–a conversation that occurred in a Colombia bar in August, 2010.
Colombia is a beautiful country. The Andes Mountains, the Amazon jungle, the Cocora valley are all amazing. In addition to the natural beauty, Colombia has beautiful people. Some of them are naturally beautiful and some of them–well, they have a little help. The plastic surgeons in Colombia do a fantastic job. Medellin is my third stop in Colombia. It is kind of like Goldilocks and the 3 bears. The weather in Bogota was too cold. The weather in Leticia was too hot, but the weather in Medellin is just right. The days are warm and the nights are cool. It feels like fall [or spring].
A funny thing happened at a bar last night. I went out with some English/Australian guys that were staying in the same hostels [Funny story: We had actually met on the cable car that goes to the top of the city.] So at some point during the evening after an indeterminate number of drinks, in an unidentified bar, a conversation much like the following took place:
Guy 1: “Are those real?” (referring to boobs, but not mine of course)
Me: “Nope. No way”.
Guy 2: “Yeah. I reckon. You can tell the difference.”
Guy 1: “Aha ha. I agree. Definite difference in shape.”
Me: “Yeah. But there’s no way that they could be real.
Guy 2: Compare hers (Colombian chic) to hers (mine). Definite extra perkiness. No offense” (referring to Colombian chic)
Guy 1: “I’m still not convinced. They’re too good to be real.”
Me: “Why don’t you just ask her?”
Guy 1: “Huh?”
Guy 2: “What?”
Me: “Just ask her”
Guy 1: “That would be funny.”
Me: “Yeah. Go on. Or I will.”
Guy 2: “I don’t know. That’s pretty random. Imagine if someone came up to you and…”
Me: “C’mon’. It’s the only way to settle it. Fuck it. I’ll do it…”
So somewhere, in the night, after an indeterminate number of drinks plus a few more, in the same unidentified bar, another conversation, much like the following, took place:
Guy 1: “What the fuck did you touch them for?”
Me: “She said I could.”
Guy 1: “And so you just grabbed them?”
Guy 2: “And?”
Guy 1: “Definitely? Did she say so?”
Guy 2: “What did she say exactly?”
Me: “They’re real. Good hmm?
Guy 2: “In English?”
Me: “In English.”
Guy 2: “Fuck off”
Me : You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever touched a pair of boobs other than my own…
These are definitely fake
Conversations similar to the one above are, probably, not uncommon in Medellin. It is, apparently, the plastic surgery capital of the world in a country that is probably the most plastic surgerized in the world. Or at least close to. Such a place has a significant reputation to live up to. However, Medellin does it with aplomb, cosmetic surgical intervention striking you anywhere you turn. Seriously, fake boobs are everywhere. They are more normal than natural boobs. If you don’t have them, you’re the odd one out. Old woman have them. Girls far younger than the legal drinking age have them. Yes, I even saw a cat that had them (this may or may not be true… this may or not have occurred at the bar). I read somewhere, but I now don’t recall where, that the prevalence of silicon in Medellin is largely due to Medellin’s former status as the center of the world cocaine trade. Don’t ask me why that means fake boobs all over the place – I guess drug lords liked them big. In any event, the reality remains, and it is one scary, bouncy and far too perky reality.
The same can be said for the fellas
The theory attributing Medellin’s curvaceousness to the drug lords is a popular one. However, my own personal theory is that the female of residents of Medellin are paying homage to the great Colombian artist, Fernando Botero.
Medellin born and Medellin raised, Botero’s sculptures dominate the public artistic landscape of central Medellin, his ludicrously proportioned, voluptuous and humorous bronze figures in the Plaza Botero in particular a highlight. If you are not familiar with Botero’s work, I can probably sum it up for you in a single word – fat. Not ‘ph’ fat. Just plain old ‘fat’. Like everything being seen through one of those crazy mirrors that makes everything look fat. Not ‘ph’ fat. Just plain old lazy bastard fat. Having viewed a reasonably large collection of his work in Bogota, it’s clear to me that his work is at its most impressive in sculpture – the central focus of his work, the roundedness aka ‘fat’, most effective and striking when experienced in three dimensions. Fat. Not ‘ph’ fat. Just good old ‘if it sits on you it’s going to hurt’ fat.
Most people would struggle to place Suriname on a map, often even placing it on the wrong continent [I don’t know; it just sounds African] Suriname is South America’s smallest country, and I’d wager that if I asked 10 people, at least 5 wouldn’t be able to point it out on a map [and I’m being generous]. I never planned on popping in Paramaribo, but the chance go truly go off the beaten path lured me in. As a former Dutch colony, you’ll see places like Onafhankelijkheidsplein on street signs and maps [that really just means public square], but as a Caribbean country you’ll hear languages like English, Creole, Dutch Indonesian, and Chinese. This little gem, formerly Dutch Guiana, sits in the upper corner of South America, between Venezuela and Brazil and more specifically between its colonial brethren, Guyana and French Guiana. The mix of culture, food, language and architecture makes for a very interesting city, reflecting influences from Dutch colonization, Indonesian workers, West African former slaves, Indian workers, Chinese laborers and many more. The mix of races, religions and languages doesn’t work for many cultures, but from the small glimpse that we saw, Paramaribo does a remarkable job in making it work.
