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Lifestyle :: Travel :: Small World :: Peru: Nice But No, Gracias

Peru: Nice But No, Gracias

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From the mighty Amazon River, to the biological diversity of the national parks, to the snowy peaks and the gaping valleys of the mountains, gorgeous Peru has it all for the nature oriented traveler.

Coast of Lima, Peru

There’s more. Peru is rich in history and culture. It was once home to the ancient Norte Chico civilization, though most people today seem to associate it with the Inca Empire, the largest state in pre-Columbian America. Walking around different states in Peru, you’ll hear different mother tongues spoken, though everyone is united now by the official language, Spanish, reflective of the Spanish Empire takeover in the 16th century.

In 2005, my wife and I planned a two week vacation to Peru, excited to explore the colonial cities that echo the legacy of Spanish conquistadors, wander the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco, hike the mysterious and world-famous Machu Picchu, and marvel at the secrets of the Nazca Lines.

Alpaca addicted to coca leaves

We got what we came for – and more. And that’s not in a good way. Peru’s fragile democracy is punctuated by much crime – both in terms of civil unrest, because of political and labor-related strikes occurring across the country, and violent crime against individuals, including hapless tourists.

I’ll share our experience, in the hopes that you can benefit and weigh it into your decision on whether or not to travel to Peru. Or if you decide to go, it might alter how you travel. After nearly getting robbed on the second day, then constantly fearing for our physical safety for the balance of the trip, plus overcharged by shady tour operators, and hearing all kinds of horror stories afterwards from other  - local! – travelers, we decided it’s far too dangerous for us to return any time soon. I feel sad saying that because Peru is a fantastically beautiful country with much to offer.

We booked a tour of five cities: Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu, Puno, and Arequipa (with a detour into Colca Canyon). We erroneously thought it would be fine to travel independently. Part of our problem was poor planning. The impetus for the trip was a hike through Machu Picchu, but we booked so late, all the tour companies and hotels were full. The best season for hiking is the dry season, June through August. We ended up going in early September and thinking we could wing it by ourselves with my wife’s conversational Spanish.

Diane and Claus

We were wrong. We totally look like American tourists, by virtue of Western mannerisms and dress, the fact that one of us is white, and that we speak English to each other. Diane is part Chinese, so when she was alone, she passed for a Peruvian. There is a large ethnic Chinese community in Lima. American means money. Soft targets for crime! Having the backing of a local liason like a tour operator, and the safety of traveling in numbers, would have helped a lot.

Our first city was Lima, and according to the US Department of State (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_998.html), “Passengers arriving at Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport should be cautious in making arrangements for ground transportation. Upon exiting the airport, travelers may be approached by persons seeming to know them, or who claim that a pre-arranged taxi has been sent to take them to their hotel. Some travelers have been charged exorbitant rates or taken to marginal hotels in unsafe parts of town. Travelers who are not being met by a known party or by a reputable travel agent or hotel shuttle are advised to arrange for a taxi inside the airport. At least two taxi companies maintain counters inside the international arrival area (between immigration clearance and baggage claim). An additional two companies have agents at the information kiosk just before the exit from the passenger arrival area.”

We were staying in the upscale Miraflores district and had arranged a taxi through the hotel. That went off well, though I was nervous to read about carjackings. The State Department sums it up neatly. “Thieves often smash car windows at traffic lights to grab jewelry, purses, backpacks, or other visible items from a car. This type of assault is very common on main roads leading to Lima's Jorge Chavez International Airport, specifically along De la Marina and Faucett Avenues and Via de Evitamiento, but it can occur anywhere in congested traffic, particularly in downtown Lima. Travelers are encouraged to put all belongings, including purses, in the trunk of a car or taxi.”

We planned four days in Lima. That’s three days too many. Lima is grey, dirty, and aesthetically unappealing. It reminds me of Mexico City. We opted to walk to nearby places, and if we got tired, we would walk into a nearby major hotel and ask them to call a taxi. It’s too dangerous to hail one on your own due to risk of assault and kidnapping.

