Northern Peru is a land of poverty, much more so than any other country we’ve visited in Latin America. We’ve left the Sierra in favour of the coast, and it feels like nothing could be more different from the cloud forests of Ecuador. Most of what we see from the side of the road is dry and dusty, in stark contrast to the lush green mountains and misty jungles of the last few months. A few fields of sugarcane and mango orchards stand out from the expanse of dry grasses, but the majority of the view here is still sandy brown. Houses along the roadside are the same colour, constructed from sun-dried adobe bricks. Every once in a while, we drive by a half-empty village, with partial walls and bricked-in entranceways in many of the structures. I can’t tell if the walls of the abandoned homes were cannibalized to use the earthen bricks for other buildings nearby, or if their construction was never completed as their owners moved away to more prosperous areas. Whatever the reason, we pass hundreds of shells of homes as we make our way from the mountain highlands of the Andes to the coast.

I can’t shake the thought that Peru reminds me a lot of Cambodia. Both countries have sharp contrasts between the simple lives of the bulk of the people and the glossy magazine images of the nation as presented to tourists. The two countries also share the propensity for livestock to wander freely across the dirt roads, their owners more concerned that they get enough to eat than that they stay on their own property. Both also have a reputation for being dangerous for independent travellers. In Peru’s case, Ellen and I have mixed feelings about how risky our trip really is.

Almost everyone has cautioned us about Peru. We’ve met several people who’ve been robbed here, and on our first day in the country somebody opened my bag in the back of a crowded collectivo (a station wagon serving as an alternative to a bus) and stole a couple of small items. I acknowledge that travelling here has some risk. But I also see the struggling communities on the side of the highway, surrounded by land devoid of nutrients, water, and topsoil for growing food, far from the nearest town with any sort of industry or employment to support the local population. When I look at these hopeless shantytowns, I’m hardly surprised that foreign tourists look like easy pickings and are a temptation some can’t resist.

Despite the actions of a few bad eggs, the people of Peru have been amazingly kind to us. We haven’t met a single local who hasn’t tried to feed us. While paying for rides is standard around here (and we’ve been warned time and again that hitchhiking is impossible and we’ll have no luck trying), we’ve had nothing but success finding drivers willing to take us exactly where we want to go at no cost to us. I’m sure as our trip continues, we’ll have a few unlucky days to balance out the good, but in the meantime, Peru is rapidly becoming our favourite country so far.