Peru, or "Mommy, can you buy me an alpaca?"

Cuzco, Sacred Valley

So far, my favorite fauna has been Bolivian: the llama with its tasty steaks and warm wool, the squirrel-rabbit fusion vizcacha, the fussy and fabulous flamingoes, the skittish vicuña. But the one I had been waiting to see l could hardly be found in Bolivia, save two trussed and decorated pet-like ones on Copacabana’s beach. Yes, I would have to wait until I crossed the Peruvian border to see herds of the best animal of all, the alpaca. Not only are they cute and demure, but they produce the best wool in the world, save that of those crazy Indian goats. I waited nearly a month, asking at every new town “Is there any place that sells straight wool?” instead of the shawls, hats, scarves, and llama-covered sweaters that could be found all over Northern Argentina and Bolivia.

Finally, in Cusco, I hit the jackpot. I found an outlet of a wool factory in Arequipa. Not knowing that I would later find myself in Arequipa on a quest for condors, I picked up a bit of baby alpaca. I felt a little guilty, not having actually seen a real alpaca yet, but I had high hopes for camelid sightings for our time in Cusco.

Before the 1940’s and the publicity surrounding Machupicchu, Cusco was a sleepy mountain town with only a few hundred inhabitants. As the fame of the Lost City of the Inkas grew, so did Machupicchu. An economically depressed backwater became the hub of archaeology in Peru, and a gold mine for tourism.

The city has adapted to foreign tastes and cultures, boasting vegetarian restaurants and Irish pubs, American retirees and European backpackers. Our second day in the city, I tried to take a picture of Dave in front of a series of stones in a wall which form the shape of a puma and a serpent (not camelids, but still cool), two of the three sacred animals of the Inkas. A wrinkled old woman, at least 75 years old, walked into the picture with a llama and refused to leave. She was tricked out in traditional garb: woven skirts with bright colors, an embroidered vest, and a bowl shaped hat with tassels. I didn’t really feel like engaging in a battle of wills with a seventy-something small Peruvian woman, so I snapped my picture and Dave tried to subtly hand her a coin. Apparently one sol wasn’t enough, and she wanted more; that’s some serious attitude. She and her llama don’t take any shit.

Cusco, or the Gringo Capital of South America as it is often called, was a great base for expeditions into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and very attractive, but it smacked of the U.S., Europe, or some other Westernized country. People were friendly and nearly all spoke a bit of English, in homage to the idol of the dollar and in respect of the city’s main source of income. The food was great, if you wanted to pay exorbitant prices, but the good cheap places were always swarming with tourists, most of whom couldn’t speak a lick of Spanish. The owner of one of our favorite restaurants was unfortunately one of such people. Our first meal there, I thought that she couldn’t possibly have any authority at this establishment with such sentences as “Pu-ays, tay hablo tomorrow por-kee yow no sabo ahhh-hhora.” Ach. Oh well. The only reason that we kept coming back was the thick crusty panini sandwiches and divine mint lemonade.

Museums abounded in old buildings razed by the Spanish, and the vestiges of Inka culture were visible all through the city. One of the best was the Museo de Arte Precolumbiano (MAP), complete with a swank café in the central courtyard just like Manhattan museums. Clearly catering to wealthy cosmopolitan travelers, the museum came about because Lima’s Museo Larco had thousands of artifacts languishing in some basement storage facility, and someone had the brilliant idea to take them out and move them to Cusco. Kudos to them, I say. The art was worth the USD $15 admission, with wonderful abstract pieces from the Peruvian coast that looked remarkably like Picasso’s cubist sculptures. According to the signs, Pablo himself visited South America and was inspired by some of these ancient forms. Modernist art at 1200 B.C.E? Who would have thought? There were camelids here too—golden llamas and other small icons from wealthy priests’ homes or city temples. I was almost tempted to bring home a stone replica of one of the lost breeds of long-haired alpaca, but I decided that heavy alpaca kitsch was much less cool than alpaca wool.

Every store in Cusco sells carved llamas, and if that weren’t enough, vendors take them to the touristy places outside of town too. At Sacsayhuaman, the ancient Incan fort which guarded Q’osqo and provided celebratory grounds for the still celebrated Inti Raymi summer solstice festival, before we even reached the entrance three people offered bite-sized pumas, alpacas, and llamas from what looked like a very heavy knapsack.

One thing that I love about Inka culture is that they took their visual symbols seriously. The puma, master of the earthly realm, was not only a deity but the shape of the capital city. The zigzagged walls of the fort form a jagged set of teeth for the puma of Cusco. Llamas, sacrificed at various points in the year, were food for the gods.

