Well, it’s been a whirlwind 3 weeks since my last post. I went from the Andean highlands of Cusco, to the low jungle, to high desert, to the second deepest canyon in the world, to coastal desert and back to the mountains again. There is such a diversity of landscapes here and for a outdoorsy type like me it has been amazing to explore them. I have squeezed almost everything I wanted to do into the last month, but alas, Tuesday was my very last day in Peru (at least for now) before I arrived in sophisticated Buenos Aires. I’ll have a little less than a week here before I fly off again, this time to Tierra del Fuego and the southern most city on earth. But before I make the leap to a new country I wanted to get down a few of my observations, plus highlights from the last few weeks in Peru.
1. Peruvians have a much higher tolerance for noise and blatantly annoying behavior. The drivers here use their horns for everything: to change lanes, to warn pedestrians who are constantly jaywalking, to see if you want a ride, because they are annoyed with traffic, to say hello to their buddies, and at all hours of the day and night. One morning I was really trying to sleep in and the noise started at 5am with honking, then barking dogs, then roosters, and then the door to door grocer yelling “tamales, naranja, pollo.” People here are also heavy users of those old school personal radios you wear over your shoulder with a strap. You will be on a public bus and two or three people will be competing for air time. Whether it is an abuela listening to Andean folk music or a 12 year old blasting crappy 90’s pop, no one says a word of complaint. (And boy, do they love crappy 90’s music. It is a total trip to be driving through amazing mountain landscapes and tiny highland towns listening to “The Sign” by Ace of Base or “Pappa Don’t Preach.”) I have also had a taxi driver listen to “Vacation” by The Go-gos on repeat for a 2 plus hour ride or let the seat belt warning beep for 30 minutes because he didn’t want to wear a seat belt.
2. CIPRO is an amazing antibiotic. When you prepare for a trip in a developing country, you acknowledge that there’s a chance of digestive issues, but you kind of gloss over it…until it happens. Well, mine started as a bad belly in Arequipa after a particularly rich meal of alpaca meatballs and morphed into full blown food poisoning at the bottom of Colca Canyon. This delayed our trip to the top a day since I spent all night under an incredible blanket of stars either making the 2 minute walk down stone steps to the toilet in the pitch dark or moaning on the ground by the bathroom hut. Needless to say this made climbing out of the canyon even more of a challenge then it already is, but after 3 days of CIPRO I was feeling back to normal and so happy to actually want to eat again.
3. Travel buddies are awesome. Whether it is for a dinner, a day, a trek, or a week, having someone along for the ride is way more fun. It is really nice to turn to someone and say “Wow, isn’t this amazing” or “Wow, isn’t this a crappy bus” and be able to laugh about it. For the last few weeks I have had someone to hang with most of the time. For a week and a half I traveled with David, a friend of a friend, from back home and we covered a lot of ground — Arequipa and Colca Canyon and back up the coast to Lima. (His company was particularly nice when I was huddled outside the bathroom one night.) After parting ways in Lima, I met Henry, a British chap, literally right off the bus, who was my hiking buddy for one day in Huaraz. The following day I met Bianca, a German woman the same age as me who is also traveling solo. We hit it off right away and had an awesome time tackling the Santa Cruz trek in the Corderilla Blanca.
4. Any song can be ‘improved’ with panpipes. Panpipe music is the elevator music of Peru and any song can be ‘remastered’ on panpipes. Whenever David and I were hanging around in bus stations we started playing ‘name that tune.’ For example, ‘Oh, that was Bridge Over Troubled Water and this is House of Rising Sun’ or ‘I think this is from Last of the Mohicans.’
5. When you are out in the wilderness trekking, it feels like you could be anywhere. I noticed this several times because when there are no signs, traffic, chaos, or even very many people around you feel like you could be in the southwest US or even in the mountains back home. There are no reminders that you are in a Spanish speaking country thousands of miles away…that is until you see a bunch of donkeys ride by or have to catch a crowded collectivo in a remote town to get back from a trailhead.
Madre de Dios (Jungle)
While technically not the Amazon, this river is one of its sources and it was incredible to swim and kayak in it with its super wide banks and the huge, open sky above. The jungle canopy was also fun to zipline and hike through. My stay here for a few days was quite relaxing with lots of hammock time and amazing sunsets. I also got to see tons of wildlife: caimans, frogs, monkeys, pelicans, lizards, turtles, the tiniest bat in the world, tons of crazy butterflies and insects, and literally hundreds of parrots. No ROUS’s (Rodents of Unusual Size), unfortunately. The capybara (guinea pig like creatures that are the size of a Saint Bernard) were hiding out, but I did get to see some footage a few guys took of them the night before I arrived.
My closest wildlife encounters, though, took place in the open air bathrooms. The day I arrived I was taking a much needed shower when I heard my shampoo drop and looked up to see Loca, the lodge’s pet coati (an anteater like creature), on top of the stall. Before I could even think, like the monkey in Hangover II, she made off with the watch I had hanging on a nail on the shower wall. I was naked and totally helpless to do anything, but fortunately the staff got it back for me. That same night I had the unique experience of sharing the toilet with a tarantula. Overall it was a great trip with a chance even to see jaquars, wild pigs, and tapirs upclose at a small wildlife rehabilitation center. The only part I would have skipped was this awkward “meeting with a native family.” It was pretty obviously staged since you could see the t-shirts they were wearing under their cloaks and for 40 minutes I had to hide my embarrassment while we sang, danced, and shot arrows together.
