A year abroad in Peru: An overview
Will Carter studies French and Spanish at the University of Oxford. He spent the first half of his year abroad volunteering in Lima and Buenos Aires. In this piece, he reflects on his time in the Peruvian capital - everything from culture shock to cuisine...
1. Why Lima?
Going to Peru for my year abroad was a shock move for me. Spain, which I love, was a physically, financially and culturally more accessible option. I sooner saw myself sipping Sangria in Seville or enthusiastically taking my daily siesta under an orange tree in Granada, than trekking it in South America. However, with the knowledge that Spain would always be just an easyjet away and that this would be the only student loan buffered international experience I'd get in a good while, I decided to look further afield.
I had previously considered South America, but I was hesitant due to worries about safety and expense. My parents made it worse, initially fretting over horror stories of drug trafficking accusations and gang kidnappings. Mercifully these are in reality very infrequent and extremely unlikely to happen to a year abroad student. My grandmother, conversely, had no problem at all when I ran the plan by her, and wished me a great time in the south of the United States. After speaking to students who had been and gone my safety fears were taken care of but there was still the expense of the flight. I knew I'd need either a job or a reasonable programme to make the trip viable so I settled down to Google as much as I could about potential ideas to structure my trip.
A year abroad is not a gap year: I had to decide what I would do to best improve my Spanish. Given that the Spanish language is one of the only unifying factors in a vastly diverse continent, I had to carefully consider where to go. I knew I wanted to teach English for part of my year, but not all of it, so the British Council and long formal teaching placements were out. I was also interested in gaining some experience in a charity, but wanted to avoid expensive and unsustainable voluntourism which would potentially do more harm than good. I chose Peru because I found an organisation, Volunteach Peru, a family run NGO based in Lima who place British teaching assistants into Peruvian schools to work and with Peruvian families to live.
I was drawn to VTP because it had fantastic student reviews, vetted volunteers and host families thoroughly and had only a small administration cost, with accommodation and food free. Living with a family was guaranteed to improve my Spanish - now partially Peruvian flavoured - and I was attracted to the sustainability and genuine cultural exchange aspect of the project. I wasn’t taking a local person's job and I really would get a chance to learn about Peru first hand. Reassured by the lovely VTP team I felt confident setting off to Peru.
Although I had studied some Peruvian literature and culture at University, I didn’t know much about Peru beyond the basics (Llamas, Inca ruins, Paddington bear etc) and so had everything to learn. My first impressions of Lima were not the best as, after a 24-hour journey, my bags had been lost. Getting an early first taste of 'Latino time', I was kept in the airport for a further hour trying to figure out where they were, which it turned out was New York. Despite my bag-lessness, I was welcomed so warmly by my Peruvian host family and the programme coordinator and fuelled by sleep deprived euphoria. I thus forgot about my lack of clean clothes as I was driven to my Peruvian home for the first time.
2. Highs and Lows
The following three months were an assortment of incredible experiences and memorable moments, experiencing Peru’s highs and lows and trying to bridge the cultural gaps between Peru and the UK, armed only with a WordReference app (download for iOS / download for Android) and some shortbread bought in the Heathrow M&S, with varying levels of success.
The most common high to be found in Peru is altitude, as many of the most famous sites are 2,400+ metres above sea level, and potentially altitude sickness inducing. To combat 'soroche', Peruvian style king-sized altitude sickness, one can turn to the other kind of high available almost anywhere, particularly the Andean highlands. The coca leaf, despite being illegal in many countries, is ubiquitous in the Andean states (Peru, Bolivia, Columbia etc) and is a fundamental part of working and living in the Peruvian countryside. It is the derivative ingredient of cocaine (don’t attempt to bring it home or even travel internationally too soon after a cup of coca tea!) but is part of traditional Peruvian medicine. Chewing it or infusing it into tea produces a gentle sense of well-being, relaxation and reduces the effects of appetite, so agricultural workers working long days chew it as a mellowing snack. Our Macchu Picchu tour guide told us the Inca Empire was built on the coca leaf as it enabled the workforce to work hard for long hours with high morale. True or not, it’s a bit bitter on its own so add sugar.
