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Day 2 in Lima
Are hats illegal here?
We woke and made our way downstairs, through the courtyard and into the small dinging area. We commanded the coffee robot to make us americanos and sized up the breakfast buffet. The attendant offered us eggs with quinoa - apparently something enjoyed in the Andes (that covers a lot of ground).
Crisp but tender quinoa tossed with scrambled eggs is actually pretty darn great. As we made our way through breakfast, a very large and loud American man with a Santa Claus beard was holding court as his table. Family? Friends? Couldn’t be friends. Friends would have told him to shut up by now. He prattled on about meeting a vlogger (video blogger) who made videos about travel and food. He proceeded to educate the table on how there were two kinds of food vloggers ones who do X and ones who do Y. He had no idea what he was talking about, but he continues lecturing with confidence.
The man somehow seamlessly segued into his (lengthy) family history. 15 minutes later, he proclaimed “and that’s my family history in 5 minutes or less”. We looked at each other, filled our coffees, and left. That man’s poor family must be incredibly patient. Our room includes a nice terrace. We sat outside and enjoyed the air and the flowers. Ms Barrett read while I polished my newsletter from the day before. Ms Barrett helped me proofread.
Our rough plan was to head to the historic city center, then find a beach, and then show up on time for our guided food tour. We got ourselves together, I fumbled with the traditional key lock (again) and asked for advice on taking a cab. The receptionist suggested Uber. Well of course.
Taking an Uber seems to require three tries in Lima. Uber will find you a driver, and then they will reject the ride. Then again. Third time is the charm and in 3 minutes or so a four-door Yaris pulled up to take us downtown. The man driving, speaking in Spanish, gave Ms Barrett some suggestions for the center, what to see, where to walk. He arrived at the intersection where the streets were blocked for pedestrians only. We thanked him and tipped and jumped out of the Yaris, and crossed the street when the traffic cop waved us on.
We walked down a small side street which led to the Plaza Mayor. We spotted a little coffee shop and dropped in for a treat. Normally I drink only black coffee but the sugar here is so tasty - brown with molasses-ey goodness, so I make my coffee double sweet. I’m worth it. We passed an interesting mishmash of architecture. Ancient, new, and new ancient - like things from the 60s(?) in disrepair. As we walk into the center, I’m eyeballing every little shop and storefront, looking for a hat.
As a man of a certain age and genetic predisposition, I don’t have a lot of hair up there. I keep it cut pretty short these days. Anything longer than ½” looks like a sad Bruce Willis impersonation. I am also a very pale white guy who lives in Portland. My resistance to the angry sun’s harmful rays is nil. I normally wear a hat. My daily wear is either a brimmed grampa hat (for winter) or a Nike running hat for casual. My winter hat would be ruined with all the summer sweat. I need a new summer hat. My running hat was stinky from a run just prior to packing to leave. I didn’t want to funk-up my entire suitcase, so I decided “hey I’m on vacation, I should buy a hat”. I didn’t pack a hat.
There were no hats. No stores had hats. There were a million stuffed, toy alpacas, but no hats. It was still overcast, so I wasn’t yet worried.
We found the center and a bench and looked around and enjoyed our coffee and people watching. When we finished our coffee we picked a direction and followed our noses through the center to a small park enshrining very old city walls. The old stone peeks up from the ground, surrounded by modern pavement. Nearby was a very old church, under heavy renovation.
The church is actually the Convent of San Francisco - monks live and work there. To help fund their operations and restorations they offer tours of the catacombs. The tour tickets were 20 Soles - about $5 American.
The tour began in a small chamber slathered in moorish inspired tile. A grouchy but knowledgeable tour guide conducted the tour in English, admonishing us not to take any photos at all, ever, and not to touch anything. She led us into the convent up stairs and through galleries, looking at tile, old rediscovered murals (or frescos?) on the walls, original canvases, altarpieces, and all manner of architectural wonders. She led us into the historical library used by the Franciscan monks. Tens of thousands of old books lined the walls. Iron gated skylights light the room. The books are in 5 or more languages. We are forbidden from taking photos.