Another fantastic but anachronistic Inkan delight is the word Sacsayhuaman itself: when pronounced it is nearly indistinguishable from the English “sexy woman.” Adding to the linguistic hilarity is that the Quechua translation means approximately “satisfied falcon.” There’s a whole lot going on there that seems quite funny, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Today, Sacsayhuaman is still interesting not only because of its archeological merits, but because it is a place that the Cuzqueños truly own. All of the historical sights are free for residents on the weekends, but it seems like Sacsayhuaman is the one that is the most visited. Its large green expanses and natural rockslide serve the city as much as a public park as an ancient ruin. Unlike Machupicchu or Qoricancha, the old temple of the sun turned into (of course) a Catholic church, Sacsayhuaman is a place for the people of the city; it is alive. Teenage couples take picnics up the hill and make out; old ladies sit on the stones and read; little kids slide down the rocks, just like grown men did in the old daguerreotypes from the museums. It was good to see that there is part of Cusco’s history that the people of Peru actually get to enjoy, instead of selling it to tourists. The only downside that I found was the lack of llamas.

Arequipa

Once we actually got to Michell & Co.’s “Alpaca Mundo” in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city and southern industrial center, I was in heaven. We had a tour of the store and office complex, recently renovated to include three art galleries of Peruvian paintings, a museum of old wool refining machines, and a separating room, where the 12 different natural colors of alpaca wool are sorted. I got to see some of the suri alpacas, with their dreadlocked wool hanging down in sheets to their ankles. Then, to my utter delight, I was directed to the wool outlet! Hours of fun commenced, and I ended up with 6 kilos of merino, sheep, alpaca, and baby alpaca wool. Next winter in the ‘states is going to be so fun.

Arequipa was actually the first real city that we went to in Peru, and also the last. It has a city center, real businesses and locals, and a culture that is not centered around a famous historical site. True, there were beautiful things to see and old monuments, but they formed part of the city, they weren’t the reason for the city. We came there for two reasons, and ended up extending our planned two day stay for over a week. When we left Cusco, the mother hen owner of our hostel told us that we just had to stay with her friend Mercedes, who runs a tour company and rents out several rooms of her home to students. What the heck, we said, and arrived at Mercedes’ door at 9:00 am after a fantastically horrible overnight bus ride.

I had not slept for five minutes on the 10 hour trip, having been steamed like a blue crab by heating vents on the side of the bus which kept the ambient interior temperature around 90 degrees. If I’d had a beer and a box of Old Bay Seafood Seasoning to sprinkle on my head, I could have lived out a crustacean’s death throes trapped in an enameled metal bus, praying that the lid would open and release the steam. Unfortunately, there was no ventilation, so I pressed my face against the freezing cold window all night, wishing that just a teensy bit of the forty-some degree outside air would come inside.

Mercedes welcomed us to her home in a purple bathrobe with curlers, shuffled us into a bedroom cluttered with old furniture and computer accessories, and we fell immediately asleep. While we stayed in her house, there was another family as well, friends of hers from Cusco, who we would eat breakfast with and share our afternoon tea. Yes, I missed my Argentine café con leche, but it wasn’t a bad trade off to be able to chat about Latin America, travel, and life with real people from Peru. It was so hard to reach la gente in Cusco, with the tension of tourist and local strongly demarcated in dress, appearance, language, and eating habits. People either seemed to be putting on a show of culture or blatantly advertising some agency or product. In Mercedes’ apartment, we were both visitors to Arequipa, canceling a few of the impediments to conversation that can make it difficult to get to know people. D and I looked forward to breakfast, always with some sort of fresh fruit juice (Mercedes was adamant that fruit was the way to be healthy), fresh bread and chamomile tea to go with friendly conversation and plans for the day.

We left Arequipa after just two days of alpaca-filled fun for Colca Cañon (more to follow, when I scrape together some time), one of the few places left where you can see wild Andean Condors. Now those are some seriously large birds.

There were less smiles and hugs waiting for us when we returned from the trip, the cause of which was unclear for some time. Mercedes’ younger sister Doris let us in to an empty apartment, to a different room that strangely had most of the same old furniture in it. We were pretty tired and dusty, so we sat down for tea with Doris and half of the cuzqueño family, who were leaving for home that afternoon to join the grandmother and son, already waiting in Cusco. Along with participating in an animated discussion of Cuban history and politics, we learned that it was the sisters’ father’s 80th birthday that week. Festivity preparations were already under way, building to a fever pitch around the time we planned to leave. Now that we understood what the semi-chaos was around the house, everything made more sense.

We spent a good deal of our time recovering from our Colca trek, but still had time to see some of the sights of Arequipa.

One entire afternoon we wandered through the mini-city of the Santa Catalina Monastery, four square city blocks of nuns complete with its own market, plaza, and neighborhoods. Life as a catholic nun was not a heck of a lot of fun if you weren’t loaded with money. The best part of the visit, other than the huge “SILENCIO” stenciled and carved into the entrance arch, was seeing a real locutorio. This is amusing because there are “locutorios” all over South America. In contemporary parlance, it is a call center, generally including internet services, where you can go into a phone booth and make calls in private. In the monastery, the locutorio is a hallway or room with double grates or other obfuscation so that family members could speak with the nuns once a month. It differs depending on the location, but is basically a few holes in the wall for supervised communication with the outside world. A little more rustic than the locutorios that were our only connection to friends and family in the far away North.

