The Chinese invented gunpowder
The Greeks invented steam power.
The Incas, bless ‘em, invented Viagra.
Centuries before modern man began to stand up and salute the little blue pill, the Incas were popping “maca,” an Andean radish which is said to have the same effect.
There’s a lesson here for conservationists.
Not too long ago, maca was an endangered species, nearly passing out of existence. Then somebody remembered what the Incas used it for and, voila, the plant is being cultivated all over the place and is now one of Peru’s more stellar exports, meaning that here you don’t need an awkward encounter with a pharmacist for the stiffening pill; one can simply pick the little magic radish right off the hillsides.
Sounds like heaven, at least to those who may be a little closer to heaven than I am. I can see all hell breaking loose in assisted living centers when the ladies who do their little gardens discover maca.
I was determined to find some!
For friends, of course. Not me. Certainly.
Given the local maca supply, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Guinness Book of World Records lists Lima as the site of the World’s Longest Kiss. A city park, called “Love Park”,” was erected , as it were, to commemorate the occasion. (It’s rumored that the name “Penis Park” was briefly considered, but rejected because the Spanish word for penis, pene, is too much like the English word puny, distressing local men pleased with the machismo of the maca.)
Contrary to popular opinion, this is not why I chose to spend my first New Year’s Eve as a married man in Lima, Peru’s cosmopolitan capital rising from the valleys of the Chillón, Rímac and Lurín rivers.
Lima is a sprawling city, largely devoid of high-rises. Odd for a city of 9 million people, its tallest building, the recently opened Westin hotel, is a mere 30 stories. (By comparison, my home city of Atlanta, with a population half the size of Lima’s, has more than 40 buildings of 30 or more floors.)
So we started off exploring on foot this city of small buildings, most with strange flat-roofs (it never rains in Lima, just north of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on the planet; it only drizzles, so there’s no need for sloping roofs). We began at the aforementioned Love Park and, feeling amorous (even though I hadn’t yet found any maca), strolled hand in hand along the coastal area to its south. We popped into Larcomar, a modern, sterile and very Western shopping district completely devoid of any personality, to grab a lite bite to eat. It was late afternoon on New Year’s Eve, and we had reservation at the much-touted Rosa Nautica for dinner, so chose only to nosh on a few appetizers at Café Café.
We weren’t expecting anything terribly impressive, so were surprised and delighted by the wonderfully delicious fare.
I scarfed down tequenos (fried Andean cheese) and yuquen balls with rocoto chili sauce while Soo gorged herself on a slow cooked beef sandwich with fried sweet potatoes. We failed utterly at eating a “lite” meal, and had no idea how we’d manage our planned celebratory New Year’s feast.
Thankfully the garbage Rosa Nautica served us tasted more like the inside of my colon, and we had no trouble subsisting instead on cheap champagne.
This from a restaurant ranked as one of the “ten best in Lima.”
This could only be true if there were only ten restaurants in Lima, a fact about which I’m a bit skeptical as we dined in five of them, and they were all infinitely better than Rosa Nautica. (Maras, said to be one of top five (see, that’s better), actually was splendid, and served perhaps the finest tuna tartare I’ve ever tasted.)
The food at Rosa Nautica resurrected one of the forgotten words from my long-lost bi-lingual babyhood. The word that came racing back is “caca.” Little known fact: When I was a tyke, my Dad often spoke both English and Spanish at home, and my babysitter spoke only Spanish, meaning that at five years old I spoke both.
So, when I was little, I didn’t “go potty.” I “made caca.” And so did the Rosa Nautica.
The food may have been caca, but at least the service sucked.
When, long after we’d extravagantly shoved our heinous food away from us, the waiter lazily strolled over and, as he cleared the largely untouched plates from the table, asked, “Did jeu like ze food, serh?”
“No. It was ghastly. I may vomit.”
“Oh.” Yawn. “Si. Veery gohd serh. Deezert?”
I believe my response included cuss words in three different languages, two of which I didn’t even know I spoke. We grabbed our cheap champagne and stomped outside to watch the fireworks going off up and down the coast.
Which was beautiful, exhilarating, and romantic enough to make us quickly forget the food, since our bellies were still full from Café Café anyway.
And somehow, it was a perfect way to ring in our first new year as a married couple. Muy romantico.
The next day we explored some of Lima’s historical and cultural centers. We started out at the Plaza San Martin, which, in a country where history is counted in millennia, is relatively new, having been built in 1921. The Plaza San Martin is fronted by the famous old Gran Hotel Bolivar, whose more notable guests have included Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and The Rolling Stones (all of whom, I believe, were wise enough to avoid the Rosa Nautica,) and then on to the Plaza Mayor, site of Lima’s birth, and bordered on all sides by history, centuries of it, everywhere you look.
Gaze in any direction in Plaza Mayor and your eyes fall on something magnificent, from the Cathedral of Lima to the Government, Municipal and Archbishop’s Palaces.
After exploring the rich history and heritage ringing the famous old square, we wandered a few blocks down the road to the gorgeous San Francisco Cathedral and Monastery, built in the mid-1600s and home to intricate catacombs housing the remains of as many as 25,000 people. Or former people, to be more precise.
Very cool. Spooky as hell, 25,000 degrees of macabre, but very cool.
Photography is strictly prohibited inside the catacombs, so I only got about a dozen shots, but they don’t begin to convey the creepy, cramped feel of the place. Soo did her best to ignore her claustrophobia while I did my best to torment Soo, and we explored passages which once allegedly connected to the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition, where men of God once tortured and murdered other men not so on board with their precise version of God. It’s a surreal and intensely fascinating place. Maybe not quite as surreal as the Inquisition itself, but nonetheless fascinating.
From the realm of the dead, we emerged to the vibrant world of the very living at the Inka Market. Soo shopped for local arts and crafts. I haggled for maca. Just for friends, you know. Maca souvenirs!
Just for friends.