If you haven’t been to Peru (or anywhere else in South America, for that matter), put it on your bucket list.
A haven of wonder and awe, Peru is a mystical place where you can drive endless green plains, buy and wear the brightest, most colorful textiles, and take selfies with bucktooth llamas. It's a place to dance through street festivals, and take part in ancient Incan pageants, just because you happen to stumble upon one. And the people are amazing too; they’re kind, outgoing, welcoming, friendly and hospitable. They’re proud of their culture and they love to share it with the curious people who travel from far and wide to see it firsthand. But most of all, Peru is a place you'll want to eat your way through.
As beautiful as all that is, you’ll want to do nothing more than immerse yourself in Peru as fully as you can. But as a traveller, you’ll need to prepare for it too.
Let me explain...
Have passport, will travel for food
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I first visited Peru last June on what was predominantly a culinary trip; Peruvian cuisine was very much at the heart of what we did. I found myself with a group of excited Americans and Canadians, and all of whom - except one - had never been to Peru before.
First, we headed north and set up camp in Cusco. From there we spent five days trekking to Machu Picchu. (Amazing!)
When we returned, we further explored the cobblestone city of Cusco, indulging in Peru’s impeccable food and drink scene – both eating it and learning how to cook it ourselves.
We learned to make mushroom ceviches and salty Lomo Saltado, two standout specialties of the region. We met with bar gurus at the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco to make sweet potato-infused pisco sours and pisco mojitos flavored with local sage. Most importantly, we tried every type of food and drink we could, especially savouring the region’s delicacies.
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Flickr/Erin (CC by 2.0)
Known for its fresh produce, in worldly Peru, you’ll find traditional Amerindian and Spanish dishes fused with African, Arab, Italian, Chinese and Japanese influences. It’s the birthplace of ceviche, pisco sours, Lomo Saltado, quinoa, purple potatoes, and anticuchos, or cow hearts with sliced onion or potato and drizzled with lime. When you’re there, you can eat things you won’t find anywhere else, like alpaca and (dare I say?) guinea pig stews.
Taking it a step further, in Peru, a meal can even be a religious experience. “Pachamanca,” for example, is traditionally cooked in a hole in the ground and has to be blessed by spiritual Shamans before it can be eaten. It’s a hearty dish, one made with lamb, mutton, pork, chicken, goat, guinea pig, vegetables, potatoes, corn, and tamales. Yes, it’s as delicious and filling as it sounds.
As you can imagine, Peru is a place where food is best enjoyed with a side of fearlessness.
Flickr/Anthony D'Ambrosio (CC by 2.0)
But as fun and tasty as a culinary trip is, I learned that they sometimes contain a cruel irony.
You see, we had a ravenous appetite for experience; not having been to South America before and visiting a place that celebrates food, all we wanted to do was eat. And eat, we did. But the effects of that appetite made the trip difficult for some of us - especially those of us struck with a bout of foodborne illness. And trust me, there's nothing appetizing about staring down a beautifully plated Peruvian dish while your gut rumbles ominously.
The dark side of a culinary-themed trip:
Disculpe! Dónde está el baño?
Flickr/Robert Luna (CC by 2.0, edited)
Whenever and wherever we travel, it’s important to remember that not all countries adhere to the same food safety practices that we do at home. At best, it causes our bodies to occasionally react when we visit a new destination. At worst, diners over-acquaint themselves with foreign bathrooms.
In South America, health organizations warn travellers about unfiltered water, whether it's for washing hands, drinking, brushing teeth or even putting ice cubes made from tap water in your drink. I probably don't have to tell you to stick to bottled water, but it’s not easy to know if a restaurant washes produce and cooking utensils with tap water.
When foodborne illness strikes, the result is enough to put a damper on any adventure – stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea for 48 hours or more.
So what, don't eat? I wouldn’t take back my experience in Peru for the world, but before I go back (because I will be going back), I will definitely be better prepared.
Hang out in kitchens, not bathrooms:
My best tips for avoiding diarrhea while travelling
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Before you go:
While us travellers might not have control over food safety hazards in foreign countries, we can minimize the risks of getting diarrhea by taking certain precautions. DUKORAL® is an oral vaccine that can be given to reduce the risk of ETEC* diarrhea during travel. It's two doses, taken one week apart, two weeks before you leave. DUKORAL® does not require a prescription (except in Quebec) and can be purchased at most pharmacies, doctor’s offices and travel clinics. Consult your healthcare professional before you go to see if DUKORAL® is right for you.
*Enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC)
“Canadians’ travel habits are increasingly becoming more adventurous. Social media is fuelling our desire to get more out of our vacation, which can include heading off the beaten path to try new food and drinks,” said Corinne McDermott of HaveBabyWillTravel.com. “This kind of experience can create priceless memories for both adults and children, but remember that food safety is an essential way to avoid illness. If you're unsure, remember: If you can’t peel it or heat it, don’t eat it.”
Appropriate selection of food and beverages can reduce the risk of diarrhea.
Make sure any cocktails “on the rocks” are ordered only from high-end or global hotels and restaurants where you know the water has been purified.
Avoid consuming under-cooked or raw meat products, as well as fruits and vegetables that are difficult to clean and peel.
Try to avoid eating meat from street markets or outdoor kiosks. South America is known for its hot, humid temperatures, and raw meat and poultry that sits in the sun for too long can produce harmful bacteria.
Make sure to wash your hands with soap and water before eating. Alcohol-based sanitizers may help to reduce the risk of diarrhea in the absence of soap and water.
But most importantly, I would have the time of my life.
Remember, every adventure comes with its fair share of challenges, but if you take the proper precautions (like those listed above!), there’s little need to fret. In fact, your next trip abroad might end up being the most delicious adventure of your life.