Dunes & Degustaciones

18 Jun

Posing with dune buggy at Huacachina

The town of Ica, and the neighboring flyspeck outpost Huacachina, are a five hour bus ride from Lima. Via the Soyuz/PeruBus company (cheaper and less comfortable than Cruz del Sur), tickets run between $10-$15 one-way, and there are departures around the clock every ten minutes on average. My friend Eugene, visiting from the States, made the roundtrip with me this weekend; we were treated on one bus to the Pixar movie Up!, evidently a bootleg DVD with all of its scenes played out of order. (None of the Peruvians on the bus seemed to notice, though perhaps they believed they were watching an animated version of Memento…)

Ica isn’t appealing to look at or spend much time in. But visitors here, if not passing through to view the nearby Nazca Lines, come for largely one reason: the sand dunes. Huacachina is a genuine desert oasis surrounded by miles and miles of sand dunes. Adventurous backpackers flock here for the experience of riding dune buggies and sandboarding down the dunes — which is exactly what Euge and I did this past Sunday morning.

Sandboarding, shakily

Early Sunday morning, when Huacachina appeared to be entirely deserted save for a few wandering old Asian women tourists, we managed to track down a guide who could take us out onto the dunes.  Hopping into the back of a buggy, in under two minutes we found ourselves hurtling along at breakneck speed across the sand, bouncing up and down as we careened down steep slopes or briefly got airborne over a crest.  We saw absolutely no one else around, adding to the surreal feel of the desert’s vast loneliness.  Combined with the wintry morning’s heavy fog, the effect was more martian than Arabian.

For an hour we sandboarded down dunes or sledded down them while lying on our stomachs, the latter easier and generating much faster speeds.  Afterward, the tour concluded with us zooming up and down unspoiled sand until we came to a screeching halt at a vantage point overlooking the oasis:

Euge and I in front of the oasis

At bodega Tacama, Peru’s oldest vineyard, founded in 1540

If there’s one other attraction heretofore unmentioned, it is that the area around Ica is the country’s center for wine and pisco production.  (The town of Pisco lies closeby, which would seem to emphatically seal the is-pisco-Peruvian-or-Chilean debate.)   We visited one of the area’s most well-known wine producers, bodega Tacama, to tour their grounds and do a degustación — a wine/pisco tasting.  Sipping Tacama’s offering of the latter, a brand called “Demonio de los Andes” was like ingesting an agreeable form of gasoline.

We Came, We Saw, We Ate

Before Ica, Eugene and I had the pleasure of visiting celebrity super-chef Gaston Acurio’s flagship restaurant in Lima, Astrid y Gaston, which is now found in 8 countries.  Named for himself and his German wife, a noted pastry chef, this tony spot in Miraflores is ranked on Restaurant Magazine‘s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list.

We arrived on Saturday for lunch, having missed our Fri. night dinner reservations thanks to a flight delayed 5 hours from Tarapoto.  Attempting to make the most of this rare experience, we somehow convinced ourselves to go all in on for the chef’s degustación (tasting) menu: a whopping 21 different courses spread over five themed “acts” and 3+hours.

It is lunch as performance art: At the opener, we were each given a thick book to follow along the “story” of each course.  Our very-serious host let us know that, like a play, we could take a break only between acts.  He would then provide a detailed explanation of each act’s themes, and each dish as it was brought out, complete with instructions on how to approach our food — down to the number of bites to take, from which direction, and the correct order in which to savor the flavors.

“Floating” sea urchin

The menu covered a vast range of vegetables, sea food, and meat, along with flavors from throughout Peru and abroad: spicy sea urchin, camu-camu (a jungle fruit) bubble tea, potato varietals, alpaca, cuy (guinea pig) dumpling, and a tea made from leaves which included coca and salvia.

Paiche with chestnuts

Being the only ones in the entire restaurant who were trying the tasting menu, we were naturally quite the spectacle.  The adjacent table of four young women eagerly followed along the progress of our meal, while a couple at another table surreptitiously took a picture of us on their camera phone, smiling sheepishly that I noticed them.

Of course, it being Euge and I, 21 courses weren’t enough — we had tack on two additional desserts at the end of our meal.  And only incredible self-restraint prevented me from ordering one or three more of the terrific pisquilibrio cocktail (pisco, pineapple juice, orange juice, lemon juice, and ginger ale).

All told, the bill came to over S/. 800 for the two of us, or well more than my monthly rent back in Tarapoto.  Yes, this was an over-the-top, ridiculously self-indulgent experience.  Given that we would have filled ourselves far easier and cheaper just ordering a la carte off of the menu, it’s hard to justify that price.  But as an experience, damn if it wasn’t really interesting and a whole lot of fun.  Plus, I noted, having previously eaten at Mexico City’s Pujol (#36), Euge and I are making progress on that Top 50 list!

Finally reaching the fifth act, dessert, of the A&G tasting menu

It was a terrific weekend.  On Sunday night, after dropping Euge at the airport, I even got to meet up with my Liman friend Fernando, his girlfriend, and my visiting friend Tristan.  Tristan is a Swiss-Frenchman currently living in Madrid with his Peruvian girlfriend; they spent the past week-and-a-half traveling around the country.   I first met Tristan in Hong Kong back in 2008 while visiting my friend Eric studying there; I next saw T in New York, when he shared an apartment with two of my friends; and now here on a third continent!

As we caught up over sandwiches at my favorite Parque Kennedy spot, La Lucha Sangucheria, and later over Cusqueñas at a bar, I was uniquely mindful of how much this aspect of life abroad — hanging out and joking with friends from different cultures, fluidly switching between languages — appeals to me.  As Fernando noted last night, I’ve come a long way since last September in my ability to converse in Spanish.  Although I can’t pinpoint exactly when it occurred, I knew once I was able to make the same type of jokes and humorous observations in Spanish that I do in English, I can comfortably inhabit my own persona in either language.

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2 Responses to “Dunes & Degustaciones”

  1. Nj June 18, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    Dune buggies aren’t environmentally friendly.
    You and Eugene make a cute couple.

  2. Andrew T June 18, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

    Very cool observation about taking your personality multicultural/lingual! Also cool: desert fog.

    I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that an expert chef would craft the experience so that you aren’t stuffed to the point of sickness by the end, but damn, it still seems impressive you went for extra dessert 🙂

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