Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground
by Jane Moneypenny
The problem with traveling is it makes you want more. I have this innate problem with always wanting to be traveling, but also desperately needing my feet to be grounded and that occasional structured schedule. Is it possible to have both?
Peru really was quite splendid; as my first South American country, it opened an entire new world of possibility. As much as I love Europe deeply, there’s something about Central/South America that truly brings out the essence of wanderlust. It’s a mixture of adventure, authenticity, grit and earth.
I found Cusco everything I imagined South America would be. Altitude kicked me in the ass as I barely slept the second night. I genuinely thought I was dying for a few hours and was forced to stay in bed and rest as the group ran off to tour the ruins of Cusco. Altitude and I will never be friends; I thought I would give it a chance after it crushed me in Kilimanjaro, but we remain enemies.
Food, on the other hand, and I will always be lovers. Peru did not disappoint! I have a love affair with potatoes as it is (except this strange dislike for sweet ones). Between lomo saltado (marinated skirt steak), all of Cusco’s famed hearty sopas and fresh ceviche, I really can honestly say I could eat this forever. Now, of course, the famed topic is cuy. Yes, I ate the cuy. And the alpaca. Both, I’m glad I tried but think I’m okay not trying ever again. At least, the traditional way (more on this later). The cuy’s skin was incredibly tough and rubbery; the meat was weirdly thin and boney. Alpaca tasted like a tough smokey lamb (which I love).
As for the trail, the food was nothing short of incredible. Having experienced what cooks can do at high altitudes in Kilimanjaro, I wasn’t as shocked as the others, but I will easily admit, the food was even better here. We had chocolate-covered bananas, crepes, delicious warm soups, drumsticks and even a giant cake on Thanksgiving.
The views on the Salkantay Trail were stunning. A part of me felt jaded since I had already seen Kilimanjaro, but the good thing about always being the last slowest hiker is getting to truly appreciate your surroundings and the journey. We even saw an avalanche at lunch! I can’t recommend the Salkantay Trail enough; we were there off season already, but we were the ONLY group on the trail. Getting to play soccer with the local kids in Lucmabamba was such a highlight. It was shocking to the system when we got to Aguas Calientes.
I also very much loved our tour guide, Juve, from Inca Trekkers. Unlike many tour groups, this one actually all locals and Juve is the owner. How often is the owner actually part of the tour? He was passionate about his country, his people (he’s a descendant of the Highland people) and truly does what he can do show us his world. He taught us phrases in Quechua, the native dialect that is dying, so that we could thank our porters and cook properly.
Of course, the post can’t go out without talking about Machu Picchu, the goal. I’m so very grateful we didn’t climb up that mountain at 5am that morning. The bus was waiting for us and we were the first group in. By that time, I had sprained my right knee from the use of poles and downhills and my legs felt like lead. It was extremely painful to even turn in bed. But when I saw the clouds clear out and reveal it all, I knew all the pain, altitude sickness and nose bleeds were worth it. It’s an incredible place and it’s nothing short of breathtaking.
On one last note, I will return to the controversial topic of cuy.
We spent some time in Lima (eh) the last day and somehow got a table at the very famed Astrid y Gaston, somewhere I would usually never go to. But this place was supposed to have amazing food and was world-famous. Since reservations were completely booked, we were first in line and crossed our fingers. Surprisingly, we got in and behind us, a string of backpackers, also. I always assumed places like this were snobby and looked down on backpackers and stragglers (we were definitely dressed as such), but they treated us so incredibly well that it made me re-think my views on doing an occasional nice thing during backpacking. We even got an appetizer and dessert on the house. Perhaps warmed by our enthusiasm and happiness to be there, they treated us like they would any other patron. Or maybe this is just South America; part of me can’t imagine this happening in America.
As for the cuy, it reappeared on the menu here, but in the form of peking-style (as in peking duck). We instantly ordered it (they even gave us extra pieces to accommodate our big group) and fell in love. But did we love it because we love peking duck? It pretty much tasted like a fattier version of it. Whatever the case, cuy in peking style with hoisin sauce and wrapper was delicious.
One last note: I spent a good 20 hours in Lima airport due to weird flight times. It’s a pretty freaking nice airport to sleep in (which, by the way, I’m finding is harder to do as I get older).
Where to next?!