Does Peru have llamas?

If you happened to be my boyfriend, and happened to be in on this particular joke, this is where you Vicunaswould reply, in a high-pitched voice: “Peru has hella llamas!” If you’d like, you can try saying it aloud. In fact, I’d prefer if you would.

There. Isn’t it better to interact rather than read passively.

But back to the llamas. We did, in fact, see a couple dozen or so. Or rather, we saw a couple dozen llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas–the latter running wild across the high-altitude plateaus on our approach to Colca Canyon (site of my first, and thankfully only bout of food poisoning thanks to a dish of trucha with passionfruit sauce, but more on that later). More than that, though, llamas are a talisman, a metaphor for Peru, a solid presence even when they aren’t in fact present. They’re on many menus. (Yes, they eat them, an the ancient Incas used to sacrifice them as well. Black ones, at least.) Every hustler eagerly engaged in the act of hustling gringos insists that every item of their merchandise is made from baby alpaca. I’m pretty sure I heard one sweet-looking old lady insists that a set of shotglasses was made from baby alpaca. That may be an ever so slight exaggeration, but after spending three weeks with people constantly yelling at you and waving products in your face, well, it tends to have a cynical effect on you after awhile. Toward the end of week two, I almost yelled at an old woman selling fried dough on the side of the street for stealing two soles from me. (That’s about the equivalent of 80 cents, but it was the last in a series of mostly petty thiefs and my temper was decidedly on edge.)

I took notes every day of the trip, which was essential because we moved around so quickly and frequently that without the notes I’m not sure I would have known which city I was in, or which I was traveling toward. I don’t intend to post the entire contents of these notes here, mostly on account of the fact that they’re brisk scribbles intended to document rather than enlighten or entertain. But I’ll try to cull through the Spanglish wreckage for something valuable, or at the very least shiny and interesting.

This was my first entry, made as soon as we arrived at the hostel in Iquitos, which is the largest city in the world accessible only by boat or plane:

After flying (getting into Lima at 12:30 a.m., “sleep” in airport until 5:30 a.m. flight to Iquitos) these are the things I am presently concerned about–

world peace


the newspaper

my book

the smell of cinnamon rolls at a stand in the airport


the fact that I look exactly the way I feel

Iquitos is hot. Muggy hot–not desert hot. Like it wants you to know that all the moisture in the world can’t save you. We paid a mototaxi 10 soles to take us to the hostel and, as far as an introduction to Iquitos is concerned, I’d say a mototaxi is about perfect.

Mototaxis are like rickshaws rigged onto motorcycles. They don’t go very fast, despite the derivers’ best efforts and everywhere you go in Iquitos there’s the silly, mad rev of those tiny engines and honking and bickering among the drivers. Our driver called a truck driver a babosa for honking at him.

Many of the mototaxis have graffiti on them–skulls, names of couples, Batman–all in a very elementary artistic style.

Before we’d even reached the hostel at 8:30 a.m. we were covered in about three layers of sweat and grime. It reminded me of Morocco–the overwhelming sense of not understanding what is going on, the unbearable heat.

We got our first Peruvian meal at a restaurant called Yellow Rose of Texas, a tourist trap within view of the Amazon, and which turned out to have dynamite food. (A theme throughout the trip.) Our first ceviche was ecstasy, and I was happy we’d decided to ignore the recommendation of the so-called doctor at the clinic in San Luis Obispo where we picked up our malaria medication for the trip. She insisted ceviche must be avoided due to a cholera outbreak…a cholera outbreak we later discovered had taken place in the mid-90s resulting in very thorough testing of the waters off the Peruvian coast. I’ve found that, for the most part, the doctors at the clinics are either ignorant or so overworked that they’re essentially useless if not downright harmful. Giving travelers seriously outdated information and warning them that people who get cholera have to sleep in a bed with a hole in it (guess what passes through the hole!) is downright negligent, in my opinion. But I’ll save the healthcare rant for another post. Or 10.

We followed the ceviche by taking a mototaxi into Belen. I’ve never witnesses such poverty as Belen–a large shantyown that floats during the rainy season, but in late October, with the rains not yet come, is merely a maze of hovels, wood structures with no doors, or even walls in many cases where people live completely exposed, too many children running around, too many dogs lying in rib-exposed heaps, collapsed in what little shade they can find.

We were warned about Belen. To hide our valuables and protect ourselves. Which we thought we were adequately doing, but an old man gestured for Colin to hide his camera more securely. This man, standing in this house on stilts, among these people looking so poor, so unforgivably poor, was trying to prevent us from being robbed.

We didn’t stay long. The smells–piles of garbage everywhere rotting, too many people living too close together with no privacy at all–were difficult to accept. As were the vultures pecking through the trash of what could have been peoples’ doorsteps if they’d had doors. And we stuck out. Bad. We were getting a lot of stares, and starting to feel as though we were making some kind of voyeuristic experience of their poverty. Really, we were advised to go there by the man who ran our hostel, and by Lonely Planet. And we didn’t mean to make a sport of their abject poverty–merely wanted to see more than Machu Picchu.

We swam in the hostel’s pool for quite some time after that to give ourselves some relief from the heat.

Tomorrow we plan to go to the river to see the manatees. It’s a splendid thing to look out over the Amazon. To hear the chirping of countless unseen birds–the kind of birds you very much wish to see for I’m sure they’re adorned in finery even if the rest of us are not.

And that leaves us tired in two separate beds in our hostel, which is run by very friendly people, the younger of which speaks a little more English than we speak Spanish, slowly becoming aware of the monumental task ahead of us. To explore a country, an entire country, in 21 days. To overcome my longing for home–for pumpkin foods, for autumn, for cats, for my laptop, for my schedule.




  1. Wow. Amazing experience. Also, on a side note, I am very much looking forward to your healthcare rant! I might even join you in it!

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