Monthly Archives: September 2010

Ah yes! I’m in Peru

Ah yes!  I’m in Peru

I haven’t been back in Peru for a while – and a few things have been making me remember its idiosyncrasies and make me say ‘Ah yes, Im in Peru’

1.       Peruvians are friendly and fun.

serious looking man

Friendly man from the remote Ocangate region. Really.

I was reminded of this straight away.  Only just over the border and the bus had been double booked, so me and Little O had no seats for the next 4 hours.  We complained, the rest of the bus complained on our behalf.   I noticed that many of the offenders were wearing sunglasses – and it was not sunny.  The bus had been double booked to a group of jolly trippers on their way back from Guayaquil after some mass eye operations by Cuban doctors.  If you ever get into the sitution where someone is sitting in your seat,  its best to stubbornly brandish your ticket with its seat number.  The man with the improved vision in my seat was not planning on moving.  But after lots of pressure from the other passengers, he finally gave in.  I did feel a bit guilty and expected daggers from him for the rest of the trip.  But no!  He’s Peruvian after all.   Instead he struck up a friendly conversation and (along with THREE other passengers) bought Little O a cup of jello.  No hard feelings at all.

2.       Foood!!

At a side street in Mancora,  Little O liked the look of a scruffy ‘menu’ place.  It had a dirt floor, a curtain screening off the toilet, some wobbly plastic tables and a small boy with an impressive toy car.  It seemed to also be the only place with O’s favourite chicken soup on the menu so I reluctantly went in expecting to be dissatisfied.

sudado de pescado

Sudado de Pescado

The soup was very tasty, the main was ‘sudado de pescado’, a kind of clear fish soup and absolutely delicious.  It cost around $2 and no, our bellies were fine afterwards.  Then I remembered – Its Peru! – all the food is good.  Even in the one-house hamlet  in the mountains of Chachapoyas the woman did something with her dish of potatoes and beans to make it tasty.  There’s  no doubt about it,  Peru food sometimes has too much rice and potatoes – but it is the best on the continent.

3.       Peruvian sales technique

It took three major pharmacies in the large city of Chiclayo before one assistant admitted that yes, they did have vitamins for children.  Sales technique and the hard sell are alien concepts in this country.  A conversation you might have in oooh I don’t know, Cusco on entering a stationery shop:

Me:  Good morning.  Do you have any pens?

Shop person: Pens?  What color?

Me: Black if you have it.

Shop person:  No sorry no pens

Me:  But what about all those boxes of black pens there?

Shop person:  Oh they aren’t the ones you want

Me:  (frustrated its true).  Please can I buy one of those black pens you have on sale right there.

Shop person:  Oh allright then, if you insist.

Really, my Spanish is fine.  This doesn’t happen anywhere else – and I have had this conversation a surprising number of times in Peru.

4.      Buses

It’s true that the problem with Chachapoyas is the lack of airport.  It’s difficult to get there without a 10 hour bus journey on, what I was told, is a bad road. I was dreading it.

comfy bus seat

Semi cama seat on a Cruz del Sur bus

But then we got on the bus and I remembered – ahh, Peruvian buses, lovely!  Semi-Cama equates to business class on planes, Cama means you can lie down flat.  There was a movie, snacks, smooth driving, and a nice lady asking if we wanted alcohol and cotton wool?! ( I found out later this was for travel sickness / ear popping at altitude)  – and the buses are non stop.  O loves having his own bed on a bus with pillow and blankets.    Peru buses are great.

5.       Randomness

I know a man called Al.  He lives in Cusco now, but used to be a gardener in a zoo in the USA.  He sells bags for yoga mats – the person who sews them is a policeman who does sewing in his spare time.  Cusco, especially, is wonderful for this odd mixture of people finding a place for themselves in Peru.

6.       Electric shocks

small yellow taxi

Typical Peruvian Tico Taxi

Even after a year away from Peru, I still put my hand on the glass when closing a taxi door.  Why?  Because most taxis in Peru will give you an electric shock.  Its not a big shock but enough to make you drop your shopping.  You have been warned.

