Carlos, Our Guide in the Sacred Valley


Ours would be an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime visit to beautiful, fascinating Peru. Now, over two weeks into the trip, as I considered what to write about, it occurred to me that I was struck by the people I’ve met more than the natural scenery, including Machu Picchu, breathtaking as it may be. I will soon share what I saw, but these extraordinary people, the guides and hosts my wife and I have met, have made our visit more personal, more intimate for the kindness, open-heartedness, perspective and passion they’ve provided as Peruvians. I found myself wanting to write about them because they say more about the heart of Peru than anything.

Part of our exciting itinerary through Peru included visits to Machu Picchu and other places in the Sacred Valley. I knew that guides would be provided, but I had no idea that it would be one person, one marvelous guide who gave my wife and me not only incomparable professional services but thoughtful personal care.

Carlos Vasquez Salas was our second exemplary guide in Peru.

Carlos met us at Cusco Airport, along with Felix, who would do all the driving, and Lourdes of One Earth Peru, the Lima-based organization that made hotel, transportation and ticket arrangements on behalf of Crooked Trails in Seattle.

Our first stop wasn’t a tourist attraction at all. It was a store. In the Amazon, the outsoles of both my wife’s hiking boots had begun to separate from the shoes. Luckily we had a roll of duct tape. Her boots looked like silvery astronaut shoes. Wearing these with weeks of walking to go in Peru wouldn’t do. Without a moment’s hesitation, Carlos took us to a sporting goods store in the Plaza de Armas where we purchased a replacement pair. I also have this habit of losing sunglasses on vacation. Off we went to an optical shop, too.

We immediately set off for Ollantaytambo and arrived after dark, but not before Carlos convinced strikers to let us pass through a blockade that crippled Urubamba for two days.

Carlos left us in Ollantay to return home to Cusco. We wouldn’t see him until the morning after next at the train station when we would go together to Machu Picchu.

My wife and I had this grand vision that we would first catch sight of Machu Picchu at the end of the Inca Trail. Not that we would take the legendary trek, a four-day journey over a marathon’s distance. Rather, we would start from Km 104, a distance of about 6 miles over fairly challenging terrain to the Intipunku Sun Gate, a good day’s hike that needs no backpacking.

The climb started out well enough, but about an hour into the hike, the high rocky steps and steep climb began to take its toll on my wife who had been battling a painful knee problem recently. Carlos suggested that we make our way to Aguas Calientes along the railroad track instead. I knew she was disappointed, but she wisely took his advice. Even if the route would be level all the way into town, the only precaution being to stay out of harm’s way from approaching trains, Carlos took my wife’s daypack, along with his own, and carried it the 6km distance to Aguas.

Several families live along the track, something I believe you don’t see along the Inca Trail. Other people for one reason or another take this route as shortcuts, maybe guides or locals making their way back and forth. Carlos is a very friendly, gregarious guy, giving greetings to families and offering pieces of orange to tired passersby, another of his fine qualities. And, as we would find out time and again, he knows a lot of people, mostly other guides, whom he would greet at tourist sites with a hand shake or hug. Mama/mami or papa/papi are terms of respect I heard him use time and again. They obviously know each other in this business, and it didn’t hurt that he used to be president of a local tour guide union. I was surprised to learn from Carlos that tour guiding is a very popular and respected career in Cusco.

I found that Carlos is an avid reader. He keeps up with the latest research on Incan and pre-Incan archaeology, history, culture, even archaeoastronomy. One can feel he is a great admirer of the Incas. So it was that he led us through Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Koricancha, Pisac, Qenqo, Sacsayhuaman to show us the vast accomplishments of the Incas. He also seems fascinated by the solstitial alignments at ancient ruins.

When Carlos perceived that I had like interests, he’d suggest books which I might like, not only to gratify me but help the vendors selling them. This dual relationship, I recognized, is part of the function of tour guide, to bring together tourists and locals trying to eke out a living. Of course, there was never any urging to purchase anything. When he took us to the markets of Cusco and Pisac, the vendors no doubt appreciated that he, like other guides, bring tourists. For us, at Cusco’s San Pedro Market, when we wanted to see the fruit stands or look for a certain kind of blouse for our granddaughter, he took us right to the stalls.

