Peru was my first time visit to a Spanish-speaking country as well as my first trip to South America. I had a great experience, covering the standard tourist stuff such as Lima, Cusco, and Machu Picchu, but I was also fortunate enough to be traveling with a group of accommodating friends to see more of the country, especially Lake Titicaca, Arequipa, and Nazca (of Nazca line fame! – I can’t express how cool of a place it is, and how underrated. Go there. Now). Since we made our way from Cusco to Lake Titicaca by way of tour bus to Puno, we saw some additional Incan and pre-Incan sites at Andahuaylillas Church, Raqchi, Sicuani, La Raya, and Pukara.
I saw gorgeous landscapes, mingled with llamas and alpacas, got my debit card eaten by a determined ATM machine, spent the last two nights traveling on night buses (with no access to showers – my friends may have learned not to be quite so accommodating with me after that), and, of course, tried some delicious cuisine. The journey was a bit rough since Peru is a developing country, but our adventures were worth it to see the country and its great food. From local Peruvian cuisine, Chinese restaurants (known as chifas) that were surprisingly ubiquitous, and touristy wood-fired pizza, we were able to sample a variety of food, too.
I found that, generally, the flavors in Peru are intense–salty dishes were quite salty, and sweet dishes were pretty sweet. My top three for food? Potatoes. Fruit. Ceviche. If you haven’t had the South American delicacy of cuy before, Machu Picchu offers it in abundance because of the tourists.
1. 5,000+ Varieties of Potatoes
The potatoes. Oh my goodness, the potatoes. If you remember your world history, the conquistadors brought potatoes from the Americas to the rest of the world, and the history of food was never the same again. Depending on who you talk to, Peru grows 2,000-5,000 different varieties of potatoes. With that kind of background, Peruvians better know their stuff. I am pleased to announce that they do.
2. Beautiful Fresh Fruit
Peru has amazing fruit, including avocados. We were welcomed to our hostel in Cusco with a local fruit basket! How awesome is that? I love passion fruit (pictured above) as a flavor by had never had the fruit before, and we affectionately dubbed it “alien babies” because inside – well, it looks like alien babies. Peruvians turn their amazing fruit into equally amazing juices. I was highly impressed. I also enjoyed the chicha morada, a traditional juice made of purple corn, quite a bit, and we ordered it whenever it was on the menu. I’m told that chicha is commonly made alcoholic.
3. All the CevicheCeviche de pescado. Photo courtesy of Peru Gourmet Restaurante Bar
For someone who doesn’t like seafood but would die for great fish, I was surprised that I liked ceviche so much. The best ceviche we had was at Peru Gourmet in Lima, a lovely ceviche de pescado accompanied by giant corn and sweet potatoes – it is a coastal town, after all. Great fish, great ceviche. Pasaje Santa Rosa 165, Cercado de Lima 15001, Peru.
4. Alpaca and Cuy (Guinea Pig)
Some more local food that we had were alpaca, cuy, and the classic South American combo of rice/beans/yucca. Alpaca, of expensive sweater fame, and cuy, also known as guinea pig, are widely served in Machu Picchu’s numerous tourist restaurants. Alpha tastes gamey like lamb but with the texture of beef. Wasn’t really a fan of the brown gravy they served with it, though. Cuy, or guinea pig (pictured in feature photo) is widely considered a delicacy in South America, and that was my favorite. The skin is crispy but got a bit hard because of the deep frying action going on, but the meat tasted like chicken, nice and tender. We were told that in Peruvian versions of “The Last Supper,” guinea pig is served at the table.
5. Chifa (Peruvian-Chinese) Food
We saw so many chifa restaurants that we decided that we had to try one. The owner/chef of the place that we chose in Puno, near Lake Titicaca, was from China and so eager for conversation that he personally came to our table and offered us off-menu dishes. An egg and tomato soup didn’t have ribbons of egg whites like traditional egg drop soup. The eggs were fried to go with fried rice instead, which is kind of awkward in a soup. The ho fun noodles were not as wide as they’re supposed to be. But hey, kudos to the chef for making the best of what he had available. It turns out that Peruvians love chifa; the place was packed.
6. American Food
Um, yeah. We went there. But hey, McDonald’s localization efforts are interesting enough to be worthy of any tourist’s dining list, right? The decision to try the pizza was based on the fact that we saw so many signs for it. Must be a reason for it other than to lure the tourist variety, right? I generally prefer pizza with more sauce, but it was actually good. Thin-crusted and cheesy.
Ah, sweets, the international language of food. Chocolate, especially. Having been disappointed by the chocolate we tried for most of the trip, we were hesitant when our server in Nazca insisted that we try some for dessert. I’m glad we did, because it restored our faith in Peru’s skills with chocolate. We also had delicious churros with a custard filling in Arequipa.
In a very touristy part of Lima’s central district, our experience at Peru Gourmet was surprisingly good. The ceviche I talked about earlier? From this place. And the best juice I had on the trip? A wonderful papaya from here. And a lovely local dessert, suspiro a la limeña or “a Lima woman’s sigh” – was from here as well. A great send off!
A foodie in perpetual wanderlust, Rose makes it a mission to sample the best ugly delicious delights around the world, but also enjoys the occasional dress-code-required fare and is always ready for a spot of afternoon tea. Currently based in the Boston area, she has been writing for GMF since 2013 and called DC, NYC, and Mexico City home. Rose is a graduate of the University of Virginia and New York University, and is on the board of the University of Virginia’s Asian and Asian Pacific American Alumni Network as well as the Thomas Jefferson Partnership Fund, which supports the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. She pays her bills by helping companies communicate with Wall Street as an investor relations professional.