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The Lords of the Skies

April 21, 2011 4 comments

Zeus - the lord of the sky

As the time approached to pack up the bags and leave South America for the distant shores of Asia, I felt a sense of trepidation at the two day journey which included four countries and three continents (if I can call North and South America separate continents ;-)).

Lima – Los Angeles – Hong Kong – Hanoi

You couldn’t get to any place further away but the scariest thing was to lose an entire day without noticing it (under the spell of an unprescribed Diazepam I picked up in Ollantaytambo in rural Peru). However Asia beckoned and we packed to ensure we had everything we needed in our hand luggage and prayed that our checked in luggage would survive the numerous transits and arrive (hopefully in one piece) at our final destination.

I sit at Hong Kong airport as I write this so the final leg of the journey is yet to be experienced and the anxiety around the checked in luggage sits uncomfortably at the top of my larynx making it difficult to swallow large gulps of the Chenin Blanc I am drinking in the waiting lounge.
Perhaps it’s the lack of sleep, or maybe the airline food, or the jet lag which is beginning to settle onto the right hemishphere of my brian – but I can’t help feeling that flying should be more comfortable than it has been for us in the past couple of days.

We booked our entire flight with Cathay Pacific, who are ranked in the top five of all airlines by pretty much every website I looked at, so I didn’t mind coughing up the ridiculous sum of money it cost for a single ticket from Lima to Hanoi. However having now checked n for the final leg of the journey and been passed on to the operating partners of Cathay Pacific for two of the three legs of the journey I feel slightly swindled. Lima to Los Angeles was with LAN – the Peruvian flag carrier. I don’t have any particular complaints about the journey or the service though the food could have been more representative of their country. The biggest disappointment has to be the 15 hour flight with Cathay Pacific. For reasons given above for my state of mind currently I probably am being unfair but I didn’t find anything in Cathay’s boarding, service, food or inflight entertainment which I would say was above our own flag carrier – BA. BA is not even in the top 20 of the airlines own top list (and for good reason too!).

Let’s start my rant with what happened as soon as we walked up to check in at Lima airport. Craig was told he had about twenty minutes to find internet and apply for an American visa waiver (I already had it from travelling the previous year). We explained that we will be in Los Angeles for approximately 4 hours as transit passengers and had no intention to leave the airport, but rules are rules so we had to run around like headless chickens to get that sorted and check in just in time.
We ran through Customs and Immigration where an official asked us for some slips of paper which we had never received. He lowered his eyes and looked over at another official at a desk and escorted us to a corner at the end of the Immigration checkpoint and asked us to give him $10 for it. He didn’t gave us a receipt or asked us to fill a form and very visibly put the dollar note in his wallet. It wasn’t a lot of money but it was rather conspicuous!

LAN had kindly offered to have our baggage transferred automatically until Hong Kong but when we arrived in Los Angeles we had to pick it up from the carousel, carry it to a transit station, go through the usual friendly short queues of Immigration and customs (I am unusually sarcastic today) and then still arrive at a check in desk for Cathay Pacific to get our boarding passes for the next leg. The Cathay check in guy said we may have a problem if we don’t produce an onward travel ticket from Vietnam. He then went away to confer with his colleagues and came back several minutes later to say it was ok and we didn’t need it – phew!

Relieved, we went looking for something to eat and found that Los Angeles airport is not only drab and badly designed but also has terrible facilities. There are half a dozen restaurants (in the loose sense of the word) made up of a McDonald’s, a Hot Dog bar, a Dunkin Donuts (or similar) and couple of others. The seating areas were strip lit and had inadequate and uncomfortable seating. Is this the same airport used by Hollywood celebrities?

Rant over! Arrived in Hong Kong this morning and managed to visit both Hong Kong and Kowloon and now looking forward to the two hour flight to go see Lisa and Jamie in Hanoi!

Lima and Ceviche

April 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Canto Rana in Lima

After the fantastic food at Pescado Capitales in Lima a few weeks ago and Limo in Cusco, I didn’t think I was going to find better fish and seafood in Peru. But I did at two local Baranco (a neighbourhood in Lima) restaurants.

Arrived in Lima yesterday and went for a late lunch at Canto Rana (Singing Frog!) which is a quirky little local place in the barrio of Barranco, owned by a football fanatic who screams and jumps up and down when a goal is scored on the TV in the corner of the room. The place is plastered with football photos, shirts, articles, scarves, and anything related to the game. But it is a charming little place full of locals. As we went with friends, we shared a few platters of food.

