A Pisco sour, Peru’s national drink © Ildi Papp, Shutterstock
Peru is enjoying some extensive exposure on the back of a culinary revolution in the country that has seen its blend of fusion cooking exported across the world; the country’s cured-fish ceviches, spicy mashed potato causas and tender alpaca steaks – though possibly not its roasted guinea pig – are going global.
Charismatic celebrity chefs such as Gaston Acurio and Virgilio Martinez have brought regional specialities to the attention of a far wider audience and international diners have responded incredibly favourably, with gastronomes around the globe singing the praises of Peruvian food and Peruvian restaurants springing up across the Americas, Spain and in London.
Lima stands at the centre of this gastronomic renaissance, but there are fine food outposts all over the country and a number of food festivals, such as La Mistura, that are gaining a similar following. As you move around the country you’ll discover a wide variety of ingredients and foodstuffs being used in the different regions and notice that each has its own speciality.
On the coast, the enormous amount of fish found offshore means that you’ll enjoy a wealth of seafood. Ceviche, white fish marinated in citrus juice, is the standout dish, although chupe de camarones, a shrimp chowder, is also delicious. Fish include sea bass (corvina), salmon and snapper.
They tend to be served cooked in garlic (al ajo), fried (frito) or baked in white wine, tomatoes and onion (a la chorrillana). You’ll also come across lots of shellfish, including mussels and scallops. Octopus (polpo) is another favourite. Along with fresh seafood, the northern coast also specialises in a heady goat stew cooked with cilantro (seco de cabrito) and served with beans or rice.
In the highlands, food is heartier and often based around corn or potato; there are hundreds of types of tuber grown here. Soups and broths are widespread, with a lightly spiced beef broth containing noodles (sopa a la criolla) and chicken soup (caldo de gallina) especially widespread.
Stir fry beef with onions, chilli, tomatoes and potato (lomo saltado) is ubiquitous, while roasted guinea pig (cuy) is considered a delicacy – it tastes a little gamey. You’ll also come across trout (trucha) fished from Lake Titicaca. In the jungle, fresh fruit is readily available; meals are often accompanied by fried banana and palm hearts.
You’ll also be served river fish or shrimp, along with tamales made of mashed yucca and stuffed with seasoned chicken (juanes). By eating in lodges you should ensure you’re not served endangered turtle soup or monkey meat.
Desserts everywhere are sweet concoctions, including flan and caramel topped with meringue (suspiro a la limeña). Look out too for a purple corn pudding served with pineapple and dried fruits (mazamorra morada). Local fruits include custard apple (cherimoya), guava, mango, passion-fruit and soursop (guanábana); try them as juices, smoothies or ice cream.
For information on tipping etiquette, see Tips on Tipping.
Most hotels and lodges provide bottled water – don’t be tempted to drink unpurified or unfiltered water. Drinks range from the lurid Inca Kola to soothing herbal teas such as camomile (manzanilla) or coca (maté de coca).
The latter won’t make you high but will ease altitude sickness and soothe stomach complaints. The quality of coffee is improving; usually you will be served a small jug of coffee essence which you add to a mug of hot water. Milk is also served separately. The national drink is pisco, a type of grape brandy used to make heady cocktails, that is best bought in Ica.
The Ica Valley is also where some of Peru’s best wines are produced, although they’re not really a patch on neighbouring Chile’s. Beers though are good and include the delicious and drinkable Cusquena and Arequipena. Whilst in Lima you’ll come across Cristal and Pilsner, and Trujillo produces a type of ale, Trujillo Malta. In the Andes you may also be offered strong homemade corn beer (chicha). On the coast a non-alcoholic corn drink, the purple-coloured chicha morada is also readily available.
There is always a wide variety of hotels to choose from in Peru, from a little dark cell with a too-small bed that feels more like a hammock, to a luxury room with a king-size bed and en suite bathroom and limitless hot water.
Then there are the middle range hotels. The star-rating of hotels may mislead you – few are up to European or American standards – but then they’re half the price. Prices vary according to the size and tourist interest of the town, high or low season, and for groups.
The hotel feature of abiding interest to gringos, most of whom have diarrhoea or are expecting to have diarrhoea, is the toilet. In the cheapest hotels this will be out in the yard and very smelly; in cheapish hotels it will be inside, but communal and probably occupied when you most need it. You may prefer to go for the upper end of the middle range to ensure that your room has its own bathroom.
Plumbing systems in Peru are rather half-hearted, so except in the posh hotels don’t try to flush your toilet paper (yes, you must supply your own) down the lavatory, but put it in the basket or box in the corner.
No, it’s not nice, but a clogged toilet is nastier. South American electricians enjoy having lots of exposed wires in the shower. Be very careful when using the on/off switch for hot water. Dry hands and rubber flip-flops are a sensible precaution if the wiring looks really suspect. The cheapest hotels are almost always clustered around bus and train stations. In villages that have no obvious hotel, there is always a señora with a room to rent for the night, so just ask around.
It is perfectly safe to camp well off the beaten track and usually all right in or near the smaller villages, although in remote areas you may infringe the rules of rural etiquette if you refuse offers of accommodation and then pitch a tent nearby.
Avoid leaving your campsite unattended and always keep all your valuables inside the tent, which should be lockable. Never camp in, or close to, towns or cities; a hotel is much safer.