Not many international tourists make their way to Northern Peru, preferring instead Cuzco and Machu Picchu in the South, so we felt privileged to be in the heart of a real Peruvian community. We stayed in a beautiful beach front apartment in Pimentel with views out over the Pacific Ocean – every morning fishermen in traditional reed fishing boats braved the surf to reach the deeper waters beyond and every afternoon they landed their catch on the beach amid haggling and gossiping housewives.
A short walk through the village square brought us to the local market, a busy hive of buying and selling, a great spot for fruit and vegetables and the perfect place for Joy to practice her Spanish on the friendly locals.
The nearest large town was Chiclayo, the capital city of the Lambayeque Region and home to the Modelo; a vast market. It is hard to imagine anything you could not buy at the Modelo – clothes, groceries, fabric, fruit and vegetables and meat – so much meat. There were multiple stalls selling cuts of (often unidentifiable) fresh meat, and whole, skinned, cow’s heads. There was even an aisle of 20 or more stalls dedicated solely to the sale of offal; tripe and lungs and hearts dripping and sweltering in the heat of the day and moving under a steady carpet of flies. The smell was something to behold and I confess that we bought all our meat clean and pre-packed from the supermarket.
The Modelo also has a section dedicated to witchcraft with stalls full of potions and cures, black candles and skulls and the general ephemera of an ancient supernatural culture – a truly fascinating but not entirely comfortable place: As western tourists we attracted a great deal of attention and were followed around by the genuinely intrigued as well as by those with less honourable intentions.
In the streets of Pimentel, and other smaller towns that we visited, people openly pointed and laughed, genuinely delighted by Joy’s blonde hair and Martin and Mark’s lack of any hair at all (we never saw a single bald Peruvian). Being short and dark I fitted in comparatively well when alone!
Peruvian food is really diverse. The Inca origins are still obvious in the vast quantities of corn, potatoes, yucca (cassava) and chillies – bland staples lifted with a little fiery heat. The Spanish Conquistadors brought onions from Spain and lemons from North Africa and subsequent waves of immigrants from France, China and Italy have all added their own influences to the cuisine. Ancient trucks and even more ancient donkey carts were to be seen lugging huge and precarious loads of sugarcane and pavements are full of unpolished rice spread out in the sunshine to dry – although the local dogs appeared to be doing their best to keep it moist. (Always wash your rice!)
We tried to experience as much of this diversity as we could throughout our stay: We drank Cusquenas and feasted on chicharron de pescado* in sea front bars. We sampled roasted corn kernels at a river crossing where locals watered their horses and washed their cars in the shallow ford. We ate Brazillian steaks with cassava in a modern restaurant in Chiclayo and sipped Pisco sours** in a smart hotel on the square in Trujillo, their icy coolness perfect after a day spent exploring newly excavated temples (or huacas) in the desert heat..
One weekend we drove up a long mountain road to Cajamarca, a sprawling city which appears unexpectedly 2,700 m up in the Andes. Cajamarca, like many towns in Peru, has a beautiful central square (Plaza des Armas) full of Spanish colonial architecture. In the cool of the morning the square is populated by traditionally dressed mountain people who have come to the city to sell their wares or beg. We explored the city on foot, climbing to the top of Santa Apolonia hill to be richly rewarded by the views. We took excursions to Las Ventanillas de Ortuzco; a pre-Inca necropolis where the dead were laid to rest in small, excavated holes in the rock. We bathed at Los Banos del Incas, hot springs where, legend has it, King Atahualpa and his men were bathing when the conquistadors arrived and Pizarro’s tiny Spanish army brought about the end of the Incas.
We also explored the food of the region, Cajamarca is known for its cheeses and we visited a small cheese factory and sampled quesillos – soft curd cheeses – and a range of hard, flavoured cheeses. The region has a fine, fertile soil and, as well as being great for grazing the dairy herds, we found lush gardens full of beautiful flowers and huge healthy vegetables.
Martin and Joy started each day with cups of steaming Mate de Coca*** (coca tea) to help relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness – I had avoided the headaces and nausea but found that a single beer was enough to make me giggle hysterically at nothing.
In the evenings we ate together at local restaurants – in one I gritted my teeth and decided to order guinea pig – this is a dietary staple in Peru and I wanted to shake off the image of pets in hutches and try it. Joy and I had looked at them in the supermarket – skinned and oven-ready – but we didn’t have the faintest idea how to cook them so decided to leave it to the experts. Unfortunately (fortunately!!) they were off the menu that night and I managed to leave Peru a few days later without ever having sampled this delicacy.
I was however, relieved and delighted to eat chicharrones (belly pork) instead (recipe below).
On our final evening back in Pimentel we drove up the coast to a large hotel/restaurant with a bright, modern interior and an extensive menu. The choice was decidedly influenced by Peru’s North American neighbours but I did enjoy a particularly good ceviche as a starter – the fish was fresh, the limes sharp and the chillis and onions added sweetness and heat (recipe below). A perfect combination of Peruvian flavours to take us home.
Our friends don’t live in Peru anymore and I don’t know if I will ever go back (so many other places to see!) but we had a wonderful trip and every now and again I browse through my photos and relive the memories by cooking up a plate of chicharrones or marinating some ceviche – a little taste of Peru on a plate.
*Chicharron de Pescado are bite sized morsels of white fish, seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon juice, dipped in flour and deep fried.
**Pisco Sours are cocktails made with Pisco (a clear, grape brandy), lime juice and egg white. For two people whisk 1 egg white until frothy, put in a blender with 60 ml lime juice and blend. Add 150 ml Pisco, 90 ml simple sugar syrup and a generous handful of crushed ice. Blend and pour into glasses. Top with a few drops of Angustura Bitters.
***Mate de Coca or coca tea is a hot drink made from the leaves of the coca plant. This tea does not contain enough alkaloids to be considered a problem (cocaine production requires the alkaloids to be chemically removed and present in much stronger quantities) although it does act as a mild stimulant, much like caffeine. Unlike your average cup of coffee, however, it can give a positive reading on a drugs test so go easy if you are an athlete!
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