One of the questions in our Blogger Beat interview asked about the most bizarre things we’ve ever eaten.  Elizabeth’s answer came without a second thought: cuy.  For this week’s Travel Tuesday, we’re revisiting our trip to Peru, where Elizabeth made her peace with guinea pigs as entrees instead of pets.

The allure of Machu Picchu is a combination of its beauty and its relative isolation.  Of course, that means there really isn’t all that much besides the formerly lost civilization to plan a vacation around.  When Elizabeth learned about GlobeAware, an American voluntourism operation with a program in Peru, we knew we had found a solution that we could feel good about.  We’d spend a week in Peru, volunteering at an albergue in Cusco and visiting Machu Picchu while we were there.

We arrived in Cusco to a meal of quinoa-crusted fried chicken and a steaming mug of mate de coca. This tea, steeped from the leaves of the coca plant, is a natural remedy for the altitude sickness that invariably strikes new arrivals.  At an elevation of almost 11,000 feet, Cusco takes some getting used to.  Something as simple as walking up a flight of stairs can leave you winded (if you’re lucky).  The tea somehow soothes the nausea and headaches that come with the change in altitude.  It’s pretty much the polar opposite of cocaine, despite coming from the same plant.

Throughout the week, we enjoyed simple, homemade meals prepared for us by the full-time staff on site.  We got to experience local produce including a rainbow of potatoes and the strange granadilla. We found ourselves chanting along with a street vendor who passed through the neighborhood every day announcing his fresh produce: “Piña!  Papaya!” We even tried chicha frutillada, a drink made from fermented corn and strawberries that packs a sweet, boozy punch.

More about the maize and a few restaurant meals (including the cuy) after the jump.

Chicha is one of those things you’re far more likely to enjoy if you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into ahead of time, like escargots or a road trip to Atlantic City.  After all, that corn isn’t going to ferment itself.  It takes a little bit of a kick start, in the form of human saliva.  Chewing on the corn kernels just enough to soften them up, Peruvians allow the mash to ferment until some of the sugars within the corn begin to transform into alcohol.

Eager to try chicha for yourself?  When you’re in Cusco and nearby, you can find plenty of folks who sell their chicha to guests.  Just look for the red flag on a pole outside the front door.  And if you’re really lucky, they’re serving it frutillada style, with mashed strawberries added in for flavor.

Although we certainly ate well while working with (and for) the children on site, we found ourselves craving a restaurant experience toward the end of the trip.  So we piled into a van with our fellow volunteers and headed down to the plaza at the center of Cusco.

There we found Andes Grill, a restaurant credited as a leader in the Novo Andino culinary movement.  The menu included an impressive selection of meats and sauces, but I was drawn to the alpaca.  We had been introduced to those llama-like creatures earlier in the week, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to experience the taste.  As it turns out, that taste is somewhere between pork and buffalo meat.  It’s a lighter meat, like pork or chicken, but alpaca definitely makes its presence felt in the kitchen and on the menu.

Elizabeth was adamantly opposed to trying guinea pigs at first, associating them with their cuddly, relatively innocuous role from her youth.    But we were determined to give it a go to see for ourselves what all the fuss was about.  What we found was a darker meat like duck, only significantly greasier.  We tried a few bites of  the dish and passed it along, having lots to taste before the end of the evening.

When our trip was coming to a close, we arrived in Lima with a half-day layover and decided to get a hotel room downtown so we could sleep in full-sized beds and enjoy a hotel shower before our flight home.  While we were there, we decided to check out one of Peru’s other main dishes: ceviche.

We took a cab from our hotel and wound up near the water at the Parque de Amor.  There we saw Segundo Muelle, a restaurant renowned for its innovative ceviches.  When we got the waiter’s attention we ordered a couple of the citrus-cured seafood dishes.  They were ready almost immediately, and we found our tastebuds re-awakened after a week of simple foods.

We left Peru with an appreciation of the culture, an awe-inspiring trip to Machu Picchu under our belts and even a few good restaurants along the way.