Food for thought part eight – Bolivia and Peru

Food at a Peruvian market

Bolivia isn’t exactly a culinary paradise, that’s not to say the food is bad, just a little bland. Peru on the other hand definitely wins the prize for flavour in South America, thank you Peru for finally bringing spice back to the table! Here are some of the regional specialities from this part of this trip…

Menu del día (Bolivia and Peru)
The menu del día is the cheap way to eat in Bolivia or Peru, it is typically a two or three course meal comprised of a soup starter (often a little watery), a main of some kind of flavourless meat served with boiled potatoes and rice or pasta (if you’re lucky this might be accompanied by a sauce, if not you can liven it up with the ever present salsa picante) and a desert of tinned fruit salad or jelly. All of this is usually washed down with an unidentifiable ‘juice’, essentially sugary water. It’s a pretty no frills affair but cheap and filling.

Chicken, I think, red sauce, and pasta

Salchipapa (Bolivia and Peru)
Salchipapa is the kind of dish you might concoct with what’s left in your cupboard, chips mixed with chopped frankfurters, sliced onions and peppers smothered in a tomato sauce.

Quinoa soup (Bolivia)
Quinoa is a small round grain sometimes used as an accompaniment similar to rice. It’s a nice way to bulk up the often thin vegetable soups served in Bolivia.

Quinola soup

Trucha (Bolivia and Peru)
I believe that trucha (trout) fresh from lake Titicaca is one of the nicest Bolivian dishes we encountered. It can be found cooked in all manner of ways, but my favourite was probably trucha grilled in a lemon sauce.

Chifa (Bolivia and Peru)
Chifas are Chinese restaurants of varying quality found throughout Bolivia and Peru (although probably more prominently in Peru). A refreshing alternative to the ubiquitous meat and rice (although you can of course find dishes containing both of these constituents, just with more flavour than usual!).

Fresh fruit salad from the market in Sucre, Bolivia

Ceviche (Peru)
The best dish I have tasted in months! I have to admit I was skeptical, I’m not a fan of sushi and to be honest the idea of eating raw fish doesn’t really appeal to me. Ceviche has definitely changed that! Ceviche is raw fish marinated in a chilli and lime sauce topped with raw onions and served with a side of sweet potato and giant sweetcorn (seriously -the sweetcorn in Peru is huge!), a dish packed with tongue-tingling flavour, definitely one not to be missed.

A dish of the gods

Rocoto relleno (Peru)
Another fine example of tasty Peruvian food, the spicy red peppers are stuffed with minced beef, onions, diced boiled egg and plenty of seasoning.

Spicy and stuffed, perfect

Cuy (Peru)
If you’ve ever had a pet Guinea Pig you may want to stop reading now. Yes cuy is roasted or fried Guinea Pig. Whilst the crunchy skin is nicely flavoured with herbs and spices, as might be expected there’s not a lot of actual meat to be had on this Peruvian delicacy!

Guinea Pigs are tasty food here…

Restaurant-style cuy

Pisco sour (Peru)
Peru’s most famous cocktail made from Pisco (grape brandy), lime juice, bitters, sugar and egg whites is a real treat and impossible to avoid!

Enjoying a pisco sour… and yet more ceviche!

With only four weeks left until we re-enter the world of cheddar cheese, marmite and salt and vinegar crisps (seriously, these are the things I miss!) I wonder what Colombia and Cuba have in store…


Paragliders, fountains and, err, erottery

Just like Brighton…

I can’t exactly say I loved Lima the last time I was here; I remember a city in perpetual drizzle and polluted smog that smelled of chicken feed. I’m pleased to say we had an altogether different experience this time round!

Miraflores is an upscale middle class district of town perched on cliffs looking down on the sea. Although polluted and not looking all that inviting, the water plays host to hundreds of surfers riding the waves in, and an antique pier slicing through the middle. It’s a bit reminiscent of Brighton – only here there is actually lots of sand!

The most visible sport is however paragliding – colourful sails leaping off the cliffs, gaining height and then disconcerting everybody by soaring along above the clifftop road just high enough not to get hit by the traffic. It’s a little alarming when you first look up at what’s blotted out the sun and see a human suspended from silk!

