A refreshing burst to slake thirst in the dry season when the sun can beat relentlessly and make Cuzco’s streets surprisingly hot is Cuzco’s tumbo. It hangs from vines growing over walls and up trees in the city and especially in the higher zones of Cuzco’s northeastern zone.
Known by the scientific name of passiflora mollisima, the tumbo is a close relative of another vine native to Peru which is also used widely as a refreshing drink, the passion fruit or maracuyá. The tumbo is also called curuba, taxo, o parcha in different parts of Latin America and in English is often called “the banana passion fruit.” It grows generally in the inter-Andean valleys and in the upland jungle of Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador. Surprisingly it grows well from lower lands to high altitudes, even up to around 4000 meters, or 13,123 feet.
Its vines have a fuzzy cylindrical shoot and its leaves are large. The vine can grow to more than twenty feet and its leaves can be as big as a human hand. Its flower is large and hanging in colors of bright red or violet. As a result, it is considered one of the most beautiful flowers in the world.
The fruit is longer than wide, taking the form of an elongated egg shape, with a thick and soft peel. When unripe it is a light green, but when ripe the fruit turns yellow and is quite sweet. The tumbo is unlike the maracuyá in that it is sweet when ripe and edible as is.
Tumbo has many digestible seeds. They are covered in an orange, succulent, and delicious coat that contains not only the seed but wonderfully flavored pulp. Sweet with just a bit of sour, the tumbo is perfect for beating thirst this dry season.
You can buy a fruit in a local store or in any market and peel it back as you walk while enjoying its amazing flavor. You eat the pulp, the seeds, and–if you wish–even the skin of the ripe fruit. Not only is tumbo consumed raw, but it is also made into juices, marmalades, and increasingly forms part of mixed drinks such as the tumbo sour.
This latter is made on the model of a pisco sour, Peru’s signature drink. Not only does it contain tumbo juice, but also a splash of lime juice combined with Peru’s favorite alcohol, pisco. It is a refreshing drink that is welcome after a long day of visiting Cuzco’s sites.
We should mention that in some places a “wine” is made from fermented tumbo juice.
Tumbo is ideal, since it rehydrates you, is low in calories, and yet is rich in minerals–calcium, phosphorus, and iron for example–and vitamins A, B, and C. The tumbo is also known for having therapeutic properties; it works agains kidney stones, urinary tract problems, and stomach aches, among others.
Some ten years ago, while I was still in school, when the rains ceased it became hot, dusty, and dry. When school was over, with all my friends from our neighborhood, we would walk home though stopping to climb up trees or jump at drooping vines that held ripe tumbos. In this way we would slake our thirst.
Though common, the fruit is only minimally commercialized. Some times it appears in the markets, but mostly one just picks it from trees and walls on which the vine grows.
Nevertheless, if you ask, you will find a juice vendor or two who makes use of tumbo along with other seasonal fruits. Indeed nothing is better to ease your thirst this time of year.