A Year Living and Working in Peru
Moving to a different continent with a job promise and a desire to practice Spanish…
Oh, how unprepared we were when my 27-year-old, self-employed Web developer boyfriend and I, a 24 year old engineering geologist, decided to move from the U.K. to Peru! When asked “why?” we mumbled that we wanted to practice our Spanish, learned long ago and seldom used, that Spain didn’t attract us, and that we wanted to see Machu Picchu. We were still child-free, we were young, adventurous, looking for some fresh air and I was looking for a new company to work for.
We chose to live in Lima because that’s where most of the companies are based, hence there is more work available. Lima is also because it’s a good base to visit the rest of the country and South America. Now that we are living there, I don’t think we would make that choice again knowing what Lima is like. I found a job with an international company in the mining industry before I got there and they arranged my flights, told me which papers to legalize before arriving (e.g. university diploma…) and the type of visa to come with.
Immigrating to Peru: The Formalities
My boyfriend on the other hand, being U.K.-based and self-employed, maintained his status there and came to Peru as a tourist, working over the Internet for European clients. Fortunately there is no time limit for staying in Peru as a tourist. Yes, you enter with a visa valid for 90 days, but you can renew it at the immigration office for an extra 30 days and you can do this three times. After those six months, you do need to leave the country but you can re-enter an hour later. This is not the case in every country. For example, in Ecuador the maximum a tourist can stay is 180 days per year, regardless of how many times he enters/exits the country.
To be able to work legally in Peru you need to enter with a business visa, which I did, but it has to be valid for 90 days, which was not my case. This is because a tourist visa cannot be converted to another type of visa while in the country: you need to exit Peru, go to a Peruvian consulate abroad and get the right type of visa (work, artist, religious, retired, or whatever fits your status). Since my business visa had expired before the immigration procedure was completed I was forced to get out of the country to obtain a new visa. This obviously led to a long delay in legalizing my status as a working resident. I sympathize with illegal immigrants now. Bureaucratic paperwork is one heck of a pain!
My boyfriend started opening a company here in Lima. There are two solutions to opening a company as a foreigner: (a) you invest US$25,000 or (b) you hire someone to do it for you and only invest a small capital (say US$2,000). My boyfriend got an accountant, who then became the manager of this newly founded company and both he and I became directors, recruited by the manager-accountant. Then he started his own long procedure of acquiring a resident visa. This procedure involves getting a work contract, having the ministry of work stamp it, sending it to the immigration office and making the demand for a visa, getting the visa sent to the consulate of your choice, and then going to retrieve it a couple of months later before finally entering Peru as a brand new resident. You then need to validate your new status by visiting the immigrations office again and obtaining your Carnet de Residencia (resident card), but that’s easy considering the lengthy procedures you’ve already been through. Time does not have the same significance as in more developed countries. In Peru, spending two hours in a queue, or experiencing a bus being delayed for four hours, is quite normal. The only thing to do about it is learn to be patient.
Finding a Place to Live
Accommodation is readily available in Lima and there is choice for all budgets. This ranges from short-term rentals in apartment hotels (US$200 per week) to cheap apartments in residential areas (US$100 per month), as well as expensive penthouses with sea views and 24/7 security guards (US$2,000). And they are building multi-story apartment complexes everywhere (if you’re worried about the noise that creates: don’t. They use mostly hand tools so it produces less noise than if they used powered machinery). We chose the upscale residential area of Miraflores, along the Pacific and near the modern Americanized shopping centre Larcomar. We live in a two floor apartment which has an ocean view from the balcony. It is too big for just the two of us and a tad expensive, but it’s in an area where we feel safe and it’s not too noisy.
Yes, Lima is noisy, smoggy, humid and crowded, so it is difficult for those of us who like peace and quiet!
Where to Work
Work can easily be found in mining industries, teaching English, or doing translating/interpreting jobs. Exporting Peruvian goods or creating a company in advertising/tourism/information for expatriates can also be good options, but requires more work. Speaking Spanish is definitely required to land a job here. The standard number of hours is 48 a week, but in foreign companies, like mine, this may be less (40 hours/week). Standard Peruvian salary is no more than US$200-300 per month for people doing internships and for the less experienced as wellas for normally low-wage jobs like waitressing, shopkeeper etc. However, experienced mining engineers can earn above $1,000 per month.
Meeting the Locals
People come from all over the country to work in Lima, searching for better opportunities. Peruvian culture is surprisingly diverse. People from Cuzco are very different than the stressed city-dwellers of Lima and the Arequipeños (people form Arequipa) are a people of their own, considering themselves to be very different and independent from the rest of the country and with a strong sense of community. Yes, people will try to sell you things at a higher price, especially in touristy areas like Cuzco, but in most cases, people are honest. They often ask foreigners where they are from and are curious about what you have visited in Peru and what the traditions/national dish/landscape and weather are like in your home country. One annoying aspect of their culture is a tendency to put their own people down: Peruvians will always advise you not to trust Peruvians! Otherwise, they are hospitable and friendly open to discussion. I personally don’t always feel comfortable walking on my own, because being a European blonde in my mid-twenties; I get whistled at and chatted up a lot. Although this irritates me, I have never felt really threatened.
People at work are the same as any colleagues: guys play football and enjoy beers together, girls are gossipy and giggly. One of the biggest differences is their conservative religious outlook on life. If you are in a relationship, people expect you to get married and if you have children but are not married, it is frowned upon. Many Peruvians go to church and joggers will stop to pay their respects if they pass a statue of the Virgin Mary. Bosses are the supreme authority and they have “the power,” so employees are often intimidated and won’t stand up to them. Instead they complain to other colleagues.
The same goes for relationships between men and women: Men see themselves as more knowledgeable, more powerful and women get the small unimportant jobs and administrative tasks. Women can even be socially diminished by rude comments on their marital status (e.g. if you live away from your husband) from male colleagues. It’s a conservative male-dominated society with a strong religious influence.
How is the Food?
The food here offers a nice surprise. First of all it’s cheap, especially at lunchtime where you get a filling two or three-course almuerzo (lunch) with drinks for a couple of U.S. dollars. Eating at a really posh restaurant will only set you back 100 dollars or so, so Lima is a good place to experience the luxury you can’t afford elsewhere. Peruvian cuisine is exquisite; up there with French and Chinese gastronomy. I even took a cooking course at the famous academy Cordon Bleu to learn to cook that famous ceviche, the national dish of raw fish in spicy lime juice. Fish in Peru is really tasty as well as fruits and vegetables. Mangos and avocados are the best I’ve ever had. There are quite a few vegetarian restaurants as well.
My experience living in Peru is close to being over now. All in all, it has been a challenging change of scenery. Adapting to noisy and polluted Lima, with its 10 million inhabitants, speaking a language other than my own daily, has certainly not been easy. The cold grey winters and the sun setting at 6.30 p.m. year-round have been a surprise, but so have the wonderful landscapes, the kind people, and the amazing food.