Our guide leads us down stairs, into a small tunnel, and into a crypt. We are in the catacombs. Apparently this is the top floor of the catacombs, and there are two more levels below which are sealed off and inaccessible. We walk by rectangular crypts with femurs, skulls, tibia and fibula, and sometimes just fragments. It appears that the ancient remains are resting on dust and, is that earth? Gravel? No, it’s all crumbled bones. Our guide explains that the crypts are 4 meters deep.
As we walk through more underground chambers, we see the same walkway and rectangular ares in the floor. These are more crypts, just buried. We’re walking over more bones. Here and there light and fresh air seep in from the church sanctuary above us. These passages are gated and allow some light and air into the catacombs. We can hear mass recited above our heads. Towards the end of our tour, we see a vast, cylindrical ossuary. From where we stand is we see down some 12 feet into the ossuary where skulls and femurs are arranged in a concentric pattern. Like the other crypts, this one is much deeper than it appears. Our guide claims some 25000 souls are entombed here. This was the only gravesite in the area for hundreds of years.
Over the years folks have tossed coins into the ossuary. I see them glinting in the electric lights. I could not explain why, but I felt the same impulse. Maybe the dead need spending money.
We emerge from the catacombs. Mass has ended and we can tour the church sanctuary. Peering down from above, I can see another tour group through the grates in the floor, now beneath my feet. “Ha ha! you are trapped and I am free!” I think, almost, out loud. In front of the altar a monk has fallen asleep in his chair.
Outside the entrance to the tour, a small army of schoolchildren in matching red and blue uniforms is lined up outside. I can just imagine the screams and giggling when they see all the bones.
As we left the massive church complex we spotted two restaurants vying for our attention. We chose the one with outdoor seating. We ordered two Pilsen beers (local brand of pilsner) and chatted a bit with the waiter.
Everyone we’ve met has been exceptionally kind and welcoming. Peruvians seem genuinely excited to share their country with visitors. It’s charming. And it’s good for business. We stayed for lunch. Mrs Barrett ordered a classic Lima ceviche ( sea bass, lime, chili, accompanied with large fried corn kernels) and I ordered a ridiculous layer cake of golden mashed potato, avocado, and octopus - also saturated with lime and chili. Lima-style ceviche is light and fresh. Typically ceviche eaten at lunch time, because fish caught in the morning is no longer considered fresh enough for dinner. Sea bass has is a lean, firm fish and holds up well to the lime juice and chili.
My dish, with golden fluffy layers of mashed potato holding up a tower of octopus and avocado was an architectural marvel. It was amazingly decadent and surprising. It never occurred to me to partner potato with avocado, much less octopus, but it works.
After lunch and extended goodbyes with our waiter, we strolled back to the square to catch a ride back to our hotel.
We wanted to go dip our toes in the ocean. At the front desk we confirmed directions to find the path to the stairs, down the cliff side , to the boardwalk, As we started along our way, the overcast skies cleared. I began to have head awareness and started ducking into shade whenever I could. As we got close to the path down to the boardwalk I quickly searched all the nearby stores. No hats. I was now very aware of my head.
We spied some vendors with carts down by the water. We decided to go for it and cross our fingers. We walked down the long, steeply sloped path - a sort of alleyway really, down to a set of stairs to a foot bridge over the freeway, and finally to the boardwalk along the ocean.
There an old man was selling beach things, including the worst hat in the world. A big country-ass looking canvas hat with drawstrings. It made me look like a discount cowboy. But you know what? My scalp was no longer sizzling in the sun.
The shore is rocky. This part of Lima sits atop a sheer cliff face, overlooking the ocean. Beach access requires a steep descent and often a bridge. At the beach we stripped off our shoes and socks, rolled up our pants and waded into the chilly ocean. We watched half naked children shivering and refusing to get out of the water. We saw clandestine lovers canoodling on beach towels. We saw bathing beauties in tiny swimsuits, sunning their cheeks. We watched surfers perform feats of skill and strength on the waves. The tide was rolling in so we found a rock to perch on and squeeze back into our shoes. Mrs Barrett took photos of me struggling with my socks and leaping over the incoming tide to safety. I’m sure this was a sight to behold, because I am graceful. Like a duck with two left feet.
We hiked the long slow climb back up the cliff to street level again and meandered back to our hotel for a quick rinse.
