Notes from the Andes
The following are excerpts from my journal, written as I traveled with my family to Peru and trekked through the mountains there. Little thoughts and observations.
We’ve just begun our descent into Atlanta and I’ve woken after a long series of micro-naps, bobbing my head and drifting between layers of reality.
In many ways, plane rides feel like a drug trip. I get sleepy from the engine hum lullaby. My mind goes to strange places.
I find myself remembering little scenes, entirely unrelated to my current circumstance, from my recent life and, sometimes, flashes all the way back to childhood. Bucolic memories with no narration. Just context.
Daydreams on the plane.
Now we’re somewhere over Florida, I think. I had a big ass cup of the plane wine (complementary on international flights, I was delighted to discover). It tasted like grape juice spiked with some kind of grain alcohol. But I’ve rarely had such pleasant experiences with inebriants. Maybe it was because my nerves were frayed by the turbulence, which always gets me. The stuff settled me down nicely. I felt great.
This morning’s been all irritation and negotiating the foreign airport landscape, while running on three and a half hours of sleep. I’m looking forward to trying coca leaves, the mild narcotic that was once held sacred to the Inca people, and represents something of a staple to modern Peruvians. It has the delightful effect, I’ve heard, of simultaneously staving off the malaise of Soroche, or altitude sickness, and hunger.
But flying through Peru is a magical experience. The mountains are so jagged and look like they’re reaching up, about to scrape the bottom of the plane.
Upon our descent into Cusco, we bucked and listed violently, probably due to convection and updrafts from the irregular terrain. Then, the pilots engaged in one of the most terrifying landing sequences of my life: a corkscrewing 360-degree spiral, wherein we plummeted down to the earth, leveling out at the last second for a surprisingly smooth touchdown on the runway. My adrenaline was pounding when we came to a stop, finally. My hands were shaking. I felt nauseous.
We disembarked into the frantic Cusco airport, which is actually very delightful in this sort of run-down way. My anxiety persisted until we finally ate lunch at the Ramada in downtown Cusco. Our accommodations were astonishingly beautiful. We walked into a 1745 C.E.-era Spanish courtyard with the entrances to our rooms along the sides. The rooms themselves possess deep, monastery-style windows facing the sanctuary. They have complimentary coca leaves in the lobby and hot water for making tea. The city right outside is bustling with energy and commerce. Everyone you pass is hocking something at you: coca, refreshments, tamales, massages. Anything that can easily be sold. We pushed through our exhaustion and toured the Plaza de Armas de Cusco, the Catedral de Santo Domingo, and Quoricancha. All ex-Inca holy sites, which were leveled during the Spanish occupation and replaced with righteous, good ol’ Catholic stuff. But everything is still incredible to be sure: a marvel of 16th and 17th century architecture atop Inca/Quechua ruins.
Though these sites were deeply inspiring, I couldn't help but come away with a sense of disgust for the colonial rampage that stamped out much of the Inca culture and its constructions. The Spaniards saw nothing sacred or worthy of preservation in the savage paganism of the Quechua. And it’s a damn shame. Especially so, too, because the Inca were master craftsmen, and deeply fascinating in their flavor of spirituality, which clearly colors all of their remaining architecture.
We’re on our trek through the Andes on the Lares Trail. We’re passing through small Quechua villages, where the occupants dress in traditional garb — without the intent of selling you things. In Cusco, you find tons of people who don the olden attire just so that tourists will pose with them for photos.
An aside, tonight we’re camping at 13,610 ft, which is higher than any peak in Utah. We’re staying at the homestead of one our porters, Alejandro. We just pitched tents in his front yard. His home is situated in one of the most gorgeous and dramatic valleys I’ve ever seen. An 18,000 foot peak rises casually into the stratosphere in front of my tent.
The Quechua people appear to earn a living out of nothing (from my untrained, American eye). Upon further investigation, I learned that they mostly subsist off of livestock and sell what they can to travelers on the trail. Their abodes are shockingly minimal: constructed from stones, with grass roofs and dirt floors. In spite of their humble conditions, the people here appear to be very joyous. They joke and give each other tons of shit, constantly.
One of the ways that our guide, Docty, messes around with the porters is by having us, the non-Quechua-speaking white people, refer to them as offending words in Quechua, while we think we are addressing them by their real, Quechua names. Unbeknownst to us, we were calling Waldo, our driver, a ‘lazy ballsack’ (“wakaruntu”) — this was the way that Docty introduced us to him.
But Docty is a good man. He made sure to buy lots of plastic cars and dolls to distribute to the Quechua kids we pass, who seemly randomly scattered along the trail. We’d find them in the most peculiarly remote places. Places where the conditions are so high and harsh, I would never think humans could “hang out” in mere ponchos and sandals without perishing after a few minutes. We also gave out little baggies of coca to the older kids and adults. Docty seems acutely aware of how impoverished some of these villages can be.
I haven’t written for about five days because of the constant flow of activities and family time. I’m sitting in the Lima airport sipping a Cusqueña.
It’s been one hell of a week.
After we left Alejandro’s farm, we continued our way up the incredibly steep path to the Pachacutec Pass at 15,500 ft, roughly.
