Category Archives: Peru

How crappy is South America’s plumbing?

In most of Latin America the practice is not to flush toilet paper. Instead you put the paper in a small bin which is (hopefully) placed a handy distance from where you’re seated. Hostels try to announce this cheerfully with signs that say things like “If you haven’t eaten it don’t flush it”.

Apparently South American plumbing isn’t up to processing toilet paper. I’ve not really been satisfied with this explanation. You can still flush other things after all.

The first thing you find  googling  is  complaining gringos who think flushing is supremely hygienic. Some claim that it’s completely fine to flush even when you’re told it’s not. Others have even developed  flushing strategies. But the fact that some individuals – mostly travelers – don’t encounter, any problems, isn’t enough to dismiss the claims of the no-flushers. Impacts could be cumulative.

The reasoning from the no-flushers has never been cultural, always about plumbing, so that’s where I have focused my attention. Is South American plumbing more crappy than what we have at home? The answer seems to be, yes.

For starters, while we take for granted that our bathrooms are connected to municipal sewage systems in urban New Zealand, that’s not the case here. Most toilets here connect to septic tanks. In colonial times nothing else was available. Costs of replacement have evidently been prohibitively high here, if not in richer parts of the world.

But the story doesn’t end there. Of course rural New Zealanders still flush into  septic tanks. But theirs are different. They’re made of plastic, have manholes to allow clearing and a plastic piping filtering system. Older tanks are more likely to be made of concrete, include impenetrable concrete tops and a filtering system that uses gravel.

Toilet paper isn’t great for Western septic tanks, apparently. Eventually it builds up in the tank with other non-boidegradable material and needs to be cleared through manholes. That sounds stinky, but is not such a big deal. But, owing to the concrete covers on South American tanks, it is much harder and more expensive to do. Which is more, the South American filtering system is easily clogged. Bits of toilet paper will clog the system up and stop anything else down there from moving around.

Net result: South American plumbing is genuinely more vulnerable to flushed toilet paper. No one absentmindedly flushed paper will ruin the system, but they could eventually break the camel’s back.

Fiona wondered whether the no-flushers are preferable environmentally. I’ve lound no conclusive evidence. I guess sewage treatment beats septic tanks, but that’s not really the  question. Organisations like the WWF encourage us to use less, and better (i.e. recycled)  paper, but they don’t take a position on the flush issue. That may not be the end of the issue. For starters, they might just think that broaching this subject is taboo and would yield them with less donations for pandas. But I do wonder whether the flushers or trashers use more paper. I’m confident there’s a non-crappy PhD in it.

Machu Picchu too

Machu Picchu now officially makes our list – along with the Taj Mahal and Venice – of places that are totally worth their enormous tourist hype.

Starting out in the morning at 5.30am it felt like we were going skiing:

  • piling on to the buses for the windy climb up the hillside, nobody felt like they’d had quite enough sleep, but everyone was excited
  • everyone was hoping the blanket of mist would clear
  • every second person was wearing something from The North Face
  • some hard core folks were hiking to avoid the bus ride (we were not among them)

When we got to the gates there was a massive queue, but the sight absorbed the thousand or so visitors, just like a good ski field and there was much room to wander.

Machu Picchu is an enigmatic place. Most of its residents had fled by the time of European ‘rediscovery’ in 1911. As a result, beyond knowing it was an Incan city no one really knows for sure what it was for. Intuitively the fact that it’s built atop a steep sided mountain that would be tough to summit, let alone build on, suggests the Incas thought it was a very special place. This was no ordinary Incan city. But whether it was primarily a religious, political or trading centre no one is really sure.


The site is a large part of the spectacle. The mountain is towering. It stands in the way of the Urubamba river which gushes below in deep ravines around a U-shape bend. It feels much higher than it actually is because the slopes are so dizzying. Watching the mist fade from the landscape and the ruins was both a relief, and quite magic.

And then the ruins are great. Unlike most Incan sites the Spanish didn’t know Machu Picchu existed and so they didn’t have the chance to pillage it to pieces. All that’s really lacking is the thatched roofs and the inhabitants. There’s still functioning fountains and aqueducts. And llamas, which add to any attraction. The sunrise still shines perfectly through a single temple window once a year at summer solstice.


