Friday, December 21, 2012

Cuy and Coca Tea in Cuzco

There were two things that I wanted to try while traveling in Peru, and they were cuy (guinea pig) and coca tea. Before the trip I had read many accounts of trying this delectable little beast, but they were inconclusive. Most of them consisted of how terrible it was. Many of the blogs I read had scathing comments from animal rights advocates stating that is was wrong to eat a pet. Here's the thing though. In Peru, the guinea pig is raised to be eaten just like a cow or chicken in many other places, so I was willing to give it a try.  

Since I was the leader of my group, it was my duty to provide a cultural adventure for all those who dared to try it. I wasn't feeling very daring, but hey, you only live once. After talking to Victor (our fearless and fabulous guide) about the best place to eat the little creature, I was on a mission that I wasn't going to be talked out of. I rallied the troops and managed to get many people interested including people from the other groups.

In just a short while, three little "pigs" arrived at our table. They were all dressed up in a pepper hat seated on a bed of veggies. The presentation was beautiful, but let's be honest here, it was still a guinea pig. I always wanted one as a pet, and now I was going to eat one. There wasn't much meat on the little guy, but from the pieces I had (don't ask which pieces because I'm not even sure) it wasn't half bad. Sure it had a gamey flavor, but it was more like eating rabbit than anything else. I went back for seconds, and I even finished up the parts that no one wanted. What a great day for travel!

The coca tea doesn't have much of a story behind it, but it is worth mentioning. Since the altitude of Cuzco is about 11,000 ft., many people can get altitude sickness. This can present in various forms including fatigue, headaches, and an overall blah feeling (yes, blah is a medical term). One of the best things to do to combat this unpleasantness is to stay hydrated. And one of the best ways to stay hydrated in Cuzco is by drinking coca tea (made from the coca leaf). It can be found at any hotel in the area and most places you may visit. I liked it immediately, but it is an acquired taste (a pungent herbal flavor). I had a cup every time I walked through the lobby of the hotel and one before bed. It worked like a charm. I felt amazing the whole time I was there. No altitude problems for me.

Since I am on the topic of food and beverage, I must mention my favorite Peruvian cocktail the Pisco Sour. This drink is made with the Peruvian brandy called Pisco, sugar, lime juice, and egg whites. The egg whites give it the frothiness at the top. It sort of tastes like a margarita with a bit more bite. It is an amazing accompaniment to a nice bowl of ceviche.

Lima in One Day

My time in Lima was full of all sorts of interesting new facts and information. While it was just a quick stay, our guide, Omar did a great job teaching us about Peruvian culture and kept us laughing too. At one point while he was talking in the front of the bus he fell almost into the drivers lap. "Sometimes it happens," he replied and barely missed a beat in his talk about all of the varieties of potatoes found throughout Peru. Since I am on the topic of potatoes, there are over 3,000 varieties! Who knew? Also fascinating was that there are over 300 different types of corn. I was able to sample a couple while I was there including the purple kind that makes a lovely drink called chicha morada. 

Culturally, there is a quite a diverse mix of people who live in Lima. Mestizo, or mixed race people make up the majority of the population here. There is also a large population of Chinese immigrants who have had a significant influence on the cuisine. Chifa, a Chinese/Peruvian restaurant is commonplace along the city streets. The influence is so strong in fact that there is no Chinatown because there is a complete integration into the culture.

