My husband and I started planning our trip to Peru as soon as we learned that our daughter, Rachel, was assigned to Lima for work as a Trade Attache for the US government in 2015. We headed off on our 16 hour flight to Peru on December 8th and returned home to Seattle on January 19, 2016.
We wanted to be with Rachel and our son-in-law Derek in Lima over the Christmas and New Years Holiday. Lima became the spoke in our wheel as we traveled from to the North Coast, Central Lima, Huacachina and Lunahuana in the southwest, then south east to Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Machu Pichu, Puno and our final destination, The Central Amazon Basin before heading back home to Seattle.
Lima was established as the capital of Peru by the Spanish explorer, Francisco Pizarro, after his ship anchored off the central western coast on a beautiful sunny day in summer. The reality is that Lima is shrouded in fog 9 months out of the year.
I was expecting a lush green landscape covered with flowers and home to exotic birds, but because Lima never receives any measurable rainfall the land is arid, dusty, dry, and brown with few flowers or trees and most of the birds we saw were doves.
Lima is not a pretty city. Most of the Spanish Colonial architecture has vanished, victim to earthquakes and neglect, except for a few government buildings and some other exquisitely renovated buildings now home to casinos. All of the new buildings are constructed of reinforced concrete block or tile-like, honeycombed brick in drab shades of white, gray or brown which blend in with the fog and appear unfinished because of exposed rebar extending to the sky.
The majority of private residences can’t be viewed because they lay hidden behind concrete walls with the added security of electrified fencing and shards of glass at the top. But ironically, most residences display carved and sometimes ornate garage doors made of beautiful hardwoods burnished smooth and then laminated with a shiny, protective laminate.
Since the late 90’s, the population of Lima has grown from 1 million to 13 million people so that today it is overpopulated, overcrowded, noisy and dusty with poor air quality. Because of its rapid growth and poor economy, there is no effective infrastructure to handle construction, sanitation, or road conditions. With few traffic lights, no traffic rules and unbelievable congestion, driving and traffic keeps you in a constant primal state of fight or flee, whether you are the driver, passenger, or pedestrian.
Rachel lives in a lovely apartment in Miraflores overlooking Lima’s western coastline which beckons with its view of the surf and magnificent Pacific Ocean dotted daily by scores of surfers and small fishing boats until you learn that raw sewage is pumped into the ocean daily.
Peru’s native cuisine is much touted but we were not impressed. Fish and chicken were plentiful in restaurants but we found most preparations unimaginative and bland in flavor with an underlying sweetness. Ceviche, the famous and traditional Peruvian dish (white fish marinated in citrus juices with garlic, onions and celantro), is delicious but because of its acidity we couldn’t eat it every day. Peruvian coffee is mild.
One of our most interesting and fun outings in Lima was the large open air market in Lima: meats and poultry hang from hooks, piglets with apples in their mouths stare at you with dead eyes; local fish is steeped on beds of ice, and local fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices abound. Unlike Las Vegas where you find slot machines everywhere, in Peru, where 90% of the population is Catholic, statues of the Holy Family, Christ, The Blessed Virgin and various saints can be seen everywhere: in the neighborhood squares, in all of the small Pueblo towns, and in bodegas and markets.
Because of our planned extended stay, travel to many different parts of Peru and advice from our daughter we decided to use CVS tours to arrange our transportation, accommodations, tours, and guides. As a get away from Lima, we decided that our first destination would be the North Coast for its sun, surf, calm and quiet. We opted not to drive the 793 mile, 18 hour trip by car through the dry wasteland, poor pueblo towns, and one room hovels out on the desert plains. We took a one and a half hour flight from Lima to the airport at Tumbes (described to us as a rough and tumble town) just miles from the Ecuadorian border. Then, even though just 60 miles southeast of Tumbes, a 2 hour drive to our resort at Vichayito vying for our place among all of the other cars, taxis, buses, and mototaxis (small 3 wheeled cabs) traveling along the PanAmerican highway where the garbage was piled high in the ravines and dried up gullies and littered the roadside.
Our resort at Vichayito, about 10 miles from the town of Mancora, was lovely. We stayed in carpas or tents just hundreds of feet from the ocean which on most nights sounded like a huge train approaching. We had all of the modern conveniences: queen bed, electricity, refrigerator, full bathroom with shower, TV, free WiFi, and a small, covered entry way. On the high hill above the carpas was a covered, open air restaurant which served free breakfast, a pool, and recreation area with ping-pong and table pool.
