Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Living it up in Lima

Lima, Peru.  It wasn't love at first sight, but the city definitely grew on me.  When we planned our trip to Peru, we decided to go to Cusco and the Sacred Valley first, and then end in Lima, the capital of Peru.  I figured that being in a metropolitan area would be a nice treat after all of our hiking and wandering in the parts of the country with less modern conveniences, but we found ourselves nostalgic for those places when we arrived in bustling Lima on a grey, smoggy afternoon.  We were sort of in denial that we had just been in pleasant, quiet old Urubamba just that morning and here we were, suddenly wrapped up in fumes, pedestrians, honking cars, and skyscrapers.  Lima is the third-largest city in the Americas.  At first, it was funny to be sarcastic about it all (Why's that dog on a leash? Why are they advertising bottled chicha?  Why are they selling sweaters in storefronts?), but soon it got to be sapping and I found myself regretful of our decision to leave Urubamba.  Wes reminded me that I didn't really know what to think of Urubamba at first either, but ended up loving it.  He also reminded me to think back to that first night when we laid over in Lima briefly before flying to Cusco.  It truly was all so fresh and exciting at that time, and we had been looking forward to coming back to check out what else this big city had to offer.

As I am sitting here in front of my computer a couple of years later, I look back on these photos and think about how wonderful the days we spent here were.  All things considered, Lima treated us so well, and I would be super happy to relive any one of those days there.  No, we weren't amongst ancient ruins or hiking in the jungle, but we got to eat food that was unique to Lima, we got to explore a UNESCO World Heritage site, we got to meet Chinese immigrants living here, we got to see what urban street art looked like, and we got to see sharply contrasting parts of the same country.  For example, our only choice of transportation in Urubamba was a rickety moto-taxi (or simply walking), whereas we were able to whip out our Smartphones and call an Uber in Lima.  I really value ending our trip in Lima now, and getting the chance to reflect on these things, and to think about how our lives in Los Angeles differed from what is considered modern in Lima.  We also unexpectedly glimpsed the striking similarities between the Peruvians of Chinese descent and our parents' generation in the United States, as first-generation immigrants.  These experiences in Lima, no matter how fleeting they seemed when they were happening, widened my world view.  Essentially, no travel experience can be taken for granted or underestimated, no matter how unglamorous.

Now, let me stop being all serious and get into all of the wonderful things about Lima that we loved and still remember well!

So, we were in Lima on the night before flying out to Cusco for our trek since there were no direct flights from LA to Cusco.  It was already dark when we arrived, so we basically just spent the night at a hotel and grabbed dinner at a nearby seafood restaurant, which happened to be a 28-year-old family run establishment with amaaaazing ceviche.  This post is really about the three consecutive days that we spent in Lima on our return there.

Day 1!

Our early flight from Cusco was short and soon we were in Lima. We were both looking forward to our much anticipated meal at the famous Central Restaurante.  So right when we got out of the airport, we went straight to the hotel (well, as straight as possible with all of the dodging in and out of traffic) to check in and put down our stuff.  

There was way too much space in this room for us!! Very nice.  We were getting ready to walk over to Central, but I had a small stomach ache so I ended up making myself some tea and we took a cab. We realized that Uber is much cheaper and just as reliable (if not more) in Lima, though.

The Mater Elevations menu at Central is basically an aesthetically exceptional edible study of Peru's biodiversity.  While being presented with plate after plate of beautifully arranged food, we were essentially traveling through all of these various ecosystems and appreciating what each one had to offer, from deep-sea algae to high-mountain tubers.  It really did all live up to the hype caused by that Chef's Table episode about how Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz meticulously forages and creates each dish to feature indigenous ingredients from the various parts of Peru, elevating even corn to florid works of art.  It was especially fun for us to eat here after our trek because we had actually witnessed and spent time in a few of those climates and ecosystems captured by the chef.  Still, many things were super unrecognizable and only had a name in Spanish or Quechua, so sometimes the servers brought out the ingredient in its original form for us to look at and touch before we got the fancy-schmancy plated version.  It was initially confusing because I thought we were supposed to eat the raw models, haha.  It was interactive, imaginative, and just an overall wonderful meal to remember.

The first few courses stood out a lot because they mostly consisted of three intricate little bites, which is insane because there were 19 courses in total.  So we really got to try so many things, and witness so much culinary talent and creativity.  It can be overwhelming!

