Friday, August 18, 2006
Back from Peru
Our trip to Peru was filled with many surprises and delights. Almost every aspect exceeded our expectations. Here are a few of the details that stand out at this time, almost a week after arriving home:
1) First, the people of Peru are extremely friendly, caring, and interesting. Whether the barely 4-foot tall Inca women or the gorgeous olive-skinned men of Lima, they are beautiful. We were totally taken aback by the generosity and the hospitality of the folks we met.
----> AN ASIDE: And speaking of people, the folks in our tour (6 of us in total on the Trail) were all from the Bay Area and were totally wonderful, funny, easy to be with, and probably future friends (at least on several parts). For the 6 of us, we had two guides and on the trail and 14 porters, cooks, and baños (bathroom) people. (Porters carried 65 pounds each, wearing usually only sandals, wrapping what they took in blankets on their backs, and literally running the trail to go set up and fix lunch, camp, dinner, etc. before we limped in. If a person got sick (which we saw from another group), they also carry that person on their backs ... up and down 4000' climbs in a day at altitudes where the rest of us can barely breathe.) (By the way, we were allowed 17 pounds for the trail in luggage, including sleeping bag for the 4 days hiking, 3 nights camping in below freezing temps, and an additional 2 days/nights at Machu Picchu.)
2) Besides the people of Peru, almost equally fascinating and beautiful is the scenery (often like the Alps, often like Napa Valley, often like nowhere else), the history (so much we did not know before and we now feel deeply moved by), and the culture (full of music, color, stories, artistic abilities, dancing, etc.). And to top it all, the shopping is the best. For two old queens who love to shop, we were in heaven whenever we were in a Cusco or near a local market.
3) Our two guides were perhaps the best that either of us had ever experienced. Our leader, Fredy, had a heart of gold. He added many elements to our trip not on the planned itinerary to accentuate the local culture and to tell us that we were among friends, even family. Some of the additions included:
--> A trip to the San Pedro open market in Cusco, where we saw and tasted many delights, smelled things that cannot be described, and took rolls of film: Everything from llama fetuses (a delicacy) to Peruvian chocolate of all sorts to medicinal herbs for every known ailment ....
--> A behind the altar tour of a small church overlooking Cusco, where we saw church documents five centuries old (from the days of the original Spanish conquistadors) and the largest saint statue paraded in Peru, taking a minimum of about 150 men at a time to lift and parade, with scores others ready to take over for those fainting along the side.
--> A visit to a family of alpaca weavers to see the entire process from washing after the initial shearing to making thread, dying in natural fruits/nuts/plants, and weaving by hand everything from small belts to large tapestries. While we watched, the family cooked us several of the 40+ varieties of Peruvian, many-colored potatoes in a dirt/charcoal pyramid. After an hour, we dug out the potatoes and ate them while still steaming with a variety of dips and sauces prepared by the family.
--> We visited another family's home in typical Incan style: mud bricks, little furniture, fire in the one-room with vent in ceiling, dirt floor, etc. Running around the house were guinea pigs or “cuy”, who eat the scraps as meals are cooked and who are named by their future fates (i.e., Sunday dinner, Wednesday lunch, etc.). Cuy is a delicacy in Peru.
--> We went to a local, small tavern in the Sacred Valley of the Andes where we got to taste the local corn beer, “chichi de jora” -- a brew made by the locals and tasting a lot like our wheat beer.
--> The best of the best of the added features by our Leader was an invitation for lunch and afternoon games in the backyard at his house in Cusco, where his mother and wife cooked and served an incredible, many coursed feast of Peruvian specialties. This was something he just wanted to do because he was proud of recently being able to buy and build this house and because he wanted to prove that in Peru, 'mi casa, su casa.' We were totally moved and thoroughly stuffed by the afternoon's end.
4) The actual Inca Trail was not as difficult for us as we had been warned it would be.
First, we were lucky that we overall handled the altitude well. Our pre-hike tour really helped us acclimate well before starting the trek. Also, the trail is far superior to what we have experienced in the Alps or in the hike across England. Most of it was stone-paved; half of it is the original Inca pavement from the 14th through 16th centuries. The main drawback is that most of the incredible ups and downs (peaks at 14K, 13.6K, 12.8K) are done in steps, often 12-14 inches high. We figure we climbed and descended about 10-15K or more steps in the 4 days of hiking.
5) The many, many Inca ruins we saw were all fascinating and impressive. Huge (tons and tons) stones were cut to fit so well that today a credit card would not fit between ... and cut using other rocks. Even more amazing, the stones were dragged -- sometime miles. The Incas, for all their amazing architecture and art and organization, did not have the wheel, iron, or a written alphabet.
6) It is hard not coming away from this experience without resenting the Spanish. In just a few short years, a handful conquered a mighty nation that extended much of western South America. They did it through deceit and disease, superior weapons and horses, and with full blessing of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, the same story that was re-told in many locations. What really makes this one appalling is that most of the gold and silver art was melted down to make into bars to ship back to Mother Spain (to pay for Armadas, more conquerings, etc.); everything else (buildings, homes, etc.) were often battered so that all signs of former life would disappear.
7) The food of Peru is absolutely delish. We particularly liked the fresh trout and kingfish, the many soups, the best avocados ever, fresh fruits we had never tried (including passion fruits that when opened, look like monkey brains but taste ever so sweet), and potatoes fixed every way imaginable. We drank at every turn coca tea to help keep our stomachs settled and the altitude sickness away. The beer, Cusqueña, was excellent, and we are Pisco Sour fanatics now.
