I don’t know if I’m on a bus from Cusco to Puno or in the middle of a Peruvian haboob. All exaggerations aside, I just plucked my leggings to unleash a cloud of soot and while everyone in my cabin is inhaling it, my cracked window is the direct source and I seem to be the only one covered in dust. I find this obnoxious for two reasons: 1) It’s disgusting and 2) I just washed the ten articles of clothing that fit in my rucksack and three of them are now fraught with filth. In my last post I mentioned that at times, traveling abroad is frustrating. This is one of those times.
My first day in Cusco was also ‘one of those times’. I was trying to find my way back to the main square and took a right onto a blatantly shady alley. I even thought to myself, ”I should get off of this blatantly shady alley”. Following this thought was another thought, “I should stop listening to music and put my phone away”. But when you’re as in control as I am, you dismiss such intuition. I stopped to take a photo and thirty seconds later, when I realized my music was no longer playing, knew that I myself had just been played. I was somewhere between a state of shock and panic when, “Touché” was all that came to mind. Shame on me and props to that pathetic thief. I was about to depart on a four day trek up one of the most epic mountains in the world- a dream I’ve managed to keep tabs on for nearly eight years. Lost phone? Fuck it. Lost city? Hit it.
Tuesday morning came quickly. We had to be ready to roll at 4:00am and not an ounce of me felt even slightly sheepish. Our guide Frank swooped Nicky, the other traveler, and myself in the black of night in a huge 4wd van and we were off. Winding up the small one way cobblestone streets, we shortly made our way out of Cusco’s twinkled valley walls and were rural-bound. Cusco City rests at 3200m so it wasn’t long before we hit 3500m in the town of Anta. Our driver, Victor, slowed down to a roll when Frank leaned out the window, greeted an elderly Peruvian woman and exchanged 5 soles ($2) for four huge loaves of freshly baked sweet bread. With eleven varieties of corn and over 3,000 varieties of potatoes (forty-five in Cusco, alone!), we continued our drive amidst some of Peru’s high altitude agriculture. The morning sun began to backlight the white mist that floated below us, bouncing between the steep walls of the Andes, though as we began our descent into the rainforest our van was instantly enveloped by fog. How Victor didn’t run us off the edge of that downhill switchback remains a mystery to me. We soon hit the valley floor only to begin another ascent up a neighboring mountain, where we stopped in Mollepata for breakfast. It was our final chance to buy last minute goods so I picked up a walking stick, a poncho and some mittens, all of which turned out to be essential.
We hopped back in the van and within twenty minutes were stuck in a mudslide. I think Victor must have been busy singing along to Salt n Pepper’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” that started bumping halfway through his traditional Peruvian mix CD. All music preferences aside, we were back on the incline in no time and arrived at our departure point within the hour. Our porter José was awaiting our arrival in the company of three horses and while he and Amilcar, our cook, fastened all of our belongings to the beautiful steeds, Frank, Nicky and myself took off on our three day, 53km trek up Mt. Salkantay- a neighboring mountain in the Vilcabamba.
I was informed back in January that there were no more passes available for the classic Inca Trail and was devastated. Only 500 people are allowed to begin the trek per day and of this seemingly large number, more than half of the occupancy is allotted for guides, cooks and porters. So when given the choice of two alternative treks, I obviously opted for the most difficult of the three; the Salkantay Trek is six miles longer and 1800 feet higher in elevation. In the end, as things often work out for the best, I wouldn’t have done it any differently. For the first thirty-six hours we didn’t see anyone on our trail apart from the occasional horseman making his return- a serene experience quite opposite from hiking amongst a heard of tourists. Although I would have loved to finish my hike at the Sun Gate, I am glad we took the low-key route.
We reached the climax of our hike at 4800m on our first day, deeming it the toughest leg of the trek. After everything I’d heard re: altitude sickness, I did surprisingly well. According to Frank, I’m quite good at this whole hiking thing. I was on a roll until I hit 12,000 feet at which point the elevation started to hit me. I became severely short of breath but chilled out for a few minutes and kept on. 200m later, we stopped for lunch. I was so starving that when we arrived at the tent it took me a minute to acknowledge the sublimity of my surroundings. Precipitous peaks reaching 6200m formed a jagged perimeter around our picnic and within minutes of arriving I witnessed an avalanche unlike any I’d ever seen, or heard for that matter. It was outrageous. Amilcar prepared a hot lunch, which energized us for the second half of our hike: sopa de mais, followed by pollo, papas, and verduras mistas. Ah and let’s not forget the endless supply of coca leaf tea. Certainly didn’t hurt. We kept on and within ninety minutes had reached the pinnacle of our hike. We took in the scenery, or what was visible through the layers of fog, and soon began a two hour descent to the campsite. Within fifteen minutes of arriving, it was pitch black and ice cold. We had Lomo Saltado for dinner, a Peruvian staple as recognizable as ceviche or a pisco sour, and were in our tents by 9pm. I was so freezing I wasn’t sure I would make it through the night, but insulated my sleeping bag with all of my belongings and was out.
I staggered out of the tent at quarter past five the next morning to the brilliant site of the snow-capped Salkantay. I walked down to the creek to wash my face, a seemingly routine task that has remained one of my most vivid memories. Something about splashing the cool, run off water from the Andes onto my face really made my soul smile and put my surroundings into perspective. Such a simple act of purity can make you feel so alive and connected to nature. A breakfast of porridge and a small omelet prepared us for the eight hour hike that laid ahead. The scenery and climate took a 180° as we transitioned from sprawling countryside and entered the rainforest. I quickly went from wearing 5 layers to one. Contrary to the day prior, I held up the caboose by taking a million photos, and as a result we got a little off track. Woops. Whatever. Going downhill sucks, hence the infamous phrase. Especially when you’re ankle deep in mud.
We stopped in Collpachaca for lunch and were back on track. That was, until a truck rolled up beside us a mile down the road. It was the first car I’d seen on the mountain and lo and behold, there was Amilcar grinning in the bed, stoked on the lift. Before I knew it, the three of us were jumping in the back of this Toyota, hitching a ride to our destination town of La Playa, five miles away. My sense of guilt was immediately replaced with a voice of reason: it’s entirely possible I’ll hike through the rainforest again, but hitchhiking through the rainforest, crammed in the back of a busted pickup with four Peruvians? I felt the urge to capitalize on this once in a lifetime, hilarious experience. And experience it was. The driver had no mercy. We were flying down the mountain holding on for dear life. We stopped twice along the way- first at a small stand to pick up some passion fruit and the second time we just stopped in the middle of the road. Wondering what was going on, our driver shouted down into the jungle to see if anyone was around to sell him some avocados. Sadly no one hollered back but it was pretty surreal, avocados or no avocados, and gave new meaning to the term ‘drive-thru’.
Fifteen minutes later we arrived in the town of La Playa but because we had gained so much time, we hopped in an old minibus, a common form of local transportation down here, and headed into the nearby town of Santa Theresa. The forty-five minute suspension-less drive was bumpy and beautiful. We drove beneath a continuous canopy of jungle life and passed through a succession of coffee and banana plantations. According to Frank, these two agricultural industries alone are so lucrative that this region of Cusco, La Convención, is the wealthiest Province in Peru, exceeding even Lima where nearly 1/4 of the country’s population resides at close to eight million people. Bananas, right?
Up until 10 years ago the town of Santa Theresa rested along the Urubamba river but after an awful flood that devastated the small village, the residents rebuilt the entire town in the cliffs above, keeping the temperamental river at a distance. We popped into our campsite long enough to set up shop and then immediately made our way down the mountain to the local hot springs- an unmissable site we surely would have, had we been faithful hikers. Tucked amidst the voluptuous mountains and overlooking the raging white river, the natural fresh water jacuzzis were stunning and so relaxing. They also served as a nice substitute for a shower, which we hadn’t seen in two days. The warm waters soon turned into a social sauna, as the springs began to fill up with other trekkers, and we managed to meet some cool people that turned from familiar faces to friends over the course of the next few days.
We turned in early for bed and set out early the next morning to hit up some zip lining before our final leg of the hike, which turned out to be a hike in itself. It was a set of six wires, each spanning 400+ meters, that began high in the mountains and zigzagged down to the forest floor. I had never done it before- it was an awesome way to start the day. Afterward, we embarked on our final leg of the hike into the town of Aguas Calientes. The path paralleled a set of train tracks through the forest and being that it was easily navigable, I broke off from the others and walked the three hours solo. This was my favorite part of the hike; I embraced my loner tendencies and jammed to favorite, Bon Iver. The light mist quickly turned into a steady downpour and although I had my poncho in tow, I felt like walking in the rain. Not to mention it was neon orange and felt very anticlimactic. It wasn’t long before I was dripping wet in scenery and spirit and all I could think about was how this dream was happening. I just remember being so pumped.
