I had the great fortune of traveling around Peru a few months ago. It was a great trip. I had certain expectations about Peru and most of them were based on assumptions I had made from previous travel to South America. It’s like assuming that Canada and the United States are the same. Same language. Same continent. It all must be the same. Well, of course it’s not. There are similarities to other South American countries, but there are so many things that are very different and unique to Peru.
Here are some of my surprising observations:
- Even in anger there is politeness. When my friend Vicki and I arrived in Lima to begin our trip, we took an Uber from the airport to the hotel. It was around 10 PM. It was packed with people on a narrow sidewalk waiting for our car. Apparently, our Uber driver made some other drivers angry as he maneuvered to position his car to pick us up and put our bags in his trunk. Lo and behold in about 5 minutes into the drive, one of those drivers cut off our car to stop our driver. The angry guy got out of his car (in the middle of the road) and banged on our car with his fist. A heated argument ensued. Vicki and I just shot a glance at each other as if to say, “Are we safe?” I heard the other driver say to our driver in Spanish, “Out of respect for the ladies, I’ll let you go.” He turned away and got back in his car. We were back on our way; no further discussion or explanation. We went from an argument that felt like it would come to blows, to a peaceful end once the instigator saw “the ladies in the back seat.”
- Driving is no holds barred. It appears as if there are absolutely no rules of the road. Vicki and I took several Uber rides around Lima and, in every case, I felt as if I was taking my life into my own hands. Many intersections between roads had no signage or traffic lights. It was a free for all getting across; like a giant game of chicken. Even if there was a red light, cars (including our vehicle) would start to creep in and cross the street regardless of oncoming traffic. This created a cross stitch-like maze at many intersections. I would be thinking, “Well, we are stuck now” and our driver would press forward and cram his car into some impossible crack in the congestion. I texted my kids that, “Medellín (Colombia) has nothing on Lima drivers.” My son texted back, “Bold statement.” I stand by my statement.
- Being a pedestrian requires being alert and patient. Vicki and I saw that there was a coffee shop about half a block across the street from our hotel. It took about ten minutes to get across a major boulevard. The crosswalks are not always marked and one-way streets are not obvious. It takes a few minutes of observation to see “what the possibilities are” as far as traffic goes. Suddenly, as you stand on the sidewalk, you see an incoming onslaught of cars from nowhere. Observing other pedestrians is important as well. But by far, the most important thing is patience. I might be bold enough to walk in front of a car in a major U.S. city in the middle of gridlock, but in Peru? Vicki and I were outside a major archeological site for about ten minutes just trying to figure out how to cross an intersection.
- Living is simple. We had the opportunity to go into several homes in Peru from the Amazon Jungle to the Uros of the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. People live simply. A solar panel or a generator for electricity. No refrigerator or big screen television. A large pot on a fire and some wooden bowls for a kitchen. I recently wrote a piece on needing less stuff. It’s amazing what we view as necessary in the United States compared to the friendly country folks of Peru. In the country side, there are mostly tuk tuks (motorized three-wheeled taxis) and very few full-sized cars. A cow attached to a rope eating along side a road. Even in the bustling city, you don’t notice folks standing around staring at their electronic devices. It felt as if most of Peru was unplugged from distractions.
- Roads are not a priority. Destinations like Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca must be big business in Peru. The infrastructure of the country seems in-congruent with tourism. We traveled on some roads that I would not even dare to hike across let alone drive a tour bus on. There was one rutted dirt road on the hillside between two archeological sites that due to heavy machinery during the rainy season was practically impassable. The driver navigated at slower speeds but some of those ruts were over a foot deep. I remember thinking at the time, “I hope we aren’t coming back this way.” When we were traveling from the airport at Puerto Maldonado to the Tambopata river, we were on another road that was mostly gravel and full of pot holes. The guide said that the road was less than a year old. I have to say, it may be the difference in weather and amount of traffic but Colombia had smoother, more modern roads than Peru.
- Bathrooms are different. I assume it is the septic system in Peru but toilet paper is thrown in a trash can instead of the toilet. This is a hard habit to break. I would reflexively throw the toilet paper in the toilet and then admonish myself. In some areas, we had to pay one or two soles to use the bathroom and were portioned out four or five squares of toilet paper (I know…right?). The craziest thing for me a lot of public toilets did not have toilet seats. I have a new appreciation for the luxury of not sitting on porcelain. I was expecting pit toilets at some point, but every toilet was a flush toilet, where even toilet seats were sometimes a luxury. You have been warned.
There is great diversity of topography and fauna in Peru. From the Amazon river basin at 400 feet above sea level to the 12,500-foot-high plains pass into Puno. From the glacier-topped Andean peaks to the beaches of Lima. It may not have been what I expected, but it was an engaging, unique exploration into the unknown.