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.
Three weeks ago, I spent seven crazy, sleep-deprived days flying and driving around southern Perú with nine other friends. I could probably write a 50-page essay on my impressions, but I will try to sum it up crudely in a few words:
llamas-donkeys-bowler hats-ponchos-coca leaf tea-Inka heritage-ceviche-income disparity-tourism-poverty-agriculture-Andes-desert-terraces-writing on mountainsides-generous people-promising path to development-Lima < Cuzco
Even today, most Peruvian women of non-European descent (i.e. indigenous) wear knee-length skirts–even in the cold, even when they’re farming in the fields. Why? Because Peruvian women were traditionally judged by the size and strength of their calves, as an indication of how capable they would be as farmers, and therefore as good wives. The farms I saw while driving around Lima and Cuzco had tractors, yokes with oxen, and everything in between–but most of the manual work still seemed to be done by women.
In the cities, tourism was certainly a big industry–in Cuzco, it accounted for 60-95% of jobs, depending on who you asked–and not everyone was happy about it. Judging by the graffiti, some Peruvians felt like they were sell-outs, catering to foreigners instead of preserving traditional occupations. But tourism revenue can also have its benefits: when my friends and I were walking by the historic center of Cuzco (the traditional seat of the Inca civilization, and a city which, by the way, is much more impressive than most parts of Lima, the capital), we were approached by two siblings, trying to sell us hand puppets that their mother had made.
After one of us caved in and bought a few, things got more interesting. The boy, 7, told us that he wanted to be a musician, architect, scientist, chemical engineer, and writer (in roughly that order) and was better at multiplication than we were at that age. (We decided to motivate him by buying a bottle of Coke and some mints for a little experiment. It was a bit anti-climatic; I think he almost expected the mini-explosion…) As for his younger sister, she told us about how she’ll be performing Gangnam Style in her first-grade class. This is a city in the middle of nowhere, between the towering Andes and the Amazon. The tourists brought McDonalds, and the internet brought Gangnam Style; I’m thankful the government (and likely private funding) brought decent schools.
I can go on, about how the residents of Cuzco still seem proud and a bit resentful of the Spanish conquest, even 500 years later, while the residents of Lima seem to have forgotten … or of how we saw someone unloading alpaca stomachs from an unrefrigerated truck, still dripping blood, into the main bazaar in Cuzco … or of how we ran into a herd of lambs crossing the road near Moray (close to Cuzco). But instead, I’ll just show a few of the thousands of photos I took in this warm, photogenic country.
Next post–Machu Picchu, Lima, and Paracas. Next time I visit–the Amazon (Puerto Maldonado) and areas further inland and to the north. I’d love to hear about other places as well though!