A little bit of everything…

Life in Peru these past few weeks has become a blur; I’ve seen, done, and eaten so many new things.

I’m getting to know the city little by little, starting with our neighborhood, Planeta. I walk to the little corner shop, buy cakes from the cake lady down the street, I can now find my way to the “laundromat” (or the lady that takes my bag of dirty, smelly clothes and gives them back to me the next day neatly folded and smelling fresh and clean). I can go for short runs with Sophie (as long as I don’t mind the exhaust fumes or the inevitable whistles and shouts), take our lovable 1-year-old Rottweiler, Killer, for a walk (or, rather, he takes us for a walk), and I can go “shopping” at the market.

Markets are found all over Lima; food and clothing vendors set up their booths and shops along a street and you just walk through them and buy anything from a plate of hot dogs and fries (salchipapas) to a pair of sensible underwear. It’s like a mixture between a farmer’s market, a flea market, and a county fair (our market has a little carousel and a few Foosball tables at one end). Downtown Lima hosts the Central Market, the biggest one in the city. It takes up multiple city blocks and covers multiple streets and is always crowded with vendors and shoppers or little boys sitting on speakers singing songs into microphones to collect money.

I’ve also done a lot of the tourist-type activities in Lima. The other day we witnessed the changing of the guard at the Government Palace. It was a short event; lots of music and marching, but pretty interesting to see.

We also visited the Franciscan Church and saw the catacombs. For just 5 soles (about $1.50), you can tour the building with a guide who speaks your language. The church was built in 1546 and is the oldest in South America. It was also the first Catholic cemetery. The church itself is beautiful—the intricacies of the wood carvings are pretty breathtaking. The catacombs aren’t as creepy as I thought they would be. Yes, they are boxes or deep wells full of bones, but whoever worked to restore the place decided it would be good to put the bones in patterns and designs, so it just looked kind of weird.

A night out at Pisco Palace
A night out at Pisco Palace

One night we all went out for drinks at Pisco Palace. Pisco is the official brandy of Peru, and Pisco Palace is a restaurant/ bar located in one of the hotels in the Plaza San Martin. It’s a pretty classy, upscale place. Anyway, the signature cocktail in Peru is a Pisco Sour, a drink made with lime juice, sugar, egg whites, Pisco, and other ingredients I’m probably forgetting. So Tim, Justin, and Sophie all ordered Pisco Sours while Julio and I, non-conformists that we are, decided to try a new drink, El Capitan. I’m not sure what it was. My guess is it was pure Pisco with a cherry in it. Whatever it was, it hurt to drink and I didn’t have much of it. But it was still a fun night.

We also spent an afternoon in Miraflores (a very nice area of Lima) at the Larcomar Shopping Center. It’s located right on the edge of a cliff on the Pacific, so the views are beautiful. It’s expensive, but I guess it’s the place to go if you need your Starbucks, Chili’s, Tony Roma’s, or Hooters fix. I ended up getting a small coffee from Dunkin Donuts, which was EXTREMELY small, but it was okay because I also got a free munchkin with it. The boys got themselves very large Pisco Sour gelato cones. Miraflores itself is extremely nice, very beautiful, and very safe. You can actually go paragliding over the area, which I plan on doing before I leave. There are many expensive hotels, but also some budget hostels, so it’s probably worth it to spend a day there.

The boys with their Pisco Sour gelatos
The boys with their Pisco Sour gelatos

Last week we four volunteers headed over to the Lima Gastronomic Festival. Sophie describes it in her blog a lot more than I will, but it was like the Taste of Chicago times 100. You could buy anything from a snack from a street vendor to a sample dish from one of Lima’s finest restaurants. We all ate so much food. We tried a papa rellena (stuffed potato), which ended up being stuffed with ground beef, egg, cheese, and olives. We also ate soup (I can’t remember the name of it), anticuchos (beef heart), dessert pastries, pudding, coffee, and bread and cheese from a really nice bakery with an elaborate set-up. We also got a plate full of typical food found in Cuzco, the closest city to the site of Machu Picchu. This dish had guinea pig, fish eggs, something that resembled deep-fried corn bread, turkey (we think), and some other random meat (maybe alpaca?).

Ceviche Mixto
Ceviche Mixto

I’ve also tried many other new foods. The same day we went to Miraflores we went out for ceviche, Peru’s national dish. It’s basically raw fish, squid, crab, lobster, or any other sort of aquatic life. It’s “cooked” by squirting lime juice all over it, and the acid is supposed to react in a way that makes it safe to eat. Now, I like sushi, so the raw fish part didn’t bother me (although I was a little taken aback at the full crab sitting on top of my plate). I just don’t like lime juice all that much, which is pretty much all I tasted when I ate it. But as far as freshness goes, the restaurant was located on a beach and the food was caught right there, so that was about as good as it gets.

