Tuesday, January 5, 2010

PERU (Lima & Arequipa) 2007

A country whose primary food is the potato, and whose economy is largely based on bird manure has an uphill battle to market itself. Everybody dreams of going to Macchu Picchu, but Lima, a 3-hour flight from Panama City, gets bad reports from just about everyone—ugly, dirty, dangerous, boring. Two Peruvian friends practically begged us not to stay in the old part of town. We spent a week there anyway and loved it. It is both ugly and beautiful, dirty and clean (no trash thrown around like in Mexico), dangerous (lots of warnings) and safe (nothing bad happened to us). We took the warnings seriously, however, and went out with little money, no passports (I never do) and the camera hidden in a front pocket.

Lima was the most important Spanish city in South America until the wars of Independence changed the whole ballgame. It has the feel of a place where more important things were happening in years past. Few visitors are likely to fall in love with the city. While it has beautiful things, the overall look is gray and plain. The bad air and daily fog that rolls in from the ocean allow for no gleam or glisten here. There is color, but it tends to be of earthier tones or to look duller because of the light quality—no hot pink!

Although the streets are bustling with people, there is a graphic simplicity to Lima, especially after having gotten used to the visual mayhem of Mexico City. There are few billboards, posters, store signs, not even much graffiti, no glitz, no mess, few street peddlers, and not many tall trees. I found myself looking for laundry hanging out of windows to liven up the view. But then, turning a corner, would be a colonial building with its intricately carved Moorish wooden balcony, or an old eatery with elaborate and colorful mosaic floors, worn smooth or partly eroded, or a bakery displaying a 5-tier birthday cake in the window, with frog-green icing.

But what we look for when traveling, we found here—it feels different. More than the touristic sights, what fascinates me most is what my friend Kathy calls ‘the museum of the streets’—a sense of how people live, what gives a place its sense of identity. In a taxi we heard a radio station where the announcer kept using the work ‘Peruanidad’—‘Peru-ness’ to describe the program. About half the population in Peru is indigenous Indian, the other half a mix of European, African and Asian—not so different from Mexico. The economic statistics are pretty similar, too—more than half (guess which?) lives beneath the poverty line. The Catholic church plays a major part in Peruvian society as well. In spite of these similarities, I knew I was not in Mexico. In our one-week trip, we barely scratched the surface of what that means, but I left happy with the introduction.

We stayed at the once grand Gran Hotel Bolívar, built in 1924 where I kept expecting to see Maggie Smith coming down the hall with a feathered hat and 16 suitcases. Many stars of the past stayed there: Ava Gardner, Maria Felix, Pedro Infante, and the Rolling Stones. It has been refurbished (not remodeled) and still retains its old world charm. The lobby has a stained glass dome, the rooms are huge, clean and comfortable (if you like hard mattresses as I do). Our $70 suite (there are cheaper rooms) had a big living room with sofa, 2 chairs and a writing desk, the bedroom was just as big, the bathroom tiles and tub had been re-surfaced to look new and clean. A balcony overlooked the side street (avoid the rooms facing the noisy Plaza San Martín). Staying at this hotel was one of the highlights of the trip. I was not happy with their (included) continental breakfast, and went out to El Comino for much better café con leche (it’s under the arcade to the left as you exit the hotel) a couple of mornings.

Another place we looked at, but did not stay in, was the Hostal España ((Azángaro 105), a cheap option for backpacker-types that was very charming, and retains its fabulous mosaic floors. There is a nice rooftop terrace area full of plants.

The Plaza San Martin is completely surrounded by white buildings that look a bit like 19th-century Paris. It is connected to the Plaza Mayor by a pedestrian street that was full of people day and night. This area has the highest concentration of colonial architecture, as well as lots of 19th-century buildings and even a few Art Deco (the best one now houses a MacDonald’s).

Within an hour of arrival in Lima we were in the Central Market so Nick could eat ceviche, practically the national dish here. Apparently very few tourists go to the market and people seemed glad to see us. In general, we found the people friendly and open—more so than Mexicans. There is a Barrio Chino behind the market area that is the biggest in Latin American (although much smaller than New York’s). We spent a lot of time wandering streets between the market and the Plaza Mayor, full of old stores and restaurants, many conserving their wonderful tile floors. Don’t miss the Palacio Torre Tagle (Ucayali 363).

