At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, "Nacho". Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin' it.
“You know, when I was a kid living in Chino Valley, I often ducked fences so that I could go and lick the salt blocks that the farmers set out for the cows. I licked them all the time. I didn’t mind sharing with the cows. They were so good.” Brad wasn’t ashamed. He loved salt.
In Nacho we have a cylindrical stainless steel salt and pepper mill. It is our most used kitchen utensil containing our most used food product. We use it every day with every meal. No traveler sets up camp without it. Our German cyclist friends carry their salt in a small canvas satchel, carefully stored in one of their waterproof pannier bike bags. With every meal, they loosen the hemp cord and take a few pinches out, sprinkling its sparkling granules on their food.
It is a magical and powerful mineral. For thousands of years humans have extracted it from the sea and searched for it on land. Wars have been fought over it and taxes on its purchase have increased the wealth of countries. It runs through our bodies. We crave it. Yet, it goes unnoticed, always in the shadows. It never takes credit for why something is so delicious; it always hears the applause from backstage.
Like many trades, the art of saltmaking has sadly been demoted, dying in the modern global economy where standardized processes rule all. Now, our option in the standard grocery store is a blue box of Morton salt, made by a company whose primary production of salt is not even for consumption, but rather for industry. Fortuantely, there are still regions in the world that have held onto their traditions. In the Sacred Valley lies one of these gems.
A saltmaking demonstration was just finishing up for a camera crew. Two women with crisp white blouses and exuberant smiles stomped their bare feet in a salt pool. They scraped the pool with their wooden boards, forming a mound of salt which they scooped up with their woven baskets. Their pool shimmered in the sunlight. And behind them, a couple thousand more pools brilliantly shimmered. We squinted, the sun’s rays ricocheting off of every particle of evaporating salt.
It was an insanely beautiful sight; ponds terracing down the hillsides like puzzle pieces, separated by salt covered borders and trenched canals. Main arteries of salt-laden water ran alongside the walkways, splitting off into capillaries which reached each and every excavating pond. There was no organization to the mess, just a myriad of salt pools, all in different stages of the evaporation process; varying from puddles of water, to clumping blossoms of salt formation, to ripe and ready, scrape me now. Like miniature pyramids, salt mounds neatly rested, letting the sun’s rays suck them dry one last time. There were also walking arteries; made for traversing down into no man’s land. They were almost indistinguishable, yet there were well worn routes the locals used; like a climbing wall, some super sketchy, balancing with your arms out, scrambling up the sides of walls, and others meant to cover distance quickly.
A few hundred meters down the valley, an older man and wife with tired faces harvested from their pool. Why the camera crew wasn’t recording the true workers of the ponds was beyond me. With a dowel in hand, the man patted the top of his salt mound flat. They loaded their riches into canvas bags and secured them onto their backs with a long piece of fabric. They scrambled their way through the maze of salt pools, rubber sandals gripping the slippery surface. This couple owned one salt pool out of the thousands as Salinas de Maras was owned by hundreds of families; plots which had been passed on through the generations, sometimes sectioned off to other family members.
So why salt pools here? It all seemed so random. A dry desolate landscape and then BOOOOOM!! Nothing you’d ever expect to see with the crest of one hillside. It turns out, however, that it is not so random. Salt has been cultivated in the Peruvian Andes since well before the arrival of the Incas. Higher up in the mountains, off of a tributary on the Urubamaba river, rain and snowmelt makes its way through subterranean streams, passing through a deposit of salt dating back tens of millions of years. Water saltier than the sea. Diverted from the river, the water meets its resting place at 10,000 feet, trapped in place, left to slowly evaporate in thousands of terraced ponds along the valley’s narrow slopes.
After leaving Salinas de Maras I was curious about salt. I knew nothing of it; only that I liked to grind it in my salt and pepper mill. From a brief reading, I discovered there are two main types of salt: evaporative and rock. Rock salts are mined while evaporative salts are crystallized from saltwater seas, lakes, or springs. Countless varieties of salt arise from these two processes, but most artisan salts are evaporative. Some salts form in an instant while others take years. For evaporative, wind is vital, increasing the water vapor which is needed to crystallize the salt.
Location definitely made sense now. Did I mention the scary wind? I was in a constant state of fright, fearing I’d lose balance, ragdoll off a terrace, and fall into someone’s salt pool.
If I would have fallen, I would have been covered in irregular and unevenly shaped “Sel Gris” salt. This was the type of salt here; solar harvested by evaporating saline water with the sun and wind. The blossoms of their fine crystals were then raked into a pile, allowing the lingering water to dry. The end result was a salt high in trace minerals, deepening the flavor of food, high in moisture, and complexity with its “tart boldness, mild sweetness, and light funk of clay”. Here, in a book called “Salted” is where I found this profile along with dozens of others. I also came to the realization there is a world of salt connoisseurs out there that I never knew existed.
With a few packs of mixed salt rubs in hand, we were on our way. Like all days in the week, the Quechan people were out and about. Young girls walked their sheep home and women herded fleets of livestock, whether it be pigs, sheep, or cows, showing domination with their tree branch whips. They always stood out like pops of color, their skirts radiating in a rainbow of hues.
No doubt about it – their life was hard in the manual labor sense. Working and living overlapped to such an extreme that the two were nearly indistinguishable. They never rested, always working the fields, transporting livestock, selling livestock, buying food, growing food, cooking food. Even for the children. They grew up in the fields, involved fully in the economic and household tasks. They swung their picks high, tilling the land alongside their parents, breaking when it was time for lunch.
So many things to miss in Peru; like the women in the fields spinning wool, pickup trucks full off sheep’s wool, sheep in taxis, young boys wearing ponchos, animal trading events, sheep skin drying on the walls of adobe homes, homes turned billboard, and the all encompassing people watching while driving. Also not to be forgotten are the herds of llama with tassels on their ears, elegant vicunas, and flamingoes wading in lakes.
…And just the unexpectedness of every day occurrences.
When I was in sixth grade I went on a school field trip to Peru. When I say it out loud it sounds like I was one of those kids that everyone loves to hate; some spoiled brat who went to a high dollar institution with tasteful school uniforms. In reality I lived in the quaint meth lab town of Chino Valley, Arizona, and went to school in a converted mini-mart. It really all came down to my mom being totally rad.
See, in sixth grade my mom was my teacher. And my mom, being a totally rad teacher, marches to the beat of a different drummer. She figured our class ought to have a theme for the year. Our math would be themed, our science would be themed, et cetera, and she decided that the theme of every subject would be the rainforest. It’s kind of like that Our Lady Peace album on which every song is written about the novel The Age of Spiritual Machines. And what better way to keep a bunch of hyper kids focused on learning about the rainforest than by giving them an incentive to actually learn something? Our incentive was that we would actually go to the rainforest at the end of the year to experience what we’d been learning about.
But how do you send a bunch of sixth graders to the rainforest when they don’t have parents with the income to even send them to a high dollar institution with tasteful school uniforms? Two words: child exploitation. As a part of our math and physical education classes, we spent the year organizing bake sales, bike-a-thons, silent auctions, and other fund raisers with the goal of raising $1,800 each. At the end of the year we held a benefit dinner at John McCain’s house and auctioned off a Jaguar automobile to finish off our fundraising. We earned every penny without parental funding.
When school ended, we all flew Iquitos, Peru, and took a long boat trip down a tributary of the Amazon until we reached a lodge, where we would spend a week hanging out with scientists, fishing for piranhas, learning from indigenous people, and meeting with jungle tribes. And who said teachers can’t make a difference?
Years later my mom told me that for $800 more we could have stayed another week and gone to Machu Picchu. “Eight hundred dollars!?” I exclaimed, “Why didn’t we do it?” She explained that she didn’t want to dishearten us with such a big number. Twelve year olds are fickle, after all, so she just let it be. Now, seventeen years later, it was time to make things right.