Parbo, as it’s called, pulls together influences from many different cultures, and it somehow seems so effortless. Locals switch back and forth between 2 and 3 languages, mosques sit next to temples, synagogues and churches, streets are lined with Indian, Creole, Chinese and Javanese food, along with a McDonalds or fried chicken shop to round things out. As a tiny historical fact, Suriname gained notoriety as being the area that the Dutch traded for in exchange for the UK acquiring some land in North America [ever hear of New Amsterdam? No, how about New York?]
(On Sundays, locals gather on Independence Square to face off in a bird chirping competition. Yes, you read that correctly. Wagers are placed and the birds face off in a chirping/singing competition. Unfortunately, we missed the actual event, but we showed up just in time to see a few of the cages of small birds still set up in the plaza and being slowly loaded away for next week’s match-up.)
The inner city of Paramaribo is designated a Unesco World Heritage sight for it’s mix of architecture and preserved history. Also there is a tremendous amount of wooden structures that one would not necessarily associate with the Caribbean.
I’m sure things are not 100% perfect, but the way the city finds a way to blend so many different cultures, races and religions is most impressive. True ecumenical spirit is hard to find these days. And by these days I clearly mean 1723–which is when the synagogue was built.
What would a former Dutch colony be without bicycles? Paramaribo has a plethora of them .The Dutch also added to their legacy by building a large series of canals to help drain the city, part of which sits below sea level… not unlike another Dutch city that starts with an A and ends with dam.)
The palm gardens [Palmentuin] are just behind the presidential palace. Back in the day, only the leader and his acquaintances could enjoy the space [because let’ be real, there were no female leaders ‘back in the day’]. However, modern times prevail and the palm gardens are open to the general proletariat such as myself.
Fort Zeelandia has an interesting history. It was originally built in 1640 by the French and was completely made of wood. It was later captured by the English and renamed Fort Willoughby. In the 1650s more Dutch settled in the area and in 1667 Dutch Admiral Crijnssen took Paramaribo and recaptured the Essequibo-Pomeroon Colony. The battle which ensued between the English Admiral William Byam and the Dutch Admiral Abraham Crijnssen lasted only three hours. Why? you may ask. The British ran out of gunpowder and munitions.
Adm. Crijnssen renamed the fort once again, and Fort Zeelandia remained Dutch until 1975 [ because#historynerd].
But Suriname has a dark side too. It’s relatively unknown to foreigners because most foreigners couldn’t even find Suriname on a map. It’s ‘president’, a dictator really, is also wanted for murder [for his role in the Bloody December of 1982] and by Europol for importing over 1000 pound of cocaine into the Netherlands back in 1999. But you wouldn’t know this unless you researched the country ahead of time and if the Number 1 Google search for Suriname is ‘Where is Suriname?’, it’s a safe bet would-be tourists don’t know about the king-pin cocaine drug lord/murdered turned president [dictator]. But Paramaribo feels safe; there is no heavy military presence so one would not expect its leader to be a criminal…
But I digress…
The area used to be home to a lot of sugar plantations/mills, but when the Dutch pulled out, the sugar industry dried up too.
The Arya Dewaker Temple. and a message written in Sanskrit—probably something religious.
I tightly clutched my St Christopher’s medal, and whispered a prayer “protect me”. Even though I consider myself Catholic, I’m not a very good one. Perhaps all this time in these heavily Catholic countries is wearing off on me. I gave Christopher one last squeeze, and tucked him safely under my shirt. In reality, I was praying for a miracle. A miracle that I would 1. finish and 2.not crash.
I took a drug test [they don’t let anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol ride], took a swig of some vile-tasting alcoholic beverage, [oh, the irony] sprinkled some of the same liquid on my bicycle tires and the ground, and said a prayer to PanchaMama. I wouldn’t want to go pissing off Mother Earth with my prayer to the patron saint of travel.
I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.
I loaded up on the safety gear…elbow pads, knee pads, helmet, bright safety vest, wind-suit…. Had there been more, I would have put it on too. What in the world had possessed me to sign up for a 40+ mile bike ride from La Paz, Bolivia to Senda Verde, Bolivia…a bike ride that changes in elevation from 15,900 ft to 3600 ft…a bike ride that travels a road with the moniker World’s Most Dangerous Road? Did I mention that I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 18, and I have never been very graceful on 2 wheels? Did I mention it was Christmas Day? In Bolivia?
To be fair, it’s technically not considered the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” anymore. Due to the construction of a new highway close by, which directs most traffic away from its path, they’ve recently upgraded the trail’s nickname to a much more simple, passive and inviting moniker… “The Death Road”.
I’d hate to see the new road that has earned the name of World’s Most Dangerous Road
The ‘Practice’ Death Road
The start of the Death Road is located around an hour outside of La Paz, high up in the mountains.
The road’s twists and turns through the jungle as it winds down the steep road make it a scary path to travel. There are very few barriers stopping you from falling off the edge which makes it more dangerous than roads in other mountainous areas. The dirt road is full of potholes and scattered gravel meaning you have to stay focused for the entire four hours it takes to bike the road, bouncing over dips and bumps.
It was cold and rainy and as we sped down the highway I became soaked to the skin and started wondering why I’d even signed up for this in the first place. It was so misty that I could hardly see the view of the valley below which gave me a false sense of security because I couldn’t see how steep the drop off was to the right side of me.
All of a sudden there was a large BANG!
The tire of the person who was riding in front of me burst and rubber flew into the air. As a side note, whenever I am driving on the interstate, this is my worst fear.
We pulled over and the we had a look a the damage. The tire had completely exploded, leaving nothing but loose rubber flapping around the metal rim.
