Join us for part two of this episode where Kelly Regan discusses Peru with our guidebook author, Neil Schlecht. This week's conversation starts with the rise of tourism to Macchu Pichu and how it both enhances and inhibits the experience. Neil talks about the discoveries of new Inca ruins, alternative trails, and lost cities, as well as how to be a responsible tourist, support local sustainable development and leave the faintest footprint possible when visiting these sometimes fragile sites. On the lighter side, learn about traditional Peruvian cuisine like cebiche and which is the better culinary bet in Peru -- guinea pig or piranha. This episode ends with practical info on getting there, getting around and dealing with altitude sickness.
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- Tourist Spot: Machu Picchu
- Inca Ruins: Ollantaytambo
- Famous Dish: Ceviche
- Remedy for Altitude sickness: Coca leaves or Coca tea
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning a trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
Kelly Regan: Hi, I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host today. Welcome back to part two of our Peru podcast with Neil Schlecht, the author of Frommer's Peru, which is on sale now. We will be talking today about Machu Picchu, responsible tourism and the ins and outs of Peruvian cuisine.
In the book you're calling it Peru's natural and manmade beauty. In the book, you call Machu Picchu not only South America's top attraction, but one of the world's great examples of landscape art. Because of spectacular setting and this almost dreamlike quality of experiencing it so high in the mountain, Peru's becoming an increasingly popular destination. I think you would agree that the tourism to Peru has really skyrocketed in the last five years. Has Machu Picchu been compromised by the numbers of travelers who have visited? And are there other places that might not be as well-known?
Neil Schlect: Right, yea.
Kelly: Other ancient sites that you might recommend people to go to for a more untrampled experience?
Neil: Yeah, well, to be honest, I keep expecting every time I go back, I keep expecting one day to have to say, "Yes it's over, it's overrun, it's overrated." But it never is, no matter, and we're speaking just in terms of Machu Picchu, but no matter the crowds or the landslides that derail trains on our way back to Cuzco, it retains its allure. I remember seeing a photograph of Machu Picchu when I was five years old and fixating on it, determined that I'd someday get there. And I've seen it with no people there. In 1983 there was a train strike and the only way to get there was by foot and there were four Germans and myself and a friend. And I've seen it with large groups there and it's just never diminished. It's really remarkable. It remains a spectacular site if you're able to see it early in the morning when the sun rises over the Andes and illuminates, row by row, the ruins or late in the afternoon when all the day-trippers have left. It's really not diminished at all. But...
Neil: I think people are recognizing, the government is recognizing that this is a sensitive place and you've got to limit the numbers of people who go there and try to protect it. And I think people are also understanding that, instead of just zipping there by train during the day, going there and back in a day, which is what traditionally everyone would do, go to...
Neil: Sail off to Cuzco, go spend an hour at Machu Picchu and then run back, that they're discovering other Inca sites, like in the Sacred Valley, a town like Ollantaytambo, which is not easy to say but...
Kelly: Ollantaytambo, yeah.
Neil: but has incredible Inca ruins overlooking the valley and the river and also a perfect grid system that has its old town of cobblestone streets and canals running along the sides that the Incas established, and this is just a lovely little town. There are things like that and more adventurous travelers are taking to alternative Inca trails for example. The Inca trail, which twenty-five years ago you just hopped on. I think you paid, I don't know, five dollars or ten dollars and then you could do it alone. Now you've got to go with a registered...
Kelly: Tour group.
Neil: ... travel group, you know. It's expensive to go, relatively expensive. So, people are looking for less popular trails, either to still get to Machu Picchu or venturing out to other ruins that are only now being cleared, like Kuelap, which is north of Cajamarca or Llactapata, the latest and greatest lost city, the El Dorado.
Neil: It seems like every couple of years, a new lost city of the Incas turns up. And you know, most anthropologists and archeologists believe there are many more out there just waiting to be discovered. Of course, they're in impenetrable jungle and difficult conditions and you need technology like aerial infrared sensing and stuff to find them. But, increasingly, I think there is an interest to seek other destinations where, pretty much you get the goose going. Everybody's been to Machu Picchu and everybody's done the Inca Trail..
Neil: ...and the natural desire is to see something else.
Kelly: To venture beyond that.
