Modern Inconveniences: Expecting the Unexpected in Peru

by Arielle Demchuk

There’s a lot the guidebooks won’t tell you about a visit to Peru.  Sure, Lonely Planet will make mention of top sites to see, best hostels for your money, over-touristy things to avoid, and best places to eat.  They may advise about the weather and water conditions, and ideal sundries to pack.  Language guidebooks may even go into the extreme difference between “Mi papá tiene 47 años” and “Mi papa tiene 47 anos” (Hint: one is about age, the other about potato assholes).  But, in addition to the popular advice of generalized travel guides, here are some tips on how to happily and effectively navigate Peru with your humility intact.

Cuy Al Horno in Peru
Cuy Al Horno - Photo by Arielle Demchuk

1. There Is No Toilet Paper on the Road Less Traveled

While hiking the many beautiful trails Peru has to offer (or hiking anywhere in the world), it is fairly common practice to bring one of those special travel tubes of toilet paper in your toiletry bag. Unbeknownst to the budget traveller, the thought-to-be-common practice of sitting down and using toilet paper is fairly limited to North America and Europe.  There are still parts of the world that will wipe with tree bark (ow!), or, alternatively, do what I call the “hippy hippy shake” to clear any remaining residue. 

To expect that there will be available toilet paper in hostels and restaurants is a naive assumption that will lead the Charmin-lovin’ North American in dire straits when that realization comes too late.  That being said, hand and face cleanliness is apparently more important than down-there cleanliness, and many restaurants have a stack of napkins on their tables that can do the job just as nicely. Finding napkins at a restaurant is like landing on a gold mine; stash those in your satchels no matter how many funny looks you get.

2. Dirty Water is Everywhere (Yes, There Too)

The Lonely Planet-clad traveler will come to Peru armed with water purification tablets, or if they’re really fancy, the Super Sonic Flux Capacitor Water Purifier 2.0 - you know, the one that looks more like a space phaser. So you have water drinking down to an art, but what about everything else?  Do you think the street vendor used the Water Purifier 2.0 prior to washing and steaming their scrumptious-looking vegetable plate?  Do you think the artisanal Fermented Fig Juice maker dissolved some water cleaning tablets before pouring water over the figs and serving it to you in a rinsed out Coca Cola bottle?  Do you think it’s a good idea to enthusiastically sing Manu Chao’s “Me gustas tu” in the hostel shower and get lots of water in your mouth?  The answer to all of those questions is no.  Avoid the above, or expect some discomfort (and see number 1).

Mother and daughter selling juice

3. The Squats Your Exercise Video Makes You Do Are Useful (Not Torture Mechanisms)

The human body was never designed to sit on porcelain thrones; ergonomically, squatting is the best position for digestive excretions. Surprise!  

Much of Peru utilizes porcelain holes in the ground with lovely little feet grips for your convenience.  You will thank Jillian Michaels for all of the squats she’s made you do when you’re wobbling on your feet grips trying not to fall into the art you’ve just created from a feast of potatoes and cheese.

4. Touristy Activities Are Touristy For A Reason

“I don’t want to do that, it’s too touristy.”  Why do you suppose it’s touristy?  Probably because it’s a cool thing to do if you’re not a local.  The Lonely Planet discouraged visiting the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, even going so far as to affectionately name it “Reed Disneyland.”  But, unsurprisingly, getting on a boat and getting a tour of islands that are manmade out of reeds, and seeing how the Uros people live (and likely, due to tourists’ guilt, purchasing a handwoven tablecloth you’re never going to use), is a really good experience.  The Classic Inca Trail is beautiful and famous for a reason.  Sandboarding in Huacachina is an adrenaline rush.  Pisco tours are a cheap and easy way to get your drink on.  Get over your pretentiousness and do the fun tourist things.  Because they’re fun.

5. Strangers Are Going to Kiss Your Face (so Let Them)

Leave your North American personal space issues at Gate 33. South Americans care even less about your bubble than Europeans do. It is perfectly acceptable for a woman’s butt to bump and thud against your face while you’re on an overcrowded bus driving an extremely windy road. Traditional women may repeatedly stroke your hair and compliment it, and tell you that you should cut a braid of it as a belt for your husband. Accept it. If you’re sitting on a park bench eating an empanada, it’s quite normal for a man to join you, ask about your home country, and kiss your face repeatedly when he finds out you’re from the same place as Arcade Fire. Just keep sanitary wipes on hand.

A woman selling dye in Peru

6. Prepare For Any Weather, At Any Time 

If you’re a hiker, you’ll know all about layering and merino wool and wicking fabric, etcetera.  What travel books may neglect to tell you is that it is not only when you’re camping in a tent a few miles from Huayna Picchu that warm clothes are essential.  The buildings that a budget traveler would be visiting or staying in are not equipped with the modern convenience of central heating.  Some hostels may even have plastic tarps for roofs, complete with icicle drippings. Your sexy, thin silk nightie is going to do nothing for you here.  Do not be surprised if you have to wear a scarf and mittens to sleep, though be careful that you don’t asphyxiate yourself by llama scarf.  When tenting on a hike, do not be afraid to get into a cuddle puddle with the tent-mate you’ve known for five hours.  The warmth you will bring them will be ultimately more relevant than the fact that you make a weird whistling noise when you sleep.

Above all things, keep an open mind.  The Peruvian version of The Last Supper has Jesus eating a guinea pig. Maybe, like Peru-Jesus, you’ll enjoy eating guinea pig too. There’s a Quechua proverb that goes,

Just as you love others, they will love you.

If you appreciate all of the sights and sounds and experiences of Peru, no matter how obscure or inconvenient, Peru will love you back. So, start your own Peruvian adventure. Find a volunteer program in Peru now!