Peru: the marvelous city of gold!
I had the chance to visit this extraordinary country twice. A first, in 2006, where I stayed there for several months to learn Spanish, or Castellano as my teacher told me. A second, in 2019, because my heart had remained attached to the grandiose landscapes of this spiritually inspiring country (and also because I had lost my camera during my first experience and therefore had no great memories!).
After being pounded by the Spaniards, Peru experienced years of fear in the 1980s with the Shining Path, a Peruvian communist party that contributed greatly to the armed conflict of the 1980s and 1990s that caused 70,000 victims. Alberto Fujimori, Peruvian president from 1990 to 2000, will have put an end to the armed insurrection of the Shining Path, but his authoritarianism and his corruption will have put the country in an impasse. After fleeing to Japan in 2000, he was extradited to Peru in 2007, where he was eventually convicted of crimes against humanity and corruption.
Coincidentally, when he was extradited, he wanted to return to Peru to represent himself in politics. He was instead imprisoned, then pardoned in 2017 by President Kuczynski. However, the following year, the Supreme Court overturned this pardon and ordered his arrest. Fujimori's daughter ran herself in the 2016 elections, which she narrowly lost, and her son, who is a deputy, is suspected by Peruvian justice of money laundering.
From my childhood, I therefore not only remembered the mysterious cities of gold, but also the many Peruvian refugees who arrived here to get out of the difficult conditions. I remembered the persecutions of Fujimori and a country where it is not good to live.
So imagine, in 2006, when I went to live in Lima. The war and the years of fear are not far away. Fujimori hadn't even been arrested. People were suspicious and very afraid of everything! I had many restrictions on going out, many safety rules to follow, and the family that hosted me was not in agreement with my actions (ex. : when I left to offer food to homeless people in the middle of the night with an organization, my family told me that touching the poor would make me sick... we can understand them, they had just lived through years of horror).
I also remember a man who was shot and killed in his car as we passed by. I remember that the elections, compulsory for everyone (imagine when you don't have a car and you have to walk 3 days in the mountains to vote otherwise you can have penalties), which took place while I was living there , aroused great emotions and disparities in the population. I remember an evening when Alan Garcia, who was running for president, had managed to bring together I don't know how many thousand people for a thunderous outdoor show with fireworks... surreal, as if was Metallica. And I said to myself "if Jean Chrétien had done that, hahaha!".
But I also remember that Peru gave me a great life lesson. With poverty and the gap between rich and poor, racism against indigenous people, a family served by a 13-year-old girl who is not allowed to go to school or even leave the house, my values will have been confronted. And fortunately, those evenings when I went to serve soup to the homeless, made up of glue-sniffing 8-year-olds, people over 70, former lawyers, educated and intelligent people, have made it possible to understand that every human has a story, and every human is a human. The pretext for serving the soup was above all to offer a moment of dignity to each human being present and to converse as equals. The rest was "gravy".
A country that reveals itself
In 2019, when I return to this magical land, I quickly realize that things have changed, a lot! Peru is more peaceful, tourists are much more present (Machu Picchu became one of the 7 wonders of the world in 2007), Peru has finally revealed itself to the world! Gastronomy is increasingly present there and two of the best restaurants in the world are in Lima. The Financial Times even calls it a “gastronomic superpower” of South America!
It was therefore with great pleasure that I rediscovered this country of a thousand facets that I am sharing here with you.
Politeness and kindness
First, I want to make it clear from the start, Peruvians are very polite and kind. I'm not telling you that they're going to invite you straight into their house, but wherever you go, they'll act like a good gentleman (men and women!). This is a fact that will have marked me during my last visit!
What to visit?
Between sea, mountains, jungle and desert, you will be served! Point to take into account, we do not go to Peru to relax! Expect a sports trip! The beauty of the mountains is revealed especially at altitude! Be ready for some thrills!
Boat trip to the Ballestas Islands, flight over the Nasca Lines, sandboarding or a night in the desert, this is what this corner of the country not far from Lima offers you. 4 hours by bus for an extraordinary adventure!
Take the opportunity to admire the oasis of Moron, located in the middle of the desert, and visit one of the many vineyards. This is where you can taste the famous Pisco, the national drink of Peru. A unique grape brandy!
If you like thrills, going dumbugee in the desert will remind you of La Ronde! And you will certainly have the chance to try sandboarding!
Canyon del colca
2nd deepest canyon in the world, with 3,270 m depth, it is located north of Arequipa. Its highest point is 4,350m, so be prepared to adapt to the altitude. I had a hard ordeal but how rewarding to walk 3 days in this canyon to reach.
The first day, a difficult descent, to find yourself at the bottom of the canyon (over 1,000 meters of drop), in the village of Sangalle. Nicknamed the Oasis, it is perfect for a well-deserved rest before a good 2 to 3 hour ascent. Very pleasant, natural water swimming pools have been built there.
You will want to make the ascent in the early hours of the morning to find yourself in the first village on the road that runs along the canyon because a natural watchtower (called Cruz del Condor) will let you see the condors soaring.
With its 300,000 inhabitants and its altitude of 3,400 m and once the capital of the Incas, Cuzco is an essential stop that will take you to Machu Picchu or the mountains of colors. An ideal place to acclimatize to the altitude, there are the original Inca walls and the time of the Sun, Qorikancha, which was revealed to the world after an earthquake in 1950.
A former Inca city reserved for the elite, built around 1440 and located at an altitude of 2438 m, the site was decimated by the Spaniards. Rediscovered hundreds of years later, and highlighted by a National Geographic photograph, Machu Picchu has yet to reveal its wonders as archaeological digs continue to turn up discoveries.
Finding yourself on the mountainside in such a beautiful place speaks for itself. It is well worth reserving part of the budget to take one of the guides at the entrance to the site who will explain in detail the history and the way of the Incas. Absolutely fascinating.
Get to Machu Picchu by taking a train from Cusco or Ollantaytambo (take a zipline ride in the Sacred Valley by the way!). With Peru train or Inca train, you will go to the village of Agua caliente (where there are very pleasant hot thermal waters). From there, a good walk or a bus will take you to your destination.
You can also get to the site by the Inca route, on a trek that will take you a few days.
You can also book your place for the Wayna Picchu, the mountain just in front of the site which provides partial access to the Inca Trail and admire an incredible view of the site.
In short, do you plan a good day full of extraordinary discoveries. I don't like to plan my trips too much but here I advise you toréserver vos billets in advance!
Vinicunca: the mountain of seven colors
During my first stay in 2006, I never heard of this famous mountain. I was surprised to find in 2019 that it had become an almost mass attraction! But where was she in 2006?
Talking to my guide during the ascent, he explained to me that climate change has melted the snow and made it possible to observe the colors almost year-round.
It was therefore in 2016 that this mountain was revealed to the general public and became a popular attraction. Located at 5,200 m, it could give you a hard time! Better to take the time to acclimatize to the altitude in Cuzco for a few days before venturing there.
A bus will take you there, passing through beautiful little villages.
Puno and Lake Titicaca
The highest navigable lake in the world, there are several islands where you can spend one or more nights. Attention, here we speak Quechua or Aymara, not Spanish!
You will even find artificial islands there. The Uros Islands are so called because of the first inhabitants of these floating islands. Originally these islands were created by the Uros in the 13th century to escape the Incas, the rival tribe. The thickness reaches about 80cm, eucalyptus wooden poles are planted in the bottom of the lake and ropes connect the whole. This is to prevent the island from being blown away by the wind and starting to drift. The ground is very soft and gives the impression of walking on a bed of water.
I slept during my travels on 3 islands in the lake, but the one that stood out to me was the island of Taquile. Self-sufficient and vegetarians, the inhabitants preserve their culture and habits by welcoming tourists in a conscious way and in such a way that the spin-offs are positive for the island. No cars on this island, no meat, and no stress as my hosts Reina and Horacio told me.
Iquitos: the Amazon
I been to the Amazon only to Bolivia, but in my opinion it remains a remarkable place for me regardless of the country. Live the Amazon for its nature! The tropical forest and the animals found there will mark your memory. Monkey, parrots, caimans, anacondas, pink dolphins and so on!
What to eat in Peru?
First, know that Peruvians eat the biggest meal of the day at noon, around 2 p.m., and not in the evening, when they snack. To eat like them and enjoy the best dishes from local restaurants, do like them! For example, the cuy, this famous guinea pig which is farmed and not a domestic animal, will be served chilled in the specialized restaurants which will close around 3 p.m. Having it in a tourist restaurant in the evening will not allow you to cool down, Peruvians say!
Peru is full of specialties! I couldn't list them all, but don't miss trying these classic dishes/drinks.
