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Into Peru, Part 2

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World Trip Part 7

Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Days 39-58

Cusco -> Machu Picchu -> Cusco -> Arequipa -> Lima

August 13, 2011 – Climbing in the thick darkness in the hills above the town of Aguas Caliente, the final leg of the Salkantay Trek began an hour earlier at 4am. A string of lights flickers behind us, hundreds of tourist flashlights snaking single-file through the hillside jungle on the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. We climb quickly and sweat like marathoners. Two weeks earlier, the Peruvian government restricted the daily entrance quota by 50% to 2,500 – we are the first of today. I walk excitedly through the gate with my new French “wife” Florice, Irishman Alan, Swiss John, Turkish Verdi, and lots of other new friends from the previous 5 days.  Two more minutes of climbing, and a stunning view unfolds of the ancient ruins below – shafts of light pierce the pre-sunrise dawn sky framing the magical, deserted scene.

I reached Machu Picchu as the end point of a 90km, 5-day trek over the Salkantay pass in the Andes mountains. Salkantay, meaning “Savage Mountain” in Quechua, is a rugged and prominent peak that dominates the views for the second day of the hike. Also on that day, we hauled our packs alongside the camp mules over a 15,600 foot mountain pass, paused to catch our breath and offer Coca leaves to the mountain with a Quechua prayer, and stumble back down the other side. We passed from geography reminiscent of the northeastern Cascade foothills to frigid alpine glacial formations, followed by two days of sweaty jungle trails. Our diverse group bonded tightly by the end of the journey – with a destination like Machu Picchu, the trail was inherently motivational and a definite trip highlight.

I became married for the purposes of a visit to the Peruvian police in Aguas Caliente – thanks to a groggy 3am oversight, I left my real passport at the hostel in Cusco. How this led to a supposed honeymoon and a police lesson in Spanish criminology lexicon is beyond the scope of this blog, but I made it to Machu Picchu. Sometimes the end justifies the means.

Back in Cusco, I moved in with a local family five miles south of the tourist district. Paola, my host mom, had her hands full with 2-year-old Adriano and 5-month-old Marcela. I was able to be part of Peruvian homelife for a week, eating simple non-restaurant food, having my own set of keys, getting to know the streets nearby and the actual fair price for taxi rides, sweating in a Peruvian sauna owned by the family, and so on. High point: soccer game, Cusco v. Lima, with fireworks in the stands and plenty of sun. Strange moment: going for a walk to the approach end of the runway, getting attacked by dogs and fine blowing red dust, accosted by diesel fumes and strong odors of sewage. The perks of watching airplanes…

August 22 – my bus trip from Cusco to Arequipa, a 12-hour ride on a ramshackle double-decker, plunged me to a level of coldness and discomfort heretofore unknown in my time on earth. The driver had a consistent problem shifting from first to second gear, grinding and missing the target gear time after time as the bus coasted to a near-halt, requiring a shift back to first. Arequipa is a hot, arid city in southern Peru. With the second-largest population in the country, it is known for its white stone cathedrals and proud, independent people (like Texans). I went on a one-day tour of Colca Canyon, an immense gash in the earth (think Grand Canyon proportions) with tens of thousands of ancient agricultural terraces. The canyon is most famous for the condors that live there, symbolic of the afterlife in Peruvian tradition and a strong draw for tourists who have a strangely rabid obsession with the huge, ugly-headed birds.

I am now in Lima again, living in a convent with JJ, a few other students, and some nuns as I wait for the Brazilian embassy to open for American applications for tourist visas. I am thinking about motorcycles again and planning my last ten days in Peru. Salut, vroom vroom and don’t talk to strangers!