Unfortunately, over the last seventeen years something happened: seventeen years of inflation. Now $800 will merely earn you the privilege of walking the Inca Trail to the ruins. The tourist train from Cuzco to the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of the mountain on which Machu Picchu sits would run us close to $400. We would clearly have to find a better way, and this time child exploitation wasn’t an option.
We decided we would go to Machu Picchu, but we would forego the welcome mat and enter through the lesser known broken screen door behind the grease pit in the alley. Machu Picchu, deep down, has all of the ingredients of a great adventure, and we were ready to stumble face first into it with our eyes closed and our hands tightly clasped behind our backs.
Following our idealistic vision of Andean adventure, we found ourselves sitting on the sidewalk under the excruciating sun waiting for an unlikely bus during a surprise bus strike. The few collectivos that passed by our roadside outpost in the town of Ollantaytambo were covered in the splatter of used motor oil, thrown by the striking transport workers as the minibuses charged through the picket line in Cuzco.
“Your bus will never come! HA HA HA!” The taxi driver across the plaza had tried to convince us that we should pay him $100 for a ride to the next town, and seemed to think that laughing at us would convince us that it was a good deal. I scowled at him like a mean high school girl, and swore to Sheena that we’d skip going to Machu Picchu before we’d pay him for a ride.
A small indigenous woman with droopy shoulders and a funny Yosemite Sam hat sat on a log, waiting for the same bus.
“Will the bus come?” I repeatedly asked as the hours ticked by. She shrugged her shoulders each time. We were waiting for the one local bus that went to Santa Maria each day, but were unsure if it had made it out of Cuzco. It was already two hours late. This was the first step in getting to Machu Picchu without using the tourist train.
The ruins at Machu Picchu are located at quite an inconvenient location for tourism. No roads go there, and the train is a relatively recent addition. It used to be that the only option was to hike for five days to get there. Given the agonizing price of the hike, we decided to take a medley of local transportation routes to get us close, and then walk the rest of the way. The transport strike was putting unneeded strain on our already shoddy travel plans.
All at once the Yosemite Sam lady jumped up and sprinted into the street, her plastic shopping bag flailing behind her. “This is the bus! Run!” Two ladies from a shop were yelling at us, not wanting us to miss the only bus of the day, which, as we found out, only slows down in Ollantaytambo long enough for those at the ready to jump aboard.
Inside the bus we found every seat full, with a few unfortunate latecomers sprawled out in the aisle. The bus driver’s assistant snagged Sheena as she went by and told her she could sit in the front with them, while I clambered into the back and found an open place in the aisle for the four hour ride. The bus was too short for me to stand comfortably, so I crouched down and jammed my elbows into the seats on either side, giving me a somewhat sturdy restraint for the winding mountain road ahead.
Scouring the bus, I realized that we were off to a good start in eschewing the tourist trail; on a bus of fifty passengers, we were the only milk faces. Indigenous women sat with bags full of sheep’s wool and vegetables, while men stared blank-eyed at the seat in front of them. A small yellow sign on the front wall of the bus read “Viajar como rico, pagar como pobre“: Travel like you’re rich, pay like you’re poor.
I made friends with Ricardo, the man to my left, who ran a small kiosk that sold things made of plastic. “All types of things,” he told me, “as long as they’re made of plastic.” We chatted as the bus wound upward into the mountains, but after a half an hour the bus driver’s assistant came to find me.
“You can come sit in the front,” he told me, and then turned around and walked back up the aisle. I saw that the people sitting around me were excited for my good fortune. I’d been cherry picked out of the group for the privilege of a front row seat. The driver, it seemed, was proud to have tourists on his bus, and wanted to show us a good time.
The front of the bus was separated from the rear by a wall and a door. The driver and two assistants were visibly excited to be able to entertain us for the trip over the mountains. The driver pointed to the landmarks and archeological sites that dotted the roadside as we ascended the mountain. “See that rock? It is shaped like the Virgin Mary. See that one? It’s shaped like a condor!” He told us that he used to be a tour guide. “On the right you see agricultural terraces from the Inca!” He pulled a USB drive from his pocket and plugged it into his stereo deck. The vivacious pulse of Andean polka filled the small compartment as we wound up the switchbacks into the clouds.
At first the music was normal enough. I imagined the band as a group of Peruvian men wearing matching white suits, stepping in time to a simple dance while they sang and played their xylophones and accordions. And then the eagle squawking started and I broke into an uncontrollable laughing fit. These things happen at the most inopportune times. The music was just too gosh damned hilarious.
(simple tinkle of xylophone)
Yo quiero que me quieres, y te quiero que sí te quiero
Tu me quieres? Tu me quieres? Mi amoooooooooorrrrrr!
(eagle squaaaaaaawk…simple tinkle of xylophone…accordion jam)
Tu me quieres mi amoooooooooorrrrrr?
(majestic echoing eagle squaaaaaaaaaawk)
At the most dramatic xylophone riffs and eagle squawks the young assistant would pound his fist on the railing while bobbing his head to the beat. My efforts to hide my uncontrollable laughter from our hosts while listening to a mixed tape of majestic eagle squawks and xylophones prompted Sheena to shoot this short video.
After a couple of hours the bus ascended into the clouds and finally pulled over at the top of the mountain pass. A cold wind drove rain pellets into the passengers as everyone disembarked for a leg stretch. The driver motioned for me to follow him, so I walked with him away from the group and toward a small chapel next to the road. As we entered the chapel, he turned to me and whispered the exact phrase that every unseatbelted bus passenger fears most:
“I must pray so that we make it down the other side.”
My body spasmed in fear, but a quick response from my lower abdominal muscles somehow kept me from soiling myself. I managed to enter the church without spontaneously combusting or being struck by lightning, which put me in an awkward situation; I wasn’t sure what to do. Did he expect me to pray with him? Our safe passage down the mountain was really none of my business, and I wasn’t interested in dabbling in the world of the superstitious. I stood there awkwardly in the middle of the church as our driver lowered his head in front of the flickering candles of the shrine. He whispered in Quechua for a minute while I shifted my eyes between him and the door, still not sure what to do. As he finished I coolly swiveled on my heels and joined him in stride.
“So, we safe now?” I said, only half joking. Before boarding the bus I bought some wafer cookies from a lady at a kiosk to share with Sheena, the driver, and his assistants. A hastily chosen last meal.
The prayer must have worked, as the trip down the mountain went off without a hitch. The bus careened around switchback after switchback to the soundtrack of xylophones, accordions, and majestic squawking eagles. We ate wafer cookies and nuggets of puffed corn while the terrain transitioned from treeless high Andean mountaintops, to high elevation forest, and finally to semitropical jungle. When the bus stopped at the muddy roadside in the tiny Quechua village of Santa Maria the bus driver flashed a huge grin and shook our hands. We said goodbye to the assistants and thanked them for their kindness. I ran quickly into the back of the bus and said goodbye to Ricardo, who beamed a giant smile when he saw me coming, and gripped my hand firmly as he wished me good luck.
We had gone into this ordeal as anyone should enter any kind of adventure: without all of the necessary information. We only knew that we needed to find a ride from the tiny village of Santa Maria to the even tinier village of Santa Teresa, an hour and a half away by dilapidated dirt road.
“Santa Teresa?” The toothless man looked homeless, and his battered minivan looked like the minivan of a homeless person. “I’ll take you there. Get in!” He seemed eager for us to get in his van, already full with indigenous people and workers from the hydroelectric dam. After a three minute rest from the last leg, we tossed our backpacks aboard and squeezed in between the indigenous ladies in the back. The clapped out minivan whimpered to life and we lurched forward, along with our dozen fellow passengers, onto the rocky dirt road.
