Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ica, Paracas, Nazca, and San Clemente: Pisco, Ocean Views, Ancient Mysteries, and the Police Station

Here in Lima, June 29 was a national holiday in honor of San Pedro and San Pablo.  Although we aren’t quite sure why they are important enough for us to take a day off work in their honor (we suggest contacting "Father" Zaleski for details on that front).  We were, however, sure that the three day weekend was the perfect amount of time to explore a new part of the country. 

On Saturday, we headed south on the Panamerican highway, fueled by the requisite empanadas from the neighborhood Panadería San Antonio.  The closely packed buildings of Lima gradually gave way to the barren desert outside the city, with the occasional view of the Pacific Ocean to the west. 

Our first stop was the small city of Ica, located three hours south of Lima and home to the majority of the country’s pisco production.  Pisco is a type of brandy distilled from grapes and Gio would like to make sure that everyone knows that  pisco is originally from Peru and most certainly NOT from Chile (contrary to what you may have heard).  The strong beverage dates back to the 16th century in the Viceroyalty of Peru.  By the 17th century, commercial production was already underway in the town of Pisco (also in Peru).  And various sources site the oldest use of the word pisco to denote a Peruvian aguardiente.  Today, Chile's claim to pisco mostly revolves around good Chilean marketing and a Wikipedia entry where almost every sentence ends with a note reading "[citation needed]."

Following the signs for one of the region’s oldest bodegas, we exited the Panamerican and made our way down the increasingly bumpy dirt roads until we arrived at Bodega Tacama.   At Tacama, the fields were full of grapes that are harvested not only to distill pisco, but also to make wine.  After a cursory tour of the facilities and a brief marinera and paso horse performance, we had the chance to sample both the famous pisco and the not so famous wine.

Would Peruvian wine be better than the offerings in Madagascar and Myanmar?  At least the aging is done in oak and not plastic barrels.  We were not as lucky once the tasting started, however.  The samples, provided in tiny plastic cups during our cata, may not have been of the highest caliber.  That being said, it was somewhat hard to evaluate since a group of older ladies from Lima peer-pressured Steph into chugging all her pisco samples.  Even Malagasy wine probably tastes better after a shot of pisco.  (We brought home a bottle, so perhaps we can update our tasting notes whenever we drink it.)

After our stop at Bodega Tacama, we considered further explorations of la ruta del pisco, but opted instead for the short drive to the luxury of our seaside hotel in nearby Paracas.  (We have plenty of time for further pisco tastings!)  We had been to Paracas during Stephanie’s first ever trip to Peru –  August 2005.  Back then, we had taken one of the boats out to see the seals and penguins on the islas ballestas and the Candelabro de Paracas etched on the Paracas Peninsula.  A trip to the islas ballestas is a complete sensory experience - the herds of seals are raucously loud and the guano deposited by the flocks of birds is pungent.  Harvesting and selling the guano actually used to be quite  a profitable industry in Peru.  (Giorgio kindly requests that you don't judge his inferior photography skills from 2005.)

Having already seen the main sites of the beach-side town, on this trip we simply kicked back and relaxed – enjoying sundowners at the poolside bar and plenty of fresh ceviche on the hotel’s pier.

For Stephanie, the much-anticipated highlight of the trip was our flight over the enigmatic Nazca lines.  For years, Giorgio had been refusing to participate in this adventure, claiming that the plane ride was too dangerous.  Stephanie was pretty sure that he was just afraid of heights, as usual.  His parents also constantly warned us about other passengers getting sick on the plane.  But Grandma Carol and Grandpa Ed had flown over the Nazca lines on their Peruvian trip back in the '90s – how dangerous could it be?

Finally, Steph decided to simply ignore Giorgio and book a non-refundable flight to see the Nazca lines.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with this archaeological mystery, the Nazca lines are ancient geoglyphs (some over 200 meters, or 660 feet, across) located in the desert of Nazca and were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.  Scholars believe the lines were made by the Nazca culture between 500 BC and 500 AD; the geoglyphs range in complexity from simple lines and geometric shapes to complex images depicting monkeys, spiders, hummingbirds, and other animals.  The purpose of the lines remains a matter of speculation.

Despite Giorgio’s (and his family's) warnings about possible plane crashes and extreme motion sickness, we boarded a 12-seat Cessna at the Pisco airport on Sunday morning.  (If anyone is looking to plan their own trip, most of the flights to see the Nazca lines depart from Nazca itself – however, there are a few flights from Pisco and Ica if you’re looking to avoid an additional two-hour trip down the Panamerican.) 

Giorgio was the only Peruvian on our flight and was eagerly greeted by the pilot.  It seems that most Peruvians share Giorgio's fears about these flights (or would simply rather relax at the beach while on vacation).  The other passengers were primarily Japanese tourists.  This seems to be relatively common as the pilot impressed us all as he repeated all his warnings and descriptions of the lines in Japanese.  (It's also possible that he had just memorized the Japanese words for the Nazca lines - we aren't quite sure.)

Seeing the lines was a once in a lifetime experience, particularly since the warnings about motion sickness turned out to be somewhat correct and the dips to get close-up views of the lines are, in fact, stomach-churning.  (Lucky for us, no one on our small flight became ill.)  The constant turning also makes it somewhat difficult to get good pictures - but we think we can all agree Giorgio did an amazing job!  (From the top left: the astronaut, the spider, the whale, the monkey, and the hummingbird.)  In all seriousness, though, the Nazca lines were pretty amazing – we heartily recommend taking the flight.  

On Monday, we packed up for the short road trip back to Lima.  We joined the hordes of limeños returning to the city and quickly found ourselves sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway.  As we approached kilometer 221, we narrowly avoided a collision with the car in front of us when the driver unexpectedly slammed on the brakes.  We recovered from the near-miss only to be rear-ended by a Kia (apparently the driver didn’t have Giorgio’s quick reflexes). 

When we pulled over onto the Panamerican’s dusty shoulder, Stephanie expected us to quickly exchange insurance information and be on our way to Lima.  (Other than a dented bumper, our car was none the worse for wear.)  However, that would be too efficient for Peru.  Instead, we embarked on an hours-long odyssey that included several calls to our insurance company, an aborted trip north to the police station in Chincha, a longer trip south to the police station in San Clemente, several wrong turns in the tiny but busy town of San Clemente during our futile search for said police station, lengthy meetings with various police officers, and a trip to the local clinic for a blood test to ensure that neither Giorgio or the other driver were drunk at noon.  (Someone should start a business selling breathalyzers in Peru so expensive blood tests aren’t necessary.)

When all was said and done, we had only made it 30 kilometers from Paracas, we had missed the kick-off for the Copa America semi-finals (a big deal since Peru was playing Chile), and it was dark.  Instead of proceeding on to Lima, we rebooked ourselves at the hotel in Paracas and returned for a much-needed pisco sour.  The drive back to Lima could wait until Tuesday morning.

The following morning we woke up bright and early and headed back to Lima.  This time around, there was practically no traffic and we were lucky enough to have an uneventful trip home.


Monday, July 20, 2015

Buenos Aires: Then and Now

One of the perks of living in South America is getting to explore the rest of the continent, whether it’s revisiting old favorites or discovering new locales.  In May, Giorgio’s unexpected business trip to Rosario, combined with our one-year wedding anniversary, provided the perfect opportunity to spend a long weekend exploring Buenos Aires for a second time.  When it turned out that Giorgio’s business trips to Rosario were a semi-regular occurrence, we planned a third return visit to the Argentine capital for a long weekend at the end of July. 

We had previously visited this charming city as part of Stephanie’s 2008 “bar trip” and were uncertain as to how much it would have changed during the intervening seven years.  The superficial changes were obvious; graffiti has proliferated and exchanging dollars has become quite the adventure.  Regardless, what had initially drawn us to the city – it’s easily-walkable streets, leafy parks, abundant wine, and delicious food – remained unchanged.

Back in 2008, we made sure to stop by all the “must-see” city sites (as directed by our guidebook and various New York Times travel articles).  We had explored the cobblestone streets of the city center and the historic Plaza Dos de mayo.

We had gotten lost trying to find Evita’s grave on a rainy day in Recoleta.

Giorgio had made fun of both Borges and international financial crises.

Now that we live closer to Argentina (although not that close – it’s still a four-five hour flight), it’s clear we’ll be returning a bit more regularly and can spend more time simply soaking up the atmosphere instead of running from one site to the next.  Instead of staying in the city center, we’ve been exploring the trendier neighborhoods of Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood.  We’ve spent time simply wandering along the city streets and through the parks; the crisp fall and winter weather has been quite a treat compared to Lima´s constant warm humidity.  And taking the efficient and inexpensive subte is certainly a welcome break from being stuck in Lima´s constant bumper-to-bumper traffic.

While Giorgio has been learning how to be a better international businessman in Rosario, Stephanie has been exploring the city´s museums - one of her favorite nerdy pastimes.  Among other things, she has encountered inscrutable performance art at MALBA (the contemporary art museum) and a shrine to Argentina's most famous first lady at the Museo Evita.  She also dragged Gio to the Colección de Arte Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat in the Puerto Madero district.

Of course, no visit to Argentina would be complete without sampling a glass (or two or three) of local wine.  A key component of our 2008 visit had been wine; in fact, the second half of our expedition included several days in Mendoza, Argentina’s flagship wine region. We haven’t had enough time to make it all the way back to Mendoza, but we did find plenty of time for wine tastings within the city limits.  We were incredibly impressed with the sommelier-led wine tasting at Anuva and had a great time mingling with locals at the more low-key Lo de Joaquin.  Not surprisingly, we’ve now added a few more bottles to our wine fridge here in Lima.

To go with all the wine we found at not-to-be-missed exchange rates, we of course indulged in the requisite bisteca gigante, a picada or two to sample all the local cheeses and meats, plenty of home-made pasta, and as many empanadas as we could find.

Buenos Aires is also home to plenty of more modern cuisine; finding the perfect tasting-menu only locale hidden on one of the city´s side streets is our new favorite project.  We returned to our favorite restaurant from 2008, Restó, which is hidden in the city’s architectural society, and found two new favorite restaurants, Tegui and Aramburu, hidden behind poorly marked doors.  We have discovered that many of the city's "hot-spots" are in no way ostentatious, but instead prefer to hide behind doors with dimly-lit signs or a small plaque that is practically impossible to read at night.  For the most part, you are required to ring a doorbell before being escorted into a beautifully appointed space that you would not have guessed was hidden behind the the graffiti-covered walls outside.

This time around, we even managed to find the elusive Italian restaurant recommended by Giorgio's mother, Mary, years back.  In 2008, her description of the best Italian restaurant in Buenos Aires, which was located next to the "round building" near "some highway" by "the pretty square or roundabout" had led to a fruitless search for the apparently nameless locale.  Back then, when we managed to find said "round building" that led us to a highway underpass, we thought we were destined for Italian-food greatness.  But who knew that there are about 10 different Italian restaurants under an underpass next to a round building!  We did not complete our quest.  This time, however, armed with smartphones and seven years of pestering Mary about her direction-giving skills, we finally learned the elusive restaurant´s name (Piegari); it was well worth the effort and wait since we consumed some of the best gnocchis of our lives.

(Giorgio has now spent almost two weeks in the Argentine city of Rosario, a four-hour drive or 40 minute plane-ride from Buenos Aires.  However, he has little to report, noting simply that the empanadas and wine are inexpensive and that it really is the home of Argentina’s most beautiful women.  He has yet to visit the birthplace of the infamous Che to take a photo as requested by Stephanie.  Stay tuned - he has two more business trips planned this year!)