peru 2020 – one: cusco and the sacred valley

peru in a flash! ::::

Día 1 y 2:

Our trip to Peru for the kids’ week-long winter break in February abounds! I’ll write 3-4 posts to cover the trip. Summary: I don’t recommend doing high altitude Peru in a week. Too fast.

Every direct flight out of Atlanta to Lima is a red-eye. And every flight back is the same. This began our trip to Peru a couple weeks ago, with a feeble attempt to sleep on the six-hour flight. What made our arrival into Peru even harder was first the arrival into Lima, a two-hour hotel nap at the El Tambo 2 hotel before heading back to the airport, then an early morning flight to Cusco.

The sleep deprivation wasn’t the worst of it. High altitude is nooooo joke.

Lima sits at approximately 1000 feet above sea level while Cusco, the gateway into the southern aspect of the Peruvian Andes and Machu Picchu, sits at just over 12000 feet (about 3810 meters) above sea level.  One of us was bound to get sick from altitude changes with such rapid ascent in one day.

Here’s the physiology: Normal room air around sea level is 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, and some other gases like argon. The rapid exposure to low amounts of oxygen (under 21%) at high elevation causes altitude sickness. Anything over 4900 feet (1500 meters) generally can affect humans, though 8000 feet (2400 meters) seems to be where the more serious issues can occur. As altitude increases, atmospheric pressure decreases. The partial pressure (the thermodynamic activity of gas) of oxygen is subsequently reduced with increased altitude. It’s more difficult for our lungs to obtain the levels of oxygen needed to oxygenate the body here. Which kinda sucks because oxygen is necessary for HUMAN LIFE.

We stepped off the morning flight from Lima to a sunny Cusco. In the Hotel Royal Inca 2, we met with Annie from the Condor Travel group to review our itinerary for the day and the next. Every leg of the trip had a person meet up with us to review and take us to the next stop. We were overall very happy with the company for the whole trip. They even located Sky-Girl’s lost recently-purchased toy guinea pig in a tour van in Cusco, and returned it to us when we were back in Cusco two days later with another tour guide!

We sipped some koka tea in the lobby, the local natural remedy to abate some of the altitude effects. Yes, it’s made from the koka leaf, the same one that contains the cocaine alkaloid, acting like a stimulant and an appetite and fatigue suppressant. NO, it’s not like snorting the purified forms, but it can make a urine drug test positive. Consumed in leaf form, it does not cause physiological or psychological dependence. Evidence of koka chewing has been uncovered in ancient burial sites in northern Peru from 8000 years ago (!) and later became important in the many Mesoamerican eastern Andes people groups.

The koka leaf is ubiquitous in Peru. Vendors sold the dried leaf, wrinkled elderly ladies hawked it on the street near the bus station, it sat tucked into women’s shawls and men’s koka bags (often used as a greeting when leafs are exchanged in some people groups), hotels provided it at every hour of the day. We had some with lime the first day in Cusco:

But then. Sky-Girl had “moderate” altitude sickness (Grub had a touch later too), with vomiting, loss of appetite, tiredness, and shortness of breath. We had barely ordered lunch after arriving into Cusco, when Sky-Girl voiced and looked like nausea personified and had slightly blue lips. I took her back to the hotel a block away as the others ate. Long story short: the bed linens needed replacing after what little lunch she ate ended up on the sheets, she needed a new change of clothing, and we welcomed a few sessions of an oxygen non-rebreather mask from the hotel.

David, the clerk at the time when I requested oxygen for Sky-Girl, assured me in his Peruvian lilt “Oh, don’t worry, this is normal. Also, wipe her head with this.” He handed me an alcohol pad. (It felt good, but I do not have a physiologic explanation why this would help.)

Of course, I catastrophized: What if she got worse? Pulmonary edema? Cerebral edema? (Spoiler! None of this happened.)

Sky-Girl and I missed the tour of Cusco and a colonial cathedral the next day, cuddled in bed, as I listened to her tachycardia and tachypnea, too anxious to sleep. I popped my acetazolamide, wishing it was approved for children. Taking the medication did help me, Eat, and Peach (just old enough to take it), but did not completely abate our breathlessness and mild lightheadedness. How it works for acclimatization to altitude: Acetazolamide makes the kidneys excrete bicarbonate, thereby making the blood more acidic. Blood acidity relates to the body’s CO2 concentration normally, so this artificial acidification makes the body think there is too much CO2. To get rid of this “extra” CO2, the body takes deeper and faster breaths. This subsequently increases the amount of oxygen in the blood. We were told throughout the trip to take a long breath in, hold it for 3 seconds, then exhale to give the oxygen a better chance at perfusing.

What we needed was more time to adjust, but hey, we only had a week in Peru! The recommendation is to increase elevation by no more than 1000 feet (300 meters) per day. Nope–we did 11,000 feet. Mad respect for hikers and sherpas.