From the back of the jankety minivan we watched helplessly as the sides of the road dropped away into escarpments, terminating in the river far below. The indigenous lady’s goat hide jacket tickled my ear. I longingly considered the comfort and luxury in which our fellow visitors traveled the primary route in their tourist train. The men with their trimmed and coiffed moustaches and double breasted suits, custom tailored and freshly starched. The women in their silk gowns and tightly strung girdles; their clean, curly locks whimsically brushing their powdered faces as they laughed at all of the dapper men’s funniest jokes. They would just now be ordering their second round of Scotch, sagaciously disputing investment strategy while occasionally pestering the peasant help for an extra napkin, or a fresh cube of ice for their drink. Or perhaps my discomfort and the smell of rank goat made me imagine that the tourist train was some kind of luxurious flashback to the roaring 20′s.
Without incident the jalopy van dropped us in the middle of Santa Teresa – a tiny village perched on a crumbling geographical shelf with a commanding view of the river below. At this point we slid into the back of the death taxi; a tiny white hatchback piloted by a teenage Peruvian kid, all jacked up on coca leaves. And why take just two measly tourists when the car can legally seat four? After the seventh passenger was crammed aboard we were thudding and slamming our way out of town, the suspension completely bottomed out, the gears grinding, the driver continuously fiddling with the stereo in his jacked up state. From here it would be a forty five minute ride to the hydroelectric dam, and would be as far as we could go by car. From there we would walk, if we ever made it that far.
Not long after leaving town I realized that we had made a grave mistake. Coca Boy liked to drive his car fast like it was a video game. And to make matters worse, the road was a one lane, rocky as hell, level 9 death road. After a short but very fast section of forest, we emerged from the trees and clung to the edge of a sheer cliff face in a full-on Tokyo drift. I began to wonder how we had come to find ourselves in another death road situation in the span of only a few short weeks, but fear kept me from thinking about much other than our impending demise and how much it would hurt.
The road had been carved into an impossibly steep and inaccessible rock face, and as such the single lane was tight and narrow. Its outside edge terminated at the cliff; there was no shoulder or berm, and there was certainly no room for a guard rail. There were no straight sections, most corners were blind, and the road’s surface was rough and littered with marble-sized gravel. My pesky engineering degree keeps me thinking of silly things like coefficients of static and kinetic friction on roads like these, and I subconsciously choose a safe speed so as not to cause my tires to switch from one to the other. On this road, a safe speed would have been around 20 or 25 miles per hour, but even then it would have been quite scary due to the exposure. If I were driving Nacho, we would stay in second gear and under 20 miles per hour. Clearly our coca-jacked teenage driver knew nothing of coefficients of friction, as evidenced by his exceedingly fast video game driving speed.
Coca Boy approached every blind corner with the driver’s side tires only inches from the cliff edge, driving on the wrong side of the road. This, we assumed, would allow him to see ever so slightly farther around each blind corner to increase his reaction time to oncoming traffic. Before long my whole body felt fatigued and realized that every one of my muscles was flexed; my fingers were like pencils, digging into the armrest on the door, my teeth were grinding, and my abdominal muscles were constricted like someone with terminal constipation. Each time we drifted into a corner I involuntarily swallowed hard, as if constricting my airway could somehow help to reduce the severity of my injuries in the impending car crash. I reached back and zipped my rear pants pocket shut so my identification wouldn’t be separated from my remains during the accident. I forced myself to look at the speedometer: it read 60kph. We were traveling around these tight corners, on this single lane rocky road, along this cliff, hundreds of feet in the air, at 45 miles per hour. I swallowed hard.
Just then, we flew around a blind corner and found ourselves staring into the grill of an oncoming collectivo van at full speed. I watched our driver hesitate, not knowing whether to put it into the cliff wall or take the head-on collision. The whole world became silent as he slammed his foot to the floor, sending the car into a skid. Rocks and dust enveloped us and I could see baseball-sized stones flipping into the air all around us. I stopped breathing and my throat started clicking, as if trying unsuccessfully to utter the word “uh”. In the dust we could no longer see, but we knew that we had come to a stop. When the dust cleared we were staring at the van’s grill, only a couple of inches from our hood.
“Slow down, pendejo!“, the other driver yelled as he pulled around us.
Coca boy, embarrassed by his near “Game Over”, tried to save face by fiddling with the radio and driving even faster. When we were deposited at the hydroelectric dam we knew we’d cheated fate. We also agreed that a long trip across the continent, such as the one in which we were engaged, would never be survived on public transportation. We slung our backpacks across our backs, found the railroad tracks, and walked into the jungle.
Some time ago, a hydroelectric plant was built into the side of the mountain adjacent to the one on which Machu Picchu was built. By chance, the train tracks going to Aguas Calientes – the tourist town built to serve the ruins – pass right by the hydroelectric plant. By walking into the jungle and finding the tracks, we were able to walk like a couple of hobos toward the village; the final step in creating our own Huckleberry Finn style adventure. Without the floating down a river. Or the racism.
Two hours after putting on our hobo hats we emerged at Aguas Calientes. The sun had set and darkness was settling in. As we entered town I grabbed the business card from a fast talking hotelier and continued walking. It would be my silver bullet in winning us a cheap hotel room. As we entered the town plaza we identified a nice hotel and waited for the hotel shark to latch onto us; every business in Aguas Calientes comes with its very own hawker out front, who tries anything to get you inside.
“Hotel? You want hotel? 100 Soles!” With dozens of hotels to choose from, these people will get desperate, and I knew that. I pulled the business card from my pocket.
“Actually we’ve already chosen a hotel. Here’s where we’re staying, and it’s only 30 soles per night. You said yours was 100?” It was a white lie, and the place on the business card was actually 75 soles per night.
“They told you 30 soles? It’s all the way down by the river. There’s nothing to do down there. For you, I can do 35 soles. But don’t tell anybody, okay?” My scam had worked! We were shown to our private room with three beds – clean, nice smelling, hot shower, and on the town plaza – for which we would pay $17.
Next it was time to eat dinner, and I was beginning to have fun. Most of the restaurants in town had been empty at dinner time. We’d heard many a story of people paying $100 in Aguas Calientes for crappy pizza and beer, and we, being in the middle of Operation Cheapskate, weren’t ready to submit. I decided a bidding war was the best approach. I approached the hawker in front of a nice restaurant.
“How much for the set dinner?” I asked. Each place had a set meal price with various options for main dishes, and they were all exorbitantly priced.
“Dinner menu for 75 soles each. Free pisco sour!” At this point she did what every food hawker does, and spouted the contents of her menu at lightning speed. “Hay alpaca, hay cuyes, hay gallina, hay bisteck, hay trucha!”
I thanked her and walked two steps across the walkway to the closest restaurant and asked the same question.
“Dinner for two 75 soles each! Free pisco sour! Hay alpaca, hay cuyes…”
“Wait!” I said, interrupting her. That lady says she has the best food, but you’re the same price. Can you go lower?
“For you, 65 soles, come inside! Table waiting! Free pisco sour!” I thanked her and walked the two steps back to the other lady.
“She says 65 soles. Can you go lower?” It was a dirty trick, but knowing that these meals could be had in any other place in Peru for a few soles made it feel all right. In the end we managed to get our $75 dinner down to $28. It was still double what it should have been by Peruvian standards, but good for this place.
At the end of the meal our sneaky waiter tried to tack on a 20% “fork tax”, which I outright refused to pay. Not knowing what to do with me, he relented.
Five o’clock in the morning was announced by the metallic clunking of the amusement park turnstyle at the park entrance, clunking away like a time clock admitting hordes of people into the ruins like the dull minutes of a workday. We had woken up before dawn in hopes of beating the first tourist train and salvaging a bit of peace and quiet for ourselves within the ruins. Several hundred others had the same idea, and the turnstyles admitted us one by one like United Auto Workers clocking in to build Cadillacs.