Above all, Carlos is a caring man. He talks of family, of his daughter in particular. He asked if it would be alright to donate my wife’s defective boots to a Machu Picchu porter who might repair them for use on the Inca Trail. There were little things. Of his driver Felix, who would always wait in the car or drive to a different pickup point, he purchased some snacks at Las Salinéras, the amazing Incan salt fields in Moray, and offered comforting words for a personal problem Felix was having.

There likely aren’t very many like Carlos, someone to whom being a tour guide is more than a job, but a passionate commitment. He made our stay in the Sacred Valley all the more bright and meaningful.

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Comfort and Care in the Amazon Rainforest, and Other Thoughts


When I told relatives and friends that my wife and I were going to Peru, their first thought naturally enough was Machu Picchu. I would have assumed the same. But when I said that we were also going to the Amazon rainforest, some were surprised, others were intrigued, and a few wondered why. Aren’t there wild animals, bugs, snakes, poisonous frogs, piranhas—and mosquitoes? Unbearably hot and muggy to boot? Yes …

But, the Amazon is the most biodiverse rainforest in the world. Ten percent of all plants and animals, in some cases 20 percent, live there. Observing life in their habitat would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A safari, if you think about it. Simply the idea of it got me pretty excited.

To make life more comfortable, Crooked Trails and One Earth Peru, our travel organizers, arranged to have my wife and me stay at Posada Amazonas, an ecolodge on the Tambopata River. The lodge is a cooperative project between the Infierno community and Rainforest Expeditions, a Lima company, to promote ecotourism and provide additional source of income for the community. More on that later.

The flight from Cusco to Puerto Moldonado, the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, was somewhat of a surprise for a short jaunt from one of the highest places in Peru at 11,000ft to one of the lowest at 600ft. It was no more than a half hour into the flight that I could see the vast rainforest for as far as the eye could see. The Tampobata River came into view, choked with muddy, rusty water that previous rains produced. To my shock, there were pockets of smoke from fires that got me shaking my head at the thought of yet more clearing of land for cattle grazing, but later learned that controlled burning was a way for farmers to enrich the poor rainforest soil with ash nutrients.

Arrival

The tropical heat and humidity hit me like a wave as I stepped off the plane. Puerto Maldonado is a little under 900 miles south of the equator. Lodge guests were met at the airport by a guide and boarded on a bus to transport them to the boat launch on the river. Rumbling down the road, the bus kicked up heaps of dirt. Years of vehicle traffic covered the plants and trees alongside the road with reddish dust that didn’t jibe with a lush image of the tropics.

But, after I boarded the boat, heading upriver to the lodge, I began to get a feeling for the Amazon Basin. The Tambopata, wide and murky. The forest growing right up to river’s edge. Sounds of animals in the canopy. Parrots streaking across the sky.

The trek up to the lodge was an introduction to what to expect on all the hikes. Despite the high and dense forest canopy, there was still a soft glow overhead, with occasional shafts of light penetrating to the forest floor. There was an oppressive humidity in the air, dampening our clothing and lungs, and the sounds of birds and monkeys. Later, I also got a glimpse of the canopy from above. I made a vertigo-inducing climb to the top of a 90-foot (30m) metallic tower where from the top platform I got an awe-inspiring view of the forest’s crown, the Tambopata River, and an occasional monkey. I climbed back down after a beautiful, cloudless sunset.

Spotting Wildlife

A truth I learned is that there is no wild animal spotting without a guide. A creature doesn’t reveal itself easily to humans. You have to know what to look for and how. In an ecosystem as rich and diverse as Amazonas, you might think that seeing a monkey or tarantula is easy, but you’d be wrong. Without our guide Luis, ninety percent of the animals I saw would simply have been heresay. Included are white cayman, black cayman, red howler monkey, brown capuchin monkey, capybara, giant river otter, hoatzin, neotropic cormorant, capped heron, ringed kingfisher, anhinga, red-capped cardinal, amarynthis meneria, and more. Luis had to point out almost everything to us, our ability to see dependent on whether we were looking where he was.