After the rest of the family returned from the first day of touring, they relaxed upstairs while Peach and I skipped McInka’s Restaurant (though the name intrigued me) for the hotel restaurant’s lovely chicken and potato soup. It was the perfect comfort food after a rough two days. Sky-Girl actually had a few bites that night.


Día 3:

The next morning, Sky-Girl seemed brighter and more hungry. I watched the clouds move outside and noted this woman standing next to the great blue door. First peering up the street apparently waiting for someone, she then stood engrossed with her hands. Well, her smart phone.

Our tour first took us first to Centro Cultural Parwa, a cultural center outside of the city. The hosts demonstrated washing alpaca wool with a local plant root, I think the name is saqta. The root has the chemical saponina (saponin in English) that works as an emulsifier of fats, a nice cleanser for washing greasy alpaca wool. Soap! She grated some of the root then agitated it with water to create sudsy bubbles. She rinsed the alpaca wool and within a minute, the wool shone a clean ivory from dirty tan. Our tour guide also told us that regular use prevents gray hair growth–I did not confirm this, though even the elderly people here were mostly dark haired. Aside: Quinoa also has saponina in it, that’s why you must rinse it well before cooking and eating it.

Our teacher also showed us natural dyes from local plants. She demonstrated how to make deep red from the prickly pear cactus parasite Dactylopius coccus, a tiny cochineal insect. Smashing the dried insect releases its bright red color. Adding lemon juice can lighten it to a red-orange shade, while other additives can change it to pinks and purples. Urine is often added as a fixative for many of the dyes.

Purple dyes are made from purple corn (maiz morada) or the cochineal dye with added copper or iron oxide. Greens are made from the ch’illca plant, yellow shades are derived from the q’olle flower (butterfly bush), and the high-altitude yanali tree bark also makes an orange dye.

See the hearth (and cute baby) behind her set up? Underneath the hearth: guinea pigs! (I’ll have more stories about guinea pigs later.)

Our van drove us to Moray with our tour guide, Jo-el. Potato fields were never-ending, many with white and purple flowers.  There are over 3500 varieties of potatoes in Peru! I LOVE POTATOES. In the Sacred Valley of Peru, I bet they taste better than any other potatoes in the world.

So many hairpin turns on dirt roads. And steep cliff drop offs. Fields of fava beans and potatoes lined the hills. We twisted through Maras before hitting Moray. I didn’t take photos unfortunately. Maras is quilted with fields of salt (salinas de Maras), harvested since the Inca times. The harvesting is still done by hand mostly.

The Moray Archeological Zone (11485 feet) sits close to the Mullakas Misnimay community (District Maras, Province Urubamba). Jo-el explained the significance of the concentric designs created by the Incas.

More than designs, actually. These concentric terraces form micro-climates. There can be as much as 15 degrees C temperature difference between the top and bottom of the terraces, creating a way to study different temperature conditions on crops. Incan priest-scientists devised this system to decide which vegetable crops most useful for domestic production while accounting for the climate differences from region to region.

Soil testing indicates there are soils from different parts of Peru that were brought here, presumably to test different growing conditions of different plants in various temperature. The Incas built a complex underground drainage system too, likely consisting of porous rock and aqueducts. The Inca Empire was the largest in pre-Columbian America, the center being Cusco. What amazes me that the Incas were around for about 100 years (only!) and had wide-reaching influence over a large swath of western South American (mostly Andean) without a formal written language, wheeled vehicles, draft animals, or use of iron or steel. They studied astronomy, engineering, and agriculture, sharing their knowledge with other people groups. More on that in future post about Machu Picchu.

Kiosks for snacks and trinkets stool nearby, odors from these pots of corn (maiz) and pork (chicarrones) wafted all the way down the road.

I loved this large field of yellow flowers; they were everywhere.

I asked Eat to take a photo.

Me: *sits in flowers, sighing* *relaxes* *listens* *NOT RELAXING* “BEES. I HEAR LOTS OF BEES. Hurry up!”

Note: It is funnier to imagine hearing this conversation with a Homer Simpson voice.


Next stop was Misminay (pronounced miz-min-eye), a village that welcomed us for lunch and to actively participate in preparing the ubiquitous uchukuta. Jo-el translated this as “spicy cream” or “spicy sauce.” My other sources say in Quechua it means “spicy ground pepper.”

We were greeted by a small group of men and women in song as we entered into the courtyard of the adobe-bricked home. First on the docket after introductions: food.

Ingredients included on Nellie’s table below:

culantro – similar to cilantro but stronger flavor; has serrated leaves

sal – salt

maiz tostada – toasted corn

sachatomate – tamarillo, “tree tomato”; a tangy, bitter fruit with flavor = passion fruit and bitter tomato; roasted for this recipe

rocoto – spicy peppers that look like small bell peppers; Scoville scale 50,000-250,000 SHU; seeds are black

cebolla – onion

huacatay – black mint; closely related to the marigold; tastes like a grassy mint, without the menthol kick

zanahoria – carrot; used raw here

mani – peanut; the two plates below show with skins and blanched

agua hervida – boiled water


Our hostess, Nellie, spooned a few of each of the ingredients onto a plate:

They demonstrated how to use the Jo-el explained the flat stone masher, a batan, works as an “Incan blender.” We all had a chance to mash the uchukuta ingredients together:

Smash time!

More smashing:

It tasted so fresh and flavorful. An electric blender would pulverize this: not the goal. The slight chunkiness gives it a nice texture, with pops of spicy pepper. I doubt I’ll ever duplicate it at home as the toasted corn is so unlike anything we have in the U.S. and the tree tomato. And the huacatay. And, well, most of the ingredients.

And look at this:

These tiny star-flowers grow on the quinoa plant. These plants also run alongside many potato fields. I never much liked quinoa until this trip: I never liked recipes I tried, I didn’t like anyone else’s, didn’t care for the flavor, hated the Americanization of the prep. This trip changed me. I’m a bonafide quinoa lover now. Our lunch offered the uchukuta we made with a corn fritter, a creamy barley soup with local herbs, chicken with root vegetables, and a sweetened potato porridge. The uchukuta and the soup here were one of my favorite foods on the whole trip.

We were served a main course of chicken, root vegetables, and rice:

After our send off, we drove as the skies darkened, the snow-capped Andes in the background. About an hour later, we visited Ollantaytambo, altitude 9200 feet, a town about 45 miles northwest of Cusco. The first known Inca ruler, Emperor Pachuacuti (1438-1471) conquered the region in the mid 15th century and used Ollantaytambo as his royal estate, housing often provided here for visiting nobility. Per Wikipedia, the town acted as a fortress for the leader of the Inca resistance, Manco Inca Yupanqui, against the Spanish colonizers. The famous Inca Trail that leads to Machu Picchu winds nearby.

We stood just outside the town to view The Sun Temple (Templo Del Sol), elevation 9400 feet, built in the mid 15th century during Emperor Pachuacuti’s reign. When Cusco was razed by those damn Spanish conquistadors, Pachuacuti escaped to this temple. When they came to look for him, the Spanish could not access the temple as the plains were purposely flooded by the Incas’ carefully crafted aqueduct system. (hahahahahaha!)

We climbed 150 stairs to the main temple area. Large granite stones make most of the stonework, with some “sheets” of stones to serve as shock absorbers in earthquakes. How ingenious of the Incas to figure this out. I wonder how much trial and error that took. This pink granite was carried from the other side of the Sacred Valley, a couple of miles away. Quechua people used a water canal system to move the stones to the temple site. If you study the photo below, you can also see some remnants of carvings on the face of the large rocks. These were scraped from the rocks by the Spanish when they finally did make it to the temple to drive out the Incas.

Jo-el also talked about biocrust. The orange, dry splotchiness covers many of the stones and soil around the temple. Much of what I noticed was a lichen-dominated crust. Biocrust serves in carbon and nitrogen fixation and soil stabilization, all of which can affect how plants grow. Human activity contributes to much of its disturbance these days.

After the temple history and walk, we walked back to the tour van through the Ollantaytambo town center watching these ladies weaving and selling their wares.

Exhausted! Time for dinner and bed at Hotel Agusto. We’ve got an early day tomorrow.

Next post: Día 4 — Machu Picchu!


One year ago: nepalese pickled potatoes (hey, look! more potatoes!)

Two years ago: sweet peanut soup

Three years ago: scrambled eggs with croutons

Four years ago: Is there a brownie or not? The cat is unsure, too. Try schrödinger’s brownie.

Five years ago: tawa naan

Six years ago: broccoli-cheese soup and tea and snow in the spring

Seven years ago: crisp flatbread with za’atar

Eight years ago: dried, chewy bananas and eggs flamenco


Other international trips: Japan and Taiwan. For each, I’ve posted the last post of the multiple sequential posts for each trip. The last post of each has links in the first paragraph to go to the prior links. (Click on them and you’ll see what I mean.)


One last thing: Some of you are probably wondering why I’m watermarking my photos now. Another food blogger plagiarized my writing from the blog recently. Polite attempts from me to request a link my blog to the writing were ignored. I sorted it out by contacting the host provider. The plagiarized post was removed. Bottom line: DON’T copy someone else’s work or photos. Give its creator(s) credit, because they are the ones who took the time and effort to create it. (And I will come after you.) Please refer to my copyright information page if you have basic questions.

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story of a kitchen