Every year my friend and I take a month or so off from work, and travel somewhere. Thankfully business was not that shabby last year, and even with all the crises going on, this year was not going to be the exception. The time to play tourist was fast approaching.
One day my friend shows up and very excitedly and says, “We’re going to be spending a month in Peru! I have it all planned out.”
“Uhhhhmm, OK.” Says I not all that excited. “Why not someplace more well known like the Caribbean, the USA or Europe?”
“We’ve already been there,” was the answer. “Besides I want to visit South America this year.”
“Good point,” I reply and add, “but why Peru? Why not Brazil or Argentina? I know you would like the Colombian island of San Andres. That would be a nice place to go to.”
“Haven’t you heard,” said my friend, “Peru is in vogue right now. Anyways if we don’t like it we can always fly to another South American country.”
Alright I thought while smiling, no use arguing for now. I am going with my friend to Peru. Conduced at gunpoint to another Third World country. For a month….another 31 days in the boonies. I was then a disbelieving, uninformed Latino who imagined that taking a vacation in Peru was akin to a Tennessean traveling to Mississippi. More of the same. Boy was I ever to be proven wrong. But we had a month to make arrangements, hotel reservations, itineraries and I thought time to change my friends mind. No such luck, Peru was going to be it.
An unexpected turn of events started happening as we planned our vacation. I began to like what I read, saw and heard about Peru specially their typical music. Something similar to reading about Hawaii with its aloha shirt and muumuu clad residents, black sand beaches, hula dancers, fiery volcanoes, Pearl Harbor Memorial, and wild flora and fauna, while planning a trip to the islands. A tickling of the sense of the exotic that is hard to scratch started somewhere in my mind. Peru was turning into an enigma and curiosity was starting to convince imagination and even hope that it might be a fun trip. On a whim I almost bought the Lonely Planet Guide to Peru to help plan but from previous experience I knew I would never read the thing, too politically correct for my taste. After a few weeks of heavy Internet usage, we were ready. All our hotel bookings were made through www.hotelclub.net. or www.asiarooms.com.
Our plane landed at the Jorge Chavez International Airport on the Constitutional Province of Callao about 35 minutes from the center of Lima, Peru’s Capital City, the night of the first of July. The airport is being renovated and expanded but we had no trouble getting by shuttle-bus from the foot of the plane to the gate, past Immigration, locating our luggage and breezing through Customs. TACA airlines had done a good job and we had arrived ontime with all our luggage! Peru looked promising at first glance. Lots of ATMs inside the terminal and the money exchange booths were open even late at night which was a nice and convenient touch. I was to learn Peru is a very easy country to live in, everything works the way its supposed to as opposed to what I was expecting. Outside the airport building, while looking for our cab, we ran into a pack of determined cab bookers asking for a tip to get us a cab. We said no thanks and passed by them, chose our cab sans booker, and drove on deserted side streets and narrow detour roads, by huge warehouses and closed factories, on our way from the airport to the center of Lima. If we had not done our research and not known the main highway was being renovated because the APEC 2008 (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) was being held in Peru, we would have thought the cab driver had some nefarious motive for driving us on quiet, second rate, side roads……knives, vaseline, stirrups and little silver bells……the usual scary thoughts would have been looking for purchase inside our heads. Cab fare was USA $20.