The ruins at Machu Picchu are impressive, but not because of the ruins themselves. When compared to those at Palenque or Tikal, they pale in comparison. They aren’t grandiose or awe inspiring in their size, scope, or detail; what makes them interesting is the setting in which they were built. They are perched atop a mountain ridge, surrounded by shear peaks on all sides. Looking out at the ruins is awe inspiring not because the ruins are amazing, but because the mountains are amazing. And because there happen to be ruins in such unlikely and awe inspiring mountains, and because of the photo. You know the one; the signature photo of Machu Picchu that shows up just about everywhere.
For me, the best part of the ruins was the Inca Drawbridge. This bridge is accessed by a long cliff side trail that terminates at an overlook of a wooden bridge built over a crevasse, clinging precariously to the side of a thousand foot vertical rock face. It had Indiana Jones written all over it, but more importantly it was far away from the rest of the ruins, by now already crawling like a human ant farm. We stared at the bridge for a few minutes, and then decided we’d better rejoin the hordes.
While we were away the ruins had become a zoo. Park officials walked the grounds holding traffic whistles. Whenever someone touched the wrong thing, they blew their whistles, giving the place the feel of Picadilly Circus at rush hour. On the path through the ruins, tourists are only allowed to walk in one direction. At one point we decided to go back and look at something a second time, but were scolded by a park official and told only to walk forward.
“But we wanted to see…”
“NO! ONE WAY ONLY!”
We invariably found ourselves sandwiched between tour groups led by Peruvian guides, who, by my best estimation, were making up most of the information that they fed to their groups. After a while I became more entertained by the tour groups than by the ruins, and my focus shifted to a Machu Picchu study in sociology.
“My fraings,” one guide said using his best enchanted forest voice, “you are standing…in the most magestic place… on earth…(wait for it)…Machu Picchuuuuuu (fade to whispering silence)”
We rounded a corner and found a group huddled in a circle, the guide getting ready to speak.
“My fraings, have a look at that mountaing…what do you see?” The tourists looked at the mountain. A young brunette looked intently, perhaps hoping to unlock the secret before being told by the guide.
“My fraings, this mountain is a condooooor…” His enchanted forest voice was quite, well, enchanting, especially when saying things like condor, or Machu Picchu.
“Oh yeah! I see it! See, Hank? That hump there is a wing, and I think that other one could be the head!”
“Yeah, a condor!”
“My fraings,” the guide was just buttering them up for the grand finale. “Who has a map?” Someone provided a map. “Please, my fraings, gather around. Yes, gather around. Do you see this map? It is a map of Machu Picchuuuuu. What do you see? (silence/confusion) These ruins are shaped like a condoooor!” I swear, to this man everything looked like a damn condor.
“Oh yeah, Hank, see? If you twist the map like this it kind of does, right? I could see that. Yeah, like a condor!”
Next we followed the group to a big rock sitting on the ground.
“My fraings, this is a rock. But it is not just a regular rock. This rock is an energy roooocccckkkk. Please, my fraings, let me explain. From this rock the Inca got eeennnnneeerrrgyyyyy. If you rub your hands together very fast and then place your hands near the rock you can feel the eeennnnneeerrrggyyyyy!”
At this point the tourists rubbed their hands together and got serious with the rock. One tourist forgot to rub her hands together, but was still able to feel the energy.
“Oh yeah, I can totally feel it, right? This is, like, so awesome.” At this the guide interrupted her.
“My fraing, it only works if you rub your hands together first!” He pantomimed what to do, at which she tried it and continued to feel the placebo. Doh! I mean the energy.
We continued walking and found another tour group in a regular looking room with blocked out windows around its perimeter. Each window, it seemed, may have been a place to put something on display. The tour guide had made up his own story though; one that would make the place seem much more enchanted.
“My fraings, please, do you see these holes? Please, place your heads inside.” At this the tourists seemed to think the guide was out of his damn mind. He persisted.
“Now, please, my fraings, place one of your heads inside each hole. Yes you, and you. Head in the hole. All right, everyone ready?” The tourists stood there like ostriches with their heads inside of the display cases. “Now everybody at the same time, say ‘ommmmmmm…ommmmmmm’ ” He made a sound like a stereotypical Buddhist monk meditating. The tourists all made this noise in unison.
“You see my fraings? This room is very maaaagicaaaallll. When everybody meditates at the same time, the whole room hums. This is the meditation room, my fraings.”
To leave the ruins we pushed our way through the entry/exit tunnel against the flow of hundreds of new tourists streaming out of fresh buses from Aguas Calientes. We had found our Andean adventure all right. And for that I owe Coca Boy a thank you letter. Oh, and thanks for the motivation Mom; as twenty nine year olds we’re still fickle.
For my detailed description of how to do Machu Picchu on the cheap, click here.
Desert coastlines have always intrigued me. Two seemingly different environments, yet they make an appearance together on occasion. They are an odd couple. They are no peanut butter and jelly or tea and scones, but they work.
Once we left Lima’s city limits, where green lawns, bushes of flowers and palm trees were on sprinkler system life support, the frigid air of the Humboldt Current made itself known, sucking the landscape dry. The Pan American cut alongside mountains of jagged rock. Chipped away from cliff faces, broken boulders lay scattered, some caught in place during their spiraling decent through loose gravel, others making it to the Pacific Ocean where they sat in piles. Where the mountain was too immense, the road tunneled its way through the innards of the beast.
Brad could hardly focus on driving, his eyes darting from the road to the waters below. “Oh I bet there are so many fish down there”. And yes there were. Small villages hung off the edge of the mountain, seemingly selling only seafood.
We had come down with a bad case of seafood obsession after our arrival in Lima, with ceviche and fillets of grilled fish as our lunchtime staples. The most mind boggling experience was in the Lima market at the intersection of two walkways. The past has shown that in Latin markets, vendors group together by product type. The fruit stands in one walkway, the flower arrangers in another, and comedores in a cluster, vying for your dollars. Yet, as we rounded the corner, unexpectedly there sat a cevicheria in a maze of smoothie stands. It was bustling. Elbows pinned to our sides, we shimmied into the seats of two barstools and ordered the standard bowl. What came out, however, was nothing near standard. Two bowls overflowed with chunks of fish, clams, and vegetables marinated in lime juice. Cancha, popped maize kernels, fresh herbs, and a brothy spicy aji sauce transformed the dish into a hot steaming stew. I’d go back in time for this meal.
Back on the coast, we chose a random seafood joint and filled up on more ceviche.
With our tummies full, we drove on. Just as the highway began to stray from the coast, we veered off to Paracas National Park, stationed on a hammerhead shaped peninsula. In all directions, valleys of hard packed sand unrolled before us. Sand dunes freckled the landscape, windswept and dusted on one side with a spattering of white shimmering salt. The road disappeared and the desert appeared before us like a skateboard park. With no dotted lines to steer in between, donuts formed in the sand and tracks crept up the side of steep dunes. Brad, like a kid with his favorite Matchbox car, took Nacho to his limits.
Yet, Nacho was no Matchbox car, which, with the flick of a wrist could jump rivers and fly through the air. Nacho was a different breed; more of a house on wheels than a sports car, sputtering to a stop before ever mounting a sand dune.
“Quick Sheena! Take a picture. I can’t hold Nacho here much longer”. Poor Nacho would lose traction and Brad would gently reverse him back down to safe ground.
Our campsite was spectacular. The valley of desert broke off at the coast, exposing sediment that had formed in flaky sheets of rock. The rocks ended abruptly and a sweeping coastline of red beach took its place, teeming with birds and the occasional seal. Like a rice cracker, salt formations pockmarked the ground and gaping crevices fell down to the red sand.
Without reference points, the landscape was deceptive. Everything looked close. Nothing looked steep. We spent a morning, out of control and laughing, running down the sides of the sand dunes, nearly front flipping with every leap.
