From llama to cow intestines to ceviche to guinea pig to a LOT of rice and boiled potatoes, Latin America introduced me to a lot of new gastronomical challenges. Some were successes (I love alpaca!), while some left me feeling queasy (spit-roasted guinea pig is not a delicacy for me), but all reminded me that the secret to understanding a culture is through their food. Here is just a taste of what South American cuisine is all about.
Also, for a more detailed look at Peruvian cuisine, don’t forget to check out my post on the most typical Peruvian dishes.
This was my entry for the 2013 World Nomads’ Travel Writing Scholarship to Beijing. I didn’t make the top three, but I did make the shortlist.
Considering there were 1125 entries, I’m pretty excited about that! Here is a link to the World Nomads’ Page with the winning entries and complete shortlist.
The porter’s eyes twinkle as he passes me the soap. It’s dark along the Inca Trail, but moonlight fills the campsite as hikers prepare for bed. As I wash my hands, I ask his name. He winks when he hears my Spanish.
The name slides off his tongue into a soup of Quechua vowels.
I find a grassy spot to sit nearby. He hesitates, but approaches. We gaze at the starry sky. Looming mountains split the world into light and dark.
“Did you like dinner?” he asks, bridging the silence.
I nod, and ask if the porters had carried the trout all the way from Cuzco.
“We fished while you were napping.”
I blush. A lazy tourist, was that me? I thought I was tough for tackling a four-day trek, yet I’d hired someone to carry my gear.
“How long have you been a porter?”
He brushes aside his thick, black hair, tucking it under his “chullo.”
“Two years, but I’ve worked since I left home.”
“How old were you then?”
“Seven. Now, I’m 23.”
I pull at the threads of my alpaca sweater – a gringo tourist staple. We’re the same age, but my idea of work is sitting in an office, making more an hour than he does in two days.
“Why so young?”
“All of us children were sent to Cuzco to work.”
Avoiding his stare, I let my eyes fall to our legs, which almost touch at the knees. My feet glow in the night, but his are black; dry mud cakes his knockoff Adidas sandals.
“I’m studying to be a guide,” he continues.
I ask what he’s learning and he clasps my hand eagerly.
“English and Inca culture. History is my favourite.” He glances down, dropping my hand. My fingers tingle with the imprints of his calluses.
“I studied history too, in Canada.”
Aderlin sweeps his hand across the horizon. “Here, we follow a path that’s over 500 years old. Isn’t it the most beautiful place to work?”
I smile and tilt my head back. I search for the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia but for me the southern sky is an unmarked map. Aderlin explains that Quechua people find constellations in the spaces between stars. “Urcuchillay” the llama, and “Mach’acuay” the serpent. I squint to make out these shapes but I fail to see beyond the shadows.
When a cool breeze picks up, I wish Aderlin goodnight. At five the next morning, I’m woken by a soft call at the flap of my tent. Aderlin carries a tray with cups of coca-leaf tea.
“Your mate, miss.”
He gives me a steaming cup. I don’t see him again until he hustles past on the steep Inca stairs, a 20-kg duffel bag bouncing on his back and a grin on his face.
The main attraction in Arequipa, the “White City” of Peru, is the Santa Catalina convent. It’s an enormous complex located in the heart of the historic city centre.
Numerous buildings and rooms are connected by small streets named after famous Spanish cities. The convent is one of the most important religious structures in Peru, and is a beautiful and peaceful place to spend an afternoon.
Santa Catalina Convent is run by an order of Dominican nuns.
It was established in 1579, only shortly after the Spanish conquest of Peru.
The convent was expanded in the 17th century.
The interior of one of the chapels.
This is one of the historic kitchens in the convent.
The buildings are constructed from sillar, a volcanic stone from the volcanoes that surround Arequipa.
Most of the exterior walls are brightly-painted.
Carla was my wonderful tour guide; a friend I met through Couchsurfing.
The daughters of many wealthy Spanish families entered the convent, and had to pay a dowry to do so.