"Rock mollusks" (Part 1) - sea snail, mussel, sargassum (microalgae), limpet (-10 m)

"Rock mollusks" (Part 1) - sea snail, mussel, sargassum (microalgae), limpet (-10 m)

"Rock mollusks" (Part 2) - sea snail, mussel, sargassum (microalgae), limpet (-10 m)

"Rock mollusks" (Part 3) - sea snail, mussel, sargassum (microalgae), limpet (-10 m)

"Desert plants" - huarango, cactus, sweet potato leaf, loche (180 m)

"Lofty Andes" (Part 1) - potato, tree tomato, alpaca, muña mint (3500 m)

"Lofty Andes" (Part 2) - potato, tree tomato, alpaca, muña mint (3500 m)
And this one was deceiving because you could only eat the top two potatoes (with the garnish).  The rest are just for show.  Funny.

"Lofty Andes" (Part 3) - potato, tree tomato, alpaca, muña mint (3500 m)

"Thick Stems" (Part 1) - olluco, chincho, onion, field mustard (3500 m) 

"Thick Stems" (Part 2 & 3) - olluco, chincho, onion, field mustard (3500 m) 

"Waters of Nanay" - piranhas, cocona, achiote, huampo bark (680 m)
Again, the frozen fish heads are just for show.  The only part that we ate was the crisp orange strip on top.  We're used to seeing dead fish heads in Asian places, but I wonder what some of the other tourists thought of this rather bold presentation!

"Forest Cotton" (Part 1) - churo, gamitana, pacae, llanten (300 m)

"Forest Cotton" (Part 2) - churo, gamitana, pacae, llanten (300 m)

"High Jungle" - macambo, cassava, copoazu, air potato (2800 m)

Large potato for display only, not to be bitten into.

Bread break!

"Marine Soil" - sea urchin, pepino melon, razor clam, seaweed (0 m)

"Tree Skins" - avocado, huacatay, kañihua, macre (1200 m)

"Land of Corn" - kculli, purple, chulpi, piscorunto (2010 m)

"Land of Corn" - kculli, purple, chulpi, piscorunto (2010 m)

"Land of Corn" - kculli, purple, chulpi, piscorunto (2010 m)

Wes liked the bowls.

"Colors of Amazonia" - paiche, yacon, bellaco, lemongrass (450 m)

"Coastal Harvest" - scallops, yellow chili pepper, borage, tumbo (20 m)

"Coastal Harvest" - scallops, yellow chili pepper, borage, tumbo (20 m)

"Sea Coral" - octopus, crab, squid, sea lettuce (-10 m)

"Low Andes Mountains" - pork, black mashwa, panca chili pepper, kiwicha (1800 m)

"Humid Green" - caigua, cushuro, sweet lemon, chaco clay (3700 m)

"Amazonian White" - cacao, chirimoya, bahuaja nut, taperiba (400 m)

"Medicinals and Plant Dyes" (Part 1) - congona, matico, malva, pilipili (3050 m)

"Medicinals and Plant Dyes" (Part 1) - congona, matico, malva, pilipili (3050 m)

"Medicinals and Plant Dyes" (Part 1) - congona, matico, malva, pilipili (3050 m)

"Medicinals and Plant Dyes" (Part 1) - congona, matico, malva, pilipili (3050 m)

It was a total of 3 hours of dining!!  It was cool that the meal ended on something medicinal rather than a dessert.  I also noticed that so many of the ingredients are in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru, so there isn't even a Spanish word for what it is.  I remember learning that the chef goes to distant and obscure parts of Peru to get his ingredients, literally straight from the earth, with the guidance of his sister, who is a botanist.  We felt very fortunate to be able to experience this while in Lima.  Yes, we reserved many months in advance!

We were so ready to get up and move after that long, long meal... we were finally going to see what Lima was like.  It was actually pretty drab...  I mean, it was a big city, and we had been totally immersed in the natural part of Peru for so long that being in such an urban atmosphere just felt wrong.  Aside from some parks and museums, there was not much to do... we had no interest in the mall or the beach.  We ended up walking around the neighborhood of Miraflores, going to the Parque Kennedy, poking into two travel agencies to see what tours were available, and then back to the hotel to regroup and figure out what to do with the two days we had left here.  I went through my travel book and looked online, went through my friends' suggestions, and in the end decided not to do the daylong tours to Paracas etc. and to just try to soak in the city and make the best of it. Wes reminded me to just reframe my thinking and see it as a new way to explore, even though he too was sad that we were no longer in the Sacred Valley.  We made a plan for the next day to see the Mercado Central, Barrio Chino, and El Centro Historico (historic core).