After checking in at the Hotel Maury we felt peckish and thirsty so we asked where was the nearest watering hole. Around the corner we were told so we saddled up, put on sweaters and coats and ambled up the block to the Plaza de Armas, Lima’s Central Plaza also called the Plaza Mayor. I was blown away as curiosity told imagination and hope it had been right all along and to pay up. Most Latin American cities have very little night life going on a Tuesday night at their Central Plaza. Lima’s in contrast has a vibrant atmosphere. The benches on the clean, well illuminated Plaza de Armas were full of couples and families hanging around while the steps in front of the Cathedral and Archbishop Palace had dozens of laughing young people sitting on them. The historic buildings around the plaza, among them the Cathedral, Archbishop’s Palace, Government Palace, Municipal Building and the Club De La Union were beautifully lighted and seemed well taken care of. The smallish looking fountain at the center of the Plaza Mayor gurgled merrily away and no beggar or junky could be found but if you wanted a bottle of water, a soft drink or a snack there were kiosks near the corners. That night, under an overcast sky, with its measured majestic pace a white Clydesdale pulled a black carriage around the plaza. The couple in the carriage were newly weds and their sparkling white and black formal regalia sharply contrasted with faded jeans and drab sweaters. Much like a couple of peacoks walking near a hundred night owls. As the carriage passed by, preceded by the clip-clop sound of shod hoofs, many night owls waved to the newly wed couple. Double-decker, open roof tour buses made their appearance, full of tourists. They went slowly round the plaza a couple of times, hundreds of flashes of light originating from their insides and roof top and then left for their next destination as camera toting passengers kept on filling up memory cards. After the first impression shock wore off we were still hungry, maybe for a pizza, some Chinese, Peruvian or Italian food. Still thirsty for perhaps a nice cold beer, a Sangria, some good wine or even the Peruvian national drink, a Pisco Sour. All type of restaurants near the plaza were open and prices were very reasonable to my surprised surprise. We had a meal of potatoes, meat and a fruit drink for about USA $ 7 per person. If we had so chosen we could have gone into a more expensive restaurant but we were not in the mood for anything fancy. To end the evening, if we had wanted to, how about doing a bit of unnecessary shopping for clothes, eye glasses, medicines, office supplies, jewelry and almost anything else you can imagine? Yes, most stores were still open at 11:00pm. On a Tuesday night.
If one likes walking around visiting parks and museums while skipping in and out of coffee shops and restaurants, Lima is your city. It has dozens of museums of all shapes and sizes with exhibits ranging from anthropology, archeology and art to gold and weapons. The oldest and some say the grandest museum in Peru is the National Museum of Archeology, Anthropology and History of Peru. Among the Inca and pre-Inca artifacts don’t forget to see the Moche Civilization erotic artifacts, some even depicting sex between the living and the dead. Ever seen a real Spanish Inquisition dungeon with wax dummies being tortured? Then visit the Museum of the Inquisition and Congress; keep in mind the authorities will not indulge any bondage fetish. This is the most visited museum in Peru, must be due to all those documents about the history of the Peruvian Congress. The Peru Gold and Weapons of the World Museum was interesting specially the huge, engraved/riveted/embossed solid gold wall covering, gold gloves, gold vases, but no grillz. Not one gold grillz. I was impressed with the variety of solid gold pieces that I later found out may not have been gold at all, possibly fakes. Aw darn, they looked convincingly real. Does the reader like knives, swords, guns and weapons of all kinds? Besides gold and silver items the museum has over 15,000 weapons. Entering this museum was like entering a bank vault, literally through a thick bank like vault door. The Brain Museum is what its name describes, a museum to look at glass jars and glass boxes full of whole and sliced brains. The exibit comprises close to 3,000 brains some from people that died of natural causes and others that died from one disease or another. Throw in a few fetuses and you get the idea of what this small museum is like. It is possible to tell normal brains from those of junkies, drunks and diseased people because they look so different. The Pedro de Osma Museum has gold coins, paintings galore, silver items, sculpture, stained glass windows and doors, statues, some textiles, etc., most from Spanish Colonial time. One can spend hours in there. Another museum that has a very diverse collection ranging from minerals, to nature drawings to Colonial era silver objects is the the Antonio Raimondi Museum. If you like Chancay culture textiles and ceramics visit the Amano Museum. If I’m not mistaken this museum was started by a Japanese sailor that fell in love with the Chancay culture and wanted to preserve its legacy for posterity, but I might be mistaken. Peru has had such a rich Pre-Hispanic, Spanish Colonial and modern day history that one could spend months visiting museums and historic sites throughout its provinces.
