Usually I begin my posts with some italicized words thrown together to create a visceral account of my South American adventures, I hope to give the reader a vantage point into the thoughts and feelings that coursed through my body with every experience. I try to explain my experiences in an abstract but an emotionally real way, with the intent of stirring some sort of emotion within my readers, this post does not need such an introduction. I ate a guinea pig, there was nothing transcendental about it, nothing heroic about it, it did not create a commotion within me that requires a literary response, I ate a guinea pig, and it was delicious.
BACK TO CUSCO
After having our minds blown by the might of Machu Picchu, and celebrating the experience with a stream of beer and alcoholic drinks that shared their name with the ancient fortress, we headed back by train to Ollantaytambo where we took a taxi back into the city of Cusco. There is a lot to be said about Cusco, as the capital of the Inca empire before the arrival of the Spanish, it is steeped in history and the remnants of Inca architecture.
Although the conquistadors did a brutally great job at tearing down much of the Inca buildings, specifically temples and places of worship, many of the colonial buildings were built upon the grand stone foundations of the Inca. So grand in fact that during many of the earthquakes that have pulverized modern Cusco, the Inca stone remain steadfast against the might of tectonic plates. Although the looming stone foundations that choke the thin alleyways webbing across the city are just an echo of the magnificence of the historic capital, the entire place is engulfed in the past. The cobbled streets and alleyways pass under stone archways and run along the watching eyes of cathedrals and churches, beautiful, but also reminiscent of the iron fist that extinguished a civilization.
We returned to the Wild Rover Hostel, the Irish themed hostel complete with it’s own pub, and dangerously comfy dorm beds. I had heard a rumour that it is Rover policy to purchase bigger size beds and spend extra money on mattresses and blankets to subtly coerce the drunken travellers to sleep past the 11 am checkout time, forcing them to pay for another night.
Wandering around the city we took part in most of the usual things, bartered at the local market, grabbed some lunch, politely declined the army of Peruvians hawking everything from food, to massages, to guided tours. We had just under a week left before we had to begin our return journey to the south of Peru and cross the border into Arica, from there flying back to Santiago, a place that had become my second home, and in many ways more of a home than Canada. We had hoped to squeeze in another city on our return travel and we were considering Arequipa or venturing to the Nazca lines. However once we reached Cusco we realized that during our trip we had not been in the same place for more than 2-3 days and so we decided that we would spend the rest of our time relaxing and enjoying Cusco. It was on one of these relaxing days, characterized by a late night at the pub downstairs, a late morning wrapped in blankets and a sunny stroll through the cobbled streets that I noticed a sign outside a restaurant with a word on it I had read about in my lonely planet book, and immediately knew what I would be eating that night for dinner, cuy, guinea pig.
CUY FOR DINNER
Let’s get one thing straight, I am not glorifying the death of a guinea pig, and I don’t aim to offend anyone who doesn’t eat meat, I have some fundamental problems with the meat industry myself. Having said that I also live my life by one very important rule, I don’t say no to anything put on a plate in front of me, particularly when I am travelling.
Native to the Andes, the guinea pig was considered a delicacy among Inca nobility, and since I had journeyed from the birthplace of the Inca, to their secret mountain top fortress, to their imperial capital, I felt I would be doing an injustice not to partake in their cuisine.
Cuy, as the dish is called, is prepared by grilling the animal (head, paws and all) in oil, with a river rock placed on its back to ensure the meat is cooked evenly. The main dish of fried guinea pig is preceded by dried corn and cheese, as well as beer made from fermenting maize known as ‘chicha’. Our waiter Alfredo, who explained to us the story and importance to Inca and Peruvian culture as he placed everything on the table, taught us how to cheers in Quecha, the language of the Inca, “apu!” which refers to the gods.
We took the opportunity to settle an ageless feud between Chile and Peru, who has the best piscosour? Of course when we proposed the question to the chef, who invited us into the kitchen to witness how cuy was cooked, he proclaimed that Chilean piscosour was “caca” and proceeded to make us Peruvian piscosours of varying homemade flavours. Not one for sweet alcoholic drinks, I was never a huge fan of piscosour, whether it be in Peru or Chile, until I tasted the lemongrass piscosour made for us. Poured from a large glass jug filled with lemon grass and other flavours, it was highly alcoholic and unbelievably good, we of course couldn’t justify not continuing to try all the other flavours.
Finally the cuy was brought out for us, we tore off a leg, nodded a “salud” and tried our first bite. It was delicious, absolutely delicious, the fried skin was hard and flaky and crunched under greedy bites, and the actual meat was like nothing I have ever tasted, the closest thing I could compare it to is the dark meat of a turkey. Surprisingly for the size of the little sucker, it was extremely filling and by the end we were slouching in our seats lazily, sipping on the remnants of our piscosours. We said paid our bills and yelled an “apu!” at Alfredo who laughed and exclaimed he hoped we enjoyed our meal and the rest of our time in Cusco. Back out onto the cobble streets we headed back to the hostel to put a dent in our tabs at the hostel pub.
WILD AT THE ROVER
Back at the Wild Rover’s we enjoyed a couple more nights of relaxing and drinking in the hostel pub with other travelers. We watched the London Olympics and half-halfheartedly cheered for the Canadian athletes, telling our new friends that we’d be back to clean up in the Winter Olympics (which we just did this past week!). I loved the Wild Rover’s but there definitely was a focus on partying, which is awesome but I feel that I can get stupidly drunk back home, I can’t walk around a city like Cusco forever. Having said that I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a few crazy nights spent at the hostel pub.
Feeling recharged and a little groggy from our week long stop in Cusco, we took an over night bus to Arequipa where we transferred onto a bus to Tacna, where we took a taxi across the border into Arica, Chile. Of course another border crossing meant another hiccup in the trip, or the end of the trip I should say. It went over smoothly, my travel buddy brandishing his Chilean foreign identity card and saying he had no idea why he was not in the system showing that he left, and was allowed to cross over along with us.
The customs officers did take our apples from our vehicle though. Chile has some pretty strict agriculture and food importation laws, it all stems from the natural barriers of the Atacama desert to the North, the Andes mountain range to the East, Patagonia to the South and the Pacific to the West, creating a protected and fragile agricultural environment, something I will speak about much more in depth in a post to come.
We spent another night sleeping in the Arica airport and landed in Santiago early in the morning. With just enough time to relax and grab some food, I returned to the airport to see my roommate from Canada off, I was sad to see him go but we had had a killer time journeying across Bolivia and Peru, we had seen some crazy things and experienced some crazier things. It was awesome to experience it all with good friends and it was the first time I was on the road for more than a month. That trip made me realize how happy I could be living on the road, and sparked in me the desire to attempt a full year of constant travelling some day down the road. I returned to Santiago to begin my second semester at la Universidad de Chile, I was stoked to meet a whole new group of exchange students and hard already begun to brainstorm my next adventure.