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).
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?
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.
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.
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.