Editor’s note: This trip took place before the Pandemic, so publication was delayed.
In December of 2019 we took a wonderful fam trip to Peru, hosted by the travel specialty company Spiced Destinations. I quickly discovered that this beautiful country comprises way more than the well known Inca ruins at Machu Picchu.
In fact, this South American delight is fast becoming a foodie paradise. Two of the top ten eateries in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants are located in the capital city of Lima.
The first day of our week-long sojourn with a dozen other travel agents began at the produce market in San Isidro, a picturesque, upscale seaside district.
Our tour through the market was led by Ignacio Barrios, the owner of Urban Kitchen. We stopped by vegetable vendors, where we learned about the incredible variety of food items sourced entirely from within the country. The fact that Peru contains 28 of the world’s 32 climate zones, enables the country to produce a mind boggling array of fruits and vegetables. We were told that more than two hundred kinds of potatoes are grown around the country, as well as a wide variety of corn, two of the prominent items served at most Peruvian meals. The market had vendors hawking seafood, teas, coffees, smoothies, dried fruits and chips.
We got a palate full of Peruvian cooking when we proceeded to Urban Kitchen. Chef Barrios led us through the preparation and artful cooking of traditional Peruvian dishes such as lomo saltado (beef tenderloin); tiradito, a sashimi-like dish of raw fish, which reflects the Japanese influence in Peruvian cooking; causa, shrimp or chicken atop a ball of mashed potato; and cebiche, raw fish, cured in citrus juice, with chili peppers, onions, and cilantro. This concoction results in a salty, spiced, and sour blend, which is made with lake trout as opposed to snapper, as is more common in Mexico.
Barrios has owned Urban Kitchen for six years. He trained in London and Madrid under the auspices of famed Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio. Guests to the restaurants help prepare and cook the dishes, under Barrios’ supervision.
“I think that working directly with the customers gives me something which is much more fun for me. I enjoy doing this because I can be sitting down with you and having lunch, giving more information than only a dish. I feel proud because I can give a visitor to Lima more information about Peruvian culture than by sitting down in a restaurant and eating our food.”– chef Ignacio Barrios
Our next stop was the Larco Herrera Museum, located in an Eighteenth century colonial mansion. It contains in incredible collection of pre-Colombian artifacts. The “storage” rooms contain shelf after shelf of pottery of varying sizes and shapes. From floor to ceiling, displays of containers are organized by animals, human shapes, insects, and other groups. A separate section contains a collection of erotic themed pottery.
We continued on to the Plaza Mayor, in the heart of ancient Lima where Government Palace, City Hall, and the Cathedral are located. Our final destination was Casa Aliaga, a colonial mansion that has been in the hands of the same family for seventeen generations. In this ornate setting, we had dinner.
The following morning we departed for Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire. At 11,000 feet above sea level, it’s an impressive mix of colonial buildings, plazas, streets and churches, as well as pre-Columbian remnants.
We didn’t stay long and proceeded to the village of Chincheros, where we saw a display of old world textile weaving by indigenous women. They showed us how they take the alpaca wool, dye it many colors, and create beautiful rugs, table runners, ponchos, scarves, and hats. One of the goals of the collective is to pass the tradition down to the younger generations, and keep this skilled art alive.
Next we visited a local market. Very different that the San Isidro market, people were, buying, selling, and bartering en masse. I bought five bananas for five soles, about $1.25.
We continued on towards the Sacred Valley of the Incas, stopping at Unu, for a veritable family style farm to table lunch, including a whole trout prepared with a salt layer, then baked. Also it was the first taste of Cuy (pronounced Coo-ee) which is wild guinea pig.
On the way to our hotel we stopped at the Maras Salt Mines. The mines are actually salt ponds created by directing the flow of a stream into a series of intricate channels, then into terraced ponds. These community-owned ponds are an incredible sight to behold, stretching across the entire field of view.
The Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba is a contemporary hacienda-style property, with a main building and surrounding “casita” rooms on a one-hundred acre property, set at the foot of an imposing mountain. Although we dropped in altitude down to 9000 feet above sea level, breathing the thin oxygen meant that the trek from the restaurant to our rooms still left you slightly breathless.
This day began with a bus journey up into the high Andes, to an indigenous village called Huilloc, with it’s amazing views of the valley below. We were treated to a classroom full of joyous children, learning Spanish as a second language. Most speak Quechuan at home, the language of the Incas. The village elders still dress in the traditional indigenous costumes. We learned about their traditions, and how they plant seeds for crops using ancient techniques. On our way back to the hotel we stopped at the Belmond Rio Sagrado for a sumptuous lunch by the Urubamba River. Several members of the group went zip lining, while others got to visit the spa at our hotel. Others took the opportunity for a rare afternoon off during a week in which we were heavily scheduled.
