First Week in Peru

Some impressions from my first week in Perú.

First, about getting out of Ecuador – leaving the hotel at 4:40am having not slept in a couple of days, I made the 5 o’clock bus to Loja. But the 7am bus from Loja to the border never showed, so I had six hours to wait until the next one. I spent the time wandering around trying to stay awake – sleep deprivation can be pretty trippy – in that dreamlike state, not totally sure what’s real and what’s imagined. Who needs drugs?
I’ve added a few more photos to the Loja post from that morning that you may find amusing.

It took three hours to reach the border and I’m glad I paid my fine ahead of time, since I wouldn’t have wanted to hang around Macará any more than needed. It felt sketchy and transient, like most border towns. As it was, the Ecuadorian police didn’t even look at my $200 receipt – but I guess it was in the computer. Crossing the river into Perú, there was nary a computer in sight! Hmm, interesting first sign of what’s in store. In a very simple structure, a kid barely old enough to shave and sans uniform wrote my details in a log. Perhaps they later copy the logbook into a computer, who knows. Then across the street to have the police do the same thing. No bag search, no questions, nada. One of the easiest border crossings I’ve had on this trip. Hallelujah!

Bus pulled into Piura about 9:30 at night. Took me a while to find a decent hotel room, there seems to be a gap between cheap/grungy hotels and fancy/expensive places. Finally found a room with a window (a surprising number of hotel rooms in Latin America don’t have windows out to the street, which makes me feel like I’m in prison). Piura is a small city, decent enough, didn’t feel dangerous at all even at night. But not that attractive, either. Although I love cities, I’m experiencing culture shock being back in one after 2 ½ months in Vilcabamba. All the honking and chaos is a bit overwhelming after so long in tranquility.

After not nearly enough sleep, I headed out the next day for points further south. There seems to be an amazing range of high quality long distance bus companies. All the buses I’ve seen are quite comfortable which bodes well for those long distances I have coming up. And there is good security even on the economy lines – checked baggage, for instance. I’m finally learning that nobody sits in their assigned seats – it ends up being first come, first dibs on the best seats.

I caught one for Chiclayo, three hours south and closer to the coast. The journey took us across the Sechura desert – dry, flat sand as far as the eye can see, punctuated only by occasional low shrubs. Markedly different from the Andean highlands I’ve mostly been in for the last six months. Arrived in Chiclayo about 5pm, much preferable than arriving after nightfall. There’s a better range of inexpensive hotels here than in Piura, although so far I’m noticing the prices of things in Perú are a bit more than in Ecuador. Uh-oh.
I’m happy that the weather is no different than what I’ve had for the last few months – warm and sunny, spring-like. I know I have to, but I’m dreading heading south – for the further I go from the equator, the less this will be true.

I’m back in a country that communicates through honks – drivers are constantly tooting their horns, even when no obstacle is ahead. It’s a curious (and annoying) form of communication. Things generally seem brasher and louder (touts and beggars are more insistent, for example) than in Ecuador, although I realize it’s impossible to judge an entire country based solely on a couple of days spent in these random towns. I’m sad to have left the pedestrian-friendly confines of Vilcabamba – here, as in most of the rest of the world, the automobile is valued higher than human life. I’ve also returned to a land of casinos – as in Colombia, there is one on every corner.

I usually forget to bargain down the price of hotel rooms, but here I remembered – and the guy immediately dropped the price. Amazing when that works! Trying to cut back on the carbs, I bought a bottle of wine instead of beer. I asked the proprietor why the Argentinian wine was so cheap when it was the best wine in the shop, and I think he told me the local equivalent of, “it fell off the back of a truck” (i.e., he paid no taxes).

Turned on the TV tonight to discover Project Runway – in English! Oh, I’m in heaven. You just can’t dub Tim Gunn and keep his flamboyant charm.
Both Chiclayo and Piura have tons of those three-wheeled motorcycle-taxis running around in addition to the normal yellow cabs. I wonder why some places (small towns in Panama & Guatemala, coast of Ecuador) have them while other places (Colombia, rest of Ecuador and Central America) don’t.
Perú is meant to have the best cuisine in all of Latin America. I’ve already had some deliciously cheap seafood, and there is a string of cevicherias on one street that I intend on trying tomorrow.

I wandered into a modern shopping mall today, and there… there, on it’s own… away from everything else… with the light of heaven seemingly shining down upon it… was a Starbucks. Never thought I’d be so happy to see one. I used to be the kind of person that made fun of people who sought them out – they’re emblematic of everything I dislike about corporate culture. And yet… when everything in a 1,000 mile radius is weak, crappy, instant coffee – and you’re a coffee snob as I am – you bow down. I haven’t seen one since Panama, I think – at least nine months ago.

