If you’ve ever planned a trip to Peru, you’ve likely heard endless anecdotes and read countless stories on the best places to get a proper Pisco Sour or arroz con pollo (chicken and rice). Less known are the wonders awaiting you at the breakfast table. For whatever reason, the Peruvian breakfast hasn’t reached global fame quite like, say, the universally renowned French trio of a baguette, coffee, and a cigarette.
But that’s a travesty of international proportions. Some of my fondest breakfast memories are from early-morning meals I ate at my host madre’s teetering three-story house in the outskirts of Cusco, or overlooking the shockingly blue waters of Lake Titicaca. The key is simplicity—you won’t find any fussy laminated pastries or $15 omelets here, and the food is as diverse as Peru’s landscapes of seaside cities; deep, foreboding jungles; and the high, dusty altiplano.
By default, my breakfast in New York is a usually punishing bowl of oatmeal with fruit, and at first I was terrified of what exotic desayuno dishes my host in Cusco might cook up in the absence of my predictable breakfast. Visions of cuy (that’s roasted guinea pig) danced in my nervous pescetarian brain as I recalled pictures from friend’s trips to the Cusco market. Don’t get me wrong—I’m no food prude, but I have my limits, and they begin and end with meat that can also be classified as a childhood pet.
After a 24-hour odyssey to get to Cusco, subsisting only on airline peanuts and flat orange Fanta, I was near delirious and in need of basic sustenance. I encountered the wonderful smells from my host Rocio’s kitchen—the savory, spicy zing of tamales, crusty bread, an array of jams, and a warm, medicinal concoction I’d later discover was coca tea, made from the same plant that produces cocaine. (Hey, it helps with altitude sickness, and at 11,150 feet, I wasn’t going to argue). My belly full, I was free to pass out. In the week that followed, breakfasts were simple, but way more satisfying than my usual boring bowl of oatmeal.
There were omelets with a hearty side of sweet potatoes or yucca, or a breakfast sandwich with tomato and avocado on white bread, always served with piping hot coca tea and cold pitchers of chicha morada, a drink made from purple corn boiled with pineapple, cinnamon, and lime. If I had time to drop by the market, I’d bring back some of Peru’s many exotic fruits—cocano, a cute little tart tomato from the Peruvian jungles, and chirimoya, a pulpy, creamy, heart-shaped fruit that tastes like a banana, peach, and strawberry all in one.
Curiously, there was usually also a form of aromatic chicken soup called caldo de gallina. It kind of tasted as if my grandma got drunk and had fun with the contents of her spice cabinet—not my first breakfast choice, but good. And after spending my first night in the Andean highlands under a thin blanket followed by an icy shower the next morning, I quickly figured out why Peruvians love it—Highlanders are the original bone broth enthusiasts, and they need a warm, mineral-rich cup to get through the cold air of the altiplano. All delicious, and surprisingly necessary for the crazy amount of energy needed to explore a city 11,000 feet above sea level.
Once my week in Cusco was up, it was time to trek my way to Machu Picchu, not by the heavily peopled Inca Trail, but the Lares, a sort of back route past crumbling Incan ruins and steep inclines. Breakfast on the road was even simpler—fried rice and fried egg with frozen peas and carrots and an apple on the side eaten out of a white styrofoam box—but it did the trick. Mercifully, once we reached Aguas Calientes, the town right before Machu Picchu, the breakfasts were much more varied, with food offerings that ranged from a French boulangerie to more traditional Incan-inspired fare.
The next leg of my trip took me to the remote island of Amantaní, a tiny 3.5-square-mile rocky outpost in the middle of Lake Titicaca, about 250 miles southeast of Cusco. I had signed up for a two-day boat tour that included an overnight stay with a host family. Only 3,600 people or so live there, and unlike Machu Picchu, there were no real arteries connecting them to a place where it was possible to buy something resembling an Egg McMuffin. The meals with our host family were eaten in the back of their house at a low table. The food was all grown on their graduated terraces—every kind of potato, some unidentifiable roots, squeaky, salty halloumi cheese, and rice. There were guinea pigs scurrying around the floor, and with a nervous look, I asked my host if they were on the menu. “No, just here,” he said.
At the end of my trip, I again sat in the airport with my bag of snacks, the looming dread of another 20-hour odyssey ahead of me. While the prospect of more flat Fanta and airplane peanuts was far from exciting, I remembered how satisfying my breakfasts had been. Simple yet filling, starchy and satisfying, and total Peruvian perfection.