Following a week and a half in Peru, all I can do is smile, relax, and try to catch up on some much needed sleep. A few themes persisted throughout the country, including beautiful nature, warm indigenous cultures and food, and great times with friends new and old. The first segment of my time in South America was perfect in every way, and if it is to serve as a forecast for the future it might be a while until I’m back in the States.
Peru carries an interesting mix of modernity and tradition, combining one of the world’s most rapidly expanding economies with centuries of both Andean and Incan history as well as Spanish colonial presence. The two cities that served as my main locations illustrated this history perfectly; Cusco being the capital of an Incan Empire that stretched from present-day Colombia to Chile, while Lima was the seat of the Spanish Viceroy following Francisco Pizzaro’s conquest in 1533, a position of importance matched only by Mexico City. Today, the two cities seemed worlds apart as well, with high-rises going up left and right on Lima’s exploding beachfront, while Cusco has embraced the tourism industry as the base for adventures to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Overall, however, people were overwhelmingly warm and nice, the food fresh and tasty, and the landscapes beautiful beyond belief.
I left Colorado on Labor Day with my little travel bug Leah Weiss, an old friend who was brave/crazy/lucky enough to join me for some South American adventures. We spent a day and night in Lima with native Limeño Armida Lizarraga, my fourth grade teacher who after leaving Colorado to study and work at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education now works as an international education consultant with the Peruvian government. Alongside her partner Matthew, an affable, extremely bright behavioral economics professor, and three year old daughter Isabelle we were shown nothing but wonderful generosity and hospitality. We spent the day exploring the Miraflores district before being treated to a ceviche lunch at a restaurant run by Gastón Acurio, one of the best chefs in the world. The fish was painfully fresh and tart, and I struggle to place it in the same category as other “ceviches” I’ve had (and enjoyed) in bougie restaurants back in Boulder. Peruvian cuisine is known for its simplicity, use of phenomenal ingredients sourced from the mountains, jungle, and ocean, and mixing of influences ranging from Andean, Spanish, and Asian. Overall Lima struck me as a fairly gritty, grey, large city, but the kindness and warmth shown to us by Armida and Matthew was overwhelming. I cannot express my gratitude enough for such a great stay.
Following our time in Lima we flew to Cusco, an old, quaint, puma-shaped city with old colonial squares and churches and covered markets. Houses rose into the surrounding hills in a colorful blaze where distance from the city center corresponded with a sharp decrease in standard of living. While it is certainly a tourist city, I always felt very safe and loved walking the compact city. We spent two days in Cusco exploring, eating in the market, and arranging a trek to Machu Picchu, which turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.
We left Cusco well before sunrise to begin our trek to Machu Picchu via the spectacular Salkantay Pass. We opted for the cheapest trek possible among many different choices of tour companies with the risk of personal comfort, but it turned out to be an incredible bargain as a result of how great the trip was. We covered 52 miles over 5 days, including substantial amounts of elevation gain and loss, but what made the trip was the wide range of unbelievable scenery and the phenomenal people along for the ride.
17 hikers were split into two groups with a guide each, which resulted in a great combination of intimacy during the day and community during meals and at night. The guides were great, ours being a small Quechua man named Nestor who blew us away with his humility, goofiness, and heartbreaking smile.
The first day and a half was spent hiking up to the breathtaking Salkantay Pass, resting at 15,130 feet and straddling without a doubt the most amazing mountains I’ve ever seen.
We then descended through cloud forest into the jungles surrounding Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas that served as its spiritual and intellectual center. Other highlights of the trip included hot springs after three hard days of hiking, zip lining across a gorgeous Andean valley, and a makeshift international Rosh Hashanah dinner followed by a late night in a local dance bar that was easily the most memorable New Year I’ve ever had. Food was provided by a cook staff that hiked the trail before us with supplies on horses in time to produce massive spreads of local meals that were surprisingly healthy and tasty considering the conditions. We were woken up with coca tea before sunrise most days, and given my language and hiking abilities I got to spend a lot of time with our guide, giving me a lot of insights on Quechua culture and the surrounding areas. Leah and I made friends I sincerely hope to keep for a long time to come, and the trip was an absolute success. The only hiccups were Leah’s altitude sickness the first night at 13,000 feet that she rallied remarkably from, and mosquitoes the last few days that left everyone in the group, including the guides, with vicious, angry red splotches from head to toe. Overall, however, I couldn’t be happier about the trek and will always remember it as one of the best times of my life.
While I’m only a fraction into my time in South America (I’m planning on being here until at least mid-April) there are a few things I know to be certain. I know that I’m traveling with someone in Leah who is tough, versatile, communicative, and fun, giving me confidence for future adventures to come. I know that I am in my element being in new places and speaking Spanish and learning new languages with new, interesting, likeminded people. Finally, I know that I have only explored a small swath of this enormous, beautiful continent, and look to times ahead with confidence, peace, contentment, and joy. As the Quechua say, if we are happy, Pachamama (Mother Earth) is happy too.
With love, and go Broncos.