Slums, psychotropics, jungles, Inca Disneyland, homicidal revolutionaries and altitude sickness, Peru has all the traveler ever dreamed of…
Peru is a mind-blowing country. The natural beauty of the mountains, deserts, and jungle sit in contrast to narco-terrorist jungle towns, wide open mines and dumps, ridiculously over-touristed ruins and cities, and the slums of Lima. Mix into this the diverse amount of psychotropic substances found all over the country, and you’re in for a ride…
Since the “Shining Path” terrorism of the 1980’s, Peru has been rapidly developing. The population of the main cities like Lima and Cuzco have been exploding with an immigration influx as the peasants ran for their lives.
Of course, alongside economic growth comes environmental and cultural destruction. The countryside is littered with plastic bottles and bags fly along the sand dunes of the desert like tumbleweeds. The jungle is being mercilessly cleared and burned for grazing land and many young Peruvians from the countryside are forgetting their native cultures and languages and moving to the cities to eke out a living.
However, Peru is still a country where you can find an empty beach or stumble into a village where no one even speaks Spanish. In the mountains, there are numerous long trekking routes where a hiker will see nothing more of civilization than a random goat herder or farm house for days or even weeks at a time. The Peruvian Amazon is still one of the largest and wildest forests in the world, and far out in the east, near the borders with Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia, there’s a “Heart of Darkness” sort of remoteness where tribes have only recently given up cannibalism, if at all.
Capitalism and international business have brought the disease of global consumerism to the cities. Affluent Peruvians visit expensive nightclubs, attend universities in the United States or Europe and have a quality of life that would be enviable for the average person in a rich country. On the other hand, the vast majority of the population are migrants from the countryside, struggling to make a living any way they can and living in squalor. Even basic medicine and clean water are beyond the reach of many.
The great economic separation between the wealthy and poor, along with widespread (and widely recognized) government corruption has brought serious political instability to the country. Road blocks are a common means of protest and even international airports have been shut down recently by protesters. Fortunately, the protests are rarely violent, as the Peruvian police are too lazy to try to enforce law and order. Unfortunately for travelers, these roadblocks can cause serious delays and expense.
Peru is the major backpacker gateway into South America. It’s a cheap, relatively safe country with a well developed tourist path. Cuzco and Macchu Pichu are at the center of the tourist trail and the touts and drunken foreigners can drive you insane after a few days. Cuzco does have a good nightlife scene but make sure no one drugs your drink in the bars and drunk tourists make easy prey for muggers.
The typical tourist route then heads east to Lake Titicaca and the Bolivian border. Though the lake is beautiful, the area is one of the poorest and dirtiest in Peru, if not the whole continent.
From Lake Titicaca, travelers who aren’t going on to Bolivia usually head back west to Arequipa, a beautiful colonial city high in the up in the mountains. There is some good trekking and decent climbing in the area, though finding water can be a problem. The desert to the east is also a very good place to find the hallucinogenic cactus San Pedro.
Northern Peru is much less visited by foreigners. Huaraz, located about 8 hours by bus north of Lima, is the main mountaineering destination in Peru. Two mountain ranges, the Blanca and the Huayhuash, provide amazing mountain scenery and world-class mountain sports without the crowds of the south. Still, in the June to August high season there are plenty of tourists and donkeys on the main trekking routes and you’ll be lucky to avoid campsites that seem like small towns.
The jungle is like a distant corner of Peru, though it takes up a huge percentage of the actual land area of the country. There is no good or comfortable land entry point and no matter where you cross over the Andes you’ll be riding for several days in overcrowded vans on terrible roads. The main transportation in the jungle is by boat, which can be equally uncomfortable and even slower. Still, the jungle is a mystical and beautiful place, and the Peruvian Amazon is one of the few places in the world to find the powerful spiritual plant, ayahuasca.