Eating the Arroz con Mariscos

First up was a Sea Urchin Ceviche which had more onion than I had had in a ceviche dish before but as sea urchins are quite a strong flavour, the chef must have prepared it to balance the flavours. I picked out the fleshy bright orange pieces of the sea urchin and ate them with only a little onion and it was very tasty.

Next we had the Chicharron Misto – mixed seafood fried in light batter. There was octopus, shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams etc. This was served with wedges of lime and the fiery hot local salsa which really lifted the flavour.

The next dish was a Mariscos Piccante cooked in the local speciality picante sauce which is at the same time tomatoey, creamy and hot. Everything was tasty and I managed to have an entire bottle of wine by myself whilst the others opted for the local beer.

Today we said goodbye to our friends who are travelling north to Trujillo and seriously considered going back to the Canto Rana but decided to ask the owner of the hotel about other recommendations and he advised on El Muellewhich is only a block away from Canto Rana. We arrived to a mildly busy

The Clam Ceviche at El Muelle

restaurant but when we left there was a queue of people waiting to be seated.

We ordered a Ceviche of Clams first which arrived beautifully marinated in lime, onion and served on their own shells. Next up we had a Ceviche of Calamari which had coriander as an additional marinade and was perfectly tangy and really reminded me of the sea.

The kitchen at El Muelle

Ceviche is very tasty but as a cold dish is not really enough to fill up a hungry belly. So we decided on a Arroz con Paella to share which is really just a Peruvian paella. The rice was fluffy unlike in a traditional paella and was obviously cooked in a homemade fish stock and loaded up with fish and seafood. This was topped with the ubiquitous wedges of lime and covered with local seaweed. This dish was exceptional and though full by the time we had only tucked into half of it (they serve large plates everywhere in S America!) we managed to polish of every last bit of the plate.

Tomorrow I am gong to try kid goat and beef hearts both of which are local specialities!

A Lake Up in the clouds – Titicaca

April 15, 2011 4 comments

7am, Lake Titicaca

Whilst the others went for white water rafting, I opted to go away on my own for a couple of days to check out Lake Titicaca. I had wanted to visit this mystical place since arriving in S America and was afraid I won’t make it. I took an overnight bus from Cusco and reached the city of Puno on the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca very early in the morning. The bus station is right by the lake and the sun was about to break through the horizon on the far side of the lake.

After resting for a couple of hours, I went to the harbour to get on a boat trip to the famous reed islands. At 7am, the lake glittered like a sea of diamonds, lit by the rays of the morning sun and fluffy white clouds moved slowly in the gentle breeze. I couldn’t believe my luck. Most people who had visited the lake advised me that it was bound to rain on the Lake and I won’t see anything which would make the trip less worthwhile.

The Uros ladies waving goodbye to our boat

The 20 seater motor boat got started and the guide explained the geography of the lake to a dozen and a half of the tourists. We were English, Australian, Israeli, Danish and even a Peruvian. The guide spoke in both Spanish and English and told us the history of the 60 or so reed islands which are entirely constructed of the reed which grows in abundance in the lake. It is a full time job for the islanders – called Uros – to maintain their floating islands. Fresh Totora reed is cut and woven onto the surface of the islands constantly as the bottom of the layer is constantly disintegrating. The dried reed is used as fuel to cook meals and also to make boats for transport between the islands. The islanders now make a number of nick-nacks with the reed for tourists who visit.

Lunch at Isla de Tequille

It’s quite sad to see the islanders resorting mainly to tourism for their livelihood but that’s also true of a number of cities around the world, however I think the traditional culture of the Uros people must now be extinct as they rely so heavily on the money brought in from the tourists. The Uros speak their own language which is the third officially recognised language – after Spanish and Quechua – in Peru. The islands each house around five to six families and share tasks such as cooking and weaving. I really enjoyed seeing the islands and meeting some of the Uros people.

We got back on the boat and left the islands behind to sail to the island of Tequille around two hours away. Tequille is very small and has stunning views of the lake. From the harbour, we climbed half way up the hilly island to visit a family house who cooked a meal for us. We sat in their garden with breathtaking views of the lake  and had a traditional hearty meal of Quinoa soup followed by pan fried trout served with a wedge of lime and steamed rice, all washed down with a bottle of Cusqeño beer.

The view from Isla de Tequille

After a little rest, we continued the climb up to the main square of the island which was nothing more than a sleepy little plaza surrounded by colonial buildings – a church, a town hall, a school. Local children followed us around to sell weaves and other tack. The view of the lake and other islands from up here was amazing and the sun beat down us hard at more than 3,800 metres above sea level. Soon we climbed back down to the harbour and got back on the boat for the three hour journey back to Puno. It was quite an experience to be on the highest navigable lake in the world!

