So here’s how it all went down. Sitting at a happy hour in San Francisco in January, one of my colleagues asked me “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” (Fun fact: this is one of my favorite questions to ask people.) Without hesitation, I answered “Machu Picchu, Peru”. Probed with questions, I then went on to explain that five of my friends were planning a trip to Peru in six months, but I couldn’t afford to go. What happened next is actually quite comical. She took out her purse, slid a twenty across the table, and told me it was the start of my Machu Picchu fund. Another coworker then followed suit. Incredibly embarrassed, I insisted they take it back, but to no avail. For the next month, I was referred to as “Machu Picchu” in hospital management meetings. Pretty soon, most of the management team knew the story and began calling me Machu Picchu. The story circulated like wildfire, to the point that people I didn’t even know were referring to me as Machu Picchu in the halls of the hospital. So one night, after a little encouragement from my friend Cabernet Sauvignon, I clicked ‘purchase’ on an expedia flight and didn’t look back. Because life is meant for small paychecks and big adventures.
Fast forward six months to June, and I am touching down in Lima, Peru, hiking boots strapped to my backpack and far too much bug spray in tow. The next five days were spent in a whirlwind of historical tours, high altitude hikes, archeological ruins, rock climbing and ziplining adventures in the Andes mountains, enjoying the breathtaking views of Machu Picchu, and of course, savoring the most delicious cuisines the country had to offer. Peru has such a vibrant and lively culture! I could write a novel about my entire trip, but I’ll try to keep a food lens on it here. I thoroughly enjoyed embracing the culture by trying new delicacies and have come to the conclusion that Peruvian food is quite possibly the world’s best kept secret and more people need to know about it. So if you are planning to visit this glorious country anytime soon, come hungry, because the food is out of this world! (Or at least, out of this country.)
After a morning full of tours and sight-seeing, we spent the afternoon of our first day at San Pedro Mercado, a market full of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and food stands galore. This place was incredible! Peru is big on ancient grains, and I totally nerded out checking out the heaps of kiwicha, maca, and quinoa. The mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables blew me away, and I couldn’t get enough. We were warned to take it easy the first day when eating and drinking, due to altitude sickness and other factors, so we mostly sipped coca tea (tea made with the coca leaf, known to help with altitude sickness) and observed. We enjoyed fresh squeezed juice before leaving, filled with tropical fruits like papaya and mango, because it was simply not an option for me to walk away from that market empty handed.
For dinner, we went to a restaurant called Pachapapa in Cusco. Pacha Mama is a common phrase in Peru that means Mother Earth, so it stands to reason that PachaPapa means Father Earth, but this is just our own spanish intuition and has not been confirmed. (I just googled it – turns out PachaPapa actually means earth-potato, which is must less exciting than Father Earth, so I’m going to stick with my original definition.) Sitting outside at Pachapapa on a beautiful night, we indulged in some Peruvian classics like ají de gallina, alpaca skewers, and of course, the much touted pisco sour cocktail and vowed we would never leave this beautiful country.
Ají de gallina immediately rose to the top of my list of favorite cultural foods. Similar to a yellow curry, this chicken dish served with white rice was flavorful with a slight kick. I loved it so much I ended up ordering it two days in a row! The ají sauce is made from the famous ají amarillo peppers, and yes, I’ve checked, it is bottled and can be ordered online and shipped to your door.
Believe it or not, I also ate alpaca meat. For quite a few years I was practicing a vegetarian lifestyle, and only transitioned chicken and fish back into my diet after advice from my doctor. That being said, I’m a foodie. I don’t like to miss out on a new dish or cultural food experience, so I have just recently started to slowly experiment with dark meat again. Alpaca meat was definitely a first for me! I was expecting it to be super gamey but it wasn’t at all – it was tender and juicy and so so delicious. I only had a few bites because I’m still generally nervous about dark meat, but even a few bites blew me away.
Multiple times, we were told that you can’t visit Peru without trying pisco sours. Okay, twist my arm! This Peruvian cocktail uses pisco as the base alcohol, mixed with key lime juice, bitters, syrup, and an egg white meringue that makes you feel like you are drinking something in between a key lime pie and margarita. Trust me when I say this, you need this drink in your life.
We spent our second day in Peru touring the Valle Sagrado (Sacred Valley), and relocated to our next hostel in a small town called Ollantaytambo. It was easily the most magnificent place I have ever stayed, tucked away in the mountainside, with hammocks and huts in the front of the hostel to relax between excursions. It just so happened to be the Incan New Year while we were in town, and although local celebrations were minimal, we took it upon ourselves to really live it up! We opted for a casual spot for dinner, a local pizzeria called Inti Killa, enticed by the advertisements of a long-lasting happy hour. SOLD.
We ordered quinoa-topped pizza (because we were trying to be locals), ají de gallina (because we were already addicts), and far too many pisco sours (because we were celebrating the New Year). We also tried trout ceviche (pictured below), another classic Peruvian dish. It was a unique dish with lots of flavor, but we all agreed that the lime juice was a bit polarizing and took away from the other flavors in the dish. Overall, still a win in cultural foodie world.
Although we didn’t try it, the most classic Peruvian delicacy is undoubtedly Cuy (guinea pig). That being said, I’m a wimp. I always try to step outside of my comfort zone and try new things, and while trying Cuy would absolutely be out of my comfort zone, I still couldn’t bring myself to do it. I just started eating dark meat again recently, and I’m still taking baby steps. Don’t get me wrong, I have heard nothing but good things about its flavor, but I’m just not there yet. For all of you adventurous eaters out there who will rise to the occasion, I commend you whole-heartedly. Maybe someday I will be on your level, but today is not that day.
The last few days in Peru were spent rock climbing and zip lining in the Andes mountains, wrapping up the trip at Machu Picchu. It was even more amazing than it seems in pictures, and by far the best vacation I have ever taken. We ate more of the same delicious food (literally – we went back to the same pizzeria the next night), and drank more of the same delicious pisco sours (cheers to the New Year!). Overall, my biggest takeaway is that Peru is an amazing country full of culture, scenery, and fantastic people. The food is full of flavor and spices and is definitely an adventurous experience in and of itself. So try it. Try it all. Eat adventurously, taste new flavors of different parts of the world, and explore this wonderful pacha mama we live in. Life is meant to be tasted, explored, and enjoyed.