At the top of the Death Road we received another briefing. “Try not to stand up on your bike if you’re not a confident mountain biker. Try not to grip the brakes the entire time. Leave a good 10 meters between yourself and the person in front of you. Stay alert,” our guide told us. I mentally calculate how far 10 meters is. [about 30 feet or so for those wondering]
Under the guide of our tour leaders, we rode slowly five minutes further down the road before stopping for a sandwich and getting a new tire put on the damaged bike. We piled into the van after this biking practice and snack and set off for the Death Road. It was eerily quiet as we drove.
I’m not sure what was going through everyone else’s head, but I had visions of my tire bursting and me losing control of my bike, being thrown to my death in the valley below. Or someone else taking me out. Either would be bad.
Dramatic, yes. Out of the realm of possibility, absolutely not…
What they don’t tell you: The Death Road is Quite Stunning
Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of the Death Road is that it’s so damn beautiful. Valleys of green surround you and with each twist of the road there’s a chance you’ll come across a waterfall or two cascading down from the top of the mountain.
When the rain stopped and I got hot from the exercise, it was easier to notice the beautiful vistas around me. But I didn’t want to look too hard – I needed all my concentration to stay safe on the Death Road.
As we bounced down the beginning of the dirt track on the most dangerous road in the world, I began to realize that it was near impossible NOT to hold my brakes the entire time. I’m the girl who rides my brakes on the Swamp Rabbit Trail; I most certainly was doing it here. As soon as I let go, I picked up speed and felt as though I was going to lose control.
So the whole way down the mountain I gripped the brakes. Gently at some points and more vigorously at others.
Perhaps this gives you an idea of why I clinched the brakes so much. At times, I could hardly see the rider in front of me.
My hands are not the strongest part of me. So listen to me now: gripping mountain bike brakes for four hours was extremely painful. Excruciatingly painful, but necessary.
So many times I was tempted to give up and ride in the van that was slowly following us down the road, but I held out.
No, we did not all fall over the edge of the cliff…we’re just taking a break.
Almost the end of me
The only time I managed to let go of the handlebars was when I wanted to fiddle with my camera which was slung across my chest…
And this was nearly the death of me.
I’d been recording video on my camera for awhile and wanted to preserve the battery life. So I let go of the handlebar with my right hand and, while looking down, I tried to feel for the off button. BIG mistake.
All of a sudden I found myself on the other side of the road, dangerously close to the edge. As I tried to swerve away from the cliff below, I jerked the handlebars too hard and fell towards the edge.
I felt as though I was moving in slow motion.
I think I screamed and tried to right myself but to no avail.
I was falling.
I had landed on a patch of ground that jutted out over the cliff. Just behind where I’d fallen, entangled in my bike, was the open air leading to the bottom of the mountain.
In front of where I’d fallen was a sharp drop. I watch the camera tumble over the cliff.
I’d literally fallen within centimeters of my death or serious injury.
“OH MY GOD. Are you okay?” the guide pulled up behind me, out of breath.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I tried to laugh. It sounded strangled.
“You scared me!” he said as he helped me up.
“Sorry!” I replied.
The End of the Road
I was shaken after my fall but not too shaken to keep on going. With hands tensed on the brakes, sending shooting pains up my arms, I managed to finish the Death Road with the other people in my group.
It felt like a massive achievement.
But the biggest reward for me was that I was still alive. My fall was a close call and really put a new spin on the term ‘living on the edge’.
Is it an experience I’d ever repeat? Hell no. Am I glad I did it when I did? Absolutely. Let’s just say I was never as happy to see a suspect swimming pool as I was when we got to Senda Verde lodge.
I am not a tea drinker, but I also don’t like taking medications. However, altitude sickness is no joke. And Diamox was not working. So, I bowed to pressure and tried the local cure for altitude sickness…coca leaves. At first, the idea of buying coca leaves seems almost rebellious. After all, coca leaves are the beginning product cocaine. Drinking coca leaf tea was a novelty for me. It has a bitter taste; it’s primarily coca leaves and hot water. But being in the world’s highest city requires some concessions, and for me, that concession was ingesting coca leaf–in my case, by chewing the leaves.
Coca leaves became an integral part of my day; I chewed the leaves multiple times a day, and each time, I got a little mental boost–a bit of alertness to soothe the metal sluggishness that goes along with altitude sickness. In some way, I became addicted to the sticky green masticated leaves–it was the only thing that soothed my altitude sickness and made my stay in Potosi enjoyable.
Sticky, green, masticated, coca leaves…my only salvation from the crushing pressure of altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness aside, spending two weeks in Potosi, was a great decision. A better decision, perhaps, would have been to come to Potosi from La Paz instead of the realitively flat Cochebamba.
At 13,500ft above sea level, Potosi will literally take your breath away, but it’s colonial charms will figuratively leave you breathless.
Potosi is a UNESCO protected city and walking around the flat parts of the city, it’s easy to marvel over the beauty of the buildings or wonder what the area must have been like when the Spanish discovered the silver in the Cerro Rico mountain that looms over the city. However, when walking uphill around the city, which is at least half the time, my will to explore was seriously in question. But my desire to explore won out, and while walking down the well-maintained colonial streets it’s easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of the 16th and 17th century when Potosi was one of the world’s richest and had a population larger than Madrid.