To the East of Paracas, we continued on down the freeway through the Ica desert, a land of more sand dunes and dirt formations. Just as our throats became parched from the heat, we were granted with fields of grape vines. A checkerboard of vineyards began popping up, leaving the sheets of sand behind, until they were eventually overtaken by the town of Ica. Shipped all throughout the world and to every nearby village and city, they are the world’s best producer of pisco, a white grape brandy, produced since the 16th century with the arrival of the Spaniards. Pisco, while commonly drunk alone, has also been the main ingredient in a variety of mixed drinks, with the most common easily being the Pisco Sour. Here is the traditional recipe: blend 3 oz pisco,1 oz lime juice, ½ oz sugarcane, 1 egg white, and 4 ice cubes.
While in Ica, we stopped at a small bodega called El Catador. We were shown the pisco making process which, in one long run on sentence goes like this: grapes are crushed under a huge adobe platform with a 150-year old huarango trunk (here our guide insisted he take our photo), the juice is poured into clay containers called botijas de barro, and then distilled in boilers of copper basins.
While eating handfuls of purple speckled corn, we sampled all the varieties of pisco. We left with a bottle of “love potion” pisco, which our guide insisted was so smooth and sweet, and that we’d drink the whole bottle before realizing it, resulting in the inevitable.
Our drive continued on. Farther South, we entered the flat pampas of the San Jose desert , an ancient sketchbook containing 70 pages of plant and animal figures, all within a range of 1000 square kilometers. The media used: scraping of dirt. Sometime in the past (no one knows exactly when), canals 20 centimeters deep were scraped into the manganese and iron rich surface. What gave way below was a layer of lighter colored rock. In the 1970s, when Peru discovered these drawings, the Pan American highway already ran straight through one of the figures. For travelers, this made for a very quick sightseeing adventure. We veered off the highway and travelled up a set of rickety set of stairs to a lookout tower. From above, we could see three sets of Nasca lines: a set of hands, a lizard, and a tree.
Jeff and Amy had given us his phone number in an email, told us we should look him up. As a gift for finishing his Master’s degree in mathematics, Jeff and Amy – both math professors at NAU – brought Alex to Mexico City, and in doing so planted a travel bug that would refuse to die. A few years later he picked up and moved to Lima. Didn’t speak Spanish, no job, no plan, just wanted to do something different.
This is an interesting thing about Alex, but it isn’t the most interesting thing.
Sheena and I were in the process of giving Nacho a deep clean – scrubbing chunks of mystery substance off of the stove, wiping strange and smelly juices from the fridge – when we heard a creak from the front gate of the hostel. Someone entered and we followed the sound of boots on pavement to our sliding door.
“You must be Brad and Sheena. Hi, I’m Alex.” He bore a vague resemblance to Eddie Vedder, but the words poured out of his mouth like smooth molasses, each calming utterance having the bass of distant thunder and the haunting resonance of a well worn vinyl record.
He is a man with the voice of Eddie Vedder; this is the most interesting thing about Alex.
From our hostel we walked the two blocks to the Miraflores waterfront and turned left. Along the boardwalk high above the ocean people zipped around on bikes and rollerblades wearing tights and elbow pads, while youth couples necked on park benches against the ocean backdrop far below. Alex talked about life in Lima, but all I heard was the soothing sound of Pearl Jam.
I wonder if he sings in the shower. If I sounded like Eddie Vedder I’d shower thrice daily just to hear myself sing.
Alex brought us to a nice restaurant nestled in the cliff face, and we found seats on the outdoor patio overlooking the ocean. Portable gas heaters competed with the cool sea breeze wafting up the cliff face as we ate dinner and Alex talked about Peru using his Eddie Vedder voice. After dinner we ambled along the boardwalk.
“If you’re interested,” he said, “I was headed to a friend’s apartment for horror movie night. You guys are welcome to tag along.” Our plans consisted of sitting around in our van and then going to sleep, so this seemed like a great idea by comparison. A few minutes later we were in an elevator climbing to the 16th floor of a waterfront apartment building.
When we arrived, Nightmare on Elm Street was paused onscreen; a sweaty man stared crazy-eyed at a woman, his mouth agape. We chatted with Alex’s friends – all expats from one place or another – and ate microwaveable chicharron. I frequently wandered into the kitchen where, from high above the city, the lights of Lima spread out like a sparkling carpet all the way to the horizon.
Hours later, in the wee hours of the morning, Sheena and I strolled along the boardwalk back to our van. When we had left the apartment, Nightmare on Elm Street was still onscreen, still paused on the scene with the crazy-eyed man. I tried to imagine what it would be like to expatriate to Lima, but my mind was haunted by a voice, like smooth molasses.
In Hippie Bus We trust
As Sheena and I strolled the sidewalk toward the hostel where we were camping in Lima, someone yelled at us.
To our left a 1985 VW Vanagon with a pop top slowly lurked by, the driver leaning out the window. “Are you guys Brad and Sheena?”
We looked at each other, surprised. Last time we checked… “Yes!”
The man with the van turned out to be Miguel, a reader of our blog. He’d first written to us at the start of our trip asking if we’d be passing through Lima.
“I’m on my way to the monthly Westfalia club meeting. Want to follow me over in Nacho?” It was nearly 10PM and we were tired, but when propositioned by a charming stranger in an old van, how could we say no?
We hurried back and got Nacho ready, and then followed Miguel through Lima traffic for 40 minutes to a Burger King parking lot.
After weeks in the mountains among shepherds and small town folk, hanging out with a bunch of Westy fanatics made us feel right at home. We opened up the sliding door and had a Nacho open house. People cycled through, sitting on the couch, taking photos of various things, and asking questions. After a while families coming out of the Burger King started looking at the vans, and a new wave of couch sitters cycled through Nacho.
While Sheena held down the fort I walked around and checked out the other vans. I found myself standing next to a freshly painted 1970′s camper van, listening to the owner recount his recent trip to the mountains.
“I was going up a hill and I noticed some smoke in my side mirror. By the time I pulled there were big flames coming from here.” He pointed to the lower corner of the rear engine hatch. “I used the fire extinguisher, but it didn’t work. Too small. Someone else came by and put the fire out with their extinguisher. He showed me how to do it – you have to point the extinguisher like this…” he pretended to hold a fire extinguisher and aimed it at the engine bay. “Psshhht! Psshhht! Psssshhhhhht! See? Just like that.” Everyone looked at their shoes and solemnly shook their heads. It was as if one of the man’s own beloved children had spontaneously combusted during the road trip.
Westfalia people everywhere, it seems, share a common weak spot for these cars. We give them names, we decorate them, and we spend far too much money on them. We lower our heads when they eventually go up in flames, but then we fix them and give them a fresh coat of paint.
The moment the man spoke, I knew we were in for a ride. He had been standing there harassing another vehicle, and was just finishing up when he saw us coming slowly up the hill toward him. Immediately he snapped to attention, dollar signs in his eyes, and frantically waved us over.
As the police officer approached our window he straightened his back to give the illusion of professionalism. He looked at me and inhaled, pulling the corners of his mouth back to reveal his teeth, raising his eyebrows, and telling us with his grimace that we had really screwed up.
“I pulled you over because you have committed a serious infraction,” he said. He didn’t tell us what we’d supposedly done wrong until he’d planted the fear in our hearts and given it enough time to take root. He slowly swept his gaze over his boots, down the road behind us, along the side of our van, and then stopped at my face, staring, trying to be intimidating.
The moment he spoke I figured him out. His predictability was pathetic. In northern Peru all of the cops we’d come across had been nothing more than clowns in uniform, and he was no different.
“You, unfortunately, were speeding. What is the reason that you speeding so fast? This is a serious infraction.” He paristaltically barfed the words up from his gut and spewed them out for me to look at, as if to let me figure out what to do with them.