In Lima parks and plazas of all sizes with comfortable benches, trees, flowers, luscious green grass, and big, fat pigeons flying or waddling about can be found seemingly every couple of blocks or so. Don’t forget about the vultures. Yes, those black birds that eat dead stuff. In downtown Lima you can see a few of them perching on the fountain in the Plaza de Armas, others from inside your third floor Hotel Maury room window as they walk on the roof of the building across the street, and some on the ledges of buildings as one walks on downtown Lima street sidewalks. Our tour guide told us that there are big slaughter houses near the river near downtown Lima and sometimes parts of carcases reach the river, get carried away and the vultures feed on them. Walking around the center of Lima we must have found 20 or so parks and plazas. All of them were well taken care of, clean and guarded. No wino asked for money, no dealer offered us party items and that scared, oppressive feeling one senses among the populace of a city burdened by crime was not perceived by us. Limeans walk seemingly carefree, the women not hurrying along clutching their hand bags protectively to their chests, the men don’t search around for perceived threats and couples stumblin’ along doing what couples do when in love: walking without a clue as to what’s going on around them. Policemen and policewomen walk alone or in pairs talking into their lapel radio microphones and are everywhere. One thing they don’t do is strut around giving anyone the evil eye; that empowered cop look that says, “I am the authority and you’ll be my prey if I so choose.” The feeling of security was a very pleasant bonus. We were surprised at the number of female police officers doing everything from directing traffic to patrolling in cars. When asked why, different people told us the reasoning was simple: policewomen were less prone to accept or ask for bribes. I found that hard to believe but that’s what we were told.
One park we enjoyed to no end was the Parque De La Reserva and its Magical Water Circuit. The park, we were told, is included in the Guinness Book of World Records as the park with the most fountains open to the public. Entry fee was USA $ 1.50. The first time we visited the park was during the day and had a good time strolling around and looking at over 30+ fountains of all shapes and sizes. Triangular, rectangular, round, etc., you name the shape and they’ll probably have it. One day someone we were sharing a bench with at the Plaza de Armas recommended a night trip just to look at the fountains. Why not we said? On our previous day trip the fountains looked nice and elegant but at night they are spectacular, it truly was a night versus day epiphany. It took us about half an hour of standing in line to get to the entrance as there were many Peruvian and tourists wanting to get in. The closest fountain to the entrance is a 50+ meter in diameter masterpiece whose main water cannon shoots water up to 80 meters into the air when so desired by the controlling computer. At times when all water jets are turned on an aircraft carrier could be easily floated by the massive quantity of water flowing through the fountain. The coloured lights get almost blotted out by the sheer volume of water and only the white perimeter lights shine through making the water appear to have seemingly turned into white fire. Every so often the powerful jets are turned off and a delicate mist is jetted out bathed by pink, blue and green lights choreographed with soft classical music flowing out of hard to locate speakers. Beautifully surreal. As the crowds get closer and closer to the delicate water mist and light show the computer morphs from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde and the big jets in seconds create a huge water mist cloud that is carried away by the breeze. Those closest to the fountain run in vain as the breeze blows over them and covers them with a thin film of moisture. My favorite fountain I think is called the Madman’s Labyrinth and is a fountain one can get into as it has no reservoir. Concentric circles of uninterrupted vertical water jets are separated by concentric circles of solid concrete and one can see Peruvians of every age stepping through gaps created in the vertical water fence surrounding the concrete circles as the Machiavelic computer controlling those jets turns some of them off. After a few minutes of being inside the fountain, now surrounded by a solid curtain of concentric vertical jets of water, it slowly dawns on people that the mist created by the vertical jets is making them wet and they start looking for a way out. Meanwhile the bystanders are happily shooting shot after shot of the fountain’s captives. Without warning some of the vertical jets are turned off and horizontal ones turned on. Anything standing in the way of the water jet gets soaked, be it a pet or a person. Dogs begin shaking the water off, children scream and squeal, grown-ups laugh themselves silly and snooty dressed teens wonder how they will dry themselves afterwards trying to look hip when wet. Speakers hidden in trees pump out a mixture of classic rock and modern techno as everyone laughs and points at those that received the fountain’s blessing. Meantime the vertical jets have not been turned off so if one tries to avoid the horizontal jets by moving out of the way one would step into the vertical jets. Double dousing! As unexpectedly as the horizontal jets got turned on the computer turns them off and changes the configuration of the vertical jets leavings gaps through which grateful, wet people step out of the fountain and excited bystanders lusting to get wet step in. The smart ones or previous victims have brought towels or even better, a change of clothes as the change booths are close by. Be quick getting out though, sometimes the computer changes its mind and turns on either vertical or horizontal jets and those caught in the way really get doused! There are many other fountains but it would take an eternity to describe them all. Lima, what a City!