The Peruvian government, which manages the site, has capitalised well on the attraction, without over-commercialising it. The tickets are expensive, especially in Peruvian terms. They cost about $70NZD. But the number of visitors is limited per day, as are people climbing adjacent mountains and the Inca trail. And, really pleasingly, the commitment to preserving the site means there is no commerce wherein. Not so much as an overpriced empanada seller. There’s not even bathrooms. Everyone flouts the rule that you can’t eat and drink inside but in doing so become determined to be discrete enough to not even think about littering.

It was an effort to get to Machu Picchu, and a not inconsiderable blip in our budget too. But it’s somewhere we couldn’t have been to Peru without visiting. And that we’d recommend to any tourist without hesitation.


The back door to Machu Picchu


There’s no road connecting Machu Picchu to the outside world. You either get there:

  • On a lovely sounding but very overpriced train or
  • Under your own steam

The under your own steam option can be the four day Inca trail. But to do that you need to book months in advance and we didn’t. There are some alternative trail options now too, but none really fit with wants or time frames. So we took three buses which wound from Cusco through the hills and behind Machu Picchu. Then, in increasing darkness, we followed the train tracks from a hydro electric plant to Machu Picchu’s service town, Aguas Calientes.

On the bus journey we bumped into a British couple we’d met at carnaval in Barranquilla and then again in Santa Marta. On one hand this seemed miraculous. We’d last seen them months ago and countries away. On the other, there are only so many travelers in South America with the sorts of sensibilities that finds them busing towards a hydro-electric plant in the hope of a cheaper journey. To add to the coincidence, we’d unknowingly been at the same bar the night before, and followed basically the same path down from Colombia. She’s a doctor and will be starting a new job in Melbourne in August.

The two and a half our walk was a hard slog as we carried all our gear, but it was spectacular. Only later did we realise we had actually followed the huge u-shape curve in the river that carves out the mountains on which Machu Picchu perches. It would have been easier if the railway sleepers had been more regular. But at least we knew the trains for the day were finished.

We arrived in Aguas pretty tired and happy to accept the offer of a hostel tout who was cunningly waiting where the trail emerges.

In a concession to convenience, and my love of all forms of transport for which you can draw a good route map, we will be taking the train out tomorrow.

Jesus Christ – guinea pig slayer


On the walls of Cusco’s cathedrals and museums of religious art there are paintings of Jesus eating cuy – guinea pig – for the last supper. There’s also a depiction of the Virgin Mary as Pachamama, a goddess revered by indigenous tribes throughout the Andes. It looks pretty weird.

The paintings represent the Cusco school of art. When Spanish missionaries and priests arrived in Latin America they found it hard to evangelise the local population who were illiterate, and had their own strong religious beliefs. They made art in the hope of making their religion more accessible and, in what we might generously call crafty, they sought to incorporate the symbolism of local religions.

It seems that in some ways the local Catholic church continues to accept old indigenous beliefs as a kind of parallel spirituality (though not the human sacrifice bit). That’s probably partly because they seem pretty harmless – recognising the special importance of the sun, the moon, water, etc. If only they were similarly flexible on other issues of dogma like sexuality and abortion.

Cusco and her ruins


Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire. At its height it must have been out-of-this-world spectacular. In fact, it’s still pretty darn cool. When the Spanish arrived they quickly ran out of grand buildings in Spain to which to compare its architecture. They were especially interested in the massive amounts of gold.

The gold is gone now. Much of it was melted down by an Inca emperor to pay ransom to the Spanish. To the Incas gold didn’t really have value outside a religious context where they thought it was special because it reflected the sun. The rest of the gold was looted and pillaged and sent back to Spain.

Some of the mighty Inca structures were used by the Spanish as quarries to build a new colonial city. Palaces in the city centre were stripped down and had cathedrals built atop them. But there are enough remaining ruins to get a sense of how impressive Incan architecture was. We especially liked Saqsaywaman which overlooks the modern city.


