The Physical Effects of Altitude

Natives of high altitude places (such as Peru) have larger hearts and lungs than the average person, as well as a higher red blood cell count.  These adaptations allow them to cope with the lack of oxygen, caused by the altitude of their physical location.  It is even proven that a person who relocates to a higher altitude will adapt to acquire these same physical conditions.

Peru - Kat1 855For us tourists, who are not naturally equipped to deal with such oxygen levels, there are some nasty side effects to deal with when visiting some of the worlds high altitude destinations, where we are at high risk of sickness from it.  The symptoms of altitude sickness include shortness of breath, dizziness, exhaustion, headache, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting…all ingredients for a real enjoyable vacation, right?

Altitude affects every person differently, so it’s hard to know how to prepare for it.  In America medicines for altitude sickness require a doctor’s prescription, in Peru it is an over-the-counter drug, and therefore not necessary to purchase until you arrive there.  Advil and anti-diarrhetics are some other aides to keep in mind – and definitely something you’ll want in your pack if you’re doing high altitude trekking of any sort (better safe than sorry right?).

Peru - Kat1 133 Ultimately though, it is best to take care when arriving in a high altitude location.  Take it easy on your first day, eat something light (like soup), move slowly, and give your body rest.  You might even take this into consideration when planning your trip, giving yourself an extra day in the beginning to acclimate.  In Peru, coca leaf tea is usually offered immediately to tourists upon their arrival, as the leaf has many natural properties which help to add oxygen to the blood (relieving some of the effects of the altitude) – other parts of the world probably have their own specialized antidotes as well.

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With one Drop of a Lemon

Chinchero, Peru

Peru - Kat3 207With one drop of a lemon, the blood red pigment that is the real blood of a cacti worm, infuses immediately with the acidic liquid to become an intense fiery orange.  This naturally created color can be used to dye materials such as wool or alpaca, as well as for makeup applications such as lipstick and blush.

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Help Peruvians in Need with iamthebridge.org

While in Peru I learned that education in many parts of the country is at best limited, if even existent; and that many families pay for their children to go to private schools with little money for every-day expenses.  While the level of poverty in the country may not seem as obviously apparent as in other places in the world, there are Peruvian families in major need of healthcare, and even food.

A friend that I met while in Arequipa introduced me to iamthebridge.org, an organization working to bridge the gap between resources and those in need in Peru.  Hugo is working on their campaign, to help raise awareness and funds for the cause via social media.

Here is a short introductory video from the organization’s website:

Peru is a country that was immediately dear to my heart, so I thought that I too would help spread the word about this worthy organization.

Help comes in many forms, spread the word by liking iamthebridge on Facebook, and following on twitter.  To pledge or volunteer visit iamthebridge.org.

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A Letter to Walter Bustamante Cano

Dear Walter,

The smells of your kitchen intoxicate my dreams, while images of little red river prawns dance in my head each night, tempting me to return to Arequipa.  I’ve eaten crayfish before, even cooked them myself, but the flavors imparted naturally by the volcanic stone you cook upon cannot be matched by the spices we use in America.

On our first visit to Sonccollay you asked if we’d like to see our food in the kitchen and my face lit up immediately – I knew this meal was made in a 10,000 year old tradition, but this gesture demonstrated the love you put into each dish.  The river prawns looked like little gems, roasting slowly in their own juices, no oil used, upon a flat black volcanic stone (which I’m sure imparts it’s own unique subtleties to the flavors).

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I was amazed that the tomato soup was just that; tomato, crushed and simmering inside of a clay pot; and remember thinking ‘mmmmmm’ when I saw you throw our potatoes directly on the coals of the grill.

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I love food and cooking, I love to know where my food comes from, I am curious about the history and practices of all cultures, and am highly interested in methods and processes used by ancient peoples.  All of these are topics that you touched upon in the kitchen alone.  I was impressed.

Peru - Damany3 163 When you brought the food to the table, you included a tomato/avocado salad – I could smell the freshness of the tomatoes before you even set the plate down.  I ate that entire salad myself you know – Damany is lucky he ordered the tomato soup.

