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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Papacho's - Cusco


Q: How do you spell tourist-trap in Inca? 
A: P-a-p-a-c-h-o-apostrophe-S. 

Their slogan is "where anything can be transformed into a hamburger", and that should have been our first clue. Our second clue was the burger-covered menu. Burgers with meat, burgers without meat, burgers with every kind of vegetable, every kind of fruit, and every combination of the above.


The one thing that WAS authentic about Papacho's was their portions. Served true-to-Peru, the Chanchito was a crispy, skin-and-fat side of half a hog. Savory met sweet with a chunky, smoothie-style mango chutney, and the side of yucca is surprisingly well-seasoned. I have no complaints about the Chanchito, but a burger might have been more memorable.



All that salty pork was making me thirsty, and there was my excuse to try
La Tierna. Strawberry and passionfruit were an infallible combination, but this too-sugary smoothie made me feel like I was ordering off the kids' menu from my booster seat.


When in Peru...I’m still sucker for wings. The Charapitas were "bathed in the Amazon's most sinful flavors," and I was just drowning in the indescribable, never-

had-anything-like-it, sweet n' spicy flavor-craze.

I fully expected to hate Papacho's because I just can’t be a foreign-hamburger fan, but they still had me impressed. Their burgers do play it safe for the tourists, but their flavors are fresh, their combinations are new, and there's no doubt they can deliver a damn good plate of food.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Hot Springs II - Machu Picchu



I hate Hot Springs II. With a name like "Hot Springs" in a town whose attraction is actual hot springs, I can only conclude that they get off on watching confused tourists hike up an immense, unnecessary hill, huffing and puffing their way to the medicinal waters of the aguas calientes at the top only to find that their bags and tour guides are waiting in a restaurant by the train station at the bottom. 

By the time we found Hot Springs II (because one wasn’t enough), it was too late to order anything but the pizza without missing our train.



The pizza came quickly and caliente, right out of the oven, but that’s about all they did right. One Pizza had a few juicy mushrooms, soft artichokes, and salty pepperoni-esque sausage swimming in a vat of greasy, grocery-store-bag cheese. The cheese made long, slightly-soggy strings when you tried to pull the slices apart, but there was so much of it that it sloughed off the slices in chunks.



The Meat Lover's had an even mix of sausage, pepperoni, and ham, but it was hard to appreciate anything in the midst of all that cheese. The papery-tasting crust didn't help. 


I walked into Hot Springs II fully prepared to hate it thanks to the stress of finding it, and the pizza only helped me along. Despite the stress, I remained reluctant to bid the beautiful Machu Picchu goodbye, so I guess it’s a good thing Hot Springs II made me a little less inclined to linger. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Indio Feliz - Machu Picchu Town



When you go through an ordeal like the Lares Trek, there better be a shining light at the end of that torturous tunnel. Our light was a hot shower in Machu Picchu town and a hot meal without the side of nausea at Indio Feliz.


If you started by slurping the syrupy Andean elderberry liqueur from the Andean Trujillo Melon like we did, everything got fun pretty fast because that liqueur is a lot stronger than it looks!



The theme of the appetizers was clearly, "We just got a new melon baller and we're not afraid to use it". The Avocado with Papaya was a pretty baller way to start; a glass of the smoothest, creamiest, ripest avocado balls I've ever had with an olive oil and lemon dressing that was out of this world.



Indio Feliz is as touristy as you'd expect considering Machu Picchu town doesn't have permanent inhabitants, but the menu does have native items like the Andean red trout, which is prepared in every possible way. Our Salmon Trout with Quillabamba Mango is filleted fresh, and the soft, sweet mango goes well with the fish. The Salmon Trout Meuniere meshed perfectly with a squeeze of lemon.



The Tender Beef Skewers were as tender as they promised, though "entire steaks on a stick" would have been a more accurate name. The beef was as medium rare as we wanted, with red peppers and onions, all nicely roasted. A little more salt wouldn't hurt, but it definitely hit the spot for some post-hike protein.



The Homemade Apple Pie has a flaky crust with soft, stacked apples. A little taste of home away from home, except the pie was more like a tart.



The Bistro style Creme Caramel is rich and firm but turns to cream in the mouth. This fancy French flan was made just right.


I wasn't expecting much from Machu Picchu tourist-town. My only hope was that the food would be good, but the fusion of Peruvian and French could really go either way. Indio Feliz definitely went the good way, and although it wasn’t the most authentic food in Peru, I definitely felt feliz for being a tourist at Indio Feliz.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Lares Trek – Peru


Now that we're gearing up to hike, we'll be starting the journey of 20.5 miles. Like the journey of a thousand miles, this one also starts with a single step. That first single step was exhilarating, but it the millions of steps in the middle I a problem with.


I think the only thing that got me through the Lares Trek was the food. Norman, our cook, was a 20-something with a skill that no mountain high, no valley low can suppress. Even our altitude-dulled taste buds and cerebral edema-induced nausea were no match for his seasoning.


Our first mountain meal started with a light but hearty veggie noodle Soup after a light but hearty hike. A derivative of chicken noodle with none of the fatty condensation from Campbell's, steaming as hot as the aguas calientes where we started our hike.