Sounds

Forest sounds are another matter. They are everywhere. It is rarely quiet. Squawks, trills, shrieks, hoots, buzzing, chirps. Strange that I didn’t hear the racket of night creatures since every room at Posada Amazonas has one side open to the jungle. In Puerto Rico and St. John Island, the din was nearly ear-splitting. The most baffling sound had to be what seemed like the far-off roar of wind but was the bellowing of howler monkeys. I am really fond of these natural sounds.

Ethnobotanical Garden, or Nature Cures

A visit to a botanical garden was also included as part of the activities at Posada Amazonas. It was billed as an ethnobotanical tour, so it was really my misconception about what that meant that led to surprises. The ‘garden’ is actually a loop hike through a portion of the Tambopata Reserve, led by an Infierno community member who periodically stopped to explain the medicinal uses of various plants along the route. For instance, the psychotropic ayahuasca plant, long regarded by outsiders as a way to have the ultimate trip, is used by local shamans as a diagnostic tool to analyze patients’ illnesses, whether physical or psychological. Similar descriptions were given for chacruna (used with ayahuasca, also for migraines, Parkinson’s), caña caña morado (coughs, fever), sanipanga (produces a natural red dye, often used in cooking), uña de gato (treatment for early cancer, liver problems), cordoncillo (analgesic), and para para (rainforest Viagra). At tour’s end, we got to sample four extracts, all fortified with pisco. Not sure what this was about except to tickle tourists. I recall reading that Western medicine continues to research Amazonian plant properties and synthesize promising active ingredients. My takeaway from all this was indigenous peoples are still getting healed by shamans with their plant preparations. Western medicine is not the only answer.

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Comfort

I admit that the lodge made my whole experience nicer. I don’t claim to be an adventurer, so some creature comforts, not luxuries, were important. Rainforest Expeditions has gone to great lengths to make guests’ stays comfortable. The rooms, while spartan and spacious, are open to the forest on one side, with paper-thin walls and no ceiling to provide any sound buffer against neighbors or barrier to little critters. All meals were worthy of a good restaurant. Lunches and dinners featured Peruvian fare. There even was a bar where the bartenders made expertly crafted cocktails (I had my first maracuya sour and Cusqueño, Peru’s beer). Lounging areas open on all sides provided cooler areas to relax. This is not real life in the Amazon, I realize, only a way to sample it without commitment.

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Final Word

I truly enjoyed my experience. Maybe not the stifling heat so much (one day, it got up to 40oC), but it was a small price to pay for the opportunity to get to know a little about the community of Infierno, primarily through our guide Luis, and to finally set foot in the greatest rainforest of the world.

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Los Toldos’ Pollo a la Brasa (Cusco, Peru)


I’ve been seeing pollo a la brasa on many menus during my travels in Peru. The problem was that these restaurants did not have rotisseries. The chicken would be adaptations for the oven and would most certainly not have the wood-roasted flavor that has become one of the dish’s hallmarks. Its preparation is most famous in Lima, but for now Cusco would do. The only thing to do was to ask my guide in the Cusco-Sacred Valley area for a recommendation, especially since he’d done a terrific job in steering me and my wife to good restaurants during our time together.

Carlos didn’t hesitate. I had to go to Los Toldos in Cusco, his home town. At the end of our city tour yesterday, my wife and I headed straight for the restaurant, located only a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas, which meant it wouldn’t be overrun by tourists.

I’ll get to the point and say the chicken was outstanding. The skin was nicely seasoned, somewhat salty, but crisped to perfection. I saw one customer start off by eating all the skin first. The meat was succulent and fall-off-the-bone tender, wonderfully flavorful and seasoned through to the bone. Seattle has its own restaurants that serve pollo a la brasa. I take nothing away from the very good versions at San Fernando Roasted Chicken and Los Pollos Hermanos, but the chicken here was in a league of its own, truly worth seeking out.

