It was nice to take it slow on our first day in Cusco trying to acclimate the high altitude and also got our orientation around town. The sleep at the Belmond Palacio Nazarenas Hotel wasn’t so bad, despite the room was enriched with oxygen, I still woke up a few times. Especially at dawn, there were loud bangs outside my window from time to time which I had no idea what it was but scared the bejesus out of me! But it was nice to wake up to a beautiful sunny morning the next day and really looking forward to breakfast by the pool again.
“Look! There is a man playing a harp at breakfast!”
When in Peru, eat all the quinoa! While the whole world is fighting over these ancient grains and causes the price to surge, quinoa in Peru is still quite accessible and widely available. I loved the puffed quinoa in my yoghurt. During breakfast, we got to chat to fellow travellers who just finished the strenuous 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and decided to treat themselves in a nice hotel after the brutal achievement.
Cusco city comes alive on Sundays and there seem to have a lot going on at the main square when we were there. There was some kind of ceremony happening at the main square, parade of military groups saluting to politicians at the podium. Then I also found out the loud bangs were actually firecrackers because it was also the Lord of Miracles procession on the same day. It is the main Catholic celebration in Peru and one of the largest processions in the world. Pilgrims in purple robes were carrying a painting of Jesus Christ down the street sure attracted a mob of tourists with cameras capturing that special occasion. But what got me most excited was actually the food stalls set outside the church to feed the mass after the celebration.
The whole square outside the church was lined with food stalls offering a good selection of savoury and sweets. Each stall had chairs and tables set up outside where locals can just sit down and grab a quick bite while enjoying the sunny day. If only there wasn’t lunch already organised for us that day, I would have joined the mass and chowed down few local delicacies. That bowl of curry soup with chicken, crawfish, fish roe and Andean corn had me salivating.
I walked past a vendor selling pork crackling and a big sack of deep fried pork pieces with all the trimmings. My tour guide wasn’t so keen on me trying them as she worried that I will get upset stomach from eating unhygienic street food. For a mere $0.80, I got a small paper bag of pork that had been deep fried till death, the salty meat was dry and chewy with some crispy fatty skin. It was rather salty, I can see why it is a popular beer snack.
I have heard a lot about this specialty in Peru, and I finally spotted it at one of the stalls. Cuy or that cute fluffy rodent that we are more familiar with the name as “Guinea Pig”. I was so determined to try it before this trip, but after looking at that two roasted rat-looking thingy, I almost had a change of heart. I said – ‘almost’. (I did tried it at a place where Cuy is the specialty in that area, will be in my next post)
Chicha is a fermented or non-fermented beverage usually derived from maize. Chicha Morada is a popular non-fermented drink in Peru and Bolivia, usually made from ears of purple maize, which are boiled with pineapple rind, cinnamon and cloves. A popular refreshment, generally drunk as an accompaniment to food. Chicha de jora is the fermented version with alcohol content like the moonshine, but the traditional culture of preparing chicha is increasingly rare and only can be found in small towns and villages around Peru.
We tried the Chicha Morada which was slightly sweet and despite it wasn’t fermented, I still could taste a little yeasty flavour in the drink. Apparently the drink is believed to reduce blood pressure, what not to love? I also spotted Chicha made from Quinoa, that would be interesting.
Let them eat all the cakes! One thing I noticed was Peruvians do have quite a sweet tooth, obviously Spanish have had a huge influence on Peruvian cuisine. There were cheesecakes in all sorts of flavours, the classic Spanish Tres Leches milk cake, colourful jellies and mousse cakes, it was mesmerising just by looking at all these colourful edible creations.
The stall next to the dessert stand was two ladies frying picarones to order. I couldn’t get enough of this stuff! These Peruvian donuts (or beignets) are a lot more sophisticated than just eggs and flour. Picarones are traditionally made with macre squash and sweet potato, typically served with a sweet syrup made from raw unrefined sugar called chancaca. The picarones is actually nothing like a donut, I would say it is more like Chinese crullers but in a ring shape, it is airy and hollow inside, crunchy on the bite yet chewy at same time. It is a must try in Peru.
Not far from the main square is the bustling local market, Mercado Central de San Pedro. It reminded me so much of wet markets in Asia countries, it is split into different sections like meats, vegetables, dry grains, fruits, baked goods, cheeses, and even a food halls where locals come here for breakfast and lunch.
This lady who runs a very popular stall that sells frog juice, a juice with blended white bean broth, aloe vera and of course whole frogs! *vomit* It reminded me of Gremlins got blitzed in the blender! Also known as “Peruvian Viagra”, this juice supposed to act like aphrodisiac that boosts men’s libido and vitality. Hmm… I think I’ll pass. This lady was actually also quite aggressive and forbids tourists to take photos of her and her stall, so no one can steal her secret recipe!
Peruvian fresh cheese! Queso Fresco, the fresh cheese made in Cusco is one of the best in Peru.
There was a bountiful harvest of fresh fruits from Amazon at the fruit section. I just wish I had more time to taste everything!
There was a kaleidoscope of colours at the flower section. So vivid, so intense!
Pan Chuta is a local specialty in Cusco. This bread is characterised by its sweet anise flavour and large disk-like shape, typically come from Oropesa town near Cusco, also known as the city of bread. The beautiful bread is usually given to friends or families as a gift when visiting. Edible gift is way better than flowers in my opinion! 🙂
Coca this, coca that, coca for everyone! Apart from dried coca leaf, they also turned coca leaf into powder form to make tea with, then there’s also coca candies which obviously more palatable than the leaf itself.
