in a nutshell
03.11.2014 - 21.11.2014
Arriving in Cusco was literally a breath of fresh air. I had left the uncomfortably humid climate of the Amazon (as well as northern Colombia), and was finally back in an area where the air was cool and refreshing. This was mostly due to the altitude of Cusco (3,400 m), which meant the air was also quite thin for a big city. Immediately, I also noticed the vast improvement in food (beginning with an empanada so delicious I wanted to cry), and was wooed by the beauty of the city, which was dotted with steep cobblestone streets and ornate cathedrals. Cusco certainly seemed to have no shortage of culture, emphasized by the women walking around town carrying baby goats in slings. Sadly though, after two weeks in the Cusco area, I got the impression that anything that seemed cultural was ultimately for tourism, and the areas outside the large tourist hub in Cusco were really not so unique or appealing. Still, it is a pleasant city, and being right in the middle of the Andes, and I couldn't spend time there without doing at least a little bit of exploring.
Based off a recommendation, I started with a 5 day hike around the Ausangate mountain range, about a 3.5 hour bus ride out of Cusco. This hike began in a small rural village and quickly took us into extremely remote areas, dominated by huge open landscapes and the occasional Alpaca farm. The first day did not look so promising. Although it was initially hot and sunny, as we climbed towards the mountains a few hours into the hike, herds of Alpaca came running back towards their farms from their grazing areas. Our guide assured us that this was a sign of heavy rain. Indeed, it rained quite hard, hailed, and even started blizzarding with snow as tents were being set up, resulting in one tent being blown across the valley. On the bright side, this first camp site also had hot springs, which I'm quite surprised weren't actually boiling considering how hot they really were. After a hot meal and coca leaf tea (no, it doesn't have the same effect as cocaine, but it helps with altitude), it was time for bed at 8 PM. Once the sun goes down and everything starts freezing over (including the tents themselves), there's really no reason to stay awake.
The rest of the days are harder to distinguish. The sun shone all day long, the alpacas roamed in the dozens, the air was thin and dry, and the scenery was spectacular. From a single view point, I could see desert-like rolling hills, sharp multi-coloured mountains displaying brilliant reds and greens, snow-filled peaks with melting glaciers, and turquoise lakes, sourced by cascades of glacier water. And none of this was ever further than two or three kilometres away. Around every corner and over every pass, I kept thinking that it couldn't get much more beautiful, and then it did (I will attempt to do some justice to the scenery with photos, but of course it couldn't all be accurately captured). More amazing still were the small huts inhabited by locals in the middle of nowhere. How they survive in these areas, with no roads, little vegetation, and a multi-day hike to the nearest town is beyond me.
Our second camp spot was neighbouring a fairly active glacier, which fed a turquoise lake below (the French pair I was hiking with were immediately compelled to go for a swim). Every few minutes to an hour, there would be a thunderous crack and boom, as the glacier ice shifted under changing temperatures. The morning of the third day, we were actually woken up by a rather large explosion of the glacier, and all ran out of our tents to watch an avalanche of ice fall down the rocky mountainside into the lake. Later this day, we also passed the highest point of our hike, at 5, 200 m (over 17, 000 feet). While pondering the fact that not even alpine grasses can survive this cold, oxygen-poor environment, I look to my right to see a group of wild vicuña (a non-domesticated relative of the alpaca and llama), casually trotting over the pass. Later on in the day, we set up camp next to what was pretty much a big lump in the ground, filled with chinchillas. I don't know what these animals are living off of, but they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it. Our fourth day of hiking took us past a few more lakes and mountainsides to eventually reach what could be argued to be civilization. This small Quechua village was the home of our guide, and after a long relaxing soak in the local hot springs, we spent the evening and night with his family, including his dogs, kittens, chickens, and alpaca herd of 120 strong (did I mention that the guide did the entire trek in sandals?). The last day, after hiking to a larger village, checking out the Sunday market, and bidding farewell to our guide, ended with a bus ride back to Cusco.
Despite the success of the Ausangate trip, I didn't feel right leaving Cusco without visiting the (probably) most well-known attraction in South America - Machu Picchu. Of the multiple options of getting to the ancient city, I found the most appealing to be another 5 day hike through a region called Salkantay. However, craving an extra day's rest in Cusco after Ausangate, I decided to leave a day later than planned and get the hike done in 4 days (I should be relatively fit by now, right?). Also, blown away by the outrageous prices of having a guide for the hike, I decided to try it solo.
