From pisco sours in a dive bar to ceviche on the beach, Nick Dall enjoys an authentic taste of this South American paradise
He had planned to bypass Lima completely, but a sneaky pickpocket sitting behind us on a bus put paid to that idea. I turned and met his gaze when I felt the backpack move at my feet, but he seemed so innocent I thought nothing of it. By the time I realised my wallet and both our passports were gone, he’d long since got off…
The beaches up north would have to wait, their place taken by the South African embassy of all places. We checked into a pension in a 400-year-old building a couple of blocks from the Plaza Mayor and grabbed a bite to eat in a dark, vaulted restopub, which had walls plastered with The Beatles memorabilia. The kitchen had already closed, we were informed, but the chef could still rustle something up.
We were brought two plates of a creamy, bright yellow chicken stew, served with rice and topped with olives, potatoes and some hard-boiled eggs. Like most Peruvian dishes we tried, it tasted a lot better than it sounds: spicy, nutty and moreish. The dish, as we would later find out, was aji de gallina, and it got its colour and its delicate kick from aji amarillo (yellow chillies), and its rather distinctive nutty taste from ground walnuts.
First thing the next morning, we reported to the cramped embassy waiting room on the eight floor of an office block in the snazzy part of town. Unlike the other misfits and alleged drug mules who had gathered there, we had everything we needed to apply for temporary passports and were told to collect them in three days’ time.
The embassy was around the corner from the upmarket neighbourhood of Miraflores, which I’d first encountered in Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. We took advantage of ‘one of those sunny spring mornings in Lima when the geraniums are an even brighter red and the roses more fragrant’ to fully explore the streets of Miraflores. We strolled past bustling cafes where patrons sat in wicker armchairs on the wide, stately pavements, and we commented on the jam-packed buses which surely had not been replaced since Vargas Llosa wrote about them almost 40 years earlier. And then, at the end of a street of understated apartment buildings festooned with bright bougainvillea, we were met by an altogether different sight…
An enormous triangular mound of dried mud with a maze of steps and pathways converging at its apex, guarded by a few grisly-looking Peruvian hairless dogs – the same unappealing breed that would have played sentry in its heyday. Huaca Pucllana is an adobe pyramid built by the Lima people more than 1 500 years ago, more than 1 000 years before the Incas showed up. Back then, the huaca would have been used for sacrifices and other rituals, but now it is an unlikely vantage point from which to enjoy the views over the city’s leafy suburbs, the Atlantic Ocean and beyond.
Over the next few days we explored Lima with a glee that wouldn’t have been possible if we’d planned to visit. We spent a lazy afternoon discovering the hidden corners of the Bohemian beachfront suburb of Barranco and afterwards we drank way too many pisco sours – the quintessential Peruvian cocktail made from clear brandy, lime juice and egg white – in a working-class bar where the liquor was displayed behind glass doors surrounded by chipped, off-white frames.
We ate butifarras, crispy white rolls filled with slow-roasted pork leg, fresh onion and chilli pickle, from a kerbside food trolley and, at the Museo de la Inquisición, we discovered in great, gory detail that the Spanish Inquisition had indeed made it all the way to the colonies. We gazed for what seemed like the longest time at the Moorish motifs of the intricately carved 17th-century wooden balcony of the Archbishop’s Palace and stared longingly through the windows of Astrid y Gastón, the too-expensive-for-us restaurant that put Peruvian cuisine on the world map. We started our mornings with shooters of leche de tigre, the slightly funky leftover broth from yesterday’s ceviche, and then followed these up with bowls of the real thing at whichever cevicheria had the longest queue.
Our passports were ready on time and, once we had gone through the tedious process of finally getting the Peruvian government to reissue our visas, we continued on our pilgrimage northwards. Our overnight bus traversed a gnarled coastal semi-desert that reminded me of South Africa’s West Coast. Sometime the next morning, we passed the now-derelict outpost at Cabo Blanco; the point where the cold Humboldt Current meets the warmer Panama Current and the very place where Hemingway, Joe DiMaggio and Humphrey Bogart once fished for world-record marlins.
After 19 hours on cramped pleather seats watching grainy VHS reruns of Bee Gees concerts, we finally reached the tiny beach town of Punta Sal. We checked into a hotel, which gave new meaning to the term ‘on the beach’ and drank quarts of Cusqueña beer in rented loungers. We swam in the warm, crystalline waters and drip-dried in the shade of coconut palms.
Our reverie was broken by a woman with a garish apron and a scuffed red cooler box slung over her shoulder. If we were anywhere else in the world she would have been an ice-cream vendor, but here, her wares were much more exciting. She pulled out a whole, iced fish and filleted and diced it on the lid of the cooler box. She laid some sweet potato at the bottom of a plastic bowl and added the cubed fish and some onions, chilli, lime juice and boiled maize. ‘Diez minutos,’ she said. ‘Wait ten minutes before you eat it.’
And as we waited for our ceviche to marinate, I thought back on our time in Peru. Of course, Machu Picchu was a highlight; its inch-perfect stonemasonry and otherworldly backdrop will stay with me forever. But I also had loads of other special memories. The immovable Inca temples in Cusco, which survived countless earthquakes, while the Spanish churches above them crumbled. Coming face to face with majestic condors soaring above one of the world’s deepest canyons at Colca, near Arequipa. Mucking around on quad bikes in the immense dunes surrounding the extraordinary palm-fringed desert oasis at Huacachina. Chewing my way through dozens of deep-fried limpets at a tiny truck stop perched above a wild beach near the Chilean border.
In four short weeks, we took in altitudes from zero to 5 000m, and temperatures that ranged from tropical to positively Arctic. We eyeballed llamas and visited penguin colonies and ate food that was as diverse as the topography that produced it. We saw mind-blowing Inca salt mines and highways and thermal baths, but we were also awed by the perfectly preserved Moche mummy that predated the Incas by a good 800 years.
All of these sights and sounds and experiences were amazing, but nothing will ever beat that bowl of ceviche on the beach at Punta Sal.
Photography: gallo/gettyimages/thinkstock, istockphoto