Jump straight to Peru Reading: The list.
Steve and I have been fortunate to go someplace warm and Spanish for the last several winters. It started with Honduras. We regularly stayed on the island of Roatan, a safe distance from the tragedy of mainland Honduras, which has gotten worse since my first trip there in 2012. Steve still goes, but I haven’t been in a few years. It’s beautiful, though, and still safe, though Hondurans we’ve gotten to know tell of increasing craziness across the bay, which of course you can read about anywhere but is different when you hear the firsthand effects. That’s a different post.
Anyway, because of Honduras, we both started learning Spanish. Then I got the bright idea to go further. Colombia, I had heard was a great place to visit. We headed there in 2016, hitting Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena. We actually did a home swap for Cartagena and had an amazing place with a beach view, back when we were into home swaps. Colombia is awesome. I have never been thanked so profusely for visiting: by every single person we met at the airport, the people in restaurants and museums, the cab drivers. “Tell people to visit us,” they said. So: You’ve been told. And will be informed in greater detail in a future post.
The next year we did Cuba, figuring that the window to see it would shut pretty quickly; we were right, and I’m deeply grateful we could go. We loved Cuba. It’s another post as well.
After that, we gave Argentina and Uruguay a shot. While we were there, I thought, hey, we’re visiting a lot of Spanish countries. We like them: great food and music, awesome culture, super swell people. Why not come back to Buenos Aires and go to Spanish school? So we did that for 6 weeks last year, then popped over to Chile and made time for a trip to Iguazu Falls as well, which, if you can possibly get there, GO. It’s crazy. And…..another post. I really have a lot of writing to do.
So this year, I said, hey, let’s give Peru a shot. I was thinking Lima, but Steve said, yeah, let’s climb Machu Picchu. Cool, I said. I walk to get the mail. I do Zumba. I’m fit as a fiddle! Sold.
Well…..I was sitting at the doctor, and he said, what are you doing this winter, and I said off-handedly, oh, going to Machu Picchu. He said, yeah, my wife and I were thinking about that, but I think we’re too old. This is daunting to hear when you’re pretty sure the doctor is, at the oldest, your age. “That altitude,” he said. “When I go to Colorado, it’s about half what it is when you go to Cuzco.”
Now I had already begun sort of basic research, following the steps outlined in this post about how to research a trip: 36 hours, various bloggers, Culture Trip, my usual pile of guidebooks from the library. The problem was, I had been focusing on things like museums, where to get a good coffee, and whether I really wanted to plunk down $400 dollars for the two of us to do a 16 course tasting menu from what’s known as one of the top five restaurants in the world. (It’s completely booked. Phew! One less decision.)
I hadn’t really paid attention to the big elephant that sucks air out of the room, i.e., the altitude. Lima, of course is at sea level, but we were heading to Cusco after a week, and then trekking for 10 days. I mean, we’re hardly roughing it, we’re staying in lodges with hot tubs and stuff. But it’s that walking in between.
This started a training program in earnest, about which I hope to have the courage to write. I also started to ramp up my reading; I really needed to hear, not just from bloggers, but from a couple of hard-core trekkers, what we’ve gotten ourselves in for. And when it comes to Lima in general, I have no clue. So here’s my reading list in-depth. I’m a nerd, I love to read, and I don’t watch a ton of TV. Or Tiktok. Here goes:
Peru Reading: The List
For help on assembling a list for any country, see this post from moi.
Peru Reading: Basics
So of course, the first thing I looked at was 36 Hours in Lima from the NYTimes. It’s dated 2015, which is pretty long ago. It also says something about they shouldn’t call Lima “Lima the Ugly”—apparently “they” refers to a bunch of mean girls who decide how to make certain cities feel bad. But then, the article basically parks you in Miraflores, which is like the Hollywood Hills part of Lima, and Barranco, which is like the Soho part.
Hey, I’ve got nothing against lovely promenades along cliffs dropping to the beach; Lima is one of the only capitals with a coastline. But to not see Lima Centro, the historic part of the city—well, that’s kinda like going to Epcot and saying you’ve been to France and Morocco. I mean, ok, it’s not quite like that, but I want to see the city center and the historic stuff.
So, enter the guidebooks. I grabbed this big old batch from the library and started to take notes, because obviously, I can’t take ’em with me. My shoulders and back thank me. So does the library. Or maybe not, because they would like the fine money (as in money from fines, because I think most money is fine).
I would be remiss hear to leave out Lia and Jeremy over at Practical Wanderlust, who are awesomely funny and all online. Norman over at Années de Pelerinage has a lot of good info, too. Obviously, there’s tons of good stuff online, but the written books gave me a good framework to take off from.
