Goodbye, for now, Peru

I first came to Peru in 1981 [yup, I typed that correctly] as a high school exchange student. It was an amazing year living with a Peruvian family, making friends, and experiencing a very different world than the one I knew. I enjoyed chicha which, when I was first here, was sold by folks just outside town that lived in mud huts with no electricity or running water. It was made of yucca that generally was chewed up by grandma, spit into a barrel, and then left to ferment. It came in whitish or reddish color. I preferred the red. I was young. Now days, trendy restaurants have various homemade corn based chicha that seem to be part of the growing culinary repertoire.

Corn chicha and cuy aside, there are many outstanding and flavorful Peruvian dishes and the quality of food is excellent. The ceviche is superb. There are numerous places in Lima run by ambitious young chefs [as well as old masters] who are using the Peruvian stable of fresh and exotic ingredients to reach a higher plain or gastronomy. Restaurants deliver food to the table quickly and usually at room temperature [it’s just rarely ever hot - they still need to figure out heating the serving plates], but the flavors are fresh and new yet comforting and a bit familiar at the same time. Initially, I was excited to see wine lists with better selections than we had been getting in Costa Rica [think Austrian or Spanish or anywhere but Chile]. I came to realize that throughout Peru, with only a few exceptions like the ultra high end fine dining category, these wine lists are a tease; they never have the more interesting wines, just the same flaccid, mediocre Chilean and Argentinian low-end exports.

I returned in 1999 and again this year. The first time I came back, Peru was essentially the same Peru I had grown to love. This time, however, I see a Peru that is becoming transformed by tourism. Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca (Puno), the Colca Canyon have all dramatically changed into places that cater to tourists. The jungle destinations are quickly catching up. Given the focus on tourism in the these places and that most visitors probably spend a only week or so in Peru, I feel like people are missing the real beauty of the country. Behind the famous "Peruvian smile", the people are genuinely friendly and curious and their life is varied and intriguing. If you are thinking of coming to Peru, consider staying a little longer. Get off the beaten path. Just hang out. Sample the food. Get to know some locals. Just going 4 blocks from the Plaza de Armas to Plaza San Francisco in Cusco will show you a different side to the city. There is so much more to this amazing place than the ruins crawling with tourists and hawkers.

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