in aguas calientes, peru: guinea pig, kansas city and the free dinner that wasn’t


While in Aguas Calientes, the night before we were to venture up the mountain and see the iconic Machu Picchu, we decided to have dinner at a restaurant that was recommended to us by a few San Franciscans we had met on a boat at Lake Titicaca. The restaurant, Inka Terra, was situated between two sets of railroad tracks, so while you were in the restaurant the trains would pass by in front of you and behind you. It was like being in a life-size model train set without the Styrofoam trees.

Earlier, we had met a solo hiker from Kansas City in Aguas Calientes who had already been to Machu Picchu, so we decided to have dinner together and share travel stories. The three of us – myself from New York, my travel buddy from Los Angeles, and the Kansas City traveler were seated at a square table for four next to a full table. We had the U.S. geographically covered.

As I am always curious about where people are from or their home cities, I asked the Kansas City traveler about his city. I asked if the city had a motto or slogan [like “I love New York” or “Virginia is for Lovers”]. He couldn’t think of one. Come to think of it, I’m not sure LA has one either. I giggled inside just a bit remembering a night of drinks in Cusco when an Irish boat captain referred to LA as “Smell A” but knew this couldn’t be the city’s marketing strategy. I thought that LA’s was something like “Great Weather and Fake Boobs.” Anyway, I think the use of the word “smell” is trademarked by Newark, New Jersey.

I then asked the traveler what Kansas City was known for… like St. Louis has the gateway arch or LA has the Hollywood sign. His response was that it was the Meth capital of the U.S. Surely that couldn’t be it? I think I will have to consult the Internet Machine on this one. If I have any blog readers from Kansas City please enlighten me.

After that, we started chatting and contemplating the next day’s weather at Machu Picchu, when the waiter came by and seated a total stranger at the fourth seat at our table. The three of us citizens of the United States of High Fructose Corn Syrup looked at each other wondering if we were perhaps not privy to a local custom of seating strangers together, so we continued our conversation.

The stranger was a man in his mid- to late-life, with glasses and wearing the standard traveler’s costume: khaki pants from either Columbia or LL Bean, a utilitarian but warm in any weather zip-up shirt, and a money belt, the anal-retentive traveler’s girdle. I said a polite and confused “hello” and the three of us continued talking while the stranger sat there. After about five minutes the stranger said to us… “I hope you guys don’t mind but I see a friend at another table and am going to move.” We of course said, sure no problem, still not understanding quite what had transpired.

As we then looked at the menu we noticed there were no prices – never a good sign for a traveler on a budget. When my travel buddy inquired, the waiter asked us what room we were in [this restaurant was attached to an upscale hotel].

Waiter: What room are you in?
Us: We are not staying at this hotel.
Waiter: So what is the room number?
Us: We are not staying at this hotel.
Waiter: Do you have your room key?
Us: We are not staying at this hotel.

Although he didn’t, you get the point. The waiter’s name was Ciro — a common southern Italian country name — so I cut him some slack since I have a dear friend with the same name. After a few more back and forths like this, things became clear, at least to Ciro the Peruvian waiter.

Apparently, the restaurant thought we were part of a large group, and had we kept our mouths shut, we would have had a free upscale dinner. Instead we were ushered to another table and were given complimentary Pisco Sours. But we had to pay full price.

The drinks were good though, and much needed to wash down the Guinea Pig that my travel buddy ordered and we all tried. To him it tasted like sesame chicken, the kind you order by number and get in a Chinese to-go container. But I thought it tasted a bit more like some strange Peruvian mountain variety of crab that stalks people at night while they are sleeping and lives under the beds of innocent and unknowing Peruvian children.