Our travel agency booked a food tour for us; a guided tour of several restaurants in the area. Our guide arrived 15 minutes early; someone from the hotel knocked on our door to warn us. We bounded out to reception to meet Kimberley, a smartly dressed young Limandra with an American name. We would learn later that Kimberley’s father worked on cruise ships and picked her name. I bet there’s a tale of scandal and heartbreak behind that story.
We tumbled into the van and met an eager foodie from New York who was fresh off his enlistment in the Navy and ready to eat. There were two young ladies, best friends from childhood, one now lived in Florida, one lived in New York city. They were here for a good time. Adorable twenty-something ladies dressed up cute and ready to go out on the town after their food tour.
Our first stop was Ca La - a famous seafood restaurant right on the water. We waded in the waves nearby just hours ago. Kimberly told us we were about to enjoy tiraditos, which you may think is ceviche - but it’s not. Tiraditos features sea bass sliced thinly, like sashimi, paired with avocado, and fresh corn in a yellow chili-and-lime sauce. Kimberley also admonished us - no we will not be having a Pisco Sour with this dish, we will have a light purple corn beer from Cusco. A strong drink like a Pisco Sour will overpower the fresh fish, and then what’s the point?
Our navy friend began to open up, telling us how he wrote a sad letter about it being his birthday, his just finishing his tour in the navy, and could he please get a table at Centro for just him. He used Google Translate to convert the email to Spanish. This plan worked, and he had a reservation at Centro - currently the highest rated restaurant in the world.
We piled into the van and headed back to Huaca Pucllana - where we had lunch the day before. We decided to play dumb. There are worse things than eating at a fabulous restaurant twice. We didn’t want to disappoint Kimberly.
At Huaca Pucllana we had a pile of small plates: papa relleno (fried, stuffed pillows of mashed potato), chicarrón de pollo (chunks breaded, fried, marinated chicken), antichucho (deeply seasoned and grilled beef heart, served with fries), and cheese filled empanadas. During this stop our young lady from Florida told us how her grandfather was from Peru (she is Cuban) and he made papa relleno for many times; it is one of her favorites. Kimberly said “welcome home”.
On the drive to our next location, the young ladies started asking Kimberly about herself. She opened up and told us about the man she’s just begun dating. He’s an old family friend. They’ve known each other for years. Something changed and now they are dating…but they are afraid to tell the families. She confessed worry that their families might not approve. I said (to myself) that the real reason not to tell anyone is that the families would start planning a wedding immediately. Those parents and abuelas will be so happy their feet won’t touch the ground for months. They will just float from room to room singing little songs.
We arrived at our last stop, La Cuadra de Salvador; a beautiful steak house. This restaurant is indoor/outdoor like many places in Peru. Walled off from the street with a semi covered patio. This mostly protects from the sun, as it almost never rains in Lima. There we had a traditional asian fusion dish: lomo saltado. This is heavily spiced stir-fried beef served with fries.
It’s not easy to be a vegetarian in Peru. When we travel we do our best but just try to go with the flow. I tried each of these beef dishes. They are wonderfully well made. Artful, careful, considered. Excellent by any measure. But after two years of avoiding animal products, beef is just another thing on the menu, nothing special, a little overrated, and overpriced.
The potatoes though? Oh my god the potatoes here are amazing. There are literally thousands of varieties of potato commonly available in Peru. How many can you think of? Five? Maybe? Here they are golden, they are pale, they are purple, they are fluffy, they are dense, they are sweet, they aren’t too sweet, they are way too sweet. They are prepared and paired with so many unexpected things.
Our final stop for the evening was La Bodega Verde which is a very old walled garden and carriage house that used to be attached to the grand manor home next door. The garden is full of trees and house cats. Here we tried a dessert made from lúcuma, a local super fruit with a custard-like pulp, and custard apple, which is just like it sounds, a creamy custard made from apples and other things. After dessert we stood on the street chatting. It was dark now and I realized we were right across from the part of town where I was running around earlier trying desperately to find a hat, while my scalp sizzled in the sun. We snapped some group photos and traded WhatsApp contacts, climbed in the van and headed back to our hotel.