The first thing you notice about Lima is that it is not in Ecuador. If it were, the sky would not be a perpetual thick wool blanket of gray; the air would not smell of low tide; the streets would not go on for miles of unpunctuated urban decay with no break to see beyond one cinderblock structure after another; the street vendors would be selling something more interesting than packets of Bugles, Oreos, and peanut butter Ritz; street music would not consist of syncopated car alarms; the people would be moving much more slowly; and the cars wouldn't speed up to try and hit you when you crossed the street. Lima has 46 sprawling suburbs with the historic center of town apparently suffering a little more every time the population said, "This place is a mess. I've got to get out of here."
But, just like when you finally exit the San Diego Freeway at rush hour, it sure feels wonderful to step off the airplane in Cuzco, once the epicenter of the Incan Empire. Everyone in our group, despite having been awake since 5:00 a.m., had broad smiles and exuberant comments on the air quality, the mountains, the sunshine, and the upbeat vibe that permeates this historic city.
We head up the Urubamba Valley, also called the Sacred Valley. We are now at elevations that seldom go below 10,000 feet. Constant sipping of water is required as well as drinking coca tea and chewing on coca leaves whenever possible. Fortunately we have discovered coca toffees, considerably less bitter than the coca leaves. Although we have avoided altitude sickness, it feels like we are walking through water while being extremely sleep deprived. On the other hand, we are treated to a world that seems like a work of fantasy fiction. Tropical forests are backed by glacier covered mountains. This is the youngest mountain range on earth, recognized by its jagged peaks that go up to over
Our first stop is Pisaq to view agricultural terraces that were constructed by the Incas. This gives us our first taste of what is to come: big scenery made from steep mountains, distant valleys, and an ever-changing sky. This combined with the ruins dating back centuries ago sets the stage for the guy following us around playing Peruvian flutes.
Dressing is always a challenge in the Andes. Within one hour, it can be cold and rainy, hot and rainy, sunny and hot, and sunny and cold (temperatures ranging from ~40-85 degrees F). The weather reports aren't much help, like the traffic lights in the cities, being mere suggestions that bear little relationship to reality.
Eventually comes the day that we board the train to Machu Picchu, the main point of this whole excursion. The landscape turns more and more tropical (yes, we are in another cloud forest) as we go along until we find ourselves in the town of Aguas Calientes, which feels like it could be in Kauai, were it not for the mountains surrounding us, the high altitude, and the cold temperatures at night. Walking at night we can see the mist from the valley illuminated by a near-full moon climbing up the mountains as we walk beside the raging river that divides this town and makes for the ultimate white noise at night in our
room that faces it.
From here we go on to the city of Cuzco. The main business of this city is tourism, beer, and cement. This is the jumping off point for people going to Machu Picchu. Besides the local inhabitants serving the tourist industry, there are tour groups, individual travelers, and backpackers/hippies taking advantage of the cheap accommodations and food. One night we hiked up into the hills above the city into a neighborhood called San Blas, a supposedly bohemian outpost, for dinner at a vegan restaurant. It was filled with 20 somethings discussing retreats where one can take hallucinogenics and have spiritual epiphanies. In talking with our tour leader, this is yet another segment of the tourism industry of Peru. Dinner was a wonderful blend of mushrooms (though not the magic kind), pasta, risotto, vegetables, and local flavorings that we thought could not be beat until we went for lunch the next day for a meal by a celebrity chef. One of the main courses consisted of pork cooked for 8 hours, then blended with spices, dipped in Panko, deep-fried, and served with sweet potato ravioli in a corn beer cream sauce.
Besides shopping for knickknacks, the main tourist activity seems to consist of marveling at the huge stones the Incas moved from place to place. You can have it explained to you 1000 times how they did this, but it still seems unbelievable that people could move such massive weights at high altitude without the wheel and create real architecture without any mortar or modern tools in hundreds of settlements spread over six countries in South America.
From here it is off to Lake Titicaca where we hope it is as funny as its name suggests.