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July 29, 2019

Machu Picchu side dish: Guinea pig on a plate

Cusco

Sailing along the South American coast was the beginning of a pilgrimage to the ancient glory of Machu Picchu – fortified by gourmet guinea pigs.

Why am I feeling so guilty about eating a guinea pig? The dilemma isn’t that bad after all. Not since my chat with the chef at the Inkaterra Hotel where the train from Cusco pulls into Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu in Peru. One of the special dishes here is roast guinea pig served with mashed potato, drizzled in a mandarin jus. So, when I buy my guinea pigs (cuys) from a roadside barbecue in the Secret Valley, I’m told by my local guide that I should serve them with the latest in food fashion, quinoa, with over 350 varieties. Since the 1960s, efforts have been made to increase consumption of the ‘cuy’ outside South America and these days Andean immigrants in New York City raise them for major ethnic restaurants.

The meat is high in protein, low in fat and similar to the dark meat of chicken. It’s served fried (chactado or frito) or roasted in pieces (al horno) but in Cusco, it’s baked whole, like a cute, small, suckling pig garnished with pomegranates. For me, it is an instant hit. Funny though, it’s not featured on cruise menus.



If anyone had told me that after a nine-day sophisticated cruise on a posh Ponant ship, Le Boreal, along the South American coast, I’d be lugging an el cheapo backpack on the train to the ruins of Machu Picchu, I’d have said they were bonkers. But both experiences were equally fantastic and vastly different.

Our cruise starts in Puerta Caldera in Costa Rica and we head towards the palm-fringed Cocas Island on our way to Guayaquil in Ecuador, the real and only home of the Panama hat, first woven in 1630 and now, still handwoven, exported worldwide. From the minute I step on board, I feel at ease with the French flavour of Le Boreal. All 132 cabins have ridiculously comfy beds and pillows. The bathrooms feature full-length glass panels so I can shower while ocean gazing. Facials and fitness are available at the spa and gym, which also take advantage of sea views.

A la carte dining takes on a new meaning in the elegant La Licombe where the passengers, mostly French, dress to the nines as they devour their frogs’ legs and foie gras. On deck six at La Boussole, breakfast, lunch and dinner are enjoyed buffet-style, indoors or beside the pool.

Latin American musicians put us in the mood for arrival in Lima, Peru, a multiethnic nation formed over five centuries before the Spanish Conquest in the 16th Century. Lima has much to intrigue the first time visitor. Barranco is favourable for accommodation so I choose the only real boutique hotel, the very arty Hotel B. Located a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean and a short waterfront walk to the shopping mecca of Miaflores, I pass the Parque del Amor scattered with monuments and mosaics devoted to love.

The ruins of Machu Picchu and the beautiful city of Cusco is somewhere I’ve yearned to visit. At 2400m, after a one hour flight from Lima, I spend two days acclimatising in Cusco and soaking up the pulsating atmosphere in this city of half a million, where the houses climb up the hillsides. The main square explodes with people and Spanish buildings and traditionally clothed women clutch baby alpacas to earn a few cents for tourist photos. Shopping for handmade fabrics and jewellery at the markets is fun and good value.

Machu Picchu is 130km from Cusco so, in a mini-bus, we drive via the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo for our scenic and comfortable train trip to overnight in Aguas Calientes. We’re up at 6.30am to beat the first tourist train and catch the shuttle bus up the winding roadside to the crowning jewel of Inca architecture.

Known as ‘the lost city of the Incas’, and perched high in the Andean Cordillera, it remained hidden until 1911 when archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, revealed it to the world. Thought to be built around 1440 and abandoned before the Spanish invasion of 1532, it was used as a secondary palace for the emperor with temples dedicated to Inca divinities in the main courtyard and other annexed buildings for servants looking after up to 750 inhabitants. Surrounded by mountain peaks, Machu Picchu is a city of granite, so grey amongst greenery but overwhelming on first sight. Two days, partly guided and partly exploring alone, was ideal. It still remains shrouded in mystery as the Incas left no trace, either written or oral, to explain their departure. As part of a 325km square nature reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983, it’s a magnificent world wonder, worth every second of waiting for trains and boats and planes.

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Originally published in Get up & Go Magazine Winter 2016


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