The perfect time to visit the convent is in the late hours of the afternoon, just as the sun begins to set.
Arequipa, Peru. Haven’t heard of it? While it may not be as widely known as Lima, Cuzco, or Lake Titicaca, Arequipa is a major Peruvian city with a lot to offer travelers. Located in the south of the country (a few hours from the famous Nazca lines), Arequipa is home to close to a million inhabitants.
It’s known as “La Ciudad Blanca” (The White City), a nod to the stunning white architecture that fills the city centre. These buildings were constructed with sillar, white volcanic stone from the three volcanoes that loom over the city — the most prominent being “El Misti”, which is pictured above. Partially because of the colour of the stone, but also because of the colonial and heavy Catholic influence in the architecture, Peruvians consider Arequipa to be one of the most Spanish or Mestizo cities in the country. There is much less outright indigenous influence than in a place like Cuzco, for example.
That may sound nice, but what is there to actually see and do in Arequipa?
I arrived in Arequipa on a bus straight from La Paz, Bolivia, a city that had overwhelmed me with its chaos. I have to sheepishly admit that I completely embraced Arequipa for its modernity, and tourist-friendly atmosphere. Arequipa is a city fit for tourists of all types and budgets, not just hippy backpackers. It has luxurious hotels, high-class restaurants, and even plenty of air-conditioned malls with western-style gyms. However, you’ll still find plenty of local eateries, budget hotels and hostels, and family-run businesses.
Here are some of my recommendations on how to spend your time in Arequipa:
1. Walk the City Centre: The historic centre occupies roughly a five-block diameter of the city. It’s easily accessible, and safe to walk around in. There are plenty of small museums, and some converted mansions which you can view. It’s great to just wander the streets, and observe the activity. The hub of the centre is the Plaza de Armas, the main square. In true colonial tradition, the square is dominated by the cathedral, but it’s also filled with hawkers, and promotion people who work for various tourism companies. Most will try to sell you packaged tours to the Colca Canyon, Cusco, or Lake Titicaca. Try to avoid them by sticking to the side streets, which are almost equally beautiful and full of small shops.
2. See a Frozen Inca Princess: Ever seen a mummy? How about an Inca mummy? Although the Museo Santuarios Andinos may seem a bit pricey, (20 soles), it’s a worthwhile experience. “Juanita” is the name given to the frozen, preserved body of a young sacrificial victim, who was found by an anthropologist in 1995. Her corpse was discovered high on the volcano Ampato, and now resides in this museum. Watch a short documentary, see some of the artifacts that were buried with her, and learn a bit more about Inca history.
3. Tour the Santa Catalina Convent: One of the best pieces of advice I got about Arequipa was from Carlita, a local who I met through Couchsurfing. She told me that I should visit the convent in the late afternoon, about an hour and a half before sunset. This way, I could take photos and see the site both in daylight, and during the magnificent sunset. Established in 1579 (only a few decades after the Spanish conquest), the entire complex was built out of sillar. (Most of it has been painted a beautiful blue or reddish-pink.) Although part of it is still in use, the majority of the convent was opened to the public in 1970. Don’t forget to climb up the stairs onto the roof to view the sunset! (Give yourself lots of time here; there’s plenty to see).
4. Have a Rooftop Drink: If you visited the convent earlier in the day, you can always catch the sunset at one of the many rooftop bars in the Plaza de Armas. One of the best views is from the restaurants in the upper-right corner of the plaza, if you’re facing the cathedral.
5. Take a Cooking Course: Peruvian Cooking Experience is a fantastic company that is located in Hotel Casa Avila, just a six or seven minute walk from the main plaza. The class I took cost 45 soles, and was some of the best money I spent on my entire trip. There are a few different menus you can choose from (classic, Andean, and seafood), and they also cater to vegetarian students. In my class, we cooked the Andean Menu: Soltero de Queso, (a cheese and corn salad), Rocoto Relleno (see below), and Pastel de Papas (potatopie). My class began at 11 AM, and ended at 2. Book ahead of time, here.
