This blog post is going to be a really fun one to write…I want to tell the world (or the three people that read my blog; thanks for sticking with me this long, y’all) about my trip to Peru. It was easily the coolest place I’ve ever been in my life, and I was lucky to be able to end the semester on such a high note.
The fun thing about the trip to Peru is that it highlights a couple personality quirks of mine. Well, it highlights one: my complete inability to plan. Kirsten and I went and bought our plane tickets together back in October, so up until about a week (well, four days days) before we left, we figured that was enough planning. Then we realized it was time to book hostels, buy train tickets, and confirm our entry to Machu Picchu (yes! THE Machu Picchu). So we holed ourselves up in a Starbucks (once an American, always an American) and got to work.
Somehow, everything worked out perfectly; it was easily the best vacation of my life. We left Santiago at 9:30 on Wednesday morning, and landed back in Santiago at 5:00 in the afternoon of the following Tuesday. In between were some of the most incredible days of my semester.
We decided to reserve one day at Machu Picchu, because our friends in Chile told us it’s possible to see everything without spending another $75 for a second day. The rest of the trip we spent in Cuzco, which is about 60 miles outside of Machu Picchu. It’s an absolutely gorgeous city…everything you think of when you think South America. As much as I love Santiago, it’s a huge city, so it doesn’t feel distinctly different from New York or any other large city in the US or Europe. Cuzco, however, feels really small (even though it’s huge!), with gorgeous architecture, old-looking roads, and beautiful community parks. Much like the Chilean coastal city of Valparaíso, Cuzco is built on hills, and everything just looks small-town and very un-American. Even the Starbucks and McDonald’s had the old-timey architecture, to mask the gringo-ness!
The only bad thing about Cuzco is the altitude. As a Charleston girl used to living at/below sea level, the 3,400 meters (11,000 feet!) of altitude came as quite a shock. I ended up being alright, but for the first day and a half, I was pretty miserable. I didn’t want to get out of bed, and when I did, walking around left me so out of breath that I would have to sit down. Plus side, though: even though it was the rainy season, floods just don’t happen in Cuzco!
We found a free walking tour in Cuzco, run by a couple locals. They took us to some pretty awesome museums, including a chocolate museum, where the history of the cocoa plant is told, with a gorgeous view of Cuzco and the opportunity to make your own chocolate (we elected not to do this, because it was expensive). They also took us to a pisco (South American alcohol made exactly like vodka, but from grapes) factory and museum, a sushi restaurant, and an old-fashioned brewery on the outskirts of the city. Best part: free samples wherever we went!
That’s another thing about Peru: both the people and the food are the best I’ve ever encountered. The people are all so friendly, which made the trip a lot of fun. From the really nice hostel workers to the people we met on the streets, everyone seemed to be genuinely interested in us and didn’t even seem to mind my broken Spanish. And the food…WOW. For somebody picky like me, new countries are hard because I never know if I’m going to like the food. Should not have even been concerned; Peruvian food is probably the best food I’ve ever eaten. They could fry up a used gym sock and I’d eat it happily. I could not tell you how they managed to do it, but they managed to cook spinach in a way that was so good that I ate the whole thing and was sad when it was gone. And alpaca…I feel like a horrible person for eating some of my favorite South American animals, but I felt a little better with a belly full of alpaca steak. You will all be pleased to learn, however, that I elected not to try the guinea pig (cuy, in Spanish). I would have, but I heard they serve it whole like a roast pig…with the face attached and everything. So I stuck with my alpaca and spinach and was more than satisfied.
On Friday, we got up early to take a train out to Aguas Calientes, the small town (only about twice as big as Wofford!) on the other side of the mountain from Machu Picchu. It took three and a half hours to get to the town, but the extra time was so worth it. The train we took was a little more expensive than others, but it had enormous windows, which made for a gorgeous trip through the valley. We passed through the most beautiful parts of Peru on the way—farms, mountains, and rivers. We even passed directly through a rural town—I guess everyone there gets really excited for the train, because there were a bunch of little kids sitting by the train tracks waving to us.
Once we got to Aguas Calientes, I really felt like we were in the middle of the Incan territories—well, minus all of the tourist attractions. There was a market selling handmade goods, a bunch of bridges connecting the two halves of the town, and, up the road a little bit, hot springs where we could all bathe. Our hostel was on the cheaper side of town, next to the football (soccer) fields where all of the locals go to play. Kirsten and I stopped by for an hour or so to watch; there were at least a hundred guys playing what looked like five games at once. We ate dinner at some hole-in-the-wall restaurant (whose alpaca was really good) and then set off to bed at 9pm (forsaking the enormous town-wide party in our hostel) so we could get up at 4am the next morning and head to the one, the only, Machu Picchu! (Forgive me; I had to say it like that in my head.)
Hands down, the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life. As an Egyptian friend of mine (who lives in America) said, Egypt is amazing because it’s man-made, the Grand Canyon is amazing because it’s naturally made, and Machu Picchu is doubly amazing because it is man-made in the center of a beautiful natural landscape. The main part of the city is built on a flat part within the mountains, with stairs and temples scattered throughout the surrounding peaks. It absolutely floors me that the city is still standing; it’s been so long since anybody lived there, but it’s so well made that it looks like they moved out last month.