“I was speeding? That’s strange. When you pointed at me I was being overtaken by three vehicles in a row. Why didn’t you pull the overtaking vehicles over instead?”
“Those other vehicles have already been stopped up ahead. I radioed them in.” He pointed to his cell phone, which was clipped to his shirt near his shoulder. It wasn’t a radio, but he grabbed it and tilted it toward his mouth to show me that he could magically use it as a radio.
“How do you know I was speeding? I don’t see a radar gun.”
“My colleague at the bottom of the hill has the radar. He radioed you in and I stopped you.” We were in the middle of the desert, and he had no colleague at the bottom of the hill. In a desert devoid of all life, you notice when there are other living things around. Still, he wanted me to believe that we had been caught up in the middle of their sophisticated web of radios and radar guns.
I was visibly getting ticked off by his pack of lies. After having been pulled over by numerous ill-intentioned, corrupt police officers every day since entering Peru, I no longer viewed them as being in a position of authority. I found myself addressing them informally, as if dealing with a pest. They were sloppy, inappropriate, and impossible to respect.
“You committed a serious infraction. The ticket is 300 US dollars.” He threw that out there and let it fester for a while before continuing. “What are you going to do about this problem?”
“I’m not going to do anything about this, because there isn’t a problem. I wasn’t speeding, so there is no problem.”
The back and forth continued this way for 10 more minutes. He repeatedly told me about the infraction, I denied all wrongdoing, and he asked what I was going to do to remedy the problem. He was tireless. Finally he got the hint that he wasn’t getting anywhere.
“Does she understand what we’re saying?” he asked, pointing with his chin toward Sheena.
“Yo no entiendo nada!” Sheena said, clearly indicating that, yes, she did speak enough Spanish to understand what we were saying.
“Please get out of the vehicle.” At this, the clown walked behind Nacho and waited for me. I let out a stream of profanities and felt barely able to keep myself from throwing it in reverse and gunning it. I cooled off, got out, and met him behind the van.
When I met him, he was no longer speaking formally, now choosing to speak to me in a quicker, familiar tone. Sort of what you’d expect when being shaken down by a criminal.
“Look, just give me something material. If you give me something – a gift – I will let you go. What do you have in the van?”
“Tell you what,” I said, “I will give you a snack. You can either have a granola bar or a banana.” He had gone over the line, and I decided that I’d rather pay for a ticket than give this d-bag a bribe. We hadn’t paid any bribes yet, and I wasn’t about to start. I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I knowingly let this scumbag walk away with anything of value.
“A snack is not enough. Give me your watch or your wedding ring. Are these surfboards? I would take a surfboard too.”
Who did this comedian think he was? “I’m sorry hombre, but I’m not giving you anything.” I decided to level with him – put all of my cards on the table. “When we left home, my wife and I agreed that we’d never pay a bribe to a police officer. Therefore, it’s impossible for me to give you anything. If you’re hungry I can give you a snack, but I’m not giving you my watch or my wedding ring or my surfboard. I’m happy to take the ticket.”
I knew I was putting him in an impossible situation. To give up now would be shameful. He would have lost to a gringo tourist.
“Just give me something material,” he repeated. His tone had changed; he was feebly grabbing at the fading chance of a successful shakedown.
“Are we done? I’d like to go now,” I told him. My internal filter was full and I no longer cared about the outcome. He stood there looking at my vehicular paperwork in his hands. After a few seconds he folded them slowly and handed them back.
“You can go.”
And so there in the desert we left him, the uniformed Peruvian bandito. The saddest of all of the desert clowns.
An Austrian with crisp blue eyes and a full red beard chopped firewood outside in his lederhosen and flip flops. Cold air cut through us. It was close to freezing and the sun still hadn’t set. Questioning where we were, Brad glanced at the GPS. No wonder Nacho was misbehaving, we were almost at 14,000 feet.
Hundreds of sheep swarmed the hillside like ants. They moved in unison except for the chaos arising from the pack of baby sheep among them. Oblivious to the world around them, they were lost in a game of sprinting in circles, karate chopping the air, and vertical bouncing like frightened cats.
When the sun began to set, I bundled up, ready for a quick evening hike.
Hatun Machay sat on the hillside opposite the refugio; a stone forest considered to be South America´s best rock climbing destination. The area was unbelievable. As I approached the edge of the outcropping, overhanging rock formed caves. Dirt like finely sifted flour covered the earth and overhanging rocks were littered with 10,000 year old petroglyphs and cave paintings. The walls were like a sketchbook of doodles; stick figures, snakes, geometric carvings, ancient happy faces, deer and hunters.
As I entered the heart of the rock outcroppings, smoke wafted in the air. Sheep skin dried on a string and small rocks were stacked purposefully, forming rock barriers between the boulders. Someone lived here. Like chameleons, dome shaped huts made of straw were almost invisible in their surroundings. An older woman in brightly colored clothing sat in the doorway of her home. Antonio, her husband, appeared like a ghost. In his hands, he cupped a bowl of ramen soup, vegetables floating on the surface. He offered me dinner. The wife retreated into the environment, shy, and perhaps tired from the day. Antonio showed me his home, comprising three huts; one for cooking and the others for living. They raised sheep and lived simply. They had lived within the rocks for decades and would continue until death.
I continued onward, exploring the granite rocks. Sheets of razor sharp rock jutted up into the sky, like artisan chocolate melted on tinfoil, cooled, and placed upright on a fat slice of cake. Other sections of the rock were pockmarked and dimpled from the ancient water that perhaps once ran over them. As the sun began to set, the sky turned bright pink and blue. Unfathomable beauty.
The sheep that ran earlier were now corralled in for the evening, pinched between the boulders and peering out at me in boredom.
A fire crackled in the morning and the refugio was suddenly packed with climbers. While Brad roasted the last of our raw coffee beans from Colombia, a beautiful dreadlocked Argentine girl pulled an oversized apple pie from the oven. Between bites of the apple pie, a pot of hot water and a tin of coca leaves circled the communal table. Wildly popular, coca tea is drunk by hikers for elevation sickness and chewed by truck drivers to increase alertness. Coca leaves, as harmless as poppy seeds in a lemon muffin, yet illegal in the United States.
Once our bellies were full of pie, we took off into the rocks for a short exploration. As we wandered up the hillsides, we crossed a small trickling spring. A tin pitcher sat next to it, used by the natives for a quick drink of water while herding the sheep. We retraced my steps from the previous night, exploring everything all over again. The local women were out of their huts, gathered on the hillside, shearing sheep.
It was nice to be roaming the hillsides. Just the previous day we were passing through town after town. Skirting the Cordillera Blanca, we again went through Yungay, a town with a horrific past. Nearly the whole village disappeared in 1970 when an earthquake dislodged a massive chunk of ice and mud from Peru´s tallest mountain, Huascaran. 18,000 dead in just a few minutes. Yungay also happened to be the hometown of the older man who had ridden down through the mountains with us on our wild ride.
After seeing Yungay we stopped in Huaraz, a city of cement and ramshackle buildings. It was an intense mess of fast taxis, European trekkers, and entrepreneurial spirits along the sidewalks selling all things growing from the ground. Peruvian snack food – puffed corn glazed in sugar – was sold in bags the size of small children. In the market, distant relatives of my pet guinea pig were gutted, raw, and hairless. We had seen the living ones in the countryside, nestled in a bed of hay, plump and pregnant. In honor of my sweet Punkie, whom I lowered into the ground in my neon pink lunchbox in the 4th grade, I just couldn’t eat them.
Word on the street was that there was a brewery in town that couldn’t be missed. With Brad on a seemingly never ending mission to seek out good beer, this would be the mission for the day. We had been tricked in the past so we both remained leery; most bars tended to have European beer bottles on display, yet the reality was they were merely decorative, like antique relics in a museum.
