An omnipresent fog hangs low over ancient pyramid ruins in Lima, Peru, that were once inhabited by pre-Inca Peruvians. My brother, his wife and I are being led around the animal pens on the historic grounds. We’re looking at guinea pigs.
Every Topeka kid’s starter pet was a staple of Peruvian diets 2,000 years ago. So for those of you who thought you may have abused your pet hamster by dressing it in doll clothing and making it participate in Victorian-style dramas, feel no guilt. Next, our tour guide shows us pens of llamas and alpacas and explains that the difference between the animals is that one is amiable and the other is kind of a jerk.
But these are not the weird beasts we’re here to see. “¿Dónde están los perritos?” asks my sister-in-law, Xaviela. Where are the little dogs?
Peru’s national animal, technically, is the vicuña. It’s a gangly, Andes-roaming cousin of the alpaca. But the country likely gave that sweater on four legs the honor solely for the benefit of tourists.
The clear fave of the Peruvian people is the Steve Buscemi of canines, gloriously strange-looking and nationally beloved. Peruvian Hairless Dogs (PHDs) are gargoyle-esque, pointy-eared creatures, according to my Google research. Their black hides are totally nude, save for occasional patches of fur that sprout atop their heads in bizarrely blond Mohawks. They tend to leer at photographers with their tongues stretched improbably far out of their mouths.
Ancient Peruvians were hoarders of the breed. At night, they liked to spoon the dogs for their legendary heat conduction. Big shots had these four-legged BFFs buried with them.
The canines are now so symbolic that Peru once offered a hairless dog to President Obama, who politely declined. And all national historic sites such as Huaca Pucllana in Lima are required to keep a living pair on the premises. The U.S. has the bald eagle. Peru has the bald beagle. Apparently, the reverence has gone to their heads. PHDs seem to have become divas.
Our tour guide demurs briskly in Spanish when asked for their whereabouts: “They were on their lunch hour,” he says. “Then they run free, and they are not to be constrained.”
Lima is dog heaven, even for the ones with fur. They frolic unleashed along the city’s El Malecón, the miles-long cliff-top esplanade overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The lazy dogs roll in the grass. The meathead dogs chug up and down the steep stairs. The insidious dogs hide in the bushes, greedily harboring tennis balls as their owners cry out their names. The natty dogs wear embroidered cardigans.
My brother, Uriel, and his wife are Mexican transplants living in Peru’s unique and bustling capital. Uriel’s own dog — Wally, short for Waldorf — is a 130-pound Great Dane who gobbles Purina from a mop bucket. He’s Liam Neeson with fur, his intimidating looks only heightened by scars left from the time Wally beat the snot out of doggie cancer.
Lima’s dog culture is motivated partly by the desire for a living alarm system, and as long as Peruvian burglars value their limbs, my brother’s Xbox should be safe.
As our tour guide leads more dutiful tourists up a ruined pyramid, my dog-seeking trio sees our opportunity to slink away.
Turns out you don’t need Peruvian security clearance to meet the mutts after all. We introduce ourselves to the site employee who we figure out is the official canine wrangler, and she beckons the dogs from the shack where they just enjoyed some midday kibble.
I am happy to report that these dogs’ endearing ugliness is not overstated. Elderly Munai looks like an aging punk rocker with a stately limp, thin Mohawk and a scraggly Fu Manchu. Five-year-old Quni is a squat, squinting grey sausage. I rub their naked black hides, so chapped that I consider returning with a big tub of Vaseline.
I am stricken suddenly by nostalgia for my own ugly dog back in New York. Named Murray, he’s a heavy-breathing, senior-citizen pug mix with bat ears, a Sling Blade-esque underbite, a head stuck sideways, persistent dandruff and a piglike, curling tail. He gets oohs and aahs from every hipster we pass on the street. Little do they know, Murray was weird-looking before it was trendy.
Munai and Quni are the genetic forefathers to contestants in the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest, held annually in California. Something like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on psychedelics, the pageant prizes traits like bald or creepily patchy hides, skewed teeth and ground-scraping tongues. But these Peruvian dogs don’t seem to put much stock in the heroic import of their own ugliness. We scratch them behind their ears, and they grunt and wag their tails.
Then they waddle contentedly back to their shack for some post-lunch napping.
They’re still dogs, after all.