On the darker side of things, it’s also easy to imagine the amount of work that mining the silver for which this town gained famed, and how that work would have been done. When the Spanish discovered the Cerro Rico in 1544 it was the richest source of silver in the known world. Potosi and Spain grew rich from the proceeds, but this wealth came at an tremendous cost in human and animal lives and pain and suffering. The Spanish brought an estimated 30,000 African slaves, enslaved indigenous locals, used untold numbers of horse and llama to get the goods to the Atlantic coast to ship to Spain. Historians claim that the system of slavery that Spain’s Viceroy Toledo created resulted in a massive depopulation of the Andean highlands. The mortality rates in the mines were amazingly high, and over the next three hundred years, the Spanish authorities, in collusion with the mine owners and the Catholic Church, pressed millions of indigenous Andean peoples into slavery to work in the mines.
It’s estimated that the barbaric conditions in the mines caused the deaths of between eight and ten million indigenous and African slaves.
So important was the Cerro Rico, and so entwined was the Catholic Church with the mines, that all the churches in Potosi point not to the east, but to the mountain, and some of the religious art is shaped to represent the pyramid shape of the mountain. If you want to see some Bolivian silver, there’s plenty on display in Potosi’s churches, but you could equally go to any of the major cathedrals in Spain to uncover where all that silver went.
The Spanish brought the Catholic Church’s Inquisition to the Spanish colonies, something dramatically depicted in the painting below. As per usual, it was often women on the receiving end of ingenious methods of torture…
I am known for being *somewhat* spontaneous at times. Other times I suffer from an the lack of ability to make a decision as simple as what I want for dinner. What can I say, I’m a study in contradictions
After a spontaneous 100 km trek to Machu Picchu, I headed south towards Bolivia. On my own once again for the first time since arriving in Peru, I wasn’t quite ready for solitude just yet. Through the traveler grapevine, I’d heard of home-stays on Lake Titicaca, and thought that would be something worth checking out. Onward to Puno.
Puno, a small town in the southern Peru, is bordered by Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable body of water. The town, at 12,500 feet above sea level is breathtakingly [and I mean that literally] beautiful. It is alive with bright colors and friendly people. Boats lined with neon colors and shops filled with alpaca sweaters and scarfs give color to the town. The Uros Islands, the man-made floating reed islands, can by spotted from the shoreline and people from all over visit to get a taste of the island traditions.
Puno is a quiet, quaint town with all of the attractions located on the main plaza. Spanish is widely spoken as the town’s main source of income is tourism, but the town still has indigenous ties and as such, Aymara is spoken by most citizens.
Puno is small and as such most visitors only stay for a day or two. The main draw to the town is the opportunity to visit the islands and do an overnight tour with a local family. You can, of course, visit the islands on a day trip, but as it is relatively inexpensive to do an overnight home-stay, I recommend you do the overnight stay.
The overall experience is pretty touristy, but informative. We arrived to the first island and were greeted by the “Island President” who explained that each island only has room for 5-10 houses, so the families that reside on each island form small committees and work together to remain afloat.
The president demonstrated how each island is anchored down by heavy square blocks of reed roots so they stay in Peru and don’t float to Bolivia. He also explained that the islands are made up of layers of reeds and a new layer has to be added to the ‘island’ every fortnight. Each island has a committee, and the committee divides the chore of laying out new reed layers between the residents.
The local economy consists of trout fishing, quinoa, yucca, and potato farming, tourism and artisan handiwork. Most of the people who live on the islands also have a house in town where they stay during the week and travel to town by speed boat; island residents are not as segregated as they seem.
After a lesson in Uros culture and reed house construction, we were divided into groups and invited in the houses to see an example of island living. The construction was simple and each house is one giant room. Each house is powered by clean energy– an individual solar panel soaks up the bright mountain sun all day and is used to provide electricity to the house. In the past candles were used, but you can imagine that the fire + straw combo was a bad idea…
The houses contained artisan work and the couple that was showing us around sat silently stitching in the corner. I felt as there was some pressure to buy something but as I wasn’t headed home, and didn’t need anything, I resisted. I got a few dirty looks, but I try not to buy things I don’t need just for the sake of buying it. Maybe had I visited the Uros Islands prior to setting up my apartment in the north, I would have been in the market, but as it was, I was going to be backpacking for at least six weeks and I like to keep my load to a minimum.
From the house-shop were we were ushered onto a reed boat to be transported to the next island where fresh trout was available for lunch. The reed boat and lunch are technically optional because it costs an extra 10 soles to ride and lunch prices depend on what you order, but with an exchange rate of nearly 3 soles = $1, lunch of trout and quinoa was well worth the $3.50.
Reed boat construction is rather fascinating. The reeds are rather flimsy and they soak up water quickly so at first glance not the obvious first choice for a vessel to navigate the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca. But someone had the truly genius idea of filling the frame of the reed boat with empty plastic water bottles. Thus adding a layer of security to the reed frame and second, and just as important, finding a way to recycle some of the overwhelming number of plastic bottles in Peru.
Best piece of advice during this tour… take minute, set down your camera, find a quiet corner of the island and just sit. Sit and appreciate the beauty of nature. Be. Take time to appreciate the massiveness of the lake, the warm [almost hot] high, mountain sun, the bright blue water and the incredible floating island energy that surrounds you.
I arrived in Peru at the tail end of February 2010 in preparation for my awesome Machu Picchu trek leaving the first of March. That didn’t happen. I was a little bummed about not getting to see Machu Picchu, but in true adventurous spirit said to myself “I’ll be in South America for a while… we’ll see what happens.” I explored Cusco and Arequipa. I went on a tour of the floating islands on Lake Titicaca. And went sand-boarding on the dunes in Huacachina. I flew over the Nasca lines and marveled at the shapes. And then I put Peru out of my mind. I started on my first volunteer project in Cartegna and promptly put my missed opportunity at hiking the Inca Trail out of my mind.
But when meeting other travelers the conversation always seems to go somethitng like this:
Random Traveler: How long have you been traveling for? Where have you been?
Upon hearing that I have already been to Peru but did not get to see Machu Picchu, it inevitably goes like this:
Random Traveler: Dude! You have GOT to go to Machu Picchu. It’s EPIC. Your trip will be nothing if you don’t get to Machu Picchu.
At this point I don’t even bother trying to explain that anatural disaster occurred not long before I was to hike Machu Picchu and that I am grateful that said natural disaster did not occur while I was hiking Machu Picchu.
More time passed and I helped build eco-friendly hiking trails and count howler monkeys in the dry forest [which is a total misnomer since it’s soaking wet 6 months out of the year]. I catalogued orchids in a cloud forest. I tagged turtles on the Galapagos Islands. I climbed volcanoes in Ecuador. I caught malaria in the Amazon Rainforest. I volunteered in a health clinic and taught classes on respiratory infections, influenza, and tuberculosis. I chilled out and took surfing lessons on the coast. I went hiking in Keulap and Chachapoyas. I met up with friends in Cajamarca. I rented an apartment and hosted a Thanksgiving dinner with and for travelers.
And then my roommate asked me this question. In Novemeber.
“Someone just cancelled in my tour group to hike Machu Picchu. Do you want to take their place? It’s the first week of December.”
Did I? After all, 8 months earlier I came to Peru a month earlier than my first volunteer assignment required for the sole purpose of hiking Machu Picchu. But was that still a goal? At the risk of sounding extremely pretentious, Machu Picchu was becoming just another box to tick… just a way to impress my fellow travelers. I wasn’t helping anyone by climbing it. I wasn’t learning Inca culture and this wouldn’t be a culmination of assimilating all that knowledge. I had done so much more than I had originally intended to do, and I still had a half of a continent to explore.
“Oh and this isn’t the standard 4day/3night trek This is a 9day/8night 100km hike”
holyfuckingshit…. that’s a long ass hike I thought. And my roommate… she used to climb mountains. For fun. And for fun I like to sleep. And then before I realized the words were out of my mouth “I’m in,” and I had a paltry 6 weeks to get my ass into shape. There was no turning back after that. My previous longest hike was a measly 2 day 16 miler in Chachapoyas.
Did I go? Oh hell yeah. Was it amazing? Incredibly so. Was it the most physically and mentally challenging thing I have ever done in my life? Without a doubt. Was it worth it?
So perhaps you all are waiting to hear about how cool Machu Picchu is. Well, I hear it’s pretty awesome. I mean a lot of people have told me how awesome it is. How spiritual it is. How life-changing it is. I wish I could say the same. I wish I could say Machu Picchu fucking awesome. But alas, I cannot. At least not today. My first attempt to hike Machu Picchu in March 2010 and experience the amazing-ness that is Machu Picchu was a big-time epic failure. [spoiler alert: I finally did make it to Machu Picchu]
Machu Picchu, alpacas, hiking, amazing scenery, volcanoes… This is what I had in mind when I booked my flight to Peru and arranged my trek to Machu Picchu. What a perfect way to celebrate turning 30. The universe; however, had other plans. In January, there was a massive mudslide related to heavy rains in the area. The mudslides knocked out the train tracks and washed out some of the roads to the area. But this was January… surely everything would be fixed by end of February/first of March, I reasoned. But it was not to be. In typical Latin-American fashion, it took the government well over two months to restore the tracks and roads. Machu Picchu is by far one of the biggest sources of tourist revenue for the country. Around 2500 tourists per day visit Machu Picchu so you’d think opening the tracks would have been a bigger priority.
But no, it was still closed when I arrived in Cuzco, and my dreams of hiking Maccu Picchu dashed. I kept hearing different reports of when they would reopen, but turns out the roads/tracks re-opened in April… far later than I would have liked. The upside was that there were almost no tourists in Cuzco, and I had the city basically to myself, which was awesome! It was also a lot cheaper too. So yay for saving money.
So what do you do when your dreams of exploring Machu Picchu on your birthday are dashed? Drop back and punt, so to speak. Enter Cusco. Just as there’s more than one way to skin a cat; there’s more to the sacred valley than just Machu Picchu.
Cusco is an incredibly historic city. Back in the day, it was the capital of the Incan Empire, and is home to some pretty impressive Incan ruins other than Machu Picchu. It also has some impressive Spanish colonial architecture.
But there are some really cool sites around Cusco that I don’t think get the attention they deserve. First up Písaq. The Spanish built the present-day town of Pisac along the Urubamba River half a century after the conquest, but the surviving terraces of its predecessor, Inca Pisaq, are still draped across the mountains above less than three miles drive away.
The signature terraces – stacked 40 high – are visible throughout much of the switch-backed drive from the market. Their design takes advantage of mountain runoff by channeling it through the fields on its way to the river below. The terraces also served to prevent erosion and landslides, and contained rich soil hauled from the valley below that enabled Inca farmers to produce crops otherwise unsustainable at these altitudes. The buildings are scattered across nearly two square miles of the slope, and include fortifications, aqueducts, granaries, homes, and ceremonial spaces.