There, we made our offering to the Pachamama, the Earth Mother, in sight of two massive glaciers on the opposite side of the chasm next to us. Our offering consisted of a series of foods, beads, gold leaf, and other small objects that represented the abundance of the Earth. It is viewed as a token of gratitude by the Quechua people toward the ever-giving deity who rules production of all things natural.
From here, we descended to the village of Quiswarani, where we camped for the night. The experience was markedly different from our first night on the trek. We set up our tents and gear in this kind of public campground designed for trekkers in the very center of town. We were next to a large group of Dutch folks traveling in the opposite direction. It just felt a bit weird , because our location served as a reminder that we were tourists, not explorers. Our presence there was nothing special or out of the ordinary to legion of Quechua women and girls who spread out their blankets laden with the wares they had to sell to us, right outside of our tents. To them, we were merely bearers of currency on their pre-planned communal campground.
I just thought it was funny that we were having such a unique, pivotal experience seeing these villages and these people, while exactly the opposite was true for them. But these thoughts only crystallized later (now) as I write this. At the time, I just thought it was a little startling that so many people greeted us with beer and hand-woven textiles.
The next day, we made another ascent to the Huilquijasa Pass, going by various small homes blaring twangy and static-y music from megaphones. It floated across the rock and fields and grazing Alpaca to us. It sounded harsh, just like it is living in this place. When we reached the pass, we looked down one of the most gorgeous expanses of the Andean landscape. The scene in front of us was littered with opalescent glacial pools and jagged mountain tops and the scraped-up, smoothed-out paths of ancient ice flows, which disappeared some thousands of years ago.
From here, we began a descent which would last the rest of our journey, eventually terminating at the hot springs near the town of Lares. Along our way, we saw a bunch of small animals that looked like obese squirrels with cat-like tails, ‘Viscacha’, and we also ran into a particularly boisterous pack of Quechua kids. They were all super adorable and rosy-cheeked, due to the biting wind, cold and sun. One of the them, Miguel, stuck with us after we gave him a toy plane and some coca leaves. He followed us back to his village which was along the way to the springs.
One of the things I noticed as we progressed through the villages is that they grow tangibly more prosperous as you descend and get closer to the Sacred Valley. Altitude is directly correlated with wealth in the Andes. We passed villages that seemed to possess more sheet metal roofs than previous ones. We started seeing dirt-bikes and the occasional truck, even.
After a taxing, long downhill through various canyons and across rivers, we arrived at the hot springs.
The hot springs near Lares are surrounded by a complex and the water is corralled into swimming pools. Each pool has a different temperature than the one beside it. The hottest one is probably 105 F, so just barely tolerable.
The complex itself is clearly designed to appear luxurious and desirable. Integrated into the scene is a hotel, with various rooms along the sides of the pools. But it is strange. It’s like a bunch of amenities were forgotten in the process of building the place, such as doors to the single bathrooms. I walked by the toilets once and made awkward eye contact with a rotund man taking a shit.
We camped out on one of the greens surrounding the complex for the night, next to some hippie kids from America who were on some kind of spiritual adventure.
The next day, we bid farewell to our porters and piled into a truck waiting for us at the gate of the complex. Waldo, our driver, proceeded to take us past Lares and down to the valley. What I wasn’t expecting was that this would be the most harrowing experience I’ve ever had as a car passenger (it seems as though every transportation experience I had in Peru was nerve-wracking). I wrote a small journal entry on my phone in the car:
“We’re currently driving on perhaps the most terrifying road that I’ve ever seen. It’s blind turn after blind turn on a super narrow road with an ultra steep drop-off on one side: certain death. And now we’re entering a fog layer, great.
I get a little spurt of adrenaline every time we approach a corner, because the driver is laying on the horn in the hope that we’re able to warn anybody we can’t see coming around the bend and avoid a head-on collision. We seem to be going way too fast for the conditions too.
Oh, and now it’s snowing…….”
But we make it. Obvi.
When we arrive in back in the Sacred Valley, we catch a train from Ollantaytambo, the ancient Incan Fortress, to Aguas Caliente, the town the sits below Machu Picchu.
The government-run train system, PeruRail, was actually very pleasant. A small taste of luxury, even. We sat in the VistaDome™ car, which offered windows in the ceiling, so one can look up into the massive peaks the train passes. Well-dressed attendants served us really good coffee, fruit and snacks.
There’s another car on the train, first class, named for Hiram Bingham III, the Yale professor/explorer who “discovered” Machu Picchu in the early 1900s and who’s profile in National Geographic brought Machu Picchu onto the world stage. I thought this a little odd, because many Peruvians see Bingham as a thief. During his excavation, he brought back to Yale an enormous number of artifacts and gold, which the Peruvian government claims he actually stole. Recently, Peru sued Yale to return a number of artifacts and the university was forced to do so, though it did not give everything back. Many people are still bitter about this in Peru, including Docty, our guide. He gave a us an earful while on our trek to Lares.