Other noteworthy sights within walking distance of the hotel are the Museo Riva-Aguero (Jiron Camaná 459), a museum of popular arts in a very interesting colonial style house, The Museo de Arte (near Parque de la Exposición), with excellent pre-Hispanic ceramics and (don’t miss!) textiles. We stopped for a drink and the best fried squid ever at El Cordano (Ancash 202, just off the Plaza Mayor, facing the beautiful facade of the old Desamparrados train station), which has been around 100 years and feels like it (in a good way). Another evening we had pisco sours at Aires Peruanas (Ruffino Turrico near Emancipación), a ‘peña popular’ where people come after work to hang out, have a beer and dance to live cumbia music. We arrived at 7pm and got the last table.

On weekends at Plaza Italia (a block behind Chinatown) there is a Festival de Sabor Peruano, an outdoor food fair (see below for more food info).

The huge Metro supermarket (Emancipación at Lampa, near the hotel) was fun for people watching and learning the names of unusual fruits and vegetables. The large cubes of compacted beef lung were curious but not tempting--the inexpensive Argentine and Chilean wines were.

The round Plaza Dos de Mayo (which we only saw from a cab) was striking for its identical 19th-century buildings—all painted blue—and the musical instrument stores that filled each one.

Be sure to get a shoe shine in the centro—bring a book to read as it takes about 20 minutes—your shoes will never be cleaner or shinier. Our neighbor Dolores who flies with Aeromexico to Peru had recommended this, and she was right.

Do not be tempted to buy one of the Lima city maps being sold all over the centro—they are useful only if you have a magnifying glass.

A double-decker tour bus that leaves from Plaza San Martín is another way to get around town and save time—there is even a night tour. The website is www.mirabusperu.com. We discovered this too late to make use of it, but it looked like a good idea, esp. if your time is limited.

A short cab ride from the centro is the Museo Larco (Bolívar 1515 in the Pueblo Libre neighborhood) with an excellent collection of pre-Hispanic art. It is famous for its display of curious erotic pottery.

Aside from the centro, the other area of Lima that we enjoyed most was Barranco, the most charming part of town, with a village feel, cafés and restaurants on the cliffs above the ocean, and at least one very good museum, El Museo Pedro de Osma (San Pedro de Osma 423) in a remarkable old private mansion with a good collection of colonial art. We spent an afternoon in Barranco, walking around the main plaza and the more residential area around Plaza San Francisco. If I lived in Lima, it would be here.

The Miraflores area of Lima is sort of a mix of Polanco and the Zona Rosa in Mexico City, but not as interesting as either in my opinion. Most of the city’s best hotels and restaurants are here, as well as several craft malls along Petit Thours where you can pick up a decent alapaca sweater or blanket. We had planned to switch hotels after a few days and stay in Miraflores, but changed our mind after visiting during the day—it all looked too familiar for me. Clean, civilized, upscale, predictable—who cares? We took a one-hour Mirabus tour (see above) of the place and that was enough. The Larcomar shopping mall is impressive, however, for it’s ocean views and good bookstores, although it feels more like Santa Monica, California--but we did eat well in this part of town (see below).

Without Macchu Picchu, I wonder if Peru would be known anywhere in the world. Tens of thousands of tourists flock to the ruins each month, so we decided to avoid them and headed to AREQUIPA, Peru’s second largest city, a 90-minute flight over the Andes from Lima, where we spent 2 nights. It has an attractive colonial center and many old buildings made from sillar, a local white volcanic stone—Arequipa is called La Ciudad Blanca. The city is strikingly situated, surrounded by three (non-active) snow-capped volcanoes, and is a pleasant place to stroll around for a few days. It is primarily a jumping-off spot for the rural Colca Canyon—next trip!

We stayed at the Casa de Melgar, (www.lared.net.pe/lacasademelgar) a converted old house with lots of charm- our huge room had its original fireplace/stove and rustic old furniture. The woman at the desk explained that mostly foreigners stay there as national tourists tend to prefer modern decor.

Highlights here included the central market (of course) where we had some of the best food at a simple stall: the papa rellena and the ceviche were winners. We skipped the jugo de rana being sold—a health drink made by boiling the skin of a frog (the frogs were live). The variety of potatoes available here is staggering, including little white stone-looking dried potatoes.

Curiously, one of our best meals here was in a Turkish-fusion restaurant (on Calle San Francisco, where you will find lots of new up-scale restaurants).

