Puno and Lima, Peru
23-26 December 2012
I returned from the Inca Trail on the 22nd, and the next day after not nearly enough sleep, in my semi-delirious state powered by the previous night’s room service lasagne, I clambered aboard Perurail’s Andean Explorer to a small city beside Lake Titicaca named Puno. Luckily, it is a luxury train established by the Orient Express company, which means the level of service was actually quite good. I settled in for a breakfast as I watched the landscape unfold outside the window. The train did it’s best to dampen the blows of the terrible jointed track it ran across at about 50km/h, as buses zipped by us at much greater speeds on the parallel carretera.
The journey started quite expectedly, with the train quickly passing through the city of Santa Lucia. The place looked much like any other Peruvian place I had experienced so far. Orderly, busy, and full of VW Beetles and little mototaxis.
The Andean Explorer quite rapidly ascended to the highest point I have ever been on land. Passing through the Andes, the train reached a touch over 4,300 metres altitude, where we made a stop at a siding called La Raya – partly to provide the local artisans with some customers to sell their wares to, but mostly so we could get a photo with a sign that said we had been here.
Between here and the next major city Juliaca, however, is where I got to see a side of Peru that I had not previously seen. Towns with unpaved streets, houses completely fabricated of homemade mudbricks and many, many people with poor teeth. They did not share the same strong tendency to dress very well, presumably because they could not afford to. Children would ride their bikes to the passing loops, obviously quite familiar with the schedule, and hang around the train begging for us to throw any spare change we had down to them. These were the poor parts of the country, well of what I had seen anyway. Overland transport like this really makes you appreciate not only the stark inequality that still exists in countries like Peru, but also what the creature comforts you have at home.
When we hit Juliaca, it was not much better. As the below video shows, while the city is built up, the whole place seems little better, with rubbish strewn everywhere, markets taking up what little space the railway corridor left. I did not expect to be confronted with scenes of sheer tardiness such as this, it is closer to what I expected from a country like India. Cusco had obviously deceived me into thinking the whole country was full of beautiful colonial-style buildings, and a moderate well off population riding the mineral and tourism boom.
Once arriving in Puno, I took a trip out to onto Lake Titacaca to visit more peruanos who live a very different lifestyle, the two-thousand odd residents of the floating islands of Uros. And when I mean floating, they are literally living in straw houses on a bed of reeds. There was little between them and a certain watery doom. For the discerning tourist, they even offered a hospedaje to stay at overnight, and a restaurant for to indulge in the local cuisine. The islands had all the necessities, including police service and a school for the children. I had two questions, neither of which I dared ask, so they remain unanswered. Firstly, what happens with all the toilet waste, does it simply go directly into the lake? Secondly, simply why, when there is plenty of perfectly good land?
The day after I flew to Peru’s capital Lima, in particular, the Miraflores district where I stayed. It could not be any more different than what I have just described.
Miraflores is one of the most beautiful cities I have visited. Set a top a short cliff face overlooking the Oceano Pacifico, the municipality is full of parks, shops and is buzzing with people all day and night, despite the low season, and is accompanied by an aura of wealth I have not seen anywhere on my trip so far. The streets are clean, smooth and safe, and the food was absolutely amazing. Lima has developed a reputation as the gastronomic capital of South America, and it did not fail to live up to it’s reputation. It honestly felt like any European city.
Traditionally in Latin America, Christmas Eve is the night of the big feast, in lieu of our traditional Christmas lunch. It is a good time to drink and be merry, and allow the children to stay up until a tick after midnight to be able to open their gifts. I was incredibly heartened to watch people from many walks of life, including taxi drivers, holiday makers and your typical local residents walking the streets on the night of Christmas Eve, handing out gifts to the homeless people on the streets.
But the stark contrast between the pervasive wealth of Miraflores to the enshrined poverty of the eastern city of Juliaca was incredible. The juxtaposition was unavoidable. Walking through the streets of a typical suburban street you encounter houses not dissimilar to that you would find in the affluent parts of Brisbane’s New Farm, with cars to match. The citizens were out and about in force, enjoying the blissfully mild summer day, and enjoying the café’s and trattorias the city has to offer. And shrines to capitalism, such as the sprawling Larcomar shopping centre hidden within Miraflores’ cliffs were full of enthusiastic patrons buying up big in the post-Christmas sales. A far cry from the young children chasing the train begging for change I witnessed just a couple of days earlier.