Pisco-Sipping and Other Pleasures in The Land of the Incas
Never refuse a free drink. A sound policy, but my commitment is wavering as a Peruvian Woody Allen look-alike (same physique, head shape and beady, bemused gaze) leads me around an oddly appointed brandy cellar, doling out shots of liquor from centuries-old clay casks.
“Here,” El Woody says in ragged English, pulling my focus away from a stuffed alligator sprawled beneath a painting of Jesus. “This needs to age more, but it’s almost finished product.”
I was in Peru to investigate the production of pisco, the grape brandy that anchors the pisco sour cocktail. If you haven’t heard of pisco sours, don’t feel ignorant: The drink, which also includes egg white, lime juice, syrup and bitters, is nowhere near as ascendant in the United States as the mojito or the name-your-fruit-or-vegetable-tini. But in Peru and Chile, it’s downright revered.
I first drank pisco on a trip to Peru in 1994. That raw drink, acquired in the jungle, had a bouquet similar to that of turpentine. But I’d heard recently that the pisco industry was enjoying a renaissance. So in late April, I headed back to check it out.
My friend Bill and I were in Peru’s arid South Coast region, outside the town of Ica, in Bodega Lazo, one of dozens of pisco distilleries that offer tours. The bodegas we visited are old, family-run properties that showcase how Peruvians have made pisco since the brandy was first concocted in the 18th century (in response to a 17th-century ban on wine by the king of Spain, who also ruled Peru at the time). The bodegas make artisanal pisco — no chemicals, sulfites or mechanized production — and feature open-air yards ringed by cement vats, wood-burning ovens, rows of casks and welcoming tasting areas.
Sufficiently liquored up, I sit down with Lazo owner Elar Donayre Bolivar and lurch from “Annie Hall” into “The Godfather”: Bolivar is an ursine man with a palpable impatience for small talk. He answers a few questions — his forebears founded Lazo in 1809, he produces 100,000 liters of pisco a year and some wine, all sold in Peru — then waves a massive arm toward an employee, who offers us a tour.
The early stages of pisco production mimic winemaking: Grapes are piled into vats (lagares) to be crushed. The resulting juice (called “must”) is transferred to clay casks that were handmade in this region 200 years ago to ferment, then into large kettles, where it is heated slowly. The liquid vaporizes and then re-condenses as it travels through a pipe submerged in cool water, after which it emerges as pisco, ready for aging.
Now, before you book your Sideways in Peru Boozapalooza, please understand: Peru’s main pisco production area is in the Ica region, a four- to five-hour drive south of Lima, and this is not the Peru of brochures: no terraced Andean peaks, rainbow-hued birds or llama-herding nomads. Peru’s South Coast is hundreds of miles of barren desert and often rough beaches, bisected periodically by fertile, river-fed valleys, the produce basket of the nation. That said, the region has its natural highlights: the subtle allure of coastal desert and some decidedly unsubtle wildlife.
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One morning we take an oversize speedboat from the small town of Paracas, about 50 miles north of Ica, to Islas Ballestas, a cluster of rock islands 30 minutes offshore. Our boat, like the others filing out of the marina, is full: Norwegian nurses, British backpackers, Italian lovers and Peruvians. After a brisk dash across open water, we find the islets shrouded in seasonal fog. Thousands of pelicans, cormorants, Peruvian boobies and a few vultures jockey for rock perches amid families of sea lions and diminutive Humboldt penguins while our tour guide shouts out species IDs.
The birds and the lions come to eat fish. The fish ride here on the Humboldt current, a nutrient-rich conveyor belt that sweeps out of the South Seas and squeezes against the Chilean and Peruvian coast. The current helps make Peru one of the most productive fisheries in the world: As much as 20 percent of the world’s seafood catch comes from the current’s ecosystem, according to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. (The Humboldt also explains coastal Peru’s desert climate: The current cools the marine air, squelching potential for precipitation.)
The fish-birds-sea-lion thing makes sense. Beyond that, things get a little gross: For centuries, people came to Islas Ballestas not for wildlife but to harvest bird poo. Yep, guano, loaded with nitrogen, made for a potent fertilizer, and it amassed on Islas Ballestas in layers up to 100 feet deep, our guide tells us. In the mid-1800s this was Peru’s main export. There’s still an old guano factory listing on the rocks of Ballestas. Modern farming techniques have cut the demand for bird spatter, but controlled guano harvests still occur every decade. We motor around for 45 minutes as the residents squawk, yowl and dive around us. It’s interesting, especially one strip of rocky beach packed with barking lions, but the boats stay in motion to avoid hogging viewing spots, and the result is tough photo conditions and swirling diesel fumes.
If Islas Ballestas deliver frenzied cacophony, the neighboring Paracas National Reserve is the antidote. The reserve, which covers about 100 square miles of broad peninsula, resembles Ireland stripped naked: rolling desert hills, plunging cliffs and peaceful coves. The landscapes are massive, the beauty penetrating and the chromatics stark: Desert beiges, oranges, reds and browns contrasting richly with the greens and blues of sea and sky.
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Okay, back to the booze. Our favorite bodega tours come in the hilly town of Lunahuana, about 115 miles south of Lima. Lunahuana’s raison d’etre is the Rio Canete, which flumes past town, drawing whitewater enthusiasts from all over Peru and carving a ribbon of irrigable land through the desert hills. Even the smallest casitas boast tiny rows of crops.
