In the summer of 2011 I finally visited Peru which has been on my travel wish list for many years now. I also visited Panama for 4 days on the way there, a cool trip in itself. This journey was monumental for me in several ways. Peru was the 30th country I’ve visited, the first time I’ve been south of the Equator, and my first time in South America. Additionally I’d be meeting up with a good old friend of mine Brian who I’ve known since growing up in Florida where we met in 7th grade Art class. It would be our first time traveling internationally together. It’s always fun to travel with family and/or friends so you can share the adventure.
I previously wrote a blog about Panama and have enough stories to tell from my trip to Peru that I could probably write a book, but I’ll try my best to sum it up in one Cosmic Blog. Pictures probably tell the story better so if you prefer you can check them out now that the Panama/Peru gallery is finally complete.
After leaving Panama City I flew to Lima Peru where I met up with Brian. It’s great that we’ve managed to stay friends all this time even though he lives on the other side of the country in Atlanta. We’ve been talking about this trip for a while, and now it was finally happening. We were both psyched! Shortly after meeting up we flew into Cusco where we spent about a week seeing Cusco and the regional sights including Macchu Picchu, Sacsayhuaman, and the Sacred Valley.
Cusco itself is a Unesco World Hertitage site with great people, sights, markets, and food. Our trip through the Sacred Valley and Machhu Picchu was simply unforgettable. Our tour guide Maggie was really cool. We nicknamed her “Sexy Woman” after she told us that the ancient Inca site Sacsayhuaman is pronounced just that way. The local people we met were all super friendly and welcoming too. We also met some really cool travelers from Canada, Australia, and the U.S. during our week there, along with lots of Alpacas and Llamas. The Sacred Valley was incredible and Macchu Picchu was definitely one of the most beautiful and fascinating places I’ve ever been to. We enjoyed tasting the local food like Alpaca, Coca tea, and Cuy (Guinea Pig), ok so the Cuy wasn’t that enjoyable, but all the other good food more than made up for it. We were fortunate enough to even catch a local festival during our stay which was delightfully colorful.
It was really fun to hang out with Brian during that week around Cusco, and soak in the vibe of the place that was once the center of the Inca Empire. Along with the cultural experiences Brian and I had some great times and good laughs. Brian’s I-Phone alarm clock, which sounded like a tornado siren, went off at 4am the first night in Lima making me jump about 4 feet out of my bed. He thought that was hilarious, but I thought it was funnier when he got scared the first night in Cusco and wouldn’t leave the hotel room. There was an onslaught of loud explosions that night, which Brian though was gunfire. I went to check with the front desk to investigate and reassure Brian; it turns out it was just the local churches lighting fireworks in celebration. The explosions eventually stopped, but stray dogs barked and howled through the night. Some other unforgettable moments were watching a lady get attacked by a gigantic flying bug, the Peru Rail impromptu fashion show, and eating soup and smoothies with the locals at the Cusco Market.
Cusco is the kind of place that is hard to leave, but still as much as we’d like to stay it was time to move on. We had planned to take a bus to Lake Titicaca, and then move on to La Paz Bolivia where we would mountain bike down the world’s most dangerous road. However unexpected local events caused us to change our plans. Local miners were striking in Juno near Lake Titicaca which shut down the town, road, and most of the region from bus travel. There was no cost effective or efficient way to get to Bolivia. This of course wouldn’t be the first time something like this happened during my travels, but like always you have to be prepared to go with the flow. There weren’t a lot of other options so Brian decided he’d cut his part of the trip short and head back home. I was already planning to stay a week longer than Brian anyway so it was no problem for me to go it alone, but I had to come up with a new plan. I decided to stay in lovely Cusco for a while longer before heading to the Amazon Jungle for a few days, and then Arequipa and the Colca Canyon for the last week.
Visiting the jungle does require a little extra preparation. I did get a yellow fever shot before the trip since it’s required to enter Bolivia, but did not have Malaria pills. Fortunately the southern part of the Peruvian Amazon doesn’t have many cases of Malaria so I wasn’t too concerned about that detail. The real problem was that right after I booked a local flight to the Amazon hub city of Puerto Maldonado I came down with a serious eye infection in my right eye. This was brought on by the extreme dry weather and high altitude in Cusco (11,200 ft). I had to cancel an ATV trip I booked outside of Cusco, and nearly canceled the Amazon trip. Fortunately the hotel staff where Brian and I stayed at Rumi Punku were very helpful. They called a local doctor to make a house call, and she quickly fixed me up in a couple of days with a few prescriptions. Crisis #2 was averted and on to the Amazon I went.
As soon as you step off the plane in Puerto Maldonado they fittingly say “Welcome to the Jungle!” From there it’s about a 45 minute bus ride to the Rio Tambopata, and a 3 hour boat ride down that river, then a 15 minute hike into the very remote jungle lodge of Refugio Amazonia’s. It’s probably a good thing that this part of the trip was totally last minute or I might have obsessed over all the little details; like the fact that your room in the lodge is completely open to the jungle with only a mosquito net around your bed to separate you from the outside critters. Venturing naively into the unknown is sometimes the best way to go. I was paired up with a great group of other travelers from the U.S. and Britain, and our guide Juan Carlos who was Super-Cool!
