I have just returned from a two-week trip to Peru. I trekked for several days to Macchu Picchu along the Salkantay trail, reaching altitudes of over 4000 meters. Although my feeble attempt at pretending to be a mountain goat collapsed around 3800 meters, I made it without blisters or injuries. I even managed to avoid altitude sickness. Then I went to Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world, to marvel at the man-made floating islands.
It was my first time in Latin America and I am truly amazed not only with the developments in infrastructure, but with the quality of the food and service. My conclusion: not only are “Third World” countries like Peru closing the gap in many areas with developed countries, they are surpassing them.
The flights: new planes, professional flight attendants, new airports
I flew TACA, the Salvadoran airline, from San Francisco to Lima with a stopover in San Salvador. Within Peru, I flew LAN from Lima to Cusco to Puno and back to Lima. TACA and LAN have newer planes, unlike US and European airlines’ ancient McDonnell Douglas leftovers that seem held together by duct tape. The TACA and LAN flight attendants are courteous and helpful (what an amazing thing), they even assist passengers in getting their luggage into the bins above the seats. San Salvador airport is new and civilized: no screaming security personnel barking orders (“take off your shoes! take off your belt!”). Best of all, it has free Wi-Fi. Come to think of it, the airport was so quiet because there were no obnoxious TV screens blasting CNN’s vacuous and irritating “news” programs. Lima and Cusco airports are the same. They are new, have courteous security personnel who actually say “por favor”, and no loud TV screens. Now think of airports like Newark and LAX which are decrepit and sad, where the infrastructure has not been updated since bell bottoms were in fashion (although bell bottoms are in again). From now on, I’m flying TACA and LAN to Latin America.
Lima and Cusco restaurants and cafes: excellent food and wonderful service
I can’t even describe how good Peruvian food is. I love seafood so Lima is paradise — the sushi and ceviche were fantastic. Yes, I went to the best restaurants in Lima and Cusco, but the food is on par with the best in San Francisco. The service? Much better than most restaurants I’ve been to in San Francisco and Amsterdam. The staff do not rush you, as they do in US restaurants, where “brisk” service is a means to generate more revenue, but they are attentive. As for the juices, everything was fresh — they make juice straight from the fruit, none of that packaged frozen sugary junk served in the US and Europe. The coffee was also excellent and they served it in real porcelain cups. Thank heavens Starbucks (and the paper cup mentality) has not made it (yet) to Cusco and Lima.
I was impressed with the cleanliness of streets in Lima and Cusco. Even in Puno, which is poor and unappealing, the streets were clean. By contrast, walk in San Francisco’s Financial District and SOMA and marvel at the amounts of trash lying around even during the middle of the day.
Cellular service even at Macchu Picchu
One of the more unpleasant aspects of Peru’s obsession with getting cell phone coverage everywhere is that while you’re gazing down at the Inca ruins, an obnoxious guy walks right by you screaming into his cell phone, “Guess where I am? I’m at Macchu Picchu!” Yes, there was cell phone coverage at Lake Titicaca, too.
American car makers have lost Latin America to Japan
I asked a taxi driver, which car brands are the most popular in Peru? He said: Toyota and Nissan. The US car makers sell giant objects that drink petrol, very impractical indeed. It looks as if the US execs’ pump-and-dump mentality, their obsession with the next quarter’s earnings, coupled with a lack of understanding about how the rest of the world works, just handed an entire continent over to Japanese car makers.
What’s with the Cuba obsession?
So, after two weeks in Peru, I arrive at SF Airport in the middle of the night. The only thing the customs agent wanted to know was if I bought anything from Cuba. Excuse me, what was that again? No queries about whether I had brought back illegal substances, body parts of endangered species or strange live birds. All he wanted to know was whether I was sneaking in something from that evil little island. Of course, I had nothing from Cuba, but it was such an odd question given that there are many other worse things to bring back from other countries.
Peru still needs improvement, but it’s making dramatic changes
The road from Cusco to Puno needs a lot of work. It’s paved half of the way, then degenerates into a rough, pot-holed strewn thoroughfare. The way people drive is insane (but attentive, unlike the perpetually distracted SF Bay Area driver yakking on a mobile phone), the pollution is horrible in Lima, and a lot of Peruvians are very still poor. But, I could see that people are seriously upgrading their infrastructure, improving their businesses, paying a lot of attention to providing good service, etc. A lot of small kids speak English, there are Internet cafes everywhere, people show up on time and are reliable.
The gap is closing
It’s true that Peru and other Third World countries have a long way to go to reach the level of countries like the Netherlands and the US. However, they are closing the gaps in many areas.
I was surprised to read this NY Times column by Thomas Friedman, where he expresses the same sentiments:
I couldnâ€™t help but reflect on how China and America have spent the last seven years: China has been preparing for the Olympics; weâ€™ve been preparing for Al Qaeda. Theyâ€™ve been building better stadiums, subways, airports, roads and parks. And weâ€™ve been building better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones. The difference is starting to show. Just compare arriving at La Guardiaâ€™s dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through the crumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghaiâ€™s sleek airport and taking the 220-mile-per-hour magnetic levitation train, which uses electromagnetic propulsion instead of steel wheels and tracks, to get to town in a blink. Then ask yourself: Who is living in the third world country?
– – – – – –
If you want to know my favorite restaurants and cafes in Cusco, go to: