Adventure in Peru

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My mom and I traveled together for the first time since I was a kid to the beautiful South American country of Peru. I’d been talking about going for over a year, and my mom eagerly said she’d love to join me. Since the first time I laid eyes on the World Heritage site of Machu Picchu in a photograph years ago, I knew I needed to stand before it in awe myself. Of course, in doing my research to plan the trip, I found Peru has so much more to offer than just Machu Picchu, and I really struggled to find an itinerary that allowed me to see as much as possible in as little time as possible, with as small of a budget as possible. I put hours into researching the different attractions and activities as well as tour companies and reviews and hotels. In the end, I stumbled upon a very reasonably priced 10 day itinerary that would take me to the main places I wanted to see: the Amazon Rainforest, the Sacred Valley, Puno and the floating Uros Islands, and of course, Machu Picchu. Like most of the trips I plan, with so many destinations in a short time, we were on the move constantly, only staying one or two nights in each hotel.
We departed in the afternoon and had an overnight flight to Lima, Peru. Lima is a huge city of like 9 million people. I wasn’t particularly interested in Lima, but most itineraries take you there for at least a day. We were greeted at the airport by a Peruvian man named Vladimir (oddly, a Russian name). He drove us to our hotel in the Miraflores district (safe tourist neighborhood) of Lima, telling us the entire way his fascinating life story of woes worthy of a movie plot. Upon freshening up at our hotel, we walked the neighborhood a bit and the then perused the Incan Market with a gazillion Peruvian shops (most selling nearly identical goods). We quickly learned the Peruvian handicrafts were going to test our shopping restraint. The uniqueness of things made in Peru is truly difficult to resist. I’ve never been a vacation shopper, but Peru was a different story…the yarn, the bright colors, the alpaca wool, the coziness of it all…too much to resist.
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The next day in Lima was a historical city tour. We took a bus to the old city square, saw the president’s home, an old church, and some other sites like a 1500’s library. At the end of the tour, we had the guide drop us off at a recommended restaurant where we tried the famous Peruvian dish, ceviche.

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Since you can’t drink tap water, you frequently have to buy bottled water, which can be cheap to not so cheap depending on where you buy it. I felt like I was constantly rationing my water because I didn’t want to run out or not be able to safely brush my teeth or take medication. The only free water was hot water for tea with meals, so every continental breakfast, every buffet lunch, anytime free tea was offered, I was gulping it down trying to hydrate myself for free (because I hate the idea of paying to drink water). Plus, most people in Peru drink coca tea from the leaves of the coca tree and it supposedly helps with altitude sickness and gives you a nice little energy boost which I never noticed but kept hoping for.

That afternoon, we made the short flight to the smallish, poor, jungley town of Puerto Maldonado where the warmer, more humid weather was a welcome treat. We were picked up at the small airport by 3 young Peruvian tour guides. One of them, with broken English, told us he would be our guide and his name was Edds. The other two were Carlo and William. We were transported by van to the company’s office where they told us since it was already almost 5 pm, we had just a few minutes to repack anything we would need in the next two days into a provided duffle bag. Panic set in. Everything I brought with me was crammed into a huge backpack; additionally I had a small backpack with my laptop and nice camera in it, and then a shoulder bag with my money, passport, and immediate necessities. So we had just a few minutes to dig clothes, shoes, bug spray, shampoo, etc. out of our huge bags and throw it into these duffle bags. I couldn’t part with my laptop; I didn’t trust leaving it at their office for two days, so I had to carry my backpack and shoulder bag but they would carry our duffle bags for us. Then they told us to pick out a size of rubber boots from their pile that fit us. Before we knew it we were whisked by van through the poor town of Puerto Maldonado to the port and climbed on a long motorized canoe. We put on life jackets and the boys gave us baskets with a meal in them which was delicious tofu fried rice wrapped in a big leaf. It was fabulous. They told us about the caiman alligators and the piranhas that fill this Madre de Dios River and laughed. I briefly imagined being eaten alive if our boat capsized and quickly dismissed the thought, telling myself this was a vacation not the movie Anaconda. As we cruised down the murky brown river, wind in our hair, excitement about the unknown, I started to feel like this was what it was all about. The adventure. The fear. The anticipation. The feeling of experiencing a world only a fortunate few get to know and become familiar with.

With the sun starting to set, it was starting to get a bit chilly. I was starting to have anxiety about what the rest of the trek into the Amazon would hold. The itinerary mentioned a boat ride, a long walk, and then another canoe ride. I couldn’t imagine how there would be daylight left to accomplish this. Well, there wasn’t. It was near dark as soon as we reached a steep hillside along the murky brown river where the boat pulled up. We carefully climbed up the hillside and when we reached the top, I quickly realized why the rubber boots were a necessity.  The trail that led into the jungle was a literal pathway of mud. Like 6 to 8 inches of mud. The kind you get suctioned into and lose your boots with each step. Edds got us both a set of walking sticks. We each had our backpacks on, plus I had my shoulder bag slung around my neck across my body so it wouldn’t slip off.  After 20 minutes or so of blindly trekking through the dark in the jungle we reached a small rickety wood building where a lady recorded our passport information and we were instructed to douse ourselves in mosquito repellent and get our flashlights out. The flashlight that I had read was a recommended item, I decided I didn’t need to bring. What a dumbass. I figured I could use my phone or my mom would bring one. My mom brought one, but she couldn’t find it in her bag and figured she’d left it in her big backpack when we repacked. She found one of those tiny key chain flashlights and looped it around her finger. Again, we set out with no concept of what was to come. The next 3 kilometers felt like it went on for hours. And I think it did. With the light of Edds’s flashlight ahead of me and my mom’s key chain flashlight bobbing behind me, I followed them through the mud, jungle branches smacking us as we went, nothing but the sound of nocturnal-god-knows-whats up in the trees above us and our boots slopping through the muck. To avoid the deepest mud, the guys would lead us on tiny little dense trails or steep slippery banks along the path, where I essentially felt like I was walking blindly in the dark hoping I didn’t trip. My hands hurt from gripping my walking sticks so tightly, I felt like I was going to die of shoulder blade pain from my shoulder bag hanging off me and my heavy backpack and I silently begged to know how much longer I had to go on. I’d only had time to put on short little socks so I had a painful blister wearing into the side of my ankle from the stiff rubber boots. As we hiked, Carlo kept telling me what a strong woman I was. If he only knew the internal dialogue I was having, ha.

Eventually, my mom’s boot caught a root hidden under almost a foot of mud, and she went down. It was the culmination of everything we silently prayed to avoid. Her only warm clothes were wrapped around her waist (a fleece and a rain jacket) so everything she had on plus her backpack and her wrist brace were a muddy mess. The boys quickly came to her rescue, taking her backpack and using their water bottles to clean her hands and walking sticks by the light of flashlights as much as possible. We continued on. Edds shined his flashlight under a bush showing me a giant tarantula scurrying about. I almost had a heart attack. Then I made the mistake of asking if they live in the trees or stay on the ground. Many species live in trees, he informed me. So I spent the rest of the trek fearing and imagining that one was dropping from a branch onto my head or backpack and was hitching a ride. I also spent a bit of time contemplating the possibility that these three boys were not who they were supposed to be. Maybe they were serial killers leading us into the jungle to murder us and dispose of our bodies. But they seemed so nice. Could they really be murderers? Ted Bundy seemed nice too…

They assured us we were almost there. Eventually, with the little bit of light present, I could tell the path opened up to an eerily calm body of water. There was an emptiness in front of me, maybe an echo. William disappeared into the jungle near the water. We stood in the pitch black and waited at the water’s edge until William appeared paddling a canoe. We climbed aboard the muddy wet canoe and they maneuvered it through a narrow canal of murky stagnant water and Tarzan vines. After a few minutes we emerged into Sandoval Lake. We couldn’t see how big it was, only that there were no longer plants around us. When anyone turned on a flashlight, you could see hundreds of mosquitoes and bugs swarming around us. There was only the sound of the wooden canoe paddles dipping in and out of the water. Eventually Carlo dipped his fingers in the lake and splashed around a bit calling to the caiman alligators, “We have some nice tourists for you!”