The beach was lovely with lounge chairs and tables under awnings or umbrellas protecting us from the Equatorial rays of the sun. The water was a beautiful azure blue and warm but dangerous with a rough surf, strong current and powerful undertow.
The staff was extraordinarily welcoming and solicitous with Juan Louis, manager, and Cesar at the front desk watching over us and being patient with my attempts at Spanish. This resort also served us one of the best meals we had on our travels: pescado de mer, local fish with pasta in a light, nutty flavored cream sauce.
After our visit to the North Coast, we returned to Lima to join up with Rachel and Derek for the Christmas and New Year holiday. Rachel wanted to visit Huacachina near Ica to the south of Lima for our New Year’s destination. Huacachina is famous for being an oasis in the heart of the desert: the oasis consists of a small, turbid pond, bordered by a walkway and 2 story resorts. The rooms at the Sand and Lake Resort where we stayed were small and expensive and when we arrived they had lost our reservations.
Upon our return to Lima and a few days rest, Jay and I flew to the ancient Incan Capital city of Cusco at an altitude of almost 12,000 feet.
We enjoyed Cusco more than Lima: fewer people, manageable traffic, and it had the feel of an old European city with magnificent old Catholic Basilicas, in each of the main squares where my husband was pursued every day by men offering to shine his shoes at the cost ranging from 1 to 20 soles. For one sole, he finally gave in.
Vendors are everywhere in Cusco offering a variety of tours, special meals at restaurants in the square, trinkets, and your
picture taken with small Peruvian children in traditional dress holding a baby lamb. In Cusco we stayed at The Costa del Sol just blocks away from The Plaza de Armas. Again, lovely modern accommodations with TV, free WiFi, inclusive breakfast, dinner at full cost, full bar and gracious staff.
We had heard horror stories of travelers suffering altitude sickness in Cusco but with our stash of antibiotics, antidiarrheals, anti-typhoid and altitude sickness pills, we never got sick. But we did tire easily and after only a couple of hours walking our shoes felt as if they were weighted with lead.
My husband and I love art and history. There are two museums in Lima: Museo Larco and the Anthropological Museum. In Cusco the art is found in the two magnificent Catholic Basilicas in the main square dating from the 1500’s with interiors ornately adorned with statues of the Holy Family as well as various saints, and on the walls and ceilings paintings from the Baroque Period. There is also the original foundation of an Incan temple under another church.
On our travels it was our guides who provided the stories and history of Peru, all without exception: charming, gracious, and knowledgeable especially at Machu Pichu and the jungle. One of the most interesting evenings for us was spent high in the hills above Cusco at a 4 member family-run and built planetarium and observatory where we were presented a history of the Inca and some of their gods and myths which originated from their spiritual closeness to the land, sky, stars, planets and constellations.
Before leaving Cusco one of our guides told us the story of Cusco’s ‘wandering dogs’. “Many families own 2 and 3 dogs for security but because they are poor they can’t afford to feed them or have them spayed or neutered so the dogs are let loose during the day where they forage for food in the piles of street garbage and then return home at night. When the city fathers determine that the street dog population is out of control, orders go out to poison the garbage and the dead dogs are scooped up with the garbage and dumped out of town.”
From Cusco we then took a tour bus through the Sacred Valley to the resort in Ollyantatambo at the Pakaritampu Hotel before heading northwest to the Machu Pichu Pueblo at an altitude of only about 7,000 feet. Our experience of the Sacred Valley was limited to the bus ride that traversed the beautiful, verdant, serpentine, valley bordered by high mountains covered in carpets of green by indigenous plants and grasses. It reminded me of the valley of Shangri-la from the movie Lost Horizon by James Hilton.
For many of us the images of Machu Pichu are very familiar. Remnants of arrays of stone structures; residences and temples built for the emperor, his family and nobles, specifically chosen for its inaccessibility high on a terraced plateau overlooking the Sacred Valley below. The residences and temples are all made of stone exquisitely carved by hand then smoothed and sculpted to fit perfectly without any kind of mortar.
From Machu Pichu we headed back to Cusco and then a ten hour train ride to Puno and Lake Titicaca, the highest, body of freshwater lake in the world. For me the train ride was about six hours too long. The ‘luxury’ train is expensive and the food mediocre. Though at first the seats seem comfortable they are upright and don’t recline. After a few hours, even though you can get up and move around, I experienced ‘nervous leg syndrome’ and even with a Kindle for reading and games that are available, I soon got bored. Yes, the terrain is pretty: snow covered mountains in the distance (some rising to 24,000 feet) loamy, fertile farmland, cattle, horses, burros, llamas and alpaca, but redundant after a few hours.