8) Eddie did not get lost or lead any of the group astray this year (a first for his hiking career). He did have to prove he could be the first to arrive at the 14K-foot peak, which meant a lot since he was the OLDEST of the trekkers and guides. However, he decided that the risks were too high to be lost in areas quite this remote and high, and thus mostly he stayed behind the lead guide.
There is much more to tell, but those are some of our highlights from the 10 days of Inca and Peruvian explorations. What follows is what we did afterwards, when we went to the Peruvian rain forest as an add-on to the Inca Trail Trip:
1) Our flight to Manu (in the heart of the largest wildlife reserve in South America) was on a 12-person plane: lots of bumps over the mountains but pretty views. We landed on a dirt airstrip in a jungle clearing. From there we took a 2 hour motorcanoe ride down the Madre de Dios River to the Manu Wildlife Center.
2) The rain forest was very dry when we got there...very different from Eddie's experience in Ecuador several years ago where it rained every day.
3) We saw a number of varieties of monkeys, including an up-close view of a family of rare emperor monkeys (the ones with Asian looking faces and long mustaches). We saw hundreds of green parrots with blue heads and scores of beautiful scarlet macaws. We also saw many toucans and lots of other really interesting birds. We learned that the pretty birds have horrible calls and the ugly, often small birds have the very beautiful calls. Whatever it takes to get sex!
4) We went looking for tapirs...which are huge pigs with long snouts. This was a rather ridiculous activity from the get-go, given most of us happened to be Jewish. We left at 3:30 with a 'supper box' in hand, walked through a VERY steamy, hot jungle for a couple of hours, and arrived at a raised platform with curious little mosquito-netted 'rooms,' each with a mattress, blanket, and pillow. We were then told to each get in one and to be very quiet. Mind you, it is 5:30 and light and we were told the stupid pigs were not to arrive until probably 9-12 that night. Speaking of night, it fell promptly at 6 or so. There we were: In our little netted rooms, sweating, eating boiled chicken and rice, wondering what in the hell were we doing here instead of at the lodge having pisco sours with everyone else. Anyway, Ed and others promptly at 6:30 start falling asleep and snoring. I sat there wondering what do I do now? I tried working on a crossword puzzle, but then the guide told me to turn off the flashlight or the whole evening's venture might be lost (given the pork bellies were very shy). So, I took off my contacts, put on my glasses (in the dark) and noticed that about 7 it started lightning every 3-4 seconds (literally). Now, stars were still out, so I thought 'dry lightning...just like when I grew up in Tennessee). However, about 8:30 (I am still the only one awake and there are yet no piggies), the wind picks up, the stars disappear, and the platform starts shaking. Within a half hour, the dam breaks and the rains fall harder than I have ever experienced. In the meantime, it is thundering and streak lightening all around us. I decide we are stuck for the night, we might die, and why am I lying here alone? I go under my net to the next cubicle where Ed is...only at first I don't see/feel him. Finally, I see a little bundle in a corner, all huddled, shivering, and with eyes so wide he looks like the Muriel Cigar owl. I gather him in my arms, we lie huddled, and listen for the next 5-6 hours to this terrific 4th of July show around us...with occasional shudders to the platform that we are sure will send us to some unknown oblivion. In the meantime, I am fighting nature by needing to pee so bad I can hardly stand it (all that water all the hot afternoon), but I am damned if I am leaving the netted cubicle at that point. So, we sleep a bit; we watch the aerial show; and we maybe even said a few prayers along the way. Finally, about 2 things ease up. We never saw any Tapirs! At 2:30, our guide tells us that in 30 minutes we are LEAVING for the 2 mile trek through the dark, drippy, beast-infested jungle because we have to be up and ready to go at 5:30 for our next outing to some 'famous' lake to see more BIRDS!
Actually, before we left Cusco after the rainforest, we emptied the stores. We bought 6 baby alpaca sweaters (at about 25% of the Nordstrom price), a beautiful 4X6' tapestry by Edwin Sulca (who is evidently somewhat famous), and everything else we could get our hands on. We had pisco sours everywhere we went (the Peruvian drink of choice made from a local brandy called Pisco) and even had incredible Peruvian pizza.
The funny thing is, when we came back to Cusco for another 1.5 days after Manu, Ed got altitude sickness (which we both had avoided during the strenuous Inca Trail hike). Coming from the jungle, flying in the non-pressurized plane at a fairly high level as we climbed back into Cusco, and believing we were OK given our now-long history of being at high altitudes the past two weeks (and thus thinking nothing of having beers for lunch when we arrived), Ed proceeded to have 24 hours or so of not feeling that well. But mind you, we still shopped!!
And I won't even go into how we missed our flight to Lima because our driver arrived late, how we missed our connection in Miami because all flights were late leaving Lima due to Homeland Security searching for shampoos and Diet Cokes, or how we sat in Miami on the tarmac through yet another thunderstorm. So, 26 hours home is not so bad if you have a good book...which fortunately we both did!!
So, there you are. We loved being on the Trail and the Trip. We rate this Peruvian experience as probably the best ever for both of us. We both want to go back to Peru at some point, and we want to remind Fredy that he said, "Mi casa, su casa." No telling when we might show up!