We got out of the plane at the Lima airport. First impression? The airport building seemed to be modern but it was dirty and neglected. But it was what we had expected. Tourists do not visit Peru in order to marvel at orderliness and tidiness. We were instantly surrounded by some faces. Dozens of faces. Most of them speaking in broken English.
It was our first contact with employees of the local taxi companies (I’m not sure, however, whether “ a company” is accurate description). One of the hucksters caught my T-shirt and urged to drive with him. He was not aggressive, it was rather “come on man, come on” sort of persuasion. I gently shook off his hand from my shoulder. We pushed our way through the airport crowd. Basically, taxi rates are lower the farther from airport you are. Bargaining is allowed. Actually, it’s quite normal. The tallest cabman persuaded us to get in to his car. We agreed on the price and drove off with a talkative and expressive man. He spoke in a unique blend of English and Spanish. Whit some difficulties, but we could deduce what he was talking about. He kept on turning his head with an artificial grin. We really wanted him to stop. We were scared to death by this reckless driver who didn’t bother to even look at the road.
Lima outskirts (pueblo jovenes) are districts of poverty and destitution. Downtown of Lima is crowded, stifling and bustling. For a moment, we had an impressions that buses and taxicabs are the only vehicles driving down the city streets. An absolute swarm of cabs (Daewoo Tico mainly). It is quite different here than in Europe, where you have to be really patient and physically fit to catch a cab. In Lima, there were so many cabs that it wasn’t any problem at all. Cab drivers are here street peddlers at the same time. They will pester you to buy their products which do not have any fixed price. Whites are always the most desirable customers, since they are usually naïve enough to pay too much. All tourists have to accept the fact that they will always be charged higher than the locals. Later that day we found out how popular this taxi-merchant job was in Lima and we could have only guessed how much money this profession brings. It is believed that taxi drivers are able to earn quite decent salary in comparison to other locals. That’s why there is so plenty of them. We did not ask, but it is doubtful that they had any restrictions in terms of rates or passengers taken per day. Free market in a pure form.
The hotel we lived in was located in Milaflores district. It is one of the best quarters in the capital. “One of the best quarters” according to Lima standards. With its dirt and dust, Milaflores would be merely a shabby and dangerous district in one of the capitals in Europe. The very hotel was not a luxurious one, but its overall standard was decent. We were told that Miraflores is a chic and safe district. Safe enough for a night walk at least. We decided to find it out and indeed, we survived.
Road traffic in Lima is a peculiar thing. The image of cars going here and there without any logic is the city’s trademark. All drivers follow their own highway code. Hooting is omnipresent. Pedestrians do not have easy life as well. We would run across the street with hearts in our mouths.
Buses are another peculiarity. We had an opportunity to take a ride on our second day of stay. Bus sits seemed to be screwed to to the floor. The bus was bumping up and down. Perhaps, we are a bit prejudiced, but westerner in the bus will always be looking for one device. Yes, you won’t find any ticket puncher in Lima busses. What for actually as there is no tickets. One guy (cobrador) approaches you and charges a fare (cabra). As a result, there are no fare dodgers in the capital of Peru. Perhaps it is quite a good idea in fact? But that’s not the end of peculiarities. Bus transport is even more specific there. There are no timetables there (and fixed bus lines, but we don’t know that for sure as there was something scribbled on the back of the bus). The cobrador himself is a kind of bus line indicator as he shouts out where the bus is going. So you are stuck in the crowd, while the guy is pushing his way through to close the bus door which, there is some mystery to it, cannot be closed by a driver. We paid 1 sol for the astonishing bus ride.
Don’t get discouraged by this insanity and take adventurous ride with public transportation in Lima at least once. You will have an opportunity to feel the real atmosphere of Lima, meaning crush and difficulties with breathing, but also a charm of hustle and bustle of a big city and southern biliousness. Does anyone need rules or timetables? We will always reach some agreement and I’ll drop you off anywhere you want. There is no bus stop? What’s the problem – the driver may stop in front of a shop where you do the shopping. Isn’t that beautiful? If you don’t want to take advantage of the variety of buses in Lima, cabs are only option left. Lima, inhabited by 9 million people, does not have underground or trams!
