The Perfect Travel(er) Day Defined
If you were to ask me what the perfect traveler day is, I would describe a day that resembles the day we spent last Monday in Cusco, Peru. It went something like this:
9am: Wake up.
It’s pretty cold in the morning in Cusco because it’s at some 13,000 ft altitude in the Andes Mountains. So I wake up, and it takes some will power to leave the heavy covers of our Hostel bed. Considering my only real commitments are to keep myself from starving or dying of thirst, I have to manufacture a reason to exit the warm covers. This year “nature calls” has been the main reason to get up.
9:30am: Breakfast is made.
We make our way to the breakfast area which is a tiny 3 table nook in the back of our hostel. This particular hostel, like many we’ve seen in South America, is just as much outside as it is inside- it’s all one hybrid space. We didn’t expect these types of hybrid spaces in such cold climates, but as we’ve learned, expectations aren’t great things for travelers to have. Breakfast is usually a mixed bag, especially when it’s free. Here in Cusco, the food quality is the highest we’ve seen yet. and breakfast was wholesome: choice of 4 teas, a semi-unleavened roll with a subtle sweetness served with butter balls and jelly, an uber-thin pancake marinated in maple syrup (hells yeah!), and fresh OJ. Not bad for $23/night.
10am: Meet Jesus.
Cusco is a very Catholic city. The drunken history story goes like this: natives were raped and plundered by the Spanish and were forced to change religions. 600 years later, Jesus is the name of our trail guide. Or was. Jesus is a nice Peruvian, but he’s still Peruvian. He woke up late, forgot our packing list, and decided he is no longer our travel guide – his friend Alfredo is. Ok fine, we go pay him the balance for our upcoming 4 day Salkantay Trail trek and part ways. Interesting to note, we will be doing a private trek as the other people who booked have missed their travel connections.
11am: San Pedro Mercado
We walk into town after a successful transaction with the ATM (rare, but nicely timed, we must have good travel karma) and make our way to San Pedro Market. This place is our heaven. It’s a traditional market taking up 2 full blocks, nestled under a very large steel pitched roof. It’s a magnificent site of everything Cusco has to offer: 10 fresh juice stands, 40 raw meat and fish shops, 100 alpaca clothing booths, 50 soup vendors, 10 cancer curing tiendas, 20 cake windows. 30 spice distributors, 5 people selling fresh robin’s eggs, 10 live frog vendors, 20 Cevicherias, 10 flower depots, 30 convenience item tables, and the list goes on (numbers guessed, but not exaggerated). For those of you like me, with ADHD, this place is your shiny-thing-that-makes-1000-different-noises that you can’t take your eyes off, and everything costs like 50 cents. We started off at the fresh juice stand and had a carrot, papaya, orange, pineapple, apple, and banana juice for US$2 to provide us with the fructose we needed to be the star culture/food sponges that we are.
We worked up an appetite discovering all of the above sections of the market. I spotted 3 15-year-old boys that looked very content scarfing down a bowl of beef stew. To the untrained eye, all 50 of these soup stands look identical so I needed to look for an informational advantage. My logic was as follows: in a perfectly liquid and knowable soup economy, the palate of a 15-year-old boy would know all the soup options and will rationally choose the best provider based on their ability to satiate his hunger at a reasonable price. These school boys did not let us down; the US$1 beef/potato/barley stew was a very simple preparation that had some serious depth of flavor. Toss in some picante pickle (onion, chili peppers, tomatoes in a lime juice/vinegar mix) on top to brighten the dish, and you have a the makings of a perfect lunch.
Noon: Soup with a side of Soup.
We shared the first soup to leave ourselves room for a second. We could have supplemented the first soup with some live frogs or pig intestines (because there were over 10 shops selling these items), but we decided on a 2nd bowl of soup. We found a slightly pricer place (costing us a steep $1.25 USD) and sat down for some chicken noodle soup this time. Here we found ourselves amongst 3 generations of Cusquenians. The mom, probably 20 years old, ran the soup shop, and the grandma was playing with the happiest 6-month-old baby girl.
As a side note, the children of Cusco might be the cutest babies on the planet. They are born with giant cheeks that are extra rosy due to the lack of oxygen in the air. They have jet black hair, and eyes that appear to be east asian-influenced in shape, and tend to be really happy all bundled up in their colorful alpaca gear. Seema wants one.