In warm morning sunshine, we rent mountain bikes and head east, stopping in a couple of bodegas on the outskirts of town. A few miles out, we veer across the river and into the tiny town of Catapalla. The dirt road runs straight into the La Reyna bodega, a colonial-style outfit where we are greeted by Godofredo Gonzales, the owner. Unlike other piscorattis we’ve met, Gonzales is neatly dressed (khakis and a golf shirt), well-groomed and apparently sober. He gestures us to some plastic chairs, pulls out a bottle of pisco and ruminates on pisco quality and history. He shakes the bottle back and forth rapidly, like a metronome set to the Sex Pistols, then stops it sharply with a flick of his wrist, creating a twister of bubbles inside the bottle.
“See the rose at the top?” he says. “And the stem? High quality — no hangover here!” He reaches for the cups. “If you see the stem but no rose, there are impurities.” He metes out a round of silky-smooth shots, then another. “With good pisco you can drink half a liter of pisco sour and have no headache the next day.”
I am more interested in one’s ability to pilot a bicycle after five shots of the stuff, but our cruise down the valley is uneventful. We hit a local restaurant for generous plates of spiced camarones — brawny crayfish from the Rio Canete — then stop into an open-air thatched storefront advertising river rafting.
Pedro Sanchez, a genial guy with the burly upper body of a river guide, tells us we cannot raft today. “You need four people. It is getting late.” But then we get to talking. Turns out he knows a handful of whitewater junkies with whom I ran the then-remote Rio Tambopata, in southeastern Peru, in 1994. “I have video of the Tambopata!” Sanchez says, lighting up. “Come. I show you.”
Midway through the video he says, “So you want to raft today. Okay, let’s go.”
For about $15 each, we get an hour of Class III whitewater and juvenile banter with our guide, Percy, who tries repeatedly to dump Bill and me by angling the raft into frothing holes. The river runs much stronger in the January-March high season, but our stint is exhilarating enough and refreshingly convenient: Unlike with many whitewater routes, where you have to commit to half- or full-day trips, long stretches of the Canete are accessible from the road, so outfitters can offer just an hour or two of rafting. At the takeout, we carry the raft up a steep walkway, past a mural that reads “Pisco Es Peru,” and four blocks through town back to the shop.
Time for more research. We head to the Lunahuana town square, a bougainvillea-laced plaza ringed by colonial architecture, where two women at adjacent outdoor bars stand before a battery of pisco bottles. It’s another indicator of how far Lunahuana has come since the early 1990s, when the Shining Path guerrillas controlled the area.
“You couldn’t go there,” says Elie Barsimontov, who says he opened the first commercial rafting company in Lunahuana in 1990 and now runs a Lima-based seafood export company. “When I started, there was almost nothing” in Lunahuana, he says. “We would come up on Friday, raft all day Saturday and Sunday, get wasted at night, then head down to the beach on Monday to surf all week. It was a great life. But the Shining Path took control of the town and it was over.”
Today, Lunahuana has (mostly) paved streets, ample restaurants, bars and adventure outfitters, and a few hotels with clean rooms, good food and pleasant views.
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At the height of the Shining Path run, even Lima was sketchy. Barsimontov recalls nightly curfews and occasional blackouts when the guerrillas would blow up a transformer. Now Lima feels like a thriving European capital. The upscale Miraflores neighborhood is buzzing: Families, teenagers, tourists and lovers walk the leafy streets and lounge in well-kept parks with little fear of crime. Restaurants and bars are jammed. At the west end of Parque Kennedy, in the center of Miraflores, a cathedral glows seductively in its night lighting. After dinner at a park-side cafe, we pop into La Tasca, a shotgun bar and tapas restaurant. It’s midnight and the energy is mounting. We meet locals, and when I show cellphone pictures of my wife and son, one of the women arches an eyebrow. “Your wife let you come to Peru alone?” she asks. I shrug off the question, but by 1 a.m. I can see her point: The place is thumping with booze, conversation and (yes) hormones. Bill has paired off with a stunningly attractive young woman, and I am struggling to stay on the moral side of flirtation with her friends. At 2 a.m. I am told to buckle up: We’re headed to a disco.
The LarcoMar complex is a monument to consumerism. A terraced mall built into the cliffs above Lima’s most popular beaches, it houses an array of eateries, a 12-screen movie theater, a Starbucks, a bowling center, jewelry, fashion, crafts — more than 80 stores, including the disco. The $8 cover charge includes a drink (at 3:30 a.m., just what the mortician ordered), but I offer no resistance when Bill hands me a glass of scotch. The place is still a teeming mass of bodies when I escape at 5:15 a.m. and walk a mile back to our hotel.
The next afternoon, I take a light jog back down to the cliffs. One of the many details that escaped me in the blurry night is a series of finely manicured parks, with flower gardens, exercise stations, playgrounds and statues, the most prominent of which, in Parque del Amor, depicts two people making out. People are out in force, walking, jogging, snapping photos. Far below, packs of surfers carve the endlessly advancing waves.
My final mission in Peru is to taste the best pisco sour in the country, reportedly served up in the Bolivarcito, a bar attached to the Gran Bolivar hotel in central Lima. The hotel, with its warm, stained-glass-dome lobby, sits on Plaza San Martin, a huge square surrounded by majestic neocolonial buildings.
The Bolivarcito, with classic Peruvian pride, bills itself as La Catedral del Pisco Sour. At 4 p.m., it is still lunch hour in Lima, but we are not alone in ordering the national cocktail. With our glasses still half full, Bill offers to pick up the next round. I can’t break policy: We signal the bartender.