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I have no idea how they found it in the dark, but after about 40 minutes of canoeing, we arrived at a dock on the edge of the jungle where we unloaded and followed them up a long wooden plank walkway up a hill in the dense jungle until we saw lights and Sandoval Lake Lodge emerged. It was about 8:30 at night. We checked into our room (which upon flicking on the lights, cockroaches scurried about), mom cleaned some mud off her, and we hurried to the dining area to join the rest of the lodge guests for a late dinner. There were about 30 guests at the lodge and everyone followed the same schedule depending on what activities that had already taken part in. We sat at a small table and Edds came and joined us. I wasn’t sure if this was normal that our guide was eating with us, but it turned out he joined us for every meal and we were happy for the company. After an impressive dinner with numerous courses (and a lot of carbohydrates), we went back to our room. There was electricity on from 5-6am, 1-4pm, and 5-10pm basically for meal times. Since I still had some electricity and hence hot water, I took a shower, which was surprisingly pleasant. After wrapping my hair in a towel and putting my pajamas on, I was walking around when I felt strand of hair brush across my forehead, except upon glancing in the mirror, I realized that it wasn’t my hair, it was a large cockroach crawling across my forehead. I freaked out, of course, swatting it off and screaming. My mom and I looked all over the floor for it but couldn’t find it. I had her inspect my back to make sure it wasn’t clinging to me. “Are you sure it was a cockroach?” She asked. “I saw the little fucker crawling across my forehead in the mirror!” I shrieked.

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Our guide in the Amazon, Edds

Between panicking about bugs, the sound of a rodent of unusual size crawling in the rafters above us, and the open air connected rooms allowing us to hear the guy next door snoring, we didn’t get much sleep. The next day I felt like shit but had to get up and go on a 5am canoe ride around the lake for like 2 hours with Edds and William. Then after breakfast we had a scheduled “nature walk” in the afternoon. Edds taught us all about Brazil nuts and different types of medicinal trees and what they’re used for and we saw some cool animals, insects, and plants. Before dinner that night we cruised around the lake again and watched little squirrel monkeys jumping from tree to tree chasing each other. We returned to the dining hall for our second and final dinner in the Amazon.

The next morning we had an early breakfast and left with a larger group. In the daylight and after a couple days of drying out, the mud hike was pretty fun. Edds and Carlo took us to the airport in Puerto Maldonado and we hugged them goodbye.

Our short flight took us to the city of Cuzco at an elevation of about 11,500 feet. Upon landing in Cuzco, we were again picked up by a tour guide and taken to our adorable hotel on a busy cobblestone street. We hurried and changed after our Amazon mud trek and left for our Cuzco city tour. Our guide took us for a quick lunch and then to a historical church in the city square and then some ruins above Cuzco with an incredible view. Climbing up the site gave me my first glimpse of what effect the high elevation has on you physically. I got so winded, I felt like my lungs were going to explode and my heart was going to give out. By no means, am I in the best cardio shape but you could definitely tell the difference. I’m also glad I saw some of the different ruins like these before going to Machu Picchu, because I appreciated them so much and found them marvelous. Had I been to Machu Picchu first, I likely would have been bored and unimpressed.
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After our guide dropped us off at our hotel, Mom and I walked the short couple blocks to the Cuzco city square and found a restaurant. Inside, we ordered an alpaca pepperoni pizza to share. It was delicious and basically indistinguishable from regular pepperoni. We learned the large stone walls inside the restaurant were the original Incan structures from the 1500’s. Walking around the city square at night felt perfectly safe in Cuzco. There were tons of people, shops all along the street with cheap fake alpaca products to over the top expensive authentic alpaca products, there were traditionally dressed older women walking around with baby goats and sheep waiting to pose with tourists for a small cost, and enticing restaurants all around. And compared with Lima and the Amazon, it was cold! The day time was sunny and crisp, maybe in the mid 60’s, but when the sun went down, it became downright cold rather quickly.

The next day we began with our typical tea and carbohydrate-laden hotel breakfast, and then we departed Cuzco with a group of about 15 people on a large bus. We stopped and visited llamas and alpacas, we watched local women weave traditional tapestries, we went to the Pisac Market in the Sacred Valley where we shopped for local products and tried empanadas straight out of this giant ancient oven. I passed on choosing my own guinea pig from the “guinea pig castle’” to cook up.

We continued on to our beautiful, scenic lunch destination and then some Incan Ruins. The mind-blowing part about seeing these ruins is they were ubiquitous at one time. The Incans built about 50,000 kilometers worth of roads and apparently every 30 kilometers or so, they built a “rest stop” of some sort called tambos. Of course there is little left of many of them because the Spanish destroyed them when they conquered the Incas in the 1500’s. The ingenious architectural technique of the Incas was equally impressive. The way they hauled massive rocks from distant quarries by sliding them on pebbles and then sanding them down to have a tongue and groove interlocking system so they fit perfectly together with no mortar, was so advanced. They would build their structures in a trapezoidal configuration so as to withstand earthquakes. And despite the Spanish destroying much of their work and their history, the World Heritage site of Machu Picchu somehow escaped that fate.