6. Eat and Drink!: Arequipa is home to some very popular Peruvian dishes, such as Rocoto Relleno, Rocoto hot peppers stuffed with a mixture of beef, raisins, eggs, cheese, peas, carrots, milk, and potatoes. These have a real kick to them, but are probably my favourite Peruvian dish! Soltero de Queso is another popular dish here. It’s a tasty, brightly-coloured salad, with lots of cheese, corn, lima beans, onions, tomatoes, carrots, all tossed with a lime dressing. (For more Peruvian food, see my list of some of my favourites.) When you’ve had your fill, wash everything down with some Pisco Sour, a famous cocktail made with egg whites, lime, and Pisco alcohol. If you’re looking for a mid-range restaurant and want something less traditional, visit Crepisimo (right by the convent). It has a beautiful courtyard, so eat outside.
7. Couchsurf: Arequipa has some great couchsurfers, and this is one city where it’s nice to go out and meet people. I met up with Carla and Carlos during my stay here, and both were eager hosts who were more than willing to show me the city. Carlita also introduced me to spicy versions of Pisco Sours — the best way to cool off on a warm afternoon! 😉
8. Hike the Colca Canyon or El Misti Volcano: The Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world, and is home to the Andean Condors, which can be spotted from the Cruz del Condor lookout point. El Misti is the volcano that towers over Arequipa. I did not do these myself, because I had to hurry over to Cuzco for the start of my Inca Trail trek, but all of my friends who have done it, loved them. Give yourself a couple of days for either of these excursions, and make sure you compare prices before booking. You can do the Colca Canyon on your own, but you need a guide for the volcano. Expect to pay around 150 soles for a 3-day (2-night) Colca Canyon tour.
There are many, many more things to do in Arequipa, whether you’re looking for culture, history, or adventure tourism. Get out there, and explore. Give yourself at least two or three days in the city, and two or three more for nearby excursions.
Where to Stay: I stayed at the Arequipay Backpackers’ Hostel, and loved it. It’s only a few minutes’ walk from the main plaza, and right down the street from the Peruvian Cooking Experience.
Out of all of the countries I have visited, nowhere is as popular with my readers as Peru. I’ve gotten lots of messages asking for advice on itineraries, places to stay, and the logistics of Peruvian travel. To makes things easier for you, I’ve decided to compile some of my tips in a series of posts: “My Quick Travel Guide to Peru.” I hope it’s a useful reference for you, but of course, feel free to contact me if you have any other questions!
Here are my accommodation suggestions, based on the places I visited and stayed in in Peru:
Arequipa: You HAVE to stay at Arequipay Backpacker’s Hostel. I think there are two hostels with a similar name, but this is the one:. It’s fantastic and cheap. The place is extremely clean (they probably cleaned the bathrooms every 15 minutes), and well organized. Best of all, there is a great cooking class right around the corner from this hostel. I can’t recommend the hostel or class enough.
Cusco: Because I made several trips to Cusco, I stayed in two different hostels there. My top pick is Ecopackers Hostel. It’s in a fantastic location, just off the Plaza de Armas (main square), and is a five-minute walk from the San Pedro Market. The prices are affordable, and the breakfast is good. I stayed in the 18-person dorm, which sounds crowded, but I found it to be a large enough room that I didn’t notice all of the people. The only problem (and this goes for any hostel in Cusco) is that you are often woken up at 4 AM by people getting up to leave on a trek to Machu Picchu, as the treks always leave in the early morning. My other choice for Cusco is Kokopelli. While both are slight (but not extreme) party hostels, Kokopelli has a more hippy vibe. It has fantastic artwork everywhere, which is often created by the guests. A really good breakfast as well, but a bit further from the plaza.
Huacachina: Stay in Huacachina, not Ica. Desert Nights hostel is simple, and the accommodation is nothing special, but they have the BEST food in their restaurant. It’s a super touristy menu, but the portion sizes are enormous and a great value for the (tourist-priced) prices. It may seem like pricey food, but trust me, it will be the best western food you eat in Peru. (And hopefully the only?)