Somehow I left Ecuador with more U.S. currency than I want to keep for an emergency, so I sought out an exchange house. The banks weren’t giving a good rate, so I tried my luck with one of the dozens of money changers on the street. I can hear your concern already. It’s true, one has to be vigilant in these situations. Not of outright robbery, but of scams – checking each bill carefully for counterfeits, counting the money yourself (I was shortchanged in Bali once by a very clever money changer who counted the bills repeatedly in front of me, but still somehow managed palm a few in the end).

The process was fascinating as would be expected. One guy I approached turned out to have a crooked calculator. He keyed in the correct exchange rate, multiplied by the amount of dollars I was selling, and it read out a figure a bit less than it should have been. It’s not that I’m a math wizard, it’s just that I had already done the arithmetic ahead of time on my phone – so I knew what the result should have been. He did the calculation again, and again it came out about 5% in his favor. Amazing. Where do you buy such a thing – riggedcalculators.com? And how is it done? Does it just display a certain percentage less in every calculation? Can you program it for specific scams? Is there a switch to restore it to normal functioning? The next guy I approached had a real calculator. But now came the bickering. As in most bargaining situations, we lied through our teeth to each other. Me, claiming that banks down the street would give a better rate than he was offering. Him, claiming that my old and worn bills wouldn’t be accepted by any bank and therefore he couldn’t give me as good of a rate (yet he could still accept them?!)

Chiclayo is known for it’s witch’s market. Mistaking the purpose of the market, I inquired as to how much a witch cost. They responded by placing a hex on me. You can buy all manner of potions and amulets, shark jaws, deer legs, snakeskins – everything a modern witch needs in his or her pantry. It’s one enormous testament to the power of the placebo effect.
The rest of the market has the usual fruits, vegetables, animal parts (for eating), trinkets, housewares, shoes, et al. I found a place to get my shoes re-stitched ($1.50) and headphones re-soldered with a new connector (80¢ including parts & labor!) Love it. Try that in North America!

This province is known for dozens of pre-Incan ruins, some dating as far back as 100 A.D. (the Moche civilization). A royal tomb uncovered in 1987 revealed a cache of gold objects of exquisite craftsmanship and in quantities exceeding that of King Tut’s tomb. When in this region, one also normally tours the dozens of enormous (one is 700m long!) adobe pyramid complexes of the Sican culture. I’m not doing any of this. Call me crazy, but I’m a (post-) modernist – all this old stuff just leaves me sleepy. I don’t generally enjoy most museums, and I’ve seen enough pyramids on this trip that just look like muddy hills to last me a lifetime.

[A few days later…]
Made my way up to Cajamarca, in the highlands. The journey was a bit of a pain.. what should have been a six hour journey turned into 7½ on account of washed-out roads. So I arrived after dark to a gritty, ugly town. Oh, and it was raining. Then it took a while to find a decent hotel room. But I need to keep in mind not to judge a town based on the neighborhood the bus station is in – it’s that way in my own country, for gosh sakes. Morning came, and I discovered that central Cajamarca is actually quite beautiful – restored colonial houses and an enormous central plaza/square where the Incan empire was brought down in 1532 (see my rambling video below for more on all of this). It’s also not as chilly as I thought it would be at this altitude, thank gawd.

They say Cajamarca is what Cusco was like before the tourist boom. There are a fair amount of indigenous people about who wear enormous hats and mix with a well-off middle and upper class, judging by the shops and clubs which are a definite step above those in Piura and Chiclayo. I’m guessing a lot of this money comes from the nearby gold mine – a source of corruption and environmental controversy as you would expect, but it’s also produced over $7 billion to date. This region is also known for it’s dairy products. You can wander in to any of a dozen shops and sample a wide range of delicious cheeses and ice creams (some made with fruits I’ve never even heard of!)

Back to that night I arrived in Cajamarca – after the stressful and exhausting travel day, my night turned completely around. I found a lovely hotel room with WiFi and a view onto the square, then went out for dinner to a place called OM Gri. It’s one of those wonderful little hole in the walls with only four tables where the owner/chef greets you and the only other staff is the woman who serves you drinks. The affable owner claims to spend 8 hours making his pasta sauce, and it shows. I struck up a conversation with a gregarious local man in his 50’s (who lived in the States for a while, and luckily wanted to practice his English). I was exhausted and was intending to simply go to bed after supper, but he convinced me to go out clubbing! Although it was a hip & happening club, I was encouraged to see that we weren’t the only ones over the age of 30. There were even several teens and pre-teens which was nice to see too. Well this guy sure could spot ’em, and led the way over to a couple of attractive young women in need of male attention. We spent hours dancing and hanging out, one thing leading to another…

[cut to two days later]
Today I almost walked 20km to Cumbemayo to see the 3,000 year-old carved aqueducts – the oldest man-made construction in South America. But I only made it about 2km, ha! The altitude and my run last night are sapping my energy. Stray dogs are getting on my nerves too –  you never know when they’re going to turn aggressive for no reason.

