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Beyond Machu Picchu
(2015 - Winter Issue)

Writer: Cynthia David

In Peru, altitude rules.

Foraged roots and bark from the Amazon basin to Andean peaks infuse the cuisine of the capital Lima, transforming sea-level chefs into culinary superstars. Visitors, meanwhile, are pulled like a magnet to the mountains, up 3,400 metres to wild west Cusco then down 2,453 metres, by rail or hike, to the mysterious Inca city of Machu Picchu, its brilliantly engineered stone temples and terraced fields built in the 1400s and abandoned a century later.

Spoiler alert: you’ll get your selfie shot framed by mountains within five minutes of walking into the Inca sanctuary, unless Mother Nature decides to obliterate the background with cotton-batten clouds. Not good for photos, but it makes walking up and down the ancient stairways even more surreal. When the sun finally broke through at 9 a.m., we found ourselves in the midst of majestic green mountains looking way, way down to the Urubamba River.

The Sacred Valley

Though Machu Picchu attracts the world—I sat beside a Brazilian man on the crowded bus up the mountain as backpackers chattered away in French and Spanish—there’s so much more to see and do. Now that you’ve mastered the altitude, don’t rush back down to earth. Stay a while in the fertile Sacred Valley, where time stands still and you can almost touch the ever-present mountain peaks, some capped with snow.

In June the wheat fields are golden, waiting to be harvested, while rust-coloured stalks of quinoa fairly burst with tiny seeds. “Until the 1970s, the protein-rich grain was eaten only by poor people,” explains our guide Alejandro. “It’s now so trendy,” he says, “locals can barely afford it.” Hotel breakfast buffets also offer kiwicha from the amaranth family, perhaps the next superfood?

As men bend to harvest their crops under a big sky, women head to local markets hauling sacks of fresh greens, fat cobs of yellow and purple corn, wheels of fresh sheep cheese, bright chili peppers and some of the 3,000 potato varieties native to the Andes in every shape, size and colour.

These women are a marvel, strong and capable, laughing together as they sip cups of bubbly fermented strawberry juice or gather around tables at the partially covered market in Chinchero eating fragrant stewed chicken, a bird brought to Peru by the Spaniards. Each village has its own garb, from top hats to brightly hued sweaters and skirts worn in layers to ward off the autumn chill, topped with shawls bulging with goods or children.

Down the street from the busy Sunday market we met more women in a weaving co-operative. They showed us how they dye wool naturally—dark green from the ch’illka leaf, yellow from the quico flower, orange from lichen, purple from dark “chicha” corn, and blue from the peppercorn-like tara seed. Most amazing is the rich red derived from crushing cochineal bugs. Native to Peru, the bugs look like grey ash clinging to the cactus paddles on which they thrive.

Though the co-op is set up to separate tourists from their cash, we were happy to hand over US$20 and $30 for gossamer alpaca scarves, warm woollen gloves and wraps from the women who made them. I later wished I’d bought one for all my friends.

More Surprises

Alejandro had two more surprises for us that morning. Down a long dirt road, past more quinoa fields, we found ourselves at the edge of a cliff overlooking thousands of terraced pools edged in what looked like ice. Salt! The Salinas de Maras, centuries old and wedged into a mountain valley, are fed by a single salty underground stream that’s channelled into the shallow, individually owned pools. Crusty salt crystals form as the water evaporates. Reaching the bottom, we walked along the salty dikes then hit the gift shop. Of course you know what all my foodie friends are receiving for Christmas (please don’t mention the scarves!).

An hour later, we stood gazing at another national treasure, Moray, a series of concentric stone rings resembling an amphitheatre. Ingenious Incas may have constructed the site as an agricultural research station to study how vegetable and cereal crops adapt to different altitudes and ecosystems. A five-minute walk brought us to El Parador de Moray for a traditional lunch—a snack of deep-fried corn kernels, causa, a bright yellow mashed-potato cake stuffed with avocado, chicken or seafood, quinoa, roast pork and fish baked in salt.

Peru’s favourite aperitif, the Pisco Sour, is made from potent grape brandy (up to 96 proof) shaken with an egg white, lime juice and sugar syrup and finished with a dash of Angostura bitters. Back in Cusco we stopped for a drink at the Museo del Pisco, where you can taste brandy made from different grapes and sample infusions like passion fruit, a personal favourite. Alejandro maintains that one Pisco Sour is more than enough, two is dangerous and three is “not a good idea.”

Since you’ll probably fly home via Lima, why not reserve a table at one of the world’s great restaurants, Central in the Milaflores district. Chef Virgilio Martínez and his team source ingredients from across the country to create altitude-driven menus. Our 15-course dinner included limpets and algae from the Pacific (-5 metres), quinoa from the Low Andes (1,800 metres) and a bacteria called cushuro (2,900 metres). Dessert (1,050 metres) featured butterscotch-flavoured lucuma fruit, cacao and edible clay. Martinez’ food was equally strange and delicious, another high on this trip-of-a-lifetime.

Travel Planner

Air Canada (aircanada.com) flies directly from Toronto to Lima. For more information on Peru, visit peru.travel. For guides and/or trip-planning advice, contact Viracocha

Turismo Internacional (VTI) (viracocha.com.pe/portal/index.php/en/).

For accommodation, Inkaterra (inkaterra.com) owns a number of hotels and jungle lodges. Also, consider the J.W. Marriott. Recommended dining venues include:

Astrid & Gastón, Lima: astridygaston.com  

Central, Lima: centralrestaurante.com.pe/en

El Parador de Moray, Cusco: cuscorestaurants.com/el-parador

Maido by Mitsuharu, Lima: maido.pe/en

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