Kelly: Well, I mean, this brings up another hot button, current event issue, which is the environmental impact of tourism. The government is becoming increasingly strict about imposing limits on the number of trekkers. By the same token, I think that it's possible that the government is not quite keeping up with the discoveries of, as you call them, lost cities. These reports recently mention that some pre-Inca sites have been plundered. There are also plans to build a highway through the Amazon, to penetrate deeper into the jungle wilderness. There's this double-edged sword of responsible tourism. You bring people into the areas to educate them and to stimulate the economy, but are you perpetuating more destructive footprints that put the sites in danger? So, what kind of job do you think the Peruvian government is doing to address these concerns?
Neil: Well, it's a huge issue across the board. There's no question it's a very sensitive matter because so much of Peru's economic future is tied to tourism that inevitably touches upon environmental issues or protection of these landmark sites. For example, when mentioning the trail of foreigners to Machu Picchu, I think the fact the government has stepped in and severely limited the number of trekkers allowed on the trail, limited the number of visitors to Machu Picchu on a daily basis. That's a very good thing because these are ultimately fragile and can suffer irreparable damage if there were no efforts to protect them. But this is Peru and only a couple of years ago, the government was still entertaining ideas of stringing a cable car from one mountain across the valley to Machu Picchu.
Kelly: Oh man.
Neil: Yeah, and only four years ago, when I was there, they had allowed the filming of a beer commercial within Machu Picchu and someone sneaked in a big camera crane and damaged a five-hundred year old sun dial.
Kelly: For a beer commercial?
Neil: For a beer commercial. I mean it's something that the Spanish could not succeed in destroying, yet...
Yet, you know whatever, Cuscania beer, I think, did.
Sad things like that. Things are always at risk and always subject to political and business interests that challenge conservation efforts. As you say, according to reports, there are Inca and pre-Inca cities that are apparently being looted because the government either doesn't have the resources or the will to protect them. I've been in places like in the desert near Nazca, where these gravesites, where there's skulls lying out on the ground, baking in the sun, because the gravesites have been looted by bandits stealing ceramics. And they're everywhere. It's sad, because you know that there's an awful lot being lost. But the larger issue is, across the country there are very positive examples of environmental conservation and sustainable development initiatives. A gentleman I met who was one of the pioneers of Amazon eco travel, a man named Charles Munn, he basically feels that sensitive travel to these places is absolutely vital in terms of raising awareness, but really in terms of creating some source of income other than destructive activities like logging. And for him and other people involved in eco tourism, there's really no choice. The question is doing it right. Leaving the faintest possible footprint, making sure that a healthy percentage of profits stay locally with local communities, rather than going to some big tour operator in Lima.
Kelly: Or multinational companies.
Neil: Exactly. I mean, there's a continually growing fire worldwide to travel to these pristine wilderness areas, and that's not going to stop. There's no choice for the people who are doing it, but travelers have a choice, and that is really to do the research. Hopefully, our book will help in that regard, but to give their money and their vacation days to organizations that are honestly involved in sustainable development initiatives. This is a very complex issue, but I guess the short answer is that tourism always brings these tensions into play, especially in developing countries where it's the largest industry and the biggest income earner. It's not only limited to the Amazon rainforest, it's places like Cuzco, the town, where people are continually being displaced to accommodate new bars, and new inns, and new restaurants. All these new discos, everything to accommodate the growing hordes of visitors. And so these are issues that are constantly tense and it's hard to see how exactly they'll get resolved.
Kelly: Yeah, and as you said, just finding a way to do it right, meaning to promote the good kind of tourism, which leaves the faintest possible footprints and allows these places to stick around for many, many years.
Neil: Well, thankfully there are a lot of organizations that are doing really good work. I highlight a number of them in the book, organizations that you can feel really comfortable with about spending your money and your time and know that you are doing the right thing. And you're still getting to do what you want to, which is to go to these wilderness places and see some wildlife.
Kelly: So, we talked about the environmental impact of tourism and the sheer diversity of experience that you can have in traveling to Peru. I know everyone who's listening has been waiting for us to talk about Peruvian dining experiences, so let's get to that. I think one thing I just wanted to point out is, Peruvian cuisine is the kind of hybrid of Chinese and Spanish and indigenous Indian influences. What's your take on the cuisine as a whole? It's a lot more sophisticated, I think, than people might give it credit for.