Dinner took place at the Sol y Luna hotel. We toured this exquisite property, comprised of forty-three circular casitas made of local stone, terra cotta and adobe brick, surrounded by the entrancing Sacred Valley landscape. The Killi Wasi Restaurant, where the culinary team trained with Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, one of the leading innovators of contemporary Peruvian cuisine. They have trained local farmers to grow the quinoa, potatoes, herbs, spices and other produce used in their creative cooking.
This was the day we finally got to see Machu Picchu. However, we had a few stops to make first, beginning with a site inspection of the Tambo del Inka hotel. This property is also located along the river, and features one of the best brunch buffets in the area.
Next, we drove to the quaint village of Ollantaytambo. This town, with its cobblestone streets, ancient water canals and terra cotta roofs, has remained relatively unsullied for hundreds of years. In addition to the starting point for hikers traversing the Inca trail, Ollantaytambo features an abandoned fortress, that was only partially completed when the Spaniards arrived in the sixteenth century.
A climb up to the top provides a fantastic view of the city, and the surrounding sacred valley. You even glimpse the storehouses and lookout on the mountain across from the fortress. It’s high hillside location, combined with a constant cooling cross breeze, enabled dried foods to last up to a decade.
Meet our host: Eitan Silberberg of Spiced Destinations
Eitan got his first taste of travel at age fourteen and has enjoyed globetrotting ever since then.
After his Israeli military service, he embarked on a ten-month journey of South America, traveling from Tierra del Fuego to Caracas Venezuela on seven dollars a day. He also attended Maxim’s de Paris hotel management school, spent time in the hospitality industry in sales and marketing. In 1977, he moved over to the tour operation industry. Twelve years later, Silberberg started his own business, Spiced Destinations.
Stocky, with a cherubic face, impish grin and seemingly boundless energy, Eitan was always the first one down for breakfast and the last person standing at night.
Silberberg is a gracious and very accommodating host. When our group was over scheduled, he didn’t hesitate to reschedule or cut part of the itinerary.
“The idea was to create a boutique tour operation for a true experiential travel, rather than just hitting the highlights through a bus taking pictures and going back home. So the idea is to have a lot of hands-on experiences when you’re traveling and trying to live with the local culture, even if it’s for a few hours a day. We started only with Latin America and slowly, slowly expended into different destinations, mostly by requests from repeat clients.”-Eitan Silberberg
From there it was a very short ride to the train station where we boarded an Inca Rail first class coach to Aguas Calientes. Due to the narrow passage and adjacent river, the journey to Machu Picchu village can only be made via rail, or an arduous three-day hike. The train trip takes you through the Urubamba Gorge. We had lunch service with live music, as we descended from 9000 feet to 6800 feet. The landscape morphs from an arid high desert to a lush sub tropical rain forest. The scrub and eucalyptus trees give way to the thick forest canopy.
At last we arrived at the village, with its hotels and shops built right into the side of the mountain. It would be a further twenty minute shuttle bus ride up narrow winding mountain roads, before we arrived at the park entrance. That is also the last chance to use the bathroom facilities, as there are none inside the grounds.
Once inside the park, it is a short traverse along a stone walkway, past some commemorative plaques, then up a cobblestone path, and once you step around a small storehouse building, there it is.
Absolutely splendid, spectacular and awe inspiring. The view is the same as you see in all the iconic photos. However, what pictures alone cannot supply is the 360 degree view of fifteen thousand foot, sheer granite cliffs and mountains sprouting up in every direction, as well as the surging river two thousand feet below.
One also doesn’t always comprehend the size of Machu Picchu, with its citadel, royal quarters, Temple of Three Windows, sacred Sun Dial, and sprawling main plaza. It took a solid three hours at a modest pace to traverse the entire area. Then it was back to the village and our hotel, where our bags awaited us. The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo sits on a twelve acre complex nestled into the mountain side, within walking distance of the train station. Part of the property are garden trails that meander through the rainforest. The 83-room hotel was constructed using stone, adobe, and eucalyptus to recreate the look and feel of an Andean village. Pre-Colombian and Andean artifacts in the main buildings enhance the authenticity of the property.
We returned once again to Machu Picchu, where about half the group hiked up to the Sun Gate. This spot offered another spectacular view of the iconic site. High above the grounds, at times it disappears as clouds of the rain forest. The Sun Gate lies just shy of 9000 feet, while the ruins sit about a thousand feet below. It is also the end of the Inca Trail, where bold trekkers can experience the three days journey from start to finish. The hike up took at least an hour and a half, with frequent stops to catch our breath. The return down was non stop, requiring only forty-five minutes to complete. This hike is challenging at a minimum, and not for everyone.