One day we wandered into the Rimac area of Lima to see some museum. The atmosphere went from dirty to squalid. My wife, Diane, said that two blocks into the walk, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up and insisted we turn around. She said she felt like those caricatures of the walking pieces of meat in the Looney Tunes cartoons, with the hungry coyote not too far off. Shortly thereafter, at the intersection of Avenidas Trujillo and Maranon, a teenaged boy snatched her backpack and ran off.

Rimac parade just before robbery

I was behind her and instinctively ran after him and grabbed the bag back. The boy made a sharp turn and darted off into a dirty alley. We quickly headed out. Diane needed the rest of the day to hole up in the hotel room and feel some sense of security. The staff told us we were lucky to not have been slashed; that usually, the street urchins carry old knives or dirty razors to slash the straps off first. I’m lucky he didn’t stab me.

This seriously shook our sense of safety and dampened the rest of the trip. We have never been physically the targets of crime before; burglary, yes, but robbery, no. Diane’s radar was on ultra-high alert. She has always been cautious about crime, but this sent her into overdrive.

Diane’s passport, wallet, camera, and money were in that bag. After that, she started wearing it all on her body and even squirreling the money into different locations around her clothes so that if she was held up, she would not have to give all the cash away.

It’s weird how such a seemingly small incident can really affect one’s sense of well-being. As a news item, even in safe Honolulu, a near purse-snatching wouldn’t even make the news. But when it happens to you, it is a totally different story.

Cuzco

The day after the near-crime, we flew to Cusco, 11,300 feet high in the Andes Mountains. It’s South America's archaeological capital and oldest continuously inhabited city, and the hub of the Incan empire. There are many Quechua-speaking Incan descendants on the centuries-old stone-walled city streets. You fly into Cusco to adjust to the high altitude, and to rest up before catching the train to Machu Picchu.

Altitude sickness is common, but the one hotel in town with an oxygen chamber to help visitors acclimate to the altitude was booked. Five hours after landing, Diane got pretty bad altitude sickness, which gave her chills, a severe headache, and nausea.

Printed with wife's permission!

Our hotel staff gave her mate de coca, or coca-leaf tea. Drinking or chewing the leaves is an ancient tradition dating back to pre-Columbian civilizations in Peru, and helps most people (but not Diane) battle altitude sickness. We had to call a doctor, and by the time his altitude pills and oxygen tank had kicked in, she had thrown up twelve times. If left unchecked, this could have progressed to life-threatening brain edema, necessitating a hyperbaric chamber.

Mate de coco

I also got a little altitude sickness, and vomited twice. At one point we were taking turns for the bathroom. Because the doctor had to bring the oxygen tank for Diane, he suggested I take a swig, too. We were alternating breathing off the tank until 2 a.m. This is the first time we wanted to call off a trip, eat the losses, and go home.

After a few hours of rest, we actually got up at 5 a.m. to catch a train to Machu Picchu. Our altitude sickness had abated, and we felt better, albeit tired. Crazy, sure, but I guess we both have an intense drive, an inability to give up, and were by this time, really curious about Machu Picchu.

Llamas live at Machu Picchu

"The Lost City of the Incas" is probably the most familiar symbol of the Inca Empire. It was built around 1450, abandoned a hundred years later, and then rediscovered in 1911 by Hawaii’s own Hiram Bingham. Machu Picchu has become an important tourist attraction and is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

After a three and a half hour train ride, we checked into a hotel in Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to the base of the mountain. We caught a shuttle up to the ruins the next day. It was worth the trip! We marveled at the architecture, which is classical Incan ashlar - blocks of stone are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. Many junctions are so perfect that not even a knife fits between the stones.

Wayna Picchu

We spent most of the day hiking the mountain in the background, Wayna Picchu or Huayna Picchu. As you leave, you’re asked to register, so people can go looking for you if you get lost. They stop letting people back there at 2 p.m. because it’s a long hike.

We ascended thousands of stairs to get to the summit, which appears to be an Incan military lookout. The view is tremendous, and the small building was crammed with all kinds of tourists enjoying water or lunch. Poor wife. After two days of little sleep, and being on altitude medication, she felt like she was hiking while on sleeping pills.

