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Thursday, 24 April 2014

The London Foodie Goes to Peru - Paracas and Nazca


A little over 3 hours south of Lima by coach, Paracas is for many the first stop on the southern circuit of internationally famous tourist destinations that includes the Ballestas Islands, Nazca and its mysterious lines, Arequipa, Lake Titicaca, Cuzco and of course Machu Picchu. It was in Paracas that  we started our epic journey through  southern and central Peru.

Ballestas Islands

The Paracas peninsula, a large area of coast to the south and the Ballestas Islands together make up the National Reserve of Paracas in the province of Pisco, with reportedly the highest concentration of marine birds in the world. Aside from this stupendous natural beauty and the stunning rock beaches, there is little of interest to the visitor in the town of Paracas, but the climate is warmer and less cloudy than Lima, the ocean cleaner, and it makes a good spot to relax for a couple of days by the hotel pool.  It is to Paracas that for decades affluent Limeño families have come for a weekend fix of sun and sea.

Spot The Astronaut - One of the Nazca Lines

Where to Stay

The Hotel Paracas, part of The Luxury Collection of 80 boutique hotels and resorts scattered around the world, is situated just a few metres away from the Pacific Ocean, and 300m from the town square.


Famous since it first opened as the only luxury hotel on Peru's south coast in 1944, this hotel has always been a favourite weekend destination for the well heeled residents of Lima. They remain the majority guests in the new hotel, which was completely rebuilt at a cost of $50m after the massive 2007 earthquake severely damaged the original building.


Re-opened in 2009, today the hotel is a 5 star affair with 120 villas, two swimming pools, a spa and a choice of restaurants and bars. It also has its own private launch for visiting the nearby Ballestas Islands, famous for their sea lions, dolphins puffins and penguins.



The hotel's rooms are in villas scattered over the site, some with an ocean view, others facing the gardens. Our room was spacious, with wooden floorboards throughout and a restful colour scheme of white linens, distressed white louvered woodwork, and natural bamboo. It was well equipped with air-conditioning, satellite TV, iPlayer docking system and minibar.  The bathroom had a power shower and separate bath, and double sink. Outside was a private balcony overlooking tropical gardens. The hotel’s magnificent grounds were immaculately maintained with myriad local plants and flowers.

Our gorgeous villa at the Paracas Hotel

Breakfast is served in the main dining room overlooking the larger of the two pools, a stunning setting. There is a good range of perfectly ripe and sweet exotic fruit salads and juices, which I always make a point of enjoying when I am in a tropical country.

The buffet has a generous spread of hams, cheeses, yoghurt, bread, pastries, and cooked items kept in heated dishes - bacon, scrambled eggs, sausages and the like.


There is also a menu of made to order items, from which we tried a delicious French toast (a thick wedge of toast fried in custard, scattered with cinnamon all smothered in maple syrup and topped with strawberries which was scrumptious), eggs Benedict over brioche and ham and cheese panino, all very good. But best of all, the coffee was strong and well flavoured.


Where to Eat

Chalana Restaurant

It has to be admitted that the restaurants of Paracas are few and not particularly enticing. Most are cheap and cheerful, and are in a strip overlooking the jetty from which boats leave towards the Ballestas Islands. Although I always try to find good restaurants outside the hotels I stay in and we did eat in the town, the experience was not positive, so having heard about the million dollar kitchens installed in the Hotel Paracas in 2009, we decided to stick to the hotel's restaurants.

Seaside Restaurants at Paracas - to be avoided

For lunch, the Chalana Restaurant is the obvious choice. Situated at the end of the hotel's private pier, and standing about 100 metres into the Pacific, it is the place for ceviche and tiraditos. Surprisingly given its precarious location, it is equipped with a state of the art chef's station, all gleaming stainless steel and spotless refrigeration cabinets.


The tables are of bare, white-painted wood befitting the maritime location. Executive Chef Franco Rivadeneyra explained that all the fish served there comes daily from a local fisherman who has been supplying the hotel for years.


Chalana Restaurant - not a bad place to work!
The stunning freshness of the fish became clear with the dishes that followed. We watched the Chef José Luis make a traditional ceviche from a fillet of raw seabass, chopped and marinated for about 3 minutes with the tiny but very zingy local limes, along with chilli, garlic, coriander and seasoning. He then added some 'leche de tigre' - a milky fish stock, and finished the dish with wafer thin shredded red onion and a red chilli.

Chef Jose Luis at Work

Adding Leche de Tigre - Tiger's Milk to the Fish
Served with the traditional accompaniments of boiled sweet potato, fresh and toasted corn, this was a magnificent dish the like of which I have never tasted outside Peru. It had the perfect combination of chilli heat, fresh acidity and vibrancy from the freshest fish, herbs and raw onion.

