Darkest Peru

I actually left off, before the last few ‘try and keep the readers happy and disguise the fact that I’ve been utterly useless at keeping the blog up to date’ type posts, at the point where I left Chile for Peru. I decided to book a tour with Tucan to do the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, on a friend’s recommendation – the Inca Trail is one of the main reasons to go to Peru, the food certainly isn’t, but more of that later. I needed to book with a tour company to do the Inca Trail as access to the trail is (fortunately) restricted, so getting permits to walk the trail independently can apparently be tricky. Quite apart from anything else, I looked forward to the company I’d get on a tour, liked the idea of not having to work out where I was sleeping every other night, and figured that slogging up hills at four thousand meters would be better done in the company of people who could carry at best an encouraging word, and at worst a tank of oxygen.

Lima is one of those places that, when mentioned, gets a reaction from many people along the lines of “Oooh, [sucks through teeth], it’s dodgy there, best be careful”. They’ll often happily recite the tale of the friend of theirs (or more likely the friend of a friend of someone they got talking to in a bar once) who lost something, had something stolen, or had a gun held to their head (I think people just enjoy the idea of knowing someone who had a gun held to their head). You therefore go expecting every stranger to be a thief, or worse. People have said similar things about half a dozen of the places I’ve been to, and I’ve been cautious in all of them, but no more cautious than I’ve been anywhere. Not wanting to sound too smug, I have had nothing stolen from me during the last year, lost nothing, if you don’t count getting shafted on the occasional taxi fare. Places like Lima certainly do deserve caution, but not nearly as much if you know not to be in dodgy places late at night, not to get drunk with dodgy people, not to leave your bag, wallet or camera in plain sight, and not to invite robbery by looking like a rich tourist. You can’t help looking like a tourist if you’re one of only five white people in a nightclub, but confident body language, inconspicuous dress, and absence of shiny things seem to go a long way towards avoiding the wrong kind of attention. Besides, a lot of people would say that they had about the most fun, met some of the best people, in the places that get a lot of people sucking through their teeth – and I’d be one of them.

Peru is poorer than Chile and Argentina, that much is obvious from walking around Lima. It felt much more like I expected a South American city to feel, compared to the European feel of Chile and Argentina. Chile is the richest country in South America, and Chileans give the impression of feeling superior to their neighbours, going as far as to declare animosity towards Peru and Bolivia over long-running border disputes, and being quick to boast about their wine being the best in the world.

Plaza de Armas, Lima
Plaza de Armas, Lima

The center of Lima is a bustling maze of streets filled with Peruvians queuing for helado and empanadas, with latin music blaring from every third shop. Tourists move between the crowds like panicked cats. In the central square, I was approached by a very confident, smiley man who wanted to sell me cloth finger puppets, ostensibly to raise money for children with Down’s Syndrome. His routine was the same as every other salesman I’ve met on the streets of poorer countries, starting with bright, breezy conversation you’d feel rude to ignore, moving on to an innocent question like had you heard of Down’s Syndrome, and then going for the sale of the finger puppet, using lines like “it’s for the children”. This tactic incidentally seems pretty close to the one used by the charity muggers that hang around city centres in the UK. Repeated use of the word ‘no’ would elicit an ever more high-pitched and pathetic voice in the guy. Of course I feel bad, on the off-chance that he is a legitimate salesman, but in so many cases, I’ve seen children being used as emotional pawns to extract money from dewy-eyed tourists, when they actually see bugger all of the money their feeble appearance has been used to fleece. It was the same in India, in Cambodia, in Vietnam, Peru, and Bolivia – and it drove me mad.

One young child in Lima was sat begging by the side of the main street leading to Plaza de Armas, and I thought when I saw him that he was wearing a Hallowe’en mask. It wasn’t a mask – some sort of deformity or burn had left his face melted, his mouth fixed downwards in a permanent, grotesque, upside-down grin. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know how to react, and avoided him – even though it was just a child. Being in places like this seems to have a knack of throwing things at you at random intervals, just to see how you’ll cope – and I haven’t coped so well a lot of the time. A man with an open, weeping tracheotomy stood in front of me once on a train in India, and when I looked at him with mucus running down his chest and a rattling noise emanating from the hole, I jumped backwards in my seat and handed him all the spare change in my pocket.