It's far easier to write about what I loved about Peru, as there were so many things! My job as an assistant teacher was rewarding and challenging. I had plenty of responsibility; often taking whole classes alone, which helped build my confidence, Spanish and public speaking skills. My school, a tiny suburban boys’ school of less than 400 students, was very welcoming. Almost everyone whom I met in Peru was welcoming and often curious about the UK. Whilst hopefully sharing some of British culture with them, I'm sure I also shattered some pleasant delusions. I sadly had to confirm that I did not know the members of One Direction and that the Queen was not my grandmother, the first asked by a jovial taxi driver and the latter a child from my infants' class. People in the street and on public transport, would often smile and chat, partly because outside of Peru's main tourist sites and a few neighbourhoods of Lima, a 'gringo' sighting (a non-offensive word for a non-South American foreigner) was rare. Personally, combining the gringo shortage with blonde hair and my, at the start at least, ghostly pale complexion, I stuck out noticeably. Due to this I was sometimes approached with all sorts of questions comments and suggestions. My favourite gringo moment was when, waiting for my name and order to be called in Bembos (Peruvian McDonalds on a grand scale), and 'el gringo' was blasted over the PA, to raucous laughter from about 200 dining Peruvians.
3. Local Life and Cuisine
The friendliest of all were my lovely host family and my best memories of Lima were made with them. They took me on weekend country trips, to family events and my Peruvian abuela took it upon herself to have me sample every single Peruvian dish in existence, and some I suspect she invented. Peru is commonly recognised as the food capital of South America and I would definitely vouch for this. With the help of my Peruvian grandma, I managed to try cow heart kebabs, alpaca burgers, raw fish preserved with lemon and a whole fried guinea pig* (mercifully declawed although some weren’t). The family got me to eat some things through the use of subterfuge; 'chicken nuggets' turned out to be cow tongue so after that I just asked what I'd eaten afterwards and embraced it.
*Anticucho, Cerviche and Cuy respectively.
My culinary highlights were Chifa, the Peruvian take on Chinese food – essentially Chinese food with audacious Peruvian twists like huge chicken balls and whole plums – and the best desert on earth 'Torta de tres leches'. Although, 'three milk cake' sounds a bit unappetising , the reality was an ice cream cake plus cream plus more ice cream plus more cake – asked for and enjoyed frequently by me. A particular highlight was visiting the annual food festival Mistura, in Lima, where one can sample artisanal food products from all over the country. Peruvian food is incredible although the country should come with a trigger warning for vegetarians and anyone on a reduced carb diet – most meals, typically eaten off plates the size of small dustbin lids, would contain a meat and two carb portions minimum, with the ratio sometimes getting up to 1:3 for a shared platter. Combining this with the very favourable sol-Pound rate, make sure you plan several assents of Macchu Picchu to burn off all the delicious carbohydrates and Peruvian wildlife you'll be eating.
The only culinary criticism I have is for the 'national drink', Inca Cola. Although now a subsidiary company to Coke, Peru was one of the only global markets that American-driven beverage imperialism couldn’t crack, thanks to the national taste for, and pride in Inca Cola. To circumnavigate this problem, Coke, rather sadly, just bought out Inca Cola; but it has kept the recipe the same for Peruvians and gringos alike to enjoy today. I, however, found it a bit of a letdown - a corrosive mixture, urine-coloured and Haribo-tasting which seemed more potent than red bull. Arguably the real national drink is a Pisco Sour, a citrus and egg-white based cocktail, sometimes infused with relaxing coca leaves – great taste but not to be mixed with altitude sickness.