This particular soup was prepared with more finesse than the first (but at a significant cost- ha!). Pickled carrots in a homemade chicken broth with noodles accompanied by a giant hunk of chicken breast at the bottom of the bowl. Served with picked picante again for brightness and an Inca Kola (Peruvian soda that tastes like liquid bubble gum). Delish! We conversed with the family, and they seemed proud to be sharing their family tradition with grateful foreigners and enjoyed talking with us even though our Spanish es un poco malo.
1pm: Last minute purchases
We made our way to the fruit/dried fruit/nut section to pick up some rare items like Seema’s favorite fruit in the world, custard apple, and some persimmons along with some cashews, dried apricot, and dried figs for our trek. On our way out, we negotiated our way to ownership of 2 pairs of long socks, toilet paper, and a deck of cards, again for our trek.
2pm: Milk with (a little) Coffee
We left the market, vowing to come back tomorrow with my SLR camera and made our way to the main drag through town. We stopped off at a nice looking cafe and ordered some cheesecake and artisan coffee. I ordered when Seema was in the bathroom (which had a sign that said “Show your manners – urination only), but when the waitress brought the dish, as usual, it looked like a mistake. This place took an interpretation of cafe con leche to mean leche con cafe. It was 2 huge glasses of piping hot warm whole milk with a little vial of rich brown liquid. Upon seeing our confused faces, the waitress informed us to pour the little vial of brown liquid into the hot whole milk and imbibe – amazing. Think about a hot coffee milkshake with plenty of rich, buttery milk-fat to ease it down into your stomach. The cheesecake was delightfully creamy with dried blueberry jam on top and a tremendous graham cracker crust. I love desserts that don’t accost me with sweetness- this cake had only a hint of sweet and focused on texture and mouth-feel to create pleasure: success!
7pm: Nice Dinner
After returning to the freezing cold hostel, we chilled (literally) and got ready for our “nice dinner”.
As a side note on the coldness – Peru is natural gas rich, but like many emerging economies, its people are getting screwed by globalization and bad government policy. This yields a market environment where the people get none of the country’s natural resources and end up living in freezing cold houses with only the internationally non-desirable foods to eat.
“Nice dinner” – we allow ourselves 1-2 upscale (think $20-30/person) meals per country to sample the “good life” and LIMO was our choice. LIMO, located in the city’s main plaza, is one of Cusco’s upscale restaurants. It focuses on modernized traditional Peruvian dishes and drinks. The head chef studied under Eric Ripert, a world famous French chef and restauranteur, so it pretty much had to be good. We started with some Pisco Sour variety drinks and some Ceviche – both traditional Peruvian items. Pisco reminds me of Cachaca since they are both made from sugarcane and has a similar flavor and potency as tequila. However, Pisco is traditionally served in a tart mix with a whipped egg white to cut the potency and create some body and froth. Mine was mixed with some Chicha Morena, another traditional beverage, this one from purple corn, and Seema had a passion-fruit-variety Pisco Sour – both were a 10. The ceviche was a combination of very clean briny ocean flavors comprised of local fish dowsed in lime and served with a pickled sweet potato. For me, ceviche can do no wrong, and this dish did not disappoint – 8.5. For dinner we had some pleasantly cooked Alpaca steak (8) with quinoa risotto (10, and the night’s champion) and a ceviche themed sushi roll (7). We (Seema) of course needed a dessert, which I thought was a bit of a miss – deconstructed something-or-other that conceptually didn’t make sense and didn’t really seem to reassemble itself on the palate – 4 (Seema gives it a 6).
9pm: Mate Latte
After Limo we took a $3 Nuevo Soles (appox $1 USD) to our freezing hostel, but decided to stop off and get some street Mate (tea). Seema loves this crap. A boiling caldron of Yerba Mate (banned in USA, I think) and 6 mystery bottles of randomly colored liquids are combined together to create a throat-clogging, syrupy warm tea that you drink while standing on the street freezing your junk off. Not really MY cup of tea, but definitely Seema’s as she was clamoring for it every night after dinner and proclaimed that for $1 sole there was no reason not to. “Por que no?”
HOT shower to warm up, then strip, and get under the 12 lbs of blankets to try and stay warm through the night. If you’ve had too much to drink and you need to pee in the middle of the night, you’re faced with a very difficult choice that I don’t need to spell out here…
10:30pm : Bed
Asleep and the end of the perfect traveler Monday. Not all the days are this good, but we definitely savor the flavor and hope to experience these days as often as possible.