One thing I did not like was how they drive in Peru. Good God Almighty, Peruvians in my humble opinion must, it is not my intent to offend anyone, get their driver’s licences in cereal box coupons and either lobotomies just prior to getting into their cars or consciously disconnect their brain’s higher functions and turn them on again when they reach their destination. Our first memorable experience happened when we had been in country maybe 45 minutes. We had pulled out of the airport and were on the road to Lima. By the time our taxi had accelerated to about 100 Kmph without warning a car crosses the street maybe 50m in front of us. The driver of that car knew we were coming because I saw him looking at us. Our taxi driver knew he had the right of way but the guy drove across the street nonetheless and stopped at the median, blocking our lane, while waiting for traffic to pass on the other side of the street. I fully and fervently expected our driver to hit the brakes or change lanes as we were the only other car on our side of the road but Peruvians have the game of chicken down to an art: first our driver honked his horn, secondly he kept on going did not even slow down. A few seconds before we would have hit the other car, it began inching across the median and we passed by maybe with 1 centimeter to spare, horn still honking. Still on our way to downtown Lima from the airport we see a stoplight that’s red. Did our driver brake? No, he kept on going and when the light did not turn green he hit the brakes. I asked what happened and he said he had it timed but in this case he misjudged the light. This happened at almost every stop light on that trip. We had similar experiences every time we got a cab in Lima and got more or less used to the mayhem by the end of our trip. It is not hard to imagine all Peruvian drivers getting together every month and deciding what new quirk they would work into their reckless driving manual. But even as bad as the drivers were in Lima the moto-taxis of Iquitos and taxis of Cuzco were even worse. After our first couple of days in Peru the idea of renting a car finally slipped out of my mind having been shown the door by a very well armed self preservation that proceeded to carefully put a padlock on the door lest said idea tried to get in again.
Tourists travelling to the USA know without a doubt they are going to the First World. If doubts exist about America they are quickly dispelled as soon as they leave the airport. Modern cars, good roads, buildings everywhere, booming business atmosphere, decent public transportation and the projection of prosperity by its citizens not to mention their sense of entitlement. Few things would surprise a visitor more than finding out something did not work properly in the USA. The same goes for Europe and Japan. Chile is of course First World. I did not expect Peru to be that close to becoming First World, it really turned upside down my expectations of what a Latino country should be. The local newspapers say the economy has been growing for the past 15 years and the bane of most countries around the world, corruption, has been for the most part check mated. Don’t get me wrong, Peru has its drawbacks and one only needs to watch the local news or read the newspapers to get all the gory details but as a tourist I rarely if ever saw what they were. Except of course for the CGTP (General Confederation of Peruvia Workers) national union strike on July 16 that effectively cancelled our scheduled visit to the number one tourist destination in Peru, some say the number one tourist destination in South America, the crown jewel of the Andes, Machu Picchu. Why? Because the PeruRail trains did not run for two days due to the strike. A postcard had to do. But that story is for a future post about Peru.