This all bus-madness is, against all odds, quite organized. We did not have any problems with travelling from one location to the other.
Nevertheless, we experienced some unpleasant situations as well. I felt somehow uncomfortable when I got out of the bus. I turned and saw a grimy face of some twenty-years old mate whose hand was slipping into my pocket. I was paralyzed and a bit scared because petty thief’s accomplices could have been hiding in the small crowd around us. But he turned out to be quite a nice fellow as for a thief. He bowed like a Chinese, smiled slightly, uttered his Hispanic “sorry” and went away jumping gently as a doe. Pickpockets are great plague in Lima. Some Englishman that we met later on, David, told us with bitterness that he had his camera stolen that day. Since then we started to keep an eye for our luggage more carefully.
If, due to the global downturn, you still have any doubts about dollar’s position, you will definitely start to believe again in U.S. currency after visiting the capital of Peru. Living in Lima is much more comfortable with dollars. It is the desired currency. We did not even try to find it out, but we suppose that it would be pretty difficult to exchange any money into Peruvian currency. Touts are easy to be spot on the streets. Touts in communist Poland wore blue waistcoats with a dollar symbol on it. It is better, however to exchange money in the hotel. Even if the currency rates are less favorable, the money received will never be false. Most interestingly, Lima is the biggest world centre of dollars forgery.
We paid in dollars for a meal in one of the local restaurants. The food was delicious. We decided to take a sip of the Coca Tea which tastes like brewed herbs and is believed to protect against height vertigo. Dinner in Peru includes three meals and is rather cheap. We paid only seven sols. Foodstuff in Peru is cheap in comparison to Poland. Prices are lower by around 40 percent.
In the street we were accosted by some guy in his thirties. He offered to be our guide and introduced himself as an official clerk (but it was around noon so he probably should have been at work). He told as that he has three children and provides cheap guiding services. We refused politely.
Several guys provoked a clash on the pavement. It looked horrible. After few minutes they were exhausted, stopped fighting and started to scream something in Spanish. People kept their distance. Police van stopped nearby and police officers who are on every nook and corner here arrested the men.
We went to see the museum of gold. The guide left us practically alone and as a result we could have sightsee freely. Contrary to the name, the museum is not a vault full of gold coins and necklaces. It features a great deal of pottery and ancient handicrafts. Descriptions of the exhibits are incomplete, but the entire collection is impressive. We did not manage to see everything, as we wished to visit an exhibition of weapons as well. I was more impressed by the exhibition of weapons myself.
Monasterio de San Francisco is another interesting site in Lima. It is located at the corner of Ancash and Lampa. St. Francis Monastery has large and extensive catacombs system. It is said that seventy thousand people have been buried there. This most representative Peruvian baroque construction is just beautiful. The monastery’s library contains an imposing collection of books with some copies remembering the first conquistadors.
Soon, we realized that museums and monuments are not an only attraction. In the evening we decided to go to a Salsa club. We wanted to find out which one is the safest. We finally found one with an atmosphere resembling Sade’s video clip. We felt Latino rhythms and creative tension in the air. People in Peru definitely know how to have a good time. Girls standing in front of the club hoped that some man would buy them a ticket. All men (but women as well) will tell you that Peruvian females are not exceptionally pretty at all. They are all rather short and chubby. On the other hand, they have an exceptional joy of life. They smile a lotand chatter all the time. Inside we met Oleg, a Swedish mate. Quite nice body. He told us that he was traveling across South America. He had a lot of money and bought rounds of drinks for locals. He was obviously much more generous for the ladies. Some small Peruvian guy came to him, started to shout and ferociously gesticulate. We did not know exactly what had happened before, but the Scandinavian seemed to be too much interested in the particular lady. All of the situation was pretty amusing. Tiny, excited guy threatening a surprised and calm Swede. Bodyguards hurried out the short-tempered man who was green with envy. We hadn’t seen him never again.
