Basic facts on Perú

Basic facts on Perú

This section is concerned with how the traveller should approach their contacts with the people of Perú. Any catalogue of potential difficulties is always going to sound threatening, and this is not at all the intention. However, it is sensible to understand how people are likely to react to you, and make preparations for this. Here is a short section on security.

Getting along with the Peruvian population

Perú is both a welcoming country and, for its inhabitants, also a hard one. Its population is not much used to tourists outside of the main centres and you should expect to conform with local norms. This section gives you some sense of what this implies. Lima is cosmopolitan and, subject to issues of commonsense safety you need to make minimal concessions to local tastes. Away from Lima, however, your life will be a lot more interesting (and a lot smoother) if you conform to some simple rules. [More here]

There are two issues to highlight. The first is how you present yourself. The second is how you interact with the population. However, before we get into these issues, it is worth noting that Perú has distinct ethnic groups with very different approaches to life. The coast is relatively homogeneous, and is also closer to the behaviour patterns of the rest of Latin America than anywhere else in the country. The people of the Andes are completely distinct and have quite different mores. Those in the North are the most approachable, and those in the South the least accessible. The jungle regions have mores closer to those of Brazil, and are in places heavily affected by the narcotics industry. The Latin and native American populations of the selva are also distinct. We discuss these groups and their mores elsewhere.

Presentation is very important in the Latin world. Whether you approve or no, the society is divided by class in ways which reflect its history. You may feel that by dressing down you somehow fit yourself more closely with the poor elements in society. However, look how they present themselves: ladies selling guinea pigs in the Monday market will be wearing their next-from-best clothes, and the men will be as smart as they can be. Backpackers wearing filthy T-shirts and ragged shorts - described locally as "smelling like a dead horse" - are seen as failures, as people with dangerous contagious weaknesses and are, generally, regarded as odious intrusions. Never, ever dress in military-urban warrior styles, or you will attract "a world of hurt". By contrast, Perúvians like to be seen associating with smartly but casually-dressed individuals who pay their way, and if you present yourself to them in this way, then you will be welcomed.

The issue of paying your way is important. This is not at all the same as "just getting by" on a couple of dollars a day. As a foreigner, you come from a background which is almost certainly richer than the average country Perúano. Even if this is not true, you are automatically perceived to be relatively wealthy. Extreme miserliness, evasion of dues such as entry fees into National Parks and the refusal to tip or round up fees is regarded as simply being rude: gente no docente. You will be seen as a coarse individual, as someone who does not understand their place in the social order. You will earn - at the very least - hard looks and general contempt. This is not to say that you should play the sugar-daddy, doling out largesse to all whom you encounter. Rather, you should reinforce the natural bonds that you make with guides, people who serve you and the like by politeness and non-condesceding gestures of appreciation. See tipping.

Interaction with the Perúvian population is easy if, once again, you try to see yourself from their perspective. You are an oddity, and interaction with you has the potential to convey social status and embarrassment, in equal measure. If you behave respectfully from the very first contact, then it is likely that the person with whom you are dealing will become more and more welcoming, to the extent of dragging off to weddings and bull fights, tours of their business or trials of their cheese.

This is particularly true of the people of the sierra. Your primary relationship is not with the individual but the community, and if you insult, cheat or assault one person it is as though you did so to all. These populations show a (misleading) surface of passivity which, underneath, is thoroughly assessing you. Public views can crystallise suddenly, in either an extraordinarily positive form, or its opposite. For example, a friend with medical qualifications offered informal help for a few days in a village where he was staying. Without warning, on the third night they sprang an all-night party and fireworks display in his honour. The author has turned up in a remote village, accepted the handshakes which almost immediately followed and found himself judging a caballo de paso event two hours later. (This involves schooled horses, with unbelievably fluid riders.) Responses to the exploitative, unresponsive or rude can be just a strong, but in the negative direction.

Politeness in the sierra translates into respect for local forms, the avoidance of extreme behaviour, modesty and honesty. Try to present yourself as modest and predictable in demeanor, interests and resources. Make it clear why you are there, and what it is pleases you. Make it clear that you enjoy social contact, and do all you can to take initial relationships forward. Do not be raucous, even when they are shouting their heads off; and always practice physical modesty.

There are some basic structural things to learn about Andean society if you are to enjoy your time there. Men have different social roles from women to a degree not known in the West, and it is important to ask men about manly things (the production side of farming, hiring tools, fixing vehicles) and women about anything domestic or matters commercially downstream of the household. That is, you buy honey or potatoes from the woman of the household, but you hire a horse from the man. If you are invited to a house, you will certainly be offered food. You must finish it, even if it is a boiled frog or two kilos of unadorned, boiled rice. An escape clause is that you would 'like to take the rest for your journey'. Public entertainments often involve free drinks, and a single cup will be circulated. Pour beer into it, finish it and flick the suds onto the ground for the next person to use. Do not wince, or whine about hygiene. Also, do not plead vegetarianism, abstention from alcohol or other Western tropes: these are not understood and you will be seen as breaking a social contract.

