04 July 2010

Here, it's just 4 de Julio

No hotdogs, lemonade, or fireworks for us this Independence Day. We ate lomo saltado, drank pisco sours, and watched dancing horses this year, and we'll always remember this unusual fourth (lower case) of July in Peru.

Melissa's flight arrived pretty much on time - which meant that by the time she got through Immigration and Customs and we made the trip back to our hotel and got unpacked, it was around 2:30 AM local time. Still, we were reasonably rested when we met ESCO folks from both Portland and Lima in the hotel lobby a few hours later at 10:30 AM to take our bus to the Hacienda Los Ficus.

The Hacienda is located south of Lima, in the midst of rolling Andean foothills and farmland of the Lurin River valley. En route, we passed from the upscale shops and seaside apartments in Miraflores to the decidedly more working class district of Chorillos, and further south, past extensive shantytowns and the desolate sand dunes that border the Pacific. We turned inland and drove past Pachacamac, where both the Huari (~ 650 AD) and later, the Inca (~1400 AD) tribes built large administrative centers. It's an interesting enough place, but kind of bleak and windswept and (on this midwinter's day) chilly.

Anyway, the fun really began after we passed Pachacamac. We drove down an endless row of pork restaurants: dozens of them, all vying for business with signs, flags, streetside shills, and apparently identical menus. After that, we drove on ever-more-bumpy dirt roads, past truck farms, walled compounds, empty trash-filled lots, and half-finished (or half-ruined) buildings... the usual third world agglomeration of poverty, can-do ingenuity and ambition, and a slightly frumpy Mother Nature.

After halting several times to ask directions to the place, we eventually pulled up to a high steel security gate. A no-nonsense uniformed guard wearing a bulletproof vest opened the gate and directed us inside where we saw... another equally imposing security gate. The second set of doors swung open and we entered a complete oasis of tranquility and grace. What a surprise!

Hacienda los Ficus is named for the grove of ficus trees that form an arching, shaded canopy and provide a border to the paddocks, gardens, and stables of the complex. It's beautifully maintained, with bouganvillea and all sorts of other tropical greenery that someone more familiar than I could probably name without breaking a sweat. There's also an organic vegetable garden, used to provide ingredients for meals at the Hacienda, and also for La Rosa Nautica Restaurant (a landmark restaurant in Miraflores), which is also owned by these folks.

But the real raison d'etre for the Hacienda is the horses. The Peruvian Paso Horse is famous (at least among those who pay attention to such things) for having the smoothest ride in the world. It's the Cadillac of horses.

In a pleasant outdoor pavilion, seated on comfortable upholstered wicker furniture and fortified with pisco sours and appetizers, we watched as they demonstrated the stages of training the Paso Horse: first a yearling, then a three year old, and finally an adult horse were brought into the paddock to demonstrate the unique gait inherently possessed by this breed.

The grand finale involved five horses and riders performing together, twirling and trotting in near-perfect synch. Following that, interested audience members had a chance to ride (briefly) the horses. Without much difficulty, we both passed on the opportunity. However, we weren't unaffected by the performance. I almost can't believe we're writing this: really, horses are a huge yawn to both of us, and we've never understood the adoration they evoke in some people. We're still skeptical, but what moved us today was a combination of a couple of things.

First, the passion evident in this anachronistic labor of love: to devote countless hours and resources to the training and preservation of these impressive animals. Second, and more importantly, was the realization that we were seeing an important piece of the Peruvian national identity. These horses (well, not these, but their direct ancestors) were ridden by the Conquistadores when they kicked ass down the road at Pachacamac in 1532. Roots are deep here, and tangled.

Okay, so there were actually three things that moved us. After the show, we went back to the stables, and the horses were friendly. Golden retriever friendly. I leaned in to take a picture of one particularly handsome fella, and he leaned in closer still and brushed my arm with the side of his head. We aren't going to get a horse any time soon, but it's no longer as mysterious a passion to us as, say, golf.

Isabel made arrangements for our group of 10 to eat lunch at a new "concept" restaurant in the area. Whereas Miraflores is full of trendy eateries, the idea of a concept restaurant located in what could charitably be termed a Peruvian Dogpatch was... well, let's just say there were some doubters among us.

We drove further east, first on a potholed but paved road, then we turned south onto a narrow dirt road that led past fields of knee-high corn (but it's mid-winter here!), occasional walled compounds with elaborately carved wooden gates, and finally to a hand-painted sign tacked high on a eucalyptus tree: La Gloria. Our second surprise of the day, and a lesson that in Peru, there's some sort of metaphor about poverty, wealth, and the way things look from the curb, but we haven't quite figured it out yet.

The premise behind La Gloria del Campo is simple and audacious: it's summer camp, but with gourmet dining. The restaurant is an enormous raised, thatch-roofed affair that overlooks the Andean foothills and (nearer by) an outdoor kitchen, supplied by on-site organic vegetable gardens and featuring several enormous kiln-style clay ovens. The space is simple, evocative of camp, but exceptionally comfortable. On a Sunday afternoon, large tables seating 12 or more were filled with happy, chattering diners.

The menu ranges from simple pizzas and pasta dishes to more elaborate fare: roast suckling pig, local standby lomo saltado, and, inevitably, cui. Guinea pig. They were out of cui the day we dined at La Gloria, and no one at our table, neither visitor nor local, was all that upset about it.

The food at La Gloria doesn't match the complexity or quality you'll find in other Lima restaurants. And the place has drawn lots of criticism online for its high-end pricing. Despite the negatives, there's an undeniable charm to sitting comfortably at a large table with friends, enjoying all the accoutrements of a nice restaurant in a setting that looks like Tarzan's patio.

We got back to Lima in the late afternoon, with a short stop at Plaza Mayor to see the impressive Presidential Palace, which is flanked on all sides by guys with machine guns. We didn't linger.

Tomorrow, Steve will tie up loose ends at the office, and Melissa will walk to the Inca Market to see every conceivable Peruvian souvenir. Pssst. You-- yes, you-- there may very well be a mug or a t-shirt coming your way soon.

1 comment:

zblang said...

Sounds like a great first day. I used to have two horses growing up. If those that you saw were caddies, mine were Yugos! Have fun and keep the piss coming. Zach