Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lima: Better than the beans, for the most part

We landed in Lima, Peru, at 1:45 this morning, with stiff legs and sore bodies from the crammed Air Canada Rouge flight. Our Lima visit got off to an inauspicious start. Back in Toronto, we had verified that our luggage would be passed through this stopover in Lima, and delivered straight to Montevideo, Uruguay. We were assured this but then were also counseled to verify at Lima to be safe. The first challenge turned out to be finding someone who might be able to confirm anything about our luggage. Mindy searched for personnel while I searched for bags. Better to collect them than risk them being unattended in Lima airport overnight. 

I found the carousel for our flight’s luggage, and noticed the crowd of passengers that had collected to one side of the motionless carousel. Strange. As I approached, I saw the baggage handlers bringing the luggage in off the truck through an open door and placing it on the floor. They would periodically check tags and call out the names printed thereon. When they called my name, I felt relief that we had hung around to check.

We moved into the arrivals area and found the driver waiting for us with my name on a placard. Fun! I felt like a rock star! (Except, rock stars probably don’t take red-eye flights in crammed coach class.) Our driver – another Paul – spoke no English and we were tired, so it was a quiet drive to Minaflores along the Pacific coast. Los Girasoles Hotel was neat and clean, and so we lay down for a short night’s sleep.


The “real” morning in Lima – when we woke up for the day – was much better than the wee hours of the morning when we landed. The hotel breakfast was delicious, with sweet French Toast, an assortment of cheese and breads, eggs, and juice; a proper buffet for a couple of hungry travelers. Their un-gassed mandarin oranges were more green than orange, and their bananas were the small, sweet ones.

Their tea reminded me that we are in a land with different expectations:

Coca tea tastes like a mild green tea. A quick Google search told me that this tea can be trouble to bring across the border, and it can show up in drug tests for up to three weeks. Interesting. I washed the tea down with the strong, floral coffee that seems to be common here. Leaving our bags at the hotel, we ventured forth into Minaflores to see what this most picturesque and tourist-friendly part of Lima has to offer. We had a food tour to catch, too.

We found our tour guide Luc (think “Lucy” without the y) who indicated we were waiting for one more person for the tour. After a while of waiting, the three of us – Luc, Mindy and I – went out, leaving the absent participant to her own devices. Luc has what we learned is the classic Peruvian look, and one could imagine her broad frame to be that of an Incan warrior princess of another era. Sure enough, her mother hails from Cusco, where the Incan ruins draw so many tourists. Alas, for us that will have to be another trip.

Mindy had read that this food tour was raw and unvarnished, and that it would reveal the real Lima. The unrehearsed nature of the tour certainly affirmed that, as Luc did not delve into the nuances of the Peruvian cuisine or explain the significance of the buildings and parks we passed. Instead, she seemed content to let conversation go wherever we took it. For instance, all I know of this church is that it is “a cathedral”, and that’s only because I asked.

Likewise, I have no idea why our first stop was “The Cebicheria”, though I was amused that the traditional Peruvian soup that was supposed to kick off the tour was not available because “the man who makes the soup didn’t come in today”. We had a fried fish and sweet potato dish, escaveche de pescado, along with traditional purple corn juice, instead.

The purple corn juice is very traditional and is made slightly differently at each restaurant (or food stall, cart, etc.). Luc told us that a better version would be available later in the tour.

While at the restaurant Luc took a call from her boss who informed her that the missing participant was going to meet us there, and so we waited, and waited. In the interim Luc explained that the city we were walking through had all been built since the 1950s, which was a little concerning as we walked by an apartment building condemned due to neglect. How bad can things get in sixty-odd years?

We also learned that Lima has no rail transit and only one freeway, with dedicated bus lines in the centre. For a city with a population of ten million or so residents, this paucity of transit infrastructure is a major issue.

That evening, we experienced first-hand how much said infrastructure is needed to support transit to the airport, but more on that later.

