An Ode to Potatoes and Mountaineering (Peru)

by Katherine Li

Upon the mention of Perú, I think can almost accurately predict that your initial thoughts will include Machu Picchu and llamas. While these are by no means inaccurate representations of this magnificent country, this perception fails to encompass some of Perú’s most important qualities: the 3,000 species of potatoes and 55 species of corn it produces.

It’s rather upsetting that Perú is not internationally recognised as an illustrious culinary destination, because as someone who considers the humble tater to be a vital member of the 5-a-day, their agricultural specialty appeals deeply to my love of starchy goodness. Not to mention one of Perú’s traditional dishes is cuy which is none other than guinea pigs, so for anyone looking to spice up their Kobow gathos, do consider flights to Perú.

Sadly, my Peruvian galivants are only limited to Cusco and Machu Picchu but I can’t neglect mentioning the lakeside city of Puno, and coastal Arequipa which are most definitely worth visiting especially in the warmer months. These cities both have major transport hubs for inter-continental travel- I travelled from La Paz (Bolivia)  to Cusco via bus that transferred in Puno (a treacherous journey involving an unexpected ferry) so these locations are accessible to even the most the navigationally challenged.

4100m above sea level.jpg
4,100m above sea level

But onto the city on everyone’s bucket lists – Cusco. While Lima is the capital of Perú, Cusco is the Incan capital. I daresay that with more history than any old European town, Cusco has plenty of historical, archaeological sites to tickle your fancy (despite the Spanish invasion destroying many Incan buildings, temples and palaces). I would particularly recommend going on a walking tour- not only are they affordable but you get to experience a fair few cultural sites with informative guides. Seeing the history is one thing, but learning about it and understanding the significance is truly spectacular.

Cusco offers a tourist ticket that gives you access to 14 sites at a discounted price, similar to the London Pass or Paris Pass but far easier to get your money’s worth. (I seriously would not recommend the London Pass unless you genuinely want to visit all the sites available).

Even wandering through town is an experience in itself. Every couple of metres you’ll be approached by an ageing woman, in traditional Quechuan attire, carry a baby llama for tourists to take a photo with. Sometimes they harass you, sometimes they wait for you to approach them and their little LAMB, and sometimes they don’t tell you the price until you’ve taken your photo and then they’ll request 100pesos. If you choose to get a picture I implore you to check 1) the price and 2) the animal, before getting your snap. Street vendors are also abundant, selling textiles with traditional patterns which although looked stunning, swayed on the side of cultural appropriation.

My attempts at cultural appreciation are perhaps futile due to the Starbucks coffee I had in the main square, but at least I didn’t go to nearby KFC nor Maccas. My fried chicken cravings were instead satiated by Chicarrones de Pollo, the Latin American version of deep fried, crispy goodness. Sadly, not even Perú can escape conglomerate Coca-Cola Amatil, who own the production of Inka Cola, a yellow, creaming soda tasting soft drink. Wildly popular, more-so than regular cola and a staple in every kids’ diet.

Now, like any traveller knows, salads are a big NO-NO to order since they’re usually washed in tap water that doesn’t agree with our Australian bodies, but sometimes 3 weeks without eating any fresh greens can really take a toll so luckily Cusco has you covered!!! There’s an amazing plant based restaurant, Green Point, that washes everything in filtered water or vinegar so you can eat volumes of raw lettuce to your heart’s desire. I cannot recommend this place enough- it’s affordable, high quality food, generous portions and you’re also surrounded by other tourists sharing the same vegetable cravings as you.

But enough about food, the main reason anyone goes to Cusco is to visit Machu Picchu and my intentions were no different. I signed up for the Lares Trek, a popular alternative to the Inca Trail as although, I booked nearly a year in advance, the Inca Trail was full as the Peruvian government capped hikers to 500/day (due to environmental degradation from all the foot traffic). Still a 4-day, 3-night trek, Lares reaches a higher altitude but has less kilometres so it’s arguably easier but I vehemently disagree. I went with Xtreme Tourbulencia and my guide Juan, was an absolute godsend. Never in my life have I felt so close to death from physical exertion (would definitely recommend doing some cardio preparation) because the air was so thin that you get winded real rápidamente and it takes an eternity to get your full breath back. The coca plant is used to make breathing easier (no clue how but I wasn’t going to question it) so I was chewing coca leaves and eating coca candy like nobody’s business. Juan also showed us a plant (similar to mint) that we crushed and sniffed every so often for extra oxygen (again the science baffles me but I needed all the breath I could get).

alpacas.jpg
alpacas!!

From my understanding, all Machu Picchu treks have guides, cooks and porters and the Inca trail is the only one without mules (for carrying most of the gear, and in case of emergency). Me, being the cocky, over-eager and inexperienced hiker that I was, thought I would be okay carrying my own bag instead of giving it to the mules but boyyy was that a mistake. M-I-S-T-A-K-E. Juan ended up swapping packs with me otherwise there would’ve been a very high chance of me rolling down a mountain.

If you missed out on booking a Machu Picchu trek, no fear, its accessible by train + bus and Rainbow Mountain is another trekking option doable in a day.

One factor that really differentiates Lares from Inca is that it takes you through Quechuan communities and you get to meet different farmers and learn about their potatoes and corn (surprisingly interesting) which your cook prepares later. In these visits you also meet local children and families selling woven textiles and knitted gloves similar to those in town. Even in remote mountain ranges the perils of consumerism cannot be escaped.

Being a 4,100masl trek, the landscapes were like nothing I had ever seen before it was honestly surreal and no camera will ever be able to capture the views with justice, you just have to commit them to memory. Walking through fields littered with eucalyptus trees (how did they get there?!), paddocks of llamas, alpacas and sheep, it was like an out-of-body experience that I would never take back for the world, despite being on the brink of death.

Most of the treks involve a train to Aguas Calientes, a town near Machu Picchu from where you get the bus in the morning. The train itself was odd- it segregated “tourists” to “locals” with tourists seated in the front few carriages at 4 seat booths/tables with panoramic windows and a snack service with drinks and cookies, whereas the locals sat in the back carriages in cramped seats much like the old Sydney trains with the pleather seats, and no snacks of course. This separation didn’t faze Juan but for the rest of us it just seemed unnecessary and backwards.

Definitely, definitely, definitely go to Machu Picchu with a guide because otherwise you’ll just be climbing narrow stairs and looking at rocks without any knowledge nor appreciation of their significance and the sheer architectural brilliance of the Incans. Machu Picchu (pick-chu, do annunciate both Cs because ‘peechu’ has a phallic meaning in Quechuan) is actually quite tricky to navigate because it’s mostly paved with one-way paths so one wrong turn and you’ll end up at the exit with no way back in so if you make a wrong turn you may have to slyly walk backwards up a path to reach your destination. In addition to the stone structures, there’re llamas roaming the grounds that you’re allowed to get up close and personal with.

potatoes.jpg

If a multi-day hike to Machu Picchu isn’t enough physical strain for you, Huayna Picchu, another mountain within the citadel, is open to hikers (you do need to buy a pass in advance) and it offers impressive views that you miss out on seeing from Machu Picchu.

Perú boasts delicious, adventurous and affordable food, hiking is hard but the experience and views are well worth the struggle and Machu Picchu meets, if not succeeds, every expectation. I’ll definitely be back one day, hopefully fit enough to tackle the 22 day Saltankay trek.

 

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