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The next day was finally the day I’d been waiting for. I’ve dreamed of viewing Machu Picchu with my own eyes for years since I first saw it in a picture and subsequently added it to “my list.” Machu Picchu and had been somewhere in the top 5 for me for the past few years. Plus, going to South America put me at visiting 6 out of the 7 continents.

We woke up Saturday and once again, were subjected to a carbohydrate epidemic for breakfast at our new hotel. We were picked up by a driver who transported us to a train station where we stored our huge backpacks and boarded the very nice tourist train (which provided superior snacks to any domestic flight I’ve been on) for a scenic, hour-long ride to the Machu Picchu base town of Agus Caliente. As the train ride went on, following a beautiful river, the scenery became more lush and more mountainous. We were heading into a warmer, more humid climate I was more than ready for. In Agus Caliente, we boarded a bus with some of the same group of people we’d spent the last couple days with. The bus took us high up into the mountains over what looked like a rainforest on a steep and dicey dirt road for a few miles. When we arrived, I impatiently waited for our group to gather and for our slow tour guide to lead the way to the entrance. The whole tour group thing was starting to wear on me; I prefer to do things at my own pace (which is usually quickly). However, with a place like Peru, there is something invaluable about the “tour guide.” They know the history, the stories, and the religious significance of each site that you just can’t appreciate by going unguided.
When we walked the pathway through the entrance and I got the first glimpse of the ruins of what is referred to as Machu Picchu (which is actually the name for the mountain in front of the ruins, not the ruins themselves), I felt a deep sense of satisfaction and awe. That moment is why I travel. It’s the same feeling I felt when I saw the white sand of Whitehaven Beach in Australia, the Great Barrier Reef from the air, the countryside of Thailand by train, the Indian ocean from a rickety boat in Zanzibar, and the Serengeti from the open roof of a safari vehicle. It almost takes my breath away. This is what I live for. I’m simultaneously an insignificant speck on the planet in a moment of history and yet we’re all interconnected beings sharing this same grand earth trying to make our mark and make a difference.

The exhilaration of seeing Machu Picchu lasted a couple hours as we toured the humongous site in its entirety as a small group, learning that certain areas of the site were housing specifically for nobility and the other areas were designated for their working class. The Incans sophistication in astronomy was impressive and they had a massive sundial. There is so much mystery surrounding Machu Picchu. Much is still unknown and not understood about what purpose it served. It differs from other Incan sites, in that it seemed to have been more of a royal estate as well as a religious site. There could have been roughly up to 500 people living there at one time. The crowds at Machu Picchu were not too substantial. Yes, there were constantly people in the background of my pictures, and I fantasized about being the only one there at dawn, or discovering it myself in 1911, but these days you take what you can get.
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We took the bus back to Agus Caliente, had yet another included buffet lunch and overdosed on carbs, then boarded the train and napped. When we got back to the train station in the next town, a driver took us all the way back to Cuzco and we arrived back at our same hotel we’d been at two nights ago on the cobblestone street.

The next day we had an early departure with our same group of people on another nice big bus. We were heading to the city of Puno. We were on the bus for probably at least 8 hours making multiple stops along the way. We stopped at some ruins with a really cool little market where I bought a ceramic pitcher and plate (the plate broke on the way home). We reached a high point in our drive of about 14,500 feet. At another pre-Incan site we crawled through a completely dark tunnel underground then visited a museum and a church. We arrived that afternoon to the quaint city of Puno on the sloping banks of Lake Titicaca, which borders Bolivia. Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America with the highest elevation for any navigable lake in the world. We checked into our hotel, again on an adorable cobblestone street right near the main shopping and tourist area. We walked to a nearby restaurant where nearly everything on the menu was now trout. Trout this, trout that. I passed on the trout and had alpaca steak and potatoes for dinner. The altitude in Puno was even more extreme than Cuzco at 12,500 feet. I found myself lying in bed at night trying not to think about my breathing otherwise I started feeling like I was gasping for air. It sometimes almost gave me a panic attack.