We also tried to pay a visit to Juanita, the frozen Inkan child-sacrifice, but she was on her annual world tour from January to April, so we saw her understudy Susie. The Andean Sanctuary museum, Juanita’s home, would have been more interesting had the air conditioning not been turned down low enough to turn all guests into mummies as well. I learned some interesting things about llamas and Inkan symbolism, but was distracted by my chattering teeth.

We saw the colonial city constructed with blocks of bright white lava rock called sillar, the new commercial and banking center, and the residential neighborhood where Meche, her cat, and two noisy dogs live.

Oh, and David ate a guinea pig. It had peanuts on it so I couldn’t.

Peruvian cuisine is something that is struggling to come into its own, but the possibilities are exciting. Traditional country food, like tamales and choclo (giant corn) is incredibly rich, with a depth of flavor that North American industrial corn will never be able to match. A huge biodiversity of potatoes, with their myriad colors, textures, and flavors provide the foundation for many potentially interesting meals, especially when combined with rocoto and ají, the Andes’ hottest peppers. Finally, though it requires proximity to water for the freshest fish, the star of Peruvian gastronomy, ceviche, is out of this world.

In Cusco, we splurged on our first night out on the town, testing out a nuevo-Peruano restaurant called “A Mi Manera” (My Way). Yes, folks, it is named after the Frank Sinatra song. We were the only people in the restaurant at 7:00 when we placed our orders with an amazingly friendly waiter who, while he and the staff attended our table, was taking down the restaurant’s Christmas decorations. I ate seven different types of potatoes that night, all of them in our appetizers. Nearly burned my mouth off on a stuffed rocoto pepper, but once I discovered that you’re supposed to combine it with lots of melted cheese and fluffy roasted potatoes, everything was okay. Also that night I had my first true Peruvian ceviche. I was skeptical of any seafood related dishes in the landlocked Cusco province, but the pejerrey (kingfish) was freshwater, from nearby Lake Titicaca. When the ceviche came out of the kitchen, mounded on my plate were feathery slices of fish in a barely creamy citrus sauce, all tossed with fresh herbs and thinly sliced sweet red onions, all of my fears vanished. I love ceviche because it tastes so fresh and simple, but balances strong flavors well. The textures are different than sushi, which is mostly soft; the contrasts of fresh vegetables and the cool, soft but spicy fish is perfect. By the end of the meal a few more guests trickled in, but we were glad to have had the place to ourselves to enjoy a spectacular introduction to Peruvian food.

The rest of Peru’s food wasn’t quite so exciting, but we did find an amazing sandwich shop that showcased some classic peruvian flavors. Each of the dozen or so sandwiches could be topped with one of ten sauces, my favorites being sauce (elderberry), aji mild and spicy, ajillo (aioli-garlic mayonnaise), and the argentine chimichurri (garlic, parsley, and chili). Juanito, of “Juanito’s Sandwiches” was there pretty much every night along with lots of Beatles music to make Dave happy. Our favorite, after the loaded roasted vegetable, was something called a cuzqueño, too delicious to be real. Two savory tamales sprinkled with sauce berries, just like the ones they sell at the bus stop and by the cathedral, topped a few slices of roast pork butt, or lechón, with nothing more but a slice of tomato and a leaf of lettuce, makes an entire meal. I think D once ate two in one sitting. We dined at Juanito’s nearly twice a day until we had eaten so many sandwiches that no more would fit. An A+ for eating, and not in any guidebook.

The last site of Peruvian deliciousness was in Arequipa, one that we stumbled across one day looking for a cheap lunch. Nina Yaku, it was called, and to this day I have no idea what it means. We walked by the restaurant several times; it is one of many on a touristy street near the Convent, nearly indistinguishable from a half dozen other well-decorated restaurants with a fixed menu. Upon closer investigation, they offered several vegetarian specialties on the menu, as well as creative sounding dishes. We took a chance on it one afternoon, and I ordered the set menu for $15 soles (about 4.75 USD): a cold beer and that day’s ceviche. Not only was the ceviche corvina (a small fish kind of like snapper but tastier), but it was fantastic! Accompanied by roasted sweet potatoes and rocoto strips, it was the perfect Peruvian lunch. We came back the same night for dinner, it was so good.

The best thing about Nina Yaku was that in addition to its fantastic food and friendly wait staff it had a stuffed alpaca smiling down at everyone from the wall. It was the same sort of alpaca that I’d run across in a few ritzy shops in Cusco and continued to lust after during my stay in Peru. Yes, I am nearly a quarter century old, but I still have a soft spot for stuffed animals. These little alpacas, made with real alpaca pelts, are about 18 inches long and feel like little clouds. I knew that if I’d asked the price it would have wound up in my suitcase, traveling the Southern Cone with me until April. With a little trepidation, I left Mr. Alpaca in the store. Maybe someday I’ll be back in Peru to indulge my camelid addiction.

Eventually it was time to leave highlands to head back south again, this time to Chile. I was eager to have a glimpse of the ocean again, after months in the mountains, but I would miss my furry friends dearly. Hasta luego, alpaca!

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