Basic facts on Perú

Basic facts on Perú

This section is concerned with having fun: with shopping, with general social events and with attitudes to sex and sexualty.


Perú abounds in handicrafts. Many of the items on offer are fun, but are often not quite what you expected when you get them home. Here are some of the items which seem to work in a Western setting.

Cajamarca is the home of artisans who make remarkable mirrors, either of etched, silvered glass or framed in gilded paste, with detailed patterns and images stenciled onto the borders. There is very old tradition of silver-smithing in Perú, and fine is ornate objects are available at international prices. Jewellery made from silver and semi-precious stones is available on virtually every street corner where tourists cluster, and finer products can be found in specialised shops in Lima. However, Perú has only semi-precious stones to offer and others will have been imported.

In the lower price bracket, little figures made from gourds are pleasing in semi-formal settings, as are replicas of pottery vessels discovered in ancient tombs. The range of erotic pottery from Moche is striking, but not to all tastes. Collections of butterflies mounted in cases are very fine. The selva butterflies are unbelievably abundant so long as their habitat remains intact, and most are anyway purpose-bred.

Knitting is a major activity in Perú and the range of products on sale is truly remarkable. "Chompa" - jumper - is a Quechua word, and Perú is the place from which the rest of the world learned to knit. Francis Drake allegedly brought the technology to Europe after his raids on the Perúvian coast. Everywhere, you can see Andean women walking whilst spinning yarn from raw wool, or knitting. As a result, the range of knitwear that is available is very wide and usually very cheap.

Fine cloth made from alpaca and, for the deep pocket, vicuña are widely available. Lacework is a historical master-craft of Lima. The smarter part of Lima - particularly Miraflores - have boutiques offering high quality leather goods at a quarter of international prices. Perú grows Pima cotton, probably the finest staple in the world, and one can buy anything from office shirts to blouses made from this wonderfully silky material at equivalent discount. Bear in mind that Perúvian chests are broad and arms are short, so it is advisable to order clothes to your measure if you are not of this build. This will take a few days to fulfil. Tailoring, by contrast, is not up to international standards and you should not expect the facilities of, for example, Hong Kong. Carpets and tapestries are also available, to all tastes. The alpaca throw-rugs in traditional designs are particularly pleasing.

Visitors seldom come to a country with the intention of buying heavy goods, This can be a mistake, Perú has extensive hardwood resources, and whatever you may think of forestry, its furniture is remarkably good and inexpensive, even when shipped internationally. It can be made to your preferences, size and design. Items of interior decor which have a specifically Perúvian feel to them are also easily exported.

Perú has a flourishing music industry. Many enjoy the different styles of the mountains, the coast and the jungle. All of these are available on CD and, increasing, on DVDs which combine dance and singing. These are extremely inexpensive to buy, and many make a collection to take home. There is an example of street music below; although there is a major section on music here. (Please use the arrow on the left to start the music and the cross if you wish to close it before it ends.)

Start Here is a recording of a street band, performing the very characteristic musicof the Andes, to the equally characteristic sounds of street commerce.

There are antiques on offer, but you may encounter problems in their export. (This is particularly true of items of archeological interest, which are frequently smuggled out of the country and which fetch high - some would say ludicrously high - prices elsewhere.) You would also want carefully to authenticate them. The best buys are replicas of antique picture frames, columns and carvings, often made from Eucalyptus wood and pine. The town of Ica specialises in clean, rather brutal carvings of animals and natural themes, made from the dark wood of the coastal tamarind tree. There is also a large supply of replica antique paintings, usually on a religious theme and often in colours that are too dark for many tastes. Modern painting is on display in the central square of Miraflores, and it typical of pavement art everywhere. There are specialised galleries which offer finer products in Lima, Cuzco and Arequipa.

Two factors worry many first-time visitors. First, they are unaccustomed to bargaining. Second, they have no idea of the fair price for many artifacts, and so worry that they are being exploited, or being exploiters, and so get in a muddle. Bargaining occurs around unusual transactions, bulk buys and items for which there really is no prevailing price. What is a mineral specimen worth, after all? It is unique. Major stores and commodity products that fit none of these categories are "precio fijo", fixed price, and you do not bargain.

When bargaining comes onto the scene, let the vendor make the running. Do not lead with a price, and assume that he is pitching 30-50% above the expected deal in tourist centres in Lima, and nearer 10% outside (except Cuzco.) You can bargain purely on the grounds of price, but it is better to shift the terms of the deal - how much for three? How much for dollars? If you hate bargaining, get someone else to do it, or make a shopkeeper happy by paying the asking price. However, if you are engaging the services of someone who will be with you for some time, you absolutely must establish a common footing through negotiation. To fail to do this would be to fail to show respect.