When we get to Aguas Caliente, a town built almost solely because of the tourist industry surrounding Machu Picchu, we move our luggage to the hotel and look around. The town is nestled in between massive, vertical mountains, which lend an alpine feel to the place, and an air of mystery due to the clouds that move in periodically and mask the peaks.
The next day, we wake up early to catch a bus up to Machu Picchu. We stand in perhaps the longest line I’ve ever seen (even topping Disneyland) for a ride. Fortunately the bus system is very efficient and moves an enormous volume of people every few minutes.
On the way up, Docty informs us that the bus company is actually a private monopoly and that the owners are insanely wealthy from the tourist boom to Machu Picchu. He says the government is thinking of nationalizing the company because it doesn’t have any competition and spins off so much money.
After a dozen switchbacks, we finally get to the top.
Since it is situated within a tropical rainforest, Machu Picchu is often inundated by a fog layer in the morning, which gradually clears as the day goes on. These were the conditions under which we saw Machu Picchu, but I’m very glad it was the case.
When we first glimpsed the stonework of the ancient buildings, they were wrapped in a cloud. It felt like we were walking into a dream sequence.
Docty led us through the ruins and down old Incan pathways, pointing out what each area is thought to have been used for. Scholars have been able to discern a disappointingly tiny amount of Incan history so far, mostly because the Quechua culture does not have a writing system, or any permanent way of recording what happened. Most everything we have is from Spanish texts from around the time colonials first arrived in Peru.
So, we could only guess at how each site within the city was used. Still, it is awe-inspiring. The stones (all big granite blocks) that these ancient people carved and fit together are utterly massive.
There’s a particular flat-topped piece of granite on the high side of the settlement that lays beside a building that Hiram Bingham termed the “guardhouse” — although this was totally a stab in the dark on his part. Even in a state of awe, it stuck out to me as something unique. The table-like slab of granite was smoothed almost perfectly flat on top and bore a hole in its side. It looked ominous and sort of eerie sitting at the base of what looked to be an amphitheater.
Docty offered the theory that this was the stone where the people came to sacrifice llamas…and humans. The ground around it was littered with bones of all kinds, according to archaeologists.
After this, we descended into the city proper, passing through the main gate and by a structure known as the Temple of the Sun, which is made from a really pure, white granite and whose stone appeared to be cut the most precisely of everything we saw.
We walked all the way through city, which was chock-full of tourists from every conceivable part of the globe, to the gate to Huayna Picchu, the mountain on the opposite side of the city from the entrance. From here, we began an hour-long journey to the summit.
The summit is littered with more ruins and a rather mysterious tunnel to the other side of the peak. The views up there were like nothing else.
After this, we did lunch at the visitor’s center, went back into the city for a little while to make sure that we’d fully absorbed everything, then caught a bus back down to Aguas Caliente.
We head back to Cusco via train, upon which my sister and I played 18 games of hangman. We stayed at the Marriott for our last night in Peru, which was incredibly luxurious, especially when compared to where we had just come from. I felt strange and kind of guilty taking a 30-minute shower and flopping down onto a feathery queen bed after seeing how the rural Quechua people live.
The next morning, we left early for the airport and caught a plane back to Lima. Our flight was mostly uneventful, except for the fact that the Cusco airport is a shitshow. It was packed with people, shoulder-to-shoulder, wall-to-wall. My dad got his Swiss army knife of 30 years confiscated, which was a huge bummer.
Once we landed in Lima, we were ushered into another van, which thrust itself into insane traffic. It does not appear that Peruvian drivers abide by any formal traffic laws. The roads are anarchy incarnate.
The van takes us to Mira Flores, and skirts all of the less-attractive parts of town. Mira Flores is clearly the whitest and wealthiest area of Lima. Our guide proudly remarked that, here, one sees dogs with owners, rather than hundreds of strays milling around(as we saw all over the place everywhere else in Peru) and, she exclaimed, there are even poop receptacles in the parks.
After walking through some of the seaside sidewalks, several pisco sours, and watching my dad spontaneously hire someone to take him up in a paraglider, we headed over to the Plaza de Armas de Lima.
The plaza was the place that Francisco Pizarro, the outlaw Spanish conqueror of Peru with a penchant for genocide, established his palace alongside the Cathedral of Lima (which stands atop an old Inca holy site) and the archbishop’s pad. Pizarro incidentally was murdered by his son in front of the very same palace, after a familial quarrel. A wonderful bunch.
The palace is now supposed to be the residence for the president of Peru, but there hasn’t been a president that actually stays there for some time now. Still, it is guarded by a cohort of Buckingham Palace-style soldiers who kick really high when they walk around. We could see that a few of them were having flexibility issues during the changing of the guard.
Another weird thing about the palace was that amid of the pomp of the plaza and the atmosphere of power that it is supposed to purvey, there were stray dogs curled up along the fence in front of the palace. Right next to the soldiers, who didn’t seem to notice or care.
We bussed over to the airport, where I am now. We return home on a red-eye flight at 1:00am Lima time. I feel mixed about going back to the U.S. I’m excited to safely drink tap water again, but it’s also sad to leave behind the mysterious and haunting Inca structures, the epic prominence of the mountains, and the rosy-cheeked Quechua children.