Dozens of archaeological riches abound in this region built by cultures pre-dating the Incans by several hundred, or in some cases, several thousand years. Unfortunately, getting to them sounds like a real pain in the tuckus – so I’ll probably just head back to the coast after Cajamarca.

[next day]
Had a nice afternoon. First I took a bus half an hour to Ventanillas de Otuzco, a series of hundreds of burial chambers dug into the rock face dating back to 500 B.C. The cavities don’t look big enough for bodies! It’s said that when the Incans came along 2,000 years later, they used the chambers for grain storage. Really not much to see for more than 10 minutes, but interesting nonetheless.

Thanks to a post on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree, I learned that I could walk from the Ventanillas all the way to Baños del Inca, a modern renovation of the hot springs the Incan leader was relaxing in with his concubines whence the Spaniards rolled into town. No concubines in sight, but I did have a very nice bath. I highly recommend this spot to anyone finding themselves in this neck of the world – for about $2, you get your own private room with a bath big enough for 10 people that you fill yourself with a mixture of boiling (naturally-occuring) mineral water and cold water. It fills surprisingly fast, and the tubs are so huge you can wallow in all those lovely medicinal properties. Then on to the next building for your massage or hydrotherapy.

The walk to the baths took me through some lovely countryside along canals and rivers, past farms and homesteads. Real salt-of-the-earth people, I’ll bet most of them have never traveled beyond 20km of their house. One of them that I stopped to ask for directions asked if I was from Spain. My Spanish is terrible and my accent is nothing like Spain’s, so my only explanation is that due to lack of education, she might have thought, “if he speaks funny Spanish, he’s not from around here – therefore he must be from Spain.” Seriously, I don’t know how much news these folks get about the rest of the world.

Speaking of poor education, I continue to be surprised at the lack of simple arithmetic skills of many shopkeepers. These are people who do the same transactions (say, 3 items at S|1.50 plus 1 item at S|2.00) hundreds of times a day, yet have to use pencil and paper or a calculator to get the result that I did in my head in about 2 seconds. And I am faaaar from a math whiz, as any of my exes or friends will attest to. This morning I was trying to pay my hotel bill which came to S|185. I gave her S|200. She pulled a S|20 note out of her drawer and said it was all she had, wait right here and I’ll go get change. To which I replied, don’t bother – here’s S|5 extra, now give me the S|20. She didn’t get it. It took me five minutes of explanation, finally resorting to pencil and paper, for her to understand that by my giving her five extra soles she could just give me the 20-sole note. What’s the sound of wind whistling between somone’s ears?

Overall I like Cajamarca. It feels alive and vibrant (even on a Sunday evening everyone is out strolling about), and there is an interesting mix of indigenous and mestizos. Having said that, outside of the central area it quickly becomes dilapitated houses, stray dogs, and trash-strewn streets. I’ve been surprised at how in this way Perú feels like a return to Central America – outside of the cities, it’s all that same crappy construction of unfinished concrete and sloppily laid brick. I don’t know that Perú is less developed than Ecuador or Colombia, but it feels like it might be. But I need to reserve judgment – I have a lot left to see, and most of the focus of the country (population and tourism) is in the south.

I’m trying another video diary. In this one, I wander around Cajamarca’s central square while rambling on about the dramatic events that took place in this very spot 477 years ago. I realize my video production skills have lots of room for improvement. My only defense is that I kept getting distracted by things off-camera – kids, beggars, vendors, people staring.


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  • judith Johnson says:

    Hey, loved the video. High quality and interesting. Great pictures. the bitchin wheels is amazing. Is it a motorcycle with a tent house on top? surprised at the cheese and icecream. There’s stereotypes for you! Wished I were there for the baths. Its a lovely square. Glad to hear you are enjoying yourself. J

    • Josh says:

      Glad you liked the post! The video was a real pain to upload, being 750MB – but things like this are possible now that I have my own computer.
      Yeah, those tuk-tuk 3-wheeled moto-taxi things are crazy. Each one is unique. It looks like they build them by cannibalizing motorcycles and welding the carriage onto the back.
      The cheeses and ice creams are sublime. A surprising range of cheeses, which when eaten with the sweet flaky crackers they also make is delicious. And every shop offers free sample tastings!

  • Arthur says:

    Getting closer to the penguins!

  • Nico says:

    hey !
    I’m a little late for leaving a comment, but never too late.
    About the horn, yes I agree, that’s really annoying, but it gets worse in some places of Peru.
    And be careful with those 3-wheeled-motorbikes, some of them bring you right to their criminal friends (regular yellow taxis also, by the way …)

    Disfruta, amigo !

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