Being a lover of foods I can really experience without a fork & knife, I was super excited when you broke the potato open by hand and dipped it into the soup.  Before even getting into the prawns I knew that this was about to be one of the best meals of my life.

As good as the tomatoes and the soup were though, the river prawns were beyond amazing (and are the true topic of this letter).  I’ve always cooked crayfish with some sort of liquid base and lots of spices.  They will never compare to yours.  Your river prawns were cooked to perfection…so perfect in fact, that I’m not sure I’ve ever even meant it when I’ve stated that before.  The flavor from the juices inside of the creatures head cooked slowly on that volcanic stone were naturally heavenly, tasting almost like the sea.  It soaked into their tiny bodies in the process of cooking, but still there was some to be sucked out of the shell cavity left behind.  They were so delicious I even took the time to extract the meat of their little-big claws.

As I said earlier, I love experiential food, and with messy meals come feelings of satisfaction for me.  Hands red with the river creatures innards, I went through the entire tray of napkins you provided – a sign of culinary greatness in my book.

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I dreamt of your prawns on our last night in Arequipa, I still dream of them now, I will probably continue to dream of them until we meet again (and I promise, we will).  They were really that good.

I knew when I saw the sign outside stating “Living Museum and Restaurant” that Sonccollay would be one of those special places that I would remember forever, but I had no idea that the food, coupled with your magic, would keep me plotting many a return.

With Love,

~Katrina Mauro

Sonccollay

Portal de San Agustín 149
Terraza de la Plaza de Armas
Arequipa, Peru
Phone: 28 12 19 – 999 999 730 / 959 997 272

http://www.sonccollay.com/

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A Minor Obsession | Rustic Blue Door in Cusco

Cusco, Peru

Peru - Kat1 112It’s funny how blue doors surrounded by white walls are so much more appealing than any other color combination.  This one caught my eye because of the rustic nature of it, camouflaged by it’s bright color – which gives it a similar feel to those I’ve captured in Greece.

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Inca Terraces at Moray

Not far from the Maras Salt Mines (near Cusco) lie the agricultural Inca terraces at Moray, which were re-discovered in 1932 during an expedition led by Shirppe Johnson.  Restoration work is currently being done on the terraces, and only one of them is in proper condition for tourists to explore freely.

Peru - Kat3 162While the exact purpose of terracing in a downward circular formation is unknown, archaeological digs have provided evidence that each of the three circular terrace formations at Moray would have been used to grow staple crops of the Inca diet – such as potatoes, corn and quinoa.

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In addition to terracing, the Inca were known for their ‘floating stairways’, which are large flat rocks cantilevered out from sturdily built walls.  The staircases here protrude from the walls of the terraces, going up the structures in four directions from the center – which (as it was explained to me) symbolizes the four rulers (I assumed this to mean the four elements or four directions of the earth).

Peru - Kat3 128 Moray also boasts an aqueduct system which runs down the layers of rings, providing vital water to the crops.  Somehow, this system’s ingenious design did not allow the terraced craters to overflow during heavy rainfall.

Centered in the bottom circle of the terracing lie a fire pit, in which people leave offerings for Pacha Mama (mother earth).  These offerings generally consist of coca leaves or Soles (local currency), though sometimes food is left as well.  Quechua families traditionally come to make offerings at night, when no tourists are visiting the complex.

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On October first shamans from around the world come to Moray to meet for a kind of spiritual conference at which there is a sharing of knowledge and ideas.  It is during this festival that the reading of the coca leaves is done – to see if the coming year will reap good harvests.

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Spread Love the Brooklyn Way

Maras, Peru

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While on the road from the Maras Salt Mines to the Inca Terraces at Moray, we saw a group of children on their way home from school.  Upon sight of them Damany started yelling, “Stop the bus, stop the bus!”  We had brought a bag full of “I love Brooklyn” pins to give away to people as we traveled, and these kids seemed the perfect candidates for those pins.  Damany emptied the bag, pinning one on each child…leaving them all with a smile.

