A vital part of travelling is utilising all the senses. South America is the ideal continent for this all-encompassing form of travel. It doesn’t just appeal to the eyes, with incredible views like the rainbow filled Iguazu Falls or illusory salt flats of Bolivia, it also intrigues (and insults) other senses.
Primarily, smell, as every city assaults the nostrils with the acrid scent of ammonia, garbage, decomposition and dust. Another constant assailment is on the ears – South Americans love their music and anyone who has travelled there will attest to the fact that by the end of your travels you will never, ever want to hear cumbia (Bolivian folk music) again. A 20 hour bus ride with endless, beat-less, cumbia will satisfy anyone’s craving for authentic music. Touch is another sense that receives a beating on the buses of Bolivia – one could compare a journey from say, La Quaica to Tupiza in Bolivia’s south, to being put inside a maraca in an Argentinian tango show, only with a lot more dust, and possibly some chickens, and certainly no bathroom…
So that’s the other senses covered, the only remaining sensory adventure is in the taste category, which brings me to the interesting eatables that can be experienced in South America. At Belen street market in the eccentric Amazon jungle town of Iquitos, I was lucky enough to try one of Bear Grills’ favourite snacks, moth larvae. The taste is nutty, and creamy, and actually pretty good, until your brain kicks in and reminds you that you are eating a bug, and that squishy bit is oozy bug guts, then it takes intense self control not to throw it back up again.
I experienced a similar gag reflex in the mountains of Peru when we were offered ‘cui’. I knew it was guinea pig, something I was keen to try as it is one of the main meats eaten in Peru. I did not know that when I agreed to try it I would witness the nice lady catching the screaming critter (who looked very similar to my childhood pets), and later showing it to us, skinned, on a stick. I also did not know that it would be served with its screaming face and outstretched little feet still intact, and not-so-delicately arranged on the plate.
Another tasty treat on a stick available at the Belen Markets is pig heart, which I am assured is extremely high in iron, and good for you. Once again, the taste is fairly inoffensive, possibly even (dare I say it) good? Until your brain kicks into action, and reminds you what you’re gnawing on. The markets in Iquitos feature a wide array of common Peruvian foods for you to sample, if your mind, stomach and taste buds can handle it. The biggest battle though is clearly a mental one, with potential meals including gutted and sliced turtles, pig eyeballs, and everyone’s favourite snack, cow nostrils.
Journeying throughout South America there is the wide array of intriguing new fruits and vegetables like acai, jack fruit, star fruit and pepino (to name a few), but perhaps one of the most intriguing edible plants is the Brazilian jambu plant. The leaves of this Amazonian plant have numbing properties and it is used in northern Brazil both for its medicinal properties, and its ability to add something special to salads and soups. In the Brazilian town of Belem, gateway to the Amazon, there is a large food market where you can sample delicious local fruits, vegetables, seafoods and the local specialties, like ‘tacaca’ – a soup that uses broth, prawns, a thick manioc gum and the tongue-tingling jambu. The plant numbs your lips and tongue as you sip it from the gourd.
A similar result is achieved with the coca leaves that are popular throughout Bolivia. You put the coca leaves in your cheek, where they help with the altitude sickness, and numb the back of your throat. Despite common misconception, they don’t cause any mind-alteration, and are a huge part of Bolivian culture – look a little closer at the little old lady selling you your 100% alpaca jumper and you’ll inevitably notice a permanent cheek bulge and green stained teeth.
So, from grubs to guinea pig, superhot chiles to supreme steaks, coca leaves to Colombian coffee, South America is an adventure for your tongue! And nose. And ears. And eyes…..
Photo by underwaterguy