As you enter the restaurant, whole birds are rotating on a rotisserie in an open wood-burning oven. Perhaps it’s the eucalyptus wood that also adds their special flavor. The chicken is available in the standard three sizes, one-quarter, one-half and whole, and served with the usual large-cut fries, which here were nicely done and virtually greaseless.

Service was pokey. The waiter forgot one of our drinks and didn’t bring over the sauce condiments.

Los Toldos
171 Almagro Street
Cusco 5184, Peru
+51 84 229829

Luis, Our Peerless Amazonian Guide (Tambopata National Reserve, Peru)


I’ve had my share of good guides, even great ones, whenever I go traveling. Guides are indispensable for finding out more about places than is described in a guidebook. It’s true that many seem like they’ve memorized a script and there is no spontaneity nor drawing from knowledge that only comes from vast experience. The good ones leave you with some satisfaction that you decided to use their services. The great ones make you feel blessed for having the fortune of getting them.

Luis is one of the great ones. I had no idea that a guide was going to be assigned to my wife and me at Posada Amazonas, an ecolodge in the Amazon Basin next to the Tambopata River. I knew in advance what activities lay in store for us, so I assumed we were just going to be part of a group. We (and other guests) were met by Luis at the airport in Puerto Maldonado. On the bus ride to the boat launch, he immediately began his orientation. Nothing remarkable, I thought, just doing his job. Then, on the 45-minute boat ride upriver to the lodge, he began pointing out wildlife along the shore. This was a glimpse of what was to follow. All the activities we were to do in the following three days were with Luis. During the shoulder season in September, only one couple from Switzerland was part of our group. He was almost a personal guide.

First a little background. Luis was born in Infierno, the community of 200 or so families on whose land the lodge (and a few others) operates. He grew up as a hunter and later joined the lodge staff, doing odd jobs, including helping to build the lodge, for years until he decided he wanted to be a guide. He has now been one for ten years.

Luis relies on visual cues to find hidden animals. On one of our hikes, he flushed out a giant tarantula from its nest. The technique involves twirling a dried blade of grass in such a way that the spider thinks it’s prey. One false move and the tarantula retreats. During a night walk to look for insects, he knew exactly how to look to find frogs hiding underneath forest litter.

Luis’ visual acuity is without parallel. Underneath lake grasses during a catamaran trip, he saw a juvenile black cayman’s eye from what must have been 50 yards away. It wasn’t until his passengers got much closer that they saw the same thing, even then after much coaching. Spotting birds and monkeys in trees or a family of otters off in the distance were no challenge for Luis. One got the feeling that the slightest quiver of leaves didn’t escape Luis’ detection.

He is also a master of identification, whether the subject be plant or animal, often using the scientific names for them.

Many years ago, his was a hunter’s life, on the very soil we were visiting, so these accomplishments may not seem such a surprise to anyone who has known good hunters. For me, Luis’ most incredible ability was to use his acute hearing to sense the nearness of animals when they made no discernible sound, at least to our ears. As if some internal radar were activated, he would stop in his tracks, turn his head first left then right (or vice versa), look high up into the forest canopy and spot a monkey or toucan or porcupine. He would literally have to position us in certain spots for us to see the same thing.

Most of all, Luis took care of us. Guides feel a particular responsibility for their clients, and Luis was no different. He saw to our every need. He was with us for most of time, even eating at our table for all meals. He became our teacher. Invested with a sense of humor and quick with a smile, he also became a good friend.

On our final outing, Luis showed us how to fashion a blowgun from forest material: bijao leaf, a spine from a kind of palm and cotton-like fibers from the ceiba tree. Then, he instructed us on how to blow it. With venom from a poison dart frog, it would be a lethal weapon. But, this was all for entertainment, just as posing with a headband made from palm leaves and a bow-and-arrow when we asked him to join us in group photos. Once a hunter, he is now a steward. Luis wants to protect the land that sustained him, encouraging his charges to invite friends so that ecotourism will be a viable alternative to cutting down forests for profit.