Perhaps all of the good weather had been used up in Ausangte, or perhaps my Salkantay hike lined up perfectly with the beginning of the Peruvian rainy season, but I can't say I was dry for single part of my 4 days to Machu Picchu. The first day started out beautiful and sunny, which was a much needed mental boost, considering I got dropped off 15 km away from the spot I expected to start at (an extra 4 hours of hiking to start the first day). This first day also had the most challenging climb over the Salkantay pass (4, 600 m), which of course was done during a windy downpour of rain, hail, and sleet, accompanied by a thunderstorm to set the mood. During this climb, I also became familiar with how much a 50+ lb bag can take a toll at altitude. After a 12 or so hour hiking day, I was ready to collapse inside my tent, although a few other mishaps prevented the much needed relaxation. My instant coffee (a substance stickier than sugar itself) exploded inside my bag, my only bowl/cup/plate was broken in half, and my tent seemed to have 0% water resistance. I won't lie, I was not a happy camper (pun intended). Waking up literally dripping with water the next morning, I was optimistic for a new day. It was certainly easier than the first, and involved a full day of descent from snowy mountain peaks into semi-tropical jungle. That evening, after having to kick chickens out of my tent, involved another attempt to stay relatively dry during the characteristic thunderstorm.
The third day brought me into the town of Aguas Calientes, a touristy hub marking the entrance into Machu Picchu, where all of the various trails and transportation methods converge into one ultimate location. Even in the off season, this place was bustling. The final morning, I got an early start to climb up to the ruins, but found myself deep in fog about halfway up the mountain. Since the ruins themselves were also saturated with fog, and since the only ticket I was able to buy also included access all the way up Machu Picchu mountain, I figured I might as well climb it (as tired as I already was) in hopes of rising above the fog. After another hour of climbing up stone stairs as steep as ladders, I made it to the peak of Machu Picchu mountain (proudly, the first person of the day to the top). However, as it was still dense with fog (over 1km above Aguas Calientes), I walked back down to the ruins, where the clouds had lifted just enough to see the city in close proximity. Overall, while the ancient Incan village is extremely impressive and beautiful, I can't say it was a highlight. Maybe it was the fog, or the masses of tourists, or maybe I was just to tired to appreciate it, but the magic of Machu Picchu was somewhat lost on me. Definitely worth the visit, but after a few moments of reflection and appreciation, I soon found myself walking back down to find a bus back to Cusco. Worth noting is that on this bus ride back, I sat next to a man called Rodrigo Rodriguez.
I still had a few days before meeting my mum in Ecuador, so I decided I would spend the time in the big city, Lima. Staying two blocks from the beach of the Pacific ocean, a lot of my time in Lima was spent surfing on the Peruvian coastline (alongside pods of dolphins, of course). The landscape actually held quite a strong resemblance to that of Southern California, with palm trees lining the roads, high-rises stretching inland into the desert, well-manicured parks on every street, and large sandy cliffs dropping down into the (usually rather foggy) shoreline. Besides surfing, I spent a lot of time enjoying the Lima cuisine (it is the "gastronomic capital" of the Americas), either exploring unfamiliar items in street corner diners, or divulging in some fresh ceviche at the local fish market. I also went to explore the China town in Lima one day which, despite being fairly large, was completely void of any Chinese people.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the people in South America are vastly different in a big city. Of the two in-depth conversations I had with locals on my first day in Lima, the first one mostly involved a 65 year old man describing to me how he secretly takes Viagra in order to keep his 22 year old girlfriend impressed. The second, although less eccentric initially, ended in an invitation back to the apartment of a young gay Cuban man who works in the adult film business. I kindly declined. It seems the modesty of South Americans is completely lost in the city. Another notable place in Lima is John F. Kennedy Park, a small grassy area close to my accommodation. Being the only place I've seen with a sign reading 'DO NOT LEAVE YOUR CATS HERE' (or something of the equivalent in Spanish), I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that this park is filled with cats. If you try to feed any of the cats (which, judging by their healthy weight, it seems many people do), you can quickly find yourself surrounded by a sea of dozens of them. I liked this park.
Eventually, the time came to head up to Quito, in Ecuador, for some mother/son adventures. Stay tuned for an update on those.