South America has enough strange and varied terrain to keep a person busy for several lifetimes. Unfortunately, most of us only have one lifetime, and sometimes that lifetime has to be squeezed into two or three weeks. So which country should you visit?
Would it be Uruguay, with its fantastic beaches and a capital city lost in the 1940’s?
Or perhaps Bolivia, the land of exotic Andean cultures and Crazy-town politics?
And who could say no to the smoky passion of Buenos Aires?
Ideally, you could visit them all, but if you have to choose one, the winner is . . .
Whether you’re looking for astounding pre-Columbian ruins, vibrant indigenous cultures or elegant sophistication, Peru has it all, with some of the world’s best cuisine to top it off.
Ruins: About Macchu Pichu enough has been said by other people, but there are other spots in the nearby Sacred Valley of the Incas that are only slightly less spectacular. Ollantaytambo is a magical village a couple of hours from Cuzco and a wonderful place to stay for several days while you visit the ruins there and tour the local environs.
Central Peru has many other spectacular ruins that rival Macchu Picchu but don’t get the press. High on my list:
Marcahuamachuco, circular ruins on top of a mountain plateau near the charming town of Huamachuco. Note, you will be the only tourist there.
Chan Chan: Immense coastal Chimu ruins at Trujillo. A short drive from the Pyramids of Moche, which features the largest (by footprint) pyramid in the world.
Gran Pajaten: Remote, unexploited. A very long journey to a spectacular ruin very few people have seen. I was stopped by an advanced case of hepatitis while trying to get there in 1986. It’s still on my list.
LIMA: A sprawling city built along the cliffs that line the Pacific Ocean. Home of Nobel prize winning authors and world-renowned chefs, Lima has its own style of music (Afro Peruvian), countless fabulous restaurants serving incredible Peruvian food at all price ranges, and the best Pisco Sours in Peru. The wealthy areas of Miraflores or San Isidro are where most tourists stay, but I recommend Barranco, the bohemian neighborhood loaded with character and some of Lima's best nightclubs. In Barranco, visit the extraordinary dreamlike bar, Ayahuasca, and walk across the Bridge of Sighs. In Miraflores, hang out at the sidewalk cafes of the Parque Kennedy and watch the world go by, or visit the historic center downtown, with its catacombs and colonial masterpieces. Excellent museums, too.
Other great cities: Trujillo, Arequipa, Cuzco.
ALPACA: Yes, there are many alpaca sweaters, but, believe it or not, the best quality sweaters are commensurate with United States prices, and many sweaters (most of ours) are not found within Peru. Nonetheless, I recommend branches of Sol Alpaca and Tumi. These will be pure alpaca. Other than that, don’t necessarily believe the 100% Alpaca label. However, the range of textiles is amazing.
Beware of fake alpaca. Look for extra shiny fibers mixed in and, when in doubt, comb or pull out some hairs, twist them into a short piece of yarn, then set it on fire and blow it out. If it leaves a hard ball of plastic in the ash, it’s synthetic.
A few classic Peruvian dishes:
Pisco Sour: Incredible cocktail made with the national brandy, egg white, simple syrup and various types of brown and confectionary sugar. Two of them will change your opinion of Peru forever.
Cebiche Mixto: Cold fish or seafood salad of the coast. Raw ingredients pickled in lemon juice, served with sweet potato, yucca and cold corn on the cob. Wonderful!
Anticuchos de Corazon: A typical street food. Beef heart marinated and grilled. Sounds weird, but is delicious.
Choclo: Simple Peruvian corn on the cob. Sold on the street in the highlands, often with a piece of cheese. I have bought it from Indian women serving it out of kettles and it’s always wholesome and delicious. This is the corn that built the Inca Empire. Highly recommended.
Chuño and Tunta: freeze dried potatoes, the poor man’s food of the altiplano. Not so tasty, but worth eating if you want taste how people lived on the altiplano 2000 years ago.
Quinua Soup: Varies depending on the locale, anywhere from a clear chicken broth to a thick paste of a soup loaded with emaciated blackened potatoes. Contains the high-altitude grain, quinua. Always nourishing.
Papas a la Huancaina: Boiled potato in a creamy chili sauce. Wonderful and cooling, especially if you need a simpler food.
Cocina Nuevo Andino: Found at restaurants in Lima like Astrid y Gaston and Rodrigo's, in Lima, or the Amazon-inspired Amaz. Imaginative and often spectacular. Bring lots of soles, but worth it.
Other favorites: Chorros a la chalaca. Anticuchos de corazon.
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