7.       Small change, what small change?

Nobody ever has any change.  Hold on to your change as much as you can.  Say you have a 10 sol note and two sols in change.  You want to buy a snack that costs 2 soles.  The woman in the shop looks at you suspiciously when you say ‘No, sorry no change’, but there’s no way on earth you are handing over your last bits of change.  For some reason changing a 10 sol note is nigh on impossible.  I think the bus drivers have all the change hidden under their floorboards.

8.       Peruvian bargaining.

small girl wearing two hats

Wayra, age 3, haggles for a hat in Pisac

‘How much is that fake alpaca sweater?’ you ask. ‘ 35 soles….’  The price seems reasonable,  so you make the motions to buy it.  ‘…but I’ll sell it for 33’ – great you think, I was going to pay 35 but if you want me to pay less…. no problem.   Really, if you’ve ever spent time in South East Asia, you’ll find Peruvians a pushover.

9.       Parades.

The taxi driver muttered under his breath as he did yet another diversion to avoid the crowds.  The Virgin was in town and the streets were full of devoted schoolchildren.  This particular little figure of a virgin lives in a remote mountain village and only comes out once a year.  If you didn’t turn out to see it, you were surely not a proper Catholic.  The streets were lined with people and banners and the taxi drivers were having a hard time.  This was in Trujillo and was a typical day in Peru where there seems to be an endless list of parades and festivals filling up the main squares.

Travelling to the main square of Cusco one day we were again delayed by a colorful parade.  It was the annual celebration of one of the city’s neighborhoods (or barrios).  There were brass bands and exuberant dancers; so exuberant the band members had to run to keep up with them.  In Peru you are never far away from a parade or a festival.  Even if there isnt a parade on the day you are in town, if you head to an open space you are sure to find groupd of people practicing their dances for the upcoming one.

10.       Scenery.

beautiful muntain scenery

On the way from Cusco to the Sacred Valley

Is it really necessary to point out the truly spectacular scenery all over Peru?  Lush cloud forest, vast desert and the majestic Andes all around you.  A short jaunt out of Cusco takes you past adobe villages, locals farming as they have for centuries on the steep sides of the mountains, and the snow capped sacred mountains (or apus) in the distance – and I’m blown away all over again.  Or how about the wild empty coast in the north,  with off-the-beaten-track beaches only known to fishermen, surfers and bored passengers staring out of the bus.


The Truth About Paddinton Bear: meeting an angry lady bear in northern Peru

Paddington is a very polite little bear who comes from ‘Darkest Peru’.  The Brown family found him on Paddington Station in London with a tag around his neck saying ‘Please look after this bear.  Thank you.’   – so they did.

Paddington Bear soft toy

Paddington Bear

Paddington wears a blue duffel coat and a large black hat under which he hides his marmalade sandwiches; much to the amusement of generations of British children.

Growing up, this was my entire knowledge of Peru:  it’s where Paddington comes from, and there is a place in the jungle called Lima where Paddington’s Aunt Lucy lives.  I thought Peru was full of bears in blue duffel coats.

When I go to the UK, people always ask me if I’ve seen Paddington and I have to regretfully reply no, I haven’t  – until now that is!

If there’s any real bear that could possibly be Paddington, it’s the Spectacled Bear – or sometimes called the Andean Bear.  And Chaparri Reserve and Bear Rescue Center is the best place to sport the bears in their natural habitat.

Chaparri is accessed from the city of Chiclayo on the north coast of Peru. The area is famous for the rich remains found in Moche tombs, but more on that in another posting.

Chaparri Nature Reserve is not easy to get to.  They said I could get to the nearest town by bus and then the guide would accompany me from the park office.  Didn’t happen to mention that the park office and the reserve were more than an hour apart on a road that looks impassible, but the trusty motor taxi managed to bump and shake all the way to the lodge.  Our guide for the visit was, a very  keen and knowledgeable student, was trying to give me lots of information all at once about the environment and where the water comes from,  while I tried to focus over the noise of the motor  taxi and stop O from being flung out of the side.

Rooms surrounded by plants

Rooms are built to blend into the environment

All the trouble of getting there and the hassle of the city, however, left as soon as we reached our room.  There’s nothing and nobody.  Lots of birds and that’s about it.  You really do feel instantly comfortable and relaxed as there’s not much to do apart from look at the wildlife.  Elizabeth came to ask what we wanted for dinner.  I wondered what would happen if I asked for some exotic spread here in the middle of nowhere but just said I’d have whatever was available.    She made a special soup for O,  so happy all round.