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Maras Salt Mines

The Maras salt mines, located about an hour and a half from Cusco, boast a uniquely beautiful landscape, created by the very item that is  harvested from it.

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The mines here are owned by approximately 200 families, each owning about 5-7 pools.  These pools have been owned by the families of Maras for generations, and they seem to share a collective pride in that – though they must still work other jobs to survive.

The Maras people believe that the salt comes from 6 lakes which sit in the mountains, above the mines.  They attribute this gift of salt to Pacha Mama (mother earth), and do not believe that the salt water comes up through the mountain from the sea (as specialists have determined).

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The small stream which creates these pools runs down the mountain and separates to provide salt rich water to each section.  The segments are divided by small rock walls, which are covered in white crystals and the water inside is left to evaporate, leaving ponds of only salt.

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When all of the liquid in a section has evaporated, the salt is ready to be harvested and sold.  The government may buy one pool of salt for about 100 soles, and sell it for 1,000.  Most of Peru’s salt is used within the country; though some is packaged to be bought by tourists as gifts (the iodized salt is usually pushed on the tourists, though pink salt and raw rock salt is also available).

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Hiking the Inca Trail with Peru Treks & Adventure

Peru - Kat2 107 I decided to use Peru Treks to book my Inca Trail trek because it was suggested to me by Peru lover Charyn Pfeuffer (@charynpfeuffer) as the company she had heard offered the best value for your money.  My understanding is also that they also pay their guides and porters quite well, which was a deciding factor for some in our group.

In total the trek cost $490 (unless you’ve hired a third of a porter, then it will be an additional $45).  $200 is paid up front via paypal, and the remaining $290 balance is to be paid upon arrival in Cusco.  The balance MUST be paid in the office at least 2 days prior to trek departure.  The reason they ask that you be there 2 days in advance is so that your body has some time to adjust to the altitude.  Although Machu Picchu itself sits at a lower altitude than Cusco, dead woman’s pass does not – and those not acclimated properly will surely suffer altitude sickness on the trail.

When paying the balance in the office, you will be given a trek briefing – at which you will review the items needed for the trek, have the daily itinerary explained to you in detail, receive your sleeping bag and/or porter bag should you choose to rent them, be given your “I survived the Inca Trail” tee shirt (I know, kind of anti-climactic getting it first), and have return train details given to you (if you’ve decided to stay in Aguas Caliente for one extra night).

All of the items you could possibly need for the trek are outlined on their website, and I bought EVERYTHING they listed in preparation.  What I found out when I went to the briefing is that water will be sold along the trail for the first 2 days, and for the last 2 days boiled water is provided to you (2 liters per person, per day) from Peru Treks.  Had I known this before I would NOT have invested in the filtered water bottles suggested on the site.  Skip the filtered bottle or the purification tablets, as it will just be extra weight when clean water is available to you.

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Our group consisted of 12 trekkers, 2 guides, 16 porters (“chuskies”), and 1 cook.  The porters carry all of the food, cooking supplies, gas tanks, tents, first aid equipment, and rented bags.  They carry this, running past the hikers at double speed, and do it all in sandals.  When the hikers arrive at the lunch or campsites all tents are set up, and food is cooking.

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The meals on this trek are like 5-star hotel meals, and remain at the top of my list of meals in Peru.  Food served included fried chicken and fish, rice, steak, avocado, vegetables, potatoes, cevice, sangria – and even a cake on our final night (which I still question how it was baked)!

Peru - Kat1 1003cOur guides, David and Yaneth, were VERY helpful, and seemed to genuinely care about the group’s well being (when Damany got altitude sickness, Yaneth made him a tea of carrot and celery – which smelled like chicken broth – to aid in recovery).  David, the main guide, has been doing this trek for many years, and clearly loves his job.  This is apparent in the knowledge he shares with you at each Inca site visited along the way, as well as his various experiential stories (of this and other trails) collected over time.    He even called down to Aguas Caliente from Machu Picchu 3 hours in advance so we could try fresh guinea pig as a group.