4. Traditions and Sights
Other highlights included the Peruvian traditions I got to engage with. I was taken with the Peruvian national instrument, the ‘cajón, which is a cross between a drum and a box that you sit on. I attended a music concert put on by my host brother's school which was truly amazing, mixing the cajón with hip-hop, and I thoroughly recommend seeing a show when in Peru. More amazing still was the Christmas party (which took place in blazing summer heat) of the shanty town school, in the disadvantaged neighbourhood of Pamplona, where I volunteered once a week. The children demonstrated impressive dancing skills, with some of the traditional numbers going on for over 15 minutes. The most exciting piece was the 'Danza de Tijeras', the Scissor Dance, which involved the inadvisable but visually stunning combination of a little boy doing back flips holding an ornate pair of silver scissors:
I was lucky enough to experience the spectacle of a 'Pollada' evening. The 'Pollada', translated roughly as 'Chicken-fest' or 'Chicken-athon', is a Peruvian fund raising tradition, similar to a lunchtime cake sale but on an industrial scale and with chicken instead of cake. The person hosting the Pollada sells tickets to their friends and then proceeds to make hundreds and hundreds of plates full of fried chicken, potatoes and rice. I have distinct memories of the kitchen full of buckets of chicken, all on different stages of their journeys, although all thankfully dead before they came in the house.
It goes without saying that the famous natural and manmade sights of Peru are incredibly worth it. As mentioned, Macchu Picchu lived up to the hype and I also spent a wonderful afternoon on Lake Titicaca, learning about how the local people live on temporary floating islands made of straw. I didn’t get a chance to make it up to the jungle which is a great excuse for going back.
There were only two things I really didn’t like about Lima, which are not really applicable to the rest of Peru. Firstly, the dislikeable weather. Lima receives an average of 33 hours of actual sunlight a month during its smoggy winter months, June to September. My Peruvian winter was particularly smoggy, dark and wet, although not rainy. There is a reason 5 year old children in Lima know the word 'drizzly' in English before they can even count properly.
Secondly, I had a turbulent love-hate relationship with Lima public transport, which largely reflected my fear and lack of understanding about it. I loved it for its cheapness and how you could get anywhere on in Lima if you were willing to wait in the traffic long enough. However, each bus is a bulging Tardis careening between all or none of the lanes, limbs and very occasionally livestock protruding. There are no timetables of properly designated stops and buses will sometimes pass a whole group for no reason. Conversely, ones that have reason to pass you by (i.e. there are far too many people on board already) normally do stop, perhaps as part of an unspoken competition to see how many they could get in before the wheels fell off. As taxis were expensive, private cars not the norm and Peruvians, as many Peruvians admitted to me, dislike walking, the bus to work or downtown was often a drama if ever there was one! However these were small prices to pay for all the llamas, Inca Ruins and cultural exchange I was experiencing so I can't complain, nor is urban congestion such a serious issue in the more laid back provincial cities. I recommend Easy-Taxi as a safe, reasonable alternative if you can’t face the ‘micro’ (bus). Do not take street taxis.
To conclude, Lima is a wonderful place to visit or spend some of your year abroad, and definitely shouldn’t just be used as a stop-over on the way to the Andes or the Amazon. If you do choose an extended stay I would recommend a host family and using a programme or organisation you definitely trust. Although the traveller community there is thriving, it was key to have that foundation and also group of UK people in the same boat. Otherwise, orientating myself around the city and knowing where to go and not go (as some neighbourhoods must be avoided for safety reasons) would have been trickier. With that in mind I couldn’t have enjoyed my time in Lima more!
6. Where to visit
For a very quick look at my favourite sights in often-overlooked Lima, check out the list below!
Not to miss:
- All the classics – Plaza de Armas, the Cathedral, the Cat Park (literally) in Miraflores, bohemian Barranco and more.
- El Museo Larco – A lovely museum set in an impressive colonial mansion, showcasing pre- Colombian art.
- Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú, in Pueblo Libre
- The Gold Museum – small, quirky and filled with gold
- Doing a workshop at the Chocolate Museum in Barranco or Miraflores – fun, tasty and you get to keep what you make
- The Amazonias book market
- El Parque de las Reservas – a fountain park in Lima where you can run in between the jets!
- A salsa club on ‘Calle Pizza’
- Hiking in Huaraz – the ‘Switzerland of the South’ is actually 8h by bus from Lima, but making a weekend trip up to hike up to the pristine Laguna 69, or the chilly Pastoruri glacier is well worth it. Both are relatively laid-back day walks. I recommend the bus company Cruz del Sur.
If you're headed to Lima and want to know more about the city, check out our Lima Mole Diary!