Hola, now, from Cusco, Peru…or Qusqo, Piruw, in Quechua…the beautiful, historic capital of the Inca Empire.
After a whirlwind day in Lima, I was looking forward to relaxing in Cusco and spending a few days acclimatizing to the altitude before we started the four-day hike to Machu Picchu. (Cusco is at 3400 meters or just over 11,000 feet above sea level). It’s a beautiful place, so it wasn’t hard to spend time just walking around and taking it easy. Seen from our hill-side Airbnb (that has a spectacular view, see the cover photo above), Cusco is set in a valley, surrounded by green mountains, and is full of white washed and pastel colored homes with terra cotta tile roofs. Seen from the streets, there are brightly colored doors and windows, pretty squares, and shops overflowing with fabrics and paintings and handicrafts and pottery… all also brightly colored.
The altitude was no joke. When I first landed in the airport, I was overly confident that it wasn’t that bad… I was walking around, breathing just fine, without a headache. But when we got downtown, and started to walk up several stairs to the Airbnb, it really hit me. The flight from Lima (sea level) to Cusco (not sea level) is only an hour—nowhere near enough time to acclimate, believe it or not. In fact, most would advise not flying into cities like Cusco in order to prevent or minimize altitude sickness. Oops. I wasn’t able to drive here… that would have taken days.
In all though, the evaluation didn’t affect me too drastically, but I also took several measures to avoid getting actually sick, including: taking it easy, staying hydrated, drinking coca tea, and eating carbs. Which is to say that I had lovely, slow-paced meals. Including: lomo saltado, a fusion of Peruvian food (notably potatoes and chiles) and Chinese technique (stir fry). There was a not-insignificant influx of Chinese/Asian immigration (also, slavery) over the last century+, which has led to a fusion of Chinese and Peruvian cooking that is super popular today. Chinese restaurants in Peru are known as chifa restaurants, but the influence goes beyond what’s found in a Chinese restaurant and has can been seen in lots of the country’s most-loved dishes.
Among other classic Peruvian dishes, I tried aji de gallina, a creamy chicken dish made with a sauce of aji peppers (a yellow pepper found in Peru). Funny enough, I learned that the dish is originally from Lima, but it’s eaten all over Peru just the same. It’s similar to the dish “papa a la huancaína,” or Huancayo style potatoes, made with a similar sauce over potatoes, which I also wanted to try. Alas, there is only so much room in my stomach so choices had to be made.
I also tried alpaca (tastes like beef?), which was good, especially with quinoa. Quinoa is native to the Andes, and despite being on every “superfood” hot list these days isn’t something I eat frequently. But, being at the source, I picked up a few bags of it at the markets I visited and think I’ll try to replicate some of the stir-fry applications of it I had while in Peru.
Keith and I also tried our hands at making chocolate at the Choco Museum. The workshop was part cheesy, part interesting. We learned the whole (cocoa) bean to bar process, roasted beans, made cocoa butter, and then molded some tempered chocolate to take home. Cocoa trees originated in the Amazon basin, and we learned how the flavors of the bean vary depending on the other plants surrounding the cocoa tree. Which is part of the reason why single-origin chocolate is becoming a trend in the bean-to-bar chocolate industry, along with other reasons such as quality and transparency. For example, see Dandelion chocolate, which we visited in San Francisco.
With that, we leave civilization and leisure behind for four days and embark on the Inca trail !!
PS: If you want to see more of my travel photos beyond food, head over to this site.