The ramparts of the Q’allaqasa – the citadel – contain 20 towers that overlook the site from a perch on the ridge above the terraces.
What appear to be the mouths of small caves in a nearly inaccessible hillside across a ravine from the settlement are actually the face of an Inca cemetery not yet fully excavated by archaeologists.
Incredibly enough, skeletons are still visible in some of the open-air crypts.
Next up, Ollantaytambo. In my opinion, Ollantaytambo is where Inca ruins come to life. The town is much bigger and better preserved than Písaq. Several Inca structures survive and have been continuously inhabited by their descendants. Ollantaytambo boasts some spectacular scenery, as well as agricultural terraces, well preserved Inca walls, as well as a partially constructed sun temple at the top. Built by the emperor Pachacuti, and a stronghold of the last independent Inca ruler, Manco II, it was eventually conquered by the Spanish. Ollantaytambo fell into to decline and ruin, although native Inca continued to live there and was rediscovered by European explorers in the 19th century.
So my amazing Machu Picchu trek where I hike for miles and commune with nature and have a spiritual experience was a bust, but it wasn’t a totally wasted trip to Peru. I did get to learn a lot about Inca history and it was the perfect jumping off place for my 16 month trip around South America.
Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru with approximately 1 million city-dwellers, was formed by Spaniards in the 1500’s after conquering the Incas. As you enter the Plaza de Armas at the heart of Arequipa, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into time and place outside of modern day Peru. Surrounded by 3 volcanoes, the view from Arequipa would have been reason enough for the Spanish to settle there. The sillar from these volcanoes is what forms much of the architecture surrounding the Plaza de Armas and crowns Arequipa as the white city. At 7640 ft (2300m) above sea level it is not the highest city in Peru, but it still has an altitude associated with some of the higher cities. If you are coming straight from Lima, you’ll definitely feel it; if you are coming down from Cusco, you’ll hardly notice.
If you’ve been to Machu Picchu, you may think that nothing can top that. And while it’s true that Machu Picchu is amazing (or at least I’ve heard it was pretty awesome), but Arequipa can certainly hold its own and is well worth exploring and a great starting point for many other outdoor adventures in the area. Want to hike into a canyon? Or go white water rafting? Or explore volcanoes? Arequipa is the perfect place for all that. Want to learn about the naughty nuns? The ice princess? Or are you OK with just people watching. Once again, Arequipa is the answer.
My weekend in Arequipa went something like this: People-watching, nerding out on history, hiking down the world deepest canyon, people watching, and market exploring. My sole reason for coming to Arequipa was to visit Colca Canyon. I am not missing out on another awesome hiking expedition
One of my favorite things to do is just hang out in the square and people-watch, and the Plaza de Armas is the best place to do just that.
Nerding Out Part One: The Santa Catalina Monastery is one of the main tourist attractions in Arequipa and anytime I can get a glimpse of nuns behaving badly, I’m all in. As a bonus, the cafe was serving apple pie and lemonade so I indulged my appetite after indulging my nerdy side.
Nerding Out Part Two: After the monastery, I checked out the Andean Museum to see the “ice maiden” Juanita – the body of a young Inca girl found completely preserved (frozen) at the top of a nearby volcano. To go in, you have to do a guided tour, which includes a 20 minute video about the discovery of the body. The guide told us about the sacrificial rituals and the other artifacts found with Juanita’s body.
It’s no secret that I’m a history nerd. Throughout school, history was always my first choice of electives. Need a religion credit– Catholic History and the secret lives of Monks and Nuns was a much better choice than Old Testament 101. My favorite time period depends on my mood and sometimes my location. I have written a thesis about the Mayans of Mexico, a lengthy paper about the Witches of Salem, and traced Spanish explorers around the world. My interest in English history began while exploring/ living in England and German/Prussian/Austria-Hungarian history while hanging out in those countries. I was a kid and somewhat remember the Yugoslavian conflict and was fascinated while walking around Belgrade/Zagreb, Serbia, and Montenegro. Italy is a history nerd’s dream, and Greek military history is fascinating [and a perfectly good reason to visit Greece]. My year long plus jaunt around South American had me dabbling in history of its countries, and there is much more to the continent than Incas, narco-terrorists, and dictators. Enter Peru and its colonial history.
Arequipa is a #historynerd’s dream and is a great place for anyone who loves history. If you don’t love history, but like pretty buildings, it’s good for that too. And if you’re overloaded on all things Machu Picchu, come to Arequipa; it’s like the Incas never existed. I went without any fixed plans and was content to wander and enjoy its colonial structures. Arequipa might be my favorite Peruvian city. Lima, the capital, is rough, gritty, and crowded. Arequipa is more refined. Cajamarca, in the north, has interesting history as well, but overall Arequipa, having better infrastructure, is just a bit better suited to travelers; it’s quieter, cleaner and moves to a slower pace. It is just my style.
I always thought that had I been born in a different time and place I would have been a nun. Not necessarily because I’m a devout Catholic or would honor vows of purity, chastity, or poverty, but because nuns were the original bad-asses. In societies where marriage was a means to an end, nuns spat in the face of that. And they were bad-asses in the health care arena too. Yep, had I been born in the 1500’s, a nun was a much better deal than serf or some lord’s wench.
