Machu Picchu, the Atacama Desert, and Lima–the superlatives and the not-so-much

One of my biggest surprises during the trip to Perú was how much I enjoyed Machu Picchu. I’d come there expecting a relatively small archeological site, enough to see for an hour or two but not much more. After spending about 5 hours getting sunburnt and hiking on a broken toe, I still found it hard to leave. The ruins were massive, and the terraces (built both for structural support/erosion prevention and for planting crops) descended all the way down the length of the Macchu Picchu mountain (“old peak” in Quechua) into the valley. It still amazes me to this day how they were able to build such structures, much less descend and ascend to plant and harvest potatoes and other crops (I doubt llamas would have had a much easier time than humans).

Terraces descending down Machu Picchu, along with strange bright-red plants (which I'm guessing use something other than chlorophyll) that grew all along the mountain, but that I saw nowhere else in Perú.

Terraces descending down Machu Picchu, along with strange bright-red plants (which I’m guessing use pigments other than chlorophyll) that grew all along the mountain, but that I saw nowhere else in Perú.

There was something eerily beautiful about the blue-green mountains cropping up from the Urubamba Valley (the Sacred Valley of the Incas), with the Urubamba River meandering below and eventually flowing into the Amazon. It made me wonder what those people who had lived there in Inca times thought of their surroundings–did they ever tire of seeing the same mountains? Did they–or anyone else–grow immune to the beauty? How can someone train themselves to not take such things for granted?

A view of the city's ruins on Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu ("young peak") in the background. I'm sure the view from Wayna Picchu would have been even more incredible; unfortunately, we didn't buy the tickets needed to ascend beforehand.

A view of the city’s ruins on Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu (“young peak”) in the background. I’m sure the view from Wayna Picchu would have been even more incredible; unfortunately, we didn’t buy the tickets needed to ascend beforehand.

A rainstorm in the mountains just beyond Machu Picchu. I never realized how close the site was to the Amazon; it was humid even without the rain (with enough insects to prove it).

A rainstorm in the mountains just beyond Machu Picchu. I never realized how close the site was to the Amazon; it was humid even without the rain (with enough insects to prove it).

Andes butting up against clouds Machu Picchu, with the Urubamba flowing below.

Andes butting up against clouds near Machu Picchu, with the Urubamba flowing below.

In huge contrast to the lush trees, bushes, and flowers (with vines and epiphytes growing between branches) growing by Machu Picchu, the southern coast of Perú is anything but. With the Humboldt current rising up from Antarctica and bringing cool air currents up the coast, the coastal [Atacama] desert in southern Perú and northern Chile isn’t as hot as the Sahara or Arabian deserts, but it’s much drier (in fact, the world’s driest; we didn’t see so much as a cactus). We went sandboarding and rented sand buggies (think 1000-ft-sand-dunes-like-a-roller-coaster-but-real-life) at sunset; I probably wouldn’t ever ride a sand buggy again for fear of a heart attack, but it was completely worth doing once. Apparently, there are even dance parties held at night deeper in the desert, under a blanket of stars.

Before we raced with sandboards (like skateboards without wheels) down the dunes.

Before we raced with sandboards (like skateboards without wheels) down the dunes.

With the Humboldt current also come nutrients that rise up and support marine life (and all the rich seafood you’ll encounter in Peru). Unfortunately, the waters seemed too warm for some… when we were in Paracas (on the southern coast, by the desert) and went out on a small boat into a bay, dead jellyfish and rotting algae littered nearly every inch of sand within twenty feet of the shore. The jellyfish were deep red and easily the largest I’ve ever seen; I can only imagine that the other marine life are just as fantastic.

Layers of jellyfish and algae drying above the sand, apparently killed by warmer water temperatures near Paracas, Perú.

Layers of jellyfish (each about one foot/30 cm in diameter) and algae drying above the sand, apparently killed by warmer water temperatures near Paracas, Perú. The entire beach reeked of rotting eggs; these algae probably produced hydrogen sulfide (causing the smell) as they decomposed.

And then there was Lima. As I mentioned in my previous post, I preferred Cuzco to Lima. Maybe it was the fact that cuzqueños took more pride in their culture, and were able to because they were more geographically isolated, while residents of Lima were more likely to be immigrants and often held the view that imported products and ideas were generally superior. Mostly though, it was the more obvious income divide, the traffic, the grime, and the lack of duende/soul in Lima’s architecture. But of course, there were still places to see and enjoy: my favorite neighborhood in Lima was Miraflores (considered relatively affluent), and in particular the coast: it was refreshing to get away from the simultaneously hectic and dazed, almost claustrophobic city center. There’s also a park further up the Miraflores coast (Parque del Amor, or Love Park) with gigantic statues and Gaudí-esque tiled walls, like a bit of Barcelona in South America.

Along the coast of Miraflores, Lima, Perú. The monkey design is probably reminiscent of the Nazca Lines farther south in Perú.

Along the coast of Miraflores, Lima, Perú. The monkey design is probably reminiscent of the Nazca Lines farther south in Perú.

Friends standing at the end of a path through thick patches of morning glory, overlooking the Pacific.

Friends standing at the end of a path through thick patches of morning glory, overlooking the Pacific.

A "sun traffic light" in Miraflores, measuring the level of ultraviolet radiation and its danger to you based on your skin color (this probably wouldn't fly in politically-correct USA.)

A “sun traffic light” in Miraflores, measuring the level of ultraviolet radiation and its danger to you based on your skin color (this probably wouldn’t fly in politically-correct USA.)

Library patrons reading outside by the train tracks near the Casa de la Literatura Peruana. I really liked this set-up, and the building in general--who wouldn't want to read outside on a warm spring day?

Library patrons reading outside by the train tracks near the Casa de la Literatura Peruana. I really liked this set-up, and the building in general–who wouldn’t want to read outside on a warm spring day?

The outside of the Convento de San Francisco in Lima (in imposing Spanish baroque style without an inkling of Inka), which also has large catacombs downstairs. It also had courtyards inside with some beautiful contemporary Peruvian artwork on display.

The outside of the Convento de San Francisco in Lima (in imposing Spanish baroque style without an inkling of Inka), which also has large catacombs downstairs. It also had courtyards inside with some beautiful contemporary Peruvian artwork on display.

Archeological ruins in the middle of Lima (in Miraflores). On the other side of the street were more ruins, as well as a traditional restaurant where Lady Gaga was apparently having lunch that day.

Archeological (pre-Inca) ruins in the middle of Lima, in Miraflores. On the other side of the street were more ruins, as well as a traditional [and expensive] Peruvian restaurant where Lady Gaga was apparently having lunch that day.

The main cathedral in Lima (Catedral Basílica de Lima), right next to the president's palace in the Plaza Mayor. Intricately carved, wooden balconies were common in both Cuzco and Lima, though I imagine they're not the best thing to have during Peru's frequent earthquakes.

The main cathedral in Lima (Catedral Basílica de Lima), right next to the president’s palace in the Plaza Mayor. Intricately carved wooden balconies were common in both Cuzco and Lima, though I imagine they’re not the best thing to have during Peru’s frequent earthquakes.

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About Development_Tango

Every nation's refugee. But more specifically, an open-minded French- and Russian-speaking former Moldovan-Ukrainian jumping between New York and California. Who hugs trees but tries to be logical about it. And wants to heal this broken planet by helping others help themselves.

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