We stayed together as a group for the three days hiking around the jungle and learning about the local ecosystem. Everything we saw was wild including a sloth, caiman, bats, capybaras, a boa constrictor, monkeys, numerous birds, and lots of incredibly large and unusual insects and plant life. I learned a lot during this trip but two important lessons stood out. First, that mosquitoes are the most dangerous creatures in the jungle, and second that tourism actually helps preserve the rainforest. This may seem counter-intuitive since tourism can at times destroy delicate sites, however in this case it raises awareness and gives locals an alternative source of income based on preserving the jungle, rather than income based on destroying it for things like mining or slash and burn agriculture. So do yourself and the jungle a favor and go visit, it’s an experience you will never forget.
After leaving the jungle and visiting the steamy jungle town of Puerto Maldonado for a day I flew back to Cusco for one last day, and then hopped a flight to Arequipa Peru, the second largest city in Peru after Lima. Arequipa is a little rough around the edges, but a beautiful city if you take the time to get to know it. The first night I arrived in Arequipa the Peruvian presidential election had just taken place. People were in the streets celebrating and protesting. The ladies working at the Casa Arequipa Hotel (one was named Marcella) advised me to stay in that night for safety reasons, which I did reluctantly. I had known about the election since I arrived in Lima because election propaganda was all over the TV, billboards, newspapers, and anywhere else you could think of. It was no coincidence that the mining strikes in Puno had been coordinated during this time.
The election was between Keiko Fujimori and Ollanta Humala. A few locals I talked to said neither choice was good. Keiko is surprisingly of Japanese descent, and the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, who is now in jail for corruption and human rights violations. Despite her father’s blemished record he did some good things for the country as president, and Keiko still seemed to be enormously popular. I barely saw or heard anything about Ollanta Humala while I was there, but Keiko’s face was everywhere. Keiko was a bit of a surprise to me since I always thought of South America as very macho, a man’s world so to speak. Yet here was a woman, of Asian descent, only 36 years old (at election time), vying for the presidency of Peru. Ironically Charlotte and I were in Germany when Angela Merkel became the first woman Chancellor of Germany in 2005. Since I was an outsider I did not have a stake in the election and can’t say that I really knew the political stances of either candidate. However after three weeks in Peru I became convinced Keiko would become the first female president of Peru and was silently rooting for her, but she didn’t win. The final vote was very close- Humala 51.5%, Keiko 48.5%. I have a feeling she’ll be back.
I hung out in Arequipa for a couple of days visiting the beautiful Santa Catalina Monastery, seeing the famous mummy of Juanita, and took a city tour that included much more than I would have ever expected. Arequipa is surrounded by three major volcanoes El Misti (19,101 ft), (Pichu-Pichu (18,583 ft), and Chachani (19,997 ft). I considered a two day hike up El Misti, but stories of robberies on the trail and the thought of possibly not being in good enough shape to make it to the top made me opt for the more typical trip to the Colca Canyon. Just like the jungle, I didn’t research this part of Peru before the trip so I didn’t really know what to expect and went in with no preconceptions. I did hear you could see some big birds in the Canyon, an understatement to say the least.
The two day tour to the Colca Canyon included a stay in a local canyon town Yanque, and then a visit to see the giant Condors soaring over the Colca Canyon, which at one time was thought to be the deepest canyon in the world. The world’s deepest title has since been taken by the Cotahuasi Canyon also in Peru, and disputed with one in Nepal which many consider to be a gorge. In any case Colca Canyon is still more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, but it’s more of a living cultural place to visit. Colca is not as dramatic as the Grand Canyon but just as scenic, albeit in very different ways. Just the long drive to get there is an adventure in itself. We all chewed coca leaves to fight altitude sickness while the bus climbed over a 16,109 foot mountain pass before dropping into the Colca Canyon and the town of Chivay. To the make the trip even more surreal the bus driver was blasting The Black Eyed Peas over the radio all morning. The lyrics “what you gonna do with all that junk in that trunk” and “my lovely lady lumps” will never quite have the same meaning for me again.
I was once again grouped with a cool group of diverse travelers that made the trip much more fun. In Chivay we ate more delicious local foods like Alpaca, couscous, and cactus fruit. Spending the night in the Canyon was especially otherworldly. I’ve spent the night in the mountains of Colorado many times, but nothing felt quite as out there as Colca Canyon. It’s so quiet at night that even the stray dogs don’t bark, which is unusual in Peru. The Southern Cross Constellation hangs in the sky and the feeling you get from being there is overwhelmingly peaceful. Although you can do this trip in a very long day I highly recommend spending the night, or a few nights. The next morning we went further into the canyon and saw the enormous Andean Condors which take flight and buzz right over your head while riding thermals from the deep canyon. These Condors which are a NT “near threatened” species have the largest wingspan of any land bird at up to 10.5 feet and are a sight to see. As they buzz by you head for a closer look you will find out that you are as much of a tourist attraction to them as they are to you.
I spent one more night in Arequipa before visiting Lima for a day and then heading back home. My overall impression of Peru is that it is just an absolutely wonderful country. I never felt unsafe, threatened, or bored while I was there. In fact I’d like to go back for another month or more just to see all the places I missed. It’s a huge country, bigger than California, Oregon and Washington State put together. The three major areas I visited were all completely different and unique experiences. I have to say that I am definitely fascinated with Peru and South America, and can’t wait to go back to see more. There is much to see and do in Peru!