By the way, there are some nasty sand gnats in Machu Picchu. Sometimes even DEET didn’t work. The bites sting, and then swell up to warts that might blister, and itch for weeks. It’s a common complaint; search the web and you’ll see travelers’ forums about it.

Train entertainment

Next stop, Puno. We enjoyed a long but enjoyable ten hour train ride to this southeastern city. It is located at the edge of Lake Titicaca, the world's highest commercially navigable lake, 12,421 feet above sea level. The lake is nearly the only reason to go to what is otherwise a dumpsite of a town.

We booked a room at, ironically, the best hotel in town, but felt we got the worst service of the entire trip. I’m not even going to mention their name so as not to promote them. We do not consistently stay at five star hotels; we mix it up. It’s ironic that we thought we were going to have a real treat here, but got more stress instead. It started when the hotel forgot to send a taxi to get us at the train station on a dark and rainy night.

This freaked Diane out. We did not have a working cell phone (we tried but we often have bad luck with international cell service) and ended up using a taxi vendor who was just trolling for business at the train station. I’m sure he smelled money off fat cat Americans headed to the most expensive hotel in town.

It was scary when the taxi driver and another man jumped into the front seat of the car and started driving off down a long, dark, winding road. We thought we were about to get kidnapped.

Luckily we didn’t, though the taxi driver stuck himself on to us like glue. He offered to help us book a custom package to see Lake Titicaca and some other attractions, plus a taxi to the airport when we leave. It was $125 for a three day package for two, which we thought was great by US standards, until we went to the shop and saw that it was triple what the locals’ rate is.

I allow for some level of being taken for a sucker when I travel overseas. You pay the tourist rates; fine. But on the day we left, this jerk tried to get more money out of us for the taxi ride. He would give us some lame excuse, and then stop when we started getting upset. This happened five times. At some point he actually said he felt it was justified because we are “rich Americans.” We honestly wondered if we were going to get to the airport, which was 45 minutes away.

This is the worst example of overcharging but definitely not the only one. At every turn, we had to be on guard to count change, negotiate rates, and double check terms and conditions.

Uros Islands

That aside, we did enjoy the attractions we came for. Lake Titicaca has some 41 man-made reed islands on it that the Uros people have lived on for thousands of years. 

Taquile Island

We also walked around the wonderful Taquile Island, saw the Sillustani funeral towers for royalty, and paused at Inca Uyo’s fertility stones.

Feeding alpaca at Sillustani

Sillustani

On our way back from Inca Uyo, our tour car (with just us and one tour guide) was pulled over by the police on a random drug search for cocaine coming from the nearby Bolivian border. I expected we'd have to pay some bribe money to the cops just so we could leave.

Searched for cocaine

I was happy when we left for Arequipa, nicknamed the ‘White City' for its dazzling colonial sillar (off-white volcanic rock) stonework. We liked this city the best, though security is also an issue there. It has a college town feel, but we didn’t get to see much of it because we booked a side trip to Colca Canyon. That’s like staying in Waikiki but booking a tour to Hana.

Colca Canyon

We survived a four hour bus ride into the canyon. The area is so pretty, and we saw several pre-Incan cemeteries and condors. Our hotel there was five-star fantastic.

Tour bus stop at Colca Canyon

After Arequipa, we flew back to Lima to wind down the trip. We took a tour flight over the Nasca lines, and tried to enjoy an awesome meal flavored with the most saffron I have ever tasted in a dish. Unfortunately, we spent our entire last day in the bathroom again, because the seafood probably gave us food poisoning.

Once again, we were cued up for the bathroom, but this time, I was the sicker one of us. I was sick all day, to the point where I passed out in the bathroom, fell on the tile floor, chipped my tooth, and gashed my forehead. When I awoke some time later, I was in a small pool of blood with probably a mild concussion.