Having Fun

Perúvians are deeply social, and it is commonplace for someone to greet complete strangers in a restaurant when entering or leaving. Male passers-by are greeted as hermano (brother) or tio (uncle.) The middle classes will network energetically when entering a club or bar, embracing or hailing everyone they know, or may know. Social life is lived much more in public than it is in Northern Europe, Britain or the US, and closely follows the Mediterranean and Asian pattern.

There are many public events, usually at night and frequently in the main square, the Plaza de Armas. Major events include patronals - Saint's days where the Saint in question is the local Patron. These may (will) involve fireworks, vastly amplified and often simultaneously competing bands and night-long junketing. The fireworks are utterly extraordinary, involving towers made from bamboo that rise 25-30 metres in the air, on which dozens of set pieces explode in sequence. Perú has developed a national craft that it needs to exploit. Public festivals often involve the use of explosive rockets, fired at irregular intervals through the night (and often also during the day.) These can make for punctuated sleep.

Rockets are used both to celebrate and also to signal the start of various phases of a celebration. Frequent big bangs signify one thing, occasional pops another. The beginning of a feast day is often signaled (at 6 am) by a salvo of rockets. A person sponsoring an event - for example, a wedding - may indicate that it is open using rockets, and the invitees will respond with their rockets. Big moments - in bull fights, in fiestas - are often signaled with salvoes.

There are also fairly frequent torch lit processions by children, in which each torch has been made by the child carrying it. These can be extremely sophisticated, being made of coloured tissue paper and bamboo, and lit from within by candles. Helicopters and spiders, battleships and flowers pass in their hundreds. The local military may turn out on Saturday evenings to play in the main square in some of the larger provincial towns, whilst the "better class of person" parades around, greeting each other.

Rustic social life tends to revolve around single sex groups in bars or other public places, with individuals joining or leaving the group. There are fairly tight social limits on who can join which group, based on age, race and affluence. The young tend to mve around in single sex groups, although the pattern of 'many girls out with one or two boys, other boys on their own' is increasingly common. Recently married couples tend to stroll together, and then re-segregate themselves by gender as they get older. However, the fiestas are whole-community events. The entire population and often that of neighbouring villages will turn out for an all-night event if the matter is important enough. These are not events into which foreigners can safely penetrate without local help in the deep South, except perhaps in the large towns such as Puno; and then with care. The Central and Northern areas are much more welcoming and, provided your profile is low, you are not so much welcomed as ignored. If you establish an unthreateing, friendly presence, however, and behave quietly, then people may well come to you.

Metropolitan life follows a pattern which depends greatly on social class and affluence. The middle classes follow a much more family-focused style of public behaviour, and they follow a style of home entertainment that would not be out of place in the US-EU. In general, however, the middle classes tend not to let their hair down too publicly or too frequently. Younger people tend to gather in mixed-sex groups, and are altogether freer in how they behave. This said, middle class Perú is still fairly puritanical and governend by the fear of losing face, of being shamed: whatever they may hint at in conversation, Catholic morality applies.

Perú has a sophisticated elite which has found many ways to have fun. It was notorious as a centre of dissipation during the Spanish vice-regency and the party animal count is still high. If you visit the more expensive night spots you may note louche groups of rich young men warming themselves up for a night's dissipation.

The best way to have fun in Perú is to find local people who are like you and who share your interests. That is not the same thing as acquiring one or more mercenary hangers-on, which it is of course easy to do right across the developing world. The second best approach is to find a bunch of foreign fellow travellers who fit this description. Expatriates with whom you may have social connections are particularly helpful. If you interact only with people who are themselves foreigners in Perú, then plainly your insights into Perú will not be as sharp, but you will nevertheless do things which may seem too alarming to undertake alone. To do either of these things well, however, you need to know your own mind, to be realistic about time and money, and to be clear on what "exit strategies" are open to you if your first choice turns out to be a bad one.

One feature of Perú that many find difficult is that it is strikingly noisy, at least as compared to equivalent Western communities. It is virtually impossible to find a restaurant or cafe that does not have canned music, television or both simultaneously. Indeed, to find two competing television sets tuned to different channels is far from unusual. Perú seems to find any entertainment wanting if it is not drowned in extremely loud music. Traffic is also heavy on the horn, taxis toot endlessly when they are seeking a fare; and you are particularly advised to find out where the transport leaves from before accepting lodgings in a village. Trucks and buses blast their naval-strength horns at 3 am in order to draw in customers, and one tends to awake from this levitated several feet above the mattress. In general, due to rockets and kilowatt amplifiers, do not expect to sleep at all anywhere in a kilometre radius of the site of a major patronal.