Neil: Oh, there's no question, it's remarkably sophisticated. And I think people are starting to learn that, especially as Peruvian and panLatino restaurants proliferate around the world. Peruvian cuisine is some of the most sophisticated in South America, there's no question, and with all of those marked influences that you commented on. And there are distinct coastal and highland and tropical cuisines. I think the most famous Peruvian dish is ceviche, which you find in lots of Latin restaurants here in New York, London, everywhere. For those who don't know, ceviche is raw fish and shellfish that's marinated, rather than cooked, in lime or lemon juice and served with raw onions and hot chilies and sweet potatoes.
Kelly: The lime and lemon juice pretty much cooks the fish anyway, in a way.
Neil: Exactly. It's not like eating sushi. But this is a wonderful tasty dish along the coast. It is primarily a coastal dish, and you'll find these great little informal cevicherias which often amount to little more than shacks, making a great ceviche which you make with a nice cold beer, or a Pizco sour, or something called chicha morada which is a beverage made from blue corn. And it really is something that you can't go to Peru without having. Then, in the highlands, the diet is much different, a lot of things inherited from Quechua from the Incas, potatoes, grains -- you have a sopa de quinua which is a grain soup -- or items like rocoto which is stuffed hot peppers. But in the highlands one of the coolest things you'll see is something called a pachamanca, and that's basically a roast cooked in a hole dug in the ground. And so, on weekends if you go venture into the countryside you'll see families digging holes and placing potatoes and meat over dugout fires, almost like you'd see tailgaters in parts of the United States.
Neil: In the fall, after a football game, you know? But it is one of the interesting things about Peru. And it used to be, you'd go to Cuzco and it was kind of all dirt-cheap tourist-oriented restaurants, but kind of a haute cuisine in Lima, but also nicer restaurants infiltrated places where tourists go. There's the celebrity chef du jour, there's a guy named Gaston Acurio and he's got his own TV show and restaurants in Bogota and Quito and Santiago. He's got a restaurant in Lima called Astrid & Gaston and it's just phenomenal. Eating is one of the pleasures people might not immediately associate with Peru, but it definitely is one.
Kelly: Well, I have to ask you about two particular dishes, one of which I alluded to at the beginning of this conversation, but I know that one of the meats that you can try when you're in Peru -- and I hope I'm pronouncing this correctly -- cuy, which is guinea pig.
Kelly: So, I thinking of a funny story about getting a plate of this, and tell me a little bit about that.
Neil: I wish I could tell everyone how delicious cuy is. And I don't want to offend Peruvians, I mean, it's considered a delicacy in Peru and I have a friend whose mother raises guinea pigs north of Lima. I tried it once, and it's not something I could recommend from a culinary perspective. I mean, maybe from a sociological angle or something. It comes to you on a plate, fried, with its little rat body belly up and its claws curled up in defense and its little rat teeth bared, staring at you. I mean, if that's not unappetizing enough, to be honest it doesn't offer a whole lot of meat. And what meat there is, it's pretty stringy and lots of bones.
Kelly: Not a lot of meat on those bones.
Neil: No. You'll see it in virtually almost every restaurant, at least traditional restaurants. And for adventurous travelers it's something that they ought to consider. They might have a backup plan if it doesn't work out.
Kelly: Maybe you have a side salad or something like that.
Kelly: What about piranha? When you're visiting the Amazon you can actually eat piranha, I guess if you steer clear of the teeth.
Neil: You certainly can. You go out on a little dugout canoe and catch piranha with a local fisherman. I've had it cooked immediately after returning to shore, and I have to say it was much better than the guinea pig. It's a pretty tasty little white fish. You know, in the Amazon there are all kinds of rare things that are offered for consumption. I mean, there are things like turtle soup and alligator, but these are protected species. And so, I also want to warn people that you can opt for something instead of these protected species -- like a paiche, which is a really large, delicious river fish -- and not go for something just because it's exotic.
Kelly: Because it might be a little too exotic.
Neil: I think so. I mean, when something is protected by law there's a reason for it, and you can eat something else.
Kelly: We're going to wind down, but I'd like to close with just a few practical questions for you. I imagine that for, again, people who might not be familiar with Peru as a travel destination, you can pretty much get there on direct flights from the United States. Most of the domestic airlines fly to Lima, is that correct?
