When you read a travel guide or scroll through a blog about recommendations for Peru, you’ll usually get recommendations for Peru’s tourist destinations of Machu Picchu and Lima. My former residence of Piura and work site in Catacaos are all but forgotten and my excursions to cities like Sechura and Chulucanas are overlooked. If you’re looking to find the culture and the history of the people, these are the places to start. After all, Piura was the first settlement by Francisco Pizarro in 1532 and the ceviche everyone raves about is Piura’s regional dish. It’s no wonder that Piura’s nickname is “First City” and after experiencing the intense heat, I don’t doubt it’s other nickname “City of the Eternal Sun.”
If you’re heading to this city 0f 400,000 to dig into Peru’s rich artisan culture, there’s a few things you’ll want to know before you head out. Google results and guidebooks will provide comments like: “Drink bottled water only,” “Don’t flush toilet paper down the toilet,” or “Check with your health department for vaccinations including Rabies, Yellow Fever, and Typhoid.” But after a summer in Piura I discover there’s more to add to the list. These are just a few things the travel guides forget to tell you:
(1) Wearing a seatbelt isn’t major concern. Neither is everyone piling up in a backseat and sitting on one another’s laps. The best seat with a view? On the back of the moto taxi from La Campina (the neighborhood on the outskirts of Catacaos) to Catacaos’ city center. Also be aware that traffic moves very quickly in Piura. Once you’ve agreed to a price, it’s one giant leap for mankind into your mode of transportation, and you’re off! Be sure both feet are in, because Piura traffic waits for no one.
(2) When meeting people for the first time, there’s a customary greeting. Instead of the typical American handshake, give your greeter a small kiss near their cheek and small hug. Also be sure to say, “Mucho Gusto.” Politeness goes a long way in Peru. My first greeting I froze and forgot what to do. I’m used to having my personal space and become intimate later, something I learned to abandon in Peru.
(3) Dogs are not cute puppies to be played with. Every dog I found I wanted to run over to hug and play with. Don’t do this. Dogs in Peru are not domesticated. As much as you want to vigorously pet each dog with open arms and scratch their bellies, they may surprise you with a scrape or a bite that requires you to head to a hospital for possible rabies infection. The worst part about it is seeing one hit by a car as it wails in the street and limps off unattended. Dogs here are not seen as domesticated friends, but rather lost souls that wander and share the streets.
(4) Protests, parades, and other unexpected events may derail your plans. But don’t let it bother you. Life in northern Peru makes you stop and take a look around. Too often we worry about time, arrangements, and schedules and forget that sometimes you have to just experience your surroundings. On my last day in La Campina and Catacaos, Fiorella and I kept running into unanticipated hurdles and twists and turns. Rather than getting upset, we waited for the dust to settle and watch a local parade in Catacaos. It was a better way to experience the culture than any Cinco de Mayo celebration back home.
(5) Always adopt Tim Gunn’s attitude of “Make it Work” for many kinds of environments. If you’re heading to Piura, Catacaos, Mancora, or any nearby cities I recommend you bring layers. Yes, it’s a desert climate, but a light jacket for the cooler nights and tennis shoes for trekking around are a great idea because you never know what can happen. A trip to Sechura to meet with the local government finds my co-workers and me in business attire, but when the meeting is cancelled, we make the day of it and head to the sand dunes. Our clothing is hardly the best for the sandy environment, but we all find the moment to take off our shoes and feel the sand in our toes.
(6) Sometimes you find inspiration where you least expect it. Graffiti is normally seen as a distraction or an insult, but from my journeys in Peru and Ecuador, I find this is not the case. Walking along the streets of Piura, Sechura, and Catacaos, the vividly painted houses with combinations of mint green or a faint tangerine or a sienna fuel my creativity and inspiration for designing and color combinations of products. One of my favorite movements is Accion Poetica, who paints quotes encouraging creativity along the walls of everyday streets. I find myself purposely searching for these quotes, like a pirate hoping to find treasure.
Guidebooks like Lonely Planet, insect repellant spray with deet, and sunscreen are always good packing items for Peru, but an open mind with a “Can Do” attitude for the unexpected are always necessary for the unknown and overlooked cities of Piura, Catacaos and Sechura.