After a short rest to get the vibrations of the bike out of my bones, we went for a walk as it was getting dark.  I asked about our chances of seeing bears.  The rescued bears who are in enclosures –  fairly good ; a wild bear…you’ll be lucky.

There’s lots of birds – big ones, yellow ones, one was definitely a woodpecker.  Our guide explained about the park and its special role in rehabilitating bears and we walked along as it was getting dark …and there she was – a wild bear.  Blocking the path,  not too happy to see us and in no way letting us get past.  So not what I had expected.  I thought if we saw a bear it would be from a distance as it scurried off in fright – they are know to be quite shy after all.

Bear standing by tree

She just looks cuddly, but this is one angry lady bear.

Our bearess  was having a good chomp on a pile of insects when she saw us.  How on earth do people stand up to grizzlys?  She’s only about my height but she looked annoyed and it didn’t help that the guide didn’t want to get any closer either.    We turned around and went back.

Child in carrier with guide and bear beyone

O thinks - 'but that doesn't look like my toy bear'

Chaparri used to be a place where people went to hunt bears and deer, and is now the only place in Peru where bears still live in dry forest – there are other bears living in cloud forest but the dense vegetation makes it  difficult to spot them.  Heinz Plenge used to be a hunter in the area but in a radical career change to found a reserve and protect the bears instead.  In the restaurant, you can flick through old photos of him as hunter with his killed deer.

Chaparri has had immense successes in increasing the number of wild bears in the area, including the birth of Pierre in the last year.  As well as protecting wild bears, the reserve also has a programme of rehabilitation for bears previously held in captivity.

Where possible, bears  previously kept as pets or treated horribly in circuses,  are gradually reintroduced into the wild.  Cuto, unfortunately, can’t be reintroduced.  He was a dancing bear in a circus.  In his previous life, Cuto would be forced onto a metal plate with a fire underneath.  It was his burning feet that made him jig up and down and appear to dance for the spectators.  My guide told me that when he arrived in Chappari he still instinctively danced when he heard music.  Cuto’s teeth and jaw were so damaged in the circus that he wouldn’t survive in the wild, so lives happily in a large enclosure in Chaparri.

sleeping bear

Oblivious Cuto

Cuto’s age and bad teeth didn’t stop our wild bear from having a crush on him though!    She was still there the next day, outside his enclosure waiting for the old bear to wake up.   A crush, our guide said, was the only reason why the bearess would be hanging around for so long, and be so protective as to stand up to us – to defend her bear man.

This time she ambled over to take a look at us and went back to hunting for grubs.  We tentatively moved closer but she was surprisingly agile and standing straight up, stuck out her tongue at us.  We took a detour and left her to pace the fence, gazing longingly at Cuto.

bear walking alongside fence

Pacig the perimiter

standing bear

Bear love

So there we have it  – yes I did see a Paddington in Peru.

More stuff about Spectacled Bears

What’s with the glasses?

No, they don’t wear specs but they have whitish or yellow rings around their eyes that make them look like they are wearing glasses.  These markings are unique like a fingerprint.

Do they like marmalade?

Well yes, fruit is the main part of their diet.  Plus a tiny bit of honey – so that bit is true.   They are also partial to a bit of fish.

Are there still bears in circuses?

It is now illegal in Peru to keep bears in captivity – in circuses or as pets.  The film “Manos and Garras” by Bernie Peyton is the story of Yinda the bear, taken to Chaparri by her owner who then stayed on the reserve in a tent until Yinda her pet was happy to go off and fend for itself.

Where else can I see the Spectacled Bear?

There is a chance to see the bear on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, or in the small sanctuary in the grounds of the Pueblo Hotel near the site.  In Ecuador communities are working to preserve the cloud forest habitat of the bears in the north of the country.

And Finally…

We went to Chaparri to see the bears but really appreciated the calm, relaxed atmosphere, the great guides, and the myriad of other animals, birds and reptiles.  You would never believe for example that the White Winged Guan is critically endangered from the way it hops about the kitchen roof.  Please contact me if you would like any more information on Chaparri or the bears.

Small fox

This fox came to check out what we were having for dinner

Donkey standing in a clearing

Could this be the happiest donkey in Peru?