We were almost run over just after we left the club. A suddenly turning car almost hit us. We found out that a completely liberal highway code provokes a lot of dangerous situations.
Culture of Peru is a blend of European culture and Indian traditions. History of Athalupa and Francisco Pizarro who founded Lima, perfectly depicts the country’s identity in my opinion. In short: Athalupa was an Indian chief defeated by Pizarro who crushed all his warriors. Probably for the first time, these primitive people saw fire-arms. The conquistador said that he would free the chief in exchange for a ransom: chambers full of golden and silver (quantity of ore is debatable). All the money had been delivered to Pizzarro who broke his word anyway. In the fake trial, Atahulapa was sentenced to be burned at the stake. In order to avoid the pain, he accepted Christianity (earlier he would refuse). Because it was forbidden to burn Christians at the stake, the Indian leader was eventually suffocated. This is how Pizzarro, who couldn’t write or read, defeated the proud Indian chief and looted most precious treasury of this ancient culture. When I watched all handicrafts made by Incas, I couldn’t believe that this highly advanced and artistic people had not invented a wheel. Yes, that’s true. Incas did not know the wheel.
We took a cab to sightsee Plaza de Acho, located in Rǐmac district. It is one of the oldest and largest bullfighting arenas in the world. It resembles a huge speedway stadium and is really impressive. We wished we had an opportunity to watch a real bull-fight on the arena (but don’t think that I support harming the bulls). We just marveled at the square’s magnitude.
Museo Taurio appeased my (I can’t say ours) curiosity concerning bullfights. The museum was founded in 1929 by Luis Moróder Peiró and Josè Badila. The building houses a library (resembling European libraries) with books covering bulls related subjects. We were quite shock to see so many volumes analyzing this specific area. What is more, we had an opportunity to see exhibits connected with this bloody sport. After we took a closer look at the subject, we realized that vast cultural heritage underlies this cruel sport. The exhibition with all paintings and drawings was breathtaking.
We would also recommend Museo de Arte which features a large collection of the Peruvian art. Some items date back to the oldest times, some of them are relatively new. And most importantly, the museum is free of charge.
We took the train from Lima to Huancayo. We wasn’t aware that the trip will be wearing. Views behind the window with sublime, menacing mountains were astounding. We spotted lamas here and there. Atmosphere in the train was obviously Latino. People sang and danced all the time. People were loquacious, voices were buzzing everywhere. A nice Peruvian who spoke basic English, offered us some alcohol. I was tempted. Some guy stood up and started to recite a poem! We were shocked, but local passengers applauded it loudly. Another passenger repaid the poet with a song. We felt as if we were in a club.
After some time, headache and sickness attacked us abruptly. We were suddenly stricken by overwhelming tiredness. All of it because of the height, as we reached 5 thousand meters. Something wheezed in our ears. In spite of the 13 hour long and exhausting journey, we felt satisfied, as we marveled at the most beautiful landscapes we had ever seen. Ferro Carril Central Andino is the second highest funicular railway in the world. It was constructed by Ernest Malinowski, our countryman. When I was in Lima, I asked one of the Peruvians did he know anything about Poland. He said that he was aware that John Paul II and the famous architect came from our country. We were on the railway station located 4871 meters above the sea level which is the world record. When we stepped out from the cart, we had an impression that our legs have been made of concrete and we are wadding through the mud. Air-pressure was overpowering. We felt exhausted.
Huancayo is the capital of Junin district and a very important trade and cultural center in Peru. What’s more, it looks quite modern as for Peru. Especially buildings may attract one’s attention. The architecture is very advanced. I remember a monument of a man holding a banner above his head. It was covered with graffiti and scrawls. I was surprised to see that patriotic symbols in this beautiful city are treated with such a disrespect.
The city suffers from water distribution problems. There are places completely devoid of water. We were terrified when children who saw bottles in our hands, started to beg for them. Still, it is not even the matter of poverty, but rather this peculiar water distribution system.
We visited La Cabana club and danced with townsmen. Or we rather pretended that we knew how to dance. Guests were dressed in traditional, Peruvian clothes. The music was filling the whole place, dances were impressive. Huge hats, white and red national costumes. Women here seemed to be a bit more slender. Climate was splendid, the locals were overwhelmed by joy.
Machu Picchu (a sort of cartoon name by the way) will always be our first memory from Peru. It is the best preserved Incas town located 2090-2400 meters above the sea level. The entire city was carved in bright granite! I don’t really know why, but it resembled a birthday cake for me. The site is one of the 7 wonders of the world. We got out on Puente Riunas train station. In the train, some Quechua women tried to sell us some local goods, mainly rugs and cloths. We decided to buy only a spicy corn cake. We wished we hadn’t done this, as the cake was so fiery that we were forced to drink a lot of water.
Machu Picchu is divided into two parts. The first one is located on the mountain slopes and had provided the city with irrigation and farming systems. The very city is the second part. It is just amazing how smoothly and skillfully it had been incorporated into the landscape. Without a huge, practical knowledge Incas would not be able to create something so impressive! A one-handed guide shown us around this wonderful place. The view of a small brook Uramba turning into a rapid and mighty river was simply breathtaking.
The very city is extremely mysterious. No one really knows who had lived there and why exactly abandoned it. According to some hypotheses, it must have been a cultural capital of Incas tribe. It is estimated that around 1000 people could have lived here. Human remains found on the site indicate that the city had been inhabited mainly by women, which was probably connected with the Sun worship. Probably virgins were ritually sacrificed here (sic!).
According to recent estimations, there are around three thousand stairs in the city. We reached the top after around half an hour. But it paid off, the view was mesmerizing. We noticed a strangely shaped solar observatory. Incas people were great astronomers. Furthermore, there is also a “sun tower” in the city, a strange building resembling a horse shoe. Incas undoubtedly worshiped the sun.
According to one of the hypotheses, inhabitants of the city died out because women were left without men and could not procreate. There are voices who claim, however, that a fatal disease killed all the inhabitants. Other scientists suppose that people simply abandoned the city to find better living conditions.
This magnificent place definitely deserves to be depicted as one of the world’s wonders. Architectural technology in the city is simply breathtaking. Hiram Bingham who discovered it claimed that when he saw the city for the first time, he had an impression that people had moved out only several years before and new people would be able to move into the houses if the roofs were installed. Summing up, the city’s incredible beauty is combined with some unfathomable mystery. No one knows who owned the city, what was its function and why the citizens left it.
Peru is the country of contrasts. Puno, in contrary to Machu Picchu, is a horrible and depressing city.
We also went on a trip to Uros islands. The islands have been built from a sugar cane (totora tree) by Amara Indians. You can really sense the construction material under your feet. Everything is located on the largest South American lake – Titicaca, 2856 meters above the sea level. Not only soil has been made out of the sugar cane here, but also houses and boats. The whole island is moored to the land to prevent it from sailing far away. It is possible to dig down up to three meters. Indians were almost aggressive and all kept on urging us to buy some item. Even the entrance to the island costs 7 sols.
Amara people inhabiting the islands are of a bit different race that other Peruvians. Their culture is slightly different due to their isolation. Plagues and infectious diseases did not reach Amaras living highin the mountains. The life however is harsh here. The people are highly resistant to unfavorable weather conditions, constant wind and shivering cold. It is worth to see the life of these simple people who still manage without blessings of modern technology. A small radio is deemed to be a high-tech technology there.
On our way back … Plaza de Armas, Cusco.
We came back to Lima. This time we booked into the Garden Hotel in San Sidro district where we were able to appreciate the luxury of the nearby San Flores district. We went out for our last stroll. We took a cab to get to the city. We looked at the people rushing into the busses and dozens of Daewoo Tico taxi-cabs. I regret that I did not manage to find out why this particular car is so popular here.
We felt that we will miss the city as Peruvians did not care much about time and being punctual. There is no timetables. What for, actually? Are you waiting for a bus? It will come anyway. Where’s the rush? If you will spot one, you will just catch it. There is some unexplainable happiness amidst this chaos and poverty. Nevertheless, we had to come back to our world ruled by watches.