Back in college, my roommate Stan, an electrical engineering major, had to fulfill a social sciences requirement that led him to write an essay on Peru. All these years later, the title of that essay — Peru: A Land of Extremes — remains a steady source of amusement for our friends. Stan wasn’t wrong though, a point that hit home when we left Lima, a city nestled on the coast, rose to Cusco at all of its 11,200 feet, and then dropped back down into an endless sea of jungle.
That diversity attracts millions of visitors to Peru each year. We left enriched by the experience. Yet something gnawed at me as we raced through the outskirts of Lima on the way to the airport. It was the sense that Peru had become a playground for gringos. More so than any other nation I’ve visited, I got the distinct impression that Peruvians were living their lives distinct and far apart from our daily adventures — activities that were completely foreign to Peruvians themselves. Come to Peru, we were told. Hike the Inca Trail. See Machu Picchu. Stay in the Amazon. Sail on Lake Titikaka. Fly over the Nasca Lines. And while you do that, we’ll be over there, quietly going about our business.
Immersing oneself in a local culture, getting off the tourist track, and meeting the locals is always a challenge when traveling. In Peru, that gap seemed wider, a feeling I just couldn’t shake as I headed home.