Llama meat (eaten in Cuzco)

I staggered to the bed and awoke Diane to get me ice. She was recuperating from her own bout of sickness but spent the day nursing me. Diane was so worn out from this vacation that she said during her lunch break she ended up breaking down at the restaurant dining table and weeping – not just tears, but actual bent over body sobs- into her food, to the surprise of the other diners. It was the third time she had cried on this trip, and she was tired of feeling insecure, physically sick, and ripped off.

Guinea pig, a national favorite

We were by now, dying to leave, but there was a country-wide transportation strike that affected the taxis and the airplanes. We held our breath and were so incredibly happy that it ended in time for our trip home.

Both of us were relieved and overjoyed to get on a plane headed for the US, and were even more grateful when the plane actually touched down in Texas. This was absolutely the worst trip either of us has ever taken, either for business or pleasure, in our entire lives. I honestly believe there was a guardian angel watching out for us. Let’s see, we were almost robbed, altitude sick, food poisoned, suckered, searched, bitten, and almost grounded from a strike.


This isn’t to say the trip was all bad. There were some very nice cultural sites and wonderful Peruvians as well. While Lima is an unattractive version of LA, and Puno is an ugly version of Tijuana, we liked the charm of Arequipa, Cusco, and Colca Canyon, and the impressive engineering of Machu Picchu.

The countryside, where unspoiled by haphazard development, crushing poverty, and a general disregard for the environment, was marvelous. The lessons about ancient civilization and pre-Incan tribes were fascinating. We didn’t cut the trip short because we hoped there would be some redeeming quality around the corner, and there usually always was. I don’t regret going to Peru. I’ll just probably never go there again.

Still, we’re glad to have escaped with our person and property relatively unscathed. We realize in the grand scheme of things these are minor complaints, but we also think it’s not the best recipe for a great vacation. I had dismissed the Lonely Planet travel warnings (the exact web page is gone, but it had long threads of people with similar complaints as us) as extreme cases before we went. Now I urge you to listen to those warnings as very real possibilities.

 

CELEBRITY SUITCASE: What they won't travel without

Christopher Gardner

Chris Gardner, self-made millionaire and motivational speaker

Christopher Gardner's memoir was published in 2006 and turned into a movie, Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith. I met the very gracious and charismatic - and from what I observed, flirtatious - Gardner on a plane headed for Los Angeles. Gardner says he always has to have an Ipod, a window seat, and a "gorgeous flight attendant." He spoke those last words just as a pretty young blonde flight attendant came walking down the aisle. 


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Comments

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mokihana808 — Thursday, October 2, 2008
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It's all about preparation/prevention. I'm disappointed at this article that mostly spoke negatively of Peru. If they had prepared by reading up or asking around on traveling to Peru, they could've had a great trip as I did. It would've informed them to book way in advance to secure legitimate tour guides, how to prevent/prepare for robberies, obtaining Diamox for altitude sickness, avoiding seafood and fresh vegetables to prevent food poisoning, etc. I wish I could've written an article on my travels to Peru last year, which was awesome!!!


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Massey84 — Thursday, October 2, 2008
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I think that if you are going to Peru you need to plan and do your research. You need to educate your self about the culture and the surroundings. You need a guide to see all the right places. If your going to a country and you dont speak the language then why would you not have a guide to begin with?? Peru is one of the most amazing countries in the world. Nobody even whats to hear or read this stupid article. Reading this article just makes me mad that somebody can be this ignorant in their travel plans and then make the people of Peru look this bad.This article does not justify the beatiful country of Peru and it should be taken off the internet. ASAP.


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Colin — Wednesday, October 15, 2008
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Great job Claus! You wrote a very interesting, amusing, and informative article about your trip to Peru. You told it from your own perspective and didn't hold back on your opinion. Not everyone are professional travellers who plan ahead and have a perfect trip. You're not the Director of Tourism for Peru or getting paid to write this article so you don't have to tell only the good things about your trip. I wish you could write a travel review on all of the places that I plan to visit. By the way that pig plate looked like something out of the t.v. show "Fear Factor". Keep up the great work! Colin.


