MOQUEGUA, PERU: THE CITY OF THE PERUVIAN KITCHEN

I had heard about Moquegua several years earlier from another traveler. He described it as a small, quiet town with no foreign tourists. Why it didn’t make the beaten-track for travelers, being mid-way between Arequipa or Puno and Tacna, he had no idea.

Was it forbidden to go there? Was it haunted? How could one avoid Moquegua?

Curiosity caught hold of me. Here was an authentic Peruvian city without the fanfare for “gringos.” Indeed, that appealed to me!

Getting to Moquequa

Moquegua is just a few hours north of the Peru-Chile border. It is a colonial-era town in the heart of the pisco-producing region. My time in Peru had just about run out, but I decided to set aside a few days just for Moquegua before heading over the border.

After arriving from Lima to Moquegua and checking into an inexpensive hotel, I hit the streets to explore. This city – founded by the Spaniards in 1541 – has streets lined with beautiful colonial façades. In the center is the Plaza de Armas, with a fountain said to be made by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (the same man who did the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty).

Seeing the sights

In the ruins of the old cathedral facing the plaza, is the Museo Contisuyo (Jirón Tacna 294). Here I learned that Moquegua’s river valley in the midst of desert has been occupied for over 12,000 years. The museum was an excellent experience, displaying artifacts from the Tiwanaku, Wari, Chiribaya and Inca cultures. A few items called my attention: a scale model of Cerro Baúl, a mesa with ancient ruins, and Chen Geoglyphs, drawings etched into the earth of hills on the south edge of town. Those could be worthy day trips.

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Plaza de Armas, Moquegua, Peru.

On the opposite corner of the Plaza de Armas is Iglesia Santo Domingo. This church now serves as the town’s cathedral. Inside reposes the mummified corpse of Santa Fortunata, a 3rd-century Palestinian virgin-martyr. Local legend says that her hair and nails still continue to grow!

Savoring Moquegua’s Aromas

As it happened, I arrived in Moquegua the night before its fiesta celebrating the city’s founding, November 25. The next morning I had grand plans to explore the archaeological riches of the region, but when I arrived at the Plaza de Armas, I realized I would have to put them on hold for another day.

You see, what I did not know before arriving here, what no guidebook had ever written about, was Moquegua’s rich gastronomic culture.

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Tamale al Horno

On all sides of the plaza were bleachers. A million aromas drifted on the morning air. As I wandered around, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. I did not know where to begin. Breathing deep, I took a place in line. At each stall, I talked with the women about the dishes they were serving.

You see, what I did not know before arriving here, what no guidebook had ever written about, was Moquegua’s rich gastronomic culture.

On all sides of the plaza were bleachers. A million aromas drifted through the morning air. As I wandered around, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. I did not know where to begin. Breathing deep, I took a place in line. At each stall, I talked with the women about the dishes they were serving.

The traditional cooks of Moquegua prepare cuy moqueguana (roasted guinea pig) differently than in other parts of the Andes. Instead of being skinned and pierced lengthwise on a spit, they split it down the center. They then dredge it in coarse cornmeal and cooked on a flat iron grill beneath a rock weight, to keep it splayed open. Then they serve the cuy with boiled potatoes.

Rocoto Relleno con Pastel de Papas (pictured at top) is a dish that is more renowned in Arequipa. It consists of a medium-sized, hot red pepper stuffed with ground meat and spices. It is served with cheesy scalloped potatoes.

Other specialties of Moquegua are Picante Moqueguana de Camarones, a spicy crawfish stew, and Tamal al Horno, a baked tamale.

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Picante de Camarones (Spicy Crawfish Stew)

I asked for a plate of each (except the cuy) and took a bench in the plaza to chow down. Then what I needed was some dessert.

Dessert and Pisco

The southwest corner side of the plaza was reserved for this gastronomic category. I soon learned that Moquegua has over 400 recipes for all sorts of sweets, from candies to luscious cakes. I chose a serving of Hojarascas. The fried puff pastry gleamed in its bath of honey, scented with peanuts and coconut.

