Tuesday, April 20, 2010
This year I did something new: I spent my “spring break,” in the South American nation of Perú, bypassing well-trodden and commercialized Caribbean and Mexican beach destinations.
Perú is a magical place, rich in history and cultural traditions. It is a place where the past is very much in the present. Its people are diverse and hail from just about every corner of the world, yet they are one in the sense that they are flush with a strong national identity. This is, after all, the sacred Incan homeland, and a place where Spanish assimilation and mixing efforts, for the most part, failed.
Arguably a continent in and of itself, Perú has something for everyone: flourishing gastronomy scene, superb colonial architecture, astonishing natural beauty, and vivacious night life, to name but a few. Really, though, it has just about everything one could want from a single destination. From ongoing Pre-Columbian archaeological dig sites and fabled Incan lost cities; walled colonial cities built in volcanic stone; picturesque sun-scorched deserts totally devoid of rain; to remote, still unexplored Amazon jungles, inaccessible by road & the origin of its namesake river.
But it doesn’t end there. Included in the countries whirlwind topography are snow-capped mountains belonging to the world’s largest mountain range; tranquil, rolling green valleys with hills and farmland reminiscent of Western Ireland; and forlorn, hamlets perched along the ragged Pacific Coast blanketed in fog. Whatever it is you desire, you’d be foolish to say that Perú doesn’t have it…and lots of it.
What attracted me was the waning colonial splendor, jaw-droppingly delicious food, fabled “lost” pre-Hispanic cities, and most importantly, the bargain basement deal I got to go to the place. Initially, I had low expectations, having only selected the country as a compromise; more or less “settling” for the place. Though, arriving with a blank slate and open mind, allowed for me to appreciate Perú for being Perú. It has a subtle-kind of charm and attraction, that while not evident while you are there, grows with time. If anything, my experiences there were/are in direct opposition to the popular (negative) sentiments that exist regarding the place.
Instead of the usual “third world misery," I found a place with lots on offer. It is a place where you can seek – and even realize – the extraordinary. It is a mystic place with seductive beauty. Crazy stuff, like fulfilling Indiana Jones-esque fantasies exploring ruins forgotten by time. And what did I do? Easy. Revel in the sheer beauty and immense intrigue presented by the place. Time was split roughly between two things: leisure, and well, those days with jam-packed itineraries that are typical of vacations. The latter meant exploring and immersing oneself into my surrounding environments – getting a better feel for the place, if you will.
But the real gems of this place to be the people! They are very helpful and genuine in their care and interest for you. In what seems to be fairly commonplace throughout the so-called “third world,” there is a strange correlation where the poorer a country is, the happier its people are – at least when not in war. Quite a varied bunch of people, too, with one being able to trace Peruvian ancestry to every corner of the world.
For a country not particularly prosperous (i.e., not having the necessary economic engine to lure foreigners), it is diverse, with large Indigenous, Mestizo, European, African, and Asian populations (as well as various mixes between those groups). For instance, Lima alone has 200,000 first generation Chinese-Peruvians, while the country has in excess of 1 million; or the 800,000 Italians, of whom the majority call Lima home. Most surprising and interesting to me was its Afro-Peruvian population, whose mere existence is debated back home. Limenos told me that anywhere between 15 and 30% of the population is in some way black (i.e. mulattos as well); quite impressive for a city of 7 million. And though it almost goes without being said, you have direct descendants of Incans, Quechas, and Aymaras, amongst other tribes, to whom Spanish is a distant second language, and Catholicism is non-existent. Add in the fact that a good chunk is not unlike their Spanish conquistador ancestors in appearance, and wouldn’t look out of place in Madrid or Barcelona, and you have one of the most diverse (Latin) American countries anywhere. Only Panamá City and perhaps Sao Paulo compare. The place does diversity well, and in Peru, multiculturalism is king.
The country’s festive mix of people perhaps lends itself best to the local cuisine. Arguably, Perú is as good as it gets when it comes to Latin American food. Widely revered as the gastro-economic capital of South America, it is a well-earned title. Just the sheer scope and variety of the foods is to be commended! Literally, every meal I had – with the notable exception of some underwhelming empanadas saltenas in Cuzco – was amazing. Favorites included ceviche (diced raw seafood marinated with citrus juices and served with chunks of vegetables), pollo a la brasa (chicken slow-roasted on a spit; served with French fries and salad), and lomo saltado (sliced skirt steak tossed with pearl onions, red chilis and peppers, and French fries and rice).
Furthermore, oddly enough, there is a HUGE amount of “chifas,” the name given to Chinese-Peruvian restaurants. In Lima, you can find at least two maybe even three, per blocks. They’re quite ubiquitous (and coming from somebody who is no stranger to quality Chinese food, delicious). Additionally, it is worth noting that the country is known for being, well, “ahead of the curve” with regards to “fusion” foods; the effortless synthesizing of, for instance, African, Spanish, Asian and Andean flavors has been going on for quite some time now.
To be sure, Perú is most definitely South America at its finest. The quintessential, if you will. A place where age-old peoples and their largely unchanged ways of life collide with those of former colonial master Spain’s. This is the Latin America of movies: festive people, colorful indigenous tribes, spicy food, ancient civilizations, and sprawling cities that escape grasp all included. With awe-inspiring, epic natural beauty, fabulous cultural diversity, and the best food in the Spanish-speaking Americas, as well as healthy doses of intrigue and mystery, Peru should be on everybody’s Latin American list.