Finally, we learned that our missing companion would join us at the next stop and so we were on our way again. We found Toya, a Texan, on a street corner lecturing someone through her phone. In the three days she’s been in Lima, she’s managed to have her bank account hacked, and $6,000 was on it’s way out! Though I had grown frustrated waiting for her, Toya was a huge asset to our tour. She is a chef who has come to Lima to work in the fourteenth best restaurant in the world. (Lima also has the ninth best restaurant in the world, apparently.) With her culinary background and her engaging and enthusiastic personality, she partnered well with Luc to effectively give us a food tour with two guides.

Ceviche was next on the agenda – fish that is “cooked” through the acid effect of lime juice with ginger and chilies. Incredibly tender and delicious, ceviche is a staple in Peruvian cuisine. Toya had made some for dinner the night before and was walking us through the details of how to prepare both the fish and the accompanying sweet potato to perfection. (Admittedly, I find it a little odd to think of cooking sweet potato in orange Fanta, but I have no doubt it makes it sweet and brightly coloured.)

The fruit and vegetable market was next, where we tried local fruits: golden passionfruit, custard apple (my favourite!), and various sweet and sour fruits with names I could never pronounce.

We glanced through stalls with dozens of different types of potato (including dried potato for making flour) and mountains of fresh vegetables.

We tried a local specialty smoothie composed of a pulpy fruit that looked like a cross between an avocado and a mango, blended with evaporated milk and vanilla extract. Very tasty!

Toya enjoyed this so much she bought the ingredients for more.

A “secret” restaurant, unassuming enough that one could walk right by without noticing it, was our next stop. Filled with Peruvians, we tried traditional “home-cooking” with a cold mashed potato and chicken dish, braised beef with beans, and pickled onions. The beef didn’t do much for me, but the cold chicken and potatoes were surprisingly good! This is also where we found the better sweet corn juice, and it lived up to expectations.

The last stop was a chocolate factory, catering to tourist visits. Here we learned that, statistically speaking, the only chocolate-producing country that consumes it in quantity is Brazil. The other producers ship nearly all their chocolate to Europe, North America and Australia.

We tried pisco, the local liqueur made with a by-product of the chocolate-making process. The chocolate pisco tasted like pure drinking chocolate with a punch! Finally, we satisfied our sweet cravings with the richest ice cream, made on the premises.

Parting ways with Toya and Luc, and wishing Toya luck with her banking situation, we turned our feet to the ocean for views of the famed Miraflores coast.

We found “The Love Park”, recommended by Luc as a fitting destination for honeymoooners, which afforded further views of the steep cliffs that line the water’s edge.

As the afternoon turned to evening, we found ourselves back at the hotel, collecting our luggage and hiring a car to take us to the airport. Though we didn’t know it at the time, the set rate for the car was critical at this hour, as the traffic to the airport was merciless. Driving in Lima seems to adhere primarily to one simple rule: see if your car can fit. Will another car be dinged in the process? Not an issue – based on the condition of many cars on the road. Our driver had a car in very nice condition, which put him at a disadvantage with some of the aggressive drivers en route. When we saw a fist-fight break out between two drivers in the middle of a traffic jam, our driver quietly rolled up the windows and locked the doors.

I grew tense as the minutes ticked by and the traffic did not move. We were starting to cut it close for our flight – at least, it felt so, given that I had no idea how long it would take us to get to the airport, through check-in, security and customs. A nice little cash grab of $62 USD “gate tax”, payable in cash only (the ATM charged Mindy another $5.50 USD to access the cash), slowed our progress through the airport and did nothing to improve my mood. Eventually we got to our gate with time to spare, and settled in to wait for our flight. Although this taste of Lima brought beautiful sights, excellent food, and the entertainment of Toya the chef, I have never been so happy to leave a vacation destination as I was today, waiting in the airport to board our plane.

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