It’s with that mindset that Santa Catalina was high on my list of places to visit on my stop in Arequipa. Built in 1579, the monastery is a huge mini city within the city that was founded by the Dominican Second Order nun, Maria de Guzman. The Convento de Santa Catalina de Siena was initially meant for rich upper-class women from Spanish families [I would have had to settle for a bit more spartan monastery] and each family would have to pay a dowry upon their daughter entering the monastery. Some dowries were as expensive as 2,500 silver coins which would be the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s currency. For their dowry, each nun got up to 4 slaves to do their daily chores but were also required to bring things like paintings, intricate tapestries, clothes, and other things would make the environment quite luxurious. Nothing like the message “God is #1, but luxury is a close second.” Maybe they didn’t get the memo that avarice was one of the seven deadly sins.
But gluttony and lust were equal pursuits
It was also pretty common for the nuns to throw extravagant parties in their quarters and rumor has it there are tunnels that connect to a local church so Mother Mary wasn’t the only invited guest. On even more scandalous note, there are stories of pregnant nuns and monk baby daddies were fueled by the allegation that a baby’s skeleton was found encased within the monastery walls. [The Catholic Church denies the claims.]
The Santa Catalina Rave raved right on for nearly 300 years until 1871 when Pope Pius IX sent a strict nun [read: not part of the cool kids] to shut down the party at the Santa Catalina social club. Uncool nun also freed all the servants and slaves [OK, that part was cool] and sent all of the coins, paintings, tapestries, ect back to the Catholic Church in Spain in order to reform the monastery.
The monastery is constructed from sillar, a white volcanic stone quarried locally and painted blue and orange within. The convent is considered the most important and impressive colonial structure in the city. Since Peru is known for its earthquakes, these continual earthquakes and tremors have forced changes in the structure of the monastery and thus is has some singular architectural characteristics.
In the 1960s, the monastery suffered significant structural damage due to two earthquakes that struck Arequipa. The 20 remaining nuns voted to open the monastery up to the public as a tourist attraction; it was opened to the public on August 15, 1970–a mere 430 years after the city of Arequipa’s founding. The nuns used the funds to pay for restoration costs, install electricity, and install running water.
These days #historynerds like me can freely roam around the beautiful grounds and learn about the naughtynuns that loved to have a good time. And for the navigationally challenged– there’s an interesting twist. From the instant you walk in – you can only make left turns. I spent 5 hours wandering the monastery only making left turns. It’s impossible to get lost, and for someone like me, who likes to wander and not pay attention to which direction I came from, it’s a godsend.
Like many things I do, my trek to Colca Canyon was not carefully planned; it was more of a spontaneous impulse.
I arrived in Peru mid-March hell-bent on hiking Machu Picchu. The universe was equally hell-bent on making sure that didn’t happen. As always, the universe won. I poked around Cusco for a while, contemplating where to go next. Arequipa seemed like a logical place. It has everything I look for in a destination: history, interesting architecture, something special in the vicinity that you can’t find anywhere else.
Enter Colca Canyon. It is the second deepest canyon in the world, and home to the world’s largest and most romantic bird: the Colca Condor.
The condor has a wingspan of 10 feet, can live to be 100 years old, and mates for life. In fact, the remaining partner often commits suicide when its partner dies. The bird just refuses to flap its massive wings and plummets to its death. Tragic, but also somewhat romantic.
After poking around Arequipa for a few days, I headed out to Cabanaconde, a small town nestled in a chasm deeper. I had nowhere to be until May so I planned on doing a little hiking/backpacking in the area knowing that I’d be back in Peru in the fall [technically, I suppose I mean spring since seasons are reversed] I had just returned from a short day hike and was admiring the view of the canyon while sipping what would become one of my top five all-time favorite alcoholic beverages–a maracuya sour– when I saw it far off in the distance. What ‘it’ was was a small white waterfall standing out against a wall of green. At that moment, I knew that I’d have to get a lot closer, and I wasn’t leaving the canyon until I felt that cold water on my feet
As it turned out, the white blip was the Huaruro waterfall, a 250-foot behemoth accessible from the small village of Fure on the opposite side of the canyon. A hiker and explorer by heart, a mountaineer I am not. Thankfully I’ve been blessed with the curse of self-awareness, and knew that getting there completely on my own was so far outside my comfort zone it would not be advisable to try. Enter my new best friend, Jose [maybe not his real name, but he answered to it]. As a solo female traveler and even more so as a solo female adventurer heading into a canyon where I could be raped and dismembered and left for the condors to eat, I have to trust my gut when meeting guides. After all, I am literally putting my life in their hands–at least for a few days. I met my tiny Quechua guide the day before and maybe he recognized my hesitation since he invited me to meet his family.
Meeting the family put me at ease that this wasn’t some serial killer trying to get me alone and away from civilization. Dinner was potatoes and meat, probably alpaca–I didn’t ask–and chincha, a drink I’ve already come to loathe, and conversation was probably 75% Spanish and 25% Quechua. Don’t worry, I didn’t know I could understand Quechua either, but apparently having studied/lived with Mayans 10 years ago
predisposed me for understand other odd languages. My brain works in mysterious ways… I digress.
After dinner, the women-folk did their cleaning up and Jose and I discussed the particulars of the trek. We would start at 7:00 in the morning, and hike from Cabanaconde down to the bottom of the canyon [a descent of approximately 3,300 feet]. After that, we’ll cross the Colca River, have lunch in Llahuar, hike up about 1,650 feet to the town of Llatica and then continue up another 600 feet to Fure, where we would sleep that first night.
