A Galaxy far, far away: Peruvian Greeks

A journey through traffic, language barriers, and unexpected detours unveils the hidden Greek connection in Peru, from closed restaurants to mistaken villages – a tale of hospitality, confusion, and the distant echoes of Hellenic history

Greeks have traversed near and far, and Peru is far – a galaxy far, far away, not just in geography but also in language and food. Yet when I “navigated” the crazy traffic, I discovered they, too, had the ability to enjoy a good night out and have an aversion to traffic rules; it’s probable the Peruvian galaxy isn’t as far from Greece.

Peru has less than 350 Greeks, made of second and third-generation Greek Peruvians and a small number from Greece. A tiny drop in the Aegean, there’s a fascinating history here; a history I tried in vain to locate, and like Donald Trump’s business, I failed… sort of.

I was lucky to meet the Ambassador to Greece, Eleni Lianidou, who is well known to Melbourne’s Hellenes and Neos Kosmos readers from her time as consul general in Melbourne.

Lima. Photo: Supplied

Ambassador Lianidou represents Greeks in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. She also explained that the Asociacion Helenica was going through a change in presidency, making it challenging to meet them. The new president-elect is Socrates Grillos, and the association holds numerous events and gatherings throughout the year, including 25 March and Ohi Day.

After a failed attempt to meet the tiny Greek community of Lima, I decided to kick back and enjoy a Greek meal at one of the two Greek restaurants I identified. After getting lost in beautiful Lima on my motorbike, as it’s called, yeah, try riding the “motorbike” over the speed humps that appear out of nowhere, and you too will be swearing in Greek. I picked up enough Spanish to understand, “Te ves completamente perdido, pero linda camiseta griega!” which means “You seem completely lost, but nice Greek shirt.”

Photo: Supplied

This didn’t help my sense of being in a galaxy far, far away from all things Greek. I hailed an Uber to be my navigator and tailed her on my bike to the Greek restaurant in the vibrant club/bar area of Barranco. The restaurant was permanently closed to the amusement of Grethel, the Uber driver. At least I made a new friend who doubles up as a yoga instructor, and she speaks English.

Lima is a bit like Psiri in Athens – you will have a fabulous time.

The Greek restaurant in Lima seemed permanently closed. Photo: Supplied

Locating the Hellenes

My next magic trick to locate the Hellenes …. ta daaaa, San Andres! Just as Columbus once got lost and mistook Indigenous peoples for Indians, I mistook San Andres village for San Andres, the Greek town of Peru.

Traffic in Peru isn’t helpful, and the main highway is the Trans American, which connects all of the west coast of the Americas. It’s busy. After 3.5 hours of navigating Athens-style traffic, I reached San Andres. Taking selfies and videos proclaiming that I’m here, I was pumped. I thought, “A house with some white, surely, it’s a La casa griega (Greek house)” I waved to the inhabitants, “Surely, they could sense we were long lost cousins.”

The bike Billy used to traverse Peru. Photo: Supplied

A small rural village off the highway was about to receive its first-ever visitor from Lesvos and Australia. I looked at the park and saw a few men drinking. Proudly walked over and proclaimed I’m like a Greek Buddha. With looks of bewilderment, they offered me a beer. “Ah, typical Greek hospitality”, I thought.

It soon became clear they had never heard of Greece, yet were happy to see me in their small village. They directed me 50 metres to the small super Mercado, where I excitedly Billysplained that I am Griego and “my name means king in Greek!” The staff were unmoved. They held a meeting and decided they knew what I was after, and a young man went to the fridge and returned with Griego yoghurt.

Billy comes to the realisation he was in the wrong San Andres. Photo: Supplied

With no internet on my phone, the staff let me use the computer and Google Translate behind the counter. I also served a customer to help out. It soon transpired that I was in the wrong San Andres and probably needed another 70 minutes to get there.

After convincing the only Taberna to reopen for me, I conceded that it was too far.

I rode back to Lima and made plans to charter a helicopter or plane before remembering my credit card does have a limit and I would soon be in my own Greek financial crisis.

“I am Greek” Billy tried to explain so the brought him Greek Yogurt. Photo: Supplied

San Andres a town too far

San Andres sits on the coast; many descendants are seventh-generation Greeks, mainly derived from Greek sailors who married local women around 1860. Juan Falkoni Albanidis married Joaquina de la Cruz, building the first house of the district, which still stands at 110 Calle Grecia. The street soon had other sailors settling down, including Pedro Gkikas, Carassopoulos, Juan Comninos, Batikiota Kanelos, and Francisco Penagos. Pedro Yika Briceño became the first Mayor of San Andres.

It sits close to Chile, and during a war two decades later, Chileans stormed the town. The story goes that a Greek flag was flying on a house where the Greeks huddled with their partners.

At least Billy was complimented on his shirt. Photo: Supplied

It’s unclear how Chileans knew what a Greek flag was at the time, though they spared the Greeks but slaughtered the rest. The town still celebrates Greek National Day and has a Greek plaque.

Very few people can speak Greek, but they try to maintain some Greek and have a Facebook page and a committee. Peru is a galaxy that is far, far away from Greece, yet it became a very Greek odyssey. Until next time, Peru.

Gracias por acoger a este Griego -Thank you for welcoming this Greek

Billy Cotsis is the author of The Aegean Seven: Take Back the Stolen Marbles