On the Inca Trail with Chef “Super” Mario

There was a vibrant yellow tablemat that caught my eye as I entered the green dining tent. Made of alpaca fiber, it had Inca designs woven into it in red, green, and blue, which were a perfect contrast against the green tablecloth. The dining table, gleaming with stainless steel crockery, was set for the group. Three couples in all — Ben & Alice, Brett & Mary-Ann, Sayan (my husband) & I — and our guide, Saul. Seven plastic stools were placed around the table for us to sit.

A big serving bowl cradled a variety of fruits, cut into bite-size pieces, slathered with a  condensed milk dressing. Slices of cake-like bread, known as pan chuta in Peru, scrambled eggs with cheese, pancakes with butter and jam for spread, and a delectable porridge made of quinoa and milk occupied most of the table.  A variety of tea bags, the most conspicuous being the coca tea ones, a jar of Nescafé and another of Milo, a malt-chocolate drink, sat next to a thermos filled with hot water.

This was what breakfast was like during our four-day Inca trail trek with Alpaca Expeditions, which started on October 23rd at kilometer 82, which is about a two-hour bus ride from Cusco, and ended on October 26th in Machu Picchu.

Our trail-chef, Mario, fed us like we were royalty. From soups to salads, exotic main courses, and desserts, Mario rejuvenated us famished trekkers with each meal. His food worked like magic; each bite was power packed with flavor and love.

I met Mario on the first day of the trek. Saul introduced us to him as “the best chef” after we boarded the bus to km. 82. During the bus ride everyone had dozed off, as it was only 5.30 a.m. We woke up to a loud thud. It was Mario who had fallen off his aisle seat and hit his head against the bus door as the bus meandered along the mountain roads. He said he was okay and went back to sleep.

We had stopped at Ollantaytambo to pick up the chaskis (porters). On reaching km. 82, Mario donned the chef’s hat and uniform and sprang to action.

We ate a hearty breakfast before embarking on the trek.  We were given chocolates, cookies, and fruits as snacks before we left for the day’s trek. Even though the chaskis and Mario left after we did, they were always the first to reach the designated campsites.

We had stopped at Ollantaytambo to pick up the chaskis (porters). On reaching km. 82, Mario donned the chef’s hat and uniform and sprang to action.

We ate a hearty breakfast before embarking on the trek.  We were given chocolates, cookies, and fruits as snacks before we left for the day’s trek. Even though the chaskis and Mario left after we did, they were always the first to reach the designated campsites.

We reached the campsites for lunch with tired legs and growling stomachs each day. The chaskis welcomed us with a drink made of freshly squeezed lemon juice, sugar, and water, which was instantly refreshing. The table was already set up at the dining tent. The first course – salad and soup. The soup —  which was either a one made of pumpkin, chicken or vegetable — perfectly whetted our appetites. For salad we had halved avocados topped with cheese shavings and tomato. There was always a bowl of fresh Pico de Gallo spiced with small yellow and red chunks of Peruvian hot chilli peppers, known as aji limo, on the table. I always added a teaspoon of this to my soup after watching Saul do the same.

The main course consisted of dishes like a big plate of spiced rice along with vegetables, quinoa pilaf, fried trout in a tomato-based gravy with vegetables, chicken in spiced gravy with fried potatoes and vegetables, meat-stuffed potato croquettes, fried potatoes in mushroom gravy, and steamed vegetables. On the second day of the trek — considered to be the hardest day as trekkers ascend Dead Woman’s Pass (13,800 ft.) — Mario treated us to two traditional Peruvian dishes, ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus juices), and lomo saltado (beef stir-fry).

Lunch was always followed by a 15-minute siesta, which recharged us for the rest of the day’s trek. Most of the 26-mile rocky trail consisted of steep uphill climbs and equally steep descents. We shared the trail with alpacas, horses and donkeys on the first two days of the trek. The majestic mountains, pristine waterfalls, viridescent rainforest, and misty cloud forest added an element of mysticism to the trek. We crossed little villages and saw breathtaking Inca ruins along the trail.