As we approached Puno, dark clouds gathered above us and as we disembarked at the harbour, hail stones the size of marbles hammered down on us. Lucky with the weather and lucky that my bus company decided to double-book my ticket which meant I had to stay in Puno the night and spent an excellent evening eating and drinking with the fellow travellers I met on the boat!

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Incas ruled!

April 6, 2011 8 comments

We were two of very few people who arrived at Macchu Picchu independently. This is not surprising given the difficulty in reaching this Wonder of the World. Last year’s rains created a mudslide and turned the only train track and parts of the road to Macchu Picchu impassable.

The Inca built the city we call Macchu Picchu (named after the mountain rising from the South side of the site) between 1450 and 1550 AD in a geographical area which even today is difficult and treacherous to reach. Only one train line exists. and the only road has to circumnavigate some of the mountains and torrentialrivers.


A large number of people arrive at Macchu Picchu on an organised tour, either having walked the  two or four day long Inca Trail, or arriving on a day trip. The Inca Trail is very popular and gets booked out months in advance especially as there is a limit on the number of peole allowed to enter the site each day.

So, the independent traveller must book transport from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, a train journey from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, a bus ride from Aguas Calientes to Macchu Picchu, the entrance ticket to the monument, a guide and of course accommodation. No wonder then that many opt for the easier option of an organised tour.

Having researched all the links for a few days we managed to book everything without seeing one travel agent!

On 4th April we headed up the mountain and were at the Watchmen’s Tower, looking down at the site at 7am in the morning. Words fail me in trying to describe this otherworldly and mysterious place. Just walking around the site we were flabbergasted at the skill and engineering of the people who 500 years ago built this magical place in the clouds!

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What have Peru, Japan and India got in common?

March 31, 2011 2 comments

A great lunch venue in Cusco!

In the last post I talked about the exquisite and expensive lunch we had in Lima savouring the delights of the sea. Since then we travelled south  to Cusco which is a splendid looking city at 11,000 ft. The difference between Lima and Cusco is considerable – one is the administrative capital of the country whilst the other the ancient centre of the Inca civilisation; one is full of the noises of modern living, the other sleepy and relaxed; one is at sea level, the other high up in the clouds. Both are steeped in history and interesting places to visit. We however, have chosen to spend a lot more time in Cusco to explore the mysterious Inca world.

Today, as we walked down the terraced streets behind Plaza de Armas, a lovely old gentleman persuaded us to eat at his restaurant. They were only serving the menu del dia and we decided to give it a try. As we sat down, he brought us a basket of freshly baked bread – in Cusco this looks like a round pitta but thicker. He gave us a thimble of Cusqueño salsa with it which is a fiery chilli sauce to be used for dipping torn pieces of bread with . For an appetiser he brought us a battered and deep fried sweet potato croquette followed by a consomme served with a piece of braised beef, white potato and carrot. For mains there was a choice of beef in peruvian sauce (coriander and thickened stock) with steamed rice or an escalope of herbed chicken with fried potatoes and broccoli. We went for one each. All this came with a freshly squeezed glass of jugo de manazana (apple juice).

All of the food tasted home-cooked. It was delicious, filling and obviously prepared with love. This lunch cost us S/10 or £2 each! If the coastal food of Peru has semblance to the Japanese cuisine then with the use of fresh coriander, chilli and spice, the provincial food has an affinity to Indian cuisine!

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A Sinful Exravaganza

March 30, 2011 3 comments

The coastline of Peru provides tonnes of fish and seafood from the Pacific Ocean and the influence of this resource can be seen in the local cuisine. However Limeños – as the people of the city like to call themselves – traditionally eat fish at lunchtime and meat at dinner. In order to try the Peruvian speciality of ceviche and other delights of the sea we looked up the restaurant offerings in Miraflores, the barrio of Lima in which we were lodging.

Pescados Capitales was recommended by the locals and guidebooks alike and keeping our fingers crossed we arrived at the restaurant at 12.30 – early enough to try and cadge a table as we hadn’t booked. The street is lined with auto garages and sprinkled with expensive fish restaurants. A strange juxtaposition you might say, but why not? Apparently La Mar – a small chain of half a dozen high-end fish restaurants around the world – opened a branch in Avenida La Mar (hmm, which came first?) and others followed suit. Pescados Capitales opened its doors in 2001 and in the last ten years has caused a storm in the culinary world. Not just for their preparation of fish but also for writing menus which look like poetry! The menu starts with a page which is blank but for a quote from James Joyce.

“God has made the food, and the devil the salt and sauces.”

