The sign on the border stretches across a gateway into the city, “Welcome to Peru.” We arrived at night and were immediately accosted by people trying to sell us money, US dollars to be precise but we had already been warned about counterfiet money from street traders so we waited until the following day and bought dollars from a hotel. We had landed in the capital, Lima and had planned to stop a few days before travelling to Cusco and on to Machu Picchu.
Lima is situated in a valley so as you explore the city, which is very beautiful with wide boulevards everywhere which initially feel very European, you can look up the slopes of the mountainsides to see shanty towns stretching up and around, on every side. The divisions between rich and poor are shocking to say the least and quite literally all around you. Poverty in the shanty towns is unbelievable and there are many hundreds of street children in Lima. They have been abandoned by their families who cannot afford to feed them and lots of them live in the sewers of Lima and come up to street level in the day to beg for money. Street children are referred to locally as pirhana and they are considered the lowest of the low. They are often exploited, abused and killed by all sorts of people including, (it is well documented,) the police. This is the downside of travel, when you get to the nitty gritty and understand how harsh and cruel life can be for many people and children who share this world. I just wanted to take all of them home with me and maybe when I retire I can do something constructive to help a few.
The infra structure of Peru and indeed lots of south America is still very underdeveloped so the sewage systems can`t cope with toilet paper. The first thing you notice is that all of the toilets, even in the hotels have bins for you to dispose of your toilet tissue and it is considered highly irresponsible to flush it down the loo. Whilst this may be manageable in the larger hotels, in street toilets it definitely isn`t and without going into detail, it can be pretty off putting.
It isn`t all doom and gloom though. Lima`s architecture is influenced by a lot of European styles and also African, Andean and Asian culture so the buildings are large and colourful and very varied. Peru was invaded by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500`s. This piece of ancient history facilitated the Monty Python team in creating that now famous sketch about the Spanish inquisition. Prior to the invasion, Peru had been Inca and it is possible to visit Catholic churches which have been built on top of Inca temples and view the amazing art work. In one church I saw a centuries old painting of The Last Supper where Jesus, surrounded by his disciples is just about to tuck into a plate of roast guinea pig.
Peru`s food is delicious, we ate lots of fresh fish stews and fresh vegetables but beware of drinking bottled water from street sellers as it is often tap water just being put in to used bottles and you will get a stomach bug for sure.
It is in Peru you first notice the head gear worn by many women. Little bowler hats which announce that they are married, they are a status symbol. You can pay a dollar and have your picture taken with women in national costume, they are everywhere, clutching the reins on llamas waiting to be photographed, their brown and crinkly faces smiling at their visitors. The women sell brightly coloured blankets, knitted hats and scarves. You know the hats, all the kids here wear them in winter, they have long knitted plaits hanging from just beneath the ear
We only spent three days in Lima, the pollution was so overwhelming it was making us feel sick so we decided to move on to Cusco to start our journey to the legendary Maccu Picchu. Cusco was to be a challenge as it is very high up and we knew we would most likely suffer from altitude sickness. Nothing really prepares you for the physical effects of being so elevated though, more of that in my next blog.
My most enduring memory of visiting Lima, I had gone out walking with my camera on my own. I wanted to photograph some of the shanty towns sprawling up the mountainside. I was crossing over a large bridge which spanned a dry river bed on my way up a hillside and suddenly a man in a suit literally ran up to me, dragging me back across the bridge in the direction I`d come from, shouting at me in Spanish. My Spanish isn`t all that good but I did manage to get the gist of it, he was shouting,
“Go back to your hotel, are you mad? You will get robbed or killed if you stray over here, – go back!!”
Sorry Lima, but you aren`t a city I would hurry to return to…..