Without any mortar-like substance the Incans cut rocks incredibly precisely, fitting them together in complex polyagonal shapes. One hell of a rubix cube. They managed to cart huge stones about without the wheel or draught animals. And without having figured out the strength and usefulness of the arch they made great use of the trapezoid, even tilting their walls to make them more earthquake proof.

Cusco’s not ruined

Cusco is pretty touristy. On top of all its own ruins it is the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. But it manages to pull off touristy pretty well. It’s like Rotorua in that the tourist attractions are actually integrated into the city. But it smells better. You turn a corner or climb an alley and find an original Incan wall. That’s to say nothing of the colonial churches and other architecture that abound.

We’re staying with a local family who we found on  Our main host likes Richard Dawkins and pop-economics, just like us. We’ve talked about Daniel Kahneman and Pikkety and I made Fiona explain libertarian paternalism and nudges. His daughters do maths for fun and like to ask how to say things in English. It’s nice to spend some time with a Latin American family that priorities education.

Our host’s sister cooks us breakfast – which is rice and something else, the something else ranging from chicken casserole to banana pancakes – and she and her daughter sleep in the kitchen behind a curtain. It’s another example of the contrast between a city that in some ways feels very European and splendorous, but it other ways not so much.

Peru’s excellent cuisine

Peru is the first country that we’ve been to on this trip that has had a cuisine. We don’t just mean a collection of national dishes. We mean a sell-cookbooks-to-tourists and look-forward-to-trying-new-things-at-mealtimes cuisine. It’s also having something of a resurgence. Lima is now often called the gastronomic capital of the Americas.

From the top: Sesame chicken on mash with avocado and olive tapenade, four kinds of potatoes with Tuscan flabours, twice baked potatoes with Andean cheese and bacon, shredded chicken on potato and avocado, lomo sltado, four kinds of potatoes with chicken and peas, lamb with Andean cheese, alpaca steak with wild Andean mushrooms, ceviche with squid chicharon.
From the top: Sesame chicken on mash with avocado and olive tapenade; four kinds of potatoes with Tuscan flavours’ twice baked potatoes with Andean cheese and bacon; chicken salad on potato mash with avocado; lomo saltado; four kinds of potatoes with chicken and peas; lamb ribs with Andean cheese; alpaca steak with wild Andean mushroom sauce; ceviche with squid chicharron.

The ingredients used in Peruvian cuisine aren’t markedly different from neighbouring countries. But what they do with them involves more thought and effort. For example in Colombia you might well get beef, potato, tomato and onion. But it’d just come as beef, potato, tomato and onion. Here in Peru it’s called lomo saltado. The beef is marinaded, sliced and cooked together with the onion and tomato and the potatoes as chips, and served with rice. It’s excellent.

Peru also has some things of its own. Ceviche is from here and is delicious. Trout is a big deal. Fresh, tangy, Andean cheese is an important ingredient. Alpaca meat is as common as beef. There’s large and moderately spicy chillies to be stuffed and baked. And there are potatoes. Always potatoes.

The humble potato is quite possibly the Inca’s biggest gift to the world. There are a huge number of varieties here with skins and flesh of white, yellow and purple. They have subtly different flavours if you use them right.

It’s still extraordinarily cheap. None of the dishes featured in the pics above cost more than $18NZD and most were well less than ten.

We’re still left wanting for fresh veg a bit, but, overall, we’re big fans of Peruvian cuisine and we’re enjoying food being an exciting part of our travels again.

Nuns with megaphones


Searching for the Machu Picchu ticket office in Cusco we stumbled upon an anti-abortion protest. The nuns seemed to be getting right into it, hollering into megaphones. We wondered why they weren’t cloistered up somewhere.

We have to give them credit for some good slogans (translated):

  • Lets speak for those who cannot speak
  • A baby in arms is less heavy than a baby on your conscience

We were also pretty impressed with the turnout. It’s hard to estimate but there must have been five thousand plus people, and Cusco is not a massive city.

We were surprised to see, however, a number of nurses attending in uniform, and a representation from the Peruvian military.