5:00 am couldn’t come soon enough. We hopped on a shuttle and began our ascent up the mountain, arriving just before sunrise. There were only a handful of people there when we arrived and all was still but the constant veil of mist floating through the peaks of the Vilcabamba. It was as if the mountain was still asleep. I approached the ever-classic perspective and felt the steady stream of fog float right through me, as I awaited a window of transparency. A few minutes felt like forever but when the clouds’ opacity momentarily dissolved, I could faintly make out the contours of the Incan ruins that were abandoned less than 500 years ago. It was a coy introduction, beautiful and truly immense. Machu Picchu. I made it.
Frank hung out for a good ninety minutes and gave Nicky and I an ideal tour- another perk, as most groups were 10+ people. We said our goodbyes and our trio scattered. Frank peaced out, Nicky went to climb Huana Picchu and I hiked up to the Sun Gate. Hardly anyone was up there when I reached the top, so I sat down and made myself comfortable. There was a blanket of fog that obstructed the view but I didn’t mind waiting. I kicked it for nearly an hour- I even meditated for a bit which was weird. I am normally too ancy for such tranquility. If the fog weren’t there I probably would have gotten up there, clicked some pics and headed back down. As granola as it sounds, I think the fog served a purpose. It reminded me to slow down. Once the skies cleared, the towering perspective was worth every minute spent.
I made my way down the mountain only to track down the iconic llamas, which took me a good hour. I love llamas and am making it my mission to own one some day. It’s true. They were grazing on the very front edge of the mountain- a spot I would have paid no mind if it weren’t for my furry friends. It felt like I was on the bow of a massive ship, overlooking the magnificent mountain range that somehow reminded me of a pulse graph. And true to my metaphor, this place couldn’t have been more alive. It boggles my mind to think that this city, arguably the most unique in the world, would have been demolished in a heart beat had the Conquistadors been able to find it. I believe, of the countless Incan offerings, that abandoning Machu Picchu without a trace was by far their biggest sacrifice.
The inventiveness and resourcefulness of the Quechuans, commonly referred to as the Incas, was astounding. They were proper engineers despite the fact they didn’t even possess a written form of communication. Instead, they relied on Quipus, knotted cords of various colors and spacing, to relay information- literally. Messengers would run for days to deliver these cords to ‘neighboring’ villages, often in the form of relay. Coca leaves considered, I believe that if these runners were around today, they could easily perform on an Olympic level and give these crazy Kenyans some actual competition. Any takers?
Machu Picchu alone, speaks for itself. Everything was carried, carved and constructed in the absence of simple machines such as pulleys and wheels. I love that I just referenced these life changing inventions as simple but come on, they managed to build an entire city atop a massive mountain with their hands in thirty years. That’s impressive shit. As if the architecture wasn’t legitimate enough, they incorporated an earthquake resistant infrastructure, a water filtration system and a method of drainage that was not only flood resistant, but served as irrigation for their terraced crops. They created roads that stretched from Ecuador to Argentina and constructed extensive bridges and aqueducts. Their foresight and precision was monumental. In addition to being functionally adept, they domesticated culinary staples such as the potato and corn and founded medicinal herbs like quinine and coca leaves. And wouldn’t you know they were remarkable artists too, recognized for their hand crafted ceramics and intricate weavings. These people were on their game and were really something special.
I finally started to make my way back toward the entrance. I had seven hours to enjoy one of the (new) Seven Wonders of the World. Doesn’t seem proportionate. I got on the bus and was in somewhat of a funk for a couple of hours thereafter. I think I just needed time to process it all. It sure is an odd feeling when you finally live out a moment you’ve long imagined and then just like that, it comes to an end. But this was nothing new- I’d felt it before and I’ll feel it again. This is where memory comes into play and I reckon these memories are the silver linings to the passage of time.