For the afternoon, we thought we’d try something cultural and entirely different. A pre-Colombian union that probably won’t make our set of gifts to bring home for a family mantelpiece, the Larco museum has among its many ceramic treasures a collection of erotic pottery – or as we came to call it, erottery. A core belief of the time was that sex was necessary for the fertility of the soil and good crops the next season – and hence it should be practised not just for procreation. Quite a difference from some religions doctrine today! The pots are hence religious symbols of fertility, and were used in holy festivals. It does make for a strange juxtaposition -graphic depictions of sex on water jugs and the like; I can’t quite imagine sitting round the dinner table for Sunday Lunch and someone pouring wine from the, ahem, spout, on some of these! It gets weirder still though, the three worlds of the pre-Colombians were inhabited respectively by animals, humans, and dead humans – and all were expected to have sex, sometimes with each other, in order to fertilise the soil. Needless to say this makes for some even less dining-table-friendly imagery, which I’m not going to publish below! For the inquisitive, I’m sure Google will assist!

This is all you’re gonna get!

To cleanse our souls, we visited Lima’s park of fountains. It is impossible to overstate this – it was utterly brilliant. Almost everywhere we have been in the world, the water has disappointed. At the Taj Mahal, all fountains were turned off. The same in Delhi, Luang Prabang, Rio, Buenos Aires, La Paz and Sucre. Yes, in a few places there was a bit of water spouting around, and at Iguacu it was genuinely impressive – but still, we’d simply hoped for more. Until now! We present, in pictures below, the world’s largest collection of fountains (with lights). Yes, we got stuck in the middle of the water maze and got wet. Yes, that jet is higher than a tree. And yes, those are lasers! Fantastico!

Light and laser show onto fountains

For our final night in Peru, we met up with my old friend Ronald Salas, who lives in Lima and helped organise – and attended Global Village, the big Woodcraft Folk youth festival I was involved with in 2006. Over a coffee and Lima-style sandwich we caught up – he’s now involved with starting a new IFM organisation here, Mundo Nuevo – and he introduced us to a fellow Woodcrafter who’s out here, Ruth Holtom. Hi guys!

After a final meal of cerviche (Laura is positively addicted), we’re off to the warmer and less spicy climbs of Colombia. Tune in next week for a touch of life on the Caribbean…



Trekking in the Cordillera Blanca

The group of us at the pass

With only a few days left here in Peru, we ventured to Huaraz for some trekking in the Andes. The town itself is mainly concrete after the destruction of many earthquakes, but the surroundings are spectacular – imposing rocky ridges with white peaks all around.

Me trying to jump over Alpamayo, ‘The most beautiful mountain in the world’

We did the ‘Santa Cruz’ trek, the same route I did with Roland 10 years ago (although proudly then we did it with just a guide and a couple of tents, no donkeys, chairs and tables as are the order of the day now). It’s four days of decent trekking, with camping in beautiful but sub-zero temperatures in the valleys each night.

Icebergs in the glacial lake

Along the way we took in sparkling blue glacial pools (with freshly minted icebergs), a ridge at 4750m just below the snow line, and also the destructive power of nature. When I was last here, there was a striking arid valley running for 20km leading up to the ridge. A landslide earlier this year tore down the hillside and for miles down the valley, coating everything with a thick bed of sand. It’a a bit eerie looking up at the mountain above you to see an obvious gap and the rubble and sand surrounding you, especially since this was all so memorable when I was here not all that long ago (in geological terms, anyway!).

My, we´re tall!

There is another aspect to this landscape that has stuck with me strongly since our last visit: the haunting tale of the 1970 earthquake that wrought destruction on much of Peru and particularly the town of Yungay, which we passed at the start of the trek. The 7.9 quake dislodged part the top of Mount Huascarán, the highest mountain in the country. As the mass of rock and ice continued downhill, it picked up part of a glacier, and as it neared the valley bottom at around 300km/h, it was some 80 million cubic metres in size. The towns in its path were completely wiped out, killing 25000 people in Yungay alone. It is a haunting experience even now driving through the valley which is littered with boulders the size of 5 story houses. And the good side to this story that I remember dearly? On the day of the quake, a local circus was holding a free day for children. Some 300 of them were attending in the local stadium and as a result survived, having been led to safer ground pied-piper style by a clown after the earthquake. When you think about it, it isn’t hard to see why the Incas thought the mountains were the incarnations of gods looking over them.