Two Tasmanians ioined us for drinks at the brewery. Earlier in the day they had attempted to recruit us on a 10 day circuit hike through the Huayhuash mountains. They needed fellow hikers to divvy up the mass quantities of food required for the long haul. I had flashbacks from our hike and knew I was not the person for the job. As the designated walking pantry on our last hike, my feet had suffered. My baby toenails were near extinction, black with massive gaps behind each nail.
We spent the evening sampling the beers, eating popcorn, and throwing darts. Ana and I competed viscously for who would finish last in our game of darts.
As soon as we left Huaraz, rural life picked up again. Local women carried bundles of wild plants in their shawls and entire families worked in the fields. Livestock roamed the streets and distant peaks jutted up into the heavens, like an erratic lifeline on a hospital monitor. Twenty-two of those peaks towered over 19,850 feet, views I promise cannot be done justice by photography.
Back at Hatun Machay, it was time to get Nacho back on the road. First we´d have to climb back up the rough road to the 14,000 foot pass we´d driven over the previous day. Nacho despised the altitude and I couldn’t quite grasp how we were going to get back out. I jumped in the passenger seat as Brad held onto the reins of our drunken, bucking horse. Brad slipped the clutch all the way up the hill as Nacho clung on to dear life. We bounced around in our seats like a set of dice. Books exploded off of our library shelf. I screamed. Brad tried to look brave [ed. note: Brad was brave]. Yet, we made it.
We floated out of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, from 14,000 feet to sea level in the span of only 100 miles. We stopped only when we ran into the sea.
As evening set in, I stood outside of the van loading supplies into our backpacks. I divided the tent, sleeping bags, stove, and other supplies carefully into each of our bags so as to equalize the weight. We had removed every ounce of unnecessary material, eliminated a tent stake or two, all in the interest of saving weight. Finally it was time to divvy up the food; I called to Sheena inside of the van. While I had loaded the packs, she was responsible for getting the food together. She opened the door and handed me a 15 pound trash bag full of fruits and vegetables.
“Sheena, WTF? We’re going backpacking. We have to carry this stuff for DAYS!”
“What, do you expect me to eat powdered SOUP for three days? ”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I expect you to do. We’re going backpacking, and backpackers don’t eat stir fry for dinner. They eat powdered soup. Just enough to stay alive.” I wasn’t getting through to her. The trash bag, bulging with beets and carrots and bell peppers hung heavily in her fatiguing hand.
“I’m not eating powdered SOUP for three days! That’s not HEALTHY! We’re eating VEGETABLES!” It was clear she wouldn’t budge on this.
“God, you’re so high maintenance!”
Her eyes opened wide and her eyebrows lifted, giving her the face of a crazy person. She spoke slowly and deliberately. “You don’t even know what that means.”
We had set up our basecamp in the dirt parking lot of Hospedaje La Casona, a block off of the main plaza in Caraz. We would leave Nacho there while we trekked the Santa Cruz circuit through Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountain range.
Our guidebook mentioned that hiking in the park would cost five Soles per day. We would start the trek in the pueblo of Cashapampa, which would cost 20 soles to reach in a collectivo. At the end of the trek we’d end up in the small village of Vaqueria, and would have to take a series of collectivos back home. All in all the whole trip should cost around 65 soles, or about 25 dollars. Just to be safe, I grabbed 150 soles out of our safe and pushed it into my pocket. It was 5:30 AM, and it was time to go catch our first ride.
We found the collectivo – a clapped out station wagon – and crammed ourselves between goat herders wearing sheepskin vests and skirts – about the only other people who have a need to go to Cashapampa. We handed the driver 20 Soles and settled in for the two hour bumpy dirt road into the foothills of the Cordillera Blanca.
“This trail costs 65 soles per person.” We had almost slipped by the guard shack unnoticed, but we’d been caught. And the cost was much higher than our guidebook had reported.
“But señor, that’s 130 soles for both of us. Our guidebook says it’s only 5 soles per day.”
“Do you have your guidebook with you?” Of course we didn’t. We had to ditch it to make room for the 15 pound bag of vegetables. “The ticket has the price printed right here. I don’t set the prices. If you want to go in, you pay 130 soles.”
“But we won’t be able to get back home from Vaqueria if we give you all of our money. What do you suggest we do?” Vaqueria was a 4 hour drive from Caraz, mostly on rough dirt roads. Without a ride, we’d be screwed.
“Go back to Caraz and get more money,” he said. With only two collectivos per day, this would mean waiting 10 hours for the next one, and then trying again the following day. In a moment of weakness I jammed my hand into my pocket and pulled out all of our money in a big wad. I handed it to the guard, ignoring the worried look from Sheena. Walking for three days into the world’s second highest mountain range without any means of getting back home seemed risky, and we had no backup plan. If I were a gambling man, my kneecaps would be shot out by loan sharks in no time.
“This pack is sooooo heavy,” Sheena whined. We had stopped in the shade of a large granite boulder for lunch. She looked at her feet, standing there sort of pigeon-toed, knees slightly bent, stooping her shoulders to exaggerate the weight of her pack. I reminded her that I was always right, and that she should have known better than to question my all-knowing authority on packable, lightweight hiking foods.
We made lunch of fresh ciabatta bread, tuna, lemon infused mayonnaise, herbs du Provence, and sliced fresh tomatoes. I’ll admit, although quietly and out of earshot of Sheena, that it was pretty damn good.
By day’s end we had arrived at a lagoon. One edge of the lagoon was defined by the canyon wall, while the trail skirted the opposite edge of the water. We found a flat spot above the trail and pitched our tent for the night.
While cooking dinner, a group of hikers passed in the opposite direction. The last straggler from the group wandered up to our camp to say hello; a French woman in her forties.
“Have you come here alone, without a guide?” she asked. We told her that yes, we were hiking alone.
“The agency in Huaraz lied to me!” She had apparently asked a tour operator if she was permitted to do the hike without going through a tour operator. Textbook conflict of interest. Through her obvious anger, she was still in high spirits and very pleasant. I told her the story about how not having a guide meant that we’d been responsible for managing our own money, and how that had lead to our current predicament.
“You have no money? Well here!” she reached into her pack and gave us all of her money – precisely eight soles; the equivalent of three dollars and ten cents. It wouldn’t be enough for a collectivo, but it was something.
“Thank you! You don’t have to do this. Can we offer you some food in return?” We were communicating in Spanish, because her English was as rusty as my French. Apparently her Spanish wasn’t much better; she misunderstood me, thinking that I was asking her for food.
“Si, si!” she said. I went into the tent to grab some snacks for her, and when I came out she was handing me all of her granola bars.
“No, no, I was offering you food,” I said, “in return for your kindness.”
She finally understood, but insisted that we keep her food anyway. Such benevolence! And from the French! I decided that I would never again refer to fried potato strips as “freedom fries”.
On the following morning we hit the trail early; we planned to cross over the 15,610 foot Paso Punta Union, and would need as much daylight as we could get. The pass, although visible from our camp, turned out to be farther away than we had anticipated. The sheer size of these mountains can be deceptive, and distances are hard to gauge. By lunch time we had only reached the foot of the pass. We hunkered down behind a hill, out of the frigid wind, and made ourselves more gourmet tuna ciabattas with sliced tomato and freedom herbs, or rather, French herbs.
The trail switched back relentlessly up the side of a rocky cliff toward the pass. To our right the ridge continued around to become the canyon wall, while to our left an enormous 20,000 foot peak jutted straight up, terminating the ridge. Glaciers skirted the lower flanks of the peak, and far below a turquoise glacial lake collected the runoff from the ancient ice.