Lima:HQ Villa hostel! This place is only $6 per night, and is an old converted villa. It’s gorgeous! But, I would spend an extra dollar or two and get a ten person dorm or smaller, because the twelve can get a bit noisy with people waking you up early in the morning. Great breakfast here! It’s on the edge of Miraflores neighbourhood, but it’s only about a 25-minute walk to Parque Kennedy.
Mancora: Mancora is a surfing, party town. Any hostel here will do its best to live up to that reputation. I was only there for a day (by accident), and wasn’t there to party, but I still liked the vibe of Kokopelli Hostel. If Carlos Enrique and his dog Pisco are still on staff, tell them I say hi!
Paracas: This place is small, with only one main street, and there are only a few options. There are a couple places called Paracas Bacpackers’ Hostel, but this is the one you want to stay at. The owner is a very, very friendly older man named Alberto, who will go out of his way to help you book tours and figure things out.
Puerto Maldonado: What I would tell you to do here is to either fly or take a bus here, arriving early in the morning, and then go at once to a tour company. If you can, pre-book a tour, or try to be there before eight or nine so that you can leave that day. I did a three-day Amazon tour with Carlos Expeditions, and thought that the accommodation and tour was fantastic.
Puno: Avoid this city, if you can. It’s ugly, touristy, and not worth an overnight stay. If you do go, do NOT stay at Hotel Empejador. We got into a big hassle with the hotel when we booked our bus tickets through there.
There’s something wonderful about seeing the world in black and white. Maybe it’s because nothing ever is just that. Black and white is not our reality. We are forced into a world of colour, of multiple dimensions, of scents and smells and tastes. Yet once in awhile, we need to step and look at the simpler side of things. We need to see things in shades of grey.
Here of 50 black-and-white photos from South America. They look at the land, the cultures, and the people that I met along my journey.
For my final post of 2012, I wanted to find an image that captured both the places I’ve been this year, and the feelings that my travels have induced.
I came across this howler monkey in a Lima zoo (all things considered, the conditions there exceeded my expectations). His eyes and the expression on his face seemed so human, so pensive.
That’s exactly how the last ten months have found me — lost in thought. As I’ve traveled, I’ve encountered an endless list of new places, people, and cultures. All of these experiences have left me time to reevaluate my own life. What is important to me? Where do I want to be ten years from now? What type of people do I want in my life?
Sometimes, this thinking has reinforced values that I’ve always held. Other times, I’ve come to surprising conclusions. At different stages in my trip, my perspective has shifted, as things like dancing, friends, family, Holland, Canada, writing, and history struggle to win priority in my life.
The most important thought that has stayed with me throughout this journey is this: right now, I am completely happy. My life amazes me.Every day, I wake up, happy to be where I am, and the person that I am. And that is an attitude that I’m determined to bring home next week, and carry forward with me.
We all deserve a happy life. Make sure you’re living one.
Here’s to 2013, our next chance to live the life we want to live.
“I,” said the Donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried His mother up hill and down;
I carried His mother to Bethlehem town.”
“I,” said the Donkey, shaggy and brown.
— The Friendly Beasts, Christmas Carol
As Christmas gets closer and closer, I’ve started to see countless nativity scenes (“El nacimiento”) pop up around South America. But, since I’m a bit out of the Christmas element this year, the friendly beasts of the dioramas are actually reminding me of one of my favourite Inca Trail moments.
I shot this photo at Wayllabamba, my first-night stop on the Inca Trail. We shared the campsite with a donkey, dog, and a few loose chickens and pigs. This building was next to the cooking area for the porters on our trek. The lady who lived here ran a tiny shop (pictured on the left), but it was the other room that caught my attention.
When I peeked through the door on the right, I saw a bed, and about twenty guinea pigs (cuy) scurrying around the floor. This week’s dinner. Have I mentioned that I’ve tried said Peruvian delicacy? Roasted and eaten whole. Not my cup of tea, to say the least.