Ceviche with a View

Next was a tiradito - a Peruvian raw fish dish invented by Japanese chef Toshiro Konishi (whom I got to interview in Lima, but more of that later). Akin to sashimi, Tiradito differs from ceviche in the way that the fish is cut (into 4mm slices rather than chunks), and in the absence of onions. Again this was a dish of raw seabass, sprinkled with lime juice and seasoning, and served with a side of sweet potato, fresh and toasted corn. But the finish was very different, this time the fish being bathed in an aji amarillo (yellow pepper) sauce on one side, a aji rocoto (red pepper) sauce on the other. The tiradito was also deliciously zingy with the delicate chilli heat balanced by the sweet potato and corn.

Tiradito of Seabass with Ajs Amarillo & Rocoto Cream and Leche de Tigre

We had a fantastic Causa – a typical Peruvian dish of mashed potatoes of various colours, topped or stuffed with meat or seafood, less well known than ceviche, but very good all the same. At the Chalana’s version, we had a selection of octopus, prawns and fish.  Wonderfully colourful and a treat to look at, it was delicious to eat too.

Causa with Seafood

To finish, we had a simple but wonderful dish of sliced raw scallop with shavings of parmesan, crushed toasted corn, a leaf or two of rocket and olive oil. I have not eaten scallop with Parmesan before but it was a great combination, and the addition of the crushed corn was brilliantly effective, adding both a crunchy texture and a delicate savour to the dish.

Raw Sliced Scallops and Shavings of Parmesan

This was simple but really accomplished cooking with the freshest of raw fish, and I loved it. It was so good that we went there twice, and in retrospect having eaten during three weeks of travel all over the country including Lima, I think this was one of the very best tiraditos and ceviches we had in our entire trip. Chef José Luis was very welcoming, and allowed me to join him in the kitchen to rustle up my own tiradito. None of the dishes cost over £10, the restaurant is open to non-residents, and I would recommend it as the top gastronomic destination for anyone visiting Paracas.

Gracias Chef Jose Luis!
For dinner, we had a tasting menu of classic Peruvian dishes cooked by the Executive Chef himself, Franco Rivadeneyra. Our meal started with 4 types of Pisco sour - the classic version with lime juice, and the others with mandarin, passion fruit or chicha morada (Peruvian purple corn). These drinks were very refreshing, but each very different, illustrating the surprising versatility of the Pisco grape spirit that underpinned them all.

The amuse bouche of green asparagus gazpacho with onion bread was bursting with concentrated asparagus flavour and was almost chlorophyll green.

Next came a Tiradito of seabass with avocado and lime sauce, gratinated scallops and Champagne foam.  This was a great dish with some very cheffy touches including tiny spherified pearls of Champagne.


To follow we had octopus, slow cooked then grilled with purple corn, plantain mash and octopus reduction. This was a superb dish, the octopus wonderfully tender yet with a deliciously smokey flavour from the grilling. The chef explained that he slow-cooked the octopus sous-vide to tenderise it before blasting it under the grill.


Our final fish dish was grilled seabass with a purple potato crust, served with steamed Peruvian purple potatoes, and the Andean herb huacatay (aka black mint). This was a very flavoursome dish using authentic local ingredients, and the fresh huacatay gave it a wonderfully aromatic lift.


The meat course was two dishes served simultaneously - a bowl of Orzo pasta flavoured with an intense beef reduction, and a rich, tender lamb stew with quail egg and yucca purée. The quail egg was perfectly cooked- the white set firm but the yolk oozing seductively across the lamb.

Dessert was a delectable trio of baked custard apple, layered chocolate cake and rice pudding ice cream. Starters at the restaurant cost around £10, with mains at £15. Some of the dishes we had were not on the official menu, but Chef Franco is happy to create a similar tasting menu given 24 hours notice.


We were keen to try the local Peruvian wine from the Ica region of which Paracas is a part. We opted for the Intipalka Santiago Queirolo range, choosing a bottle of their 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, and the 2011 Malbec (both at £33). With its warm winters and hot summers, Peru struggles to make good wines but these were decent efforts well worth trying if you are in the area. They do not yet rival the wines of Chile or Argentina, who benefit from a much more favourable climate.

The restaurant at Hotel Paracas is very good, and it is easy to understand why the residents of Lima visit so often and have done so for generations. The Executive Chef Franco Rivadeneyra is still just under 30 but has had wide-ranging training and experience in Peru and Spain, and has an impressive range of cooking skills. The hotel's French General Manager Bruno Giordano is also a chef by training, and indeed was the head chef at Hotel Paracas before Franco. These two factors, I think, explain a lot about why the food at the hotel is one of its strongest points.