Peru - Kat1 906While on the Inca Trail, the guides will also share with you stories of other treks that Peru Treks & Adventure runs, making you wish you had a month just to trek around the country.  I know that I would trust the company on any trek in Peru, now that I’ve experienced their service – and would definitely recommend them to anyone looking for adventure there.


Peru Treks & Adventure

Avenida Pardo 540
Cusco, Peru
Telephone: 00 51 84 222722 (from overseas)

http://www.perutreks.com/index.html

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And Then I Ate its Brain…

No, this is not a Halloween post, I really did eat a brain – it was a little one, but still, it was a brain.  I’ve always been an adventurous eater; though this meal was probably one of the most adventurous yet. There was 14 of us, and 3 of them – an easy task in my eyes.  David (our Inca Trail guide) had called down to Aguas Caliente from Machu Picchu so we could eat the cuy fresh out of the oven…it was a brilliant plan!  As he explained it to me, the guinea pig is best served freshly cooked – so if you are looking for a good one in Cusco, you’ll have to find a nice old lady who’s spent 3 hours roasting the animal and is willing to invite you into her home to share, and experience the meal properly.  Generally, he explained, if you eat one at a restaurant, it will have been cooked in the morning, left to sit all day, then warmed up upon order.  Our cuy were still sizzling in the oven when we arrived at the restaurant, a good sign for sure.  It smelled almost like rotisserie chicken (another typical dish of Peru), but not quite. do not fear the guinea pigOnce the entire group had arrived, the guinea pigs were served.  There’s no doubt that they look like a mix between a rat and a ferret – not at all cute like the squat little guinea pigs we keep for pets in America.  The crisp skin still glistened with fat – the way a duck or chicken’s would – and looked beautifully spiced.  Skin is always my favorite part of a roasted bird, I expected it to be the same for the cuy.

do not fear the guinea pig (2) do not fear the guinea pig (1) David cut the rat in half, exposing its innards, at which most of the table cringed.  ‘Weird,’ I thought, ‘it looks nothing like I expected it to.’  The meat seemed to be layered around the cavity of the body, appearing almost like inner sheets of skin.  The animal was cut into quarters and passed around for all to try.  I received my portion with a big smile – a stark contrast to the disgusted (or disturbingly excited) looks on the rest of the groups faces.

do not fear the guinea pig (4) do not fear the guinea pig (6) do not fear the guinea pig (5) Upon closer inspection, the meat was met with fat between each layer, which I simply discarded (I’ve been known to eat grilled pig’s fat, but was not so keen on the guinea pig meat-divider fat).  The white meat tasted very close to rabbit, and the dark meat tasted JUST like chicken.  I’m still convinced that anyone who didn’t like the flavor of the meat just has a pre-conceived notion that they do not like it (because it’s a rat in their head), as it really was that close to chicken.  To my surprise (and minimal disappointment) the skin was, for the most part, too hard to chew through – the guides did it, but I wasn’t trying to break any teeth.  The parts of it that I could chew were delicious and spicy, just like rotisserie chicken skin.

do not fear the guinea pig (7) do not fear the guinea pig (8) Being the bravest eater in the group, I was given the head to try.  The head meat was my least favorite part of the cuy.  It had what I want to describe as a musty flavor – you know, like the smell of musty basement, but in your mouth – which was a bit difficult for me to get through.  They told me the cheek meat was the best part, but I disagree – even the crunchy, and flavorless, eyeballs (yes I ate those too) were better than the cheeks.  Once the meat was picked from the outer skull, it was time to get inside.  I was instructed to stick the skull in my mouth, and bite on the center to break the bottom casing.  I did break it, not nearly as neatly as David had, but I made it through…and then I ate its brain.

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My face right after I put it in my mouth doesn’t really describe the experience – actually, I kind of look like I’m going to cry.  It was really just the thought that eating a brain is gross which appears on my face, because (surprisingly) the brain was the best flavored portion of the head.  It was rich and salty, with a creamy texture comparable to cream cheese, and melted away quickly on my tongue.  Funny thing is, while that brain-eating moment lasted only a minute, it will stay clearly in my memory forever – the day I ate brain in Peru, and then played with skulls.

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