Where to stay and eat in Lima and Cusco
Among the highlights: He’s a restaurateur who also owns a catering company that has fed oil workers deep in the Amazonian jungle. He’s an author and the host of “Por Las Rutas Del Pisco,” a popular TV show dedicated largely to pisco, the spirit that he has been promoting for decades. He’s the master distiller at Porton Pisco, a new multimillion-dollar operation that may be Peru’s best shot at cracking the top-shelf U.S. spirits market. Along with chef Gaston Acurio, Johnny Schuler is to Peru as chef Jose Andres is to Spain, a tireless promoter of his country’s vast gastronomic riches.
But as we’re barreling down the highway, I’m more interested in Schuler’s skills as a tour guide than his position as a national pisco celebrity. With Schuler’s narration and guidance, this stretch of the Pan-American Highway becomes more than just a major north-south thoroughfare. It is an ever-changing landscape that illustrates a larger story about modern Peru.
Along the highway, we stop at a roadside stand that sells fresh, freakishly large Peruvian figs and another that hawks sugar cones topped with scoops of sweet, pumpkin-pie-like ice cream made from lucuma, a subtropical fruit native to the Andean valleys. We zip past fields growing asparagus and artichokes, much of it bound for overseas tables. We spot sprawling chicken farms that supply many of the pollo a la brasa restaurants throughout Peru. But mostly we pass hundreds, probably thousands, of makeshift wooden or cinder-block homes, part of large squatter communities that often dominate the scenery.
This is the Peru far removed from the tourist districts of Lima. This is the Peru laid bare for all to see: the large-scale industries that continue to move the country’s ever-growing economy forward; the native produce — lucuma predates the Incan Empire — that continues to satisfy taste buds, both foreign and domestic; and the widespread poverty that fuels the crime that scares so many tourists away from here. Yes, Peru is a place of increasingly dizzying highs and heartbreaking lows. It’s also a country changing before our eyes.
Much of what’s driving Peru’s future is its past and its indigenous bounty. Schuler tells me that Peruvian chefs, such as Pedro Miguel Schiaffino at Malabar in Lima, continue to mine the Amazon for inspiration, finding creative uses for jungle fruits and herbs and even the massive, air-breathing paiche, which has become the trendy freshwater fish in Latin America. He mentions an Amazonian variety of yucca that’s so sweet it tastes like a banana. “We haven’t discovered yet everything that comes from the valley of the jungle,” he says.