The first entree was my favorite, a succulent slice of Red Trout with a cold side of causa and impossibly sweet carrots. The trout tastes fresh-caught, and even my altitude nausea wasn’t enough to keep me from cleaning my plate.


The sweet little Strawberry Swirl is a high note to end on. If the tea doesn't help your headache, refined sugar seems to be the next best thing.


I had heard that the Lares Trek was great, but I had no idea just how amazing it was. We blazed our trail through the llama paths, and we walked right through the Andean villages along the way. 


The first day's 5 miles were easy enough. A lot of cross-mountain with a little bit of hill, not a bad transition from hot springs to cushy camp.


Dinner was as luxurious as the plumbing and showers, with a thick, leafy Squash Soup. Salt and peppered to perfection, this filling slurry slides easily down a perfusion-deficient digestive tract.

The problem with so much soup is that it takes you out of the tent and to the toilet at all hours of the night. The problem with going to the toilet is that you have to sweep your flashlight beam in several circles to make sure there are no pumas waiting to pounce.


That’s where the saucy Chicken and rice comes in. The protein gives you the strength to climb out of bed, and the carbs keep you warm on a sub-zero mountain night. The crispy onion ring reminds you that good things lie ahead. But seriously, how they managed to deep fry something at 12,000 feet is beyond the comprehension of my swollen brain.

I missed most of breakfast the next morning thanks to throbbing temples and the world-spinning, stop-you-in-your-tracks feeling of my insides turning out. The big, fluffy Pancake laced with nutella was the pancake to end all pancakes. I took four whole bites despite my nausea because it was just that good.


I spent most of the morning wishing I had eaten that pancake. Because cerebral edema didn’t get me but 10.5 miles and 15,000 feet did. The 3000-foot near-vertical climb to the top was hard enough, but it wasn’t nearly as hard as the blizzard at the summit.


We practically sprinted to the downhill camp for lunch where the grainy Quinoa Soup was waiting for us to emerge from the clouds. Count this as the second time in my life I've actually liked quinoa.


Blizzards are bad, but treading down sloughing hills rich with slippery stones and soaked with mud is a different kind of challenge. The parmy pasta pie replaced the carbs lost on the rocks and the protein-licious Chicken added an extra boost for tired quads.


The Apple Pie is all sweetness with a shot of cinnamon, a little extra for the rest of 10.5.
I don't know how they do it, but the porters and cook pack up the camp after we leave and run alongside the pack horses to set up the next camp before we stumble breathlessly in.


We took so long they even had time to make us a snack. Pre-dinner started with tea and popcorn as a precursor to another solid Soup. Warm liquid-veggies acted like an extra layer in the cold, pouring rain.


The Chicken tasted Marsala-ish, an Italian-inspired theme accented with the most amazing fried slices of eggplant I've ever had.


The last day was dry, and the descent into a gorgeous valley was breathtaking…almost as breathtaking as the eggplant. The view was unbeatable, but I wish I hadn't had to hike through literal hell and high water to get there.

But we did get there, and there was where all good things had to come to an end. The impossibly thin, hammy last-breakfast Omelet tasted like a fiesta, a celebration of the return to warm beds and hot water.


At first I couldn’t wait to be done, but only three hours later, our last Soup was a bittersweet ending to what turned out to be a pretty sweet journey. Then again, I also didn't have to look for pumas on my way to the toilet after all that liquid.


The final Lemon Chicken with rice and vegetables tasted like a victory with a dash of lemon.


At the end of the day, I'm glad I did the Lares Trek, and on a good day, I can almost be proud of crawling to the top. It's the kind of experience I will always remember, and the kind of experience I can’t forget. The fertile valleys are forever in my memory, a painted spot on the canvas of my life. And I'll always reflect on it fondly, but it’ll be a cold day in Cuzco before I go through that again.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Papa's - Ollantaytambo


Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Peruvian tap water was declared unsafe, and every drop we drank came from a bottle emptied into our Camelbaks. Potatoes, potatoes everywhere, and I swear I can't even look at another potato for at least a month.


I just about lost it when the appetizer came out. A sweet potato still has the word potato in it, and disguising it as a Spring Roll doesn't mean I'm not so freaking sick of potatoes.., except all of the sudden I'm not. This purse of sweet potato was so irresistible that I ate two.


I finally found the only dish in all of Peru that didn’t have potato, ironic at a place called Papa’s. The Tacu Tacu had shining, shimmering, splendid cuts of protein, a grilled chicken breast that was best dunked in creamy, spicy aji amarillo. The rice and refried beans seemed to sub for fries, and I definitely wasn't missing the papa.



The Lomo Al Pobre did have papas, but that’s not what made it an effort pobre. The egg over rice and a tough cut of steak is hardly memorable, and the "sausage" tasted like an overcooked hotdog left soaking in something that dissolved the casing. I might have also enjoyed it a little more if I weren't so upset that they'd forgotten the avocado.


Everything has potato, everything is made with potato, and everything comes with a side of potato in Peru. The carbs keep us charged, and the starch keeps us stuffed, but I'm about to tell the next person who hands me a potato just where they can put it.