From Puno we flew back to Lima to be with our daughter and her friends before the three of us set out for the final leg of our journey through the jungle by bus and by boat to Puerto Maldonado in the Central Amazon Basin.
Even though we knew we were headed to a jungle, the contrast from the arid, brown, desert regions of Western Peru to the jungle was startling; a world of dense green all around with the many varieties of vegetation and Brazil nut tree hundreds of feet high.
Again my romantic bent and high expectations were dashed by the reality of not seeing many varieties of wildly colorful exotic flowers or wildlife. We did see a family of Howler Monkeys ashore on our fiver boat ride and from high atop a look-out tower, with our binoculars we could see macaws and parrots in flight over the jungle canopy. We didn’t see any tarantulas and only the shredded skin of what looked to be a very large snake. We did see a picture of a jaguar thanks to an iPhone shot by a research scientist whom we met on our boat on the way back to Puerto Maldonado.
I was concerned because I don’t tolerate high temperatures and humidity very well but the resort at Refugio Amazonas was very comfortable consisting of a main, side open, airy building with the restaurant at the center and spokes of wooden walkways to the rooms also wide open on the sides with netting covering a queen bed for protection against the jungle’s infamous mosquitoes of which we saw little, a full bathroom with shower, and a ceiling which we ran for a few hours during the hottest part of each day when the electricity was on. We also enjoyed the open veranda adjoining our room where we sat late at night listening to the sounds of the jungle.
On the 18th of January we celebrated a special meal with Rachel, said our sad farewells and took our red-eye flight home to Seattle.
I’ve been traveling to other countries since my mid-twenties but my issue, at the age of 72, is that I still think I’m in my mid-twenties. I also tend to have high and romanticized expectations when I travel. In Peru I was expecting beauty, magic, mysticism, and mystery instead I found overpopulation, noise, dust, poverty and a government that can’t take care of its people or the land. I wasn’t prepared for the constant noise, pollution, garbage lined roads, crowds of people, and terror-causing traffic in Lima and Cusco. I also wasn’t prepared for the sometimes overwhelming fatigue from trying to do and see so much. My husband and I had to rest up for a week after we returned home.
Only in Machu Pichu, Cusco, and sacred sites did we find remnants of what was once an advanced civilization extending from the coastal and mountain regions of Ecuador, to Peru, Bolivia, the northern regions of Chile and Argentina, and the southern border of Colombia. The only Tucca Empire at the time of Columbus was the first socialist government. An empire of master builders whose craftsmanship and artistry can still be seen at Machu Pichu at the Cordillera of the Peruvian Andes Northeast of the Incan capital of Cusco in the ruins of the stone buildings built as summer residences for the emperor, his family and nobles, as well as their burial sites. The Incas were not just a civilization of craftsmen but also farmers, who cultivated, grew, harvested and stored their crops in the rich valleys and terraced hillsides miles high on the mountainsides. The legend is that when the Spanish arrived they were told by the emperor and his administrators, “our people never go hungry”.
The ancient Incan empire lasted only a short period of time from the 1400’s to 1570. With the Spanish Conquest and a population already weakened by foreign diseases, the Incan culture was wiped out and the Incan leaders, their religion and civilization destroyed with Machu Pichu, Cusco, and remnants of other sacred sites acting as mirrors to the past.
While we were in Peru the country was gearing up for its upcoming Presidential Elections and during our travels we saw postings and road signs for the top contenders all promising improvement in living conditions for the poor. I was skeptical because recent history has shown that no matter who is elected the everyday lives of Peruvians never seem to change in large part because of lack of education, ongoing poverty and political corruption.
*Be cautious when planning excursions: safety regulations and guidelines are not as strict as they are in the states. I almost drowned at the north coast on our ‘snorkeling with turtles’ outing.
*Peru does not have adequate plumbing. Toilet paper often is not
provided and you can’t flush it.
About the Author:
Maureen Kearney is a published writer and working artist.
Originally from New York, she and her family: a husband, 2 children and various pets, have lived in Seattle for 35 years and now that she is a retired nurse, teacher and empty nest mother she spends her creative time writing and drawing.
Maureen wrote for a local newspaper for 15 years and her watercolor art has been displayed and sold at local venues here in Seattle, most recently at a juried competition in Mountlake Terrace.
She has traveled to most of the 50 states as well most of Western Europe.