Peru Reading: Fiction
Post guide book perusal, I felt like I still didn’t have a handle on Peru so much, and certainly not on Lima. Cuzco, I knew was no problem; tons of people have headed there to take ayahuasca, this drug that makes you puke and your nose run like a faucet before you see visions that reveal the meaning of life—and then merrily prance down the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Ok, they totally don’t prance, because by all accounts, the first couple of days in Cusco you feel like your walking through a swamp in lead boots and a whalebone corset three sizes too small. But there’s a lot of Cusco literature. I needed an easy-to-read novel set in Lima.
I settled on The Dancer Upstairs, by a guy named Nicholas Shakespeare. It’s about the Shining Path and the havoc it wreaked on the entire country, whose leader really was living, as does his stand-in in the novel, upstairs from a ballet studio in Miraflores, Lima. They made it into a movie, and that’s the poster. They’re honestly trying to make it a lot sexier than it is. It’s a fine novel, but sexy is kinda missing the point.
I raced through it. It’s fiction, though obviously it’s about Abimael Guzman, the Shining Path leader, even with different names of everything and a disclaimer that says everybody’s made-up, and I never can quite figure out how they get away with that when the writer is obviously dramatizing real stuff and basically admitting it. But nonetheless, because it was written by an Englishman, and because the protagonist was an outsider trying to get a handle on the situation, it was a ton easier to get into than a book by a Peruvian, who would naturally take for granted that his or her readers would be able to connect dots that this hapless gringa could not even see.
Thanks to some orientation—the Miraflores setting helps clarify a lot about who lives there, as well as in the various other neighborhoods of Lima and why—I now am thoroughly digging Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a comic novel, if a pitch dark one, by Peru’s most famous writer, Mario Vargas Llosa. Now that IS a sexy cover, and witty, and fun, and unlike the shot above, it’s a little more honest.
Peru Reading: The Omnibus
Look, I had time. I wanted to read 500+ pages of articles that cover pre-Inca Peru, Inca Peru, colonial Peru, contemporary Peru, and a whole lot of stuff in between. The articles chosen by the editors of The Peru Reader are well-written and, mostly, not too dry. I’m a museum freak, but there are only so many pre-Colombian vases, or modern Peruvian artists, or big ass gold chokers that I can look at before my eyes start to glaze. The trick for me is to have some context. The Peru Reader has helped give me enough that I can start to figure out what I want to see, and what I really don’t care about all that much, particularly museum-wise.
Peru Preparation: The Travelogs
I’m definitely a little nervous about the altitude, the climbing, and whether or not llamas pick pockets. Thanks to Turn Right at Machu Picchu, I’ve also learned there are snakes. Shit! Also, apparently llamas are not thieves, but they are also not friendly, despite their adorable faces. But it’s comforting knowing I’m not the first person who will be huffing and puffing over Andean rocks, squealing at the slightest discomfort with the small amount of oxygen I can spare. Mark Adams beat me to it—as have approximately a zillion other people, but they didn’t write immensely enjoyable documents about it, and he did: Turn Left at Machu Picchu.
Inca Cola is by a Brit, Matthew Parris. So he’s even funnier. His description of his kind-hearted fellow traveler, who everyone loves, getting sequentially squashed, then comforted by an extra-large Peruvian on a bus, made me laugh so hard Steve had me read it out loud. And then he laughed. And then our neighbor called up, and said, what the hell’s so funny? Ok, not really, but it’s REALLY hilarious. If you’ve read all the Bill Bryson books, or you just wonder how he would have handled the Andes, get Inca Cola.
Oh, and just FYI, in the big pic at the top of the page, Hiram Bingham’s The Lost City of the Incas is right on top. I bought that one for Steve and I to trade off on the airplane. Bingham was the first non-Peruvian, at least to write about it, to see Machu Picchu. He’s not as fun, but he’s pretty interesting.
Peru Preparation: The Cookbook
This big gastronomy tome, Peru, was all the rage a few years back; I remember seeing it at Costco. It’s by Gaston Acurio, who runs Central, one of the top 5 restaurants in the world, as well as Astrid and Gaston, one of the top 10 restaurants in the world. Both are near our AirBnB—in Barranco, the Soho of Lima. Because, well, I don’t want to stay in the city center for all my squawking about authenticity.
Honestly, I’m pretty happy just getting good food, and there’s apparently no shortage of options. But this book had tons of pictures and helped me visualize the approximately 87,000 or so varieties of potatoes in Peru and the many wacky preparations I may run into if I’m extra lucky. Also ceviche. The country is big on ceviche.
I didn’t try to cook anything. I’m too damn busy reading.
Peru Preparation: The Picture Book
I had to special order this book on Martín Chambi, the pioneering Andean photographer, from my library. It’s simply called Martín Chambi. Didn’t cost me a nickel, and inspired the hell out of me. The Moon guidebook tipped me off; they really have a superb list of stuff to read if you can find it. Man, those Aymara faces are amazing, aren’t they? The Aymara are the primary indigenous group around Cusco and MP.
I don’t expect anyone to nerd out to quite this degree. But if you want to, just know it can be done. Happy travels. I’ll let you know if it did me any good when I report from the field.