Neil: It is. It used to be, I think there were some international flights to Cuzco as well, but that is no longer the case. So, you are pretty much obligated to fly into Lima. A lot of people are frankly skipping Lima. The capital is the nice old colonial quarter and some nice districts, but it's kind of a chaotic mess and a little seedy in lots of parts. And so, a lot of people are trying to avoid spending any time at all in Lima. But what you have to do, say if you wanted to go directly to Cuzco and you don't want to spend the day in Lima, is you need to find a flight that will get you to Lima at, say, four o'clock in the morning because the flights to Cuzco leave early in the morning. Only from like eight A.M. till noon. It's in the Andes, and it's difficult to get to and the wind conditions in the afternoon are not optimal, and flights are canceled often. So, you have to give it some thought about when you arrive in Lima if you want to skip it.
Kelly: If you want to skip it over?
Neil: So, if you arrive at four or five in the morning, you can get an eight or nine A.M. flight to Cuzco or to Puno, wherever you want to go.
Kelly: Well, for a country that has so many different types of experiences -- there's the rain forest, mountain experiences, obviously the coastal areas -- are there particular health concerns that travelers should be aware of? I mean, you alluded to how high Cuzco and Machu Picchu are, I imagine altitude sickness is an issue. Are there other things people should be aware of?
Neil: Well, the first thing is, acute mountain sickness or altitude sickness, what's locally called soroche in Peru, is something that affects a great deal of travelers. Yeah, Cuzco is eleven thousand, three or five hundred feet, Titicaca over twelve thousand feet, Machu Picchu somewhat lower, but it's something that affects a great number of travelers, including my wife. When she went to Peru for the first time, she was stopped dead in her tracks. It's something that when you arrive, you really have to take it easy. Drink a lot of fluids, not drink alcohol. The local remedy is coca leaves, either coca tea, called mate de coca, or chewing on the leaves themselves. If you go out into the villages, the highlanders chew on coca leaves during the day. It sort of wards off hunger, but it's something that really helps you adapt to the altitude. Beyond that, if you're feeling ill, there's oxygen tanks in most nicer hotels, where you actually sit down and suck off an oxygen tank. In Hotel Monasterio I mentioned before is the only one in the world, or it was last time I was there, that will pump in oxygen through the heating vents overnight for like twenty-five dollars or something. I thought it was a silly Michael Jackson gimmick.
Neil: I don't suffer from altitude sickness. My wife, who did, we definitely got that stuff pumped in and she said she felt really refreshed the next day. So, I don't know if it's pretty sophisticated, I don't know how many hotels would be able to offer that, but there's no question that can really limit how much you can do in the first couple of days. One of the things in the book that I really recommend to people is, if you know that you're affected by it, perhaps instead of going immediately to Cuzco -- which is, again, eleven thousand five hundred feet -- is a lot of people now are going to the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which is the area between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. It's a lower elevation, and spending a couple of days acclimatizing there before going to Machu Picchu, and then returning to Cuzco when they have gotten used to the conditions. I think that's a really good idea, and then move on to Titicaca and these other places. I mean, you're in the Andes Mountains, and you're certainly high up.
Kelly: All right. I was just going to say, for people who are planning to go to the Amazon, it's really malaria and yellow fever.
Neil: Yeah, I mean that's the other issue. Outside of the Amazon, and as we spoke about altitude sickness, there really are no health concerns. But if you are going deep into the jungle, and by that I mean not just some eco lodge that may be only a half an hour away from civilization, for a number of days, then I think the CDC recommends yellow fever and malaria shots, but also, hepatitis A and B. Really, if you're going to go and spend a week in a really remote location, you need to check off all the boxes and get everything that the CDC recommends to be safe.
Neil: It's in the book. The immunizations are not that big a deal. I do it every time I go, I think better safe than sorry.
Kelly: All right. Well, I think that's probably all we have time for today. I've been talking with Neil Schlecht, who's the author of "Frommer's Peru" which is on sale now. Neil, it was a really great conversation, thanks for talking to me.
Neil: My pleasure, Kelly. Good to talk to you.
Kelly: Join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's travel guides, and we'll talk again soon.
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