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On a Shoestring in Peru

On a Shoestring in Peru

Skyscanner travel writing competition May 2011: 3rd Place

On a Shoestring in Peru

by Michael Harrison

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Travelling on a shoestring is not cheap. It can be expensive in terms of time and effort, both psychologically and physically, but it is worth every penny you don’t spend.

Nothing beats being bounced around on a bus that has passed its sell by date in its original home. Sitting on seats that only have a vague memory of upholstery, with leg room budget airlines would kill for, and overloaded with passengers and luggage of every description, breaking all known safety regulations.

Do this overnight, trying to sleep with the person in front snoring to wake the dead, the person beside you getting amorous and resting his head on your shoulder and the one behind with his knees in your back.

Accommodation is a room with a bed, a chair and a single, bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling – and no more. What do you expect for a dollar? Blankets in layers so deep, to keep out the Andean cold, that you feel as if the weight of the world is upon you. Bare floors and walls and no lock on the door, but provision for a padlock if you had thought to bring one. Always cleanish – I never had problems with bedbugs! Cold water, often very cold water, somewhere, but definitely not en suite.

Breakfast at the local market can be of cerviche, the fresh, raw fish dish ‘cooked’ by the acid of the tiny, green lemons. You can get fresh seawater fish – the dish can only be made with fish that is really fresh – everyday of the year in Andean towns that are half a day’s truck drive from the Pacific.

Lunch at street stalls, sitting at low tables, eating varieties of potatoes unknown in our part of the world or rice flavoured by ají, the hot, red pepper sauce from a small dish always within reach. Perhaps the protein provided by the cuy, the Andean guinea pig, with its splayed paws looking remarkably like the hands of an incredibly small child. All served on plates washed in a bucket of cold water – which sometimes gets replaced. But I never picked up any stomach bugs on my journey!

Try supper from a cart selling steaming hot choclo, the ears of maize, of a size and a colour unheard of in the west. Eating, you warm yourself by an open fire someone has created in an effort to combat the year round Cordillera cold that arrives once the sun has taken its dip in the Pacific.

You could end the day in a bar that would never feature in any guide book, small and dark, lit only by hissing hurricane lamps, sitting at small tables in a group, one glass and many bottles being shared by all.

This was my routine when I travelled around Peru visiting as many archaeological sites as possible. Yes, Machu Picchu is magnificent but it’s being spoilt by cable cars and luxury hotels. Did I enjoy it as much as Kuelap which entailed a few hours hard climb, staying in a basic bunkhouse and eating the same food as the guardian’s family? I don’t think so. Sadly, though, that place is being ‘modernized’.

Travel to distant lands is a privilege afforded to a relatively small proportion of the world’s population. To do so by staying in ‘westernised’ hotels, eating hamburgers or pizza, travelling in 4x4s, having porters to carry your gear along the various ‘Inca trails’ all seems to be missing the point.

I think I’ll keep hold of the shoestring.

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