My final two weeks of my South America trip were in Peru. The main purpose of my time in Peru was to hike Machu Picchu with my friend Anu, but I spent a week in Cusco and the Sacred Valley before she arrived.
Like many South American cities, to the eyes of an American or Australian or European, the city looks very run down. But of course it’s a thriving city with everything you could imagine, and it was the easiest place to get a SIM card in my entire journey. The clerk at Claro seriously just yelled, “Jose! Do you have any SIM cards?” and Jose came over, and sold me one, and set me up with 3 gigs of data. Done. It had taken two hours in Ecuador at Movistar and almost that amount of time at Entel in Santiago. It makes me happy that there are still places in the world where a burner phone is easy to acquire.
My strongest memory of Cusco will be the women calling out “Masajes!” (massages) to me as I walk by, and my callbacks of “Calcitines!” (socks) to them. The downtown, or historical center, of Cusco is largest a tourist gravity well, where you are constantly propositioned to buy paintings, lunch, dinner, massages, but sadly, never socks.
The Sacred Valley
I rented a road bike from a German-Peruvian couple, and got a ride to the town of Calca in the Sacred Valley from their next door neighbor. Calca is small, maybe 10 blocks by 10 blocks of narrow streets that open up in the center of the city to a couple of large plazas that bookend the large Catholic, church that is the center of town.
The biggest shock was finding Kawsaytika, a great vegan restaurant, where I ate every day until I found it didn’t open on Mondays and Tuesdays.
While my original goal had been to get in some long rides at altitude (2500m), I was still suffering from a nasty sinus infection acquired in the Ecuadorian jungle. My first day I rode about an hour, and I can now vouch that Peruvians are the worst drivers I’ve experienced in South America.
The second day was wet so I went out hiking, and the same for the third day. The switchback roads that go straight up the side of the mountain can be seen throughout the entire valley.
I met some people staying in Calca for weeks to learn native skills like weaving techniques for local textiles. Over breakfast, a nice Saudi man who had flown all the way here to learn to play the pan flute, talked about Saudi Arabia’s desire to diversify its economy and not just depend on oil. I smiled, thinking that I probably won’t be spending money in a country where women only recently were granted right to drive and they are still plotting to behead journalists.
On the way to and from Calca, you pass through other small towns, one of which had several people waving Cuy (roast guinea pig) on sticks at is, trying to entice us to come eat. Um, no thanks. As we passed, my driver looked at me and said “no cholesterol.” I had just told him I didn’t eat meat. I guess that was his rebuttal?
Despite the beauty of the mountains, I was more than ready to leave Calca on the last day.
The primary reason for coming to Peru was to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I had wanted to avoid it given the hordes of tourists who flock to this destination, but both South Americans and friends who had made the trip said, “You simply cannot skip this.”
Anu joined me in Cusco to spend the minimum possible time acclimating to the 3000m+ altitude of the region before we hit the trail. While the front office experience of our tour company was chaotic (we showed up for our briefing and no one was there to brief us) the biggest shock was the size of the team (eight!) that would help us on the journey – our guide (Daniel), a driver (Walter), five porters (Mauricio, Roger, Dionisio, Walter, and Jon), and a head porter/chef (Fernando).
Each day we were moving a small city, which included a wobbly cooking/dining tent, plastic chairs, a dual burner stove, and the tents/sleeping gear. Our packs were light, and while the porters in Torres del Paine (all below 1600m) carried 35 kg packs, the max for our team of porters was 20kg, as they climbed steeps stairs in the thinner and thinner air as we broke the 3000m and then 4000m mark on the hike.
We had strongly stressed to our tour company that we wanted to avoid people. I didn’t want to feel like I was hiking in a queue, and I didn’t want to be surrounded by the backpacking dead, shuffling forward to check something off their bucket list.
Overall, the tour company delivered on that promise. Instead of the standard four day Inca Trail, we did a side hike on day 1, which time shifted us half a day behind the other groups. Except for the third campsite, we were largely on our own, or only seeing one or two other groups.