Upon returning from MP, I was so taken with the history of Peru that Frank offered to take me on an additional afternoon tour. We took a day trip out to the Sacred Valley where we first visited a wildlife preserve. Of the many rescues, I must note how remarkable the condors were. Oh and the Peruvian hairless dog, which was…unique? Afterward we strolled five minutes up the road to Awana Kancha, a live museum where Andean weavers from twelve surrounding communities exhibit their traditional techniques. “Community” isn’t synonymous with “tribe”, as they are all Quechuan, but each group is from a different village and wears distinct apparel to honor that. To my excitement they had six various types of camels on site, of which I lent ample attention. That was, until my innocent feeding session turned into a pack of aggressive llamas all vying for my hand full of weeds, at which point I had to get out of there. Post feeding frenzy, we walked over to a thatch cabana that demonstrated the process of how wool is transformed into yarn, starting from its natural state. Note: I apologize if this is of no interest to you. After the wool is collected it is washed and divided into various grades. Of the camel spectrum, Llama wool is the most affordable followed by Alpaca and lastly, Vicuña. Vicuña goods are rare and very costly because not only have they become an endangered species, they produce such little fur that it is only collected every other year. The wool is then hand-spun into yarn on a small wooden spindle, a fascinating technique that most women learn before the age of ten. Next, the yarn is steeped in boiling clay pots with natural findings be it flowers, leaves, seeds, etc., all of which impart their given colors until the string reaches its desired gradient. The touristic markets are cluttered with cheap, artificially colored souvenirs produced in the Peruvian equivalent of China, so it was beautiful to see the laborious process behind these authentic, and appropriately expensive, textiles.
Frank and I made our way back into Cusco, ducked into the San Pedro market and immediately hit up the row of juice kiosks. The women were frantically waiving menus at us like bait. You can order off the menu or choose from the piles of fruit and vegetables what you’d like. I chose banana, mango and fresh aloe and Frank ordered a carrot-based juice. It’s common to blend these with water or milk, some even mix it with stout though I managed to bypass that exploration, as delightful as it sounded. The barista pours you a big glass and keeps the remainder in a small pitcher off to the side, refilling your cup as needed. I had nearly finished when I offered my glass for the refill but the woman kindly slowed my roll, refusing to pour until I was completely done. Word. What was the rush? The product was delicious but sitting, watching the bustling market and talking to the people around us enhanced it all. It was leisurely. It was a culture. We continued on through the market where Frank offered interesting tid bits of information and did his best to answer all my questions. Poor guy.
Soon thereafter, Frank and I said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch, especially in the event I make it back to Peru someday. Later that night our group went out for a nice dinner off the square and afterward, I dodged the tango lessons to meet up with some of the charming fellows I had met along the trail. We bounced through a couple hostel bars until we all piled into a roofless minivan and headed toward the clubs. Just when I thought I’d seen it all, another interesting mode of transportation made its debut. We were all standing up, singing and laughing into the night. We got to the club where the rest was history. I remember hearing Len’s “Steal my Sunshine”, followed by a slew of other outdated American one hit wonders, and dancing until 4am. The next morning was a bit rough but I rolled out of bed just in time to meet my friend Ryan for the local fútbol match. It was good to squeeze in some local love and get away from the backpacker scene, if only for a few hours. Following the game, we feasted on Alpaca and I returned to my hostel to finish packing for Lake Titicaca, where we spent the next 2 days.
It was neat to see the floating reed islands, they were absolutely stunning. And the lake itself is dazzling. It is the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet! But it’s difficult for me to write much more than this because the entire 24 hours we spent there felt very contrived and touristic. I don’t know how people on islands such as these are able to make a decent living in the absence of tourism, and I think it’s incredible that they have been able to create a mini-industry out of curious visitors. But I also gathered that not all inhabitants agree on this method of income and it seems to have created a bit of a divide between the traditional locals that solely rely on farming and those who have opted to market themselves. While I find this segregation to be sad, it’s the same ol’ story, perhaps just a bit more noticeable on a tiny and remote island. Nevertheless, these islanders welcomed us into their homes with open arms and were incredibly sweet and accommodating. It was a lovely time and I’m glad we went, even if it did put things in perspective.
Despite the aformentioned, I’ve thought a lot about Peru since being there and while I wasn’t in Lima, which I’ve heard is very different, I detected a sense of unity unlike anywhere I’ve ever traveled. We live in a society that defines “culture” as an amalgamation of global lifestyles. I reference the word in this context all the time, but it wasn’t until I arrived here that I gained some perspective into the true meaning of the word culture- singular. One culture. And it was seriously inspirational. Despite their blemished history, Peruvians rock their heritage so fiercely that I picked up on it immediately, even in the most touristic cities. Their sense of pride in both community and tradition is unshakable and you can really feel it. A country bound by natives, this is an indigenous culture through and through. It’s a remarkable place and I hope someday I’ll be back. Sound advice: check it out.