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Chunk — Tuesday, October 21, 2008
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I agree with Mokihana808 & Massey 84: So many of your mishaps sound like the result of poor research, a lack of simple travelers' common sense (keeping your passport in a backpack?!!), and a refusal to learn about the people and their culture. I spent 3 weeks this past summer in Peru as a single female traveler and had a wonderful time. The local people I interacted with were warm and hospitable. I met up with other solo travelers with whom I exchanged travel tips or for safety purposes we traveled to common destinations. A lot of the whiney complaints you make sound like you were expecting the same living standards as the United States. If that is your expectation on a vacation, you should probably limit yourself to domestic travel - perhaps Disneyworld. Peru is a fascinating country, and your article reflects a very sheltered and paranoid view.


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chansen — Monday, October 27, 2008
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This is Claus. Thanks, all, for making mine one of the more-read articles this month! I guess controversy will always do that. And thanks, Colin, and to the people who wrote directly to me but didn't post public comments, for the nice feedback. That is very kind of you- and I appreciate that you took my review in the spirit in which I hoped people would. It's unfortunate that Peru fans are upset by my negative point of view, but I stand by my words. I allow for the possibility that I had a spate of bad luck, but we did do our research. And this still happened. This falls under the range of experiences that people can (unfortunately) have. I hope someone will read my article and take it as a cautionary tale, and then be encouraged to do MORE research before heading to Peru. After all, we can't all be as lucky and as thorough as the folks who feel they had a fantastic time, and then felt compelled to post raving rants back at me. Cheers, and see you next month!


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Chunk — Monday, December 8, 2008
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This is Chunk again. Your description of dissenting opinions as "raging rants" is, sadly, a bit extreme, as was the description of your disastrous trip. I have read a couple of your other travel stories as well and am baffled that you view yourself as "an adventure traveler". I had friends from other states read your Peru story (and who did not post comments) to get their impressions. They, too, said your view smacks of xenophobia. So Claus, like you, I stand by my words, and stand by my opinion that you and your wife are better suited to doing your next "extreme" vacation at Disney's Adventureland.


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quiksilver — Wednesday, March 4, 2009
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Hi Claus, I have read your article and first of all let me express my deepest sympathy in having the worst vacation in Peru. Virtually, all the things that one fears when going abroad - not just to Peru - seemed to have happened to you. However, like others have said, this could all have been avoided with a little more research which you even recommended others to do. Fair enough. With a little research you'd have known that is EXTREMELY recommended that you being your trip by visiting Arequipa FIRST and then Cuzco/Puno. Arequipa sits at the midway point between Lima (sea level, per se) and Cuzco. Stopping in Arequipa allows you to get acclimatized to the high altitude of Cuzco and Puno; otherwise you'll get sick as you did. Another point, RIMAC is a no-no when going to Lima. It is located on the backside of the the Historic Centre and it is a very poor part of Lima. It is well documented as a dangerous neighbourhood. Furthermore, when booking hotels/hostels (if you spend more than $40 or $50 a night consider yourself ripped off) MOST if not ALL of them offer free transportation from the airport, bus terminal, to the hotel. So getting ripped off on the way there would be expected. As a third-world country, you should also know off the bat, that sanitation wouldn't be a top priority. When eating any type of seafood, you really gotta pick your spots. Don't walk into any "crab-shack" and expect a 5-fork dish. Unless I know the restaurant I am going to, I avoid sea food like the plague. Who really knows how the meal is prepared in these "lesser" known restaurants. To sum up, a lot of the things you have described here could have been easily, easily avoided if a little more research had been done. It is all spelled out in the Lonely Planet book, not sure how anyone could miss those warnings. I was in Lima last year in February (summer) for 2 weeks and found the architecture in the Historic Centre to be nothing like anything I've seen throughout North America (except New Mexico, perhaps) an "unattractive version of LA"? I think that statement speaks volumes. Personally, I have seen better LEGO buildings elsewhere than LA. Ironically, now that you know what to expect in Peru, I am very positive that you'll have a much better time on your next trip. But already decided against it.


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sundaykat — Thursday, March 26, 2009
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I've been living in Peru for a year, and this is pretty much true, I know it makes Peruvians look bad but it's the truth....yeah. I agree with Claus Hansen.



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