Simply by chewing the coca leaf by itself doesn’t really give you that stimulant to beat altitude sickness as you’d hoped for. You will also need to combine it with substance that has alkali to activate the alkaloids in the leaf to get the full effect. You can also buy the alkali lime ash rocks called Lejia at the market. I believe you only need to break off a small piece of the rock and put in your mouth together with the leaves. You can also use bicarbonate powder and it is just as effective.
Potato will never be just potato here in Peru. There are over 4,000 varieties of native potatoes grow in the Andean highlands of Peru, Boliva, and Ecuador. You can easily find around 20 to 40 types of potatoes at the market anytime. Tunta or White Chuño are potatoes found at high altitude 3000m above sea level. These potatoes are freeze dried in freezing nights on top of Andean mountains over days. The potatoes then can be stored for a long period of time even years. It can be rehydrated for cooking or turn into flour, an essential ingredient in many Peruvian cuisine.
How I wish I could bring these quinoa back to Australia. This ancient Andean grain (actually is seed) is still one of the main staples in many Peruvian’s diet. This super food is high in protein, but not as high as beans and legumes. So, consumers shouldn’t really buy into this whole unsustainable ‘food trend’. We usually can find white, red and black quinoa here in Australia, but it was the first time I’ve seen golden quinoa, really curious what it would taste like.
When meat was sold without any styrofoam or cling wrap. The meat section in the market was as fresh as can be, locals were huddled round the stalls, selecting the fresh meat and then the butcher will cut a small portion to order. They also sell whole piglets, commonly people will buy the whole piglet to prepare Lechon, a whole roasted suckling pig for the special occasion.
One of the most popular stall inside the market is Centro Naturista where locals come here for refreshing herbal drinks like tea emoliente and many others. If you have any health problems, just let the vendor know and she will know exactly what drink you should have and concoct one up for you. The tea emoliente is the most popular drink to sooth any sore throat or cold. There were also drinks for upset stomach, headache, skin toning and detox, just to name a few. We tried a couple of the drinks, the tea emoliente is actually quite refreshingly sweet, like barley water with some lemon juice and aloe vera. Then there’s also a drink for men’s vitality (of course), that tasted very bitter, told it was a shot of alfalfa.
Dinner at Pre-Columbian Art Museum
The Pre-Columbian Art Museum (Museo de Arte PreColombino or MAP) is only a stone throw away from the Belmon Palacio Nazarenas Hotel. The building itself was originally an Inca ceremonial courthouse. After a large-scale restoration, the museum opened in June 2003. Here they housed ancient art encompass a period of time ranging between 1250BC and AD1532. There are all forms of art including ceramics, wood, silver, stone, sea shells, gold and a whole lot more.
We were fortunate to have the Art Director of the museum to give us a quick tour before being ushered to the restaurant for our dinner this evening. The restaurant housed inside a glass cube within the courtyard is a striking feature of the museum. One of Peru’s leading top chef Coque Ossio has designed a menu by reinventing traditional dishes of Peruvian cuisine that seeks to convey the highest expression of national cuisine.
The presentations of the Peruvian dishes were impeccable, everything on the plate were locally sourced in Peru. Their signature mushroom soup (Capchi de setas) had all the wow factor, within the puff pastry balloon was a hearty white wine base soup filled with Andean setas (mushrooms), fava beans, potato and paria cheese. It was simply delicious to the last drop.
I loved my main course of alpaca navarin with toasted humitas. The slow-cooked alpaca meat was rosy pink and juicy, served with a red wine jus and accompanied by humitas, traditional steamed corn cakes. The humitas was a cross between polenta and gnocchi, the soft pillow of corncake is steamed then toasted. Another dish that stood out was the Quinoa canelones perfumed with truffles. Inside the cannelloni was stuffed with quinoa ragu, tomato pesto, arugula, goat cheese then infused with truffle essence. Then the whole dish were doused in hot molten mature fontina cheese. The truffle smell was intoxicating, a vegetarian dish I’d be happily finishing it off.
The desserts were just incredible! My floating islands was possible the least spectacular compared to others. Claimed the recipe was derived the grandma’s kitchen, the soft poached meringues were indeed floating on a pool of creamy custard. On top of that, there was also a dome of custard apple mousse covered with thin layers of strawberries in cava syrup.
Then there was Lucuma kisses in five textures. The lucuma fruit is hidden within a dome of chocolate ganache, served with homemade coffee flavoured ice cream from Quillabamba. But it was their signature dessert Sacha Inchi that took our breath away. Sacha inchi also known as mountain peanut of Inca-peanut, is another kind of Peruvian superfood with health benefits. The nuts were crushed and turned into ‘garrapinados’ toffee disk, balancing on a white chocolate sphere. Inside was filled with sweet dulce de leche caramel and dark chocolate mousse. It was served with yogurt soup and dotted with Quillabamban coffee jellies infused with torontel pisco. It was definitely the highlight of our evening and also one of the best meals we’ve had in Peru.
I was glad that we didn’t have to walk far to get to our hotel. The oxygen-enriched room put me to sleep almost instantly. I never thought I would say this, “I love you, Oxygen!”
[… to be continued]
How to get there – LAN Airlines now operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile. LAN also offers non-stop flights between Sydney and Santiago every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday in a codeshare partnership with oneworld partner airline Qantas.
- Make sure you have your vaccination for Hep A & B, Typhoid and Yellow Fever prior to departure.
- Get some US dollars and then exchange it to local currencies when you get to South America.
- Drink Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Camenere, Syrah from Chile; Malbec from Argentina
- Best to get bottled water rather than drink from tap
- To create your own holiday in South America, please visit South America Travel Centre.