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The next day was basically the last day of scheduled tours on our trip. We had an early pickup and transfer to the pier on Lake Titicaca. We boarded a boat with a few of the same people from the tours of the last 3-4 days. We rode the boat for a while until we reached the Uros floating islands. These are a group of floating islands made from reeds where a small number of people live. They look like islands covered in straw. We were dropped off on one of these islands and sat on rolled up reed benches in a circle while a local did a small scale demonstration of how the reed islands are built as a little boy chased a kitten in the background. The islands felt sturdy, but when a passing boat went by, you could feel and see an ever so slight wave motion. A long time ago people lived self sufficiently on these islands, and the original purpose was defensive. Now, they are not completely self sufficient, but rather dependent on the economics of tourism and occasional trips to the mainland for resources. However, as our tour guide greatly emphasized, they are not there as a staged show for tourists. They really do make their lives there.  We saw children hurrying off in uniforms with their backpacks to the school on floating reeds. And apparently one side of the island is used as their “bathroom.” After the demonstration, the few women on the island each took a couple of us into their reed hut and proceeded to start putting their traditional clothing on us. I couldn’t exactly object, for language barrier reasons as well as politeness. When my mom and I exited the reed hut in Uros Island Wear, the three older ladies we’d been touring with for the past few days also came out of the next door hut in similar attire, laughing hysterically. After removing the clothes, we bought a handicraft to contribute to their local economy then they transported us by this incredible reed catamaran to the neighboring island where we caught the main tourist boat.

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Another hour on the lake (this lake is more like an ocean) and we arrived at a rather pretty island called Taquile Island. We followed our guide up a long rock path up the hillside of the island, becoming winded VERY easily and having to rest often. It was an interesting island. The residents (a few thousand of them) have been DNA tested and deemed the most genetically linked remaining people to the Incas. However, they follow traditional Spanish culture more because they didn’t receive independence when the rest of Peru did; not until 1968 were they left to independently run the island themselves. So they wear traditional Spanish clothing and have incorporated many of their customs. Also interesting is the women make the yarn but the men do all the knitting. They have incredible knit stuff. After climbing the rock path to the little village square, we had some free time to browse the little mercantile. We bought gloves, headbands, and hats. Of all the goods all over Peru, their stuff was probably my favorite. Plus, you genuinely knew they made it there on the island, not in some factory somewhere.
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Then we went to a home that had two big tables set up outside overlooking the lake where we had lunch. Of course, for lunch, trout was served. We walked back to the boat and returned to Puno. We went to dinner and on a shopping frenzy that night in the little tourist shopping area.
There were a ton of stray dogs in Peru. Occasionally, you could tell one had an owner and was loved because they wore clothes. Like this guy.

 

The next day was our departure from Peru. We spent the morning shopping at a market down by the water then had wood fire pizza at a restaurant. In the afternoon, a lady picked us up for our transfer to the Juliaca Airport. It was a long drive but we discussed society and crime in Peru. The city we were flying out of, Juliaca, is very different from the rest of the Peruvian cities we saw. It was dirty, there were no tourist at all, and it was mainly inhabited by miners, industrial workers, people dealing with the black market, and the contraband. It was a harsh contrast from the rest of the quaint towns and cities we’d seen where the streets were immaculate. She dropped us off at the tiny airport, warning us to dress warm, the airport has no heat. We were like 4 hours early, and it was probably the longest and coldest 4 hours of my life. I had leggings, leg warmers, a sweater, my puffy jacket, an alpaca wool hat, and gloves on and I couldn’t stop shivering. I was huddled up against my mom trying to absorb any body heat I could on the hard cold plastic chairs with one finger out of my glove playing solitaire on my phone. Finally we were able to check in and board our plane to Lima at like 9pm. Our overnight flight from Lima brought us back to LA in the morning. What a great feeling to be back in the US. I still had the urge to say “gracias” to everyone.
I’m so glad my mom and I got the chance to do this trip together. It was great for her to do something for herself and satisfying knowing we got to spend that time together. Hopefully we’ll do it again someday.

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3 thoughts on “Adventure in Peru

  1. Kim Gibson

    Long maybe, but extremely worth the read. Always enjoy reading your posts. Such an amazing trip and a great story to tell of the experience with TSA and FBI.

    Reply
  2. Emmy

    It is good to read your stories again, Jessica. What a unique trip for you and your mom. Thanks so much for sharing all your pictures. I don't travel much right now, but seeing and reading your stories helps me picture those faraway places so much better. And I would have say LA's airport has been my least favorite so far as well.

    Reply

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