Most of all we were concerned at the number of school children participating. We reckon the median protestor age was about thirteen. There were large groups of kids in school uniform tracksuits. If the march was a compulsory school activity then that’s much more despicable than cross country. And even if it’s voluntary, I’m not sure of the wisdom of encouraging pre-teens to be judgmental on such a sensitive issue and giving them pictures of fetuses to carry through the streets.

Abortion in Peru

Abortion is illegal in Peru except where giving birth would endanger a mother’s life.  Women who have abortions can be jailed for up to two years, and a medical practitioner who gives one can be jailed for up to six.

The protest suggests that back street abortions must be fairly commonplace. They’re not just some debating abstraction. The UN has expressed concerns about high rates of maternal mortality resulting from botched and unsafe abortions. There are other concerns about the restrictive nature of Peru’s legislation too:

  • A seventeen year old girl was denied an abortion on health grounds though her labour lead her to be quadriplegic. Her pregnancy was the result of rape.
  • A thirteen year old girl whose fetus was diagnosed with a condition that would be fatal at birth was denied a therapeutic abortion.

The narrative of the abortion debate we’re familiar with is most commonly about the US: Roe vs Wade and the extent of a woman’s right to choose. But there are some very real, confronting and immediate issues here too, and they probably deserve more of our attention.

The grander canyon

At 4,160m deep at its deepest point, the Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. It’s also 100km long. The slice that we spent two days trekking in was awesome. We’ve talked a little before about how, coming from New Zealand, we can get a little jaded with other countries’ ‘nature’ based tourist activities. But at home we’ve nothing to compare to the ginormous, continental scale of this gash in the earth.

We started out viewing condors, and were so taken with their flight that we missed the bus to the start of our trek. That added another two hours walking to a fairly torturous day descending into the canyon, though the scenery from the canyon edge was beautiful.


We walked about eight hours on the first day. Down a vertical kilometre and halfway up the other side. Our descent probably seems less impressive than an equivalent mountain climb, but it sure was hard on our knees.

The canyon is populated by a range of small villages who farm crops and llamas and offer services to tourists. Like about a quarter of Peru’s population they speak Quechua as their first language. We spoke to one woman who ran a restaurant about why she lived in the canyon. It’s tranquilo she said, and beautiful. We couldn’t argue on either count. She also felt some people outside the canyon were rude and materialistic. Her sons had their primary education in the canyon but are now studying at university in Arequipa.


The track we followed in the afternoon climbed and traversed high across the side of the canyon. Sometimes it was broken by landslides which left unstable scree and dirt which we had to shimmy across. The whole walk was demanding physically, but shimmying over the landslides was definitely the hardest part.

We reached our lodging for the evening as darkness fell, just in time for a dip in the frigid pool before dinner and bed.


The next morning we climbed out. The gradient of the zig-zag was quite manageable but it was still a taxing climb. At the top we faced the prospect of sixteen hours on a bus to get to Cusco, but at least we’d be sitting down.


Who can tell me what infuriates me about this travel agent’s advertising?



Condors getting their swoop on

The Andean Condor is the largest flying bird in the world. Condor is also the name of Lufthansa’s charter airline. For both reasons they are awesome, and we were hoping to get a chance to view them getting their swoop on when visiting the Colca Canyon.

We were up early and bundled into a local bus which drove half an hour down the road from our accommodation to the Cruz del Condor lookout. It was a bitingly cold morning and we had to purchase hats to keep ourselves from shivering.

To begin with the condors were not playing ball. We were alternating our looking at a scrubby valley on the edge of the spectacular canyon and looking at the other assembled tourists in the hope they might point something out. The pointing was mostly at things that could be birds but were indistinguishable from the scrub.

Then it began. Slowly one condor after another flapped out from its nest to stretch its wings for the day. Then others came from all around like they were arriving for morning assembly. And then, as if sensing the anticipation of those of us watching, they put on a serious show. They were majestic and playful and ginormous and above all else swoopy. Some even settled on a rock for closer inspection.

We were mesmerised into missing our bus. Hopefully the same fate does not befall you from watching our video.

Excuse my marginally watchable editing.