Eating guinea pig,“cuy,” is not what I thought I would be doing a few weeks after I visited Machu Picchu, but anyone who has spent much time in Peru knows all Peruvians agree that “cuy es rico” (guinea pig is rich or fantastic). My 23-year-old daughter and I had already been in Cusco for over two months, doing volunteer work and taking Spanish lessons.
It was time to try cuy. At about 11:00 on a bright September morning we decided that we had enough time to make a short trip to Tipon. We knew Tipon was famous for its Inca ruins and guinea pig restaurants. (A note about cuy: Our first day in Lima when we took a city tour, we learned that cuy has been a traditional dish for special dinners and celebrations in Peru for centuries. In a painting of the Lord’s Supper in one cathedral, our tour guide pointed out cuy on a platter, right beside the bread.)
We called Erika, our Swiss-Australian friend, told her our plan, and asked her if she wanted to go with us. We met in San Blas Plaza, about five minutes from our apartment, walked about thirty minutes to the bus station, if you want to call it a bus station. We are getting used to bus stations like this. There is only one large, official-looking terminal in Cusco. All the other stations are behind falling-down tin fences. There’s no concrete, just rocks and dirt. There’s a ramshackle ticket office and several parked buses, with usually one leaving and one backing into a small area. After asking several times which bus was going to Tipon, we boarded the bus. We got the last three seats, and fifteen more people crowded on. It was a hot afternoon, so we opened the window. Not a good idea. The exhaust, from the other buses, coming in the window was overpowering. We were relieved when the bus pulled out of the station. Tipon is less than an hour from Cusco. When we got off the bus, we found out that the town of Tipon was very small, and the only apparent businesses were the cuy restaurants that lined both sides of the highway. In front of many of the restaurants were igloo-shaped, adobe ovens, and we could see the cooks oven-roasting the cuys.
In honor of a very famous Mexican restaurant in Austin, Texas, I suggested that we eat at El Rancho. We sat down and asked for a menu. The waiter told us that there was no menu. Erika is a vegetarian, and I had already decided that I would taste cuy, but I did not want a whole one. Alison tried to explain that she was the only one who wanted cuy. Erika asked about vegetables, and I asked about some other kind of meat. Our Spanish is improving, so we thought we had communicated our wishes. The waiter kept saying that they only had cuy. We gave up. We left and decided to go the bigger, more-touristy-looking restaurant, La Hacienda. When we sat down, we asked for a menu. No menu. It wasn’t hard to figure out. The only thing available in Tipon is cuy. The waiter told us that the cuy came with spaghetti and potatoes, so we ordered two plates without cuy and one with cuy. A short time later, our waiter brought the food. We knew that the cuy would be served whole. It left nothing to the imagination. It looked just like Jinx, my pet guinea pig (when I was ten years old)—of course without hair. Also it looked a little like a whole roasted pig, except it didn’t have anything in its mouth. I was not sure Alison was going to be able to eat it. We took a few pictures, and the waiter said he would cut the cuy up. I put the head on a different plate and put a napkin over the head. Alison, with knife and fork, tried to get a decent-sized piece of meat off of the bones. It was a little like eating a dove or quail, but there was no breast meat. It did taste a little like chicken. Isn’t that what everyone says about rattlesnake meat or any other kind of strange meat? The spaghetti and roasted potatoes were edible. Erika even tried a small bite of guinea pig, just to say she had tried it.
So with one goal accomplished, we were ready to find a taxi to take us up a road full of switchbacks (our guidebook said) to the ruins. Stray dogs were everywhere. And several were right in the middle of the road. The taxi driver had to honk numerous times. I had just learned the word for owner, dueno, in a recent Spanish class. So I laughed and told the taxi driver in Spanish that the dogs were the owner of the street. “Los perros son duenos de la calle.” He laughed. I was feeling quite proud of my “chiste” (joke). When we arrived at the ruins, we paid our twenty soles to get in. We were astounded at the size and number of the terraces, eight or ten football-field-size terraces. The ruins seemed to go on for miles. I had read that the Incas probably used these terraces for experimenting with crops. What was even more amazing was the number of canals and small waterfalls that tumbled down from the highest to the lowest terraces. We spent the next two hours exploring the ruins.
We walked up a path to get a bird’s eye view of the ruins. We found buckets, shovels, and other evidence that these ruins were being restored. We looked up and saw four Peruvian workers waving at us, motioning to us to come up to the peak of the hill. They were sitting at the exact location we had wanted to go, so we decided to hike up there to see the view. They were very friendly and asked us where we were from. We talked to them for a while, practicing our newly-learned Spanish vocabulary. The view was magnificent. We could see Cusco in the distance. They told us that the Inca canal was only about a five-minute walk over the next hill and was worth seeing. We took their advice and walked another five minutes. The Inca canal reminded us of the Great Wall of China. It went on and on and on. No water was in this canal. It was not a large canal, maybe only a foot wide and a foot deep, but these canals were cut with such precision, throughout the whole ruins, that they were very impressive. Since this is dry, winter season, and there are no snow-capped mountains nearby, we assumed that the water that was in the lower canals was spring water.
After taking lots of pictures, we decided it was time to leave. We wanted to be back in Cusco before it got dark. To our surprise, there were several taxis waiting. The first driver wanted nine soles. I told him we had paid seven before. We were now going downhill, and it should be cheaper. My Spanish is good enough to make my point, so we got the cheaper price. We waited on the side of the highway with about ten Peruvians for a bus back to Cusco. They all crowded ahead of us and got on the bus. We were the people standing on the way back to Cusco.