Good Food And Bad Food

Hotels usually have rules about when one can and can’t check in – usually you have to wait until mid morning to get access to your room. But when you’re travelling you often turn up in the early hours, exhausted after a difficult night on a bus. Luckily, wherever we’ve been so far, the hotels have been very accommodating and we’ve always been able to have a couple of hours sleep when this situation has arisen.

Not in Nasca, though, where we’d booked a nice hotel (Casa Andina, a Peruvian chain of hotels) but were told on arrival (at 6am) that we couldn’t go into our room until 2.30pm! We did eventually manage to check in at 10.30am but only after a prolonged argument with the hotel’s customer service department online. This left us with 25 minutes to shower and change before taking a flight over the Nasca Lines, having neither slept nor eaten. And so it was that I found myself consuming four chocolate biscuits in quick succession in the waiting area at the airport before we boarded our tiny plane.

We shared our trip with a shy Vietnamese girl from New York (what an unexpected combination!) who, like us all, was unaware of the events to come. The pilots took the plane up within seconds of us clicking our seatbelts on and donning our headphones for the guided tour and barely 5 minutes later, the aircraft was swinging this way and that as we were shown the lines made in the desert rock. I was expecting the figures to be a lot larger than they were for some reason and for a while I was quite underwhelmed by the whale and the trapezoids which I eventually managed to pick out. But as we got to the astronaut – carved in the side of a small hill – and the spider, I began to appreciate how cool they were and got some half-decent photos.

Once we were halfway through the 35 minute tour though, things began to feel a little odd deep within my chocolate-filled stomach due to the rapid twists and turns that the plane was making to ensure that those on both sides of the plane could see and, in the end, the inevitable came to pass and, when we returned to terra firma, I was carrying a little gift to remember my time here, secure in a small plastic bag. Our travel companion silently disappeared off back to town and I went for a nice lie down, having binned the remainder of my biscuits – for some reason they had lost their appeal.

Nasca is in the desert so the temperature was much nicer, meaning that our afternoon of sitting by the pool and reading was, literally, warmly appreciated. A disappointing dinner served by an amiable old man who had to actually go to the shops to fetch some mustard for our steak when we requested it was followed an equally bizarre occurrence. We stopped at another restaurant on the way home to have some cake for dessert but, once again, our request was supplied only by the waiter popping next door to the cake shop to purchase our order.

Our bus journey to Lima – the last city on the South American section of our journey, was supposed to take 7 hours but took more than 8 in the end due to what looked like a horrible accident involving several lorries on the desert road up the coast and the insane traffic in Peru’s capital. No-one gives way to anyone here, apart from when they are in a position where they quite literally cannot do anything else.

I didn’t have very high hopes for Lima. It does not have a great reputation, not least for its safety, and the number of pages dedicated to it in the guidebooks tells its own story, I think. With this in mind, we’d booked a hotel a fair distance outside the city, in Barranco and we were all extremely pleasantly surprised when it turned out that the hotel was lovely and the area is extremely clean, safe and attractive. We just had time for a quick stroll into town and a superb meal before bedtime.

Next day was Lee’s last full day in Peru before her flight home so we thought we’d better go and see central Lima. We walked to Miraflores and took a collectivo and a local bus to a museum which Annika had promised us was extremely interesting but which turned out to be as dull as a collection of old things with a modicum of descriptions in Spanish housed in a 60’s concrete building near a dual carriageway. Apparently, things can change quite a lot in 13 years!

We headed into town, had some lunch and then wandered through the centre of town, marvelling at the lack of sights and unremarkable shops, before taking a taxi back to our hotel. The only thing worth mentioning about Lima was the statue of a woman who was supposed to have a crown of flames but whose sculptors had seen the Spanish word for ‘flame’ and had carved a nice little llama on her head.

Dinner was an event worth talking about – for hours, as that’s how long it took! Astrid Y Gaston, in Miraflores, is well known as the best restaurant in Lima and we’d reserved a table for Lee’s last night. Arriving at 8pm, we plumped for the 12-course tasting menu. Annika’s Spanish is excellent but speaking a language for conversation and understanding a menu in a posh restaurant, written in that language is a very different thing so we had virtually no idea what we were going to be eating.

An enormous board of different types of bread and sauces was served first, followed by an amuse-bouche which featured a tiny amount of soup with the modern-flash-restaurant-standard of some manner of ‘foam’. Neither of these counted as one of the 12 courses though, and we began in earnest, 15 minutes later, with course number 1 which, from memory, was a panna cotta of palm hearts. The food was absolutely delicious but, predictably, the portions were tiny and I was concerned that I might need a pit stop at a takeaway on the way home but how wrong I was!

Lee asked for a photocopy of the menu so we could mark each dish out of 10 and much fun was had, discussing the relative merits of the various seafood dishes that were served in the early stages – one which featured a scallop, squid and rock fish really made me very happy indeed.

By course number 7, Lee was struggling. We were now onto the meat dishes and I remember it was the beef in a creamy sauce course which sent her over the edge, the marks plummeting to 5 out of 10 as her stomach began to hold its hands up in surrender. I was still enjoying every tiny mouthful though and, despite some suspiciously nutty tastes, the last main course – of guinea pig – was exceptional.

Lee was looking jaded by this point but the first of the two dessert course seemed to perk her up, refreshingly light and fruity and there was much relief around the table when the gorgeous, chocolatey final dish was consumed, along with the last of the Peruvian red wine and the overall marks were totted up by Annika. However, it was not all over and a small, brightly coloured cage-type object with drawers full of various truffles, fruits and chocolates was brought over to round things off, along with a mango concoction on a stick for each of us. By now, it was nearly midnight and, having been the first to be seated in the room in which we’d eaten, we were the last customers left. Four hours of foody gorgeousity which had left us stuffed to the gills and would not quickly be forgotten – especially the chicken soup which won the prize for the highest overall score!

Lee’s flight home required us to be at the airport for late afternoon the next day so, after a walk around Miraflores for some last minute shopping and another tasty lunch in Barranco, we took a taxi with the hotel’s driver who had agreed to wait for us and take us back once Lee had checked in. As we climbed out of the car at the airport, the driver appeared to joke that he had a gun in case anything went wrong so we challenged him to show it to us with big grins on our faces, upon which he lifted his shirt a little – enough to reveal the handle of a small handgun. I love Lima.

It took two hours to check Lee in for her flight, mainly due to the well-concealed fact that the flight was delayed for five hours, causing everyone to need a change to their onward flight connections in Madrid. Tremendously zen about everything, she wandered off into the departure lounge with a smile on her face and this is how I will remember the two weeks we’ve had with her. Things have not always worked out as planned on this part of the trip but we’ve all managed have a great laugh about most of it.

Our trip continues though and we’ve been thrown a nice big test for the start of our final month. One of the volcanoes that surrounds the town of Antigua, in Guatemala, where we are headed next, erupted yesterday and caused a state of emergency to be declared as well as an extremely inconvenient closure of the airport we are due to fly to to tomorrow. At the moment, we are not sure what’s going to happen but it seems likely that we are now going to go to El Salvador and try and bus it up to Guatemala. Not quite part of the original plan but if half of Europe can talk about how erupting volcanoes messed with their plans then who are we to miss out?!