Please forgive us for running a bit behind on our postings, but the past couple of weeks have been fraught with the vaguest of internet connections. We’re in a good spot now though so I’ll attempt to summarize our time in Peru, which believe me is no simple task.
When it was all said and done we wound up spending about five weeks there. In short, we loved just about every minute of it. About 95% of our time there was thoroughly enjoyable, with only the most northern and southern extremes being areas I would pass over were I to do it again. Looking back, there are two themes in particular about the country I’d like to share.
The first is that Peru is a place with an incredible abundance of culture and history. Everyone has heard about the Incas and they are of course the crux of Peruvian tourism, but the slightest scratch below the surface reveals a wealth of other historical cultures to explore. The Incas were the inheritors of Andean civilization and culture, not the originators. They were the Johnny-come-latelies in a long line of interesting civilizations including the Chimu, Moche, and Huari to name a few. This is particularly evident in the northern area of Peru, near the lovely seaside town of Trujillo, where they are just now beginning to excavate multiple pyramids and temples that are some 1500 years old. The local authorities are wisely attempting to capitalize on this, slowly building up the tourism infrastructure and getting the word out that they too have a fascinating array of sites to explore. Their ultimate goal is to capture their share of the huge volume of tourists who typically enter Peru and then head straight to Cusco and Machu Picchu, and at the rate they’re going I have little doubt they’ll be successful in ten years’ time.
The other notion I left with was the sense that Peru, while undeniably still a developing country facing many challenges, is a place that’s actively working to improve itself. It’s a country on the up-and-up, and there’s a palpable feeling of national pride that permeates the land and a sense that progress is being made, though still sometimes at not quite the speed some would press for. All this is evident upon even the briefest of interactions with the locals, from the professional guides we hired to random strangers on the street. They seem to genuinely want you to enjoy and explore and learn about their country, and it shows. For example, one afternoon we were buying tickets to enter a museum. The lady behind the counter was rattling off some info in Spanish when a nice man in line behind us (who was cursed with the unfortunate affliction of wearing a Chad Ochocinco jersey) steps up and begins translating her words into English. Even though we actually already knew what she was saying, we still thanked him for his assistance. “No, no” he replied, “it’s my pleasure. I want you to enjoy my country.” And enjoy it we did, señor.
Things we saw:
- Ruins and terracing. You can’t swing a dead cat in Peru without hitting an ancient ruin, and we never ceased to be amazed by the endless expanse of agricultural terracing.
- Carbon copies. Almost all business is still recorded on the old style carbon duplicate forms. Dinner at a restaurant? You get a hand-written bill that’s the second page copy of the form. Buying a couple of batteries at a kiosk? Same thing.
- More dogs. Like in Ecuador, only friendlier. While hiking through the Colca Canyon we had a dog “guide” us for two whole days, and another dog hung with us for a couple of hours while we explored some ruins above Ollantaytambo.
- A bunch of the same type of shop all next door to each other. If there’s one shop selling something (ice cream, books, trophies, car parts, you name it) there are four or five of them, all in a row.
- Trash. Ecuador had a litter problem, the Peru has a serious trash problem in some areas. There were parts of the countryside that were without exaggeration carpeted in trash. There appears to be no organized collection outside of major urban areas. People simply carry the bag a short distance away from their home until they’re tired or bored and then place it on the ground. Sooner or later a dog tears open the bag in search of food, and then the wind carries the contents for miles.
- Fire, rain, sunny days that I thought would never end.
Things we didn’t see:
- Car seats. Not a single one in the entire country. People just drive around with their kids on their lap, or sandwiched between them and another passenger if riding a motorbike.
- Small change. This actually became both a running joke and the source of much aggravation in Peru. No one could seem to explain it to us, but for some reason folks never had change there. Shops, restaurants, cab drivers, museums, no one. You’d go into a shop, buy something that costs eights soles, hand them a ten, and then they’d have to run all over the block to hunt down the two soles (about 66 cents) in change. The size of the establishment made no difference, either. It was fascinating in its ridiculousness.
- Vegetables. Other than a lot of potatoes (supposedly over 600 varieties in Peru) and a little bit of corn, you’ll hardly find a meal served with vegetables in Peru. If you’re “lucky” enough to encounter a salad, it will pretty much consist of some shredded lettuce, a meager slice of tomato, and maybe a few shards of onion on a good day.
Best meal: Probably our anniversary dinner in Cusco. It was sort of an Italian/Peruvian fusion restaurant and one of only two times on the entire trip when we’ve experienced anything even remotely resembling North American levels of service. There was also an alpaca steak served up in a Swiss/Peruvian joint in Arequipa that was darn good.
Worst meal: Anything served in the city of Nazca, where all dishes in all establishments are prepared with no less than a pound of salt. Also, all of the attempts at pizza I gambled on and lost. I knew going into them they were the sucker’s bet and was rewarded accordingly each time. In general the food in Peru wasn’t bad, but after a couple of weeks you begin to notice that every restaurant has the exact same five or six dishes, and all of them come with fries and/or rice.
Etc.: Finally, no description of Peru would be complete without at least briefly mentioning the horn honking. The Peruvian people are for the most part an easy-going, mild-mannered, care-free lot. That is until they get behind the wheel of a car. Then it’s as if they have 30 seconds left to live, and anything that impedes their forward progress in the slightest is an affront to their very existence. It started out gently in the north, humorous and interesting in a quirky sort of way, quickly grew into a deafening crescendo in Lima where it battered the senses 24 hours a day, and then finally diminished the further south we got. When it was bad, it was BAD. In the smaller towns a lot of it was due to the complete lack of control at most intersections. Two cars approach a corner with neither light nor sign, so they both honk to sort of jockey for intersection supremacy. A lot of it was also due to the fact that in some towns 90% of the cars on the road are taxis, and taxis don’t wait to be flagged down, they simply honk at every single pedestrian they pass. In Lima half the time I couldn’t figure out why they did it at all, even after much careful observation on my part. It seemed like that was just the way you drive there, with one hand clutching the wheel and the other riding the horn, mostly in situations where it served absolutely no purpose.
In all seriousness though, please don’t let these tales of honking madness or vegetable scarcity discourage you. It’s hard to think of a country in South America with more fascinating history, greater diversity of both people and geography, and friendlier natives than Peru. I really can’t recommend it enough. Even after five weeks I was in no great hurry to leave, and with two visits now under my belt there still remains a good chunk of the country unseen by this gringo. I have a funny feeling I’ll be back…