The next day, we’d set out for the waterfall and then hike back down the canyon to the Sangalle oasis, where we’d spend the night. Then, early in the morning of the third day, we’d leave the oasis to hike up back to Fure and on day 4, it’s back to Cabanaconde and civilization. Looking back, I’m grateful I’d mention up front that I wanted to go slow since I’d would be taking a lot of pictures because Jose said in the past, this had always been a 3-day trek for him.
Jose said he didn’t do this route often; not many guides did since most people just wanted to see the canyon, but for 4 days he charged me $50. Food was extra, but in reality still only amounted to another $25 for the two of us for the four days. So $75 total for four days of guiding, food, drink, and our one night in a shelter. What a deal. Fortunately, or maybe not, I had no idea of what I was in for.
Into the canyon
The next morning, I was up at 5 for breakfast and last minute backpack arranging. As promised, Jose arrived promptly at 7 and off we went. We walked through the town of Cabanaconde, passing an empty bullfighting ring and the goal of an abandoned soccer stadium. From there, we descended into the canyon.
I was weaving my way down Colca Canyon, slowly– little by little, when I caught my first glimpse of the Colca River. This glistening sliver of hope encouraged me that I was getting closer to reaching the bottom of one of the deepest canyons on the planet and helped me carry on.
Almost immediately, Jose started pointing out all kinds of indigenous herbs and fruits. A plethora of plants with a variety of uses grow in the canyon: muña for indigestion, cactus fruit for asthma and jatupa for insecticide, for starters. The canyon also hosts an incredible bounty of fruit. Peaches, apples, papaya, several different types of squash, lucuma, corn, mango and figs all flourish there. And you know this just fed my little nerd heart so much.
Five hourse later, we crossed the rushing Colca River and arrived at Llahuar, a small settlement consisting of two guesthouses, where lunch was a hearty heap of protein in the form of trout, and the requisite unidentifiable soup with a mass of avocado or potato in it, and rice. The view was simply amazing–an overlook of the convergence of the Colca and Huaruro rivers.
After lunch, more hiking, this time up as we ascended to the town of Llatica, a sleepy place with a rundown church. At the end of the first uphill leg of our trip, I was completely winded. I maintain that this was due to the altitude (about 12,000 feet), not the fact that I was, well, a bit out of shape.
At Llatica, it was time for a rest stop and a snack. Jose had some fruit for a snack. I still don’t know what it was, but it was banana flavored and had seeds in it. After the break, it was onward to Fure.
That’s when things started to get interesting. Right outside Llatica, we met the bearer of bad news. A group of three Peruvians guys told us the path to Fure had been blocked by a rockslide, and we’d be unable to continue. Specifically, one of the guys said that I wouldn’t be able to cross the affected path, which was now apparently a heaping pile of boulders. I am at most most effective [and stubborn] when someone tells me that I can’t do something. The guys pointed out a different trail, one that went almost to the top of the mountain and then descended to Fure.
I, of course, was not in favor of this option, considering the dire state of my knees and lungs. However, if we reached the rock slide and couldn’t get around it, we’d have to return all the way to Llatica in the dark for the night. Night hiking is not my favorite. By this time, it was already 3:00 in the afternoon. We’d been hiking since 7A and sunset would be about 6P. If I’d been smarter, I would have suggested staying in Llatica for the evening and re-evaluating my options. I wasn’t smart.
Obstacle surmounted–chasing waterfalls
We soldiered on to Fure where we met a young teenager who seemed more confident about our chances with the rock slide. The catch, though, was that we’d have to rock-climb up a 20-foot chasm in the mountain. There were no ropes and no harnesses, and there certainly was no emergency room close enough to make any difference. Rock-climbing has never been an interest of mine, and now I’m mentally cursing myself for never having visited a rock-climbing gym. And I was tired. Bone-tired, but I was not at a place to stop.
By the time we got to the slide, I was running on fumes. The path ended and in its place stood a substantial rock face, which there was now no choice but to climb. On either side of the rock slide, the mountain shot straight up and dropped straight down, so there would be no walking around the boulders.
My new friend took my backpack up the crevice. Then it was my turn. My new friend and Jose told me where to put my feet and hands, and I inched up the mountain. About 15 feet up, I got stuck. For nearly a minute, I balanced on one toe on the crack in the rock, using three fingers to grip the rock above my head. I held myself there, paralyzed, unsure whether my next move would hoist me up or land me with a broken leg.
Honestly, though, the climb was almost a relief, because I was able to make use of my arms in addition to my legs. With one big heave that involved placing my other foot on the rock above my hip and hoisting myself up, I cleared the worst of the climb. From there, just two more moves took me to the top. My new friend (I never got his real name) helped me up at the end, and Jose scrambled up quickly behind me like the native pack mule he is.
We picked up the trail again on the other side of the rockslide, and from there, we crossed a rickety bridge to Fure, where we were shown to our room for the night: a mud hut with four walls, a dirt floor and a mattress propped up on bamboo and logs.
After a long soak in the town’s natural spring and a dinner of soup, squash puree and white rice, I went to bed and slept like a dead animal until sunrise the next day.
After a relatively mild hour-and-a-half hike, we approached the waterfall. At first, all we could see was a watery mist drifting up into a vivid green pasture. Then we turned a corner, and suddenly we were at the foot of a mass of water plunging to the ground. The vegetation was dripping wet from the mist, and the noise from the water’s 250-foot drop silenced our conversation.
The hike to Sangalle oasis was thankfully, drama-free.
Colca Canyon has more to offer than resounding views and an oasis. It has the power to challenge us both mentally and physically whilst giving us strength and a connection to the world around us.