At the end of each day we would arrive at our campsite to find our sleeping tents already set up. Our group of six and Saul would assemble in the dining tent for “Happy Hour”. This was the time to feast on popcorn, cookies and fried wontons filled with cheese. Saul kept us engaged with his stories — how certain campsites on the trail were haunted, and his encounters with supernatural beings — which gave Mario the required time to prepare dinner.

Dinner would begin with a bowl of hot soup and then a spread that was equally elaborate as the one at lunch, consisting of pasta, rice, meat, and vegetable dishes. We always had desserts after dinner. It was one of the few times that Mario made an appearance in the dining tent. He always had a smile on his face and proudly showcased the dessert of the day. We had banana pisco flambé — sweet lady finger bananas drizzled with Pisco (Peruvian brandy) infused with caramel-like syrup — on the first night and cake on the second and third nights.

On the third day of the trek during “Happy Hour” I went to the kitchen tent, adjacent to the dining tent, along with Alice. I wanted to see Mario in action. We could hear sounds of frying, sautéing and chopping. Mario was deep-frying sliced yuca. One of the chaskis was cutting beets into perfect cubes while another one was working on carving a cucumber in the form of a bird, which would later sit atop the plate of spaghetti served during dinner that night.

A metal black frame nestled two gas burners, which was placed on the ground. Mario was seated on a black stool in front of the stove. Two gas cylinders were placed against the tent wall, one to his left other to his right. There was a not-so-potent solar powered lamp hanging above the stove, just like the one we had in the dining tent, so Mario and the chaskis had their headlamps on.

Mario looked a bit baffled to see us. Alice explained to him that I wanted to ask him a few questions. Mario spoke Spanish, so Alice was there as the interpreter.

During our formal introductions, which was earlier that morning, Mario seemed to be reticent. The only things he said when he introduced himself to the group were that he was 35 and Ollantaytambo was his hometown. So when Alice translated my questions to him in Spanish, he answered them in as few words as possible.

“How long have you been working as a trail chef?” I asked.

“Ten years,” Mario said.

“How many of these treks do you do each month?”

“Three-four.”

He was done with frying the yucas and had moved on to pan-frying skewered pieces of chicken and peppers. It was during this time that Saul joined us and the instant look of comfort and relief was clearly visible on Mario’s face.

Saul was now the interpreter.

“What’s your secret behind creating the dishes with such limited resources?” I asked.

“Using the right ingredients. Adding the garlic and ginger first while preparing a dish,” Mario answered.

“Would you rather prefer to work at a fully equipped kitchen?”

“It is alright for now, but I would like to run a restaurant of my own someday,” he said.

We had pizza, chicken kebab, spaghetti with marinara sauce, and a huge plate of vegetable salad for dinner that night. It was our last dinner together as a group, so Mario had baked a cake for us.

Mario had been dishing out these delicacies for us with the aid of four pots, one pressure cooker and two frying pans. He was making pizzas and baking cakes without an oven! Saul explained that Mario was steaming the cakes in a pot. This reminded me of how my mother used to make cakes using a pressure cooker; this was before she had an oven. She used to pour the cake batter inside a greased stainless steel bowl. She would then place the bowl inside the pressure cooker, which was filled with just the required amount of water so as to not burn the batter. She removed the whistle-top from the cooker, before putting the lid on, for the steam to release and then cook on low flame for about 15 minutes. The cake was denser than oven-cooked ones, just like Mario’s cakes.

We bid our formal goodbyes to Mario and the chaskis after dinner that night. The chaskis woke us up with coca tea, “tent service” as Saul called it, at 3.30 a.m. the next day. We had pancakes for breakfast and Mario had packed ham and cheese sandwiches for us to have along the way. We left the campsite at 4.30 a.m. The gates at the checkpoint opened at 5.30 a.m. and we walked for about three hours before we reached the Lost City of the Incas — Machu Picchu.