 

The scallop ceviche appetizer

There is no browsing of the menu. You need to read the description of each dish to understand what it might contain. It’s like going through the quotes of Confucious, talking about guilt and balance and sin and passion. The Japanese influence doesn’t stop here. Japanese and Peruvian fusion food is all the rage in S America and has travelled to other parts of the world too. Soya, five spice, ginger and lime appear in the descriptions of many dishes.

 

We sat down in a nearly empty restaurant of around 40 tables and the waiter brought around a menu in English. As mentioned earlier, reading the menu is not to be taken lightly and took some time however half way through our waiter brought us a Ceviche of Scallop each to savour whilst we perused the menu. The delight of picking up something you

didn’t order and putting it in your mouth is enough but then the pleasure of rolling it around your tongue and getting the first taste of the little morsel – was heavenly! Ceviched with a dash of soy and chinese wine and sprinkled with crushed sesame. An excellent ploy by the restaurant to get the 

Grilled Baby Octopus

juices flowing prior to ordering!

We decided to order dishes as we go along because we didn’t have a measure of the portions or our appetite. By this time, groups of men dressed in suits and tie were being dropped off in taxis outside and the restaurant was beginning to fill up. First up we ordered a couple of dishes from the ‘Small Sins” section along with an Argentine chardonnay. Pulpo a la Griega (Grilled baby octopus) served with a chilli and lime sauce and 150grams of Pacific Prawns cooked in a very light tomato sauce clinging to the prawns. Both were excellent though I had to cut off some of the blubber from the octopus. Blubber requires more cooking than the flesh when flash grilled however it did make the dish look spectacular and I didn’t mind cutting some off. The prawn dish was simple and delicious, especially with an extra generous squeeze of lime.

By now the restaurant was overflowing with customers – men in suits – and the bar was busy making cocktails. This was surprising given this was a Monday lunch time! Puffed up by the first course, we went through the menu again, this time with less of a fine-comb and decided on Crab Claws. The waiter asked whether we’ll have them natural or roasted. We went for roasted to try something different and ordered two Pisco Sours to wash them down with. The claws came covered in a light battered and deep fried (not roasted as was mentioned in the menu) but were very light and tasty and it made a nice change to have crab warm  like this. The Pisco Sours were fabulous – just the best I’ve had until now, with a lovely froth of whisked egg whites clinging to the top of the small glass. The kick of the bitter pisco blended with the sweet jarabe de goma (bar syrup) was a perfect compliment to the subtelty of the crab meat.

Lightheaded with the excellent wine and pisco sours and confident about ordering dishes from the menu we went for the Peruvian

Deep fried crab claws

speciality Arroz con Mariscos which is really just another name for a seafood paella albeit with a Peruvian slant. The dish came with four scallops dressed in their shell. The rice was stickier than is usual in a paella (Japanese influence?) and there was no chicken or fish – just seafood. The first spoonful tasted a little underseasoned but spicier than the traditional dish. Each subsequent mouthful got tastier however and soon the entire plate was gone!

Our tummies were feeling nicely full now but the waiter had warned us at the start that we must keep room for desserts – otherwise it’d be a sin. Not wanting to commit one, we ordered a Peruvian Creme Brulee to share. This was made with rice and very creamy with a perfect crust which crunched and gave way to the cream under when tapped with the back of a spoon.

Arroz con Mariscos

As we paid the bill, the room still buzzed with the noise of businessmen negotiating deals and the barmen catching bottles of spirits mid-air.

In the entire course of the afternoon, I might have consumed less than one teaspoon of oil for the flavours were fresh and didn’t require grease, and happily the lack of it did not deter from the great flavours. Only coriander was conspicuously missing.

Pescados Capitales is one of the best known restaurants in Lima and is rated second best in all Lima restaurants on Tripadvisor. It’s the most sensational seafood I have ever had!
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A stranger in my bedroom!

March 28, 2011 1 comment

For reasons I won’t go into here, yesterday we unexpectedly found ourselves in a dorm room of a hostel called Red Psycho Llama in the tourist trap they call Miraflores a few kilometres from Lima’s centre. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of nights I have spent in any hostel and on fewer digits the number of times I have shared a bedroom with a stranger (hold all jokes right there please!).

Arriving after midnight, hastily being shown into an empty dorm, we quickly unpacked and climbed up and down onto our bunks. A couple of hours of deep sleep later I suddenly awoke to find the room brightly lit with a young man standing at the door. In normal circumstances I would have jumped out of my skin but I was in a slumbering daze and decided it was a dream. Then I heard the whirring of the generator outside the only window in the dorm which looks onto a plastered wall two feet away and knew I was awake. The man, in his leisurely way, crossed the room and got into the bed next to me!

Tomorrow we move into a private room.

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