A library with walls lined with books, and spiral staircases
The library in the Church of San Francisco, Lima

I didn’t have too long in Lima – just long enough to see the church of San Francisco’s crypts and beautiful library, and get pestered by the finger puppet man. After meeting the others on the tour at the hotel, we headed for Cusco, a place that we were again told by the tour guide was ‘dodgy’, but which again felt a lot safer than the tour guide would have us believe. Cusco is the tourist capital of Peru, so apparently is filled to the rafters with bad characters who are waiting to take your money by means fair or foul. I saw restaurant owners enthusiastic to get you into their establishments, no worse than a Friday night down Brick Lane, and young mothers trying to sell more finger puppets – not sure this qualifies as dodgy. Other than that, Cusco is a beautiful place, following the pattern for an Andean town by sprawling up the hill sides as far as the eye can see, the center of the town marked by the Plaza de Armas with its churches, fountain and flower beds. Taxis, the spitting image of Starsky and Hutch’s car, rattle and cough around the streets, barely scuffing the heels of short women crossing the street, with wide brimmed hats and wider hips, their babies strapped to their backs in colourful blankets.

The church in Cusco, like most of the churches across Peru, Bolivia and anywhere else where the Incas used to run the show here, is built using stones taken from Inca temples. At Saqsaywaman, a major archeological site and home to Inca temple ruins, as well as at Tihuanacu in Bolivia, we were told how the Spanish, upon entering the Andes and ‘introducing’ Catholicism to the Incas, destroyed their temples, used statues for shooting practice, and took heavy stones from temples to use in the foundations of new churches, which were built with forced labour (the Spanish employed the delightful practice of sending home for a replacement if a family member died while working). The only reason the Spanish didn’t destroy Machu Picchu, it turns out, is because they never found it. Having seen the mark of French, English and Spanish colonialism (and Catholicism) across India, Asia and South America, I can’t help but wonder what these places would be like now if they’d been left as they were – how would the Incas have evolved, or would they have been wiped out another way?

Coca leaves in a cup of hot water
Coca tea

As soon as I arrived in Cusco I could feel the altitude affecting me, and altitude sickness got the better of me for a few days. Cusco is at around 3400 meters above sea level, enough to make walking up a small flight of stairs or a gentle slope an effort. Altitude sickness is remedied by drinking lots of water and coca tea, so soon I was peeing more than a seven year old child after a birthday party. Coca, chewed or brewed in tea by Andean people for hundreds of years (ancient Inca busts and statues show characters with balls of coca leaf in their cheeks), widens the alveoli, improves stamina, and contains various nutrients and alkaloids, including cocaine, that make work and walking at high altitude easier. Coca leaf is widely available throughout the Andes. The Spanish tried to stop coca use in Inca people on their arrival, claiming it was diabolical – then realised that no-one was working without it, and changed their minds. It’s precisely this harmless leaf which, processed with alcohol, acid and gasoline or kerosine, is used to produced cocaine – so a long-used natural ingredient and backbone of an entire ancient culture becomes a substance that makes stockbrokers from Chelsea become obnoxious tossers.

From Cusco, we went to Ollantaytambo, stopping at Pisaq in the Sacred Valley for a quick warm-up walk around the Inca ruins there. Ollantaytambo is a jumping-off point for the Inca Trail, a small town with a market selling walking sticks to prop up weary hikers. The biggest surprise about Ollantaytambo was the restaurant in the center of the town. In Peru, getting a decent cup of coffee is usually harder than finding an interesting sandwich in Boots – but this place, in the middle of nowhere, boasted fantastic Andean coffee, made with a proper old Italian espresso machine, and the waiter who served it even wore a creased white shirt with a black bow tie. It’s almost as incongruous as the time Simon and I found a nutty Australian woman in China, running a cafe and walking around in her lingerie.

After a night in Ollantaytambo, we were ready to start the Inca Trail, even if the neighbours had been making a racket the night before. More soon.