Peruvian Boobies and Islands of guano

Peruvian Boobies sitting on the rocks

We heard that just off the coast, the Islas Ballestas were Peru’s ‘Poor man’s Galapagos’, a description that perhaps exaggerates a little – but then we’d heard they were covered in guano, so our expectations were pretty low!

We stayed in the quaint little beach town of Paracas, in ‘Paracas Backpacker’s House’ with rooms more like beach-huts than proper buildings. Ours had a flat roof with holes through to the sky – this is where the desert meets the sea, and it basically never rains here. If it did, those live wires running onto the roof would be a bit more concerning! It was one of the nicest places we’ve slept in ages – the owner Alberto was wonderful, giving us all sorts of tips for eating cheaply in the town, telling jokes and making us very welcome. It was the first time we’ve been on a beach since Salvador back in Brazil over 3 months ago, so we were both pretty excited despite the cool weather!

Early in the morning, we took a tourist speedboat out to the islands – you can’t actually set foot on them to protect the inhabitants, but the view from the boat was just fantastic. The whole thing was pretty Hitchcockesque; there are hundreds of thousands of birds absolutely everywhere, covering every rock as far as the eye could see. The hill in the centre of the island had a black tinge to it, and as we got closer, you could see it was actually a seething mass of avian life – the black was all birds.

On the way to the islands we were greeted by sea lions leaping out of the water to welcome us, but the real highlight was waiting on the rocks – penguins! I hadn’t quite imagined them to be so small – cute at just 50-70cm high and looking sweet in their little groups. The island is absolutely covered in Peruvian Boobies, a white-headed bird, with spots of red-footed cormorants, and the suitably ugly turkey culture. The swarms of birds flying overhead in formation brought back memories of the starlings over Brighton in autumn – although in this case, it was the distinctive silhouette of pelicans instead.

Some tiny Penguins

The birds bring more than just ecological riches to Peru, as the bird droppings (guano) they produce is hugely valuable as a fertiliser. Two people actually live on the islands at all times to guard the product, with stone walls created to ensure the excrement doesn’t (ahem) get flushed away – in places, it is metres thick! Every seven years the whole lot is collected – a dirty job if ever there was one – half to be exported and half for Peru’s domestic agriculture.

This is where they load up the Guano. Lots and lots of birds!

Following its failed war with Chile, Peru was in massive debt and needed to raise funds to pay off foreign loans. It seems only appropriate that for a country that could be said to be ‘in the shit’, it was the money from exports of guano that solved the national financial crisis at the time – pretty valuable stuff! On a weekend when Spain is turning to the Eurozone to bail out its banks, it does make you wonder – perhaps they could follow a similar route? The perfect counterpoint to a faltering tourist industry?


Sliding on sand

This pose lasted one second!

Just outside Ica, set amid the towering sand dunes is the oasis of Huacachina, a small lake surrounded by a scattering of colonial buildings – and lots and lots of backpackers. Apparently this once used to be an sophisticated peaceful escape from the city; now it’s been overrun by foreigners hell-bent on hedonism and adventure tourism, but it was fun for one night at least.

We joined a tour that was more of a mobile rollercoaster on sand, a dune buggy tearing its way up, around and over the dunes, with near-vertical drops down the other side that made me glad there was a roll cage and we were well strapped in! As the powerful engine roars and you fly up another sand ridge with the adrenaline kicking in, you can’t help but wonder about the poor creatures who once made this place their home – it’s some contrast to the idyll we found on camelback in the Rajistani Desert in India, and it’s pretty clear the local environment has suffered at the cost of tourism.

Our dune buggy. Yes, it did look cool!

The other sport in town is sandboarding. It seems the encouraged way for beginners to get to the bottom is to lie front-first on their board and slide and scream your way to the bottom, using your feet as breaks. It turns out you can go pretty fast; there’s something a little odd about hurtling down a mountain of sand with your face inches from the surface, but it was certainly cool, if that’s an appropriate word. We also had a go at sandboarding proper – standing up, sticking your ass out and attempting to balance. Definitely harder! I found the best technique was just to point the board down the slope and go for it – if it was on snow, you’d go way too fast, but the sand slows you down enough that the maximum speed is just about right. Great fun!