We opted to make day 2 a harder day, and we accomplished that mission. We hiked 17k, which included climbing 2400m, gaining 1600m in altutude over the duration of the day. The first 80% of the day was straight up, then then final 20% descending over wet slippery stone stairs. As we ascended above 3800m Daniel taught us how to make coca leaf burritos to chew to help with the altitude. Above 4000m everything became funny to me. Anu and Daniel finally began to ignore the random things I was spouting and giggling about. We reached the top of the pass, and from there we new the next three days would be much easier. In hindsight we could have combined day 3 and 4 and possibily even skipped out on day 5.
There was a time when I thought day 2 would never end. I was getting frustrated. My legs were cramping. My patience was getting thinner by the minute, and I wondered what the point of this whole thing was. Every part of me was uncomfortable, and I came close to saying some very rude things. This time of extreme suffering happened during dinner, when our guide began telling a story that I think lasted four and a half hours but Anu said spanned less than 40 minutes in actual time. I will not relay the details of this story to spare you the pain of our experience, but it chronicled a four day trip with a difficult couple on the trail, and I felt every painful step of the trip as he relayed every word said by everyone on the trip three times over. There were parts that clearly were made up, facts that contradicted each other, and I kept wondering if Daniel had just experienced an aneurysm, if there was a genetic defect that was just now surfacing, if the coca tea was spiked with iowaska, or if he was testing to see how long it would take before one of us poured the scalding water from the giant thermos down his pants to get him to stop.
Throughout the trip, Daniel would stop to tell us the history of the Inca people, and of the sites we were seeing. Anu was not overly impressed, given that other civilizations had accomplished much of the same things 2000 years before the Incas had. Daniel talked about how winners write history, and that the conquering Spaniards declared the Incas as savages because of characteristics like their polytheistic nature worship and their lack of writing, while we felt that it was savage to serve us mostly the same protein-lacking veggies and a half kilo of white rice every night.
Along the trail, we encountered cloud forests (rain), but with Anu there the time flew by as we covered all topics from my social life to the origin of the universe. Despite Anu’s decision to include still-in-the-shell postachio nuts (yes, unbelievable) in the trail mix, it felt great after five months to be in the company of someone I care about and who cares about me. Friends were worried that after my solo sojourn, I would be incapable of spending this much time with a close friend, and there were several pools on who would stab who and when, but it was the exact opposite. Every moment was better than the last one. Anu is one of the smartest people I know, and I’ve always been able to talk to her for hours. This time we had the chance to talk, but also just enjoy the silence of the trail, or suffer in silence as the thin air demanded that every part of your breath is used for your legs. I am fortunate beyond what I deserve to have a friend like her.
On the final two days, we hiked into Machu Picchu in the afternoon, spent the night in Aguas Calientes, and returned to Machu Picchu the next morning. I was definitely underwhelmed. Yes, it’s an amazing site, up in the mountains, that can tell us so much about the Inca civilization, but after the time along the trail, I enjoyed the days of hiking more than the selfie-snappers swarming over the restored ruins.
The time with Anu was the most enjoyable, connected part of my trip in South America. Machu Picchu itself is not even the top ten events of my time in South America, though moments along the Inca Trail were quite special.
The End of the Trail
My journey through South America is over. The time has been fast, slow, surprising, rewarding, disappointing, and thrilling.
I am ready to be back home, but also apprehensive. What “home” means is incredibly complicated thing right now. All of my belongings are in a 2m x 2m x 2m box. I own no furniture. Close friends have just acquired a second home, than I plan to make my second home (and yes, I have their permission). I will live in an airbnb in Sydney for five weeks (two of which I’ll be out of Sydney, go figure) and then my travels begin anew with two months in the states.
But what I think of when I think of home is Sydney, because of the set of people who are there. While I still plan to move up the coast of New South Wales in August, Sydney is still my emotional center.
Un abrazo, Sudamerica. ¡Ojalá que te vaya bien!