Arequipa and Colca Canyon (High Desert)
This colonial town is so beautiful with carved white sandstone buildings, plazas, and monasteries and dramatic mountains all around. I had a relaxing few days here with David, seeing the sights, eating well, and paying our respects to the frozen maiden sacrificed to the Incan mountain gods 500 years ago. The next four days we spent trekking the second deepest canyon in the world, which was amazing. Even the bus drive there was pretty spectacular with crazy cool rock formations and big mountains just outside my window. Inside the canyon the views go on for miles and miles with all kinds of cacti along the way and prickly pear literally coating entire hillsides. We took a few hot and dusty days to hike through a few different parts of the canyon, swam in the river, saw geysers, soaked in the hot springs at Illhuar, and cooled off in Sangalle at a ridiculously awesome hostel with a tropical flower garden and a pool with a fountain— all for only $6 a person per night!
The South (Coastal Desert)
After trekking Colca, David and I had a long day of travel. We climbed out of the canyon, took a 5+ hour bus back to Arequipa, then got on an overnight bus to Nazca. I had planned to skip the mysterious and massive line drawings in the desert, but it made sense to stop there and have a low key day after such hellish travel. We found a really clean hostel that seemed good at first, but the owner was pretty lazy (he spends most of the day sleeping on a mattress near the entrance) so nothing happened on time and he totally ripped us off on the tour we booked. The lines are interesting though and it is crazy to think that some of them have been there nearly 2000 years. What they are for, no one really knows: to point towards water sources, imitate celestial patterns, indicate the change of seasons, or be used as ceremonial paths…maybe all of these. In any case the sunset that day was amazing as it was every night we were in the desert.
From Nazca we went to Huacachina and its enormous sand dunes. Riding in the dune buggies was so fun, like a roller coaster on the sand, then we went sledding and sandboarding down super steep sand slopes. Our last day on the coast we relaxed in Paracas and visited the Islas Ballestas, which are offshore islands formed (according to my guide) by “volcanic erections.” They are a protected reserve for massive colonies of sea birds (boobies, penguins, pelicans, and many more) as well as some very active sea lions that we got to see napping, swimming, playing, and (speaking of erections) humping. The islands are nicknamed the “poor man’s galapagos,” but David called them the “bird shit islands” because the guano smell was so overwhelming. I had to breathe into my shirt at one point because it was so bad. In fact, I was spared from a guano bomb dropped from above by only a few inches (the guy behind me and my backpack were not so lucky).
Huaraz (Corderilla Blanca Mountains)
I finished up my time in Peru back in the Andes Mountains. I am so glad I had time to come to Huaraz because I definitely saved the best for last. Had I known how amazing this area is, I would have spent much more than 5 days here. Basically right off the night bus from Lima, I couldn’t resist going for a long day hike since the weather was so beautiful, sunny and clear and headed up to Laguna 69 (no idea why it’s called that). I had to do it at a snail’s pace because I wasn’t acclimatized, but it was totally worth it…big, white mountains all around, gorgeous lakes, and waterfalls everywhere. The next day I met Bianca and we decided to attempt the Santa Cruz trek in 2 and a half days (most people do it in 4) since I was short on time. We had a great time together, the people in the little towns near the trailheads were really friendly, and the scenery was just jaw dropping (I’ll have to let the pictures speak for themselves because it was too amazing to do justice to with words).
Our only real struggles were a two hour bus delay getting to the trailhead the first day and a frustrating couple of hours wandering around in a marsh and climbing over boulders trying to find the trail since the map was a bit misleading. Fortunately we were able to find our way back (thanks Aunt Irene for the help purchasing my global compass!). Limited time and some crazy weather also forced us to skip the side hike to a big mountain view and glacier. In fact the day we climbed to the high pass we had rain, sun, rain, hail, sun, rain, and then snow. Just as we reached the top, though, the sky cleared revealing amazing valley views, mountains, and lakes on either side of the ridge. The people the next day weren’t so lucky with camp basically in a cloud and the pass in total white out. However, being so high up in elevation and with the rainy season just a week away, the weather definitely could have been worse.
To celebrate our finish, Bianca and I had a big Indian dinner and home brew beer, which was so delicious. It’s really challenging to find beer that doesn’t taste like Coors Light in Peru so having the option of blonde, pale, amber, or red was really amazing. That same night I took the night bus back to Lima and enjoyed a down day at a friend of a friend’s apartment, letting my gear dry, doing laundry, and eating really well (which is what you should do if you ever find yourself in Lima since the food is amazing).
Now I am in Buenos Aires staying with my roommate from years ago when I was studying abroad in Rome. She moved here for tango and to teach English and promises to show me the ropes of the city and its signature dance. Today I got an amazing amount of very much needed sleep and visited Evita’s grave at the Recoleta Cemetary. I also got mistaken for a local several times, which was funny since as soon as I open my mouth it’s obvious I’m clueless, but it was refreshing after sticking out so much in Peru. What tomorrow will bring, who knows?