We reminded ourselves too that we were here to relax after much exploration and hiking, so we rested here and then got up only to visit the supermarket, which is kind of a comforting thing to do for us.  I was not particularly hungry because of our three-hour lunch, so I just got a small quinoa salad and Wes went around the corner and ordered fried rice from the chifa (Chinese casual restaurant) there. He was very happy with the fried rice (chaufa), which tasted much like the fried rice at home, and I was happy with my light quinoa salad and chips.  Yup, we were pretty much back in the city, with plastic wrap, styrofoam, and plastic bowls with lids.  We sat in the courtyard of our hotel (unexpectedly cute little area) and then we tried to watch Game of Thrones but fell asleep.

Day 2!

Our first stop was the Mercado Central today, which oddly reminded us of what Grand Central Market in downtown LA used to look like before it got all hipster.  There were not many tourists here, as it was rather dingy and unsexy, but we enjoyed it.  We wandered into the food hall area and got overwhelmed with hawkers, yelling out what they were serving for lunch for the day in Spanish.  I heard somebody say "pato con arroz" and we hadn't had any duck in Peru yet, so we went for that stall.  It was called La Chiqueleana restaurant (Food stall 255-256).  There were a lot of customers at this one, sitting at the counters on stools, bent over plates of rice with beans, meat, and sides of ceviche and soup.  We were seated and immediately we received two bowls of hot clear soup with a few corn nuts and sprigs of some kind of herb floating around in it. It was yummy. And then we got our big square plates of rice with beans and duck. So good! Then the ceviche came after I reminded them. This three-course meal was cheap and hearty. We passed over our cash and then walked around the market a bit more before heading back onto the streets.

Barrio Chino, translated literally to "Chinese neighborhood," was so interesting to us, as Chinese people.  We got a kick out of finding this pocket in Peru, of all places. The plaza was very busy and there were people getting their fortunes told in the streets or just walking around.  Like the Chinatowns in California, you have the gimmicky architecture and even some zodiac signs engraved into the road and fortune teller booths.

The moment we saw egg tarts (dan ta) in a glass case, we knew that there was some authenticity to this Barrio Chino.  The people running the takeout dimsum spot were all Peruvian, but there were some unmistakably Chinese items that brought a smile to our faces.  In addition to the traditional-looking egg tart, there was one that looked like it had a dulce de leche custard center.  We knew we had to try the egg tart, and we also got another pastry that looked very legit on the outside but didn't have a legit filling. Weird! The egg tart ended up being a disappointment, but hey, at least it was fun to try an egg tart in South America!  

We walked into a random alleyway on the edge of the Chinatown.  There was an old Chinese lady selling zong zi (the traditional Chinese rice tamales) in the alley, which we thought was so funny to see here.  We also recognized our Chinese veggies strewn around and woks leaning against walls.  We felt oddly at home in this foreign place. and found a very legit-looking Cantonese restaurant at the very end. They had a mochi stand outside and they were selling mochi wrapped in lotus leaf, savory and sweet.  The owner at this establishment was actually Chinese, and Wes was able to speak with him a bit in his Americanized Cantonese.  It was interesting to be able to communicate in a language that was neither Spanish nor English out here.  The owner told us that he had been here for only 2 years and the restaurant has only been open for 7 months, but it looked like people were enjoying it.  We got one of their sweet mochi to share and it was really good!  We wished him good luck - too bad we were too full to show more support.

After that fun little jaunt, we headed to the historic center, but were disappointed that it was apparently blocked off by the police. Wtf?! Due to the national teachers' protest, they were closing off this area of Lima, not sure why. We were bummed because we came out here for this (it was like a 30-45 minute Uber ride!).  But then, Wes got me to convince a cop to let us through.  I wasn't sure if I was speaking correctly, but whatever I said worked!  After a few rounds of broken Spanish convincing, the cop let us in and we had this entire UNESCO world heritage site almost to ourselves!   There were some random people who were in there who might have been there from before and hadn't left yet.  Ridiculous how amazing this felt. I wasn't sure whether to be excited or not, I kept thinking that people were going to come in and ask us to felt almost unlawful to be in there.

We even got a full view of the guards in front of the presidential home marching back inside. And we also took a selfie with the guards outside. What horrible tourists. 

And to make things worse, we went into the Pisco Museo and each had a cocktail. He had the iconic Pisco Sour and I had a Chilcano, which is like a pisco with ginger ale. Big mistake not sharing! There were 3.5 shots in Wes's and 2.5 in mine. And the power of pisco is not to be underestimated. We were so tipsy after only half. He made me stop drinking and we left. At first I was sad that we wasted half of the cocktails, but then I was grateful that I didn't finish it all because then I was stumbling around the plaza, finding places to sit, and I guess it was obvious enough that we were not ourselves because a female cop did eventually come in and ask us to leave! Blah. 

Since we clearly had the drunchies, we found our way to El Chinito nearby for a sandwich and fries, but I could barely taste it or chew it. I took a bite and then closed my eyes. Wes actually was able to enjoy his pork sandwich with sweet potato slices in it.  Anyway we got my half to-go and stumbled to the street to get an Uber back to the hotel. I squatted on the curb and nodded off... and continued to pass out in the Uber.  I'm not even sure how I made it back into the hotel room after this!

After finally waking up from an unintended nap back in the bed, Wes suggested chifa food and I willingly agreed, but was unable to get out of bed to go with him. So he brought it back. The soup with wontons was perfect- never mind the fact that these wontons had barely any filling and that there were only five broccolis and random scraps of pork and chicken floating around in there. Wes had a fried rice with chicken in some kind of sauce. He ended up eating my other sandwich half and I ate most of the chifa food. It really hit the spot, man.  I felt much better after that, and we ended the day with the rest of the Game of Thrones episode that we didn't finish last night!

Day 3!

Before we knew it, it was already our last day in Lima.  We got off to a slow start, but I was happy to not be hung over.  We simply packed up and checked out close to noon.  Today, we planned to visit the Barranco District, which was pretty much the Arts District of Lima.  It also is known for having some good restaurants.

We had lunch at Canta Rana.  A local sat down right next to is and started chatting with us in English - he lived in the US and is a successful sales manager here in Peru now for that same company. He talked to us about stuff to do and also his experiences.  

Such yummy causas and ceviche with grilled octopus on top. Also added a fish anticucho to that. So much food!

We found a bakery across the street and got a few small bite sized cakes there to try, one with aguaymento and one with passion fruit and a flourless chocolate one - I couldn't resist because we had delicious fresh aguaymento berries during the trek and I wanted to see how they worked it into a cake! We took the little treats to go and walked to a coffee place in the neighborhood to pair them together.

Then we sort of strolled around, saw more street art, and found this delicious gelato place! We had the menta / muna flavor and lucuma. So smooth and delicious.  Then as we were walking back to Miraflores along the coast, we considered trying to paraglide, but it seemed sort of sketchy because they said that only I could go because the winds were not strong enough for heavier people... so we were satisfied with simply watching other people do it.

We also couldn't resist a bag of fresh camote chips and popcorn!!  If this was our last day in Peru, we had to have this one last time.  We got popcorn every day of our trek before dinner as a snack.

I still had those postcards to deliver, so we planned to drop them off at a Serpost when we saw one.  It was closed already when we got there, but there was a lady inside who let me hand them to her through the bars!  Whew!

We also had just enough time to hit up the Museo Larco to wander through aisle after aisle of ancient Incan artifacts.  It was very dizzying, all of that they had there.  Of course, the main attraction was the erotic pottery section- very weird. 

Then we went straight to ATG Anticuchos for dinner.  Can't leave Peru without eating some anticuchos!  The owners of this place used to be street vendors, but their skewer stand got so popular that they opened a restaurant, still serving the exact same things with no frills added.  Despite being a brick-and-mortar, ATG was a very small, crowded, smoky space, and we were honestly fine with that.   They were grilling the delicious beef and chicken organs on charcoal to order.  We got beef heart skewers, gizzards, and tripe. We also had two chicken skewers that were really juicy, and papas and choclo with it all. 

We thought we would be done, but nope!  There was a sign for picarones pointing across the street, so we headed over there for those sweet potato doughnuts with chancaca syrup! So delicious and hot.  We had passed on another vendor selling these back in Cusco and I regretted it, so this was redemption!

But wait... there's more.  Wes still wanted to try La Lucha, the direct competitor of El Chinito, so we walked to the Parque Kennedy and got a Lechon de Lena sandwich to share and some thick cut fries, with all the sauces. Good stuff but man, I was getting so full. We agreed that El Chinito was better overall, but the bread at La Lucha was really good.  I wished that I wasn't so tipsy when we were at El Chinito!

The roasted pork sandwich of Peru is pretty much the cultural parallel of the pastrami sandwich of the United States.  But the size is much more suitable for smaller appetites, and the fries here are always going to be better than ours.  We'll miss Peru's potatoes!

Finally, finally, we walked back to our hotel past a bunch of bars and freshened up for the flight. We took our last Lima Uber to the airport, full and happy.  Our time in Peru had come to an end, and I'm pretty sure that we had eaten everything that was on our long list!

Here are the other blog posts that I wrote about our trip to Peru.  I'm finally done, two whole years later!

Cusco, Peru

We Survived the Salkantay Trek!

Machu Picchu and Our Hike Up Huayna Picchu

Peruvian Pachamanca Feast in Ollantaytambo: Farm To Earth To Table

Urubamba, Peru

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