Category Archives: Peru

What we’ve spent in South America

As a public service to anyone who might be thinking about following in our footsteps in South America, and to satisfy the curiosity of others, we thought we’d share a little about what our day to day spending is while traveling in various countries.

We do this as we leave South America and we’ll repeat a similar exercise for Asia later.

We’re providing an average daily spend in New Zealand dollars, and our estimate of how many times cheaper the countries we travel in are than New Zealand. This data is taken from our ongoing spending tracking which we update every week (I affectionately describe this as our WEEBU or weekly budget update) and from our general recollections of the prices we have observed.

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 10.20.11 PMDisclaimers

I’d have learned nothing as a consultant if I didn’t offer some disclaimers over this and indeed, a couple of caveats are in order:

  • This is on the ground costs. It excludes international flights and other pre-trip costs like visas and vaccinations.
  • This represents our travel. That means it reflects the specific experiences we chose to have, rather than what costs will be like for everyone. You could travel and spend more, or less and you might differ from us in where you chose to splash out or do it cheap.
  • Our costs are for a couple. You could reasonably assume two thirds for a lone traveler.
  • In a long period of travel there are inevitably some ‘lumpy’ costs like buying a new backpack or sending a package home. Where it’s easy to do so we’ve taken these out, but some will remain.

Some observations

  • Argentina is pleasingly cheap given the quality of food, accommodation etc. we’ve enjoyed is as good, if not better, than what you’d expect at home. Taking advantage of the black market exchange rate it’s like an awesomely cheap version of Europe.
  • Peru is probably cheaper than it looks. Costs are pumped up by expensive entries to places like Machu Picchu. We also chose to spend more to enjoy more of Peru’s excellent cuisine. We don’t regret that for a second, but you could spend less.
  • If you’ve got US dollars then Venezuela is silly cheap and the quality of food and accommodation is surprisingly high. But even given that, traveling there at the moment isn’t worth it. It’s just too dangerous to be enjoyable.
  • Colombia is a great destination and well worth the extra few dollars above the price of travel in Ecuador and Peru. Spending a long time there, to volunteer like we did, is very worthwhile.

So long South America – some parting observations

The sunset at the beginning of the world; day's end at Isla del Sol.
The sunset at the beginning of the world; day’s end at Isla del Sol.

We’re really sad to be leaving South America. It’s been an amazing five months and, if it weren’t for Asian travels on the horizon we’d probably be pretty down about our departure.

Truth be told, South America was never my first priority. When our timing for Asia didn’t match with the climate we needed to do what we wanted we had to reshuffle and I wasn’t sure how it would work out. But our time here has been challenging and rewarding and the places we have been and people we’ve met have been incredible. Significantly exceeded expectations.

As we leave, here are a range of parting observations. They try, but fail, to capture what we’ve seen and what we’ve thought in broad sweeping themes:

  1. There’s a lot of European history here, more than I had understood. Around the same time that Maori were losing their independence to British colonisers, Colombians were getting their independence from Spanish conquistadores. So things look and feel quite European even if they also feel different.
  2. There’s an upper middle class in the Andes whose life experience is probably not so different from ours at home. And that’s true for the whole middle class in Argentina. At the same time there are poorer groups whose living standards are dramatically different.
  3. A little Spanish goes a long way. A little more goes a long way too. There’s surely no other language that is so accessible to English speakers that allows you to speak with such a diversity of people. And the ability to cut through the hand signals and ask about family or work or aspirations really enriches a travel experience. I’m glad I learned some and grateful that Fiona knew lots.
  4. South American societies are colonial, like at home, but the mixing of ethnicities, be they African, European or indigenous, has been much greater. At its most mixy, skin colour doesn’t even denote ethnicity anymore. This is fundamentally different to New Zealand.
  5. It’s not realistic to call South America ‘catholic’. Not when there’s devil worship, hallucinogenic/spiritual drugs and witches. There’s catholic traditions for sure, but there’s a parallel spiritual belief system which sets South America apart, too. They still manage to be pretty prohibitive about abortion, however.
  6. Sloths are amazing.
  7. With notable exceptions, South American food isn’t much to write home about. There are a lot of carbs and a lot of fried things. Peru and Argentina stand out as the pick of the bunch in terms of cuisine.
  8. There’s a strong left wing political tradition in lots of South American countries. The best face of this is innovative policy and a concern for the poor. The worst is disastrous policies piled one upon another to sustain a doctrine that is clearly unrealistic.
  9. It’s not that dangerous, and danger isn’t always where you’d expect. The massive police presence in Colombia made us feel safer there than in the tourist hub of Ecuador.
  10. The people are great. Colombians and Argentinians are the most openly friendly we’ve come across; Bolivians and Peruvians tend to be a little more reserved. But we’ve experienced kindness everywhere we’ve been.