Our taxi driver from the airport ending up giving us a tour of the surrounding area, at half the price of the tour agencies which are all over town. The sights, including the hacienda of the town’s founder and an old mill, are not very interesting. Arequipa, we discovered, is the first stop for many travelers heading to Macchu Picchu, so the place was surprisingly touristy. If you are there, call the driver, Rafael Valdivia Díaz, on his cell phone 997-1906. (There were various warnings about taxi crime here, too.)


PERUVIAN FOOD: Peru has a real food culture, lots of weird stuff to eat, some of it quite delicious. I ate my first tripe here (a stew called cau-cau), and my first grilled beef heart (anticucho).

Seafood is the real highlight of Peruvian cuisine, starting with ceviche, supposedly invented in Peru, and the best we've ever had anywhere. You will see cevicherias all over. Traditionally, it is eaten only at lunch (in pre-refrigerator days the fish wasn’t fresh after that). It is served with choclo (corn on the cob—huge kernels!), cancha (roasted kernels, like unpopped popcorn but a better texture, that are a common snack food), a chunk of cooked sweet potato, and marinated red onions. The pieces of fish tend to be larger than in the Mexican version and there isn’t as much chili or cilantro.

We ate twice at La Red (La Mar 391, Sta. Cruz, Miraflores, tel 441-1026 ) in Miraflores--open for lunch only. Perfectly grilled salmon was served on a bed of tacu-tacu, a delicious rice and bean mixture browned in a small pan. The sudado de mariscos was a rich seafood stew like their version of bouillabaisse. The mama, who founded it 25 years ago still sits at the counter counting the dough, while her son manage the kitchen. If we had more time we would have gone back to this place again.

In Chinatown, we ate well at Salon Capon (Jr. Paruro 819).

Here are some of the traditional foods we tried in various restaurants, street stalls and markets:

Causa – mashed yellow potato with various additions on top

Tacacho – a mash of platano and corn, usually served with cecina, cured pork.

Juanes - A sort of tamal

Chupe de Camarón - a hearty seafood soup

Papas a la Huancaina - potato with a yellow creamy sauce on top

Chicha Morada - a sweet drink, non-allcoholic, made from purple corn

Chicha de Jora - similar to above but thicker and fermented

Inca Cola - acid yellow soda pop, tasting of Bazooka bubble gum, but beloved by Peruanos

Suspiro Limeño - custard with dulce de leche – Nick’s favorite

Pay de Limón - pretty close to Lemon Meringue – Jim’s favorite

Gaston & Astrid are Peru’s most famous food couple, with restaurants in several Latin American countries (one just opened in Mexico City) and lots of cookbooks. Tireless promoters of Peruvian cuisine, they may rank as Peru’s number one cultural export at the moment. We ate at their main restaurant in Miraflores (Calle Cantuarias 175, Miraflores, tel. 444-1496 ) and paid a lot of money ($140 for two with a good bottle of Chilean wine—a small fortune in Peru) to be fairly underwhelmed. We had some of the same dishes at simpler, cheaper places, or in markets, and were much happier. This place does get rave reviews from most diners, however—maybe we just ordered the wrong things. I confess to being a peasant at heart when it comes to food.

T’anta (Pasaje Nicolás de Rivera el Viejo 142, just off the Plaza Mayor in the centro) is a mid-range offshoot of Gaston & Astrid in central Lima, and it made us happy that they are promoting the renaissance of the historic area. We found the food, a fusion of Peruvian, Asian, and whatever, more enjoyable than at their fancier place in Miraflores.

La Mar is another G & A production, this time an upscale cevicheria.

As mentioned above, El Cordano (Ancash 202, just off the Plaza Mayor), has excellent fried calamares, and I also had a tasty tortilla de espinacas, like a frittata with spinach.

Chifa is the name given to the Peruvian-influenced Chinese food that you see everywhere. Simple rice and noodle dishes, and stir-fries, like saltado de res (which, aside from beef, had french fries in it) are cooked to order, sometimes by a chef working frantically out front—a great show. The food is very cheap, filling, and on the couple of occasions we tried it, quite satisfying.

Note: Serving sizes everywhere were enormous, usually big enough to share (and we can eat!)

Overall, we had a successful trip but our short visit to Peru leaves us with more questions than answers; another visit is definitely in order.

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