SGW’s old friend, climbing mentor, and contributor, Allen Lai, has recently returned from a trip to Peru. We are pleased to present Part One of his adventure here.
The Inca empire stretched across western South America in the 15th century. At the time it was the largest empire in the world, and yet it only flourished for a short time roughly from 1400 to 1533. The Incas were conquerors, architects, engineers, and astronomers. Although they numbered only about 100,000 people they ruled over an empire of about 10 million which was made up of many ethnic groups. Sadly, all it took was a small group of Spanish Conquistadors to bring the whole empire crumbling down. Unlike any other civilisation, the Incas did not have any written language so it made studying their heritage very interesting.
My interest in Peru started long before I knew of the existence of Machu Picchu. It was a book written in 1950 by the Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, the Kon Tiki Expedition. Heyerdahl believed that the Polynesian people originated with the Incas that sailed across the Pacific Ocean in balsa wood rafts. In his book, he wrote about the Inca culture and civilisation which was fascinating.
Finally, this year, I got the chance to tour this marvelous country. What I wasn’t expecting was that it would turn out to be the journey of a lifetime. As we were staying at over 10,000 feet above sea level for longer periods, we were expected to deal with altitude sickness. What we didn’t expect was during the time of our visit there was political turmoil. Long periods of corruption, inflation and a downturn in the economy lead the people of Peru to stand up and voice their discontent about the government, and the president.
As a result, we were met with all kinds of obstacles, rallies, roadblocks, and the closure of train services and airports. Two days after we left the country there was a coup and President Castillo was arrested. As I am writing this now, Peru has declared a nationwide state of emergency as widespread violence went out of control. So, here is our day-to-day encounter in this beautiful country.
We arrived in Lima at 2 am. Once again Air Canada messed up our travel itinerary. As a result, we had to spend one more night in the hotel. Fortunately, our tour operator, Gogo, stepped in and covered the cost of the extra night at the hotel which was not cheap as it was a five-star Sheraton in downtown Lima.
We woke up in the early hours to noisy street sounds. Every driver in the city seemed to be proficient with their gas pedals and horns but with the congested traffic, no one seems to be going anywhere.
Saint Martin Square
After breakfast, we drove to Saint Martin Square where there was a huge protest rally in progress. Hundreds of anti-government protesters had taken to the streets, demanding the resignation of the president. There were clashes between the police and protesters and as a result, many roads were blocked and traffic was a mess. At the same time, the OAS (The Council of Organisations of American States) was there to investigate the allegations regarding the president.
The protesters were peaceful but tensions were running high, we took a few quick photographs and slipped away. General Jose de San Martin was a key leader in Peru’s independence in 1821. The square is surrounded by buildings influenced by French architecture.
Our next stop was Chinatown. Usually, I don’t like to visit Chinatowns overseas but with nearly 1% of the population and an estimated 5% of Peruvians having Chinese roots it was worth a visit. Sure enough, I was not disappointed. It covered quite an area and despite of COVID, the place was packed. Many of the restaurants looked like what we had in Hong Kong in the 60s, but don’t expect anyone to speak Chinese. Most vendors and shoppers don’t even look Chinese. As for the food they offer, well, I don’t know, it’s different but I wasn’t tempted to try any of it.
One thing that was interesting though, in general people go to Chinatowns because the goods there are cheap. However, this is not the case in Lima. I was surprised to see that their prices matched those to be found in Toronto and yet, the average income in Peru may be only a third or fourth when compared with those living in Canada. Hence, dining in Chinatown is a middle-class thing.
The Basilica Cathedral
A short walk away we found the Basilica Cathedral and the president’s residence. However, due to the current unrest, the whole area was fenced off with a heavy police presence.
Casa de Aliaga
Further down the road, we visited the Casa de Aliaga, a 16th-century mansion that has now been turned into a museum. It is still lived in by the 16th generation of the family. It was quite an eye-opener and well worth a visit.
A Surprise Dinner
That evening, what a surprise! We were taken to a Chinese restaurant! It was not just any Chinese restaurant but the best one in Lima where all the high-ranking officials, consulate staff, and important people dined. We had Maca, Peruvian Ginseng soup, purple corn juice, Sapo fish, a very rare but extremely tasty and pricey local fish, and other gourmet dishes. Being from Toronto we are used to good Chinese food, and yet, tonight we were all blown away by this excellent banquet.
Throughout the day what impressed me most was the people, from the local guide, the driver, the people at the hotel, and in the streets including the police and even the protesters. They all had a certain vibrancy in them. Living a tough life as they do, they manage to remain cheerful and happy, something that we could all learn from.
The next day we were flying to Lake Titicaca, which is 11,150 feet above sea level. We were excited and had lots of expectations for the next part of our journey
It is sad to see any country in turmoil and it can only be hoped that the political situation in Peru will be resolved quickly. SGW is grateful that Allen and his companion were able to visit the country and leave safely. We look forward to the next part of his trip.
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