Perú also offers formal sports. The sports which are played are fairly sharply divided amongst the socioeconomic groups. The poor play football, the wealthy take up anything with a connection to horses. Caballos de paso are highly-trained and intensively-bred horses which walk in a mannered style and are capable of unusual gaits, such as the triple. Their riders seem to float in the saddle. Polo, horse racing and the like are, however, widely supported. Iberian specialties such as bullfighting are also practiced. There has been a recent democratic explosion in ocean-focused activity such as surfing and diving. (Do recall that the sea is extremely cold, due to the Humboldt current, but teeming with life.) Bicycling is becoming very popular on the coast. Golf and tennis are practiced, but largely in the private clubs to which most middle class Perúvians belong. There is a lengthy section on sport here.

Perúvians are not much enamored of the interior of the country, and whilst there are festivals of "alpinismo", climbing and trekking are not much followed. There is hunting and wild fowling, but neither these nor fishing are a major enthusiasms. We have provided sections which cover both potential interests - such as bird watching - and, of course, on the specifics of trekking. How you should think about trekking and the like is, however, the main purpose of this guide and we discuss it elsewhere. The introduction suggests how these enthusiasms can be combined with specific trips.

Sex and sexuality

Attitudes to sexual matters vary enormously with the regional and economic background of the individuals concerned. Elite Lima is largely Western in its attitudes, although with a pronounced male consumerist attitude to women. This is shared by the more repressed middle class urban populations, with complications which are are discussed below. Sex across class boundaries is usually more or less commercial and marriage which crosses class divides is (vaguely) frowned upon.

The peoples of the Andes and the jungle are, however, distinct. It is certainly not our purpose to portray any group of humans as either homogeneous or insular, and there are many variation on any common theme theme. This said, the traditional Andean population generally view the nuclear family as being of less direct important than the community in which they live. For the most part, Andean campesinos regard marriage as a contract around the division of labour as much as it is a bond of fidelity. There is a sharp division of responsibility, with the men in charge of everything economically upstream of the household (farming, managing tools or animals) whilst the women manage the home, what good to sell and which to store, cash management and so forth. It falls to the women to manage economic matters, and they often tend to see the men as a feckless but a necessary pair of hands. The casual observer will see a sharp division between the lives of the men - who eat, stroll and work together - and the women, who do much the same. Dress is sharply stereotyped by gender. (It has to be said that the more contact a given community has with the wider world, the less true this stereotype is likely to be.)

The Andean male and female communities tend to feel independent solidarity, and the members of each couple are subject to scrutiny by the clan of the opposite sex. Men are, however, usually extravagantly devoted to their children, and elderly couples often show a touching, innocent sense of obligation and trust. Marriage was, until recently, arranged when the partners-to-be were children, and the fact of this engagement was not made apparent to either until very close to the wedding. There is still a strong element of parental 'guidance' around marriage in the hills, but young people now tend to make up their own minds, and act when economics permit.

Contraception has had the same affect in Perú as it has had elsewhere in the world, which is to say to give people more choice about sex before or around marriage. Naturally, the Catholic faith has had some affect upon this. Equally, insofar as they are a burden on the community, children who are born without an established form of support are much frowned upon. (This is less true today than it was a generation before, but still a force.) However, for a variety of economic and other practical reasons, men tend to marry late, usually doing so to a younger women. What they do between puberty and marriage depends on whether they go to work elsewhere or remain in their village. Traditional, village-based solutions frequently involve male friendships. Western models of how to think about these are frankly wrong; and more on this below.

This may sound somewhat dour. Perú is certainly not Brazil, where pretty much anything goes; but neither is it Saudi Arabia. It is, in fact, a largely tolerant society, where activities which are not thrust in the community's face are quietly ignored. The jungle populations, by contrast, not only sound Brazilian when they speak, they also display most of the mores of Brazil. Although this is much exaggerated in Perúvian mythology, sexuality is much more openly on display, both in dress and behaviour. Male Perúvian tourists tend to snigger like schoolboys at the prospect of a night in a hotel in the selva. One should note the density of the murals warning of the dangers of HIV (SIDA) to estimate the consequences of this.

Here are some general guidelines:

Children are not well-catered for when on holiday in Perú. It is not safe for them to play in public places in the major cities and there are few child-focused entertainments that they are likely to enjoy in Lima, issues of language aside. The beach can be fun, but the Pacific ocean swells, steeply shoaling sand and cold water do not make swimming an attractive prospect for children. Equally, the countryside lacks any child-focused amenities, although those who love camping and the wild world will find much to excite them. It is likely that the jungle will prove the most interesting part of the country for children, but chiefly for those who enjoy informal mucking about in boats; and access to wild-life. Recall, however, that this is seriously wild wild-life, and that it can and does bite back. Under no circumstances should children (or anyone else) bath naked in the Amazon basin rivers. See the medical section for details on the candiru. Children with no experience of the humid tropics should be restrained from putting their hands in holes, or running barefoot into long grass.