The rest of the day was full of a trip to a history museum, the St. Francis Museum/ Church, and the Convento de San Francisco. And this was all before lunch! The history museum was like most museums full of artifacts like pottery telling the stories of a civilization long extinct. Omar's stories helped paint a picture of what the Incas were like and how advanced their society was. More on all of that in the Cuzco post. The church, which didn't allow pictures, was eerily beautiful. The ceiling was a series of wood carvings that fit together like a puzzle. The center courtyard was a rose garden with tiled columns all around the outside. Frescoes lined the upper walls while white mosaic spanish-style tiles line the mid and bottom parts. As I walked through admiring the architecture, the smell of sautéing garlic filled the air. I then walked through a couple of rooms past an alley way painted red with red pots lining the walkway. I then wandered into a room lined with gilded icons of saints. Each one had a story, and it made me wish I had paid more attention in my religious eduction classes as a child. 
The most disturbing but fascinating part of the day was the walk through the catacombs. Again, no photos were allowed, so I'll do my best to illuminate the experience. Into the underground crypts I went ducking my head so as not to smack my forehead on the very low ceilings. The light was minimal, and the smell was appropriately musty with a hint of death. Around each corner was a different display of various bones. I came to find out that approximately 25,000 people had been buried here. I use the term buried very loosely though because there are just piles and piles of bones just out in the open. They are just grave-like holes full of leg bones. How this is a tourist attraction or "decoration" as it was called; I'm not sure. Walking through more creepy low tunnels past empty candelabras I came upon an image that will stay with me for a very long time. There were skulls arranged in concentric circles connected by femur bones. It looked like something out of a medieval secret society meeting. 

The rest of the day involved lunch at a seaside mall called Larcomar in Miraflores which was just a couple short minutes from our hotel. Later on we headed over to JFK park to see all of the stray cats that just hang out there. Apparently it was the place to take a cat that was no longer wanted. There were so many cats just lounging in flower beds and chasing each other around. I had never seen anything like it before. Walking around the city at night was peaceful and beautiful, but I definitely recommend walking with a group. There is so much more to see and do in Lima, but for one day I truly felt like I was beginning to understand what a special country Peru is.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Leading a Tour Through Peru with EF

My trip to Peru was a different sort of trip than I have ever been on before on many different levels. The first being that I had been planning it for almost a year. I'm not much of a long range planner when it comes to travel or anything else for that matter.  I was also in charge of a group of eight other adults, and it made me very nervous. The nerves soon subsided though because everyone showed up to the meeting location on time and ready to go. Everyone was in good spirits and got along beautifully.

After a day of travel, we met Victor, our guide for the duration of the trip. It was getting late, so instead of waiting for the other group to get to the airport, we loaded our luggage into the bus and headed to the hotel. Driving through Lima I was hit with the overwhelming feeling that I felt at home. I had never been to South America before, so it came as a surprise that nothing surprised me about the city. I suddenly had the thought: Am I growing too accustomed to the travel life? Is that even possible? 
I wasn't "wowed" like the rest of the group seeing a McDonalds or a man juggling flaming sticks of fire in the middle of the street at red lights. It all seemed quite normal, and it made me smile. While I would be spending the bulk of my time with others, this trip would be very much an introspective one.  We continued driving toward the coast up and down the winding road past the ocean. It felt peaceful and dangerous at the same time. It was perfect.

To find out more about the amazing trip to the Land of the Incas visit:

Saturday, December 1, 2012


I was not planning on writing about my 5 short days in the small village of Marnay-sur-Seine, but it was such a lovely place I had to at least devote one post to it. Marnay is located an hour's train ride and a ten minute taxi ride (or 45 minute walk through the countryside) away from Paris. It was not a place I would have normally visited, but an opportunity arose to visit a very talented writer at a residency program called CAMAC Centre d'Arts located there. I just couldn't pass up the chance to see another side of France. Situated right along the Seine River, the castle-like structure provide a respite from the real world. You won't find much in this town except for maybe a few locals and a whole lot of farm animals. There are no hotels to stay for the night, no restaurants, and there isn't even a bakery. You have to get your baguettes from the next town, Nogent-sur-Seine.

What I did find, however, is a place that takes you back in time to simpler days. Long walks and deep thoughts provided the backdrop of a truly lovely and relaxing week.   While I was there at the end of April, while still rainy and a little chilly, the landscape was blooming and there were giant fields full of golden flowers that seemed to go on for miles. Marnay was the perfect place to catch up on sleep and take in the scenery. The wine was flowing, the food was wonderful (cooked by one of the resident artists), and the conversation was always interesting. I met people from all over the world pursuing their art. It made me want to pursue some kind of art.

While visiting the big cities in Europe are always exciting and a guaranteed good time, the smaller towns and villages are definitely worth a look. Visiting Marnay made me realize how many off the beaten track places there are in the world and how travel for me has barely begun.

For more information about the CAMAC residency program and a full review from writer Timothy L Marsh, visit: