Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Perú visits Peru"

At the end of March, Perú launched a new "country brand" with a logo for Peruvian products.  Incorporating a spiral into the P the logo gives a nod to Perú's ancient past, and cultures such as Nasca and Caral.   Modern inhabitants may be reminded of the final part of the old AeroPerú logograph.

As part of the campaign to get Peruvians to adopt and use the logo, the company hired to produce and promote the brand sent a delegation of Peruvian "ambassadors" headed by chef Gastón Acurio to share Peruvian culture with the 569 inhabitants of Peru.

Confused? Watch the video and all will be explained!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Liz and I have got our tickets to Lima.   We've got our tickets to Cusco.   And, we've got a hotel reservation for 3 nights in the Imperial City!

Now, we just have to be patient for a while longer until it's time to go.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Unintended side trip: Costa Rica

On the way home on May 2nd, I was forced to make a small and unintended side trip.   The TACA flight I was catching to make a connection in Costa Rica was delayed on its way to Lima from Cusco.  Despite assurances to the contrary, that put us far enough behind schedule that I, and a number of other travellers, were not able to make our connecting flight to San Salvador.   

Luckily -it being their error- the airline put us up in a hotel near the airport and paid for dinner and breakfast.   Unfortunately, the hotel was near the airport. 

The international airport in San Jose is about 23 km from the city proper, and there didn't seem to be much around there other than our hotel, a small, univiting casino, a couple of chain restaurants, and the usual types of business that surround airports - shipping companies, rental lots, Denny's.

It was evening and by the time I got through taking care of all that I needed to in terms of getting ahold of those who needed to be informed in the US it was past 10 o'clock at night, too late to head into town and hope to find much of anything still open.    I had an unsatisfying dinner near the hotel, using the airline voucher, at a chain place called RostiPollo.   It was basically pollo a la brasa, but served with beans and tortillas instead of the French fries usual in Peru.

The next morning I headed off early to the airport, and in the daylight was able to get some of my first and only glimpses of Costa Rica.

One neat thing about the airport was that at the Britt stores -do they have at all of Latin America's airports?- there was a stand with a guy at each hand rolling cigars from Costa Rican tabacco.  Pretty cool if you ask me.

On the leg to San Salvador, to make a connecting flight to San Francisco, the plane was not very full, so I had three seats to myself.  Not having anyone to be disturbed should I get up, I sat by the window and was able to look down at the passing Central American geology below, something I don't usually get to do.

It was rather neat, for example, to be able to look down upon the volcanic islands and shoreline of Lake Nicaragua.

Fortunately, the rest of the trip passed without incident, even though the flight from San Salvador to San Francisco was completely full with Salvadoran families laden with bags of Pollo Campero chicken, and Peruvians grumpy at having been delayed overnight.

At one point the airline representatives offered overnight lodging and expenses, plus a $400 travel voucher, to anyone who'd volunteer to get off the flight and catch it the next day.    As much as I'd have liked to visit El Salvador, when the lady approached, I laughed and told her she was simply asking on the wrong day. Maybe next time?

An old friend

In North America these beetles are commonly known as June beetles or June bugs as they tend to emerge from pupation at the start of Summer.  In the southern hemisphere they also emerge in Summer, but down here that starts in January.

Every January or February, when I was a kid in Lima, these little guys would start turning up, flying in through open windows at night, to whirl around the lights until they fell exhausted on to the floor or the table underneath.   I always had a soft spot for them.  With their golden elytra and metallic green thoracic carapaces they seemed like little walking jewels.

This handsome fellow happened to pop in for a visit one night during this latest visit.  After snapping his picture, I sent him on his way, letting him fly out the kitchen window.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

May Day in Lima

Unlike the United States, in much of the rest of the world May 1st is Labor Day and in many places it is an official or de facto holiday.   In the US, until recently, the date has been relatively ignored despite the fact that  it was picked in commemoration of the martyrs of the Chicago "Haymarket Affair" of 1868.

My last full day in Lima was Sunday, May 1st, so I decided I'd take the opportunity to attend the local May Day observance.

This was the May Day rally called by the General Workers' Confederation of Peru (CGTP), the country's largest and oldest labor confederation.    About 300-400 people gathered in the Plaza Dos de Mayo and then marched up Ave. Nicolas de Pierola and then down Ave. Garcilazo de la Vega, to rally at the monument to the founder of the CGTP and of the Peruvian Socialist Party, Jose Carlos Mariategui.

I was a bit surprised, given the bad rap that the Shining Path gave Maoism for so many years, to see Mao's portrait so prominently displayed. At right  is literature praising the programs of reformist general Juan Velasco Alvarado, who, among other things, nationalized petroleum and initiated agrarian reform in 1969.

Kids from the street youths' union.  At right: their representatives at the podium, nect to them, in the white shirt, is Mario Huaman, head of the CGTP

This guys is a left party bigwig, but I can't recall his name.  In the past he was associated withe the United Left (Izquierda Unida) coalition, and maybe Patria Roja.

National Teachers' Union, Lima Region: "In Defense of Teachers' Rights! For Free and Quality Public Education!"

Group accusing presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori of being complicit in forced sterilizations of poor women during her father's dictatorship 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Casa Matusita

At the corner of Ave. Garcilazo de la Vega and Ave. Espana there sits a relatively nondescript building which is, nonetheless, believed to be one of Lima's most haunted buildings.   Painted yellow, with blue trim, and four-pane windows it looks far cheerier today than it did when I was a child.   Back then, in the 1970s, the upper story was unpainted and its windows empty of glass and, through them, it was evident that the upper story itself was empty, uninhabited and unused.   It is, after all, the second story that is said to be the locus of the haunting.

Then, and until not that long ago, the ground floor of the building was occupied by a commercial house specializing in home appliances and other electronics, owned by the Matusita family, for whom both the store and the building were named Casa Matusita.

Various stories surround the house and the origins of the haunting.   One is that the building was once home to a man who abused his servants cruelly.  In revenge they laced the food at a dinner party hosted by the man with a drug and locked them in the dining room.  When they checked on the man and his guests the next morning they supposedly found that, subject to the hallucinogen's effects, they had brutally killed one another.

Another story is that a man went mad there, and killed his wife and family before committing suicide.  And, yet a third and similar one, is that the original Mr. Matusita, founder of the business, found his wife was cheating on him and killed her.  He is said, to have then hung himself in grief over that act.

One of the first victims of the haunting was said to be a priest who entered to attempt to put the souls to rest, and died, perhaps of heart attack, in his desperation to leave the place.

The haunting story gained traction in the 1960s when an Argentine radio and TV personality,  Humberto Vilchez Vera, was said to have announced that he would spend the night in the upper story.   He was said to have emerged out of his wits, babbling incoherently and frothing from the mouth.   In fact, I remember being told that very story by my mom, as the bus we were taking home from downtown passed by the Casa Matusita.

Years later and by then back in Argentina, Vilchez wrote that, despite the fact that many people insist that he did, he never spent the night there, and that even though people insist that they saw him go in, he in fact never even entered the place.  He said that he was in a hospital about that time, but it was from nervous exhaustion, not ghost-induced hysteria, and that he was interned before he was supposed to go into the Matusita house.  Apparently, however, at the time of the supposed events, and since, few believed his explanation.

Whatever the origins, and whether haunted or not, the fact is that in many decades no one has occupied, and barely even touched, the second story of that otherwise sound and valuable property.


On the way to  La Noche, Liz, Jason, Sara, Jacho, and I stopped for dinner at Chala, a restaurant at the top of Barranco's Bajada de Baños, the picturesque walkway that descends from the plaza to the seashore, where decades ago there had been a beach club, and a boardwalk and gazebo out over the ocean.

Chala, named after a small fishing port about halfway between Lima and Arequipa, labels itself as a "Coastal fusion" restaurant.    It's chef, Israel Laura, seems to be one of the few in Lima exploring Ferrán Adria-style "molecular" cuisine, playing with the coast/ocean theme by incorporating foams into the repertoire.   However, he manages to do so without the foams and mousses becoming the main element of the dishes in which they appear.

For example he accompanies tequeños -won-ton crisps surrounding a meat and cheese filling- with an ocopa foam which takes a commonplace, very familiar Peruvian sauce, and transforms it into something unexpected through the simple application of air.

Another instance of the judicious use of foam is the Tungurahua.  It is one of a selection of "Molecular cocktails" on the drinks menu and is named after one of Ecuador's most active volcanoes.   It is presented with a layer of a pisco and strawberry foam sitting magmalike under a layer of clear soda.   The red foam "erupts" through the soda upon mixing.

Another nifty dish, and a tasty one too, is the Chita en su nube.  "Chita" is a type of fish of the Anisotremus genus, a type known in English as scrod - yeah, I know, go figure.   The word "nube" means cloud, thus the name of the dish translates as a "chita fish in its cloud".  The "cloud" referred to is a puff of oak smoke held over the plate by a plastic dome.   When the dome is lifted a the table, the smoke escapes dramatically, leaving behind a pleasant woodsmoke smell which infuses the fish and its accompanying vegetables and sauce.


The menu is one the more inventive ones in Lima, and in emphasizing seafood, airiness, and by physically lightening up traditional dishes, offers a refreshing contrast to the Novo Andina fusions which often rely on thick Andean sauces.

Chala definitely merits a repeat visit.

Bajada de Baños 343
Barranco - Lima

La Noche

On the night before the wedding, a bunch of us went to the "artists" district of Barranco to catch a show at the La Noche club.   

This is the same club at which I saw Magaly Solier, Masacre, and Area 7 perform in August of last year.  Playing on this Thursday night was an old school mate of Carla's at the school in San Felipe, Lucho Quezquezana (known to old classmates as "Keke").   

Arriving a tad early, we found a table on the second floor balcony, ordered some water and a bottle of pisco, and settled down to chat and await the 11 o'clock show, which -in typical hora peruana (Peruvian time)- started promptly about 45 minutes late.

Quezquezana has made a longterm project of gathering musicians from diverse traditions and instruments and bringing them together to play Peruvian music and his own compositions, which draw heavily from jazz and Andean musical traditions. (I noticed that one of Quezquezana's percussionists was the same bald guy who was Solier's musical arranger and percussionist.)   On this night his ensemble was performing a set consisting of his latest album Kuntur ("condor" in Quechua).

The music was good, but I think that to really appreciate it one must be able to watch the musicians play the instruments and switch from one instrument to the next, particularly someone like Quezquezana, who himself plays over 20 wind, string, and percussion instruments.   Unfortunately, he is so popular that we were unable to consistently view the stage without craning our necks or staring between people's legs at the stage below us on the ground floor.

Conscious that we were to stay up late on the following evening, and that some of our group did have to work in the morning, we decided to call it a night around 2 a.m. and went home to get some sleep.

Sunset over Lima

Sunset over Lima.  In the background is the peninsula of La Punta, part of the port city of Callao. To the left is the mass of San Lorenzo Island, long ago a refuge for pirates and today a last haven for seabirds and sea mammals along the city's coastline.

La Huaca Pucllana

Surrounded by a fence, in the midst of Miraflores' modern high rise apartments, there sits a 75-foot tall mound of mud bricks.  This is the Huaca Pucllana (also known in older references as the Huaca Juliana).

The Huaca Pucllana is the remains of a 1,500-year old temple complex of the Lima culture, which flourished in the area centuries before the Wari, and later the Incas, left their mark.

In 1981 sustained systematic archaelogical work was begun at the Huaca, and in 1984 a site museum and "historic-cultural park" were established.  The 37-acre site includes pryramid proper, and a surrounding ceremonial/administrative sector of smaller, interconnected, buildings and courtyards.

Also, occupying one corner of the site, overlooking the pyramid, there is today one of Lima's most highly-regarded restaurants, the Restaurante Huaca Pucllana.

 On the Tuesday of my stay there, Liz and I decided to try the restaurant, joined by my like-named cousin, Juancho.   Having decided on going only that same evening, we were not able to obtain a table on the outdoor terrace, overlooking the Huaca, which is part of the charm of the restaurant.  Instead, we got the last table available, in a corner near the rear of the main room.

The restaurant, with its reputation for well-prepared food and its great location, is a draw for tourists a grade above the backpack-and-hostel crowd, and for Peruvians with foreign guests, and the prices and ambience do reflect that somewhat. 

The main dining room is decorated with ancient oars and feathered capes which, if not original, are reminiscent of the ancients' art.   There is also an enormous bouquet made of an entire dried cotton plant that is quite impressive.  The ceiling is accented with pre-Inca motifs and great rough-hewn wooden beams, supported in turn by similar wooden posts.  All in all, even indoors, the restaurant is quite charming in its attention to keeping with its location on the ancient site.

The service, we found, however left something to be desired.   The waiters seemed rushed and impatient.  Granted, we did arrive in the midst of the dinner rush, and it seems that there was a rather large party was expected and being prepped for, but nonetheless it is the wait staff's job to make every guest feel welcome and appreciated.   More than once our waiter rushed off as soon as he deemed our drink or appetizer order had been placed, leaving us with questions unasked.

The wine guy also kept pestering us about whether we had decided on which wine, if any, to order.   We were waiting in order to ask the waiter for recommendations on pairings with dishes, but as the service was slow, we had to wait, and so did he.

The drinks, it must be said were good.  I had a better-balanced coca sour there that I've ever had anywhere else.  The bitterness of the coca leaves, with which the pisco is infused, was not too evident, nor was the drink overly-sweet as is sometimes the case.

I must also admit, in fairness, that I probably set the restaurant up for an impossible comparison, when I ordered a lomo saltado.   Lomo saltado is, as its name indicates, sauteed beef, cooked with tomato and onion slices, a bit of soy sauce, and french fried potatoes, and served with rice.   The dish is so simple and the ingredients and flavours so well-known that there is not much that a restaurant can do with the dish to make it somehow special.  Huaca Pucllana, in its turn,  did what other upscale chefs and restaurants often do with it, and use expensive, tender cuts of beef and serve the fries on the side of the sautee to keep them crisp, instead of mixing them into the dish as is the wont of home cooks -including myself.

Lomo saltado is a legacy of Chinese immigrants, combining their cooking techniques and flavorings with Andean ingredients, and is a staple of Peruvian criollo cooking.  As such, it is also a staple of Peruvian home cooking and everyone has their own way of cooking it or a preferred cook.   Thus, there is perhaps no way that any restaurant could hope to wow everyone with their lomo saltado or make theirs the "best" one has tasted (an honor usually reserved for Mom or Grandma, I suppose).

We did have fun and did enjoy our meal, but the food, while good, did not stand-out enough to draw us back on its own.  However, what makes a restaurant memorable, beyond competent cooking, is the experience.  In this case, as Liz pointedly noted, the service was not up to what one expects from a Lima restaurant of that caliber and those prices, and did  detract from the experience.

In sum, yes, I'd eat there again, and gladly, but probably not unless were able to sit outside overlooking the Huaca, which is in great measure what the Huaca Pucllana dining experience is all about.

Huaca Pucllana
General Borgoña, cuadra 8
Miraflores - Lima - Peru

Friday, May 6, 2011


Upon my arrival in Lima Liz and cousin Juancho met me at the airport and whisked me off to San Bartolo, to cousin José's restaurant, Bocana.

In a previous post from an earlier trip I mentioned that my uncle Willy had purchased a home in the beach town of San Bartolo.  In time, they were thinking of selling the place as they did not manage to get out there as often as previously, but instead José, along with two friends of his, turned it into a seafood restaurant.

Bocana, like much of San Bartolo, is open only during the summer months, from December to Easter.  I arrived on the afternoon Easter Sunday and, though they had planned on closing down after lunch, they kindly held the restaurant open a few hours longer so I could experience it.

I must admit that I was surprised at the transformation of the spaces.  Inside, one would not readily recognize it as the same house, even thought no structural features were changed or removed (other than a semi-functional dune buggy).  With judicious application of curtains, bamboo accents, plants, and new furniture and wall decor, they have created a warm, inviting, and very pleasant place to eat at or to just enjoy the bar and some music.

The menu turned out to be no less inventive.

The house cebiche is a classic fish cebiche but accented with basil and Bocana's own secret seasoning.  To match it, they had their barman come up with a house drink, the Bocana, a lovely pisco chilcano with basil (pictured at top).

Another hit drink is a sour, the name of which I can't remember, with maracuyá (passion fruit).  It is offered in two variations, using only the juice of the fruit or unstrained, with the whole seeds left in.

The pisco sours, of course, leave nothing to be desired either -unless it's another round of 'em!

Neither does the chilcano de anís estrella, which is a chilcano flavored with star anise.   I believe this drink was first introduced at Malabar restaurant in San Isidro, and it has become a new staple of bars across the city.  It is simple in its preparation -simply substitute star anise-infused simple syrup for the regular simple syrup- yet, as we discovered last year when trying to make it at home, it can be surprisingly difficult to execute well.  Bocana's barman puts out one of the best, most balanced, chilcanos de anís estrella that I've had.

(This drink provided some opportunities for amusement beyond enjoying the drink itself.  As José and his fiancee, Carla, and José's partners were packing up the seat cushions and curtains as we finished our last drinks, Juancho tossed the anise star in José and Carla's direction.  They both immediately jumped, thinking it was a large spider, to peals of laughter from the rest of us.)

One of my favourite ways to start a meal in a Peruvian seafood restaurant is to order a leche de tigre.  Leche de tigre -lit. "tiger's milk"- is the liquid produced when making cebiche, it is tart with lime juice, spicy with ají, and full of fish flavour.  Sometimes served with the addition of a shot of pisco, leche de tigre is a great pick-me-up and, incidentally, can be a quick way to get a feel for the chef's hand at cebiche and Peruvian flavors.

We certainly enjoyed the rest of the meal as well, from the appetizers to the main dishes.   I can't recall anyone saying that they found their dishes wanting in any respect, although I have to admit that I was pretty busy tearing into my tuna loin with an almond crust and fetuccini noodles with Huancaína sauce.

Other dishes that were enjoyed were the seared beef loin with yellow potatoes that several people ordered, and the "Thai rice" with fish chicharrones.

José and his partners have done well in their endeavor, and the restaurant is understandably getting a lot of press lately, having been mentioned or featured in several print and TV reports on the Lima summer beach and gastronomic scene.

I just wish Bocana would be open all year long, so I could enjoy it on my own summer vacations.

Mar Pacifico 335
San Bartolo - Peru