Ah, finally to check out the southeast corner. The stalls there were lined with an interesting array of bottles. I had read that the Moquegua Department was one of five regions of pisco production in Peru, and some of my Peruvian friends said that the finest were produced here. It isn’t just pisco, though. The people here offer a diverse menu of pisco cocktails. The “Machu Picchu” includes grenadine liqueur, orange juice, and mint liqueur. The “Makewa Linda” is striped like Moquegua’s flag: red, green and blue, and made of grenadine, grapefruit juice, mint liqueur, and curaçao.

Another surprise was the crema de pisco, a cream version of Peru’s national liquor. I will have to confess that I much prefer this to standard, clear pisco.

Moquegua also produces other alcoholic beverages. One is Macerados, in which apricots or other fruits are soaked in pisco or aguardiente (pure cane alcohol). Another is an oddity called Leche de Monja, which translates literally “nun’s milk.” Whole eggs are left in lemon juice until the shells are totally dissolved. A bit of pisco or aguardiente is then added to the thick, creamy mixture. It is said to be a women’s drink – not only for its low alcoholic content but also its richness in calcium.

I spent a while more visiting stalls featuring the products from other villages. One table displayed the astonishing variety of avocados – including the dedito, a thumb-sized, pitless avocado (palta) – grown in Samegua. Another series of booths offered the bread of stone-ground wheat from the town of Torata.

But I was feeling like a beached whale. It was time for an afternoon siesta and let all this food settle.

The Southern Hills: Cristo Blanco and Chen Chen

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The day after the great gastronomic fair, I packed a picnic with Samegua avocados and headed off, walking south on Avenida Tacna. After about a kilometer, I came to the path leading up to Cerro Cristo Blanco. This is a hill that allowed me to wander through the terraced gardens shadowed by a gigantic Christ statue. Eventually, I could sit down to lunch while enjoying the view of the green-ribbon valley draping the desert below.

I then walked further south along the same avenue until I reached Cerro Chen Chen. There, geoglyphs depict a caravan of llamas crossing the bare desert hills. Archaeologists say these were created during the Tiwanaku reign (500-950 AD).

Cerro Baúl and Torata

The next day, I set off on another road trip to learn more about the pre-Conquest history of the region. Cerro Baúl and Torata (24 kilometers northeast) would be my destinations.

I walked down to the stadium in Moquegua to catch a combi (minivan) to Cerro Baúl and Torata. I hopped off at a plateau rising from the crinkled desert landscape. This is Cerro Baúl. Atop are ancient Wari and Tiwanaku ruins. The place, I was informed, is still used for ceremonies to this day. I was also advised to bring along caramelos (candies) to leave along the way for the apu (spirits) of the mountains.

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I followed the path and staircases up to the top of the mesa. Off in the distance, I could see Cataratas de Mollesaja, the fifth-highest waterfall in Peru, threading down a hillside. In the distance was the small village that was this afternoon’s gastronomic goal: Torata.

After exploring Cerro Baúl (and surviving the dizzying descent), I waited for another combi to pass that would take me into Torata village. As soon as I stepped off at the plaza, the earthy smell of fresh-baked bread greeted my nose. So I followed the aroma to a local shop and picked up some buns before setting off to check out Iglesia de San Agustín. This stunning, late 17th-century church is constructed of polished granite. It gleamed in the afternoon’s strong sun.

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Iglesia San Agustin, Torata, Peru

On the other side of the street are the church’s catacombs overlooking the river. No-one knows precisely why they were built. Some told me that the indigenous who refused to convert to Christianity were tortured here. Others, that the catacombs were used for spiritual retreats. The guard assured me that they were merely bodegas (cellars).

The sun was nearing the western horizon. There would be no time that day to go in search of the grist mills that grind the wheat used in Torata’s famous bread. Nor was there time to visit another archaeological site, Camata, which lies 10 kilometers beyond Torata. I needed to catch the last combi back to Moquegua and prepare for my onward journey. My time in Peru was almost up, and it was time to slip over the border to Peru, near Tacna.

I would have to return someday to Moquegua. There was the Pisco Trail to do, visiting the distilleries in the countryside around the city. Neither did I have enough time to try the bakeries found on every block in town. But that last night I dined once more at Parrilladas del Ajo (Calle Piura and Calle Junín), a local barbecue joint that serves its own vino de chakra, or house wine.

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