Path’s urban beginnings, as significant activity occurred in the surrounding countryside. Thus, we took a day trip to visit some nearby ruins and a small town. Along the way one woman complained that “nothing is changing here despite what the President is saying about malnutrition rates and education – maybe in the cities it is getting better, but not here in the rural areas,” a reaction that perhaps answers a bit of the question regarding how the rest of the province has fared since the culmination of violence in the 1990s.

Sevetny-two hours in an area, especially one in which I only had a cursory background in, is not sufficient to make any sweeping conclusions, but that won’t stop me. I don’t know what Ayacucho was like before, but I do know it would’ve been near impossible to visit this region twenty to thirty years ago for foreigners concerned about long-term survival. It is perhaps in this that I took away the greatest lesson from the short detour off our otherwise obliviously happy trip. Given that the vast majority of my professional focus revolves around areas currently ravaged by the sort of terrorism and conflict that used to afflict Ayacucho, it’s more than a little encouraging to visit a place that has been able to reduce such concerns to history. It’s an optimistic reminder that despite the seemingly intractable violence in locations such as northern Nigeria or south-central Somalia today, this can be a blip on a longer-term time horizon, as Ayacucho, albeit under extremely different circumstances, has demonstrated. That optimistic lesson in itself is enough of a reason to make the 16-hour journey, vertigo and all!


Translation of a message on a wall right outside the university’s gates: “The secret to peace is in the respect for human rights”

Memorial to the victims of the battle with the Shining Path in Lima

Memorial to the victims of the war in Lima

Festival Season in the Sacred Valley

Whilst in the sacred valley location of southern Peru, Machu Picchu is obviously the star attraction, and not without merit. Nonetheless, other towns in the region host a number of smaller ruins, that if not overshadowed by Machu Picchu’s grandeur, would be stunning enough sites to tour in their own right. It was for this reason we decided to visit Pisac, a small town overlooked by a sprawling collection of former Incan buildings atop a hill.  It was for a completely different reason, however, that we almost wound up never leaving.

On the afternoon of July 15th, when we arrived in Pisac and couldn’t locate our hostel, we wandered to the main square to get a better sense of direction. Instead we saw a man on a horse holding a chicken, while trying vigorously in vain to grab a box tied to a string hovering above him. Considering we had just arrived in town, I took the bold assumption that everyday in Pisac unfolds as this one. Instantly, I was hooked.

the tantalizingly elusive (and empty!) box

the tantalizingly elusive (and empty!) box

the less tantalizingly elusive chicken

the less tantalizingly elusive chicken

so close!

so close!

In reality, once a year Pisac puts on a spectacle – a town-wide celebration dedicated to the Virgen del Carmen. As of about a week ago that meant nothing to me, and likely still means nothing to you, but it just so happened that we randomly arrived the very day this annual festival kicked off, a recent rare bout of inadvertent but perfect timing. We stood in awe at this half parade, half horse race, half grab-the-box contest, and all street party. I didn’t care if we ever found our hostel at this point, I was ready to live here. Cooler heads (i.e. Christine’s) prevailed, and after about two hours and with dark rapidly approaching, we managed to pull our eyes away from the main square to go drop our bags off. But that’s all I was prepared to do, for as soon as we located our abode for the night, I was jetting back to the main square.

Luckily, as we found out via our helpful hostel hosts, today was just the first of a four-day fiesta (anything less than that really doesn’t even qualify as a ‘fiesta’ per say). There would be plenty of fun to be had, with non-stop music and action until the Virgen del Carmen herself had enough and limped back to church. Returning to the main square, the horse racing part had ended, but the plaza had descended into an open-air party, with a multitude of street food options. Opting for chicken necks, a chicken sandwich, beef hearts, and three rounds of a local drink made from the fava bean (ponche), we got our fill for a total of $4. But that’s was not even really the exciting part – the entire time in the corner we had seen people constructing these weird looking structures, which they kept stacking on top of each other. There were three separate groups more or less, and the structures kept getting bigger and bigger. It was like a team of engineers were competing the build the weirdest looking possible useless wooden robot. Still perplexed, while walking by Christine noticed what she thought was “dynamite” attached to one of them. They were going to blow these things up!

soon to be on fire!

soon to be on fire!

And blow them up they did. Without warning a few hours later, one of them light up next to the unassuming crowd, forcing many to take a few steps back as the next few minutes descended into a dizzying array of lights, smoke, fireworks, and other spinning things (take a look for yourself).

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The spectacle of these three firework buildings, for lack of a better term, effectively brought a close to the first day of festivities. I couldn’t believe there were going to be three more days of such action! The next three days, of which we witnessed two, largely consisted of music and dancing. Usually not my cup of tea, but then again usually the people don’t look like this:

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Divided into 18 associations, the townsfolk of Pisac dressed up in various costumes that included intricate masks, and performed a number of cultural routines that evoked common historical traditions and themes such as Spanish people are horrible, Chile is an aggressive land-stealing nation, big noses and monkeys are funny, and that the job stability brought on by indentured servitude doesn’t fully mask its negative consequences. Ostensibly a contest, the 18 associations each had a party headquarters scattered throughout town, while at any given point two or three would be parading about. It could perhaps be described as a more tame, less sexy, poor man’s version of Rio’s Carnaval. Or perhaps not, since that doesn’t make much sense. But you get the idea (maybe).

Profile of some of the associations

Profile of some of the associations

The third day was an official contest, with each association getting about half an hour to show their best. Some were rowdier than others, replete with the occasional danger-inducing but somehow never injury-filled firework into the crowd. In addition, the dances often included whips, interactive crowd measures such as child stealing, candy/fruit tossing, drink spraying, and even silly string. People of all ages partook in each association’s dance routines, including unhappy but ostensibly voluntary child labor.

some good ol' fashioned child-stealing

some good ol’ fashioned child-stealing

silly string battle!

silly string battle!

(un)happy child labor

(un)happy child labor

Given a previous scheduling conflict, we were unable to stay for the fourth and ultimate day of the festival. Perhaps for the best, as our hostel host informed us that in the early afternoon the associations would go around and steal everything they could from anyone they found on the street, only to then return to the plaza and set up a makeshift market where they sell you your items back. But it’s ‘funny,’ she said. Despite moseying on before the finale, we considered ourselves fortunate to have participated in 75% of Pisac’s locally famous Virgen del Carmen festival, all the more remarkable given that we had arrived in town for a completely different reason. The next time we make it to Pisac, however, won’t be under such oblivious circumstances, but rather to begin an annual tradition of partaking in the madness – and everyone is invited!

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