Which is the friendliest country in the world?
A little old man with a long white whip is working the audience into a frenzy. With each crack he cries out the name of one of his beautiful models:
“Yanina!” Crack! She struts across the dusty arena. The crowd screams hysterically.
“Luisa!” Crack. Luisa shimmies coquettishly.
Everything about the late-afternoon performance I am attending in the town of Cajamarca is odd. Perhaps most bizarre of all is the fact that the girls who are being paraded before us are all of the bovine kind – precisely, milk cows, herded on the deep green pastures of the central Andes, where Peru produces most of its milk and cheese.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier audience, of old and young, men and women, all laughing, taking selfies photobombed by flirty Friesians, some reaching out to touch the hair and horns of the beautiful, and unfazed, beasts.
Finding real, unfiltered and enjoyable experiences while travelling has become more important to many of us than sorting a nice bed and a sandy beach.
If joining local tourists might sound like a strange way to go about it, that’s probably because we idealise about some unattainable, pure authenticity.
What I was seeing performed made me laugh awkwardly at first – until I settled into it and realised: this is what Peruvians do when they’re not being guides, providing a service, telling me about the Incas or gastronomy or the Sendero Luminoso.
In the milking parlour, a young woman asked me, “Where are you from?”
“The United Kingdom,” I replied.
“Wow. Wonderful. Well, I hope you have a great time.”
Homes in LimaCredit: GETTY
If authenticity turns travel into a kind of pilgrimage, then people are surely the holy grail. Nearing the end of a five-week trip in Peru I was coming to the conclusion that Peruvians might just be the most genuinely pleasant people in Latin America – perhaps anywhere.
It wasn’t only the positive vibes emanating from the cow-themed love-in. While panting and gasping my way around the Cordillera Blanca, the support staff – herders, porters, cooks, guides – were, without exception, kind, thoughtful and caring.
It takes intelligence as well as a good soul to look after gringo backpackers way out of their natural milieu. At 15,000 feet above sea level they fed, watered and bedded us, and always found time to chat and chivvy and check on our wellbeing.
In rush-hour Lima, city of eternal mist and infernal traffic, extreme poverty and chaos-filled clamour, people – that is, full-on urban dwellers, in a city of 10.5 million, on their way to work and college, supermarket and bank – stopped to ask, “Hola, como estás?” as if we were meeting in some leafy suburb on a Sunday.
A woman in traditional dressCredit: GETTY
A couple of locals whispered to me that limeños are nicer to outsiders than they are to their own, but that’s a truism in many cities (except London, where commuters detest and curse tourists, who they view as obstacles to their non-stop money-earning motion.)
Along the sunny promenade of surfing hub Huanchaco, in the restaurants and bars of colonial Trujillo, around “edgy”, “crime-infested” Callao, Peruvians always made time to exchange a greeting or more, help out, ask if things were alright. Touts placed outside restaurants did their thankless jobs with humour and self-deprecation.
Taxi drivers made a special effort with our luggage and time stresses. Hotel staff always gave us a welcome smile as well as a drink. Maitre D’s found stools at bars when all the tables in a restaurant were full. Waiters asked us where we were from. Policewomen lavished me with information and advice on saving a few soles.
It got me wondering. Why were these people so thoughtful, so kind, so damn nice? I wasn’t only comparing Peruvians with Britons but also, and especially, with their neighbours – with Argentines (gushing and charming, but never following through), Chileans and Bolivians (reserved verging on a bit rude) and Brazilians (smiley, smart, and dashingly self-centred).
Peru’s people had a very different energy, a special quality. I know I’m generalising, but so what? Nations do produce stereotypes, and the majority actually do conform.
I mean, if Mario Vargas Llosa can get away with saying, just last week, that “Britain... still seems to me to be the most civilised and democratic country in the world” then I can surely generalise enthusiastically about his homeland – which he hasn’t lived in for years.
Machu Picchu, Peru's biggest drawCredit: GETTY
I think Peruvians stand out because they hit a sweet spot in a lot of the areas that matter – a sweetness borne of having lived through decades of torrid trials and tests and having come through, of being optimistic because it’s the most practical and useful attitude to have when your political class and wealthy elite are rogues and crooks, and, perhaps most importantly, of living in a society where tolerance and understanding – old-fashioned values though they are – remain far more important than material ambitions or private goals.
Peru is a complex mix of poor and rich, agricultural and urban, middle and working classes. It has a very rich mestizo culture, informed by ancient indigenous societies but tweaked and enhanced by Spain, a central role as the colonial HQ, as well as immigration from China, Italy, Japan and these days, Venezuela.
Indeed, the despair in the latter has seen Peru become the most generous recipient of exiles; Peruvians have themselves had to flee dictators, terrorists and repeated economic woes, and know what deracination and isolation feel like.
There are other, subtler factors. I found Peruvian men less macho and sexist than men in, say, Argentina or Mexico. Matriarchal authority, or at least respect for women, is probably a hangover from Andean society. In 2019, Peruvian women are equals in many employment and social circles.
Also, people are deeply influenced by their natural environment. The Peruvian landscape is a complex tapestry of wild and tamed, desert and jungle, coast and mountain. This makes people versatile, makes them patient drivers, and demands tolerance even with their own kind.
Seeing Peruvian tourists having belly laughs while watching a fashion parade of farm animals suggested that here was a fun-loving, even somewhat naïve people – naïve in a good sense, as in not asking too much from a day off, an outing.
Later on, while tasting cheeses and dairy-based sweets, I noticed me and the other non-Peruvian were the only ones drinking wine with the nibbles. Why do we always need booze to have fun? Peruvians don’t need anything stronger than Inca Cola to get a fiesta atmosphere going.
Am I idealising the Peruvians I met, setting myself up for a fall? Possibly.
Years ago, after a week in Bangkok, I realised the famous Thai smile was false – the product of an edict from the monarchical echelons who manage tourism. In Damascus, Tangier and Istanbul, I quickly become wary of men calling me “friend” and quoting Only Fools and Horses ("Lovely jubbly"). I also think American friendliness is a bit psychopathic and Japanese politeness a cover for the darkest currents of a damaged psyche.
Perhaps I was just lucky on my long visit to the many parts of Peru?
When I landed at Gatwick a couple of days later, I couldn’t help noticing – despite the heatwave and the summery sky – the British gloom clouding people’s faces even as they hastened down the corridors of the terminal.
My train home passed close to Glastonbury – which is sold to us as the festival where we Britons let ourselves go. But of course it’s not that at all, is it.
It’s a five-day opting out of British reality, using loud music and copious drink and drugs to commune with strangers, only so that the thronging festivalgoers can, come Monday, return to not being kind or nice to others for another 360 days or so.
If that sounds unfair, horribly sceptical, even a bit cynical, then that’s because I’m British, not Peruvian.