Ciao Peru, hola Bolivia

Looking back to Peru from the Isla del Sol in Bolivia
Looking back to Peru from the Isla del Sol in Bolivia

With two weeks in Peru done we boarded a night bus from Cusco for the border of Bolivia.

Peru has got some serious game as a tourist destination. The Incan sites are impressive, from Machu Picchu right on through Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The food is a really pleasant surprise. The Colca canyon is just one awesome example of Peru’s stunning geography. Even though we spent most of our time on the main tourist trail it didn’t feel overrun or overpopulated with McDonalds.

There was plenty of Peru we didn’t see including its jungle, beaches and more of its mountainous Andean area. We would have been happy to stay if another country and increasingly imminent plane tickets out of South America hadn’t beckoned. We would happily recommend Peru as a destination to a wide range of people. It’s very accessible but still very authentic.

As ever for us New Zealanders, crossing the border was a slightly surreal experience. There was no plane ticket to be booked and no real advance planning. We turned up at the bus station bought a ticket and woke up approaching the frontier. After a little pernicious bureaucracy when we realised we had lost our departure cards we were in to Bolivia.

Our first stop was Copacabana. On the shores of Lake Titicaca it has so much tourist infrastructure that it’s turning tourists like us away. It is indeed about as tacky as the eponymous Barry Manilow song. But luckily, we’ve been assured, it’s not at all representative of Bolivia.

Ever since we arrived in Bogota and found it surprisingly sensible and European we’ve been looking for some crazy. And we have a sense we’ll find a healthy dose in Bolivia.

Policy wonk digest: Peru

  • Taxes are lower in Peru if you haven’t finished building yet, presumably to encourage construction. So many, many, buildings sport unsightly unfinishedness to maintain the lower tax rate. A particular favourite is steal cables that reach to the sky. Classic #unintendedconsequences.
  • Peru’s railways are structurally separated: one company owns the tracks and any other company can run trains over them. Structural separation is normally spoken of in a telco context (split lines and retailer a.k.a Chorus and Telecom) to foster competition at the retail level.
  • A Chilean firm took over the government’s running of Peru Rail services to Machu Picchu and has increased the frequency and standard of service massively. Another competing called Inca Rail is also operating, something that would be inconceivable without the structural separation, or other regulation.
  • Sadly, we’ve not had enough time to learn much about Peru’s internal conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. What we do know is that the conflict has abated almost completely, and a truth and reconciliation commission more than ten years ago seems to have been a real aid in this process.

Railway apartheid

We bit the financial bullet and took the train back from the Machu Picchu area. It’s billed as a special experience and it was. First because the scenery is stunning. Secondly because it tasted a little like railway apartheid.

Tickets for foreigners cost significantly more than for locals. We’re talking ten times more plus. This approach is pretty common for major sites in South America. We’re not generally uncomfortable with this astute use of price discrimination:

  • If the pricing was even it’d be super cheap to foreigners, but prohibitively expensive to more locals
  • For government run sites it seems fair for the government to provide a subsidy to its citizens, but not others

But the system with Peru Rail was slightly different. We didn’t just pay different prices, we sat in different rail cars with different standards of service. Fiona was, as ever, delighted when this manifested itself as free hot beverages but it still felt a bit irksome.

