I know it’s Michaelmas, but nothing helps the essay crisis blues like a bit of optimistically early travel planning. South America is a popular destination, but it can’t all be as good as the travel brochures claim. So in order to aid your unproductive, mid-essay daydreams here are the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of Peru as I experienced it last summer.
The first, and most obvious advantage, is the price. Peru is so cheap it should be illegal. A three-course meal will set you back 10 soles, a night in a hostel costs around 20 soles, and a 800ml bottle of beer 6 soles. Considering the exchange rate is 3.8 soles per pound, you can see how I resented paying English prices for a good few months after I returned. Costs no doubt vary around Peru, but the rule of thumb is that prices are inversely proportional to tourist density. Nights out are also cheap – club reps shepherd you into their venue, waving free drink tokens and free entry wristbands in your face. The more you resist the more free drinks you get.
For those who feel there is more to life than cheap alcohol, Peru has more historical sites than you could shake a llama at.
With a rich Incan history providing epic ruins, and a Spanish invasion yielding intense Gothic architecture, the land is stunning. Machu Picchu is breathtaking, but there is much more the country has to offer, and a good tourist book will tell you where to find destinations less saturated with sightseers. The Incan fortress Sacsayhuaman (pronounced sexy woman – endless fuel for puns) is one of particular interest, as it recently had a starring role in the Discovery channel programme ‘Ancient Aliens’ – many historians believe that the sheer size and granite composition of the rocks would have made its construction impossible using tools from the ancient tool chest. Naturally, this leads to the sound conclusion that aliens did it. Nice one, Discovery channel.
All this sightseeing is enough to build up quite an appetite. If you are a fan of fish, you have been daydreaming about the right travel destination. Ceviche, a Peruvian dish of raw seafood/fish cooked in lime juice served with slices of Peruvian potatoes and red onion, will fellate your mind. Although a word of caution: stick to vendors near the coast or Lake Titicaca for obvious reasons. Lomo Soltado is a winner and consists of strips of sirloin steak marinated in vinegar and soy sauce fried with potato strips and served on rice. A rather unique meat served in Peru is Alpaca (yes, the fuzzy cute things that look like teddy bears), and tastes like rich beef – although this is expensive. The national dish of Peru is deep-fried Guinea Pig. It is served as what can only be described as a carcass on a plate, and tastes like greasy chicken. I didn’t quite see the appeal myself but when in Rome, eat their disgusting food.
So far so good, but what about the negatives of Peru? Let’s start with travel.
The flight is around thirteen hours, which is bordering on inhumane. I made the executive decision to get wrecked, and took full advantage of the free mini bottles of spirits – this passes the time rather well. I also recommend Air France – cabin crew with French accents, enough said. However do not think the ordeal ends when you arrive in Peru. To get from the capital Lima to Cusco (the main tourist city) an overnight coach is required. I guess travel is to be expected when you go travelling.
But altitude continues to be a problem off the plane. Contrary to popular belief, Machu Picchu is not too high, at around 2500m. Where you will feel it is in Cusco which stands at around 3400m, and many of the treks around Cusco, if you choose to do them, hit 5000m. It is rather depressing when you play some locals at a game of football, and end up in a heap on the floor coughing up a lung two minutes later. Hauling bags to a 4th floor hostel room will also leave you hallucinating with lack of oxygen. I exaggerate slightly, but it still unpleasant. If you go trekking, be prepared for the fact that it will be hard – your pace will be slow and you will need a lot of water.
You’ll be most likely to visit in high season – our summer months. Beyond this season, it tends to rain a lot and less is going on. The daytime temperatures are bliss, and get better the further south you go – particularly in the quaint city of Arequipa where it hits 40 degrees. But it gets very, very cold at night. So much so that in some areas water left outside freezes solid overnight. But don’t pack too many jumpers, you can buy quintessential ‘yes, I have been travelling’ jumpers made of Alpaca wool filthily cheap.
Of course, you are not the only person daydreaming about a Peruvian escapade. Some cities, for example Lima and Cusco, are so full of tourists it begins to detract from the experience. Also the spiritual and sacred city of Machu Picchu has been monetised to the point of ridicule – either get there at the crack of dawn, or be doomed to wait behind Americans.
Finally, spare a thought for what you eat. I did not get food poisioning from from Ceviche, the raw fish dish, which I consumed about 20 plates of during my time in Peru. Annoyingly, both of my severe bouts arose through burgers. And when I say severe, I mean heinously severe. For those of you familiar with the Bristol Stool chart I’m talking Type 7 (watery, no solid pieces – entirely liquid) for a week. Coping on an overnight coach, and on the flight home, was character-building. Moral of the story: stay away from dodgy burger joints and eat where the locals do!