The entirety of Machu Picchu, the ruins and the mountains, is built to look like a giant face. Here is a picture:
The “nose” of the face, the enormous mountain, is called Huayna Picchu, and if you pay a little extra, you can have the chance to climb to the top and see the ruins the way the Incas did from their temples. So of course, we paid, and showed up right at 7am (they only let 2500 people in the city every day, with 400 up on Huayna Picchu—200 at 7am and 200 at 11am). We elected to do the 4-hour hike up to the top and then back around to the other side of the mountain to see the caverns and temples.
Remember that volcano I climbed? This was almost worse. I’ve never been so tired in my life. The whole hike is on these ancient stone paths…that are all stairs. Sometimes we would look up and not be able to see where the stairs ended—and climbing down was almost worse! And sometimes the stairs would be right on the edge of a pretty steep fall, so for someone with a mild-to-severe fear of heights, it was fairly traumatic.
Either way, those four hours were some of the most worthwhile of my life. I saw things that not everybody gets to see, and I can say I did it—and not even the easy way! Drawback to this method: some of the pictures at the top of the mountain show very clearly the sweat all over my Brad Paisley shirt (I made the hike with my two favorite pieces of clothing: my Brad Paisley t-shirt and my Notre Dame sweatshirt—still convinced that it’s me keeping the Irish going this season!). Either way, it was an unforgettable experience, and I’m glad we chose the longer hike.
When we got back down, we almost kissed the ground out of thankfulness for having survived the hike. It actually started to rain towards the end, and, always the worrier, I got pretty nervous about the rocks getting slippery and dangerous. Anyway, after showing our thanks to the sun god (the Incas were sun-worshippers), we set about exploring the rest of the city—after, of course, treating ourselves to some ice cream.
The city is purely amazing. I almost wished we’d spent that second day there, because I could have looked around forever. Here are a couple pictures…they say much more than I ever could:
I was pretty thankful to get back to our hostel in Cuzco that night, though. After hiking Machu Picchu from 6am until 3pm, we took the train back to Cuzco (another three and a half hours) and then a taxi from the train station (actually on the outskirts of the city) to our hostel. We had visions of going out and exploring the nightlife, but after putting our stuff down in the hostel and sitting on our beds for about two minutes, all of those aspirations were gone. We slept from 10pm that night until 8am the next morning.
Waking up the morning after Machu Picchu was just plain rough. I was sore all over, plus the combination of nasty Peruvian water, sweating all day in Machu Picchu, and the friction from the backpack gave me a nasty skin infection. All of this resulted in my stumbling around the hostel (and around Cuzco) and getting laughed at by the entire hostel personnel. (I couldn’t bring myself to be mad though; they were all so nice and helpful, even offering me remedies for the soreness, that I couldn’t help but love them.)
As an additional surprise, I also woke up to the news that we were going bungee jumping. A friend of ours from Machu Picchu expressed interest in bungee jumping and asked us to help him find a place. In the interest of making friends, we got up early and headed (stumbled, in my case) over to the agency and planned a trip. Within two hours, we were in a taxi on our way to Action Valley, this extreme sports theme park on the outskirts of Cuzco.
My fear of heights had, believe it or not, NOT been cured by our trek the day before, so I was really nervous, (half) joking about what my friends should do in the event of my death. They told us that where we were going was the highest bungee jump in South America, measuring almost 400 feet. We get to the place, and, as if strapping us with rope and pushing us out of a metal cage wasn’t enough, we had to warm up first. So we’re running laps around the complex, stretching all of our muscles, and then it’s time.
Oddly enough, the run ended up being the hardest part of the entire morning—other than mustering up the courage to jump. They use mechanical pulleys to raise you up in a metal cage with an instructor, and then, once you receive a little bit of instruction, they open the door and have you go stand on this ledge. Then, they count to three and have you jump headfirst.
It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but it was so incredibly worth it. I screamed the whole way down (audibly, unfortunately), and the three minutes after I jumped were easily some of the most disorienting of my life. I wasn’t sure which way was up or down. All I know is that at the end of a couple minutes, I was gently set on the ground by some of the workers, and then it was Kirsten’s turn. There is some video out there of me, and the only words you can hear me say afterwards are, “I didn’t die!”
Definitely a solid afternoon.
Sunday night we went out to a salsa club. As many of you know, I handle myself with the grace of a semi-tranquilized elephant…being sore from Machu Picchu (and coming down from the adrenaline high of bungee jumping) made everything SO much better. Surprisingly, I enjoyed myself a lot. We were in a relatively popular club, for both locals and foreigners, so I got to meet a lot of people coming in and out, even though it was a Sunday night.
Monday I spent the day being pretty lazy. I walked around some markets, bought a couple souvenirs and gifts for my family, and got ready for the plane on Tuesday. It sounds like sort of a lame ending, but it’s hard to top Machu Picchu, bungee jumping, and salsa dancing!
On Tuesday morning, we got up really early and flew back to Santiago, where I spent my last three days in South America. For more on the last couple days, read the blog post before this one, my pre-departure post!