By the time we reached the pass it was late afternoon. Like climbers with minds fogged by lack of oxygen we lingered at the top. We knew that we were at the pass too late in the day, and that we should get down as quickly as possible before night fell, but the setting was too incredible to pass by. Bundled up in our down jackets and wool hats we sat there, silently admiring the extremeness of the mountain and its glaciers. Every thirty seconds the creeping ice let out a loud pop; the crack of a wooden baseball bat crossed with a head on collision and an exploding firework. It was the first time either one of us had ever heard a glacier groan. At one point a hunk of ice broke off and came crashing down the rocky face toward the lake, five hundred feet below. Never had I felt so insignificant. It was the most impressive and grandiose spectacle we’d laid eyes upon over the course of our entire trip. We regretfully pried ourselves away from the scene and started down the other side of the pass. It was nearly 5:00 and the sun was approaching the horizon. Cold was setting in.
We hurried down the back side of the ridge, but before long we lost the race to the cold and had to hunker down for the night. We left the trail and headed for a small lake just below the ridge with a skinny finger of a peninsula jutting into its center; it would be the perfect spot, albeit a little cold, for a campsite. To access the lake we had to shimmy along a ledge and then lower ourselves down a rock face. On the peninsula we found a perfect sandy spot for our tent, unloaded our gear, and set up for the night.
The water in the lake was so clear that it seemed invisible. Looking into the water from the edge of our peninsula was like looking off of a cliff; a couple of enormous boulders sat just below the surface, and beyond them the depth created blackness. Everything in this place was enormous; the boulders under the lake’s surface, the depth of the water in the lake, the peak looming over our camp, and the range of glacier-covered peaks extending down the valley below us.
As we drifted off to sleep the rapidly dropping air temperature stabbed at our faces like daggers through the face holes in our down sleeping bags. The last thing we heard as we drifted off to sleep was the soft sound of snow falling on our tent.
The following day we followed the trail through a canyon along the river’s edge, and by afternoon we reached the first signs of civilization. By early evening we reached Vaqueria; it could hardly be called a town, as only eight families call the high mountain village home. Walking into the village we came across two men moving a pile of rocks. We asked them where we might find a place to pitch our tent.
“There is no need to pitch a tent; you can stay in our house,” one of the men said. I explained to him that we didn’t have any money, and would be happy to camp.
“I won’t charge you,” he said, “go up to the house and tell my wife that you’re our guests. I am Manuel, it’s a pleasure to host you.”
The man’s wife showed us our room – a dirt floored tack room on the ground level. Manuel moved a few saddle blankets out of the way and spread a patchwork tarp on the floor for us, and proudly displayed that we would have electricity – a single bulb hanging from a wire in the center of the room. We fell into a deep sleep with the smell of horses and dust in our noses.
In the morning we awoke well rested but without a plan. We sat by the roadside reading our books, waiting for passing traffic. After a couple of hours we heard the rumble, and then what looked like an enormous chicken truck rambled up the road. I put my hand out and wiggled my fingers in the way that we’d seen Peruvian hitchhikers do, and the truck stopped in front of us. From the cab three men peered down at us.
“We’re trying to get to Yungay,” I told them.
“We have eight soles.”
The men talked amongst themselves, and then one man spoke. “Climb up,” he said, motioning to the roof above the cab.
Almost immediately the truck began chugging uphill. Sheena and I shared the open, wooden toolbox on top of the cab with an old Peruvian man. The chilly morning air stung our lungs and we bundled up in our jackets. Being so high up in the air and traveling through such a surreal setting brought smiles to our faces that we couldn’t shake. Sheena sat crumpled in a little ball, her rosy cheeks and wide smile shining from beneath her hood. After a half an hour of climbing we crawled into the back and nestled ourselves amongst the stacks of empty crates where the sun could warm us and we were protected from the cold breeze.
I looked up from my book to see the canyon walls closing in more tightly around us. The fantastic white peaks that were previously hidden came into view, towering overhead. We stood and propped ourselves up by holding onto the sides of the truck. By stacking three crates on top of one another we created viewing platforms, and from our new vantage point we discovered that we were preparing to cross over a pass. This pass, however, was no ordinary pass. Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, and stands at 14,505 feet. Our chicken truck clambered ever higher until we finally passed through a small gap in the rocks, marking the highest point of the road. We were at 15,636 feet; 1,131 feet higher than Mount Whitney! Still, Peru’s highest peaks loomed thousands of feet above us. Words like surreal and awe inspiring do nothing to describe these mountains. There aren’t words for it.
Our awe quickly turned to terror as the truck pitched its nose downward and we saw what lie before us; the single lane dirt road dropped straight down a vertical mountain face, losing over 3,000 feet of elevation all in one go, over the course of 34 consecutive switchbacks. From our perch, 10 feet above the surface of the road atop the old chicken truck, we could see the first 15 switchbacks, stacked one on top of the other down the cliff face, but the road beyond was obscured by the steepness of the face we’d be driving down.
At the sight of the switchbacks, Sheena turned to me, her red cheeks poking out from her black jacket. “Bradley,” she said, “if we die in this truck today, I just wanted to let you know that I had a really nice time.” Her face was still splashed with that ear to ear smile, her eyes glassy from the wind.
The driver picked up speed as he approached the first switchback. Sheena and I looked at each other, fear in our eyes. I swallowed hard. I knew, deep down, that we were going to die. I slunk down into the crates and buried my face in my jacket. If I couldn’t see what was happening, then maybe I would be less scared. Oh hell, who was I kidding? I’d already seen the road; I knew we were dead meat. I came to terms with the fact that our trip down the cliff would go however it would go, regardless of whether or not I watched. I slowly stood and peered over the top of the truck. My fingers gripped the wood. My knuckles turned white. My butt puckered so much that my pants nearly fell off.
After the first couple of switchbacks, I realized that we were in more danger than I had originally thought. At the apex of each switchback, the tracks of the other trucks ended at the cliff’s drop off, meaning that they had pulled up to the edge, and then reversed before finishing the turn. The curves were too tight to do in one fluid motion. However, here we were, driving just a little too fast, making the entire turn in one go. I craned my neck out the side of the truck to watch our tires, and to my terror, found them inches from the edge on every turn. Besides the obvious danger of falling off the edge, I couldn’t stop thinking about the inept local mechanic who would have last worked on the truck’s brakes.
I turned to our Peruvian hitchhiking companion and asked the obvious question: “So, do lots of people die on this road?”
“Oh, not so many,” he said. “The last time was a couple of years ago. A bus fell off the side. Everyone onboard was killed.” He didn’t need to add that last part; no, that part was obvious. It didn’t matter, I had already made my own escape plan in the event that the truck went over: I would hold onto the truck’s sideboards until I felt the ground, and then I’d grasp like hell for anything I could grab onto, letting the truck fall away without me.
Later on I told Sheena of my escape plan. “Oh, I was thinking about it too,” she said, “but I couldn’t think of anything. I figured I’d just have to go down with the truck.”
By the time we neared the bottom of the switchbacks, my intense fear had transformed into complete elation; now that I thought about it, this was turning out to be the most fun I could remember having – ever. You can’t even pay for fun like this. This was more exhilarating than any roller coaster; it gave the same feeling in my stomach, but it lasted for hours. And when you look off of a roller coaster, you see a city. I was seeing 22,000 foot peaks covered in snow, draining into turquoise lagoons, and I didn’t have to sit in one of those plastic seats with the safety bar. In fact it was quite the opposite; near the end of the trip I noticed that the two metal flanges holding the tool/hitchhiker box to the roof were both broken. Further inspection revealed that in fact a single bolt through a wooden plank was holding the whole thing on. Guessing the worst, I checked the nut and, yes, found it to be only finger tight.
After four hours the chicken truck dropped us off on a curb in Yungay. Sheena and I were covered from head to toe in dirt, our faces crisscrossed with smile lines in dust. I had learned something on this trip: if you want to have an adventure, a good place to start is to throw caution to the wind and leave with only enough money to get you as far from home as possible. The trip back will surely be a memorable one.