What to Do

The Ballestas Islands

It is easy enough to fix up a visit to the Ballestas Islands independently by visiting one of the many agencies in the town. A two hour boat trip to the islands costs around £10 per person, and is the thing to do while in Paracas.

The Candelabro Formation

The islands are astounding, being packed with wildlife including millions of birds as well as large packs of sea lions, penguins and sometimes even dolphins. The birds include boobies, guano birds, oyster catchers, cormorants and pelicans among many others.


Although it is neither possible nor permitted to set foot on the islands, the boats get to within a few metres of the wildlife, which makes for an exhilarating experience.


The Hotel Paracas also arranges tours to the Ballestas Islands, and since they leave from the hotel's private jetty, they are more convenient and involve less queuing than the public boats from the main town. They are a little more expensive at £18 per person, and are available via the hotel's own agent, Tikariy.


Visit Nazca to Fly Over the Mysterious Nazca Lines

We travelled, as many people do, overland by Cruz del Sur bus to Nazca to take a local flight over the lines. While there is little to do in Nasca apart from flying over the lines or visiting ancient cemeteries and the few remaining mummies, it is a good place to break up the long journey between Paracas and Arequipa, which was to be our next destination.

Cruz del Sur Buses - most popular transport method (when flying isn't an option!)

The town of Nazca is small and quite sleepy, and there are no hotels to speak of. We had a homestay at the modest Nazca House, the home of Senora Nancy. Nancy was very kind and attentive, and allowed us to keep our room for a very late checkout of 9pm as we had an overnight bus to catch that evening.  On Calle Bolognesi off the main square is where all the restaurants and bars are. We had a couple of decent meals there at La Encantada.


Jallea - Deep Fried Seafood and Chips with a very Cold Beer at La Encantada
The flight over the mysterious Nazca lines is short (30 minutes), but spectacular, and it is really the only way to begin to comprehend these extraordinary pre-historic and wonderfully artistic desert sculptures. They are still poorly understood complex zoomorphic designs that include massive abstract geometric forms, and more than 30 animals including the monkey, spider and humming bird. It is thought that they were religious offerings by the Nazca people to bring rain to the once fertile Nazca plains as they were turning into the desert seen today.


There were several fatal plane crashes over the lines in 2011-12, and since then a number of safety improvements have been made and some companies closed. Aero Paracas has a good safety record, modern planes and two pilots per plane, and we had a very good flight with them.



Flights are best taken in the early morning around 8am while the sun is still low and the shadows accentuate the lines. One simple way to arrange the flight is to arrive at the airport at 07.30, go to the Aero Paracas desk, and pay directly.  The planes seat only 6 passengers and the flight can be choppy, so it is recommended to delay breakfast until after the flight.


For those who do not have time to travel to Nazca, it is also possible to charter a plane from Pisco airport near the Hotel Paracas for the one hour forty minute return flight to Nazca to see the lines from the air. Hotel Paracas' agency Tikariy can arrange this for a minimum of 7 people, at a cost of £160 per person.

Visit to Nazca's Local Fruit & Veg Market

Paracas National Reserve

A full day trip can also be arranged which includes exploration of the Ballestas Islands followed by the Paracas National Park by boat. Here, along with great natural beauty of the marine landscapes, it is possible to see the Andean condor, turtles, dolphins and flamingos.

Visit the Spa or Gym

The hotel's extensive spa building also hosts the gym and dry sauna, which are free for guests.


For an extra charge, guests can also access a large heated hydrotherapy pool with hydromassage, and a range of spa treatments. These include Thai and Shiatsu massages and the "Total Paracas" fusion treatment for £80.


Travel Essentials

Hotel Paracas
Avenida Paracas
Paracas
Peru

Rooms at Hotel Paracas cost around £190 per double room per night.

Nazca House
Maria Reiche 308
11501 Nazca
Peru
info@nazcahouse.com

Rooms cost around £20 per night via Booking.com.

Travel

There are several bus and coach operators offering the route from Lima to Paracas. We opted for Cruz del Sur, a company that runs quite luxurious air-conditioned double-decked coaches all over Peru. The advantages are that it has a website in English from which it is possible to purchase tickets on-line from overseas, and that the coach stations are clean, well-organised and secure from the luggage thieves who can otherwise be quite a problem in the country. They also serve better meals than we had on our flight to Peru, with a well-known company that shall remain nameless!

A Cruz del Sur ticket from Lima to Paracas costs £7.80 per person including lunch.


Flights over the Nazca Lines

AeroParacas

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