Thursday, March 27, 2008

Peru: A trip worth retaking

Over the next several posts, I’ll be talking about our trip to Peru but today I wanted to start with general reactions. As the title suggests, we had a great trip and I would go back. Seven days is really not enough time as we barely got to know Lima and there are many more ruins than just Macchu Pichu. Plus, I think hiking the Inca trail would be an incredible experience in itself.

At any rate, I’ll get to the specifics of each site we visited in subsequent posts but for today, I have the following thoughts. As always, these thoughts reflect my personal experiences over the course of seven days and should not be taken as universal truth.

1. I felt safe. This is a big one. In Bogota I have non-clinical paranoia to avoid any and all crime. It’s essentially a siege mentality that has been programmed into my brain by everyone I interact with here (particularly my wife and her grandfather) and by the fact that in Colombia, “a fool and his money are easily parted”. Not so in Lima. The city is well policed and it has a vibrant “city life” in that at night time its common to see couples walking in parks, people in the streets, etc. In Bogotá, due to climate and crime, people generally scurry to their homes or to Parque 93 or the Zona Rosa.

But more than just that, Lima is terror free at the moment as is the rest of Peru. The country is not in the midst of a guerrilla war. It’s not besieged by kidnapping terrorists who have only weak affiliations to a political ideology. And there is virtually no mafia to speak of. That all makes a difference and it’s something I felt acutely.

2. It’s clean. Lima, or at least the barrios we were in (San Isidro and Miraflores), is a very clean city by any standard. It’s noticeable. They have legions of city employees cleaning the streets at all times and it works. This stands in stark contrast to London or Bogotá.

In addition to clean streets, however, is the relative lack of pollution. I make no claims that Peru pollutes less than Colombia (or any other developing nation) but it is aided by its geography. Lima rests on a desert plateau next to the Pacific. The winds coming off the ocean are strong and relentless and this helps the city stay relatively cool and blows noxious fumes and toxic emissions to the east. Bogotá is less fortunate. It straddles a vast green valley and to some extent, experiences the “LA Effect” of trapped emissions.

3. The desert means less food diversity. Peru has a reputation of having some of the best food in South America. That reputation is not without merit. We did not have a bad meal while we were there and on several occasions had excellent meals. The flip side of that, however, is that Peruvian geography does not permit the type of food diversity that is found in Colombia. Fresh fruit juices found in Peruvian restaurants, for example, are mostly limited to Papaya, Orange, and Pineapple, with the occasional Strawberry or Mango. I’m accustomed to having no less than six choices in Bogota (and that’s on the low side). Even the fruit they do have is a shadow of what one finds in Colombia. The papaya is almost mango colored (it’s pink in Colombia) and not as sweet as I’ve come to expect while everyone knows that Orange pales in comparison to mandarin. But deserts aren’t so hot for agriculture and they grow what their climate and geography permits.

I imagine that this is also the reason why they didn’t appear to have any really good meats. Colombia has spoiled me. When I go for a steak in Colombia I know that it will not only be excellent in quality, it will be cooked to perfection. In Peru, there is much less of a “cattle culture” (where to raise them?) meaning that the quality of the meat isn’t as good and the institutional knowledge of how to cook a steak properly has not disseminated throughout the culture. The one exception to this would be Lomo Saltado which is a sort of national dish (ceviche being the real national dish – and damn tasty) that is prepared with cubed steak, red onions, tomatoes, garlic, a bit of hot pepper, vinegar, and soy sauce (I guessed the ingredients correctly and confirmed them on the internets). It’s a very tasty dish.

At any rate, the specialty in Peru, for obvious reasons, is the seafood. The ceviche is very good, probably the best in the world (I only say “probably” on the unlikely chance that some other country does it better), and they have a seafood soup that is excellent (tried it the last night I was there – doh!). That being said, I found the normal seafood to be lacking in creativity. I had fried shrimp once which I expected to be very good but was really just…fried shrimp. And the menus weren’t particularly inspiring. I had Trout al Ajillo (which is a garlic sauce) once which was good, but nothing compared to the Colombian equivalent (and I mean like single-A ball compared to the Bigs here) and that was at a good restaurant. I guess, given the reputation and my experiences in Colombia and the great quantity of seafood they consume, that I was expecting more.

The one thing that did not disappoint, however, was Alpaca. I wanted to try it (always try exotic meat I say), especially after it was described as a kind of “white steak”. Fantastic. Very tasty meat. Allegedly has zero cholesterol. Sort of like a combination between chicken and steak. I had it twice. I would eat it again. Today. For lunch. Or mid-morning snack. So, if you get a chance to eat Alpaca, go for it.

4. An overall lack of diversity. As I mentioned earlier, I have been extremely spoiled by Colombia. It’s not only the first South American country I’ve visited and lived in, but it’s in the family, so to speak, and I’ve come to love Colombia like a second home. And one thing about Colombia, it’s not boring. Every region is different. Different races, different food, different music and dance, different festivals, etc. Peru, by comparison, is lacking in such diversity. It’s essentially and “Incan” nation in that most of the people look the same and there is no apparent diversity in music, food, festivals, etc. Some people suggest that Peru has an African heritage like Colombia and that has enriched the country. I didn’t see it. Aside from the giant doorman at our last hotel, I don’t think I saw a single other person of African descent the entire trip. It’s very odd seeing such a homogenous culture after living in Colombia.

5. The people are extremely friendly. This is probably a truism across Latin America but Peruvian people, from the street vendor to the waiter, were extremely nice. They would offer you goods in a very polite way and then once you refused they would say, “maybe later” and let you go on your way.

They are also very stubborn. In our limited experience, Peruvians want to offer you something in only the package that they present it. Any changes are either to incomprehensible to fathom or resisted for resistance sake. This was a bit annoying at times. Bottom line, in Peru, it’s not “your way, right away”.

6. English and dollars rule. Virtually everyone except the taxi drivers spoke some English. The language is so pronounced there that I think English speakers would have zero problems. It’s incredible. I’m so used to hearing Spanish only that I almost felt like I was in Miami.

The dollar thing is a little bizarre. The Peruvian currency is the Sol. It’s about 2.75 Soles to the Dollar. But everyone accepts dollars and gives change in Soles. I think we only changed dollars for soles twice – once to pay a taxi driver and the other time to pay the one shopkeeper in all of Lima that doesn’t accept dollars. I don’t know what this means aside from the obvious – if you go to Peru, just take dollars.

7. It’s less developed than Colombia. There’s no doubt that Peru is on the way up but they’re not in Colombia’s league at the moment. Ever wonder what happens to all the used Japanese cars that the Japanese don’t want to keep? They don’t have space on the island so they convert the steering wheel to the left side and sell the in Peru (and probably other countries). Lima, for example, is dominated by second hand Celicas and Corrollas. It’s almost like walking back into the 90s. But beyond cars, the buildings, roads, infrastructure, etc are all lagging. I don’t say this to criticize. Peru has its own problems (terrain and earthquakes among them). But it is shocking to see some of the hovels where people live.

I’ll stop here for now and conclude with this: I really liked Peru in general and Lima in particular. I could live there. And I’m sure that living there, I would find that some of my observations are not entirely accurate. But even with these observations, I felt comfortable in Peru and I would definitely go back.



Blogger noise said...

wow, you finally found the perfect place for you, LIMA PERU haha it's ridiculous bro, i cannot believe you have lived in Bogota for so long and somehow you really think Lima is better than Bogota, you actually made yourself believe that!, probably the first person on earth to say that...what? you think Caracas is better than Bogota too, what about La Paz and Asuncion? maybe living in those nice, beautiful, clean and safe cities will make appreciate Bogota and Colombia even more! get the hell out, move to lima! oh yeah, because Lima is so cosmopolitan, safe, clean and especially DIVERSE, oh yeah it has a better nightlife too? cuz Bogota is sooo boring and nothing ever happens, right? maybe that's why you are so drawn to Lima! jeez i've heard of places like mm Zona G, Zona T, La Macarena, and Usaquen, dude, seriously get out of that "bubble" you're constantly in, where the heck is your wife from? is she as unhappy as you are cuz that sucks! what country is next? BOLIVIA? haha sure it is better than Peru and Colombia together..nonetheless i do enjoy how miserable you are!

12:49 AM  
Blogger SJH said...

Trolls that can't read shouldn't be allowed on the internets.

8:42 AM  
Blogger noise said...

haha now i'm a troll?? dude don't get mad, it's the truth and you know it! your posts are pretty hypocritical most of the time
"Bogota and Colombia suck, Colombians are horrible human beings and they suck at life, so disorganized yada yada yada, in conclusion: i hate to live in this country but somehow i still like it, learn how to read troll" is that all you've got? thats sums up most of your posts, hypocrisy-maybe that's the right adjective to describe you? maybe?! seriously? 33 years old and you still rant like a two ear old! just leave dude or i don't know, go back to peru if it's so worth going back! oh yeah, go back to your perfect first world oh yeah cuz the UK is "perfect"

1:16 PM  
Blogger liondogs said...

After reading this blog page, and the strange comments, I feel sorry for this poor individual named “noise”. It is clear that this person can’t understand English or, I think he/she must be part of the generation that had the worst opportunities to learn to read. The poor dear has little to no reading comprehension, and that is so sad, poor thing.

9:05 PM  
Blogger noise said...

no need to feel sorry for me asshole! maybe you should read his hypocritical posts first!

10:42 PM  

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