After exiting the park, we stopped for lunch and a tour of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel property and restaurant located at the entrance to the park. The building was originally used as a place for researchers to stay from 1911 to 1946. The site included storage rooms where tools needed for work on the site could be kept. It then changed hands several times, becoming the property of the regional government of Cusco, and eventually a luxury hotel.
Next, we boarded the train back to Ollantaytambo, where we picked up a bus for the two hour ride to Cusco. Our driver artfully navigated the afternoon rush hour traffic in this city of nearly half a million people to deliver us to the Belmond Hotel Monasterio. We were welcomed at the ornate chapel of this former monastery by a monk bearing tea for everyone. At just over 11,000 feet, the coca leaf tea is a very helpful way to combat the chance altitude sickness.
Dinner was at the Limbus Restobar, a challenging walk up many stairs, but resided on a hill with a beautiful view of the city below. Limbus is one of the most popular restaurants in town, with specialty cocktail and innovative cuisine. Limbus has a great atmosphere, huge portions, and delicious food. As we learned many times, Peruvian cooking is based in the traditional indigenous foods, and has strong influences from the immigrant Japanese, Chinese, and Caribbean populations.
Breakfast at the hotel included the usual fare we had most days. A buffet of eggs, breakfast meats, tasty breads, delicious cheeses, a great selection of fruits and juices, or a la carte items like pancakes, French toast, or eggs cooked to order. We then had an official inspection of the property which has gorgeous stone arches and lavish courtyards, fountains, and a slew of original oil paintings. The ones in the rooms, we found out, were replicas. The centerpiece is a three-hundred year old cedar tree.
Next door to the Monastario is the Belmond Palacio Nazarenes, another hotel, setting in a former convent built on Inca walls.
Our tour of the city began with a stop at the San Pedro Market, a thriving hub combining a traditional farmers market and eateries, catering to a variety of locals and tourists, with fish, meats (of all kinds), pastries, and deserts including fruit smoothies. The market vendors sold, bread, cheeses, teas and coffees, chocolates and candies. One of the more interesting things being hawked at the market were prepackaged kits full of plastic icons, nicknacks, and trinkets for spiritual offerings.
We also visited the cathedral, which like many of the original Spanish buildings, were constructed atop Incan foundations. However, this edifice has several parts of the original Inca temple. It was there we could see elements of the way the large stones were assembled into construction, without the use of mortar. The Incas developed an interlocking system, not unlike the way Lego bricks are put together.
Later in the morning we visited yet another property – Libertador Palacio del Inca, where we were also served another lunch. This trip was not very kind to the waistline, with gourmet meal after gourmet meal. The rest of the afternoon was left open for shopping in and around the central plaza.
That night was yet another inventive food experience. This time we dined at the MAP cafe, part of the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. After yet another creative dinner, our guide gave us a private tour of the museum, a hand picked collection of items from the Larco family collection. Before returning the to hotel, which was literally across the courtyard from the museum, we stopped in at the Fallen Angel, which Eitan had told us about. Flamboyant and ostentatious wouldn’t even begin to describe this menagerie of kitsch, and crazy artwork. It was something you’d see in SoHo or South Beach. The tables were comprised of porcelain tubs with live fish, covered in glass tops. As luck would have it, before we could really explore the place, the power went out (apparently, a somewhat frequent occurrence), so drinks were served by candlelight. The bartender informed us that the lease was running out, and the building owners had other ideas for the property. Sadly this unique establishment closed for good.
We walked over to the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin The entire building was built between 1560-1654, and contains some incredibly ornate chapels of silver and gold. Photography was not allowed, so we were left to imprint the images in our mind. Next, we were bused up to the ruins of Sacsayhuamán, a citadel made from massive stones, that was begun about nine hundred years ago. The site was expanded and added to by the Inca in the thirteenth century, who carefully cut the boulders to fit together tightly without mortar.
Our final event in Cusco was an outdoor lunch that included a traditional Andean ritual performed by a local shaman. He has one of those kits they sold in the market. As he carefully unwrapped all the parts, he explained which ones were for health, safe travel, thanking the spirits, and lit it on fire, replicating a ritual sacrifice. Then we departed for the airport for our return flight to Lima.
We experienced the full on Friday afternoon traffic as our trip of a mere eleven miles took well over an hour to take us to see the last two hotels on our trip. The Belmond Miraflores Park and the AC Hotel are in the trendy Miraflores section of Lima. The Belmond had great ocean views and city views, along with a very scenic rooftop pool. The AC is run by Marriott, had been open less than a year, and was very modern. Our evening ended with light snacks at the second floor lounge area. Then we headed back to the airport for our overnight flights back to the United States.
Just as Eitan had designed it, our journey was indeed “experiential”. We ate in someone’s home. We shopped at the food market, and helped prepare and cook lunch in Peruvian style. We visited with indigenous people in their homes and school. And we took pictures of Machu Picchu. Lots of pictures.