When I visited Lima on a brief business trip in the 1980s, I was not impressed. It was a sprawling mess of a city under perpetually gray skies. I described it as being a lot like Los Angeles — if you picked L.A. up, shook out all the money and swept it away, then dropped it back down.
Peru was experiencing hard times politically and economically at the time. The Shining Path was terrorizing the countryside and Lima was considered a hazardous place to visit, though to me, it felt more depressing than dangerous. The embassy had warned me not to wander around on my own, so I didn’t explore much. Nothing bad happened, but I was very glad I only needed to be there for two days.
When my traveling companions from the Cuba trip suggested we reunite with a Peru trip this year, memories of that short visit came back to me. I agreed to go, but I was looking forward to seeing my food-loving travel buddies more than the country itself.
Then I started doing some research. Even though I haven’t changed a bit in the intervening decades (unless you are rude enough to consider wrinkles, bad knees, a shock of white, er, purple hair and 25 pounds of what I am sure is pure muscle to be a change), Peru has experienced a transformation. Despite some spectacularly corrupt presidents, it has managed to build a thriving economy and achieve political stability. And in the past 10 years, it has also emerged as a culinary destination, with a distinctive cuisine that draws on the plenteous and varied resources of its ocean, deserts, fertile valleys and tropical rainforests.
I realized I needed to wipe the slate of my bad memories and give the place a second change.
I was excited when I stepped off the plane at Lima airport, and looking forward to seeing what the Peru of today has to offer.
And I wasn’t disappointed. The trip was amazingly great (and delicious). Never fear, you’ll hear all about it, as I will be milking it for as many columns as I can squeeze out of it for the next two months. (It’s either that, or write about the marauding rats in my garage, which, trust me, you really don’t want to know about.)
We had terrific meals at restaurants that rival the best in the world, and at small holes in the wall you would never think to visit. We toured a market and spent an hour tasting one exotic fruit after another, most of which I had never heard of before. We ate ceviche so fresh the fish practically swam onto the plate. We toured Inca sites that left me gaping in awe at the sophisticated engineering. We saw ice-capped mountains, lush valleys and everything in between.
It’s an amazing country and a great place to visit, and I look forward to telling you about the trip.
But I do have to acknowledge that the old saying is true. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Especially when the second impression is pretty much the same as the first.
Lima will never be on my list of favorite cities. It is still a sprawling mess under a perpetually gray sky. It’s a desert, but one where it drizzles. The sun occasionally breaks through, but not for long. It has even worse traffic than Los Angeles (where at least the motorists do not invent their own lanes, or play chicken with pedestrians in the crosswalk). The whiff of diesel is perpetually in the air. The buildings are short and undistinguished. It has some nice neighborhoods, but overall it lacks charm.
Even the high bluffs overlooking the frigid, gray Pacific are less than picturesque, and the islands in the harbor look less welcoming than Alcatraz.
Fortunately, it has a couple other things going for it.
The Peruvians we met were warm, welcoming, proud of their culture and happy to share it with visitors. The restaurants were wonderful. The cuisine is defined by “fresh and local” and the seafood was amazing.
And then there is that fabulous concoction, the pisco sour, available nearly everywhere.
As a cocktail, it is simplicity itself — just spirits, lime juice, sugar and egg white, with a dash of bitters. But like everything in the Andes, it seems to possess a mysterious power derived from the gods.
After a couple of them, Lima lost its grayness and took on a lovely glow.
Or maybe that was me. Well, something was glowing in that charming city.
The traditional beverage native to Peru is chicha, a kind of low- or no-alcohol beer made from corn. As elsewhere in the Americas, alcohol did not play much of a role in earlier civilizations. Priests used mushrooms and cactus with mind-altering properties in their ceremonies, but from what I can tell, the public at large relied only on chewing coca leaves, a very mild stimulant.
Pisco is a later introduction, as it depends on grapes, which were brought to Peru by the Spanish. It dates to about the 16th century, when Spanish settlers began distilling local wine as an alternative to imported brandy.
It is a clean, clear spirit whose hints of fruity flavor and aromas derive from the types of grapes used. It’s a good mixer in general, and has started showing up in cocktails in the U.S. But my favorite is still the classic sour.
2 ounces pisco
1-2 Tbsp. sugar, to taste
1 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
3 ice cubes
1 Tbsp. egg white (use pasteurized if you are nervous about raw eggs)
Put everything except the bitters in a blender and mix until it is frothy.
Pour into a glass and shake two drops of the bitters on top. Garnish with a slice of lime.