Did you know that Peru has a National Ceviche Day? On June 28, everyone celebrates this dish that the Incas already savored with sour fruits. The classic Peruvian ceviche is served in all markets, with sweet potatoes, corn and onions. The fresh fish is marinated in a special lemon juice that is only found in Peru.
Papas a la huancaina
This is the first dish I was served when I arrived in Peru! Potatoes topped with a spicy and creamy sauce served on lettuce leaves with black olives and hard-boiled eggs. The yellow sauce is for lack of white cheese, condensed milk (forget fresh milk in Peru, it doesn't exist!) and the famous yellow pepper aji amarillo, a classic pepper from Peru.
The poutine of the Peruvians! fries, sausages and various sauces including one with black olives make it an excellent late-night snack!
Pollo a la brasa
Hey boboy... What can I say except that... better than St-Hubert!!
Invented in Peru, it is the national soft drink and even Coca-Cola has failed to dethrone it. Originally prepared from a local plant, it has been successful in the 70s where it eclipsed the other drinks of Peru.
Mashed potato dumplings stuffed with a mixture of meat, olives, onions and wonderfully seasoned hard-boiled eggs, then fried.
Causa a la limeña
An unusual layer of mashed potatoes with aji pepper, lettuce, corn, cream cheese, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, black olives. New versions often include tuna or chicken. It is a typical dish of Peruvian cuisine of pre-Columbian origin. Causa would come from Kausay in Quecha which means food.
In soups, in salads, there are plenty of ways to enjoy this fantastic grain. In Quechua, Kinwa means "mother of all grains". What a superfood with its iron and amino acids! Obviously, its popularity has had a negative impact on agriculture in Peru, but the fact remains that it is an important food for local people.
La trucha (trout)
Imported from Canada in the 1940s, the trucha a la plancha, from Lake Titicaca, is a simple pan-fried trout, but so fresh that it was the dish that made me love fish.
I know, he's super cute! But it also tastes very good! Its meat is not too strong. However, I must admit that it is rarely tender. Finally, at the restaurant or on the street, it's worth trying it!
Pasta with a delectable Peruvian pesto. The Italian influence, but a good Peruvian twist with spinach, evaporated milk and cream cheese. A delight!
You won't get the effect of cocaine from chewing coca leaves or drinking coca leaf tea, don't worry! It will simply help you reduce altitude sickness. Don't try to bring it back to Canada though, it's illegal!
Pisco, eau de vie made from grapes, national drink having obtained the denomination of controlled origin, has been produced in Peru for years. It was the Spaniards who would have imported the first vines in Peru. It goes particularly well in Pisco Sour, a fresh and tangy cocktail composed of lemon juice, simple syrup and above all an egg white which makes it very sparkling.
A purple sweet drink made with purple corn and cinnamon. A delight!
Chinese restaurants, Peruvian-style of course, developed en masse because of Chinese immigration who arrived in the late 1800s to work in the guano trade, this fertilizer made from bird droppings. With unique specialties, including fried wontons in sauce, and fried rice. A classic for many Peruvians who love to have a family outing at chifas.
The chifa dish that has become the most popular and even one of the national dishes of Peru is the famous lomo saltado. A beef stir-fry in which we put aji pepper. That rico!
Go have fun! You will discover all the local specialties including the famous fresh cheeses, nuts, different quinoas, multiple fruits and so on!
Cuy and sure...
It seems unusual for us to eat a guinea pig or a larva (suri), but these foods are part of everyday cooking. Depending on the region, you can taste these elixirs and sometimes prepared in a rather gourmet way, like here where the cuy (guinea pig) was not served to me whole (it is normally fried or baked but always served whole ) but very well dressed.
Temperature and clothing
If you plan to visit Peru, bring clothes for all temperatures. Because of the different altitudes, the country has different seasons at the same time. You will have intense heat, intense cold, sun, rain, and in Lima, phew humidity! Get your clothes wet! Funny fact though: it hardly ever rains in Lima, only a few times in 100 years!
For the more adventurous
A zipline hike above the Sacred Valley. Be aware, however, that the ziplines do not have a brake, so you have to brake with your hands! don't miss your shot!!
A few meters away you will find a microbrewery lost in the mountains. A wonderful place for a deserved break.
A haircut in a village salon will cost you $2 and will allow you to meet great people ;).
I could have written a whole book on this magnificent country. With its landscapes, its culinary specialties (which I couldn't list all of them!), its diversity, its culture and its extraordinary people, it country has so much to offer. Peru and its splendors remind me every time that happiness is found in simple things and that life is worth living! Enjoy!