Be punctilious about money. Recall that what is to you a trivial sum is a significant matter to a campesino. If you owe someone half a Sol, be sure to pay it. More than pay your way if drinks or food are being bought, but do not be ostentatious. Presents of food or other simple goods are hugely appreciated by people whom you know well.

Make sure that people know that you are appreciative. Western reserve can roll itself into a little defensive ball when confronted with foreign practices. This is often worsened by memories of being snapped at by schoolmasters when you made grammatical mistakes in a foreign language. Do not be afraid of a language of gestures and appropriate sounds - Spanish is anyway a second language to many f the people with whom you will deal. Hugs between men are commonplace, usually accompanied by backslapping, and male bottom-patting before a door means 'you go first', and nothing more.

If something good is done for you, therefore, make sure that your appreciation is obvious, even if your abilities in Spanish is weak. Sabroso (delicious) is a good word to have in your armoury, as are the phrases que lindo (how pretty, how sweet) muy amabile (most kind) or que buena gente (what fine people!) Make an effort to recall past kindnesses. Give presents when this is socially appropriate. Congratulate people on their abilities - if this is not overly-ironic, tease the son of the household on his attraction for girls, the daughter on her fine looks. Dwell on the strength, generosity or intelligence of the others. Running jokes (on the son's susceptibility to a pretty face, for example) always help the conversation along. But be careful that the joke is understood as such and not as a criticism. ('There goes your husband to get drunk again' is not likely to be appreciated, even if true.)

All this may seem obvious, but it plainly is not so to the scowling, smelly backpackers often found scouring the back streets of a village for the cheapest meal that they can find. Sullen resentfulness may stem from exhaustion or culture shock, but it does not play well with the village community. Bands of such people who, for example, take the best table in a restaurant for hours, but who share a single fizzy drink and eat biscuits that they have bought from a street-vendor can create deep irritation, just as they would in Frankfurt, Washington or Osaka.

Foreigners are often affronted when called gringo(a), or gringito(a). The first is just a descriptive term, as with "man", whilst the the latter is a term of affection. If someone pushes you out of the way at a market or fair, do not be affronted. This is how campesinos behave when preoccupied. If people look at you and giggle, this is shyness, not ridicule. If you are talking to someone and they abruptly shout at someone else, often in the middle of a sentence, again take this as normal local practice.

Village communities are, for the most part, extremely safe provided you make yourself welcome. Certainly, they are safer than - let us say - London on a Saturday night. However, security is an ever-present issue when one is traveling, here as much as in Europe. The more cheaply you travel, the more exposed you will be. The primary source of attacks and theft in the backpacker world is, however, other backpackers. There is a lengthy and extremely important section on how to avoid emergencies, and what to do if you find yourself in one. We refer you to this.

Perú is not a country which takes Latin temperament to extremes, and private disputes are usually open to amicable settlement. Difficulties with the civil authorities are handled in ways that depend on the seriousness of the issue, the power with which you are dealing and your culpability. Minor traffic offenses, for example, are open to amicable settlement that make you a friend of the policeman, who 'helps' you avoid entanglement in the machine, while you 'help' him with the problems of his life, such as how to afford shoes for his children. Major issues which involve less tractable powers - such as being caught by the military with a kilo of unexplained white powder in your luggage - are not, however, open to equivalent resolution.


There is a substantial section on emergencies and problems which also covers security. We refer you to this. However, the security issues in Perú are fairly typical of Latin America. Petty theft is common, and organised crime exists around the country's narcotics production. Unlike some countries in the region, there is limited economically-motivated kidnap or hostage taking, and this is largely unknown against tourists. Perú is generally safer than Brazil or Colombia, but less safe than Chile or Mexico.

You can manage your risk by observing some simple rules. These suggestions are explored in depth in the section which if referred to above, and amount to no more than common sense. In brief, know what you are about and do it briskly. Do not flaunt wealth. Do not get drunk in public places. Avoid poor sections of the town, particularly after dark. Do not get involved in the street traffic in drugs. In the Andes, do not intrude on local celebrations without formal permission from the village headman. (this is less of an issue in the North, but a major fact of life in the South.) If you get into difficulties of your own making - annoying a drunken group by making obvious comments, for example - then first find out what is the problem. Soft words, a bottle of liquor to their taste and a few embrazos will often defuse what confrontation of sullen silence will not. If confronted with weapons, run. If female, run and scream as loudly as you can. If this is not an option, give them what they want.

Women are, as ever, at particular risk. The advice is, once again, both obvious and often ignored: do not flirt with groups of young men, or let them think that you are flirting. Avoid direct eye contact with people on the street. Do not go about alone at night. Wear clothes which are simultaneously relatively smart and unprovocative.