I heard various comments about Peru from other sailors as I cruised South America, usually to the effect of “Don’t even go near the coast. Stay at least fifty miles off.” These rumors undoubtedly date back to the 1980s heyday of Peru’s dictatorships and the Shining Path guerillas; Peru is now in fact a pretty tame place. Moreover, it has 1,500 miles of coastline, several key New World archeological and cultural treasures, plus a world-class yacht club that is eager to welcome you.
I sailed north to Peru from Cape Horn on my 40-foot ketch, Condesa. It’s hard to find crew in the desolate south, so these were long, lonely solo passages during which my mood was mirrored by the cold sea and barren landscape. Most of Peru’s coast is swept by the Humboldt Current, which brings chilly water from Antarctica. A Peruvian friend warned me about the desolation, but I assured her that I like deserts. “You don’t understand. There’s no cactus or anything like that. I mean desert.” In many places sand dunes rise 2,000 feet right out of the Pacific. No plant grows.
I was advised more than once to clear into Peru only in Callao, the port city near Lima, the capital. There aren’t many inviting ports to the south anyway, with the exception of Paracas, which is home to Peru’s most enigmatic archeological wonders, the Nazca lines and geoglyphs. These massive animal figures and geometric patterns predate the Incas and are best seen from the air. Some say they are messages to the gods or landing strips for aliens. From my boat I could see the Candelabra on the tip of the Paracas Peninsula, thought to be an ancient navigation mark to guide sailors into the bay.
On reaching Callao, I found I was only the fourth foreign cruiser to check into Peru that year; by year’s end the total was 11. Once Condesa was safely on a bomb-proof mooring at the Yacht Club Peruano, all of Peru was my oyster. I took a side trip to Cuzco, the major Inca archeological sites, and finally Machu Picchu. Lima itself is a vibrant capital city of 13 million and the former seat of the Spanish viceroyalty. It has the cheapest taxis in the world, and you can jaunt into Lima from the yacht club in about 20 minutes for less than five bucks. The airport, one of the largest in South America, is just 5 minutes away.
Bird guano was once big business in Peru. In fact, “guano” is a Quechua word (the indigenous language of the Andes), and pre-Columbian Peruvians were the first to use it as fertilizer. Fortunes were made overnight in the bird-doo gold rush, which started in the 1850s, and were lost when the guano ran out. Several offshore islands still bear the scars of guano mining. The guano may have been carted away, but the birds are still at it. Upon returning from my travels, I found Condesa covered by enough bird droppings to fertilize an acre. It took days to scrub it away and months to get rid of the hardened residue. Local boaters I found cover every inch of deck with flapping tarps, streamers, and flags and make sure every potential landing pad on a masthead or spreader has a fender or Coke bottle banging against it.
My lonely days sailing up the southern half of Peru turned into a party cruise to the north once Jimena, my Peruvian girlfriend, joined me. She had friends meeting us up the coast, and the summer holidays were starting. So began my culinary tour of Peru.
Peruvian cuisine is one of the most sophisticated in the world. The potato originated in Peru, and there are many exquisite dishes from the mountains and the field, but seafood is where Peru has everyone beat. Peruvians view foreign imitations and variations of their national dish, ceviche, as an insult. Mention putting tomatoes in ceviche, as Mexicans do, or mayonnaise, like some Ecuadorians do, and a Peruvian will grip his heart in actual physical pain. In Peruvian ceviche the fish or shellfish is allowed to sit in the lime juice for only a few minutes—not, heaven forfend, for hours or overnight. There are dozens of variations, with each Peruvian port offering some regional specialty. Ceviche is always served, however, with a piece of cold corn on the cob, a slice of cold steamed sweet potato, and usually a cold beer. It is an afternoon food and is never eaten at night.