Keitt mango

Mango Heaven—It’s Time for the Keitt


Mangos are available year-round. I’ve gone through my share of them. The result is usually disappointment. Most of them are fibrous. I hate fibrous mangos. I’ll never buy another Tommy Atkins for that reason. The only ones that aren’t are the Philippine mango (carabao) and ataulfo (from Mexico), but they’re rather small.

The mango I wait for all year is the Keitt, which happens to be in season now (August and September). These babies are huge and hefty. The skin pretty much stays green all the time, occasionally revealing blushes of pink, red and gold. Biting into one is pure heaven, sweet, perfumey, tart, juicy and (above all) almost fiber-free. As mangos go, they’re pale. Don’t let that fool you. I’ve gotten spoiled by the Keitts to the point where I won’t buy any other kind except for the occasional ataulfo. The only mango that rivaled the Keitt was a rapoza which I bought at the Hilo Farmers Market in Hawaii. It was just as big and bled juice with a mere knife poke. Mangos like these are truly heavenly.

Chicken dum biryani

Annapurna’s Gift: Mirchi’s Biryani


After the superb paella at Tarsan i Jane recently, I was bowled over by another world-class rice dish, this one originating from Hyderabad in India. The city is known for its special kind of biryani. Dum biryani involves a painstaking process of layering basmati rice and meat (usually goat or chicken) that has been marinated in a complex blend of aromatics, curd (dahi), herbs and spices. The whole cooking vessel is tightly sealed and gently cooked over a stove until meat and rice are tender. This description doesn’t begin to explain the steps involved in the actual preparation and the long list of ingredients that can go into the dish. I would likely never attempt it.

Dum, meaning something like ‘breathing in,’ refers to the gentle steaming to cook the rice and meat. Since this is an entrée with lots of rice over the meat, in order to ensure consistency of texture, cooks first parboil the rice in seasoned water. They top the meat with a layer of half-cooked rice and successively add more layers of rice at increasing levels of doneness so that the top grains don’t finish firmer than those at the bottom.

Our chicken dum biryani was beautiful to look at. With some culinary sleights-of-hand, the rice appeared in shades of yellow, brown, white and orange, the first from turmeric and the last so vivid that food coloring must’ve been used. And the fragrance was equally splendid with aromas of garlic, ginger, fried onions, basmati, and warm spices, especially cardamom and cinnamon. The dark meat pieces of chicken couldn’t have been more fork-tender nor flavorful. The dish also had a kick from red chile powder.

On the weekends (including Fridays), Mirchi offers biryanis made with goat (called mutton on the menu) and a larger sized combination (chicken and goat). Dum biryani is Mirchi’s specialty and the restaurant makes one of the best. (☆☆☆☆)

I had my first manchurian at Spice Route in Bellevue, a name that describes a kind of dish with Chinese flavors of sweet and sour and Indian spices and chiles. Spice Route’s gobi manchurian is one of my favorite appetizers there. Although manchurian is not a common item on an Indian menu, at least here in the Seattle area, Mirchi does have it on theirs, made with cauliflower (gobi), paneer, baby corn, chicken or fish (which we ordered). Theirs has a nice balance of sweet and tart with a serious burn, a true makeover to adapt to fiery tastes if there ever was one. (☆☆☆)

Fish manchurian

Fish manchurian

The eggplant dish that I’ve seen most on local menus is baingan bharta. So it came as a surprise that Mirchi’s only offered eggplant curry (gutti vakanya), which piqued my curiosity. Nestled in a gravy were little eggplants slit lengthwise to the stems in a cross. The masala was a rich flavor combination of peanuts, coconut flakes, tamarind, sugar (jaggery), aromatics and spices, which begged to be eaten with rice or naan. (☆☆☆)

Eggplant curry

Eggplant curry (gutti vakanya kura)

In an interesting twist to Indian buffets at lunchtime, only on Mondays Mirchi substitutes the buffet with a thali meal, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

Mirchi Indian Restaurant
5625 221st Pl SE, Ste 100
Issaquah, WA 98027
425.651.4343

Paella

Authentic Paella at Tarsan i Jane. Does It Matter?