We’ve also had Chinese food (here it’s called “chifa”). Chifa is pretty popular in Peru—there’s actually a whole Chinatown section in Lima. It’s pretty similar to the Chinese food found in the US, and it’s actually not that different from Peruvian food, besides the addition of soy sauce. Both use soup, rice, stir-fried vegetables, and some sort of meat.

Other foods I’ve tried include a bite of Justin’s Peruvian hamburger (the meat tastes very different, plus the fries are loaded right onto the bun), and a drink called emoliente. It’s like tea, but thicker. It’s sold a lot in the evenings by street vendors and is supposed to be really good for you if have a cold or a sore throat. I’m not sure what she put in it. Some sort of goo, hot water, and other random liquids. It tasted very sweet.

I’ve done a little traveling outside of Lima, as well. A few weeks ago we went to a wedding in the town of Casma for Julio’s niece (read Tim and Sophie’s blog for more info). It’s located right by the lesser known ruins of Caral and Sechin, the oldest ruins in the Americas. They aren’t huge tourist attractions yet, but they’re worth seeing. The wedding itself was a blast. The reception started around 10:30 and didn’t end till 7:00 the next morning, and the dancing in between is non-stop. We volunteers tired out at around 4:00.

Last weekend we went camping at Marcahuasi. Justin describes it a lot in his blog, so go read his if you want another perspective. But we basically took a three and a half hour bus ride up into the mountains, on narrow winding roads with steep drop-offs and no guard rails. It takes a lot to make me nervous, but looking out my window and seeing nothing below me but the valley several hundred feet down definitely made my stomach do a few flips.

The bus took us to the small mountain town of San Pedro de Casta. It’s crazy; it’s in the middle of nothing. The altitude didn’t really bother me as far as my breathing was concerned. I was a little light-headed and had a small headache, but for the most part I was feeling pretty good about myself as we made the 2 ½ hour hike from Casta to Marcahuasi. Marcahuasi is a fascinating place. It’s 14,000 feet up and is covered with large stones that look like animals or faces. No one is really sure how the stones were carved or who did it.

A view of Casta
A view of Casta

Anyway, our final destination after completing our scenic hike was the abandoned house (by house, I mean four cement walls, a roof, and an opening for a door with just enough space for we four volunteers and Julio to sleep in) of Dr. Daniel Ruzo, the architect who discovered and researched Marcahuasi. We set up camp there and watched a beautiful sunset and Julio (in all his boy-scout-skilled glory) made us a fire and cooked us soup and we sat around and ate, made hot chocolate, drank terrible rum and told stories.

Well, all of us except for Sophie, who got a very bad case of altitude sickness—dizziness, nausea, vomiting, the whole nine yards. But when you’re isolated on top of a mountain in the pitch black with no cell phone service, there’s nothing you can do but wait it out.

As I laid down to go to sleep, I definitely felt queasy and light-headed myself, and spent the most uncomfortable night of my life tossing and turning on the cement floor, debating whether or not I should get up to go outside and throw up. When morning finally came, I felt a little better, but poor Timmy got up, walked out of the house, and went straight to the side and threw up. Drinking coca tea and chewing on coca leaves is supposed to help with altitude sickness. And, if you chew limestone with the coca leaves, it activates the actual coca ingredient, making the remedy much stronger (also, supposedly numbing the side of your face).However, I’ve found that the best cure for altitude sickness is to HIKE BACK DOWN.

Sick and weary travelers in front of the monument at Marcahuasi
Sick and weary travelers in front of the monument at Marcahuasi

We were a pretty pathetic group as we packed up and trekked back down that morning, too sick and tired to do any more sightseeing around the area. It’s a shame, because it’s a very cool place with hours upon hours of hiking. On the plus side, I was able to stay warm around the fire, and the hike up and down was a nice workout. But needless to say I was very grateful to get to a lower altitude and even more grateful to sleep in my wonderful, wonderful bed that night.

Peru is such a vast country; there is still so much that I haven’t seen or tried or visited; still so much I don’t know. And I know that I probably won’t be able to do most of it but I love and appreciate all that has happened so far!

Shannon Bixler

I'm Shannon--I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and went to school at St. Louis Univeristy. In the fall of 2007 I studied abroad in El Salvador, during which time I was able to travel to Belize and Nicaragua. I graduated in December of 2008 with majors in Political Science and International Studies and minors in Spanish and Women's Studies. Since then I've been living at home, working as a waitress, and trying to find a career that satisfies my love for travel, adventure, and adrenaline rushes. I'm so excited to be in Lima and to see and learn all that I can about Peru.

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