For one thing, we like traveling with locals better than in a tourist bubble. They’re great to talk to. For another, we don’t like the assumption that we need a different kind of service than they do. If there is a choice of service, we like to be able to take the cheaper one. Finally, there was just something strange feeling about watching all the locals line up for one carriage and everyone else for another.

To be fair to Peru Rail, offering different service classes probably makes their differentiated pricing easier to justify to tourists who complain. And it seems a little illogical to imply, as we’ve done in this post, that we don’t mind paying more than locals, but we mind paying more to get more. But all the same we really would have preferred to pay a little less more to join the locals with their slightly lesser leg room and no free coffee.

Requiem for a dying language

We asked an old woman on the street where we could find a laundry. She couldn’t help us. It wasn’t that she didn’t know, it was that she didn’t speak Spanish.

Quechua, the language the Incas used to tie communication together across their empire is still spoken by some 4.5 million Peruvians – about one in five – as a mother tongue. In some areas like around Cusco, it’s the most spoken language. But Spanish is the language of commerce, government and education everywhere.

Later Fiona spoke to her manicurist and masseuse about language. They’d both begun life speaking Quechua, and that’s all their parents speak, but they’d picked up Spanish when they came to town for economic opportunity. They speak Spanish with their kids. And their kids have no interest in speaking Quechua.

Interestingly it isn’t a pure ethnic cleavage that defines who speaks Spanish. Most Peruvians are some shade of indigenous/colonial mix. Instead Quechua speakers tend to be poorer and more rural. Both the women Fiona spoke with said that, as a result, there’s some shame associated with speaking Quechua, an attitude that is apparently widespread.

Is the government killing Quechua?

Quechua isn’t widely used as a written language. There are no Quechua magazines and no newspapers. It’s also not widely used in education. There’s some Quechua primary schools but almost no secondary or higher education.

The Ministry of Education is peddling a new initiative for Quechua speaking primary students around Cusco. The schooling is described as bilingual, but actually they only teach in both languages until the kids become fluent in Spanish. Then Quechua is dropped. It’s probably a better option for kids that are otherwise thrown into a foreign language environment at age five or six, but it’s not really bilingual.

There’s a notable irony that the government is a champion of Incan history as a source of tourism and cultural pride, but is arguably killing off the language the Incas spoke.

There are reasonable arguments which say that language, like all elements of culture, should be allowed to develop organically without government meddling. That argument says we shouldn’t try and resurrect or promote dying languages. But it’s a different thing entirely to effectively be killing off a language by not allowing for it in public institutions. Peruvian policy feels much more like requiring Maori children to speak English in school in the twentieth century than setting up Maori TV in the twenty first.

Small town. Big ruins.

Ollantaytambo is a very pleasing little town in the El Valle Sagrado. That’s the Sacred Valley stretching between Cusco and Machu Picchu and containing many impressive ruins.


Ollanytaytambo’s ruins probably come second only to Machu Picchu’s for impressiveness and, because a colonial town was built atop many of them, it’s got a more ‘lived in’ feeling. Also, though we couldn’t see it the town is supposedly laid out like a corn cob.

It’s also a bit of a mecca for volunteers. While there we heard about one organisation that provides dormitory accommodation for Peruvian girls who have no opportunity to go to secondary school in their home villages, another trying to set up a pre-school and overheard a meeting of some young volunteers who seemed to be teaching English. We also ate in a cafe that funds family planning for rural Peruvian women.

The tourism triple whammy

The town made me reflect on what a positive force tourism can be for development, but also how localised its impact can be.

  1. First, the tourist dollars flowing through the Sacred Valley mean Peruvian poverty is almost imperceptible to the uninformed tourist.
  2. Second, the kind of places that tourists like to spend time are also pretty nice for volunteers too. So you’re more likely to get non-profit organisations set up, and find people to staff them. After all as we’ve said before, volunteers make decisions about balancing personal and community benefits.
  3. Third, non-profits will find it much easier to fund raise with a steady stream of tourists to hear their donation pitch, or eat in their cafe. Virtuous cycle.

None of this is intended to blemish the outstanding work that many non-profits do in tourist heavy areas. But it does make us think that if we were to volunteer again – a possibility that is on our mind – we’d consider how well the area was serviced as part of our calculus of where to spend our time and put our efforts.

It’s a ridiculously small world

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 7.37.10 PM
We got to talking to Sunny when she was looking for a plug to charge her mobile phone while we were shamelessly abusing free wifi in a cafe. She learned we were from New Zealand and guessed we might possibly know of the pizza place her great-nephew runs in Wellington. We did. It’s Tommy Millions on Courtenay Place and it’s excellent.

But she didn’t guess I would also know the owner. I was in the hostel with him in first year uni, and some law classes. Neither did she guess we could verify the connection on facebook and have him respond within minutes of my message.

These kind of coincidences are increasingly commonplace. But they’re still deserving of wonder.

Fast food development: Peru


Tell me this isn’t the fanciest K-fry you’ve ever seen. That’s what makes the Peruvian installment of our fast food development categorisation such a slam dunk.

We’ve seen no Western fast food outside city and tourist centres, and when it is there it is super flash. The above example is from Cusco’s main square. We saw similar in Arequipa and Lima. None we’ve seen have had conventional branding.

On the pricing front, Fiona’s Starbucks latte this afternoon cost twice the price of her two course set menu lunch (but it is her birthday week, after all).

The conclusion is simple – Peru joins Colombia and Ecuador as a stage 2: Western fast food is available in major cities (or tourist traps) but is prohibitively expensive for all but the richest.

Here’s hoping Bolivia or Argentina can mix it up a bit for us.

Policy wonk digest: Incan edition

Normally our policy wonk digests focus on snippets of interesting policy in the countries we’re traveling through. This one focuses on the state we’d have been visiting had we arrived here 500 years ago: the Inca Empire.

  • Baby Incas had their skulls stretched in the hope their brains would grow bigger as a result. The more noble the Inca, the more the stretching. Combined with the prohibition on all but the nobility using coca, it all sounds a little Brave New World.
  • The Incan Empire expanded rapidly. The initial Incan approach was to persuade tribes to join voluntarily. Many did. The Incas were then even generous enough to incorporate the new tribe’s gods into their primary temples in Cusco. Tribes that didn’t join voluntarily were still beaten up by Incan armies, though.
  • When there were uprisings or troubles with tribes in the empire, Incas used forced migration to return things to a peaceful equilibrium. Groups that were loyal to the empire would be moved in alongside dissidents. Agitators might be brought closer to the centre of Incan power. There are, still today, tribes in Ecuador who came from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and retain their original cultural practices. The Incan approach was not all that dissimilar to Indonesian Transmigration.
  • Incan nobility were preserved as mummies after their death. Their estates – land, property, servants – continued to function and served them. In this way the Incas were arguably early adopters of legal personality.
  • The Incan road system is legendary and still somewhat intact despite unforgiving terrain. The roads allowed for dissemination of supplies and quick mobilisation of armies. Rest and store houses every 20km were kept well stocked.
  • The roads were also the lifeblood of an elaborate communication system. There would be a camp of specially trained messengers about every 2km. They would run messages in a relay system. There can have been no Chinese whispers, for the Incas were isolated from all other civilisations.
  • The Incas devolved power in an ordered and hierachical way. The Inca (the emperor) rules all. Under him were rulers of about 100,000 people, then 10,000 and so on down to, in some cases, units of around ten.
  • We’ve written before about the peculiar Incan economy that was without markets or currency. It worked mostly because ordinary Incas were required to work for the state for most of the year – a kind of taxation – and were supplied with the necessities of life as a result.