When I lived in Los Angeles more years ago than I care to count, I had paella for the first time at a Spanish restaurant in West Hollywood called La Masia (now long gone). I had it there maybe three times. My great fondness for it could very well have been embellished by the passage of time. It was a delicious combination of shellfish, chicken, chorizo, vegetables and rice flavored with earthy, musty saffron. This was the specialty of Valencia and La Masia’s paella was as authentic as I was going to get outside of Spain.

Or was it?

There are those, especially Valencians, who campaign against what they consider inauthentic paella. Chef Perfecte Rocher is one of them, having grown up in Valencia where his grandfather had a successful namesake paella restaurant called Tarsan and the traditional ingredients of paella Valenciana were rabbit, snails and beans cooked over wood-burning fires. Even when Rocher took his culinary skills far and wide, with stints in highly regarded European and American kitchens and having received much praise for his imaginative cooking and impressive technique, when it comes to the paella of his homeland, he chooses not to stray far from his roots. The paellas that have grown in popularity outside of Spain with their soft, plentiful rice and plethora of ingredients are anathema. At smoke.oil.salt in Los Angeles, he decided to set things aright. For him, it was a mission to restore authenticity to a dish that had lost its way. He made paella in the traditional manner, using Bomba rice and just a handful of ingredients, none of which would surprise a Valencian or Catalan. Cooked over an unpredictable wood-burning fire, the rice must be given careful attention. The paella was so good that Jonathan Gold sang its praises.

Unexpectedly, he and fiancée Alia Zaine suddenly left Southern California and eventually moved to Seattle to open Tarsan i Jane in the space formerly occupied by Tray Kitchen. The official opening was May 5. The food would be Valencian-Catalan with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients. Paella would be served only on Sundays, 11am-3pm, as part of a five-course, fixed-price meal. There is no menu as everything is based on an omakase concept of placing trust in the chef (dolç de xef).

Four of us went on a Sunday last month to have paella. On entering the restaurant, I immediately caught the enticing aromas of wood smoke. The open kitchen behind a long counter was where Chef Rocher was standing over a wood-fired grill, flames lapping up the perimeter of a paella pan. We were handed two printed sheets of paper, one an advocacy for authentic paella, the other a menu of the five courses we were about to have.

Every course impressed us. Before the paella arrived, the combination of beets and cherries surprised us with the possibilities of gazpacho (on the menu, gaspatxo). Hiding underneath what appeared to be a shredded kale salad and two kinds of housemade grilled llangonisa were a poached egg and potato cubes reminiscent of patatas bravas. Both wonderful.

Grilled llangonissa, kale, andoni egg, potato

Grilled llangonissa, kale, andoni egg, potato

Yellowtail escabeche, oysters, pineapple chamomille

Escolar escabeche, oysters, pineapple chamomille

Beet and cherry gazpacho, pistachios, citrus

Beet and cherry gazpacho, pistachios, citrus

But, let’s get to the paella. TIJ’s paella changes according to what’s fresh, so one can’t count on having the same ingredients as someone else did the week before. Ours featured clams, unshelled fava beans, chanterelles and artichoke hearts. The pan is wide enough to give the impression of substantial portion size, even for four people. But, the first scoop exposed the shallow depth of the rice, only a few grains high. The result is that none of the other ingredients is entirely submerged in the rice, not even the beans. The rice sticking to the pan bottom was slightly crusty without being burnt (socarrat), a characteristic that paelleros strive for. Perfectly cooked rice requires their utmost attention. This was an outstanding paella (☆☆☆☆), the likes of which I’d never had before, redolent of wood smoke, earthy, salty. Here were rice with substantial chew, briny clams almost raw, vegetables providing their own interesting textures and flavors.

Paella de verdures i almejes

Paella de verdures i almejes

I’ve enjoyed many paellas before, doubtless some that would make a Valencian cringe. Does authenticity matter? To me, probably not. But, I’ve been now educated to what a classic paella is like, and the one crafted at Tarsan i Jane is outstanding.

Tarsan i Jane
4012 Leary Way NW
Seattle, WA 98107
206.557.7059