Editor’s Note ~ This is part one of a travel report; we will publish the next parts as they come.

Independent travels of a small group of Brits.

If contemplating a visit to South America, Peru is a good place to start. Lots to see, geography, culture, cheap, easy to get about, and a well-developed tourist industry. A little Spanish helps, but English is widely spoken. Go with a small group of friends; all you need is a travel guide.

Everything costs less than a quarter of UK prices, but there are plenty of people out there willing to rip you off, both in the UK and in Peru. The expensive bit is getting there; the cost of living is so low you may as well stay as long as you can. This is an account of a visit by my wife and myself and three of her parrot loving friends, Anne, Vicky, and Dehlia. There are lots of parrots in the jungles of Peru. You have to fly into Lima the capital city; this is a description of what happened in Lima.

This visit was in 1997 so things have changed a little.

THE STREET SCENE IN LIMA

The first thing any visitor to Lima notices is the perpetual roar of traffic (due to 90% of vehicles being unsilenced) and the pollution due to the atmospheric inversion that exists over the city. The most important component of any car in Lima is the horn and its incessant use means that there is not much chance of sleep in any city centre hotel. Petrol and diesel are cheap, and most vehicles are so badly adjusted that a vast cloud of pollution fills all the streets. Except for a few months of summer, the sky is perpetually grey due to the smog and low cloud.

Ninety percent of the city is in a fairly dilapidated state. The traffic in Lima can best be compared to a stock car race where even sixty-year-olds drive like boy racers in the UK. The roads in Lima are heavily potholed, some so deep that a 4×4 would have difficulty in crossing them, local knowledge is essential if one is to make rapid progress. The two options to negotiate them are to swing into the traffic in a nearby lane (regardless of conditions) or to go fast enough to leap over them. The fastest only gives way to the biggest. This means that bus and truck drivers go exactly when and where they want, completely ignoring all other traffic. This has to be taken into account when in their vicinity.

Traffic lights are only obeyed reluctantly, this due the extreme notoriety of the police in their dealings with offenders of any description. The maximum number of vehicles possible crams into the front line, the left turning ones not necessarily in the left-hand lane, gunning their engines and creeping forward in order to secure the minutest advantage over a rival. The remainder vie for position on the grid. Children and teenage hucksters run through the traffic selling every kind of confectionery and cigarettes.  At the instant the lights change to orange the whole mass leaps forward with a blare of horns and a cloud of exhaust fumes, the hucksters leap for safety or stand very still and hope for the best.

A TAXI RIDE IN LIMA

We picked him up at the (cheaper) unofficial taxi drivers park at the airport. One always haggles over the fare in Lima and he obviously thought he had the better of us and could therefore afford to indulge in a little “sport”. We piled in, four in the back and one up front. This is normal in Lima, even a small car can be packed with up to eight persons. We were used to “loco” taxi drivers in Lima but this one seemed to be something special even by Limono standards. The first indication was the choice of horn (easily the best maintained part of any taxi here). Not only has the volume of the sound to be considered but its quality. This particular horn had a discordant ear-jarring note. His handling of this item was particularly adept. Not for him the prolonged blast. As a true master he played a staccato tattoo guaranteed to set the nerves jangling and demolish the moral of any competitor. The initial lurch onto the highway confirmed our suspicions.

The driver who was in his fifties (we never did find his name) had a maniacal gleam in his eye. We hurtled into the gathering gloom, weaving our way down the highway through buses, trucks and the only slightly less insane. First of all, it was necessary to obtain petrol. I suspect we went quite some way off track to find a suitable place, it is hard to tell in Lima as the taxi drivers always pursue some route they imagine will dodge the traffic. (It never works). We finally arrived at the desired refuelling place cutting up a bus and two other taxis in order to get in first. We screeched to a halt by the pumps, a small boy leapt out from between them to take the money and the terse instructions rapped out to him. An old man leapt out, adroitly removed the rag bunged into the filler cap and stuck the hose in. Our driver scowled, viciously gunning the engine in order to encourage the fuellers to greater effort. His attention was divided between the dials on the petrol pump and the road ahead where traffic hurtled past inches from our front bumper.

The instant the correct sum was clocked up, the motor howled, he dropped the clutch, the old man swiftly inserted the rag and leapt back into his den. The taxi driver apparently considered that the whole operation had been conducted with appropriate professionalism. At intervals thereafter he muttered “Shell, sí, Shell” nodding his head approvingly. He did not however allow this to impede progress.

When traffic lights change to red in Lima every vehicle approaching them immediately tries to change lane in order to gain some imagined advantage. The whole mass halts bumper to bumper and the front runners then creep forward into the crossing traffic until it is reduced to a single lane. Quite often half a dozen vehicles are trapped in the centre reservation. This is considered to be an advantage as they have gained a few yards on the remainder. Whilst poised on the front row of the impending debacle, we observed a VW beetle (of which there are thousands in Peru) which performed a “U” turn which involved crossing four lanes of traffic, literally on two wheels. Our driver was extremely impressed by the audacity and verve of this manoeuvre and whistled nodding his head approvingly.

We did arrive at our destination in one piece, in fact there are not that many accidents, probably because all motorists in Lima are on a perpetual adrenalin high. To blink would probably result in instant death.

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